Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Faces: Northfield historian September 11, 2015

Portrait #39: Christian Hakala

Christian Hakala talks about gang members involved in the Northfield bank raid, pictured to his left: Frank and Jesse James; Cole, Bob and Jim Younger; Clell Miller; William Chadwell; and Charlie Pitts.

Christian Hakala talks about gang members involved in the Northfield bank raid, pictured to his left: Frank and Jesse James; Cole, Bob and Jim Younger; Clell Miller; William Chadwell; and Charlie Pitts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

To say folks in Northfield, Minnesota, appreciate local history would be an understatement.

Take Christian Hakala. He has a Master of Arts in history, has taught history, has served as Northfield Historical Society Board president and volunteers as a tour guide.

During his day job, he’s Director of Individual Giving at Northfield’s Carleton College.

It was in his capacity of NHS tour guide that I met Hakala in September 2012 as he walked visitors through the “Attempted Bank Raid” exhibit. That would be the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield by the James-Younger Gang. A bank cashier, a Swedish immigrant and two of the outlaws died in seven minutes as townspeople fought back.

Northfield this week is celebrating the heroism of locals during the annual The Defeat of Jesse James Days, an event which is among Minnesota’s most popular community celebrations. DJJD includes bank raid re-enactments. Hakala has participated in those, too, role-playing a townsperson.

If you appreciate history and drama and community celebrations, then head on over to Northfield this weekend. This beautiful historic river city knows how to showcase local history in a big way.

FYI: Click here for more details about The Defeat of Jesse James Days.

Minnesota Faces is featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Camp counselors July 24, 2015

Portrait #32: Counselors at Camp Omega, rural Waterville, Minnesota

Camp Omega counselors at July Fourth North Morristown celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013

Camp Omega counselors at July Fourth North Morristown celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013

They are the faces of enthusiasm, of adventure, of leadership, energy and a passion for the outdoors. They are summer camp counselors in Minnesota. Friends, surrogate moms/dads, teachers—they are all of these and none of these. They are young people. Who care.

I never had the opportunity to attend summer camp while growing up—there was no money for such extras. But my younger siblings did. When I had children of my own, I determined they would go to summer bible camp no matter the financial sacrifice.

My girls, from kindergarten age on, every summer, went to Camp Omega near Waterville. The first time I sent my eldest away for a weekend, I wondered how I would make it through camp. Me. Not her. I survived her absence and she thrived in the serene setting of woods and water in the care of faith-focused counselors.

Amber loved Camp Omega so much that she eventually volunteered there during high school and then worked two summers as a counselor. The friendships she forged and the confidence and faith-growth she experienced were immeasurable.

Some things cannot be taught by parents at home. Some must be learned in a canoe, in a raucous competition, on a climbing wall, around a campfire roasting marshmallows, in a circle of new friends with a counselor strumming a guitar, in the top bunk of a lumpy bed with whispers in the dark and the brush of branches against roof.

Mosquito bites and sunburn. Raccoon eyes and bounce of a flashlight. Rousting out of bed and falling asleep exhausted from a day of running and screaming and breathing in all that fresh air.

Camp. Counselors. Summertime in Minnesota.

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Minnesota Faces is a series featured nearly every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: The musicians of Monroe Crossing July 3, 2015

Portrait #30: Monroe Crossing

Monroe Crossing musicians photographed during a 2013 performance at North Morristown.

Four of five Monroe Crossing musicians photographed during a 2013 performance at North Morristown.

They’re in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. They’ve recorded 14 CDs to date. Twice they’ve appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York City. And in 2016, they will become the first Minnesota bluegrass band ever to perform in South Korea.

They are Monroe Crossing, a group of five musicians who rank as one of Minnesota’s favorite bluegrass bands.

On Saturday the performers, as they have many times in the past, take the stage at the oldest Fourth of July celebration in Minnesota, now in its 123rd year. That would be in North Morristown, a country church and school and a few homes clustered west of Faribault in the middle of farm fields.

The Trinity Lutheran Church and School festival grounds is the perfect setting for these musicians who present foot-stomping down-to-earth songs. They perform at 1:30 p.m. and then again at 4 p.m. And it’s free, although donations are accepted in on-grounds donation boxes.

Plan to arrive well in advance of Monroe Crossings’ concerts. The July Fourth celebration begins at 9 a.m., when food stands and games open. Yes, there’s plenty of great food including homemade pies, barbecued pork sandwiches, burgers and more. You can play bingo, hunt for a medallion, observe a flag-raising, bid on auction items, throw horseshoes, attend a parade (at 10 a.m.), listen to other musicians (The Jolly Huntsmen Polka Band, Sawtooth Brothers, Benson Family Singers and Downtown Sound), drink beer and more.

There’s also plenty of visiting. Old-fashioned handcrafted rides are available for the kids. This rural celebration is about as Americana grassroots wholesome goodness as you’ll find anywhere in Minnesota on the Fourth of July.

Ending it all is a 10 p.m. fireworks display.

FYI: Click here to reach the North Morristown Fourth of July website page for a schedule of events and directions.

You can also check out the event Facebook page by clicking here.

Click here to view a photo essay from the 2013 celebration.

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The Minnesota Faces series is featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: My husband May 15, 2015

Portraits #21-23: Randy

Randy relaxes at a family gathering in 2012.

Randy relaxes at a family gathering in 2012.

Thirty-three years ago today, I married this man. Randy.

We have been through a lot together. Good times and challenging ones. Laughter and sorrow. Days that have tested our strength and days we want to remember always for their joyfulness. This is life.

I am immeasurably blessed to journey through my days with Randy beside me. He makes me laugh, even when I don’t feel like laughing. Occasionally he’ll clip a fitting cartoon and post it on the refrigerator. And when I notice it, I smile, because he thought of me.

Each spring he pulls a jackknife from his pocket and snips an armful of lilacs to set on our dining room table. That bouquet holds more meaning than a dozen roses.

Modeling a vintage straw cowboy hat, like those we wore as children, in a North Mankato antique shop several years ago.

Modeling a vintage straw cowboy hat, like those we wore as children, in a North Mankato antique shop several years ago.

He is light-hearted to my serious nature, calm to my storm, even-keeled to my sometimes emotional reactions. A balance. Not always perfect, because we are human, but a difference in personalities that works for us.

He works hard. Grease rims his fingernails from his job as an automotive machinist. His work is always in demand. He is good at what he does. Really good. I tell him he works too hard. Last summer he cut back on the overtime and no longer works Saturdays. I am thankful. He deserves more than one day a week off from work.

Randy obliges my request to pose with a sculpture in a Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, park we toured while vacationing.

Randy obliges my request to pose with a sculpture in a Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, park we toured while vacationing.

Because of him, I’ve learned to appreciate vintage cars and, because of me, he’s learned to appreciate poetry. He is my greatest cheerleader, encouraging me in my writing and photography and even recently telling me he had an idea for a poem. “Roadkill,” he said. And then we laughed.

To laugh with this man, to worship and pray with this man, to remember all the Sunday afternoons Randy sprawled on the living room floor reading comics to our children or playing Monopoly with them reminds me all over again of why I love him.

He is quiet and caring and strong and loyal. A man of faith. And I love him. Always.

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Our newest immigrant families March 20, 2015

Portrait #13: A boy with an unforgettably sweet face

 

Portrait 13, International Festival Faribault 2012, Somali boy

 

He represents the present and the future, the changing face of my Minnesota community, of many Minnesota communities. More and more, Somali and other immigrants are settling in our state, starting life anew.

I photographed this young boy at Faribault’s 2012 International Festival.

Oh, the sweetness of his face and those big dark eyes. I just wanted to hug him.

He possesses a soulful look beyond his young years, a depth that defies definition. I can’t pinpoint precisely what I see, but there’s something in this portrait that mesmerizes me.

Perhaps it is his childhood innocence. Trust. A certain softness. The hint of a smile. Hope.

What do you see in this boy’s face?

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of black-and-white photography March 5, 2015

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THERE’S A CERTAIN TIMELESS beauty in black-and-white images.

Monochrome equals zero distractions.

Lack of color encourages study of light and shadows and patterns.

The absence of hues calms the spirit in a way that’s almost poetic, meditative, spiritual.

This rural scene was shot along Interstate 35 somewhere south of Lakeville, Minnesota.

This rural scene was shot along Interstate 35 somewhere south of Lakeville, Minnesota.

I’ve learned that not every image deserves color, especially in a landscape mostly devoid of color like that of a Minnesota winter.

In it’s unedited state, this photo was blown-out. I almost discarded it. But then I waved the magic wand of photo editing. The muses wrote shadows across the snow like lovely lines of lyrical poetry.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A mostly snowless Minnesota landscape March 2, 2015

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MILE AFTER MILE, westbound across Minnesota, the snow cover diminished.

Near Madison Lake, Minnesota.

Near Madison Lake, Minnesota.

Except for pockets of snow in the shade of trees or buildings, most yards lay bare, dormant grass exposed.

Road and drainage ditches, typically drifted full, gaped crevices in the land.

Farm fields lie exposed in this shot along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato.

Farm fields lie exposed in this shot along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato.

Fields normally layered white in February rolled out like a stubbled black carpet. Mile after endless mile the snow cover decreased as my husband and I journeyed from Rice County through Le Sueur, Blue Earth, Nicollet and Brown counties before reaching our destination in Redwood County.

Another rural scene between Mankato and Courtland.

Another rural scene between Mankato and Courtland.

Nearly all 120 miles, the wind shoved against the van, creeping inside, chilling my feet and legs, even snugged under a patchwork throw.

The farther west we drove, the more we felt the wind in the wide open spaces, the prairie, the place of my youth. There is no wind like a prairie wind. Ceaseless. Relentless. Fearsome.

On the drive back east later that day, we spotted a column of black in the distance and considered the source of the fire.

Except, as we drew nearer, we saw dust, not smoke. Rising like a super-sized dust devil, a wind-fueled dust storm swept across bare earth. It was almost frightening to witness this storm growing in size, eroding the soil as it raced across acres of farm land.

The landscape appears more like it does in early spring rather than in the heart of a Minnesota winter. This farm place lies between Mankato and Courtland.

The landscape appears more like it does in early spring rather than in the heart of a Minnesota winter. This farm place lies between Mankato and Courtland.

In that moment, I considered how beneficial snow is in curbing erosion, in supplying moisture to the land, in maintaining balance in the landscape.

FYI: These images were shot on the morning of February 21. Shortly thereafter, my camera stopped working. Therefore I have no photos of the dust storm or the landscape beyond Courtland to the west.

My community of Faribault is deep in snow. No exposed earth here.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Friends February 27, 2015

Portrait 9: Nimo and Nasteho

Friends, Nimo, left, and Nasteho.

Friends, Nimo, left, and Nasteho.

“They assume I’m a terrorist.”

I’ll always remember that statement shared with me 2 ½ years ago by a then high school senior who asked me to photograph her and a friend at the International Festival Faribault.

Nasteho, a native of Kenya, posed with Nimo for this beautiful portrait of the pair. They were among students volunteering at the fest.

What Nasteho told me that August day in 2012 broke my heart. She’d been subjected to ongoing insults from a customer in her workplace, felt stares at the grocery store, been flipped the bird while driving. All because of the way she dressed, her skin color and her ethnicity.

“There is no respect for Somalis,” she concluded.

I couldn’t disagree with her. I’d heard the negative comments, too, about Faribault’s newest immigrants.

Despite the outright prejudice Nasteho had already endured at such a young age, she did not appear bitter or angry, only desiring of respect and understanding. She seemed wise beyond her years. Poised. Thoughtful. Well-spoken.

I recall thinking, if only those who hold disdain for Somalis could meet Nasteho. They would see her as the beautiful, young and spirited woman I photographed.

It is the personal connections that bridge differences. I believed that then. I still believe that now.

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: A pastor with prairie roots February 20, 2015

Portrait #8: Pastor Gordon

 

Portrait 8, Pastor Gordon Deuel at Little Prairie

 

This week, the beginning of Lent and Christ’s journey toward crucifixion, seems an appropriate time to feature a portrait of a pastor.

I met the Rev. Gordon Deuel several summers ago when he was still shepherding Little Prairie United Methodist Church, rural Dundas. He left in June 2013 to become the Elko New Market Campus Pastor for Lakeville-based Crossroads Church.

My introduction to this clergyman happened on a Sunday afternoon when my husband and I stopped at Little Prairie School, a former country school located kitty corner from the Little Prairie church. Pastor Gordon noticed us lingering, walked across the road and unlocked the door into the historic building.

Later, we strolled over to the church and poked around. That’s when I captured this portrait of the preacher in beautiful natural light.

While talking to Rev. Gordon, I learned that he, like me, is a native of southwestern Minnesota. He’s from Hendricks, which is about as close to South Dakota as you can get without being in it. I always feel a special kinship with prairie people. We are rooted deep in the land, appreciative of wide open spaces and big skies, fields and small towns. We don’t dismiss the prairie as the middle of nowhere, as some place to pass through en route to somewhere better. The prairie is home, whether we still live there or not.

With that commonality of place, I connected with Pastor Gordon that Sunday afternoon in August 2012.

Now, 2 ½ years later, after visiting the City of Hendricks website, I understand even more how people and place shaped the pastor. Here’s a snippet of well-crafted writing designed to draw visitors and new residents to this rural community of some 700 folks just a stone’s throw from South Dakota:

The residents of Hendricks have focused on creating a town which is a perfect place for children. Our school district is one of the best in the nation. Our weather is temperate and provides for four seasons of fun. We are well grounded in our past, as we continue to worship in a prairie church which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. We look to better our tomorrow through efforts such as our wind farm and organic farming. We believe you will find the Hendricks, Minnesota, quality of life second to none.

And I expect, as in Lake Wobegon, that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average” in this “Little Town by the Lake.”

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, published every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Lake Wobegon quote is from Minnesota writer Garrison Keillor.

 

Minnesota Faces: Layton Fossum January 16, 2015

Portrait #3: Layton Fossum, the ultimate optimist

Layton Fossum posed for me at the August 2010 Cancer Stroll.

Layton Fossum posed for me at the August 2010 Cancer Stroll.

When I met Layton Fossum 4 ½ years ago at the American Cancer Society Straight River Stroll, I looked into the face of an optimist.

The rural Northfield man, despite a difficult struggle with neck and head cancer (the words he used), was upbeat and positive, living life to the fullest.

It was obvious, from looking at him, that he’d been through a lot, that cancer had taken a physical toll. He had no facial nerves on his right side. He’d undergone reconstructive surgery on his drooping face. He’d lost the hearing in his reshaped right ear. Gold weighted his right eyelid.

But Layton didn’t dwell on any of this.

He lived. And he lived a good life. A joyful life.

Layton died on Monday at age 52, losing his long battle with cancer. He will be buried on Saturday.

But his positivity lives on. In condolences posted on the Benson & Langehough Funeral Home website, friend after friend writes of an upbeat man of faith with a beautiful smile, a great sense of humor, a generous and enthusiastic spirit, the type of person we all wish we could be, but likely aren’t.

My favorite comment comes from the folks at Full Service Battery & Salvage in Farmington. (Layton collected and sold scrap metal besides working numerous other jobs.) They wrote:

Layton was our favorite customer. His positive energy always blasted through our doors like hope! You couldn’t be down with Layton around. We will miss him!

That we should all blast through life with hope, like Layton.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling