Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The struggle September 16, 2019

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Those words emblazoned across the back of her red-white-and-blue plaid shirt grabbed my attention. But what did they mean? I assumed the phrase likely referenced immigration issues given the cultural event where I spotted the statement.

But not 100 percent certain, I approached the young woman and asked. The struggle is real refers to struggles with mental health, she said. She battles depression, but is doing well right now, crediting her family for their support. We didn’t talk much. I hugged her, offered words of encouragement and thought how bold of her to publicly voice those words: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I wonder if anyone else asked her about the message she wore.

Those words seem so fitting for those who live with mental illness. Think about it for a minute or ten. Say you or a family member are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Do you struggle? Do you struggle to get up in the morning, to find a job or go to work, to engage with others? Do you struggle with stigma, with the all too common belief that you can simply snap yourself out of whatever? Do you struggle to find a mental healthcare provider? (There’s a severe shortage here in Minnesota.) Do you struggle to get the meds you need when insurance companies deny coverage? Do you struggle?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

Thankfully, that struggle is becoming more visible as attitudes change and voices rise. Support groups, such as those offered through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bring hope and help. But we can do better. We can, as friends and family and communities and churches, show more care for those affected by mental health issues. I mean, how often have you seen a fundraiser to help individuals and families dealing with financial hardships resulting from mental illnesses? Do we send get well cards to individuals who are suffering from a mental illness? Do we bring them or their supporting families hotdishes (otherwise known as casseroles in other parts of the country)? Do we surround and love and support just as we would someone with cancer, for example?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

 

 

That leads me to the book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote. A professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, she will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 17, at the Owatonna Public Library. I only learned of her book a week ago and sped-read through this detailed historic look at efforts to reform mental health hospitals in Minnesota decades ago.

 

A building on the campus of the former Minnesota Asylum for the Insane, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2013.

This is not an easy read. It’s emotionally difficult to read of patients who were abused—confined to straightjackets, subjected to lobotomies, tied to toilets, fed gruel, denied very basic human rights… But to read of the Unitarian Church activists, the politicians (notably then-Governor Luther Youngdahl), journalists, healthcare professionals and others who cared and fought for “the forgotten people” also brings hope. They effected change. Yet, some of their work was undone when new politicians took office and societal attitudes shifted. The politics referenced in Foote’s book made me realize how little things change.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

Foote’s book will be of special interest to people in my community of Faribault, once home to a state-run facility known as The Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded. In late 1946, a grand jury convened in my county of Rice to investigate alleged abuses at the Faribault school. Jurors found the misuse allegations to be unwarranted, contradicting findings of other outside investigations. Foote’s research is extensive, her book packed with details about the multi-layered challenges of reforming mental health care in Minnesota.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. As much today as yesterday.

 

FYI:

Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, an invaluable resource.

Visit the blog, Penny Wilson Writes, for an honest look at “the struggle,” including a resource list.

Read this book: Troubled Minds—Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: Food art with a literary twist March 30, 2019

The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck inspired this cookie sheet sized gingerbread man.

 

BOOKS INSPIRED FOOD ART on Saturday at the annual Buckham Memorial Library Edible Books Festival & Competition.

 

A staff entry based on The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

 

From simple

 

Another detailed family entry based on one of my favorite childhood books.

 

to extraordinarily detailed,

 

The Three Pigs inspired another entry.

 

That Three Pigs entry judged most humorous in the families category.

 

the creativity of the book-based entries always impresses me.

 

The Jungle Book inspired The People’s Choice Award.

 

A close-up of the jungle.

 

The entire The Jungle Book entry.

 

Rules call for artwork to be made only of edible materials, although the entries are meant to be viewed only, not eaten. All must represent a book or a literary theme.

 

Based on the book Prime Cut by Diane Mott Davidson.

 

 

 

Staff entries.

 

This year 14 units—most created by families and the rest by individuals and City of Faribault staff—comprised the festival.

 

 

I especially love that families work together to create their literary masterpieces. While I photographed the event, I watched participating families arrive with parents, grandparents and siblings and pose for photos.

 

One of the many awards given.

 

Based on the book The Hunger Games.

 

A Friends of the Library volunteer served book-themed cake to guests.

 

Anytime kids get excited about books and the library is, in my opinion, a win. To read and to love reading opens the doors to learning and growing your world, your education, your imagination. And your creativity.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The compelling memoir of an escapee from North Korea November 20, 2018

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SEVERAL DAYS AGO I STARTED and finished A River in Darkness—One Man’s Escape from North Korea. Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir, written in 2000 and translated in 2017, is a compelling book, the type of story you want to stay up late reading.

It was a fitting read right before Thanksgiving. Why would I say that given the content which is simultaneously revealing and absolutely heartbreaking? It is not easy to read about an oppressive government, corruption, propaganda, starvation, death, discrimination and so many other horrors.

But it is a book that needs to be read by someone like me. Someone who grew up without much but still had enough. Someone like me who is the daughter of a Korean War veteran. Someone like me who pursued a journalism degree. Someone like me who can write and speak freely. Someone like me who lives in a free country.

I needed to read Ishikawa’s statement: “The penalty for thinking was death.” To me, that proved the most powerful line in the memoir. I cannot imagine feeling that you cannot even think freely.

Upon finishing the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the freedoms I have. But I also felt an overwhelming sense of grief for those people who live under oppressive regimes. Still today. This book opened my eyes wide as political rhetoric runs rampant.

TELL ME: Have you read this memoir and, if so, how did you react?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of books, a spotlight on several Little Free Libraries October 22, 2018

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I was delighted to find a Little Free Library near my son’s apartment when I visited him in Somerville, Massachusetts, in May of 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHENEVER I SPOT A LITTLE FREE LIBRARY, I feel a deep appreciation for the stewards of these mini libraries.

The ability to read, as I see it, is the foundation of learning. But to read, you need access to books. Not everyone has that, whether by geographical location or lack of money for books.

So those individuals who place a Little Free Library in their yards (or elsewhere) and then stock and restock shelves have my gratitude. They realize the importance of easy 24/7 access to books.

 

The LFL Todd and Susan Bol installed outside the community-owned Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

I grew up in a rural Minnesota community without a library. I understand what it’s like to be without library books. But thanks to Little Free Library founder Todd Bol, my hometown of Vesta has had a small public library since July 1, 2012. A Little Free Library. Todd gifted that to this small farming town. I am grateful.

 

A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa.

 

Recently I spotted two particularly distinct Little Free Libraries, one in the heart of downtown Decorah, one of my favorite northeastern Iowa cities. The library sits in a public plaza next to Oneota Community Food Co-op. That it’s barn-shaped seems especially fitting in a primarily agricultural state. A red barn remains an iconic symbol of rural life.

I grabbed a hardcover copy of James Patterson’s Double Cross with every intention of starting to read the book while in Decorah. That never happened and now the book sits on my to-read pile back here in Minnesota. First I need to finish The Girls of Ames—A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow. The national bestseller published in 2009. The book holds special interest for me given one of the women taught journalism at Faribault High School and served as advisor to the student newspaper when my second daughter was co-editor. It’s an excellent read. And quite revealing.

But I digress.

 

 

A variety of books for all ages fill an eye-catching LFL posted at 805 State Street in Waseca. It’s designed as a TARDIS, the featured mode of transportation on the BBC sci-fi television show “Doctor Who.” I know nothing about the show. To me, the TARDIS resembles a blue phone booth.

 

 

The stewards of the Waseca TARDIS do a great job of visually promoting the LFL with the library now seasonally decorated for autumn and Halloween. Inside, they’ve also stocked Halloween-themed books. They seem to have a lot of fun with their LFL. I expect given its location along one of Waseca’s main arteries that the library is well-used.

 

 

What kid wouldn’t be drawn to a mini TARDIS? Or adult for that matter?

 

 

 

I love when folks run with the LFL idea and get especially creative, all for the purpose of getting books into the hands of others.

 

A cat watched as I photographed the TARDIS LFL.

 

FYI: This post is dedicated to Todd Bol, who founded the Little Free Library movement and who died on October 18 of pancreatic cancer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering with gratitude Todd Bol, founder of the Little Free Library October 18, 2018

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The Redwood Falls Gazette editor Troy Krause, right, interviews Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library in Vesta in early July 2012.  Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

TODD BOL DIED ON THURSDAY from pancreatic cancer.

 

The beautiful handcrafted LFL donated to my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

I met him briefly in July 2012 when he drove three hours from Hudson, Wisconsin, to my hometown on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He delivered a Little Free Library, fulfilling my life-long dream for a library in Vesta.

 

The team that worked to bring a Little Free Library to Vesta includes Dorothy Marquardt, left, and Karen Lemcke, representing the sponsoring Vesta Commercial Club, LFL co-founder Todd Bol and me (holding a copy of a poetry anthology I donated). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012 by Randy Helbling.

 

I shall be forever grateful to this visionary’s gift of a mini library and books. My mom used that LFL. So did extended family and others in and around the small farming community. Folks operating the Vesta Cafe expanded the library, placing shelves inside the restaurant for more books. Locals tended the outdoor library Bol installed near the cafe entrance.

 

The LFL Todd and Susan Bol installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Now, all these years later, the founder of the Little Free Library leaves a world-wide legacy of literacy with 75,000-plus officially registered libraries in 88 countries.

 

The books Todd Bol and I placed inside Vesta’s LFL on July 1, 2012. He brought books donated by several Twin Cities publishers and I brought books from my personal collection. I have since collected and donated an additional 40 books. A retired librarian from nearby Wabasso donated eight bags of books, primarily mysteries and the cafe managers also donated books. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

And one of those is in my hometown because one man cared enough about a small town in the middle of nowhere to deliver the seed plant for the Small Towns Minnesota LFL Movement. Because of Todd’s generosity, his kindness, his love of books, my hometown has a library. As a lover of books, of the written word, I am grateful.

 

One of many Little Free Libraries in Faribault, where I’ve lived since 1982. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

TELL ME: Are there Little Free Libraries in your community? I’d like to hear your LFL stories in honor of Todd Bol.

FYI: Click here to read the original post I wrote about Todd’s visit to my hometown to install the LFL.

PLEASE CHECK BACK to see a memorable LFL I spotted recently in Waseca.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Laura fans: Walnut Grove pageant needs financial help after flash flooding July 13, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the pageant site along the banks of Plum Creek taken several years ago..

 

WALNUT GROVE AND LAURA INGALLS WILDER. The two are synonymous. Wilder brought notoriety to this small southwestern Minnesota prairie community with her Little House books. The town embraces the author in its summer-time productions of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. Staged in an outdoor amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek, the pageant brings Wilder’s prairie stories to life. It’s a top-notch show that I’ve seen twice.

 

Plum Creek floods the pageant grounds following torrential rain. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

But now the Wilder Pageant Committee needs financial help to deal with damage caused by early July flash floods that ravaged southwestern Minnesota, including the creek-side performance site. Shows were canceled because of the flood. Volunteers worked hard to clean up the mess so the show could reopen on July 12 with added performances.

 

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are featured on a mural in the heart of Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love that about small towns—the coming together to get a job done. The people of Walnut Grove understand the value of Laura Ingalls Wilder to the local economy. And they are determined that the Big Flood on the Prairie will not stop the show despite damage to sets, costumes, sound and light equipment, and site access roads.

 

Flood clean-up. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

A gofundme page has been set up to help pay for maintenance to aging and flood-damaged facilities. The goal is $30,000. Please consider donating and spread the word.

 

Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

I am a mega fan of Wilder’s descriptive writing. That she lived in a dugout on the banks of Plum Creek in my native Redwood County, on my beloved prairie, endears me even more to this author.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To all the wonderful folks in Walnut Grove and surrounding area, thank you for your tireless efforts to welcome Laura fans from around the world to your community. Even after a devastating flood.

 

Period attire is common among young Laura fans visiting Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

CLICK HERE to reach the gofundme page and learn more.

NOTE: The Ingalls dugout site is temporarily closed due to flooding.

BUT the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove is open.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling