Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Poetry flashback as we welcome spring March 20, 2021

Billboards in my Roadside Poetry Project poem posted in Fergus Falls 10 years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING today seems reason to celebrate, especially here in Minnesota, the land of long winters. Or, as my California-raised son-in-law once thought, Almost Canada.

Billboard #2 in my poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

From here on, daylight lengthens. And, after this past pandemic year, I’m thankful for the seasonal transition into more sunlight and resulting warmth and melting of snow. That said, this is still March and in Minnesota that likely means more cold and snowy days.

But, as we ease into spring, I feel a sense of renewal. Warm days with temps in the 50s and near 60, like those predicted for this weekend, are freeing, uplifting and promising.

Billboards #3 and 4. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

Farmers, I expect, are itching to get into the fields, although it’s way too early for that. I still think like the farm-raised woman I am, connecting seasons to the cycle of planting, growing and harvesting. That will always remain an important part of my identity and continues to influence my writing and photography.

The last of four billboards featuring my Roadside Poetry spring poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

Flash back to 10 years ago and you can read that influence in a poem I penned and submitted to the Roadside Poetry Project. In four lines, each with a 20 character limit, I wrote a spring-themed poem that bannered on four billboards in Fergus Falls. It’s the most unusual spot my poetry has ever published.

The billboards posted along a road on the edge of Fergus Falls in 2011. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

Designed “to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the landscape,” according to then Project Coordinator Paul Carney, my poem truly fit that mission. I wrote from experience, from a closeness to the land, from a landscape of understanding.

While the Roadside Poetry Project, funded by the Fergus Falls College Foundation, no longer exists, my poem endures in the legacy of my writing. To have written about spring from the perspective of a farmer’s daughter celebrates my rural Minnesota prairie roots. And spring.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Sample billboards along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin February 19, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Drive Interstate 90 between La Crosse and Madison, Wisconsin, and you’ll see lots of billboards around the larger cities and in the area by the Dells. Edited Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.


BILLBOARDS CAN CLUTTER the landscape. Too many words. Too many materialistic messages. Too much visual imprint when I’d rather see the natural surroundings.


As you would expect in Wisconsin, there are lots of signs for cheese places along I-90. Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots.


But I understand the value of signs, large or small, in drawing people into businesses, to destinations, to detour off the interstate. That said, I noticed a lot of vacant billboard real estate while traveling Interstate 90 from La Crosse to Madison, Wisconsin, this past weekend. I can only speculate that in a tech driven world, this form of marketing to the masses is declining.


Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots. Anyone know the story behind this billboard?


Still, I pay attention to roadside signage and noticed a billboard with a simple and profound message: FORGIVE and BE KIND. I photographed the sign within 10 minutes of Exit 69, the road to Mauston and Oxford. A LAMAR Advertising credit runs along the bottom.

FORGIVE and BE KIND. The words are simple enough. But forgiveness and the added directive to “be kind” can prove a struggle when the pain and hurt run deep. Yet, both can be achieved. It takes work. Time. Healing.


Another cheese sign along I-90 in south central Wisconsin. Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots.


I’d like to hear your thoughts on the FORGIVE and BE KIND billboard and/or on billboards in general.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Just vote November 5, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , ,


IN A YEAR WHEN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS have reached a new level of negativity, it’s refreshing to see nonpartisan billboards encouraging people to vote. Just vote.

Who wins matters banners hundreds of billboards posted across Minnesota. The Pohlad family, owner of the Minnesota Twins, paid for the signage. I don’t know their political affiliation, and it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the message.

Election Day presents an opportunity to exercise our freedom to vote, to choose the candidates we want in office. If you don’t vote, then don’t complain about the results.

I am so ready for this campaign season to end. I am weary of the attack ads. I’d much rather a candidate told me who they are, their views and what they hope to accomplish than attack an opponent.

I am so weary of the phone calls, including one from a particularly insistent campaign caller who pushed to the edge of harassment/intimidation/bullying/verbal abuse when I stated my viewpoint. You can bet that candidate will not get my vote, not that I intended to vote for him anyway.

I am so weary of the campaign literature that fills my mailbox daily. I don’t even read it. The mailings go directly into the recycling bin. I don’t need to read the accusations, the words that are unkind, hurtful, bordering hateful. I’d rather read positive words. I’d rather just vote on November 6.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Along Highway 52: About that popcorn & cheese June 5, 2017

SIGNAGE INTERESTS ME. For many reasons. The graphics. The message. The marketing influence. The persuasive power.

Occasionally signage can confuse or present an unclear message.

Let’s consider three signs along U.S. Highway 52, a high traffic four-lane that I sometimes travel between Cannon Falls and Rochester. On my most recent trek along this roadway, I photographed two signs by Pine Island.



The first grabbed my visual attention because of the oversized popcorn kernels scattered on the ground below a popcorn billboard and the single word, Newt’s. What is this sign advertising? A popcorn place? Not quite. Newt’s does have, according to online reviews, some of the tastiest popcorn around. But Newt’s is a beer and burger place that also serves popcorn.

Digging deeper into the popcorn pile, I read on Newt’s Facebook page that the business pops an average of 20,000 pounds (or 10 tons) of popcorn kernels in a year at its north, south and downtown Rochester locations. Now that’s a lot of popcorn. I wonder how much beer is served.



The second sign I photographed promotes a cheese mart. But if you look closely, you will see that the Pine Cheese Mart no longer sells cheese. That’s right. Tacked onto the bottom of the sign is the notation that you can purchase beer and wine making supplies at Von Klopp Brew Shop, once also a marketer of cheese.

When the northbound highway access to the cheese mart was closed, the business took such a hit that it stopped selling cheese and closed its restaurant and gift shop, according to the business website. I wonder how many travelers catch the cheese mart part of this sign and miss the details.



The last “sign” I photographed is farther north on 52 and visible from the southbound lane. There’s nothing fancy about this handcrafted message. It’s simple and to the point. The landowner appreciates farmers and loves his country. Perfect.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

NOTE: I photographed these signs several months ago. They may or may not still be in place.


A Minnesotan’s take on Wisconsin August 26, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

WHEN I TOOK A ROAD TRIP to Boston earlier this year, I learned something about my home state. Or rather, what others think of Minnesota. Whether in Indiana or New York or Massachusetts, folks reacted the same upon learning I was a Minnesotan. “It’s cold there,” they said.

Yes, it’s cold here. But not year-round. In the end, I decided, let them believe what they wish. Such opinions keep Minnesota from becoming densely populated like the Coasts.

Rolling hills and farms define the land east of La Crosse along Interstate 90 in the southwestern part of Wisconsin..

Rolling hills and farms define the land east of La Crosse along Interstate 90 in the southwestern part of Wisconsin..

But that got me thinking about how I view people and places, specifically Wisconsin and its residents. I’ve traveled there many times in the past five years to visit my daughter Miranda who lives on the northeastern side of the state.

Packers fans houses in Wautoma? Or simply a gold house and a green house?

Packers fans houses in Wautoma? Or simply a gold house and a green house? Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Here’s my outsider’s impression of Wisconsinites: fanatical about the Green Bay Packers, crazy about brat and fish fries, and lovers of cheese and beer. Wisconsin residents also seem particularly opinionated. And many love to hunt. Of course, I’m sweeping my neighboring state with a broad brush of generalities. Just like others do about Minnesota.

A tribute to Aaron Rodgers.

A tribute to Aaron Rodgers on a barn along Highway 10 west of Appleton. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Let’s examine my impressions more closely. I’ve seen Wisconsin fire hydrants painted Packers green and gold and brat buns and kettle corn in the same colors. And I’ve photographed a barn with this message: #12 is #1 G. If you’re not dressed in a Packers jersey on game day, well, you feel totally unfashionable. On game day weekends, Green Bay area hotels jack up the room prices as much as $100. My daughter clued me in on that.

The brat barn, not to be confused with a dairy or pig barn. You can purchase StoneRidge meats here.

The brat barn, stationed outside the Piggly Wiggly in Wautoma. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I’m not a brat lover, so I could never pass as a Wisconsinite. From my observations, brat fries are the most popular fundraiser in this state with brat fry shacks stationed outside many grocery stores. Friday night fish fries are equally as popular.

Van Handel's Cheese Hut, also a gas station, is located in Appleton.

Van Handel’s Cheese Hut, also a gas station and convenience store, is located in Appleton.

Wisconsin definitely lives up to its name as the Dairyland State. Cheese stores abound. The funny thing, every time I travel to Wisconsin, Miranda asks me to bring cave-aged blue cheese from Faribault. So I stash wedges in a cooler and sneak Minnesota-made cheese across the border.

I photographed this signage along Interstate 41 between Appleton and Oshkosh.

I photographed this signage along Interstate 41 between Appleton and Oshkosh.

Like cheese, booze is readily available in Wisconsin. For example, you’ll find walk-in beer coolers at Kwik Trip convenience stores, co-joined grocery and liquor stores, and lots of breweries. Twelve Wisconsin communities rank in the top 20 drunkest cities in America. According to a May 2016 report on 24/7 Wall St, “Appleton is home to the largest share of binge and heavy drinkers in both Wisconsin and the country.”

A strong opinion expressed on a billboard along Interstate 41 between Appleton and Oshkosh.

A strong opinion expressed on a billboard along Interstate 41 between Appleton and Oshkosh.

On a recent visit, and in past visits, I’ve also noticed plenty of opinions posted roadside, sometimes on billboards and other times on homemade signs. In Redgranite, a homeowner recently scrawled “Send Hillary to prison” and placed the message board along busy State Highway 21. I’ve also noticed strongly worded messages in billboards posted along Interstate 41 between Appleton and Oshkosh.

A pawn shop, somewhere along State Highway 21 between Omro and Tomah advertises guns.

A pawn shop, somewhere along State Highway 21 between Omro and Tomah advertises guns.

Finally, hunting seems a popular sport in Wisconsin based on the number of deer stands and deer processing places. While I’m not a big fan of hunting for sport, I do appreciate that hunting makes for fewer deer on roadways.

So…is my general assessment of Wisconsin fair and/or accurate? I do, by the way, really like Wisconsin, including the cheese and the beer.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Don’t ask Santa, ask Grandma in the home of champions December 29, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:09 PM
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

BILLBOARDS, ESPECIALLY THOSE in rural Minnesota, fascinate me.

The signs impress me as more interesting, more focused, quirkier, it seems, and zeroed in on a specific geographical region. The messages, the art, can reveal much about an area and often make me smile, sometimes even laugh.

This creative real estate billboard in Sleepy Eye, at the intersections of U.S. Highway 14 and Minnesota Highway 4, makes me smile. A nearby sign boasts the local high school's athletic accomplishments.

This creative real estate billboard, right, in Sleepy Eye, at the intersections of U.S. Highway 14 and Minnesota Highway 4, makes me smile. A nearby sign boasts athletic accomplishments at Sleepy Eye and St. Mary’s high schools.

Additionally, many small towns take great pride in the local high school’s athletic accomplishments, even from decades ago.

Although many small towns brag about local sporting accomplishments, I would like to occasionally drive into a community and also read a sign boasting of academic, musical, theatrical or other accomplishments.

Wouldn’t that be nice to see in our sports-obsessed world?

Imagine reading a sign like “Home of the 2012 Minnesota State Spelling Bee Champion” or something like that.

HAS ANYONE OUT THERE ever spotted a sign in a community highlighting non-athletic accomplishments at the high school level?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Bring in a billboard, a pregnant burrito & more along I-94 November 26, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:27 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

IN THE PAST YEAR, I’ve begun to really pay attention to billboards. Prior to this, I viewed these mega ads primarily as visual clutter.

A string of billboards near Alexandria, photographed while driving eastbound back to Faribault along Interstate 94.

But now this open air, in-your-face advertising has evolved into a diversion from a long and weary journey along a familiar route. For me, that tedious trip has been the 600-mile round trip to and from Fargo, North Dakota, four times since February. (Our son attends North Dakota State University.)

At first the drive was interesting. I haven’t traveled all that often across this region of Minnesota along Interstate 94.

Abandoned stone house along I94 near Avon.

Now, though, I am so familiar with the sites that I can tell you exactly where to find the abandoned stone house I wish would be restored (near Avon),

Freeport, “The city with a smile!” is marked by this smiling water tower.

…the location of the vintage smiley-faced water tower (Freeport)

The most entertaining of all the billboards along Interstate 94 between Faribault and Fargo is this one for Kentucky Fried Chicken just west of Alexandria. Seriously, I’d like to see anyone dragging this billboard coupon into KFC.

…and even where you will spot a particularly interesting billboard coupon (Alexandria).

The billboards along I-94 from Monticello west begin to draw my eye as the land eases from urban to rural. They are a diversion, markers of towns and cities along the route and a source of entertainment and, sometimes, amusement.

I totally cannot tell you the exact location of this billboard for Zorbaz on the Lake along I-94. But the “pregnant burrito…a bundle of joy” slogan just does not work for me. But I suppose since I noticed the message, the billboard is effective.

What is it about these restaurant advertisers? A sub as big as a billboard? Oh, yeah, read the small print. Snapped this sign near Melrose/Albany.

Just east of Fargo/Moorhead, you know you’re in farming country. And, yes, I counted all 14 insects on this billboard.

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Packers mania as documented by a Minnesotan January 2, 2012

UNTIL MY SECOND DAUGHTER moved to Wisconsin a year ago, I never realized how fanatical Wisconsinites are about their Packers. Suffice to say that football doesn’t interest me, nor do sports for that matter, which would explain my ignorance on this topic.

But once I grasped the importance of the Green Bay Packers to Wisconsin residents, I decided to make my own sport of this football fanaticism by documenting Packers mania. Now, on every trip across the state to Appleton on Wisconsin’s eastern side, I pull out my camera and scout for signs of Packers craziness. And I mean signs. Literally.

Look at the three billboards I photographed along Wisconsin State Highway 21 and U.S. Highway 41 New Year’s weekend.

Near Omro along Highway 21, I saw this Packers-themed BEEF-FENSE! sign for McDonalds.

Look closely in the middle to read the Miller Lite "Catch great taste" Packers billboard posted along U.S. Highway 41 and photographed late Friday afternoon between Oshkosh and Appleton.

Now if I knew my Packers, I could tell you the name of this player featured on a billboard. Someone help me out here. Who is this player who needs a haircut?

Driving through the community of Wautoma, where my cousin Bev, a former Minnesotan, lives, I spotted these neighboring houses.

Packers fans' houses in Wautoma? Or simply a gold house and a green house?

Now, since I didn’t stop to ask the homeowners, I am uncertain whether these green and gold houses truly symbolize team loyalty or whether the paint color choices were totally based on individual hue preferences. What would you guess? I’d go with the gold as representing the Packers and the green as representing personal color preference.

Walk into almost any Wisconsin business, and you’ll likely see Packers merchandise. At Lamers Dairy in Appleton, where bottled milk is sold along with plenty of Wisconsin cheese, I found Game Time Kettle Korn. I also saw an employee wearing purple. Oh, don’t for a second think it was a Vikings t-shirt. The college freshman was sporting a Winona State University shirt, having crossed into Vikings land for his higher education.

Studio 213, a downtown Appleton business featuring art, handcrafted items and collectibles, yielded customized Bears traps meant to be set by Packers fans.

The traps I found at Studio 213 in downtown Appleton.

Game Time Kettle Korn from Medley Popcorn on the shelves at Lamers Dairy.

And then, of course, Packers jerseys, sweatshirts, t-shirts, jackets and more seem to define Wisconsin fashion. If you want to blend in with the locals, simply slip into Packers attire. They’ll never suspect you’re from Minnesota…

At several months old, baby Leo is already a Green Bay Packers fan.

One more tip: Best travel time through Wisconsin is during a Packers game.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Prairie poetry in Fergus Falls June 12, 2011

SATURDAY MORNING MY HUSBAND and I hit the road, heading north on Interstate 35 and then west on Interstate 94 to the west central part of Minnesota.

This was our destination:

It's approaching noon on Saturday, and we've nearly reached our destination, Fergus Falls.

Because of this:

The first of my four Roadside Poetry billboards in a stretch of ditch along North Tower Road in Fergus Falls.

I got word last Monday that my winning Roadside Poetry Project spring poem will come down on June 17, to be replaced with a summer poem. (Click here to read a previous post about my poem.) So if I wanted to see “Cold earth warmed by budding sun sprouts the seeds of vernal equinox” and my name—all sprawled across four Burma Shave style billboards—we had to get our butts up to Fergus Falls.

So we did, making the 200-mile trip this weekend under big skies that stretched all the way to the Dakotas.

After a few stops, including a swing into Melrose to view an historic Catholic church (more on that in another post), we eventually reached Exit 54 into Fergus some 3 1/2 hours later. We followed Highway 210/West Lincoln Avenue, turned onto North Tower Road and drove past the NAPA Auto Parts store before reaching those poetry billboards. I mention NAPA because Randy works at the NAPA store in Northfield as an automotive machinist and we found it interesting that my poems just happened to be right down the road from the Fergus NAPA store.

We passed right by the NAPA store to reach my billboards just down the road.

When Randy pulled to the side of North Tower Road by my billboards, I determined this was not the safest place to park. So we pulled into the Fastenal parking lot and then descended the steep ditch, wading through tall, and wet, prairie grasses—sweet clover, June grass, alfalfa—and more than a few thistles.

Our shoes and jean legs were soon soaked with moisture. But, you know, that really didn’t matter. I was so focused on viewing my four-line, spring-themed poem and on taking photos that the wet feet and denim seemed more a nuisance than anything worth fretting over on a glorious early Saturday afternoon.

And so, billboard by billboard, we worked our way down the road ditch, stopping by each sign for photos. Eventually I handed the camera over to Randy, who managed to figure out how to turn on the camera, focus it, compose and snap some pictures.

Me posing by the last of the four billboards with my spring poem.

This may be the first and last time my poetry, and my name, will be on billboards, so I savored every letter, every word, every line, every billboard...

Then I snapped this image of my husband, who had plucked a spear of prairie grass and slipped it into his mouth. The frame marked one of those quick clicks of the camera that resulted in a photo that you could never recapture given its spontaneity.

A sweet shot of my husband as he walked away from the final billboard.

I’m uncertain how long we worked the road ditch along North Tower. But long enough to appreciate that this spot on the edge of town, under a sky that always feels bigger, wider, on the open prairie, perfectly fit a poem written by me, a southwestern Minnesota prairie native.

I crouched to capture this image which focuses on the road ditch prairie grasses.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Count me in on Roadside Poetry April 26, 2011

“We’ve selected YOUR poem for our spring Roadside Poetry installment!”

For nearly a month now, I’ve kept that exciting, boldfaced news mostly to myself, sharing it with only my immediate family, my mom and a few select friends and extended family members.

But now that the billboards are up—yes, I said billboards—I no longer feel obligated to keep this a secret.

I won the spring Roadside Poetry competition and my poem now sprawls across four billboards, Burma Shave style, 50 yards apart in Fergus Falls.

That’s it, my poem, the winning poem, which is posted along North Tower Road west of Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, just down the road from Fleet Farm. Take exit 54 off I-94 on the west edge of Fergus.

Paul Carney, the project coordinator who delivered the good news to me via e-mail in early March, tells me that 100,000 vehicles drive by the billboards each month. “How’s that for readership?” he asks.

Well, mighty fine, Paul. Mighty fine.

Getting my poetry out there in this unusual, highly-public venue really is an honor for me, adding to my poems already published in two magazines and four, soon-to-be five, anthologies.

The mission of The Roadside Poetry Project “is to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the rural landscape,” according to roadsidepoetry.org. The first poem went up in September 2008 and was, interestingly enough, written by another Faribault resident, Larry Gavin, a writer and Faribault High School English teacher.

The poems, all seasonally-themed, change four times a year. Mine will be up through the third week of June when a summer poem replaces it. Yes, entries are currently being accepted for the summer competition.

About now you’re likely, maybe, wondering how I heard about this contest. I honestly cannot remember. But I do remember thinking, “I can do this.” So one night I sat down with a notebook and pencil and started jotting down phrases.

Like most writers, I strive to find the exact/precise/perfect/right words.

I scribbled and scratched and thought and wrote and crossed out and jotted and erased and counted and filled several notebook pages.

These poems do not simply pop, like that, into my head, onto paper.

To add to the complexity of this process, poets are tasked with creating poetic imagery that describes the wonderment of the season, all in four lines. But there’s more. Each line can include no more than 20 characters.

Now that character limitation, my friends, presents a challenge. Just when I thought I had nailed a phrase, I counted too many characters. Again and again, I had to restart until, finally, I had shaped and molded the poem I would submit.

“I love the language and the imagery,” project leader Paul said of my winning spring poem.

Honestly, when I wrote this poem, I could feel the sun warming my back as I stooped to drop slips of zinnia seeds into the cold, damp earth. Visualizing has always been a part of my creative process. Choosing the words “vernal equinox” simply seemed so much more poetic than the single, plain word, “spring.”

Even though Paul loved my poem and it fit the contest guidelines, there was a problem: Audrey Kletscher Helbling. Count and you get 23 characters and two spaces in my name, putting me five over the 20-character limit.

I understood the space limitations, but explained to Paul that I really wanted Audrey Kletscher Helbling, not Audrey Helbling, on the billboard because that’s my professional name. He agreed to see if the sign-maker could fit my full name and keep it readable. From my experience years ago writing newspaper headlines, I knew that the letters “l” and “i” took less space than other letters. The sign-maker was able to honor my request.

I haven’t been up to Fergus Falls yet to see my poem and Audrey Kletscher Helbling splashed across four billboards. But a trip will be forthcoming.

FYI: Paul Carney hopes to expand Roadside Poetry, supported in Fergus Falls by the Fergus Area College Foundation, to other locations in Minnesota. However, additional funding is needed to finance start-up, printing and other costs. If you would like to support this public art venue, have questions, need more information or wish to enter the seasonal contest, visit roadsidepoetry.org.

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Paul Carney