Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inside the colorful Big Woods of Minnesota October 5, 2011

EVERY TIME I HEAR the words “Big Woods,” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, Little House in the Big Woods, pop into my mind. It’s a natural reflex given my deep love for the Little House books. Think grade school teacher reading the series to her students after lunch and me growing up about 20 miles from Walnut Grove, Wilder’s brief childhood home on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

That all said, Laura was born in 1867 in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin some seven miles from Pepin.

I visited the Ingalls’ home site many years ago with my family, when my girls were elementary age and we were deep into reading the Little House series. The Big Woods and cabin are long gone, replaced now by open prairie and a replica cabin.

Yet, only a short drive east of my Faribault home, I can experience the Big Woods at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I have no idea if these woods are anything like those in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. But I like to think they are.

An informational sign along a trail in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

Check out the history section of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and you’ll find this information about the Nerstrand woods:

“When the first settlers arrived in 1854, they discovered an island of woods in the vast oak savanna prairie which now makes up Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees shade the land.”

I spent half my time in the Big Woods looking, and aiming, my camera skyward.

The park boasts a lovely picnic grounds sheltered by trees like this one.

A close-up look at oak leaves changing color.

This time of year those trees flame in fiery hues, making Nerstrand a popular destination for viewing fall colors in Minnesota.

Sunday afternoon, following a fall color drive to the Sogn Valley area in northwestern Goodhue County, my husband and I stopped briefly at this state park just west of Nerstrand. We managed to find a space in a parking lot packed to overflowing in this park teeming with visitors.

If you’re seeking a quiet, people-free escape, you won’t find it here on a weekend.

But you will find a perfect fall experience complete with the earthy scent of decaying leaves; brilliant reds and yellows painted on the cobalt palette of sky; drifts of leaves to plow through; the crisp crunch of leaves beneath feet; a spirit of friendliness among visitors hiking into the Big Woods; a respite from the busyness of life; and an opportunity to savor the fleeting days of autumn in Minnesota.

Everywhere trees provided a colorful canopy of color.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into the Big Woods.

Along the path, a bursting milkweed pod.

Follow this gravel road west of the park entrance for three miles to Caron Park.

BEYOND THE STATE PARK, there’s more to see at places probably known mostly to the locals:

Follow the gravel road (Rice County Road 88) west of the state park three miles to Caron Park, a 60-acre county park that is a remnant of the Big Woods. You’ll find 1.5 miles of hiking trails here, a lovely waterfall and few people. Late Sunday afternoon we saw a single truck parked in the parking lot.

Nerstrand Meats & Catering, a family-owned business since 1890.

To the east of the park lies the small town of Nerstrand, worth a stop to check out Nerstrand Meats (open 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays), the International Peace Garden at the local charter school, Nerstrand Elementary, and Main Street small-town Minnesota. (Watch for a future post on interesting signage in Nerstrand. Click here to read a previous post about the Peace Garden.)

A snippet of Nerstrand Elementary School and its International Peace Garden.

North of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, along Rice County Road 30, sit the historic and picturesque 1862 and 1894 Valley Grove churches surrounded by 50 acres of rolling prairie grasses and trees. From high atop this hillside location, you’ll get a spectacular view of the fall colors. You can also hike a prairie path here. (Click here to read a previous post I wrote about Valley Grove’s annual fall country social.)

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

To assure that you don’t miss out on these color viewing opportunities, I’d highly recommend hopping in your vehicle sooner than later. Leaves are changing and falling as I write and we all know these splendid days won’t last forever in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling