Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches September 18, 2018

I propped my camera on the grass and tilted it up to snap this photo of the 1894 Valley Grove church, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.

 

A view of a section of the Valley Grove cemetery through a partially open window in the wood-frame church.

 

But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.

 

Duo churches grace the hilltop, the clapboard church replacing the original stone church for worship.

 

Inside the 1894 church with Doug Ohman’s equipment set up for his talk about country churches.

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

Imagine how many preachers preached from this pulpit. Ohman ended his talk with a short “sermon” advising us to view people and situations from the inside rather than the outside. He used a visual–that of a stained glass window appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside.

 

Altar details hold history.

 

We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.

 

Vintage photos and artifacts were propped on windows in the stone church.

 

As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

A woman demonstrated the art of making krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, available for sampling.

 

Old buggies on the grounds added to the sense of history.

 

A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.

 

Valley Grove is an oft-photographed site with photos and artwork of the churches gracing notecards for sale at the country social.

 

This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…

 

 

He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.

 

A snippet of the musical group Hutenanny, which performed under a sprawling oak.

 

Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.

 

As I watched draft horses pull a wagon through the prairie, I imagined immigrant families traversing the prairie also.

 

I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.

 

Efforts have been onging since 2007 to restore the 1862 limestone church.

 

Inside the plain stone church, a rebuilt chandelier adds elegance.

 

The Valley Grove Preservation Society has worked hard to restore both churches. Valley Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

 

It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.

 

Every celebration calls for cake, including this cake served inside the stone church at the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A drive in the Minnesota countryside takes me to St. Jarlath November 7, 2017

 

“SAINT JARLATH. Who’s that?” I asked my Catholic-raised and educated husband as we pulled up to a rural Minnesota cemetery during a recent Sunday afternoon drive.

 

 

He offered no information, as puzzled as me by the saint behind the name of St. Jarlath’s Catholic Cemetery located just off Waseca County Road 22 in Iosco Township. My later online research revealed Bishop Jarlath as the founder and principle patron of the Archdiocese of Tuam in Galway, Ireland. Irish names in the cemetery should have tipped us off.

 

 

I delight in discovering such well-kept rural cemeteries edged next to equally well-maintained churches. Clearly, people care deeply about this place. That pleases me although the closure of rural parishes like this one does not.

 

 

As we wandered the grounds, I spotted autumn décor adorning some gravesites. Seeing scarecrows on a tombstone marked a first for me.

 

 

I noticed, too, the trees,

 

 

the aged, and not so aged, stones,

 

 

the loving words

 

 

 

 

 

 

and clear markers of faith in crosses high and low.

 

 

I tugged at the church door, hoping to get inside. I never expect access. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. Gone are the days of unattended, open churches. I can only imagine the beauty, the history within this country church.

 

 

The ability to freely wander this cemetery on a stunning autumn afternoon tempered my disappointment. To see folks honor their ancestors and Saint Jarlath through a well-kept church and grounds encourages me. This place remains important—at least for now to those still living.

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AS I SCHEDULED this post, written days before the deadly mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I feel compelled to add this postscript expressing my sorrow and thoughts. I cannot fathom the loss to these families, to this community, about the same size as my Minnesota hometown. My heart breaks. A church, of all places, should be a sanctuary from violence. No place seems safe any more.

Initial media reports reveal the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence and that he sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law shortly before killing 26 people and wounding another 20 at the church. This troubles me. Domestic violence continues to root deep into our society. I read or hear media reports daily about murder-suicides, violations of restraining orders, calls to domestic disturbances, stalking, assaults…and more. For every case reported to law enforcement, many many more are not reported. Because of fear. Because of intimidation. Because of control and manipulation.

The invasive crime of domestic abuse and violence is affecting too many of our families, our neighborhoods, our communities and, yes, even our churches, directly and indirectly.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring the aged Oak Ridge Cemetery in Faribault April 27, 2017

Aged tombstones are often spotted with growth like this on a stone at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Faribault.

Aged tombstones are often spotted with growth like this on a stone at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Faribault.

 

A TIME EXISTED when I disliked cemeteries. I thought of bones, of coffins, of creepy, scary stuff that wings through the imagination of a child. I thought of my grandfather buried beneath the cold earth. The grandpa with the shock of white hair. The grandpa who loved iced tea and pruning raspberries and raising honeybees. Decades later I would stand in that same southwestern Minnesota cemetery on a bone-chilling April morning to bury my father. By then I’d long overcome my fear of cemeteries.

 

I recognize several early Faribault names on the Oak Ridge Cemetery sign.

I recognize several early Faribault names on the Oak Ridge Cemetery sign.

 

Today I purposely walk cemeteries to discover the history, the art and the stories therein. I’ve meandered among the tombstones of countless Minnesota graveyards. But not until recently did I explore one right in my own backyard—Oak Ridge Cemetery in Faribault. The cemetery sits atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 3 on the north edge of town. I always thought it was the Catholic cemetery, an error corrected by my husband who pointed to an adjacent burial grounds.

 

Oh, the oaks and the limestone.

Oh, the oaks and the limestone.

 

Oak Ridge is unlike any cemetery I’ve toured. Narrow roadways wind up this historic burial site appropriately named for its ridge-top location and many oak trees. It’s a beautiful location overlooking the city. I made a mental memo to visit in the fall. I noted also two limestone buildings—a crypt and a pumphouse. And I noted the natural state of the unmanicured grounds.

 

Four Nutting headstones in a row grabbed my attention. The Nutting family built a manufacturing company in Faribault.

Four Nutting headstones in a row grabbed my attention. The Nutting family built a manufacturing company in Faribault. On the left is the marker of the Rev. Freeman Nutting, who married Mary Spencer. After he died in December 1853, Mary married Freeman’s older brother, Truman, in 1854. Truman’s first wife, Lucinda Graves, died in 1851.

 

Truman Nutting was born in 1807 and died in 1891.

Truman Nutting was born in 1807 and died in 1891.

 

Mary Spencer Nutting was born in 1814 and died in 1904.

Mary Spencer Nutting was born in 1814 and died in 1904. Have you ever noticed how aged graves read “wife of,” but not “husband of?”

 

When I began reading tombstones, I recognized names of early Faribault residents, of individuals prominent in the community. This is an old cemetery, laid out in 1857, a year before Minnesota became a state.

 

A Google search revealed that stones atop a headstone indicate a visitor stopped to pay respects to the deceased.

A Google search revealed that stones atop a headstone indicate a visitor stopped to pay respects to the deceased.

 

A penny on a headstone also marks a visit and is often a practice of those of Jewish faith. I spotted this coin on a headstone that includes a Star of David.

A penny on a headstone also marks a visit and is often practiced by those of Jewish faith, according to Google sources. I spotted this coin on a headstone with a Star of David.

 

As I paused at markers, I considered the personal stories that I will never know of these men, women, teens, children and babies once loved. I saw evidence of that love in objects left atop gravestones. I’ve seen the usual flowers, flags, garden art and stuffed animals at other cemeteries. But not until Oak Ridge had I seen a penny and stones left as signs of a grave site visit.

 

There's so much history in cemeteries. This sign led me to visit the Dalby Database to learn more about the woman buried beneath this marker.

There’s so much history in cemeteries. This sign led me to visit the Dalby Database to learn more about the woman buried beneath this marker. The broken marker is held together by a plate and bolts.

 

She is Sarah...

She is Sarah Benedict, born on July 29, 1793, died on December 3, 1872…

 

...daughter of William Brewster, soldier of the Revolution.

…daughter of William Brewster, soldier of the Revolution.

 

I am determined now to revisit Oak Ridge—termed by another visitor as “the horse and buggy cemetery.” His tag seems fitting for a burial site that traces back to the early days of Faribault, of Minnesota as a state.

 

I've visited many rural Minnesota cemeteries. This is the first Star of David I've found on a tombstone.

I’ve visited many rural Minnesota cemeteries. This is the first Star of David I’ve found on a tombstone.

 

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries? If yes, why?

 

A tombstone inscribed in German.

A tombstone inscribed in German.

 

FYI: Click here to read an unofficial Facebook page for Oak Ridge Cemetery. It offers lots of information on those buried here.

The Dalby Database is also an excellent source of information for those buried in cemeteries throughout Minnesota.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In a Minnesota cemetery: Oh, sweet baby, who were you? June 16, 2016

 

Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund 169 baby grave marker

 

I’VE TOURED MANY RURAL CEMETERIES. But never have I seen a grave marker that so saddened me as the one I spotted on the edge of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church Cemetery in Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.

 

Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund, 172 baby grave & flip flop

 

Smaller than the length of my size eight flip flop, the simple slab of concrete tilted barely above the earth. Inscribed thereon, in cursive, was a single word—Baby.

 

Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund 170 baby grave marker close-up

 

Certainly I’ve seen grave markers of many babies. But this one, because of its minimal size and placement under trees along the cemetery boundary and its simplicity of design, caused me to pause. I am a mother and a new grandmother. And I suppose in the humanity of that, thinking of my own love for my daughters, son and granddaughter, I empathized with the grief of such a loss.

A section of the cemetery that lies next to Emmanuel Lutheran Church and next to a field.

A section of the cemetery that lies next to Emmanuel Lutheran Church and a field.

Aged tombstones, which I assume once stood vertically, are now cemented flat into the ground.

Aged tombstones, which I assume once stood vertically, are now cemented flat into the ground.

The names reflect the ethnicity of the immigrant families who settled in the Aspelund area.

The names reflect the ethnicity of the immigrant families who settled in the Aspelund area.

Dates are missing from the in-ground marker of Hans, whom I believe to be an early immigrant.

Dates are missing from the in-ground marker of Hans, whom I believe to be an early immigrant.

A beautiful sheltered gravesite

A beautiful sheltered gravesite for John and Maren.

Love the immigrant names of Johannes and Engeborg. So poetic.

Love the immigrant names of Johannes and Engeborg. So poetic.

As I further explored the cemetery—reading the Scandinavian names, studying tombstones and admiring the meticulously kept grounds—I couldn’t shake the image of that baby’s gravestone. Who was he/she? Who were the parents? Why did he/she die?

Next to this list of rules is a graveyard directory, which we couldn't decipher.

Next to this list of rules is a graveyard directory, which we couldn’t decipher.

Hoping to find answers on a posted cemetery directory, neither my husband or I could figure out how to match names with platted marker locations. So I left, still wondering about this precious baby buried here beneath trees in rural Goodhue County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rest in peace, Ole, Sophia, Amelie… May 4, 2015

THERE WAS A TIME when I stayed away from cemeteries. Walking among tombstones, atop burial sites, creeped me out.

But I’ve since matured, realized that a cemetery holds history and art, life stories and loss, and serves as a place to grieve, to honor and to remember loved ones.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

My most recent cemetery tour took me to North Grove Church and Cemetery just north of Faribault along Minnesota Highway 3. I’ve passed this site hundreds of times in 30-plus years, never once stopping to investigate.

North Grove Church, closed in 1931.

North Grove Church closed in 1931.

Here I discovered a quaint church, long closed.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

Peering through curtained windows, I glimpsed pews and wished I could get inside the locked building.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

On a quick perusal of grave markers, where the name “Ole” is chiseled in stone many times, I determined that Norwegian immigrants built this house of worship and established this cemetery.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

John Dalby of Faribault, who runs the Dalby Database along with wife, Jan, confirmed the ethnicity of North Grove Church. The Norwegian church was started in 1869 and likely closed in 1931, when First English Lutheran Church in Faribault formed, Dalby says.

Too many babies died.

Too many babies died.

Wander this burial grounds and you begin to understand the losses and grief endured by early Minnesota settlers. Babies dead. Wives and husbands gone too young. Immigrants who left Norway for a new, but not always better, life in America.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Then scroll through obituaries on the Dalby Database, which includes 2.5 million records from cemeteries, birth and death certificates and more, and names morph into people. Ole Christiansen is no longer simply a Norwegian name inscribed on a tombstone, but a man who was born in Alerude Odemark, Norway. Husband of Sophia. Then Caroline.

June's first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June’s first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June Carver-Zillgitt lived in a jailhouse with her husband-sheriff and cooked for inmates.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

Audrey Saufferrer had five grandchildren.

Grocer O.A. Brekke was termed a man of “sterling character.”

Mathilda Lund was a pioneer resident of the North Grove community.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Those buried at North Grove are 326 individuals who lived and loved and labored, although some were dead at birth, or lived too few days or months or years.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields with a woods just a bit beyond as shown here.

I knew none of them. But, after walking among their gravestones, I am reminded that a cemetery holds life stories, if only we pause to read them.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth's water. The pump is located behind the church.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth’s water. The pump is behind the church.

FYI: Click here to access the Dalby Database, a great resource for anyone doing family history research in Minnesota.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there  for watering flowers and plants.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there for watering flowers and plants.

FYI: Janice Uggen Johnson recently published a book, Faith of our Fathers: History of Markers Norwegian Lutheran Church and North Grove Church and Cemetery, Faribault, Rice County, Minnesota (2014). She is an associate member of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. I have not seen or read the book.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association, based at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, is “a private membership organization dedicated to locating, collecting, preserving and interpreting the Norwegian-American experience with accuracy, integrity and liveliness.” It was founded in 1925.

Check back for a close-up look at a memorial in the North Grove Cemetery honoring a young Faribault woman.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rural revelations in country cemeteries April 17, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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The road past the Vesta Cemetery, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330.

To the left lies the Vesta City Cemetery, where my father, grandparents and other family members are buried. In the distance you can see the grain elevator complex in my hometown.

AS A YOUNG GIRL, I remember fearing cemeteries, that place where my paternal grandpa was laid to rest atop a rare prairie hill when I was just nine.

A historical marker in the Holden Lutheran Church Cemetery, rural Kenyon.

A historical marker in the Holden Lutheran Church Cemetery, rural Kenyon.

But my view of cemeteries has evolved over the years so that today I see these earthly resting spots as places of faith, art, history and personal stories.

A fence surrounds the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery in the Sogn Valley area.

A fence surrounds the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery in the Sogn Valley area.

I no longer focus on the bones buried beneath my feet or the newly-departed lying under a heaped mound of dirt. Rather, I find myself reading tombstones, marveling at carved stone, wondering about the lives of those who lie within the often fenced boundaries of graveyards.

The particularly picturesque Valley Grove Church Cemetery near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

The picturesque Valley Grove Church Cemetery near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

In particular, I am drawn to country cemeteries that my husband and I happen upon during leisurely Sunday afternoon drives in rural Minnesota.

Northwest of Faribault in Shieldsville Township sits the historic Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the adjoined Trebon Cemetery.

Northwest of Faribault in Shieldsville Township sits the historic Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church and the adjoining Trebon Cemetery.

Spot a spire spearing the sky and we typically find a cemetery tucked behind or aside the church. Convenient and comforting.

Folk art in the Trebon Cemetery honors Christ and the deceased.

Folk art in the Trebon Cemetery honors Christ and the deceased.

During this Holy Week, when Christians worldwide focus on reflection and repentance and the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, it seems fitting to revisit some of the Minnesota cemeteries I’ve explored.

Just west of New Ulm, at a memorial honoring Milford settlers who died in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, roses were placed on the marker on Memorial Day weekend 2007.

Just west of New Ulm, at a memorial honoring Milford settlers who died in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, roses were placed on the marker on Memorial Day weekend 2006.

There is much to learn here about those who went before us—those we loved and those we never knew.

Fields and a cemetery embrace many country churches like Vista Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern Minnesota.

Fields and a cemetery embrace many country churches like Vista Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern Minnesota.

Words to ponder at a cemetery in Theilman in southeastern Minnesota.

Words to ponder at a cemetery in Theilman in southeastern Minnesota.

A sign at the cemetery entrance.

Handcrafted signs like this one in Cannon City (near Faribault) grace some rural cemeteries.

An art appropriate cannon marks a Civil War Veteran's tombstone in the Cannon City Cemetery.

An art appropriate cannon marks a Civil War Veteran’s tombstone in the Cannon City Cemetery.

A simple grave marker in the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery.

A simple grave marker in the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery.

A well-tended family plot in the Trebon Cemetery.

A well-tended family plot in the Trebon Cemetery.

A compelling statue of the Virgin Mary in Trebon Cemetery.

A compelling statue of the Virgin Mary in Trebon Cemetery.

A beautiful nature-themed tombstone rests in a cemetery on the west side of New Ulm.

A beautiful nature-themed tombstone rests in a cemetery on the west side of New Ulm.

Stone against stone at Hauge Lutheran Church (the Old Stone Church) in Monkey Valley, rural Kenyon.

Stone against stone at Hauge Lutheran Church (the Old Stone Church) in Monkey Valley, rural Kenyon.

My dad's military marker in the Vesta City Cemetery.

My dad’s military marker in the Vesta City Cemetery.

This post was previously published at streets.mn.
© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling