Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reconnecting to the land during a March drive in Minnesota March 27, 2018

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SOMETIMES I NEED JUST to get out into the countryside—to reconnect with the land, to see the sky, to feel the pulse of the earth.

 

 

I need to see farms,

 

 

follow rural roads,

 

 

 

hear the crunch of tires upon gravel,

 

 

pass by rows of grain bins,

 

 

notice the oddities of signage,

 

 

the art of the land.

 

 

All of this I need to satisfy that part of me which misses rural life. I shall always retain my farm girl spirit, my connection to my rural roots despite my now decades-long absence.

 

Note: All photos are edited to create a more artsy look. All scenes were photographed in Le Sueur County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Barn memories February 28, 2017

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barn-85-barn-fence

 

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.

 

barn-15-barn-2-silos

 

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.

 

barn-84-farmhouse

 

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.

 

barn-80-barn-silo

 

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.

 

barn-81-barn-w-green-patched-roof

 

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.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In which I see that, yes, winter really has arrived in Minnesota November 22, 2016

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A scene along Minnesota State Highway 23 between Foley and St. Cloud on Sunday afternoon.

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.

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.

Just outside of Monticello.

Under grey skies on the flat land north of Monticello, snow dusts fields.

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.

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.

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.

This truck clearly has not moved in awhile.

The heavy, wet snow is piled now along the roadside, here in Foley.

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.

A rural resident cleans out the end of his driveway along Benton County Road 3.

Some parking lots were treacherously icy, like this one where we turned our van around in Gilman.

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.

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 by the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It's heading for Clear Lake.

I photographed this train near the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It’s heading for Clear Lake.

Today brings a predicted wintry mix of precipitation to Minnesota. Rain mixed with snow, which likely will create slick roads. That type of winter weather is always unwelcome. But this is Minnesota. I should expect this.

I'm already waiting for spring, even though winter has just started. Here the same train I photographed in St. Cloud passes through Clear Lake as we all wait.

I’m already waiting for spring, even though winter has just started. Here the same train I photographed in St. Cloud passes through Clear Lake as we all wait.

But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t. Is it May yet? The novelty and excitement of seeing the first snowfall has apparently already faded for me.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The rural influence in my writing & photography, plus a farm tour July 12, 2016

Barn, 117 red barn along US Hwy 71 south of Redwood Falls

 

BARNS DRAW MY CAMERA lens like moths to a porch light.

 

Barn, 144 farm site between Olivia and Wilmar

 

My response is reflexive, this focal allure of barns while traveling through rural Minnesota.

 

Barn, 112 bluegreen barn along US Hwy 71 south of Redwood Falls

 

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.

 

Barn, 145 white barn & cow

 

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.

 

Barn, 142 farm site between Olivia and Wilmar

 

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.

 

Barn, 132 sheep and barn between Morton & Olivia

 

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.

 

Barn, 109 east of Wabasso along US 71

 

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.

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 attracted lots of interest.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens photographed at an event several years ago at Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

YOU, TOO, CAN EXPERIENCE farming this Saturday, July 16, by touring agricultural businesses throughout the region during the annual Eat Local Farm Tour. From Simple Harvest Farm Organics in rural Nerstrand to Mississippi Mushrooms in Minneapolis to Hope Creamery in Hope and 26 other sites, you’ll discover Minnesotans and Wisconsinites passionate about local foods. You’ll meet beekeepers, cheesemakers, berry growers, cattlemen/women, trout farmers and more.

Click here for a listing of sites on the Eat Local Farm Tour, which runs from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: With the exception of my home barn, all barns and farm sites featured in this post are located along U.S. Highway 71 in rural Minnesota, from south of Redwood Falls to south of Willmar.

 

 

The shifting of seasons in Minnesota November 4, 2015

barn

Grey skies hang over a barn and harvested cornfield west of Sleepy Eye along U.S. Highway 14 on a late October morning.

AS THE SEASON SHIFTS here in Minnesota, I struggle to hold onto the light. To the color. To memories of lush landscapes and warm days.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota on a late October morning.

I am no fan of the transition months—November and March. I’ve always thought these the least visually inviting. Grey skies dominate. Cold winds rage. The land appears devoid of color. Black fields. Muted tones. Everywhere.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

But then a barn flashes red in the monotone landscape.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Sun spotlights through the clouds beaming light upon the land. A patch of blue emerges overhead.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville. I’ve seen some of the prettiest fall colors near my Faribault home. This is true every year.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

I begin to notice patches of color—autumn leaves still hanging on, corn carpeting fields, defiant red barns still standing.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

Reasons to smile. Reasons to appreciate November. This eleventh month raises my awareness of thankfulness. Thankfulness that I live in Minnesota, a state of four seasons, of changing landscapes, of bountiful harvests. And this week of unexpected November warmth.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Commemorating a Minnesota barn’s 100th birthday, Part II September 29, 2015

 

A welcoming scene staged next to the barn and attached milkhouse.

An inviting scene staged next to the barn and attached milkhouse.

FROM THE MINUTE I received a verbal invitation to the barn dance, I noted the event on the September 26 square of my kitchen calendar. Not only would I be celebrating the 100th birthday of the Becker family barn. But I would also be celebrating my birthday. How sweet is that?

Posted inside the barn...

Posted inside the barn…

With my deep rural Minnesota roots and appreciation for aged barns restored and maintained, this party suited me. Hosts John and Debbie Becker, Rice County crop farmers, are dear friends, a salt-of-the earth couple who cherish faith, family and farming.

Guests pulled up to tables and dined on hot beef and pork sandwiches, salads and more.

Guests pulled up to tables and dined on hot beef and pork sandwiches, salads and more.

And they know how to throw one heck of a party in their 100-year-old barn, in the Becker family since 1948.

Garden goods provided for great fall decorating.

Garden goods provided for great fall decorating.

One of numerous parking attendants waits for vehicles to arrive.

One of numerous parking attendants waits for vehicles to arrive.

The kitchen crew, and Debbie, prepare for guests to arrive.

The kitchen crew, and Debbie, prepare for guests to arrive.

Posted on the pie table.

Posted on the pie table.

Debbie, the eldest in a family of I’ve lost count how many siblings, could be a professional party planner. She’s that good at food planning, decorating and remembering every single detail of creating a memorable and fun event. John is right there beside her, assuring, too, that everything comes together. They complement one another. And even though they pulled in family and friends—for decorating, parking, kitchen duty, bartending, pie judging and more—ultimately they are the ones who managed to plan for and welcome 300-plus guests to their farm.

The kids all wanted rides on the golf cart.

The kids all wanted rides on the golf cart.

This little guy wouldn't even set down his toy John Deere tractor to stack over-sized Jenga blocks.

This little guy wouldn’t even set down his toy John Deere tractor to stack over-sized Jenga blocks.

The pie table drew lots of kids because...

This farm-themed pie drew lots of kids to look and some to play.

By far the most creatively-staged pie.

By far the most creatively-staged pie.

Lots of visiting inside and outside the barn.

Lots of visiting inside and outside the barn.

One family member flew in from England. And I overheard, mid-evening, young boys protesting their family’s early departure. I watched kids scramble onto a golf cart for rides with the guy giving lifts from parking areas to barn. A smile curved my mouth at the sight of young boys clutching John Deere tractors, a wee sweet girl in pink cowgirl boots peering at pies, and circles of folks visiting in the barn.

The opportunities for sweet portraits in the golden hour of photography were endless.

The opportunities for sweet portraits in the golden hour of photography were endless.

My dear friend Mandy arrives with her pear-gingersnap pie still warm from the oven. It was absolutely delicious as I sampled it after the pie judging.

My dear friend Mandy arrives with her pear-gingersnap pie still warm from the oven. It was absolutely delicious as I sampled it after the pie judging.

My husband tried on this abandoned cowboy hat. But it was several sizes too small.

My husband tried on this abandoned cowboy hat. But it was several sizes too small.

The scenes unfolding before me appeared down-home rural Americana—girls swaying in a weathered porch swing, a guest bearing pie for the pie-baking contest, a straw cowboy hat resting on a picnic table.

I photographed darling Ava at the last barn dance and her mom asked me to photograph her again. Daylight was fading. Yet I managed to snap a cute portrait.

I photographed darling Ava at the last barn dance and her mom asked me to photograph her again. Daylight was fading. Yet I managed to snap a cute portrait.

A grandma and her grandkids dressed in western attire for the barn dance.

A grandma and her grandkids dressed in western attire for the barn dance.

Many a farmer, including my dad, carried a hankie/bandanna in his pocket.

Many a farmer once carried a hankie/bandanna in his pocket.

Although costumes were not required, vintage or western attire was encouraged. I tied a red bandanna around my neck and called it good. But the kids, oh, the kids. So cute in their cowgirl/cowboy hats and garb. And even some adults dressed western style in flannel shirts and hats, in bibs or with red hankie in pocket. Many sported western boots.

While two girls sway on a swing, another builds blocks.

While two girls sway on a swing, another stacks blocks.

Debbie and John, loving aunt and uncle that they are, assured the kids had plenty to do, passing along to the next generation memories connected to family and the old barn.

 

Barn dance, 108 wheel in front of barn

 

FYI: Click here to read my first post about the barn dance. And check back tomorrow for one final post.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating a Minnesota barn’s 100th birthday with an old-fashioned barn dance September 28, 2015

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The band, Downtown Sound, sets up inside the Becker barn for a 10th birthday barn dance.

The band, Downtown Sound, sets up inside the Becker barn for a 100th birthday barn dance.

THE OLD BARN was all decked out with rural décor.

 

Barn dance, 24 Dekalb sign & corn

 

Barn dance, 84 wagon display

 

Barn dance, 30 bouquet

 

Guests gather in a corner near a display of Becker family farm photos.

Guests gather in a corner near a display of Becker family farm photos. The images are displayed on the exterior of the bathroom built into the barn.

Ear corn and seedcorn signs. Washboard and washtubs. Gourds and pumpkins. Fresh-cut zinnias, cosmos and other garden flowers in jars. Red-and-white checked gingham tablecloths. And in a corner, a collection of family and barn photos.

 

Barn dance, 127 Becker barn banner close-up

 

Across the end of the hayloft, just above the section where the band, Downtown Sound, was setting up, and below an American flag, a banner blazed Becker Barn Dance 1915 – 2015.

The sun sets on a perfect September evening on the Becker farm.

Guests gather on the hayloft deck as the sun sets Saturday evening.

John and Debbie Becker purchased the farm from John's dad, Herb, in 1988.

John and Debbie Becker purchased the farm from John’s dad, Herb, in 1988.

John and Debbie Becker purchased the farm from John's dad, Herb, in 1988.

John and Debbie Becker

 

Hundreds gathered on a perfect September Saturday evening at the John and Debbie Becker farm just west of Dundas along Rice County Road 1 to celebrate the birthday of a sprawling 36-foot by 100-foot barn built in 1915. One hundred years ago.

Family arrives for the barn dance and party.

Family arrives for the barn dance and party.

A vintage photo of the Herb and Dorothy Becker family. The current barn owner, John, is the youngest in the family.

A vintage photo of the Herb and Dorothy Becker family. The current barn owner, John, is the youngest in the family.

Family and friends visit before the meal and dance.

Family and friends visit before the meal and dance.

But this party was about more than commemorating this century-old massive barn in the Becker family since Herb and wife, Dorothy (both now deceased), purchased the farm in 1948. It was also about a coming together of family—only one of the elder Beckers’ descendants was missing—and friends to celebrate the land, farming and the rural way of life.

A view of the farmyard and barn dance guests from a hayloft window.

A view of the farmyard and barn dance guests from a hayloft window.

Posted in the barn

Posted in the barn, a photo of the Becker farm and an appropriate saying.

Aunt and nephew at the barn dance.

Aunt and nephew at the barn dance.

As I gazed through an open hayloft window at the crowd mingling in the farmyard below, I considered how thankful I am to have grown up in rural Minnesota, to have this close connection to the land and to extended family. Just like the Becker family.

The sun spotlights machine sheds. Vehicles parked in every nook and cranny on the farm.

The sun spotlights machine sheds. Vehicles parked in every nook and cranny of the farm.

Wagons rolled.

Wagons rolled.

A vintage swingset proved a popular spot.

A vintage swingset proved a popular spot.

Playing games...

Playing games…

Here, on this evening when the sun set a brilliant gold across ripening corn fields and edged shadows around silos, kids rumbled wagons across gravel, pumped legs high on an aged swingset, covered eyes in an old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek. It was like a flashback to yesteryear for me, back to simpler days when kids played with imagination and folks took time to visit.

 

Barn dance, 28 interior barn overview 2

 

Nostalgia prevailed on this September evening of a near full moon. Host John Becker briefed guests on the history of the barn, known long ago for its neighborhood barn dances. In his youth, long before he bought this farm, John’s father attended dances here, where men sat on one side of the hayloft, women on the other. On this evening, all generations mingled in the hayloft and John reminded them to be thankful to the Lord for the harvest.

 

Barn dance, 36 barn dance sign outside barn

 

I was thankful to be here, sitting on a bench on the newly-constructed deck off the hayloft. Gazing at the peak of the barn toward the evening sky scattered with stars. Inside the band played Sweet Caroline as the autumn breeze cooled me.

 

Barn dance, 268 dark barn interior band area

 

Later I would twirl, in my husband’s arms, across the cornmeal slicked plywood floor to a polka, flap my elbows to the chicken dance and rock it out to I Fought the Law (and the law won) and many more tunes. I danced until my muscles ached. And I smiled, oh, how I smiled. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun, since I’ve forgotten the worries of life and immersed myself in the joy of a memorable evening with friends.

 

Barn dance, 131 plate of food

 

Barn dance, 148 family in food line

 

Barn dance, 118 fall themed pie close-up

 

Judging pies.

Judging pies.

The food was equally as memorable with savory beef and pork sandwiches from Nerstrand Meats, baked beans and an assortment of salads and bars brought by guests. Later, after judges sampled pies in the pie-baking contest, plated pies presented a dessert smorgasbord. And if that wasn’t enough, sausage and cheese, chips and dip and other snack foods were available for grazing later.

The side entry into the hayloft.

The side entry into the hayloft.

Some six hours after we arrived, Randy and I descended the steep walk-way into the hayloft and followed the gravel drive past the grain dryer (next to the yard light) toward vehicles parked on the lawn. We threaded our way toward our car, music fading as the distance widened between us and the 100-year-old barn.

FYI: Check back for more photos from the barn dance in additional posts tomorrow and thereafter.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling