Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Downtown Wabasha up close during SeptOberfest September 27, 2018

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Autumn decor (including German flags) adds an artistic seasonal welcome to a side street next to Heritage Park in downtown Wabasha.

 

GIVEN MY PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE, I see beyond an overview. I notice details. And in the Mississippi River town of Wabasha, details abound, especially during SeptOberfest, the community’s annual two-month celebration of autumn.

 

Driving toward Wabasha and the bridge that connects Wisconsin and Minnesota.

 

Pumpkins line picnic tables in Heritage Park, site of many SeptOberfest events, including activities for children.

 

A view from the river bank of the Mississippi and the bridge between Wabasha, Minnesota, and Nelson, Wisconsin.

 

On a recent late week day afternoon, I walked about 1 ½ blocks from Heritage Park, a community gathering spot under the grassy area of the bridge connecting Wabasha to Nelson, Wisconsin, through the business district. I intentionally looked up, down and around to see the character of Wabasha. Details reveal much about a place and its people.

 

Signs above a business note the history of the building. Wabasha has some beautiful historic architecture as noted in the reflections in the window.

 

This street clock adds to the visual historic appeal of downtown Wabasha.

 

German or Irish, Wabasha has your food tastes covered during SeptOberfest.

 

I especially enjoyed the woodcarvings of George Schwalbe currently displayed in the front window of Jerry Arens Insurance.

 

Scroll through my photos and you will note an appreciation for history and heritage and a strong sense of community pride. Folks here care about how this town looks.

 

Outside Pure Identity Salon & Spa, the Tin Man, created from a pumpkin.

 

Pay attention to signs in windows. They tell you a lot about a town.

 

Festive scenes like this are staged throughout downtown Wabasha.

 

I appreciate the seasonal décor of scarecrows propped on straw bales, of festive banners, of carved pumpkins. I remember a town that goes the extra length to transform a downtown into a memorable visual. Wabasha impresses.

 

 

If you value small towns, you must visit Wabasha, also home to the National Eagle Center. Make this river town a day trip, an overnight destination. Now, as autumn blazes color into the landscape, as Wabasha celebrates the season during SeptOberfest.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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To have and to hold, 36 years later May 15, 2018

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Audrey and Randy, May 15, 1982

 

I FLIP THROUGH THE PAGES of the photo album looking at the faces. Young. Smiling. Happy.

Thirty-six years have passed since those formal portraits were taken on my wedding day. It seems so long ago, 1982. We were just 25 then, Randy and I. But as anyone who’s now in their sixties knows, time has a way of flying. It’s not just a saying. It’s the truth.

 

A selfie of Randy and me taken in September 2017 at the walleye statue along Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Tomorrow soon becomes yesterday and all of a sudden you aren’t that newlywed on the cusp of life but rather that married nearly four decades couple entering the golden years of life.

I would be lying if I said married life is fairy tale perfect. Maybe in the fantasy world of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But not in real life. We’ve faced many challenges from health to personal and family issues to injuries and accidents and deaths of loved ones. We’ve managed tight budgets and long hours of hard work and even survived many home improvement projects. And we’ve come through on the other side stronger, more appreciative of each other and maybe even better people for having endured difficulties.

Recently, Randy informed me he’s a legend. I laughed, said I would need to treat him with a higher respect. He’d been dubbed a “legend” by a customer referred to my automotive machinist husband as an expert in his field. He is. Randy is really really smart about all things automotive. And with something like 40 years of experience, he rates as a legend. I don’t know what his customers will do when he retires in a few years. I don’t care, frankly.

A favorite photo of my husband holding our then 10-day-old granddaughter, Isabelle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

Life isn’t all about work. It’s about finding time for each other and those you love. And those we love has now expanded to include our two-year-old granddaughter. I love watching my husband in his relatively new role as Grandpa to Isabelle. There’s such sweetness and tenderness in the moments they share whether reading a book or crawling around on the floor pulling Brio trains.

Thirty-six years ago I didn’t see beyond the front of the church and the face of my groom on our wedding day. I saw only the man I loved. And still love, all these decades later.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Free family fun at Zootopia on the RiverFront in Wabasha October 12, 2017

My first view of Zootopia on the RiverFront from the hill overlooking this play area along the Mississippi River in Wabasha.

 

ON AN EARLY OCTOBER Sunday in Wabasha, brilliant sunshine angled sharp shadows across the beaten grass of a riverside attraction teeming with kids and watchful adults.

 

 

 

 

 

The lion tunnel proved especially popular.

 

Here, while a young boy carried his tacklebox and fishing pole along a busy Mississippi River walkway, kids tossed rings, rolled balls, scrambled through a tunnel, zipped down a slide and more in a magical land. Here adults encouraged and interacted with the little ones and clicked endless photos.

 

 

 

 

My son-in-law, Marc, takes Izzy’s photo as she walks through the tiger tunnel while her mom (my daughter Amber) watches.

 

Walking on the colorful walrus crafted from tires…

 

My husband and I joined in on the SeptOberfest kids’ activities along with our 18-month-old granddaughter and her parents.

 

You can zip down this elephant slide into Zootopia on the RiverFront.

 

 

I discovered the play area after sighting an elephant slide behind Hill’s Hardware Hank. I walked the half-block to check it out and found the city of Zootopia. The good folks of Wabasha crafted a temporary themed play area after the movie of the mammal metropolis. What a delight for not only grandmas like me, but also for all those kids and other adults.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wabasha has always impressed me as a small town that knows how to bring visitors into the community. The addition of Zootopia on the RiverFront to this year’s nearly two-month long SeptOberfest just notched up my respect for the tourism, business and other leaders in this southeastern Minnesota town of some 2,500. These folks are smart enough to realize that bringing families into town equals an immediate financial return plus an investment in future returns. The kids’ activities are free. But the local economy benefits from monies dropped in restaurants, gas stations, and ice cream and other shops.

 

Randy waits for Izzy to emerge from the lion tunnel.

 

Running in the kick ball croquet area.

 

Even the big kids/aka grandpas can have fun.

 

Watching my 1 ½-year-old granddaughter crawl multiple times through the lion tunnel, place rings on elephant trunks, roll a ball in the kick ball croquet area and more simply made me happy. Even at her young age, Izzy could participate in most of the activities.

 

 

This Zootopia rated as just plain good old family fun—Wabasha style.

 

In the foreground, on the hillside, giraffes (and zebras) overlook Zootopia.

 

FYI: Zootopia on the RiverFront continues through October 21. Click here for more details.

Check back for two more posts on kids’ SeptOberfest activities in Wabasha.

This community is also home to the National Eagle Center, another family friendly place to visit.

 

Rural Minnesota patriotism July 1, 2016

The Stars & Stripes Garage in Heidelberg, Minnesota, photographed several weeks ago. Normally I would crop the parking lot section of the image. But it's an important part of the scene with white stars painted upon asphalt.

The Stars & Stripes Garage in Heidelberg, Minnesota, photographed several weeks ago. Normally I would crop the parking lot section of the image. But it’s an important part of the scene with white stars painted upon asphalt.

I HAVE YET TO FIND a more patriotically-themed garage.

Painted red, white and blue and decorated with stars and an American flag, the Stars & Stripes Garage in the hamlet of Heidelberg in Le Sueur County stands out for its grassroots show of patriotism.

Copy of Garage, Stars & Stripes 1

The Stars & Stripes Garage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2009

I first came across the Stars & Stripes in 2009, subsequently writing a magazine article about the garage owned by Vietnam veteran Joel Kukacka.

The Stars & Stripes Garage, seven years after I first painted it.

The Stars & Stripes Garage, seven years after I first photographed it.

Recently I passed through Heidelberg, pausing briefly to snap a few images of Joel’s business on a bright Sunday summer afternoon. The paint is faded in some places, a few new stars have been added and the business sign moved. But, basically, the exterior appears unchanged.

This public show of patriotism still endures in this out-of-the-way spot along quiet Le Sueur County Highway 30 in rural southern Minnesota. It’s the type of place you discover when taking the back roads.

The bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, has performed at North Morristown the past seven years, presenting two concerts at the celebration.

The popular bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, returns to the North Morristown stage for two performances, at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Several other musical groups are also performing throughout the day and into the evening. There is no charge, although donations are welcome. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

TO ALL OF MY READERS, have a wonderful and safe Fourth of July weekend as we celebrate the birth of our nation.

If you’re seeking an authentic Americana experience of the holiday in rural Minnesota, attend the 124th annual North Morristown July Fourth celebration. From the Firecracker Walk/Run to a parade to a patriotic program to a medallion hunt to music to kids’ rides to bingo to fireworks and more, you’ll find a full day of activities. You also find the best homemade food (buy your slice of pie early) on the festival grounds. North Morristown is a few farm homes and Trinity Lutheran Church and School and is located north of Morristown/west of Faribault.

Click here to view a photo essay I published in 2013 on the North Morristown celebration.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Turning one May 13, 2016

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Birthday, 5 blowing out candle

 

BIG BROTHER BLEW out the candle. But one-year-old Evelyn didn’t care. She seemed more focused on the flame. And then the cake. Smart girl.

 

Birthday, cake 1

 

Her mom baked a homemade chocolate cake layered with homemade raspberry preserves and frosted with more chocolate. The cake looked like something out of a food magazine. And it tasted like something out of a master baker’s kitchen.

 

Birthday, 15 eating cake

 

Once the prerequisite candle blowing was complete, Evelyn proceeded to dig into all that chocolatey goodness while grandmas and aunts laughed and snapped more photos.

 

Birthday, 17 eating cake

 

When a child turns one, we celebrate with exuberance. It is a joyful and memorable occasion. A first. First year. First cake. So many firsts during those first 12 months of life.

I wonder what lies ahead for my sweet great niece. I look forward to watching her grow under the care of loving parents. She is much-loved, too, by extended family. And I can’t think of anything better for a one-year-old than to be so loved.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When the polka music fades in Seaforth December 10, 2015

Northbound on Redwood County Road 7 just minutes from Seaforth.

Northbound on Redwood County Road 7 just minutes from Seaforth.

ON MY LAST VISIT back to my native southwestern Minnesota in late October, my husband and I drove through Seaforth. This community of 86 residents lies seven miles to the east of my hometown of Vesta in Redwood County.

A farm site along CR 7 near Seaforth.

A farm site along CR 7 near Seaforth.

When I was growing up, my school bus passed Seaforth en route to Wabasso, stopping along the way to pick up farm kids.

The former post office in Seaforth. Like so many small town post offices, the one in Seaforth was closed.

Like so many small town post offices, the one in Seaforth was closed by the U.S. Postal Service.

On occasion I attended a funeral, bridal shower or wedding at the Lutheran church in Seaforth at a parish that, because of diminishing congregational size, closed years ago. The church is now a house.

One of the many buttons my mom saved from Seaforth Polka Days.

One of the many buttons my mom saved from Seaforth Polka Days.

As a teen and young adult, I sometimes attended Seaforth Polka Days, an annual July event featuring, as you would expect, polka bands. For 42 years, Seaforth has hosted this celebration and billed itself as “The Smallest Polka Town in the Nation.” That will be no more, I learned from my mom, who today resides in an assisted living apartment in Belview the next town north of Seaforth. Mom didn’t know details. So I turned to the internet and found this July 14 entry on the Seaforth Polka Days Facebook page:

It is the end of an era, the booster club has decided that this will be the last year for polka days. Every year becomes harder to find enough volunteers to work and crowds have been smaller as well. Let’s make this year one to remember. Spread the word that it will be the last, for those who always planned to come one of these years or for those who have fond memories from years past this weekend will be your last chance to celebrate polka days in Seaforth!

Still open or shuttered, I don't know.

Still open or shuttered, I don’t know.

Such decisions to end large-scale small town celebrations are not uncommon. Year after year, the same locals often find themselves planning and working these events.

A scene in the heart of Seaforth.

A scene in the heart of Seaforth.

Yet, Seaforth isn’t totally giving up. Area residents are still planning a 2016 community celebration during the last full weekend in July: softball games, bean bag toss competition, the fire department fundraising supper, tractor pulls, a DJ and one polka band (instead of many) and “buckets of beer.”

On the north edge of Seaforth, even the grain elevator is closed.

On the north edge of Seaforth, even the grain elevator is closed.

Now they’re soliciting names. Online Facebook suggestions thus far include C4th Small Town Days, C4th Clear Creak (sic) Days, C4th Clear Creak (sic) Fest, C4th Hometown Days, C4th Summer Days, Polka Days Part 2 and, finally, Redneck Fest.

Look closely, and you can see the faded words "Farmers

Look closely, and you can see the faded words “Farmers Grain Co.”

Thoughts, on any of this?

Last I knew, my Uncle Milan owned this grain elevator complex. I don't know whether he still does.

Last I knew, my Uncle Milan owned this grain elevator complex. I don’t know whether he still does.

Do you help plan and work at a small town celebration? Do you attend small town celebrations? Let’s hear. Why are such events important to rural communities like Seaforth?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Six-plus great reasons to visit Faribault this weekend August 6, 2015

WHETHER YOU LOVE pets, BBQ, art and a whole lot more, you will find it all in Faribault during the next four days. It’s as if my Southern Minnesota community has been saving a summer’s worth of activities for one weekend plus Thursday.

These students were hammering and chiseling away during a class, making quite a racket in the ice arena/fest site.

These students were hammering and chiseling away during a class, making quite a racket in the ice arena/fest site during the 2012 festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Events kick off Thursday evening with Minnesota’s annual woodcarving festival, Carv-Fest, opening in the Faribault Ice Arena at North Alexander Park. Expert woodcarvers teach classes and the general public is free to wander and observe. Faribault is home to noted woodcarvers from the Whillock family (who organize this event) and Marv Kaisersatt. The fest runs Thursday – Saturday.

Lots of dogs and that 1939 date on the right side of the mural.

A section of the Pet Parade mural on the bandshell in Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Faribault hosts its 79th annual Pet Parade. The “Into the Jungle” theme promises plenty of creative entries. The cuteness factor rules here.

As dusk settled, volunteers begin lighting the luminaries which stretched and wound around the Rice County Fairgrounds.

As dusk settled, volunteers begin lighting the luminaries which wound around the Rice County Fairgrounds during the 2012 Relay for Life.

Friday brings the 23rd annual Relay for Life of Rice County. Several times I’ve attended this gathering to honor and remember those who have faced cancer and to raise monies and awareness. Most impressive are the honorary luminaries circling the fairgrounds. Activities begin at 4 p.m. and continue late into the evening with closing events the next morning.

Information about the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center was available at the concert.

The Center promotes life-affirming solutions for women. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Saturday promises to be a jam-packed day in Faribault beginning with the Run Baby Run! 10K, 5K and kids run sponsored by the Pregnancy Options LifeCare Center in support of life. Registration runs from 7:30 a.m. – 8:15 a.m. at Roosevelt Elementary School.

Bikers and others gather for a post hospice ride party at Faribault Harley-Davidson.

Bikers and others gather for a post hospice ride party at Faribault Harley-Davidson in 2012.

Across town The Ride for Hospice at Faribault Harley-Davidson begins with bikes and cars leaving mid-morning. From noon to 2 p.m., there will be food, music and prizes at the Harley shop.

With the weather about as good as it gets on a summer day, attendance was high at the Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest.

A street scene from the 2012 Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest.

Meanwhile, in the heart of historic downtown Faribault, art and food lovers will gather for the annual Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. There’s a BBQ competition, plenty of food vendors, an art/market fair, recycled art sale, music, kids’ activities, washer tournament and beer garden. The fest raises monies for the Paradise Center for the Arts and the Faribault Mural Society.

And if that isn’t enough. Bethlehem Academy, the Catholic school in town, chose this weekend to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Crafty signage suspended high in a window at The Crafty Maven hints at the crafty goodness you will find inside this historic building at

Crafty signage suspended high in a window at The Crafty Maven hints at the crafty goodness you will find inside this historic building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Aside from all the organized activities, Faribault is worth a visit for its historic downtown with quaint shops. Among my favorite is The Crafty Maven which is across the street from a new bakery, Ginger Spice Bakery, 209 Central Avenue. The bakery opens its doors on Friday.

An overview of the Peterson building which houses architectural salvage and antiques, left, with the brewery on the left.

F-Town Brewing, Faribault’s new craft brewery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And for you beer lovers, check out F-Town Brewing.

Things are happening in Faribault. I just wish everything wasn’t on the same weekend.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling