Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Uncle Harold April 24, 2018

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Harold Kletscher

MY UNCLE HAROLD died on Saturday. Unexpectedly. He was eighty-four. Even though he lived a long life, the length of years never seems enough for loved ones. The loss is no less difficult.

Harold, like two other uncles, lived within a mile of the farm place where I grew up in southwestern Minnesota. He was just always around. At church on Sunday mornings. Visiting the farm. But most often, working at the gas station he owned and operated along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Vesta. The business long ago closed.

In January 2014, I interviewed my uncle and wrote about his memories and my memories of Harold’s Service. I am thankful I took the time to listen to my uncle’s stories of doing business in a community of some 350. These businesses, once the backbone of small town economies, are dwindling. It’s important that we document the stories of these entrepreneurs as much for historical reference as for examples of determination, hard work and service. Today I direct you to that post (click here), as I think of my beloved uncle—husband, father, grandfather, businessman, city employee, church janitor, small town city councilman, volunteer and man of faith.

I am fortunate to come from a large extended family of many aunts, uncles and cousins. Nearly all lived within close geographical proximity back in my growing up years in Redwood County, Minnesota. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries together. These days, with my generation of cousins and our families now spread well beyond the prairie, we see each other only once a year at the annual Kletscher Family Reunion. Or at funerals.

There is comfort in memories and in the closeness of extended family. We have a legacy of faith passed from our great grandparents. They were among founding members of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. Funerals for my grandparents, father, and other uncles were held there. This week we gather again at St. John’s, to remember Uncle Harold. Loved by many. And now in his eternal home.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Biancabella, books & bliss at Becky’s bookshop October 30, 2017

 

PRINCESS BIANCABELLA first drew me to the business along Milaca’s main drag. Stretched out atop carpet next to stacks of books in the front window display area, the calico cat appeared blissfully content. Not even my photographic efforts disturbed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene delighted me—this bookstore cat in one window, a vintage typewriter in another and a creative OPEN sign crafted from a book and propped outside Bexter Book & Copy.

 

 

It’s not often anymore that you find an independent bookstore, especially in a town the size of Milaca with not quite 3,000 residents. This shop, which opened about a year ago, anchors a corner of the downtown business district in an historic building. And it appears the owner, Rebecca Rittenour, is working hard to make her business a success. She not only sells new and used books, but also offers hometown copy services and engages her patrons via a Mystery Book Club, creative in-store displays and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I especially like her artistic vignettes that encourage folks to shop local. I didn’t speak much with Becky other than to greet her, ask for permission to photograph and praise her store. But I got the sense, both from wandering the bookshop and from reading the Bexter website and Facebook page, that she truly holds a passion for books and for sharing her love and knowledge with others. That’s always the benefit of shopping local—excellent customer service from a passionate shopkeeper.

 

 

 

 

Milaca is fortunate to have an independent bookstore with books tucked into open drawers, filed onto shelves and showcased in artful ways.

 

 

On my quick stop in town, this bookshop charmed me with its vivid chartreuse walls, homey character and resident princess cat.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? If yes, what delights you and draws you to this bookshop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The things you learn about Minnesota prisons while on the road October 25, 2017

 

ONCE UPON A TIME, beginning in the late 1870s, inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater, built agricultural equipment. Through the years they crafted threshing machines, hay rakes, barge wagons, manure spreaders and more.

 

 

This proved news to me. But Randy noted that as we followed a tractor pulling a gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13 on Sunday afternoon. He pegged the wagon as 1970s vintage prisoner made.

 

 

Online research confirmed Randy’s claim in articles published in Farm Collector magazine. According to those stories, prisoners built ag equipment until 2006.

 

 

Today inmates within Minnesota’s correctional system—including right here in my community of Faribault—produce products through the prison system’s MINNCOR Industries. Those range from residential and office furniture to clothing to printed materials to cabinetry and more.

 

Prisoner made furniture at Buckham Memorial Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.

 

When I visit my local library, I can sit on inmate built easy chairs or loveseats, some upholstered in knock-knock joke fabric with this favorite prisoner joke:

How do prisoners make phone calls?

With cell phones.

 

 

Much has changed since the days of building manure spreaders…and gravity boxes

 

 

as time passes in the rearview mirror of prison life.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A first in Minnesota, a meat vending machine in Ellendale October 19, 2017

Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale is co-owned by Donnavon Eaker and her daughter, Rachael Lee. Steve, married to Donnavon, died in 2006. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

YOU CAN BUY candy, snacks, sandwiches, pop and more from a vending machine. Ditto for renting movies and getting cash. Now a small southeastern Minnesota meat market is offering its award-winning smoked and cured meat products to customers via a vending machine.

 

The Ellendale Centennial Mural along Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I couldn’t quite believe this when I heard a radio spot promoting the newly-installed meat vending machine outside Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna. But there it was, documented on Steve’s Facebook page and promoted as the first of its kind in Minnesota and second in the U.S. The machine comes from Germany.

 

Smokey Acres is the in-house label for Steve’s meats. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Smokey Acres…Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

An artsy window display at Steve’s promotes its fresh cut meat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Installed last week, the vending machine seems like a smart move on the part of the Ellendale market, a family run business for more than 40 years. The shop can’t be open all the time, frustrating consumers who today seemingly want 24/7 access to Steve’s products. Now happy customers can come anytime day or night for beef sticks, cheese curds and more, yes, even bacon. Just bring your debit or credit card; the machine doesn’t accept cash or Ebt cards.

 

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

This meat vending machine is creating quite the buzz in this community of nearly 700 where you’ll also find an old-fashioned grocery store—Lerberg’s Foods—worth visiting.

 

Steve’s is one of those small town meat markets that draws customers both far and wide for its quality products. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

While Steve’s claims their refrigerated meat vending machine as the first in Minnesota, some 100 miles away to the north in Hudson, Wisconsin, RJ’s Meats installed one earlier this year.

 

TELL ME: What do you think of this idea?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Closed, much to my disappointment July 10, 2017

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SOMETIMES IT’S JUST too hot to do business…apparently.

 

Photographed last week in downtown Elysian, Minnesota, when the temp hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Pop goes the love May 16, 2017

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I’M SENTIMENTAL. I appreciate receiving greeting cards and handwritten notes and letters. There’s something about pen put to paper that conveys thoughts, feelings, emotions better than a text or an email. Perhaps it’s the writer in me. Or the traditionalist.

 

 

When I opened a Mother’s Day card from my second daughter, I actually gasped in amazement. And delight. Miranda purchased a Lovepop card, a work of sculpted art.

 

 

If you are a fan of the television show Shark Tank, then you likely know about this Boston-based card company. Two young entrepreneurs started this business that creates cards described as “intricate 3D paper sculptures designed…on cutting edge software and then hand-crafted in the Asian art form of sliceform kirigami.”

Simply put, these are pop-up cards that WOW you as works of art.

 

A patch of daisies. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Miranda took care in choosing the right card design for me. Daisies are one of my favorite flowers, reflecting the simplicity of my life-style and my appreciation for nature. Perfect. My daughter knows me well.

 

My daughter Miranda and me.

 

The giving of this card was made even better by the delivery method. Miranda handed the Lovepop to me Sunday morning. I can’t recall the last time my daughter, who lives 5 1/2 hours away in eastern Wisconsin, was with me on Mother’s Day. That makes this card even more dear, for the memories now connected to it.

TELL ME: What’s one of the most memorable greeting cards you’ve received?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Part II from La Crosse: The impressive Pearl Street Books March 23, 2017

The tiled entry to Pearl Street Books reveals its history as the home of Arenz Shoe Company, founded in La Crosse and once housed at 323 – 327 Pearl Street. The La Crosse shoe store once boasted eight stores in Wisconsin and Iowa. Today only one, a fifth generation family-owned Arenz Shoes, remains open in nearby Sparta, Wisconsin. 

 

FIRST I NOTICED the sprawling oak and the organic shoe store message of Quality to the Roots embedded in the entry way tile.

 

 

Then I glanced to the window display and the heart shaped note of appreciation purposely placed among earthy books.

 

 

Both drew me inside Pearl Street Books as if I really need anything to get me inside a bookstore. I don’t.

 

An overview of the bookstore taken from the second floor and looking toward the front.

 

Ladders slide along the built-in towering shelves allowing access to the books.

 

Chairs scattered between shelves invite shoppers to sit and peruse books.

 

But I’ve never been in a book shop like Pearl Street Books in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin. I walked inside and then just stood there for a minute taking in the scene before me.

 

The wood floor lends a signature vintage look to Pearl Street Books.

 

A Minnesota mom snapped a photo of her daughter and I asked to do likewise. Shortly thereafter the daughter climbed much higher and was kindly asked to come down for safety reasons.

 

This inviting section houses kids’ books, new and used.

 

From the worn wood floor that speaks of age and history to the ladders that slide along side shelves packed with books to the massive quantity of books, this place impresses. The shopkeeper working the day I visited said 55,000 volumes fill this store. Now I don’t know how that compares to your average mass market book retailer. But for an indie bookstore, I’d guess that’s a significant number beyond the norm.

 

Just another overview from upstairs.

 

This beautiful stairway leads to the upper floors, including a lounge space on the second floor for book groups or just a spot to hang out.

 

You could spend hours here…

 

Pearl Street Books, on its Facebook page, bills itself as a specialty used, new, collectible and antique bookstore that “can procure almost anything.”

 

My husband purchased this updated adult version of the Dick and Jane books.

 

 

Pearl Street Books offers some additional merchandise such as these bumper stickers.

 

Based on the extensive inventory, I believe that statement. And, yes, I bought a book and so did my husband.

TELL ME: Have you ever visited Pearl Street Books or a similar bookstore?

FYI: Please check back for more stories as I continue my series from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Click here to read my first story.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Doublewide, where everybody probably knows your name February 24, 2017

The Doublewide is home of the signature The Doozy Bloody Mary.

The Doublewide is home of the signature The Doozy Bloody Mary.

DOWN THE HILL from Saint Nicholas Catholic Church and along the street named Saint Joseph rests a doublewide trailer. No one lives there. Rather, the doublewide is The Doublewide, a popular bar in Elko New Market.

Not that I’ve ever stepped inside the bar. I’ve only photographed the exterior and checked out the business website and Facebook page.

The bar hosted a vintage snowmobile show and beer bash in January.

The bar hosted a vintage snowmobile show and beer bash in January.

Why bother? Because I’m interested. And what I learned indicates The Doublewide is more than just a place to grab a beer and shoot a game of pool. It’s a place for the community to come together whether for a meat raffle; entertainment in the form of BINGO, live music or karaoke; a vintage snowmobile show; a combo fashion show-wine tasting; open mic night; bean bag league; and more.

 

the-doublewide-bar-67-side-view

 

It seems fitting that the bar is situated along a street named after a patron saint of working people. I’m inclined to think that good hard-working Minnesotans are drawn to The Doublewide for the sense of community, of caring for one another.

TELL ME: Is there a Doublewide in your community?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Noticing details at Faribault’s historic woolen mill February 23, 2017

The Faribault Woolen Mill sits on the bank of the Cannon River.

The Faribault Woolen Mill sits on the bank of the Cannon River. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SNUGGED ALONG THE BANKS of the Cannon River in Faribault, the 150-year-old Faribault Woolen Mill stands as a noted local landmark and a nationally-recognized producer and purveyor of high quality wool blankets and more.

Faribault Woolen Mill blankets/throws are artfully hung on a simple pipe.

Faribault Woolen Mill blankets/throws are artfully hung on a simple pipe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In recent years, with the acquisition of the briefly-closed mill by successful and marketing savvy Minnesota businessmen, the mill has experienced growth and significant national exposure. Many times I’ve picked up a magazine to see the mill’s products featured.

In the upper left corner of the mill, the sign unnoticed by me until several days ago.

In the upper left corner of the mill, the sign unnoticed by me until several days ago.

What I’d not noticed until recently was a faded sign along the back side of the historic mill, the side visible from North Alexander Park. My view of the mill complex is typically the public side motorists see while driving by on Second Avenue.

The back of the mill as photographed from the North Link Trail. The mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. Several years ago the city of Faribault received a $300,000 Minnesota Historical Cultural Heritage grant for rehab of the smokestack.

The back of the mill as photographed from the North Link Trail. The mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. Several years ago the city of Faribault received a $300,000 Minnesota Historical Cultural Heritage grant for rehab of the smokestack.

But this time I was walking, following the North Link Trail that runs through the park and is part of a city-wide recreational trails system. I paused to appreciate the inky blue waters of the Cannon on a brilliantly sunny afternoon when my gaze drifted to the mill. There I focused on white sign advertising BLANKETS. Faded, indiscernible lettering hovered over that key word.

A replica of an original sign is now in the Woolen Mill's historic display area.

A replica of an original sign is now in the Woolen Mill’s historic display area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I wondered how, in my 35 years living in the area, I failed to notice the vintage signage. Sometimes familiarity of place creates a lack of visual awareness. We become so accustomed to our usual surroundings that we fail to truly see. And to appreciate.

TELL ME: Have you ever felt the same upon discovering something (what?) in your community that’s been there forever but you didn’t see?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My appreciation for small town hardware stores January 13, 2017

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

IF YOU GREW UP in rural Minnesota like I did, you likely hold fond memories of the local hardware store.

Two hardware stores once served my hometown of Vesta, a farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. While I remember Joe Engel’s Hardware store as the place to buy rolls of perforated caps for my cap gun, my father shopped there, or a few doors down at Marquardt’s Hardware, for all his hardware needs. Like bulk nails and screws stashed in cubbies, the merchandise weighed and parceled into brown paper bags.

I remember, too, the worn wood floors, the narrow aisles, the old fashioned screen doors that banged shut.

To this day, I find myself drawn to the hardware stores that still exist in many small towns. They represent a connection to my past, to simpler days, to outstanding customer service, to a Main Street necessity. So I photograph them, usually the exteriors.

Nothing says "small town" like a hardware store, including this Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha.

Nothing says “small town” like a hardware store, including Hill’s Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

One of my hardware store images—that of Hill’s Hardware Hank in Wabasha—will soon become part of a renovated “Our World” gallery at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul. The photo will grace signage for a mini town that includes a hardware store. Hill’s inspired the facade of the replica hardware store in which children can play. The updated exhibit opens this spring.

I am honored to have my photo displayed at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. I hope it inspires others to appreciate the value of hardware stores in rural Minnesota. They are as important today as they were when I was growing up in the 1960s. In Owatonna, Arrow Ace Hardware plans to relocate into a new and much larger space by next Christmas, more than doubling its size to some 11,000 square feet. That’s encouraging. There’s still great value in local hardware stores.

TELL ME: Do you shop in hardware stores? If yes, why? Are they still of value in today’s marketplace?  Or what are your hardware store memories? Let’s talk hardware stores.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling