Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Two Minnesota towns July 27, 2017

Fields and sky envelope a farm building just west of Wabasso in my native Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I GREW UP ON THE PRAIRIE, a place of earth and sky and wind. Land and sky stretch into forever there, broken only by farm sites and the grain elevators and water towers that define small towns.

 

Along Minnesota Highway 19, this sign once marked my hometown. That sign has since been replaced. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County once bustled with businesses—a lumberyard, feed mill, hardware stores, grocers, cafes, a blacksmith… Now the one-block center of town is mostly empty, vacant lots replacing wood-frame buildings that once housed local shops. Time, economics and abandonment rotted the structures into decay and eventual collapse or demolition.

 

One of the few businesses remaining downtown, the Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? The back story of my prairie hometown, where buildings were built mostly of wood rather than brick or stone, led me to a deep respect and appreciation for communities that have retained buildings of yesteryear. Cities like Cannon Falls, founded in 1854. By comparison, Vesta was founded in 1900.

 

The rear of an historic stone building in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Cannon Falls still has a thriving downtown landmarked by 29 properties in a Commercial Historic District. It’s population of around 4,000 and location between Rochester and the metro contrast sharply with Vesta’s population of 300 in the much more rural southwestern corner of Minnesota.

 

This sign marks the aged former Firemen’s Hall, now the Cannon Falls Museum, pictured below. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

The Cannon Falls Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Drive through Cannon Falls neighborhoods and you will see history still standing. In Vesta, history comes in photos and memories. It’s sad really. But that is reality.

 

The Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal congregation founded in Cannon Falls in 1866. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Because I grew up without solid stone buildings in a place that unsettles many for its breadth of sky and land, I am drawn to stone structures. They portray a strength and permanency that defies time and change. Yet I expect both masons and carpenters shared the same dreams of a better life, of prosperity and success.

 

Another lovely stone building photographed behind downtown Cannon Falls buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

That’s the underlying truth. Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something. The land remains—the same earth upon which early settlers planted their boots and stood with hope in their hearts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The mystery box along the Cannon River April 12, 2017

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I MISSED THE BIG MOMENT by just minutes.

From the highway, I observed a group of people clustered along a recreational trail by the Cannon River in Cannon Falls. I had no clue what they were doing there on such a cold winter afternoon. But then, as our van drew closer, I saw the oversized box and a bouquet of pink balloons. My initial reaction to pink anything in public is related to breast cancer. Perhaps they were honoring a loved one.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Any guesses?

 

 

By the time my husband swung the van into a parking lot and I exited, the balloons were already tucked inside the major-appliance-sized cardboard box. I’d missed the prime photo opp.

Still, I needed to learn the story behind the riverside gathering.

 

 

Turns out…ready for this? The group was there for a gender reveal party as in “Is it a boy or a girl?”

The obvious answer given the pink balloons is girl. I congratulated the father-to-be as he climbed a stairway from the river to parking lot. Noticing grey tinging his hair, I asked, “Your first?” I’m nosy curious like that.

“My fourth, her first,” he answered.

What a joyous moment for the family and even strangers like me. A baby is always cause to celebrate.

TELL ME: What are your thoughts on gender reveal events/parties? Have you attended one? If yes, let’s hear details.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Westward, ho: A surprising discovery at the Cannon Mall March 16, 2017

 

I’VE SHOPPED MANY ANTIQUE stores and malls. But this is a first: an 1840 Conestoga wagon for sale. Not to be confused with a covered wagon, this heavy-duty wagon hails from the Conestoga River region of Pennsylvania.

 

Beautiful lighting marks Thora Mae’s inside the Cannon Mall.

 

Inside the Cannon Mall, which houses about a half-dozen businesses.

 

Storefront windows to Thora Mae’s Timeless Treasures, 31284 64th Avenue Path, Cannon Falls.

 

If not for my husband noticing a fabric Antiques sign fluttering in the breeze along the highway, we would have missed this rare find inside the Cannon Mall in Cannon Falls. We didn’t even know the mall existed and we’ve visited this southeastern Minnesota community numerous times.

 

Vintage and other signage directs shoppers to Thora Mae’s.

 

Thora Mae’s has lots of vintage signage, most of it rural, for sale.

 

Another sign at Thora Mae’s…

 

But there is was, hidden from our view and housing a hardware store, Chinese restaurant, dollar store, an occasional shop and Thora Mae’s Timeless Treasures. This is one antique shop worth your visit. It’s bright, well-organized and filled with an abundance of yesteryear merchandise.

 

 

Given our late arrival shortly before closing on a Saturday afternoon, Randy and I had minimal time to poke around. And I spent some of that precious shopping time focused on the Conestoga wagon. Signage reveals the wagon traveled four times along the Oregon Trail and was used on the set of the TV western “Wagon Train.” That series ran from 1957 – 1965.

 

 

Dr. Joseph Link Jr. donated the wagon to the Hamilton County Park District in, I believe, the Cincinnati area in 1975. I couldn’t access online info to learn more during a quick search.

 

There’s even a western theme in a portion of this Thora Mae’s window display.

 

Now, if you’re my Baby Boomer age, you grew up watching and re-enacting westerns and appreciate anything that jolts those childhood memories. Right now I’m thinking straw cowboy hats, cap guns, stick horses and a red wagon, aka an improvised covered wagon.

 

 

For $6,000, I could have the real deal, the real experience and a genuine piece of early American history.

 

 

TELL ME: What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever seen for sale at an antique shop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Meet 52 South Central Minnesota artists during weekend ArTour October 19, 2012

Faribault artist Julie Fakler’s paintings will be displayed in her JMF Studio at 1212 First Ave. N.W., Faribault, along with the textile art of Deb Johnson. Fakler specializes in animal portraits. Her cow painting graces promotional materials for this year’s South Central Minnesota Studio ArTour.

FIFTY-TWO ARTISTS. Twenty-four studios. And all showcased right here in the Faribault-Northfield-Cannon Falls area this weekend during the eighth annual South Central Minnesota Studio ArTour.

If you’ve never taken this studio tour, I’d encourage you to do so as a) You’ll meet a broad spectrum of talented local artists. b) You’ll view incredible art in wood, glass, photography, textiles, painting, ceramics, jewelry and more. c) It’s free, unless you purchase art, which, of course, you should consider doing. d) You’ll visit three charming communities.

I can’t attend this year’s tour. But I have in the past and here are the photos to prove it.

Just look at the talent we have, right here, in Greater Minnesota.

Meg Jensen Witt will showcase her ceramics at Lillart, 101 E. Fifth St., #209, Northfield, along with the paintings of Lilla Johnson. I photographed this example of Witt’s art in 2011.

At Holmquist Pottery, 11780 90th St. E., Northfield, you will find Lucky Rimpila’s glass art, like this photographed last year. Chris and Sue Holmquist will also display their ceramics and Marsha Kitchel will showcase her paintings.

Last year at Sunset Studio, 10754 Farrel Avenue, Northfield, I photographed the ceramics created by Tom Willis. You will find the work of six other artists at Sunset Studio.

During the 2010 ArTour, I visited Somers’ Studio & Gallery, 9775 Dennison Blvd. S., Northfield, where Fred Somers paints on his rural acreage.

In 2010 I photographed this wood block art created by Carla Thompson. This year she will exhibit her painting, along with Julie Free Heart, at Revisions, 101 E. Fifth St., #302, Northfield.

Animal paintings propped on the floor of Julie Fakler’s JMF Studio during the 2010 ArTour.

FYI: The South Central Minnesota Studio ArTour runs from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Saturday, October 20, and Sunday, October 21. Select studios will also be open from 4-8 p.m. today.

For details, including studio locations and participating artists, click here to reach the ArTour website.

I photographed this scene from the 2010 ArTour marking a Northfield studio.

Click here to read about my visit to Fred Somers’ gallery/studio during the 2010 tour.

Click here to see Faribault artist Julie Fakler’s studio, one of my stops on the 2010 tour.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Cow image courtesy of Julie Fakler

 

Poetry in wine tasting November 14, 2011

I photographed this gorgeous mural at Cannon River Winery in downtown Cannon Falls in mid-August. This was the only Minnesota winery represented at a wine tasting event in Faribault Friday evening.

Cannon River Winery Sogn Blush with the label created by an artist from the region.

Crisp nuances of pink grapefruit, mango and sweet melon interwoven with hints of soft white tea and honeysuckle.

Flavors of rhubarb and black cherry complemented by hints of mocha, chocolate, spice and vanilla.

…slightly sweet with aromas of wild berries and just a hint of American Oak.

Welcome to wine tasting.

My husband and I embarked on our first-ever wine tasting experience Friday at the Paradise Center for the Arts Members Appreciation Night in historic downtown Faribault. I know. You’re thinking: “She’s never been to a wine tasting party…”

Well, well, isn’t life all about new experiences no matter your age?

Once Randy and I got our instructions, wine glasses and guidebook, from whence the above lovely and poetic phrases have been lifted, we headed into the Paradise theatre to sample wines.

We quickly discovered that, with 45 wines available, we would need to be selective in our sampling.

We also surmised that we needn’t be “Minnesota Nice” and finish off any wine samples we disliked. “Just pour it in here,” we were instructed. And so we did, whenever we found a wine too bitter or not quite delivering as described.

And so the evening proceeded—meandering and sipping and repeating “I don’t like dry wine,” and chatting with friends and acquaintances. We discussed the wines, traded glasses and sipped and sampled and asked each other, “Do you like this one?”

It was fun.

We’re never going to become wine connoisseurs. But if Randy and I pick up tidbits here and there, we learn a thing or ten that might assist us with selecting wines. I mean, I’ve bought wine in the past because I liked the label design or name or bottle, silly as that may sound. So, yes, graphic designers, artists and marketers, you can influence my wine choices with creative and visually appealing packaging.

Friday night, words also impacted my wine tasting decisions. Imagine that—words influencing me.

I mean, could you resist …zesty aromas of orange, lemon-lime and peach…silky, black-cherry elegance…memorably lush…exquisitely sweet…decadent character…intriguing layers of fresh pineapple, green apple, crisp lemon, juicy pear and wildflowers…?

(How do you get a job describing wines? That’s a writing assignment I could savor given I enjoy turning a poetic phrase now and then.)

Visitors to the Cannon River Winery enjoyed Minnesota wines on an August afternoon.

Wine barrels inside Cannon River Winery.

The labels for Cannon River's "Sogn" series are designed by regional artists who compete for the honor. Currently, you can vote for your favorite Sogn art at the winery.

A former garage houses the Cannon River Winery. President Obama visited Cannon Falls, thus the welcome sign on the winery during my mid-August visit..

Click here for more information about Cannon River Winery.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Wine description source: Paradise Center for the Arts Holiday Wine Tasting booklet; wine selections sponsored by Haskell’s.

 

Cannon Falls pulls out the flags for President’s visit August 15, 2011

Amy Savvy cleans the windows at Amy's Savvy Seconds, next to the Cannon Falls Chamber of Commerce, on Sunday afternoon in preparation for President Barack Obama's visit.

IN A FEW HOURS, President Barack Obama arrives in small-town Minnesota for the first stop on a Midwest bus tour that will also take him into rural parts of Iowa and Illinois.

The folks in Cannon Falls, a town of some 3,795 in southeastern Minnesota, have rolled out the flags in a patriotic welcome to our nation’s leader.

Throughout the downtown Sunday afternoon, most businesses were displaying American flags in storefront windows. Flags were also posted along the downtown streets. Some homeowners displayed flags in their yards and mini-flags lined at least a block of the roadway leading to Hannah’s Bend Park, site of the President’s visit.

Along the road to Hannah's Bend Park, at least one homeowner had decorated with mini American flags.

An American flag hangs outside Schaffer's Antiques.

A street-side flag in downtown Cannon Falls.

Vintage building signage provides the backdrop for an American flag in this historic river town.

Whether Obama will ever see the many flags in the downtown remains unknown as his route into and out of Cannon Falls remained unofficially unknown to the locals I visited with on Sunday. At least one business owner speculated he would travel U.S. Highway 52 into town, which seems the most likely route.

Warren Schaffer of Schaffer’s Antiques recalled a shutdown along that highway when President Ronald Reagan passed by Cannon Falls.

The last visit by a U.S. President to this Goodhue County town occurred in 1928, when Calvin Coolidge attended the dedication of a statue honoring Col. William Colvill, a Civil War veteran who led the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment during the battle at Gettysburg.

Most Cannon Falls residents likely feel as antique shop owner Schaffer does about Obama’s visit. “He’s the President. This is a little town. This is a big deal.”

A Spanish American flag hangs on a wall inside Schaffer's Antiques. The flag, which shop owner Warren Schaffer thinks likely was a coffin flag, is not for sale. It makes a nice wall decoration, Schaffer says.

A flag in the window of the Cannon River Winery, a busy place on a Sunday.

A shot of Cannon Falls' main drag and a flag in the window of an insurance company.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cannon Falls prepares for President Obama’s town hall meeting August 14, 2011

Two tents were set up at the entry to Hannah's Bend Park early Sunday afternoon.

I DIDN’T EXPECT TO GET SO CLOSE, to park in the parking lot next to the Cannon Falls Community Pool, stroll across the street and walk down the hill into Hannah’s Bend Park where President Barack Obama will participate Monday morning in a town hall meeting.

But my husband and I walked right into the thick of preparations Sunday afternoon with no questions asked, just like the locals and others who’d arrived by foot, vehicles and on bike to check out the hubbub.

An overview of the south end of Hannah's Bend Park, where President Barack Obama will appear.

One of the many families visiting the park to view the pre-Presidential preparations.

Bikers came to the park to check out the town hall meeting site.

Workers had already set up, or were setting up, picnic tables, tables and chairs, bleachers, fencing, amplifiers, tents and more. They were simply doing what they were told, they said, while pointing out the Secret Service guys in khakis and shades standing along the bank of the Cannon River. Nice guys, they said.

Among the workers were Tom Leonard and his sons, 14-year-old Isaac and 13-year-old Caleb, from Festival Production Services of Lonsdale. As subcontractors for the event, they had erected the press risers and were, when I approached them, finishing up the 8 x 12-foot Presidential stage.

Tom and Isaac Leonard work on the Presidential stage.

Tom Leonard was matter-of-fact about his efforts. “For me, it’s just another gig,” he said. “It’s like anything. It’s work.”

Caleb, however, seemed a bit more impressed with putting together a stage for the President. “It makes me feel kind of important,” he said as he swung a hammer.

Perhaps Tom Leonard’s laid-back attitude comes from having done many Presidential gigs, including an inaugural ball for George W. Bush. Sunday marked just another day on a job that includes rigging up staging for rock-n-roll bands and other customers.

Marilyn and Jeryld Carstensen were in town from St. James and scored two tickets to Monday’s Presidential appearance after getting in line at 4 a.m. Sunday. Their 22-year-old daughter, Regan Carstensen, has been reporting on the Presidential visit for The Red Wing Republican Eagle, so the couple has gotten caught up in the excitement.

Media, including Twin Cities-based Eyewitness News, were in town on Sunday.

Media were already converging on Cannon Falls Sunday afternoon. At Amy’s Savvy Seconds in the downtown business district, Amy Savvy had already done several television interviews and was preparing for another when I came across her cleaning her shop windows.

Amy Savvy cleans the windows at her secondhand shop. She planned to write a message welcoming Obama.

When I returned later, a television crew was inside Amy's Savvy Seconds.

“It’s a historic thing,” Amy said of the President’s Cannon Falls stop. She appreciated the extra business in town and had opened her second-hand store Sunday, and planned to be open again on Monday, days she’s typically closed. She was also working around her grandma’s funeral set for Monday, but figured her grandma would want her to take advantage of the extra traffic downtown.

A few doors down, Warren Schaffer was tending Schaffer’s Antiques, wishing the President would stop in and buy something. I looked around, spotted an eagle and suggested it as a possible Presidential purchase. Warren promptly informed me I was looking at a whiskey bottle.

Calling himself a “middle-of-the-road” guy when it comes to politics, Warren none-the-less shares in the community’s excitement over the Presidential visit. “He’s the President. This is a little town. This is a big deal.”

A street corner in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls.

Downtown Cannon Falls, population, 3,795, had seen a lot of traffic for a Sunday, Warren observed. He expects even more on Monday; his shop will be open on a day when it’s usually shuttered.

Through-out the downtown, most businesses have displayed American flags in storefront windows or outside. At the Cannon River Winery, a sign hangs out front welcoming the President.

A sign welcoming the President hangs on the front of the Cannon River Winery.

American flags, large and small, hang in most storefront windows.

The excitement in Cannon Falls Sunday afternoon was palpable. At Hannah’s Bend Park, my first stop in town, clusters of folks gathered, pointing out the brush that had been cut days earlier from the hillside, pointing toward the area where workers labored to get everything in place for the town hall meeting…

Tom Leonard was still hard at work, jumping up and down on the bleachers, apparently testing their stability. He’ll be back on Monday, taking everything down, moving on to another day, another gig.

Tom Leonard, along with sons Isaac and Caleb, checks the stability of the bleachers.

Speakers awaiting installation at the town hall meeting site.

CHECK BACK for a second blog post featuring photos of American flags displayed in Cannon Falls for the President’s visit.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling