WHITE ROCK. Belle Creek. Hader. They are among the 60-plus ghost towns of Goodhue County. Places that once thrived, marked now only by signs along a road, a cluster of homes, perhaps a church or abandoned buildings.
Yet, acknowledging their existence, as the Goodhue County Historical Society does with roadside signs, matters. Because these towns mattered to previous generations and still matter to those with connections to the likes of Aspelund, Burr Oak Springs, Crystal Springs, Eidsvold, Skyberg and so many more with names that hint at heritage and sound poetically beautiful.
On a road trip to Goodhue County a month ago, Randy and I followed County Road 8 east and then south of Cannon Falls back toward Faribault.
Our route took us past clusters of woods, some tinged in autumn hues.
Soon the road curved and swept into the valley, rows of corn rolling across the landscape. Only groves of trees surrounding farm sites broke the vista of endless unharvested fields.
Sometimes those farmyards hugged the paved road and I caught a close-up glimpse of farms, some with aged weathered barns and outbuildings, others updated with modern equipment and structures.
In Belle Creek, Randy and I noticed a white building, likely a former creamery. Creameries often graced these small settlements, a necessity for farmers who sold cream for butter-making.
Another building in Belle Creek left us guessing at its past life. Perhaps a general store. Then a dance hall. We could be way off…
Occasionally, we spotted cattle, cows, calves. Growing up on a dairy farm, I delight in seeing bovines, especially Holsteins. But rare are the small family farms today that still raise animals. Corporate and mega farms have mostly replaced that self-sufficient lifestyle. That’s reality.
Just like ghost towns, many farms have become, in some ways, ghost farms. They are but ghosts of the past. Ghosts of their former selves and purposes. I see that in decaying, empty buildings, especially barns. I see that in the absence of livestock. I see that in families who can no longer support themselves solely via the farm.
All of this is unsettling. But with time comes change. And with change must come acceptance and perhaps also an added historical appreciation for the past.
MINNESOTA’S DIVERSE LANDSCAPE inspires. From the vast prairie to the northwoods. From lakes to rivers. From hills to valleys. My home state, minus mountain ranges and ocean, is truly a beautiful place. We are so much more than cold and snow, as many non-residents equate with Minnesota.
Autumn, especially, showcases Minnesota’s natural beauty. This fall, Randy and I took many rural drives to immerse ourselves in the countryside and the season. We chose road trips over staying home and doing chores on the weekends. Our priorities change as we age. The work can wait. We recognize, too, the approach of winter. We felt an urgency, a need, to hit the road before the snow flies.
Often we choose a destination, this time Cannon Falls. But sometimes we simply head in a general direction, oversized Minnesota Atlas & Gazetteer available to guide us. We prefer paper maps to GPS. This trip, we aimed east toward Goodhue County, driving through the picturesque Sogn Valley.
I love this rural region defined by farms and fields and winding gravel roads. Hills and river valleys and prairie intermingle and it’s all like poetry writing upon the land.
As a farmer’s daughter, I hold a fondness for aged barns, at one time the anchor of an agrarian life. I labored for years on my southwestern Minnesota childhood family dairy and crop farm, most of that time inside the barn. Or the silo.
Now, when I pass by barns weathering in abandonment, I feel overcome by sadness. I recognize that a way of life is vanishing. I understand and appreciate advances in agriculture while simultaneously grieving the loss of farm life as I knew it.
I worry about all the barns we are losing. They hold history. Stories. Memories. And they are falling in heaps of rotted wood.
But, on this drive through the Sogn Valley, we happened upon a small country church that uplifted my spirits. Country churches and adjoining cemeteries rate as another draw for me deep into rural Minnesota. They are historically, poetically, spiritually and artistically relevant.
Along 70th Street in Goodhue County, on a small plot of land ringed by a row of trees and set among cornfields, Eidsvold Norwegian Methodist Church rises. The last service was held here in 1949. Yet, the aged clapboard structure remains. Important to someone. And on this Friday morning in mid-October, appreciated by me.
PLEASE CHECK BACK tomorrow as I take you on a tour around, but not inside (it was locked), Eidsvold church.
EACH DAY OF SUNSHINE and warmth this late in October in Minnesota presents as a gift. We long-time Minnesotans understand that and celebrate. One less day of winter. One less day of cold and snow when the season of autumn extends. The recent weather has proven simply glorious.
Late last week Randy took two days off work to savor these final days of autumn. And while we didn’t travel far, we delighted in nearby discoveries. We got a late start on Thursday, catching up on some much-needed rest. So we stayed close to home, aiming for western Rice County into LeSueur County.
Eventually, we landed at Richter Woods County Park 1.5 miles west of Montgomery. I’d heard of the park, but had yet to visit.
We followed the slow-paced route there along mostly back country gravel roads.
We paused once so I could photograph a pair of swans gliding across a small lake.
I photographed, too, a weathered barn with fieldstone foundation. I often wonder how long barns will remain a landmark of our rural landscape. I feel an urgency to document their existence before roofs cave, boards rot, and only foundations remain.
At 80-acre Richter Woods, a mammoth barn looms, centering the park gathering space. The barn is available to rent for $75/day from April-October. With a spacious loft and main level, the barn offers plenty of room for events like weddings, reunions and much more.
I couldn’t access the locked barn. But I could envision the interior, especially the haymow with its curved wood frame. Many bridal couples covet rustic settings like this. I wonder whether many have discovered this barn circled by woods in the quiet countryside near Montgomery.
As much as I appreciated the barn, I couldn’t get over the forest green color. I longed to see that barn in red, a historically-accurate hue. I expect others, too, have wondered at the unusual color choice. As a photographer, I find a red barn much more visually-pleasing.
Before pulling out our picnic lunch to dine near the barn, Randy and I stretched our legs. We followed a leaf-strewn dirt trail into the woods with no map to guide us. The on-site mailbox was without the promised maps.
Maple leaves, especially, blanket the earth.
In a few spots, I looked overhead to a canopy of red and yellow trees set against the deep blue sky of October.
We noticed, too, the many rotting and recently-sawed trees, I felt inwardly thankful for an afternoon without strong winds to possibly topple dead trees, loose branches.
Mushrooms thrive in decay.
Mostly, though, I noticed the peace. The quiet. I feel incredibly grateful to have access to natural settings like Richter Woods County Park. And I feel grateful, too, to live in this decidedly rural region of Minnesota within an hour of downtown Minneapolis. I feel grateful for gravel roads to follow. For barns that still stand. For warm and sunny October days that draw me into the countryside, into the woods.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I take you on to more backroads in Rice and LeSueur counties.
ON A SULTRY SUNDAY SUMMER AFTERNOON of oppressive heat and humidity, I needed to get out of the house. Away. Into the country. On a drive. It was too hot to walk, to do anything outside of air conditioning.
Steady rain the night before kept the dust down on gravel roads we drove.
Following back county and township roads in and around Faribault, Randy and I got the rural fix we needed. For me, the crunch of gravel upon tires and the washboard vibration of a road in need of grading.
The corn crop around here looks good.
I needed, too, to see cornfields stretching across the land, tassels flagging fields. My heart aches at the sight, for the missing of living in the country. Memories still root me there.
And then I spotted a barn flashing bold red into the landscape on the edge of Warsaw. I’ve long admired that well-kept barn.
Weaving through Warsaw, Randy reminisced about living there decades ago as we passed his former rental place. At the Channel Inn in Warsaw, we paused only long enough for a photo of the vintage signage.
Without my telephoto lens on my camera, I couldn’t get a good shot of these turkeys. But you can make out two along the treeline and one by the field. The rest went the other direction.
And then we followed more gravel roads, routes not previously taken, but which revealed a PIG HOTEL sign on a house. I missed that photo op, but I promise to return. I almost missed the wild turkeys edging the woods.
A bit further, I saw the cutest little brick barn. Solid. As good as new. Beautifully poetic in its construction.
Past a gravel pit and an unknown lake and farm sites set among fields on rolling land, we aimed back toward town. Past Ableman’s Apple Creek Orchard, a favorite, and a roadside sign reminding us that we are not alone. Ever.
I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.
Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?
Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.
The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.
Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.
And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.
FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.
These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.
One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.
I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.
Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.
I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.
An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.
A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.
Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.
While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.
In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.
It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.
A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.
I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.
In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.
On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.
A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.
MY APPRECIATION FOR and fascination with aged barns remains strong, steadfast, unwavering. That interest springs from childhood years of laboring in a southwestern Minnesota dairy barn.
As the second oldest in a family of six children, I was tasked early on with doing chores alongside my eldest brother. Dad needed the help and I never resented it. I only resented that my brother would steal the silage I’d tossed down from the silo. I suppose I can’t blame him. He had to carry silage across two gutters and a barn aisle to feed cows on the east side of the barn. I had only to step outside the silage room door to distribute chopped and fermented corn on the west side. But still.
Often I told my dad I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He never encouraged it. But I loved working in the barn—maybe not the scraping manure part so much. Yet I always preferred farm work to anything Mom wanted me to do in the house.
So I pushed a wheelbarrow down the barn aisle, then scooped shovels full of ground feed before stanchions. I hoisted myself into the haymow to throw down bales of hay and straw. I shook apart straw with a pitchfork, separated alfalfa with gloved hands. I carried pails of milk, washed buckets, mixed milk replacer, fed milk and pellets to hungry calves…
I hold memories of Point of Law booming from WCCO, of hot urine splashing from a cow’s behind, of frothy milk poured into the bulk tank, of a yellow jackknife stuffed inside my pants pocket, of cats clustering around a battered hub cap brimming with still warm milk.
My dad was right. I never became a farmer, pursuing journalism instead. Only one brother farmed for awhile. He’s still in an ag-related industry as is my oldest brother. The rest of us, well, we left the farm. But I like to think that we’ve truly never left in the sense of a deep-rooted attachment to the place that shaped each of us. I write and photograph from a rural perspective. Another sister works as a floral designer. My youngest brother is an attorney in the Twin Cities metro, but maintains his connection to southwestern Minnesota through deer and pheasant hunting.
We were raised as the sons and daughters of a farmer. That remains, as part of our past and as part of who we became.
TELL ME: Did your childhood influence your direction in life, including career choices, where you lived/live, etc.?
FYI: These photos were taken in rural Rice County and in the Jordan/Prior Lake areas, not in my native southwestern Minnesota. This post honors my farmer father, Elvern Kletscher, who would have celebrated his birthday this week. He died 14 years ago in early April 2003.
A scene along Minnesota State Highway 23 between Foley and St. Cloud on Sunday afternoon, after the sun emerged from grey skies.
THE FIRST SNOWFALL of the season always arrives with considerable hoopla here in Minnesota. As if we hadn’t seen snow that layers the ground in white.
Round hay bales create a snow fence along Highway 23.
Last week, sections of my state got plenty of snow. We’re talking two feet in Leader in north central Minnesota. Mixed with high winds, blizzard conditions prevailed in many regions. Down here in the southeastern section? Only flurries. And I’m just fine with that.
Just outside of Monticello.
Under grey skies on the flat land north of Monticello, snow dusts fields.
However, a Sunday day trip 2.5 hours north and west of the metro took my husband and me into a snowy central Minnesota landscape.
Along Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman, snow covers the rural landscape.
And, yes, I confess, I delighted in seeing snow-covered ground for the first time this winter season. There’s something about that initial snow that is magical and pure and, well, beautiful.
I snapped this wintry scene as we pulled into a convenience store/gas station in Foley on Sunday afternoon.
This truck clearly has not moved in awhile.
The heavy, wet snow is piled now along the roadside, here in Foley.
A rural resident cleans out the end of his driveway along Benton County Road 3.
Some parking lots are treacherously icy, like this one in Gilman.
As long as you don’t have to deal with the snow and ice. As long as roads are clear, which they were except for icy patches on Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman.
I especially appreciate the visual contrast of red barns, this one north of Gilman, against the white landscape.
Everything always seems sharper, brighter on a white canvas.
I photographed this train near the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It’s heading for Clear Lake.
BARNS DRAW MY CAMERA lens like moths to a porch light.
My response is reflexive, this focal allure of barns while traveling through rural Minnesota.
Barns, to me, symbolize rural life. Growing up on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, I labored in the barn—scooping silage and ground feed, scraping manure into gutters, carrying milk pails from barn to milkhouse, tossing hay and straw bales from the hayloft, bedding straw…
My hair, my skin, my clothing smelled always of cows and manure. I bathed but once a week. That seems unfathomable now. But it was the reality of then.
The barn on our family farm provided more than shelter for the cows. It provided an income, a way of life, a training ground for hard work. No matter what, the cows needed to be tended, fed and milked. Vacations were rare—only two my entire childhood, one to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the other to Duluth. On the occasion when my parents traveled farther, they left my older brother and me home to take care of the farm under our bachelor uncle Mike’s watchful eye.
I often told my dad I wanted to be a farmer. He discouraged me. He likely knew what I didn’t, that I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. I am not a risk taker. And to be a farmer, you need to be a bit of a gambler. You gamble on the unpredictability of weather and of prices. Granted, technology has curbed some of the risk. But still, it’s there.
Instead, I pursued a degree and career in journalism. And then, eventually, I became a full-time stay-at-home mom, setting aside my writing to raise my three kids. Until I found time again to write.
In my writing today, unlike my past deliver-the-facts newspaper reporting, I have created a unique voice rooted in rural Minnesota. I may not smell of cow or manure, but those scents linger in my memory, infusing into my writing and photography. I bring a small town rural perspective to my work. I find my joy in writing about and photographing everyday life, everyday places, everyday people, mostly in Greater Minnesota.
The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up today stands empty of animals. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
And it all started in a Redwood County barn.
Fresh eggs and caged chickens photographed at an event several years ago at Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.