Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Stone windmill symbolizes strength of Minnesota immigrants August 29, 2019

Walking toward Seppman Mill, located just outside a fenced area holding bison at Mnneopa State Park, rural Mankato, Minnesota.


IN THE PRAIRIE PART of Minneopa State Park where the bison roam, an historic stone windmill stands tall on the prairie’s edge. Minus the blades.


Interpretive signs detail the mill’s history.



The granary was rebuilt in 1970 to its original size.


The Seppman Mill symbolizes the strength and grit of the early immigrants, among them Louis Seppman. Seeing a need for a local flour mill, this stone mason started crafting the mill in 1862 from local stone hand-carried or transported in wheelbarrows to the site, according to the book, Minnesota: A State Guide.



The task of constructing the windmill patterned after those in Seppman’s native Germany took two years. Eruption of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict in the region in 1862 delayed construction. Once operational, the mill could grind 150 bushels of wheat into flour on a day of favorable winds.



While the wind powered the arms of the 32-foot high windmill, it also proved the mill’s ultimate demise. In 1873, lightning struck and knocked off two of the arms and sails. Seven years later, tornadic winds ripped off the replacement arms. And, finally, in 1890, a third storm damaged the mill beyond repair.


A prairie restoration is underway here at Minneopa as noted in this sign posted near the windmill.


I can only imagine the frustration of Seppman and others who tried, tried and tried again to keep the mill operating. Three strikes and you’re out seems applicable.


Coneflowers, with their deep roots, thrive among the prairie grasses.


But then I consider all they did to even get the mill built. Those early settlers truly exemplify hard work and determination. How many of us would carry all those stones up an inclined roadway and then seemingly puzzle-piece the stones together? It’s remarkable really.


Black-eyed susans.


I’m thankful this windmill has been mostly restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It is a visual tribute to the early settlers of Minnesota, a reminder of the value these immigrants brought to this land, to this state, to this prairie place they called home. Then. And still today.


A sign along the prairie’s edge near the mill informs about bison in Minnesota.


Here, where the bison once roamed.


© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Mingling with the bison in Minnesota August 28, 2019

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With more than 300 acres to roam, the bison conveniently clustered around a watering hole next to the road through the prairie during our visit to Minneopa State Park.


OH, GIVE ME A HOME, where the buffalo roam…


This pair was so close to our van that I could almost have reached out and touched the calf.


Whenever I think of buffalo, those lyrics pop into my head. My classmates and I sang the words during informal music time at Vesta Elementary School some 50-plus years ago.


Interpretive signage about the bison is positioned overlooking the prairie.


An overview of the Minneopa prairie, home to a herd of bison.


A map shows native prairie remaining in Minnesota, land needed by bison for grazing.


Or, whenever I think of buffalo, I remember childhood visits to the small zoo at Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls. There a tall wire fence separated us from these massive animals I associate with Native American buffalo hunts on the prairie.



Or, more accurately, bison hunts. These powerful animals are technically bison, not buffalo.



Today you can see them in Minnesota at the Minnesota Zoo, Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and now at Minneopa State Park outside Mankato.


A gravel road slicing through the Minneopa prairie allows visitors to get a close-up view of the bison herd.




On a recent weekday afternoon, we drove to Mankato into bison territory. Literally. Vehicles turn onto a gravel road that winds through the Minneopa prairie, home to about 20 bison. Having grown up on a dairy and beef farm (with several mean bulls), I respect animals that outsize me, especially those with horns.




Vehicles park to watch the bison and a passenger steps out to photograph the dangerous animals.


I didn’t even question the validity of signage warning visitors to stay inside their vehicles because bison are dangerous. I watched in disbelief as a woman stood outside a car taking photos with the bison herd within stone’s throw. What on earth was she thinking? Only moments earlier a sheriff’s car passed by and I wished the deputy had seen, and ticketed, her.



We had a bit of a scare ourselves when a bison walking nearby suddenly bolted toward our van, but veered away at the last second. I envisioned horns impaling the metal.



These animals command respect. They are massive, powerful and beautiful, a part of our state’s history.



To share space with them upon the prairie is not only an experience, but an honor.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Flat Fargo August 24, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:47 AM
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This water tower is located in West Fargo, an area of shopping malls, restaurants, Big Box stores, hotels, etc. The tower is a rare vertical structure, breaking the flat, horizontal landscape of the Fargo area.

I THOUGHT I KNEW FLAT having grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie where the land seems to stretch far and unbroken into flat infinity.

But not until this year, when my family traveled thrice nearly 300 miles north and west to Fargo, North Dakota, and back did I truly understand the definition of flat.

A train rumbles through the northwest side of Fargo near the airport and the campus of North Dakota State University. No, this is not a hill. I simply did not have my horizon straight as I photographed this train while traveling along a city street.

I doubt I have ever seen a city as flat as Fargo. You know, when you spill a glass of milk on the table how the liquid flows fast and free over the edge of the table. Well, that table would be Fargo. The milk would be the Red River of the North. I totally understand now why this city is so prone to flooding each spring.

A herd of buffalo photographed along Interstate 94 east of Fargo, which places them in Minnesota.

I swear, if I had driven to the western edge of Fargo, I would see the world’s largest buffalo—26-foot tall, 60-ton concrete Dakota Thunder sculpted in 1959 by Elmer Petersen—90 miles away atop a hill in Jamestown’s Frontier Village. I saw the buffalo about 20 years ago while en route to a Helbling family reunion in Mandan/Bismarck, cities which actually do have hills. I think.

Inside the NDSU Memorial Union, I photographed this sculpture of a bison, the university’s mascot, in June.

About those buffalo… The flat and forever Dakota plains provide ideal grazing grounds for these massive creatures, or at least once did. Dakotans are proud of their native bison as evidenced in business names; art like “Herd About the Prairie” in Fargo; and even a bison mascot for North Dakota State University where my son is now a student.

A bus bench and sidewalk in West Fargo draw the eye west toward the horizon and the setting sun.

My apologies for momentarily edging away from that flat land issue. Even I, a girl of the prairie, find the Fargo flatness somewhat unsettling. I’d like a few more mature trees, especially on the sprawling growth west side of the city, upon which to rest my eyes. I’d like a few rises in the land, other than the rare man-made ones, to break the monotony of a straight horizontal line.

I expect that if I lived in Fargo, I’d adjust and think nothing of the flat landscape. But when you’re a visitor, you notice things like the lay of the land and the wind, oh, the winds of Fargo.

Just off Interstate 29 a flock of sheep graze pastureland as part of North Dakota State University’s Sheep Experiment Station.

Throughout West Fargo you’ll see open patches of land like this clover field next to the Fairfield Inn, where we’ve stayed twice. The hotel has strong horizontal lines like most structures in Fargo.

A fenceline and cornfield in Fargo, near (or part of, I’m not sure) the NDSU campus. More horizontal lines…

Paradise in Fargo, the Paradiso Mexican Restaurant, that is.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling