Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring the war dead in Cannon City May 30, 2017

Folks begin arriving for the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program at the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

VEHICLES LINED the narrow gravel driveway, angled into the grassy ditch on one side and edging the roadway on the other.

Randy pulled our lawn chairs from the van and I tucked a fleece throw under my left arm, umbrella in hand as we headed toward the crowd gathering at the Cannon City Cemetery gate. Clouds the color of bruises threatened rain on this 60-some-degree Memorial Day afternoon in rural southeastern Minnesota.

 

An art appropriate cannon marks a Civil War Veteran’s tombstone in the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But weather would not keep us from this annual commemoration honoring the war dead—a tradition begun some 100 years prior in this wind-swept rural cemetery bordered by fields and pasture. On this Monday, those here would also mark the sesquicentennial of this burial place where a year ago cows moved to the fenceline to watch my friend Lois bury her husband next to his parents and grandparents.

 

The program opens with singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Steve Bonde is on the bugle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Randy and I have no family connection to this cemetery. But we have come here each Memorial Day for about the past five because we appreciate the grassroots simplicity of this event. Clustered under spruce and cedar among gravestones, attendees circle their lawn chairs to sing and to listen to patriotic and other readings and to the mournful playing of taps.

 

A bronze star marks a veteran’s grave. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As I sat there, snugged under fleece and wishing I’d worn a stocking cap, I considered that my temporary discomfort was nothing compared to war. I remembered the stories my Korean War veteran father, an infantryman on the frontlines, shared of bone-chilling cold. Yes, my ears hurt. But in a short time, I would be back inside my warm home.

I am an observer. To my right, I watched a teenage boy grip a military star, American flag and white carnation with his left hand, bugle in his other hand, as the fierce wind threatened to yank all three away. Earlier, some attendees distributed flowers, provided by the Cemetery Association, to soldiers’ graves. That flower-laying tradition began 100 years ago with students from the nearby Cannon City School marching with floral wreaths to the cemetery.

 

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This memorial service is so much about tradition—from recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance to singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic to reading names of the 52 veterans buried here to recitation of In Flanders Fields.

 

Poppies have long been associated with honoring and remembering veterans. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As Jean Pederson recited the haunting poem of poppies blowing between crosses in a field in Belgium, long-time Cannon City resident Bob Lewis slipped a pot of poppies onto the grass next to Jean’s motorized scooter. He’d dug them from a patch in his yard. That symbolic gesture by this veteran nearly moved me to tears as I watched 10 orange poppies wend in the wind to words of war.

Near Jean, I noticed the word LOVE sparkling along the pant leg of a teenage girl. Love and war. War and love. We love our freedom enough to fight for it.

 

A message on a retro tray I own. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Yet, we always strive for peace, a message conveyed in a reading by two women: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you.” Their words rose and fell with the wind, carried away—to the fields, the countryside, beyond, under a bruised sky.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
I apologize for the lack of current photos accompanying this story. I fell and broke my right shoulder recently so am unable to use my camera. I hope my words provide the visuals for you to see snippets of what I observed in Cannon City on Memorial Day.

 

A grassroots Memorial Day observance at a 150-year-old rural Minnesota cemetery May 25, 2017

The Cannon City Cemetery fence decorated for Memorial Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

IN A RURAL CEMETERY in unincorporated Cannon City some five miles northeast of Faribault, a chain link fence separates gravestones from fields.

 

A snippet of those gathered for a past Memorial Day program, including Jean Pederson, left, who recited “In Flanders Fields,” and others who led the program. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Here the wind blows strong among spruce and cedar trees branching over gravestones. For a century and a half now, mourners have come to this place of solitude and grace to bury, grieve and remember loved ones. The cemetery was founded 150 years ago, an occasion which will be noted during the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program here on May 29.

 

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance and then collected at the end of the program. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I first discovered this place and this annual May tribute, in 2011. Nearly every year since, I’ve returned to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America, the Beautiful” and other patriotic songs; to listen to the reading of “In Flanders Fields,” “The Gettysburg Address” and more; to appreciate the mournful playing of taps; to gaze toward the flag whipping atop the flag pole; and to walk among tombstones.

 

This shows a portion of those gathered during a past Memorial Day program. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I have no personal connection to this cemetery. But I am drawn here by the rural-ness of this setting, by the simplicity of the ceremony, by a desire to honor the war dead at a truly grassroots Americana Memorial Day observance among people rooted deep into this land. It doesn’t get much more basic than this informal and unpretentious gathering in lawn chairs, song sheets passed around with Don Chester strumming a rhythm on his guitar.

 

Memorial Day long ago in Cannon City.

 

The former Cannon City School, now the town hall.

 

A vintage newspaper clipping about Memorial Day in Cannon City.

 

Fifty veterans—including one from the War of 1812 and 20 from the Civil War—are buried here. Their names are read each Memorial Day. It was Civil War veteran Elijah Walrod who first suggested a Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) program to Cannon City School teacher Chloe Gagstetter Polson. She honored his request some 100 years ago when school children marched with floral wreaths from the schoolhouse to the nearby cemetery. That tradition, which included a picnic following the ceremony, continued until the school closed in 1970 to become part of the Faribault School District. The Cannon City Cemetery Board carried on thereafter.

 

Veterans graves are marked with flags on a previous Memorial Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This year the Cannon City Cemetery Friends will note the cemetery’s 150th anniversary by distributing flowers and flags to attendees for placement on veterans’ graves.  Typically those American flags are placed in advance of the commemoration. There will be no “Death March” from the old schoolhouse, now the town hall, to the cemetery. Rather, everyone will meet at the cemetery gates. And after the program, organizers will serve ice cream cones.

 

In 1973, the Cannon City Cardinals 4-H Club participated in the program.

 

The low-key anniversary observance seems fitting in a place where children dart among gravestones, birds trill and folks greet each other with the familiarity of growing up here. They know and value this place.

 

The program opens with singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Steve Bonde is on the bugle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Tradition, says Cemetery Board Secretary Mel Sanborn, brings locals and natives back each Memorial Day “to honor veterans and loved ones buried here.” Sanborn has three aunts and uncles buried here and his own plot purchased already.

 

Bob sings as Don and Judy Chester lead the group in song. Bob attended Cannon City School and participated in Memorial Day programs here as a student. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most who come here on Memorial Day share links of blood and/or roots. Not me. But I still feel at home here, comfortable in this rural cemetery where, on this day in late May, I am simply an American remembering those who died in service to our country.

 

FYI: The Cannon City Memorial Day program begins at 2 p.m. Bring your own lawn chair. The cemetery is located off Rice County Road 20. Look for the cemetery sign and follow the gravel road to the cemetery.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Vintage photos are courtesy of Mel and Mary Sanborn.

 

In Cannon City: A grassroots Americana commemoration of Memorial Day May 31, 2016

The entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery is decorated for Memorial Day.

The entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery is decorated for Memorial Day.

THERE’S A CERTAIN SENSE of comfort in tradition. For nearly 100 years, folks have gathered each Memorial Day at the Cannon City Cemetery to honor our veterans.

This shows a portion of those gathered for Monday's semi-formal program.

This shows a portion of those gathered for Monday’s semi-formal program.

In the shade of spruce and cedar trees and surrounded by gravestones, I listened to natives read The Gettysburg Address, Freedom, What Heroes Gave and more; recite In Flanders Fields; and recall the history of this celebration. A Civil War veteran initially asked students from the village school to put on a Memorial Day program. In those early years, pupils marched from the school to the cemetery bearing floral wreaths. Today the cemetery board organizes this annual observance.

Mel Sanborn, left, emceed the program.

Mel Sanborn, left, emceed the program.

Song sheets were distributed to those in attendance and then collected to save for next year.

Song sheets were distributed to those in attendance and then collected to save for next year.

Don, on the guitar, and Judy Chester lead the singing.

Don, on the guitar, and Judy Chester lead the singing.

We sang patriotic songs like The Star Spangled Banner, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and America the Beautiful, some accompanied by a guitar, some not. Voices rose 40-plus strong above the shrill of a cardinal and the distant muffle of gunfire. Sun shone. Breeze rippled.

A bronze star marks a veteran's grave.

A bronze star marks a veteran’s grave.

The Cannon City Cemetery offers an ideal setting for a grassroots remembrance of those who have served our country. Therein lies its appeal to me.

Giving the history of and then reciting In Flanders Fields.

Giving the history of and then reciting In Flanders Fields.

I have no connection to this place where nearly 50 veterans are buried. But this ceremony reminds me of the Memorial Day programs of my youth. As an aging senior recited In Flanders Fields, I mouthed the words I recited so many years ago on the stage of the Vesta Community Hall.

Fields surround the cemetery.

Fields surround the cemetery where American flags marked veterans’ graves on Memorial Day.

In its peaceful location among farm fields, this cemetery reminds me of home. Of tradition.

Sam Wilson ends the program by playing taps.

Sam Wilson ends the program by playing taps.

And when taps sounded, I was reminded, too, of just how much some sacrificed so that I could stand here, in this cemetery, on Memorial Day, hand across heart reciting The Pledge of Allegiance.

Cannon City native Bob Lewis is a fixture at the annual Memorial Day program. Locals are already tapping his historical knowledge in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebration.

Cannon City native Bob Lewis is a fixture at the annual Memorial Day program. Locals are already tapping his historical knowledge in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebration in 2017.

FYI: Next year the Cannon City Cemetery turns 150 years old. Plans are already underway for a special celebration to mark the occasion. If you want to experience grassroots Americana on Memorial Day, this is the place to be.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Observing Memorial Day at a rural Minnesota cemetery May 27, 2014

Folks begin arriving for the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program at the Cannon City Cemetery.

Folks begin arriving for the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program at the Cannon City Cemetery.

NEARLY 100 YEARS AGO, students paraded with lilac wreaths from their country school a short distance to the Cannon City Cemetery to honor the war dead.

The cemetery fence decorated for Memorial Day.

The cemetery fence decorated for Memorial Day.

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance and then collected at the end of the program.

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance and then collected at the end of the program.

Cannon City resident Bob Lewis, a veteran, arrives for the service. Later Bob will share info about the Rice County Drum and Bugle Corps.

Cannon City resident Bob Lewis, a veteran, arrives for the service. Later Bob, a former bugler, will share info about the Rice County Drum and Bugle Corps.

Today there is no “Death March” music, only patriotic songs. There is no school picnic like that after the long ago Memorial Day parade to this rural Rice County, Minnesota, cemetery on the edge of Cannon City some five miles northeast of Faribault.

Off to pick dandelions among tombstones.

Off to pick dandelions among tombstones.

But the children still come, some attentive to the ceremony led by Mel Sanborn, others darting, this Memorial Day, among tombstones to gather bouquets of dandelions. Later, they will toss dandelions into a flower bed ringing the American flag and carry other clutches home. It is a sweet moment to witness.

The program opens with singing of "The Star Spangled Banner." Steve Bonde is on the bugle.

The program opens with singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Steve Bonde is on the bugle.

Musicians' song sheets.

Musicians’ song sheets.

Jean Pederson listens after reciting "In Flanders Fields."

Jean Pederson listens after reciting “In Flanders Fields.”

I am here, an observer and a participant in this grassroots patriotic ceremony which, year after year, remains mostly the same—singing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee;” names of the war dead buried here read; recitation of “In Flanders Fields” and “The Pledge of Allegiance;” and reading of “The Gettysburg Address; and the bugler sounding “Taps.”

Kathleen Kanne reads Walt Whitman's poem, "Reconciliation."

Kathleen Kanne reads Walt Whitman’s poem, “Reconciliation.”

This year, the presentation of Walt Whitman’s “Reconciliation,” the reading of a patriotic-themed newspaper clipping, singing of “Fightin’ Side of Me,” a brief history given of Rice County’s Drum and Bugle Corps and the bugling of “Revelry” are added to the semi formal ceremony.

A soldier's grave, flagged for Memorial Day.

A soldier’s grave, flagged for Memorial Day.

Musician Don Chester leads the musical selections along with his wife, Judy.

Musician Don Chester leads the musical selections along with his wife, Judy.

Between the tombstones, below the flag...

Between the tombstones, below the flag…

Steve Bonde ends the program by playing "Revelry."

Steve Bonde ends the program by playing “Revelry.”

This all presented on the grassy space between aged tombstones in the shadow of the American flag audibly flapping in the breeze. The comparison is not lost on me as Jean Pederson tells of poppies gently swaying in the wind of Flanders Fields.

FYI: To read previous posts on Memorial Day observances at the Cannon City Cemetery, click here and then click here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring our soldiers at a rural Minnesota cemetery May 29, 2012

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Walking into the Cannon City Cemetery for a Memorial Day program.

CANNON CITY on Memorial Day is about as grassroots Americana as you’ll get.

Here locals and those rooted to this land gather in a country cemetery for an annual observance which began some nine decades ago as “Decoration Day.”

The cemetery entrance.

While a Death March and marching students and lilac wreaths and a school picnic are no longer a part of the observance, it remains firmly patriotic, firmly established as a tradition in unincorporated Cannon City near Faribault.

I came here with my husband on Monday because we’d come here last Memorial Day and were so impressed and moved by the experience that we wanted to attend again.

A snippet of those gathered for Monday’s program, including Jean Pederson, seated left, who recited “In Flanders Fields,” and others who led the program.

It is the simple, unpretentious, down-to-earth patriotic feel of this under-the-trees, between-the-tombstones, informal program that appeals to me.

Here Steve Bonde blasts “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” and 40 voices sing “America, the Beautiful,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Don Chester sets up his guitar and music before the program.

You cannot help but feel connected to your fellow Americans and to those who fought for freedom while you stand here, wind whipping song sheets, singing “Let music swell the breeze, ring from all the trees Sweet freedom’s song…”

All eyes are on the American flag.

You cannot help but feel American pride as you place your hand across your heart, turn your eyes toward the American flag flying high above the cemetery gate and recite “The Pledge of Allegiance.”

A star marks a veteran’s grave.

You cannot help but ponder the deep sorrow of families, the sacrifices of so many as the names of soldiers are read: Samuel, Ezekiel, William, Walter…

Kathleen Kanne plays a soulful song by J.S. Bach.

You cannot help but sense the spirits of the dead as 18-year-old Kathleen Kanne slides a bow across her violin in a soul-touching rendition of “Gavotte in G Minor” by J.S. Bach.

And then as Kathleen reads a tribute she’s written, you contemplate the wisdom of her words: “Cannon City Cemetery is a patch of land that lives because of the dead.”

And later, when you talk to this college freshman, you admire her determination to become more involved with the cemetery association after attending the Memorial Day service for the first time in 2011. She was visiting her father’s grave then—he died unexpectedly at age 58—and was impressed enough by the program to return and participate.

You cannot help but appreciate Cannon city native Jean Pederson who presents a history of “In Flanders Fields” before reciting “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row…”

One of many soldiers’ graves in this cemetery. Twenty-two Civil War soldiers are buried here.

You cannot help but feel grateful for freedom as Cannon City Township Board member Preston Bauer, on the spot, steps up to read The Gettysburg Address: “…these dead shall not have died in vain.”

You cannot help but place yourself in the shoes of a young soldier at war as Deb Moriarity reads the “Soldier’s Psalm,” Psalm 91: “…He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day…”

Steve Bonde, right in the distance, plays the taps.

Then, as Steve Bonde, stands at the edge of the cemetery next to a tilled field and closes the program with the mournful sounding of taps, you cannot help but feel a deep sense of grief rush over you in remembrance of all who sacrificed themselves for their country, for freedom.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In loving memory of Rhody C. Yule June 16, 2011

Rhody's self-portrait, 1989

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON we eulogized and buried my 92-year-old artist friend, Rhody Yule.

I have known Rhody for less than two years, having met him quite by happenstance in the fall of 2009. While driving by his rural Faribault home, I spotted celebrity portraits hanging on his garage, stopped to photograph them and then went to his front door.

There I met this sprite of a man and his yapping dog, Jo-Jo.

With his dog shut in the kitchen because I feared being bitten, Rhody shared the story of his life with me and my husband, Randy, strangers until then. I did not hesitate to ask about the paintings hung in his cozy living room and on his garage. He did not hesitate to share that he had been painting since age 16.

Even on that first visit, I learned so much about a man who would come to mean so much to me. His wife, Shirley, had fallen and was living in Hastings. Oh, how he missed her. His only child, Paul, died in a car accident in 1977 at age 23. Oh, how he missed him.

Rhody told us about his military service, including time in Nagasaki, Japan, cleaning up after the atomic bomb. He showed us photos and paintings on that first visit and grass-woven sandals from Japan snugged inside a wooden box he had crafted.

I thought to ask, thank God, if he had ever publicly exhibited his art. He hadn’t. That became my mission, to get a gallery show for this life-long artist. His first mini-show, of his religious paintings, came in September 2010, when he was invited to Christdala Church near Millersburg. He had, many years prior, done a painting of the church. Randy and I coordinated that exhibit, then loaded the paintings into our van and set them up outside this historic country church. Rhody and I spoke briefly at that event and he assured me that, despite our nervousness, we did well.

At Christdala, I distributed mini fliers for his upcoming gallery show at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. I had applied for the exhibit on his behalf and, in January, with the assistance of family and friends and volunteers, “A Lifetime of Art: The Rhody Yule Collection” opened to a packed gallery.

In typical Rhody fashion, this man of gentle spirit and quiet humility took it all in, never once boasting, but enjoying every second of his evening. This marked a shining moment for him in his 92 years of life and I was honored to have helped him achieve this public recognition of his art.

Rhody, minutes before his gallery show opened in January 2011.

RHODY’S FUNERAL SERVICE on Wednesday, while tinged with grief, also caused us to laugh out loud at his humor. We reminded each other of his forgiving attitude, his unshakable faith, his always positive attitude.

Just days before his death,  my husband Randy and I visited one last time with Rhody. Physically his body had deteriorated to a shell of the man he had been, but his mind and spirit remained strong. We saw him on a good night.

In that last hour with our friend, we reminisced about his gallery exhibit as I, one-by-one, held up photos I had taken that evening. He was too weak to grasp the images. And then we paged through several of his photo albums with pictures of a younger Rhody, a freckle-faced Paul, a beautiful Shirley.

I thought to myself, “You will be with them soon, Rhody. Soon.”

Rhody did not fear death. Yet he wished to live, even thought he might recover. I knew better. When I mentioned Millersburg, Rhody was ready for a night out and a beer at his favorite eating establishment there. Family and friends celebrated with him last fall in Millersburg at a patriotic-themed freedom party. His idea. His celebration after overcoming a recent, temporary loss of his personal freedom.

Rhody had more living to do. I learned at his funeral that this WW II veteran wanted to travel on a Washington D.C. Honor Flight to see the war memorials. It breaks my heart that he did not live long enough for that to happen.

Me and Rhody at his opening night gallery reception.

He prayed every night for the soldiers to come home.

He was smartly dressed for burial in his military uniform, which hung loosely on the gaunt body of a man who once stood strong in service to his country.

Those honoring his memory were directed to donate to the Rice County Veterans Memorial Expansion Project.

A spray of patriotic red and white flowers adorned with a blue ribbon decorated Rhody’s carved wooden casket, a casket so appropriate for a man who crafted wooden boxes and also picture frames (for his art). Had he been physically capable, I expect Rhody may have built and carved his own casket.

But Rhody is gone now and, as the eulogist, the Rev. Ron Mixer, said, Rhody is busy painting sunrises and sunsets in heaven. He suggested we look for a signature “Y” in the clouds.

Rhody has left those of us who knew and loved him with more than his legacy as an artist and the thought that he is still painting. He has gifted each of us with his spirit of forgiveness and kindness, his humor and humility, his desire for fun, a love of life and a faith that endured challenges.

I knew Rhody such a short time. But how blessed that time has been.

We drove through nearly-torrential rain Wednesday afternoon to the rural Cannon City Cemetery to bury Rhody beside Shirley. As we gathered under the tent and next to it, sheltered by umbrellas gripped tight against the whipping wind, members of the Central Veterans Association fired an honorary salute to their brother soldier. Taps mourned. An aging veteran presented a folded American flag to Rhody’s step son in a voice choking with gratitude and emotion.

Soon the rain stopped and the sun wedged through the clouds as if Rhody was there, telling us to wipe away the tears. He would have wanted us to celebrate his life, and we did, but only if we didn’t brag about him.

Rhody's favorite painting, "The Last Supper," which he painted in honor of his beloved son Paul.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Flag Day patriotism June 14, 2011

IN HONOR OF FLAG DAY today, I’ve scrolled through my archives and pulled some of my favorite flag images. For the few I am showcasing here, many more exist within the stories of Minnesota Prairie Roots.

But for today, for this minute, view these and reflect on the many ways Minnesotans show their patriotism and loyalty to country via American flags.

Vietnam War era veteran Joel Kukacka's patriotic garage in the hamlet of Heidelberg, Minnesota.

A flag waves in the wind on a soldier's grave at the Cannon City Cemetery.

Herold Flags in West Concord sells flags and flagpoles.

Flags fly at the Rice County Courthouse, Faribault.

Korean War veteran Ray Sanders at the 2010 Memorial Day ceremony in Faribault's Central Park.

Blue stars on a WW II honor flag displayed last July 4 at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, along with American flags.

American flag decor adds a patriotic flair to the down-home Kasota Zoo.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling