Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The nuances of Northfield keep me returning August 5, 2020

Beautiful historic buildings grace downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

 

NORTHFIELD. There’s so much to appreciate about this southern Minnesota community with the slogan of Cows, Colleges and Contentment. Cows honor the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Colleges reference the two resident colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. And contentment frames the feeling in this riverside town rich in natural beauty, history, and a thriving business community and arts scene.

 

A view of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield from the flower-edged pedestrian bridge connecting riverside walkways.

 

Every time I walk along the River Walk aside the Cannon River or meander through the downtown on Division Street, I am struck by the sense of artistic vibrancy. The sense of care in this community. Pride. Hometown loyalty.

 

The display windows of Content Bookstore grab attention in vivid hues. I once participated in a poetry reading here.

 

I see this in shop windows with displays that are creative and eye-catching.

 

Poetry is stamped into sidewalks throughout the downtown district.

 

I read this in words imprinted in cement as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project.

 

One of several musicians performing last Friday evening at The Contented Cow Pub & Wine Bar.

 

I hear this in music performed outdoors at eateries.

 

Art showcased in the exterior lower streetside window of the Northfield Arts Guild.

 

I view this in colorful art.

 

At the Northfield Public Library, this sculpture is changed up to promote the U.S. Census.

 

Bold art.

 

You’ll find plenty of coffee shops in Northfield.

 

And a hometown bakery, Quality Bakery and Coffee Shop.

 

In neon lights marking businesses.

 

A personal note posted in a business that has closed.

 

In publicly posted gratitude.

 

Banners honor the Northfield High School graduates of 2020.

 

And banners that show each individual matters.

 

Novelty tees displayed in the front window of the Northfield Historical Society reference the 1876 bank robbery by the James-Younger Gang.

 

Photographed through the front window of MakeShift Accessories, a handcrafted bracelet.

 

Temporarily closed because of COVID-19, Antiques of Northfield is one of my favorite stops.

 

Northfield draws me back, as a writer and a photographer, to notice nuances of place. The rushing water. The home-grown art. The aged buildings in this community where locals, in 1876, defeated the James-Younger Gang during a raid at the First National Bank.

 

No longer the First National Bank, this historic building houses Merchants Bank. The original First National (site of the bank raid) sits across the street and houses the Northfield Historical Society and Museum.

 

Northfield is simply one of those towns when, each time I visit, I leave feeling better for having spent time there.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Don’t be an outlaw in Northfield: Protect the herd August 2, 2020

In the front display window of a downtown Northfield, Minnesota, business.

 

SUPERHEROES mask up.

 

The image represents the James-Younger Gang.

 

As do outlaws.

 

The reason the Rare Pair gives for wearing face masks.

 

And those who love others.

 

“Protect the herd” plays off the city’s “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” slogan. Northfield is home to Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges.

 

When I walked through downtown Northfield—the place of Cows, Colleges and Contentment—on Friday evening, I intentionally looked for signage on Minnesota’s new face mask mandate. This college city did not disappoint. I found signs ranging from serious to humorous.

 

More humor in a COVID-19 sign that relates to safe practices outdoors.

 

I especially welcomed those that made me laugh, something we all need in these days of living with COVID-19, when even leaving our homes sometimes seems like venturing into the Wild Wild West.

 

Site of the famous bank raid, now a museum.

 

Tour the museum and learn the story of the bank raid.

 

Northfield Historical Society face mask humor..

 

At the Northfield Historical Society, the historians draw on Northfield’s claim to fame—the defeat of the James-Younger Gang during an 1876 robbery of the First National Bank—to get across the mask mandate message. Please Don’t Be an Outlaw, states the message on museum doors.

 

A message posted on the front door of Antiques of Northfield.

 

At Antiques of Northfield, a personal note from Carole about the store’s temporary closure made me simultaneously laugh at her comment and then reflect. Too many of our seniors have died as a result of contracting COVID-19.

 

The sign on the door of The Contented Cow, a British style pub in downtown Northfield.

 

Some mask signs are more straightforward, like at The Contented Cow, with a please added to the request.

 

This Northfield business wants to stay open.

 

At a home furnishings and floor covering store, they want customers to mask up so businesses can stay open, as good a reason as any for masks.

 

The #1 reason to mask up.

 

I appreciate, too, the signage that states the clear and obvious scientific reason for wearing a face mask during a global pandemic: for our health & yours.

 

For those who forgot their masks… Note that a new Minnesota state law went into effect on August 1, raising the age to buy tobacco to 21. These signs were photographed on July 31.

 

At the tobacco shop, customers can even get a free mask inside the store.

 

Customers can’t possibly miss all the signage at this Northfield business.

 

Whatever it takes. We all need to get the message loud and clear that masks help stop the spread of this virus. Yeah, they’re uncomfortable and hot and diminish social interaction. But we can manage those minor inconveniences because, you know, this is something simple we can do to show our care for others and protect each other.

 

Just do it. Wearing a mask is required in indoor public places in Minnesota.

 

And masks are mandatory in Minnesota, along with 32 others states (as of this writing).

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A snapshot of downtown Elysian, Minnesota July 1, 2020

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Rural Minnesota, somewhere between Elysian and Faribault.

 

IF YOU GAVE ME THE CHOICE of visiting a big city or a small town, I would always choose rural over urban. In small towns, I feel the most comfortable, the most rooted. I grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota, on a farm a mile south of Vesta, current population around 300.

 

On a back country gravel road, we met this farmer who had been raking hay.

 

Because of that upbringing, I find myself drawn to the countryside and to small towns. To explore. To photograph. To see for myself what defines these rural places.

 

That same tractor in the side passenger mirror. I love following gravel roads.

 

On a recent Sunday, Randy and I did a day trip along back country roads, eventually landing in nearby Elysian, population around 600. We picnicked in a lakeside park shelter before driving downtown. There we walked on a beautiful June afternoon, taking in the aged buildings and sharing our thoughts about them.

 

Once the home of the Elysian Co-op Creamery.

 

Sometimes we have grand ideas. Like turning the “for lease” former creamery into a brewery. Because, well, we like craft beer and the building looks like an ideal fit for a brewery in this community that draws summer visitors to area lakes.

 

This old garage still stands strong.

 

One of my favorite buildings in Elysian is Pribyl Bro’s Garage, its current use unknown to me. But I love the look of this place, which reminds me of a winery in Cannon Falls. There’s another idea.

 

If you’re interested in joining the local volunteer fire department…

 

Further down the street, we paused to read signage posted on the windows of City Hall. I’m always drawn to these local postings, which reveal a lot about a town. I focused on the notice seeking firefighters. Minutes earlier we’d watched the fire department use a tanker truck to fill a residential above-ground swimming pool.

 

A rare outdoor public pay phone.

 

Next, we spotted an outdoor public pay phone, seldom seen in this day of cellphones. It stands outside a stunning mini brick building. (I noticed a lot of brick buildings in Elysian.) Randy pulled out his cell and dialed the number listed on the pay phone, thinking it would ring. It didn’t.

 

Just one more shot to show the small town setting.

 

Then he grew weary of waiting for me. “How many pictures do you have to take of a phone?” he asked. Clearly he doesn’t think like a photographer excited about discovering something not often seen. But, he had a point. I framed a few more images and moved on.

 

Gracing the window boxes at a realty office, if I remember correctly.

 

We paused on a street corner, me to photograph window boxes crammed with Fourth of July themed décor and flowers. Elysian typically hosts a big holiday celebration. But this year’s events are scaled down to fireworks at 10 pm on Friday, July 3, and the Fourth of July Boat & Pontoon Parade around Lake Francis from noon until 1 pm on July 4. The town sits along Lake Francis. City of Elysian and Lake Francis residents can join the parade, which offers generous cash prizes for creative decorating and enthusiasm by boaters. Plus, the Elysian Area Chamber of Commerce has sponsored a Light-Up July Fourth event encouraging residents and businesses to decorate their homes, businesses, trees, shrubs and more with red, white and blue lights. Judging is Friday with cash prizes awarded.

 

Many small towns have corner bars, so it seems.

 

From those window boxes, I shifted my camera lens to Fischer’s Corner Bar.

 

There are a lot of old brick buildings in downtown Elysian.

 

And then I swung my Canon to the right and Pamela’s Pet Shop. Probably a bank at one time, we decided, before turning to retrace our route back to the van.

 

Now that hair salons have reopened in Minnesota, I expect this place is busy.

 

From across the street, I stopped to photograph Trailside Trims, appreciating the bicycles propped out front with flower baskets, a nod to the many bikers who pass through and stop in Elysian while using the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. Elysian is the midpoint for this 39-mile paved recreational trail running between Faribault and Mankato.

 

I don’t advocate defacing public or private property. But I do find graffiti interesting.

 

And, finally, I paused one final time. To study the many names etched into the brick of Pribyl Bro’s Garage. Morgan, whoever she is, wins with her name appearing most often. By writing her name here, Morgan is now part of the history of this place, this small town.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In the spirit of the holiday, I’m grateful for local businesses December 20, 2019

Urns filled with greenery add a holiday flair to the historic Bachrach building in downtown Faribault.

 

IF YOU’RE OLD SCHOOL—and that would be me—you appreciate homegrown brick-and-mortar businesses. These are the places that make our communities unique, the places that offer excellent customer service, the places that connect us as people, the places that boost our local economies.

 

Faribault Print Shop offers lots of options and promotes shopping local with the I GET IT! in Faribault campaign.

 

I can walk into the local hardware store to a greeting of “What can I help you find?” I can walk into a local third-generation family shoe store, be greeted by name, get my feet measured, shoes fitted. I can walk into a local gallery and chat it up with other creatives. People I know by name.

 

The only Grinch you will find in downtown Faribault is this painted one.

 

I love this about my community of Faribault. The interaction between business owners and customers. The feeling that I matter, as an individual as much as a potential customer.

 

In its window display this December, Heartman Insurance honors the Olympia Cafe, once housed in the firm’s building.

 

Historic buildings line Central Avenue in Faribault.

 

I love, too, the historic buildings that define our downtown and the care most property owners take in maintaining those structures.

 

At the Cheese Cave, windows promote the cheese sold inside, including bleu cheeses made and aged in Faribault.

 

Keepers Antique Shop always does an exceptional job with window displays, any time of the year.

 

On the antique shop door.

 

I love how, this time of year, businesses spread holiday cheer through creative window displays, encouraged by an annual competition.

 

An assortment of art in the front window of The Upper East Side Gallery.

 

Not everything here is perfect, of course. Nowhere is. There are vacant eyesore storefronts, negative attitudes still about immigrants who call downtown home (although that seems to be improving), perceived problems with parking…

 

 

But, overall, Faribault frames a positive image in a place I’ve called home for 37 years.

FYI: For another shop local option, check out the Solstice Market from 1 – 4 p.m. Saturday, December 21, at Keepsake Cidery, rural Dundas. Styled after outdoor European markets, the event will feature bonfires, grilling and 20-plus vendors from the Cannon Valley region vending their wares/food/creations inside a heated tent. The cidery is open from noon – 8 p.m.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

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Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Downtown Sleepy Eye: A glimpse of small town character August 20, 2019

Just east of Sleepy Eye on U.S. Highway 14. That’s Christensen Farms headquarters to the right.

 

SMALL TOWNS, like cities, possess character. Each is unique. No matter how many rural communities I visit or how often I tour the same town, I discover something new. It takes more than a precursory glance to truly appreciate a community. Too often people dismiss small towns as places to simply pass through when traveling from Point A to Point B. But these communities are much more. And to see that requires pulling off the highway, parking your vehicle and exploring.

 

Agriculture anchors the small towns of southwestern Minnesota.

 

On a recent drive to southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Sleepy Eye, which is west of New Ulm which is west of Mankato. I am forever pointing out to folks that civilization exists west of Mankato. I am proud to have grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in rural Redwood County. I once lived and worked for the newspaper in Sleepy Eye, located in Brown County next to my county of origin.

 

A snippet of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

Sleepy Eye, like so many other small towns, has felt the impact of a more mobile society, of technology and more. Businesses I remember—a bakery, a department store—have long closed.

 

A wooden cut-out of Chief Sleepy Eye as photographed through an antique shop window. The town is named after this Dakota leader.

 

Photographed inside the entry of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

But new businesses have opened in the decades since I left. Antique shops. Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, the reason for our stop. And the soon-to-open Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company.

 

Agriculture centers these small towns as evidenced in this storefront signage.

 

A display window at Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun drew my interest. I would like to explore this space open to the public (on weekends) for birthday and other parties. It was closed when I was in Sleepy Eye.

 

Another section of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

While Randy searched for stained glass, I grabbed my camera and meandered through a short stretch of the business district along busy U.S. Highway 14. I found myself wishing the second stoplight had not been removed during recent road reconstruction. The downtown is much less pedestrian friendly now. It’s a difficult roadway to safely cross.

 

Posted on a door at the bottom of a stairway leading to upstairs apartments by Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. I love discovering signage like this.

 

That aside, I managed and took some photos that show the unique character of Sleepy Eye. Enjoy. And check back for more posts from this southwestern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Urban photography April 18, 2019

 

CITYSCAPES INTRIGUE ME, for many reasons. But primarily visually.

 

 

Metro scenes differ vastly from the rural scenes I typically photograph. Rural equals a visual simplicity. Metro, overall, offers more chaos, more distractions, more color and variety. That’s a generalization. Chaos can be found, too, in rural, simplicity in urban.

 

 

Photographers always comes to photography with backgrounds, experiences, perspectives that influence images. We edit as we shoot. At least I do.

 

 

 

 

On a recent trip into the Twin Cities metro, I shot a series of images as Randy drove along Snelling Avenue. I’m unfamiliar with the area but noted banners identifying St. Paul’s Hamline Midway district. I observed, too, the cultural diversity of businesses.

 

 

 

 

And I thought about that, how I grew up in rural Minnesota among all Caucasians with the only differences whether you were a town kid or a farm kid, Catholic or Lutheran. I am thankful that has changed in some rural areas of Minnesota. Not all certainly.

 

 

 

I remembered that thought hours later when guests began arriving for my granddaughter’s third birthday party. Izzy’s little friends and their parents are a mix of ethnicities. And for that I am grateful. She views her world through a kaleidoscope. Not a single, focused lens.

 

THOUGHTS?

 

FYI: I invite you to click here and view the work of award-winning New York City photographer and blogger Keith Goldstein. He does incredible street photography, primarily portraits. Keith offers glimpses of humanity. I love to study his images, to see people and places that differ vastly from rural Minnesota.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A glimpse of Northfield during the holiday season December 21, 2018

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Outside an antique shop in historic downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

 

NORTHFIELD RATES AS ONE of my favorite Minnesota cities. It’s a charming/quaint/picturesque river town with a timeless small town feel.

 

Photographed through the front window of Quality Bakery, a snippet of the bakery’s holiday window display.

 

Signage directs families to Santa’s house in Bridge Square.

 

The Christmas tree in Bridge Square brightens the wintry landscape with bold red decorations.

 

For someone like me who prefers rural to urban, a 22-minute drive there with no traffic hassles, visual delights in a historic downtown, an artsy vibe (including sidewalk poetry) and more, make this college city of some 20,000 particularly appealing. Especially at Christmas.

 

Bridge Square in the heart of downtown Northfield.

 

An ornament on that community Christmas tree.

 

Santa’s house, where Santa has always been absent whenever I’ve stopped at Bridge Square.

 

Fancied up holiday window displays, a Santa House and Christmas tree in Bridge Square (the downtown community gathering spot), an annual Christmas Walk, the renowned St. Olaf College Christmas Concert and more transform Northfield into a magical place during the holiday season.

 

 

I recently spent some time Christmas shopping in the downtown made famous by The James-Younger Gang’s robbery of the First National Bank on September 7, 1876. Today that bank building houses the Northfield Historical Society. The museum sits right across the street from Bridge Square.

 

A wagon load of Wisemen awaits shoppers outside an antique shop.

 

It’s not that I like shopping—I don’t. But I’d rather shop in one-of-a-kind local shops than in Anywhere Mall, USA. Northfield offers an abundance of home-grown retail stores.

 

 

There’s a lot of creativity in Northfield. And an appreciation of that creativity. I once participated in a beer poetry reading at a local brewery. How cool is that?

 

Beau inside Marketplace @ 416.

 

Christmas or not, the Americana small town-ness of Northfield endears this river town to me.

 

 

TELL ME: Have you been to Northfield and, if so, what about it appeals to you? Or what town do you find especially charming wherever you live?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering the character of Pequot Lakes at the hardware store August 17, 2018

This sign hangs on the side of the hardware store. You won’t find a fire warden sign in southern Minnesota.

 

WHENEVER I VISIT a small town, I am drawn to the details that give a community character. Like Thurlow Hardware and Rental in Pequot Lakes.

 

The bobber water tower in Pequot Lakes.

 

I visited this central Minnesota town nearly a year ago. This area and parts north are decidedly different from my home region in the southeastern section of the state. To the north, lakes and woods abound and Paul Bunyan lore is prevalent in tourist attractions, business names and more. Pequot Lakes, for example, features a water tower resembling a Bunyan-sized bobber.

 

Inside the hardware store are lots of taxidermied animals hanging above the aisles.

 

A northwoods culture prevails, stamps upon these towns.

 

I always look for signage that reveals more about the place I am visiting.

 

These folks also appreciate their heritage.

 

 

 

 

These details I noticed, along with vintage signage, as I checked out that small town hardware store.

TELL ME: Do you explore small towns? If yes, what draws your interest? Give me a specific example, if you wish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Farmington, Part I: A quick look at downtown August 7, 2018

 

ON ONE OF THE FIRST warm weekends of spring here in Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Farmington, a south metro community we’ve visited once prior. It was the kind of sunny late April afternoon ideal for meandering with my camera.

 

 

 

 

Farmington, given its nearness to the Twin Cites and population of 22,000-plus, surprises me with its small town feel. At least in the downtown business district. Here primarily professional services businesses and bars and restaurants occupy space along with minimal retail and government services.

 

 

We popped into two gift shops, but otherwise simply walked through the downtown. On this afternoon, steak on the grill—from the Farmington Steak House and the VFW Steak Fry—scented the gusty winds. Had it been any other time of day than mid-afternoon, we would have been tempted to dine at one or the other. We weren’t even hungry for ice cream from Cow Interrupted! Ice Cream Studio. Next visit.

 

 

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

Around the corner and a block away from the ice cream shop, this town’s agricultural roots remain visible in an aged grain elevator and grain bins. In too many communities, such vintage elevators have deteriorated or disappeared. I hope Farmington folks understand the historic and aesthetic value of these structures, real assets to the downtown.

 

 

 

 

Likewise the Lion’s Club street clock that marks a stunning brick building anchoring a corner in the heart of the business district. I love that clock. And the historic building.

 

 

And the mural on the side of the Farmington Steak House.

 

 

 

 

I delighted, too, in the humor of local marketing and the handwritten note posted by the barber. These are the details that give a town character, that personalize a place, that make me want to return.

 

 

HOW ABOUT YOU? What draws your interest in a community if you are viewing it for the first time during a pop-in visit?

CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a closer look at that Steak House mural as I publish a second post that has been in draft for a few months.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling