Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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


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


The bobber water tower in Pequot Lakes.


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


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


A northwoods culture prevails, stamps upon these towns.


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


These folks also appreciate their heritage.





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

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

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The antique shop next to The Van Man November 29, 2017


Next to Bay Lake Antiques, used cars, trucks, and a few vans, cram a fenced lot bannered with signs like WORKING MANS TRUCKS, THE VAN MAN, TRUCKS AND CARS FOR THE WORKING MAN.



But what if you’re a woman?



I suppose you’re still welcome. Not that I was in the market for a different vehicle, being on vacation and all. Yet, as Randy turned our aging van off Minnesota State Highway 18 between Garrison and Brainerd, I considered the potential alienation of female customers via that marketing strategy.



After my initial surprise and after taking a few photos, I focused on the neighboring antique shop and the content therein.





The gracious proprietor accepted my request to take photos as I poked around the main shop, in several stand-alone units and in a roofed wagon jammed with merchandise.





I found several priced-right rural-themed vintage trays that interested me, but passed on them because of their condition. More and more I can talk myself out of a purchase by repeating, I don’t really need more stuff.




Yet, that doesn’t keep me from antique shops, from thrift stores and such that more and more these days hold the treasure of memories.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In which I see that, yes, winter really has arrived in Minnesota November 22, 2016

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A scene along Minnesota State Highway 23 between Foley and St. Cloud on Sunday afternoon.

A scene along Minnesota State Highway 23 between Foley and St. Cloud on Sunday afternoon, after the sun emerged from grey skies.

THE FIRST SNOWFALL of the season always arrives with considerable hoopla here in Minnesota. As if we hadn’t seen snow that layers the ground in white.

Round hay bales create a snow fence along Highway 23.

Round hay bales create a snow fence along Highway 23.

Last week, sections of my state got plenty of snow. We’re talking two feet in Leader in north central Minnesota. Mixed with high winds, blizzard conditions prevailed in many regions. Down here in the southeastern section? Only flurries. And I’m just fine with that.

Just outside of Monticello.

Just outside of Monticello.

Under grey skies on the flat land north of Monticello, snow dusts fields.

Under grey skies on the flat land north of Monticello, snow dusts fields.

However, a Sunday day trip 2.5 hours north and west of the metro took my husband and me into a snowy central Minnesota landscape.

Along Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman.

Along Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman, snow covers the rural landscape.

And, yes, I confess, I delighted in seeing snow-covered ground for the first time this winter season. There’s something about that initial snow that is magical and pure and, well, beautiful.

I snapped this wintry scene as we pulled into a convenience store/gas station in Foley.

I snapped this wintry scene as we pulled into a convenience store/gas station in Foley on Sunday afternoon.

This truck clearly has not moved in awhile.

This truck clearly has not moved in awhile.

The heavy, wet snow is piled now along the roadside, here in Foley.

The heavy, wet snow is piled now along the roadside, here in Foley.

A rural resident cleans out the end of his driveway along Benton County Road 3.

A rural resident cleans out the end of his driveway along Benton County Road 3.

Some parking lots were treacherously icy, like this one where we turned our van around in Gilman.

Some parking lots are treacherously icy, like this one in Gilman.

As long as you don’t have to deal with the snow and ice. As long as roads are clear, which they were except for icy patches on Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman.

I especially appreciate the visual contrast of red barns, this one north of Gilman, against the white landscape.

I especially appreciate the visual contrast of red barns, this one north of Gilman, against the white landscape.

Everything always seems sharper, brighter on a white canvas.

I photographed this train by the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It's heading for Clear Lake.

I photographed this train near the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It’s heading for Clear Lake.

Today brings a predicted wintry mix of precipitation to Minnesota. Rain mixed with snow, which likely will create slick roads. That type of winter weather is always unwelcome. But this is Minnesota. I should expect this.

I'm already waiting for spring, even though winter has just started. Here the same train I photographed in St. Cloud passes through Clear Lake as we all wait.

I’m already waiting for spring, even though winter has just started. Here the same train I photographed in St. Cloud passes through Clear Lake as we all wait.

But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t. Is it May yet? The novelty and excitement of seeing the first snowfall has apparently already faded for me.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Farewell to the Swany White Flour Mill of Freeport December 28, 2011

Freeport promotes itself as "The city with a smile!" That's the smiling water tower to the right and the Swany White Flour Mill to the left in front of the church steeple in this June 2011 image. Freeport is among the communities after which Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon is fashioned.

CROSSING THE OVERPASS into Freeport last June, I snapped a quick landscape photo with the town’s charming water tower smiling at travelers along Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.

I should have focused, though, on the old-fashioned grain elevator-style flour mill to the left in my framed image.

Late Tuesday afternoon this historic icon, the Swany White Four Mill, built in 1897 and owned by the Thelen family since 1903, burned. Minnesota has lost an important part of her history, a still-functioning mill of yesteryear that specialized in producing commercial grade and organic flour and was known for its famous Swany White Buttercake Pancake and Waffle Mix.

That I never realized the importance of this towering, aged building on that June afternoon saddens me for I am typically drawn to small-town elevators. But when my husband and I swung into Freeport late on that Saturday afternoon 6 ½ months ago, we were more interested in finding Charlie’s Café, a popular dining spot in this town of 450. We were hungry. Charlie’s was packed, so we left town without eating there, but not until I snapped photos of the café and Sacred Heart Church and School.

Popular Charlie's Cafe is noted for its tasty homemade food including caramel rolls, meringue pies and hot beef commercials. To the right is the Pioneer Inn, after which Garrison Keillor modeled The Sidetrack Tap in his fictional Lake Wobegon. Keillor and his family lived near Freeport in the early 1970s.

Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, described by Garrison Keillor as "a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof."

Sacred Heart School in Freeport, a lovely old building that caught my eye.

I totally missed out on the Swany White Flour Mill, simply because I was unaware of its important existence.

Eleven years ago, though, the historic mill, Charlie’s and other central Minnesota scenes were photographed by National Geographic photographer Richard Olsenius, illustrating a story, “In Search of Lake Wobegon,” by Garrison Keillor, expanded in 2001 as a book. A sister-in-law gave me her copy of the December 2000 National Geographic recently, knowing how much I would appreciate Keillor’s writing and the black-and-white images by Olsenius. I do.

Keillor rented a farmhouse south of Freeport some 40 years ago. He and his family weren’t exactly embraced by the community during the three years they lived there. Keillor writes about his experiences in the magazine piece, where he reveals that his fictional Lake Wobegon is based on life in central Minnesota, including Freeport.

I wonder if Keillor is reflecting on those years in Freeport as news of the Swany White Flour Mill’s demise reaches him. A eulogy or a tribute to this historic mill would seem fitting for Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcasting from Honolulu, Hawaii, on New Year’s Eve, far from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It hasn’t exactly been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.


Hotdish, but not on a stick August 26, 2011

TYPICALLY MY POSTS focus on a single subject. But not today. I’m serving hotdish. And since the Minnesota State Fair opened Thursday, pretend it’s hotdish on a stick, which actually can be purchased, with cream of mushroom dipping sauce, from vendors Ole and Lena’s. Ja, sure, ya betcha.

This year you’ll also find, for the first time at the Great Minnesota Get Together, chocolate covered jalapeno peppers.

Now, you might think Minnesotans would hesitate to try jalapeno anything given our primarily Scandinavian and German taste buds. But I can tell you that two summers ago I found Dennis Gare pushing chocolate covered jalapenos at the Faribault Farmers’ Market and they were selling like lefse at a Norwegian dinner.

Dennis Gare's chocolate covered jalapenos, which I photographed two years ago.

At the time, Dennis told me the jalapenos were creating quite a buzz among customers and vendors. He’s one of those savvy marketing types who create atypical foods—like pickled eggs and horseradish—that will attract customers and increase sales.

I checked in with Dennis last Saturday and jokingly asked if he was the vendor peddling the chocolate covered jalapeno peppers at the State Fair. Nope. That would be Andre’s Watermelon. But he was a little worried about the fieriness of the over-sized jalapenos on a stick.

If you attend the State Fair and try a chocolate covered jalapeno pepper, submit a comment. I’d like to report back to Dennis down at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. Click here to read my July 20, 2009, post about Dennis’ jalapenos.

SINCE I’M ON THE SUBJECT of the State Fair, I need to give a shout-out to the new Princess Kay of the Milky Way, 18-year-old Mary Zahurones from Pierz, a community of about 1,300 north of St. Cloud in Morrison County and along Minnesota Highway 25, a main route to the Brainerd Lakes area.

The new princess had her head carved in a 90-pound block of butter at the fair yesterday.

Anyway, I know a little about the princess’ hometown of Pierz. My husband graduated from Pierz Healy High School in, well, let’s just say a long, long, long time ago. The new princess graduated from my spouse’s alma mater several months ago, and you’ll find her princess photo proudly showcased on the District 484 website home page.

Two other interesting tidbits about Pierz: The town was originally called Rich Prairie, but was renamed after a Catholic priest, Father Francis Xavier Pierz. He is recognized as “The Father of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud,” having settled in central Minnesota in 1852 as a missionary to Native Americans and having attracted many German Catholic immigrants to the area. You’ll find a statue of the good Father in a Pierz park, moved there last year from the St. Cloud Hospital.

Secondly, if you like bologna, and I don’t, but apparently central Minnesotans do, you can check out Bologna Days every Wednesday at the Red Rooster Bar & Grill in Genola (just south of Pierz) or every Thursday at Patrick’s Bar & Grill in Pierz. Really. This information is listed in the F.A.Q.’s section of the city website and, no bologna, I have seen a Bologna Days sign with my very own eyes.

Magnetic Catholic: St. Francis of Assisi

AS LONG AS WE’RE TALKING Catholic here, even though I’m Lutheran, I simply must point you to the “Magnetic Catholic” paper (well, not really paper) dolls which I first learned about from a Michigan writer on her blog, House Unseen. Click here to read that post and then click here to see the Magnetic Catholic Etsy shop.

I swear—oops, probably shouldn’t be swearing—you’ll have your socks charmed right off you by the likes of the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Francis of Assisi and the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

ONE MORE THING, totally unrelated to Catholics, dairy princesses, or anything on a stick.

But, apparently the latest trend among hip, young Minneapolitans is to carry iced coffee or similar drinks around in a (Mason/Ball/Kerr) pint canning jar.

I learned this from my eldest, who drove down to Faribault Thursday evening so her personal mechanic/Dad could check her car. After we gathered home-grown tomatoes, flowers and a few other niceties for her to take back home to south Minneapolis, she asked if I had any canning jars.

A hip canning jar.

I know my daughter well enough to realize she didn’t need them for canning. Heck, I don’t even can.

So we traipsed down to the basement and poked around until we found two pint jars, rings and lids. She was one happy Uptowner.

SO THERE, I HOPE YOU enjoyed your serving of hotdish. Mighty tasty, huh?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hail St. Mary’s of Melrose June 26, 2011

The steeples of St. Mary's Catholic Church of Melrose.

I STOOD THERE. Just stood there. For minutes, taking in the glorious splendor before me.

The cornflower blue of the arched ceiling. The pillars. Pews—endless carved pews stretching from the fonts of holy water to the steps leading to the altar.

A view from the back of St. Mary's Catholic Church looking toward the main altar.

I didn't even try to count the hand-carved pews that grace this church. But they are many.

A stone font holding holy water at the back of the church.

Such beauty. Such holiness. Such wonderment.

Opulent, stained glass windows bedecking the sanctuary like jewels on a crown.

One of too many stained glass windows to count.

Statues fit for the finest of museums.

This statue of Jesus and Mary sits at the back of the church.

And then I moved, not sure which direction to go, wondering how I could possibly see every detail. Prayerful hands. Flickering candles. The frayed ends of the bell pull. Gold-leaf stenciled crosses. Worn wood. Angels in flight above the altar.

Clustered candles of prayer at St. Mary's.

Bell ropes dangle by the balcony stairway. Two stairways lead to the balcony.

A gold-leafed stenciled cross borders a side wall of the sanctuary.

My eyes swept across the Church of St. Mary’s, or St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Melrose. Choose the moniker you prefer.

The name and the denomination of this 1898 church mattered not to me. I cared only for the heavenly feel of this holy place.

How could I not be impressed by this multi-steepled house of worship next to the turkey plant and soaring above the landscape 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities?

How many times, if you travel Interstate 94 in central Minnesota, have you noticed those steeples while zipping by Melrose, but never taken the time to drive into town? Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, this Catholic church is worth a stop if you appreciate craftsmanship, art, history and reverent beauty beyond belief.

The church rises above the land, defining Melrose.

The 113-year-old building was constructed by the parishioners of St. Boniface and renamed St. Mary’s when St. Boniface and St. Patrick’s parishes merged in 1958.

History runs deep here. You will see it in the hitching post out front, smell it in the incense, hear it in the creak of steps leading to the locked balcony.

And if you listen closely, you can almost hear the whispered prayers of those who have come here on bended knees to lift up their sorrows to the Lord.


I COULD NOT POSSIBLY share my many photos of St. Mary’s with you in one blog post. Please check back for more images in a future post.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thou shalt not photograph the Amish June 14, 2011

TEMPTATION TEMPTED ME on Saturday afternoon, wrapping her slippery fingers around mine, tightening her grip, nudging my index finger toward the shutter button.

But Right resisted, reminding Temptation, “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish.”

The battle waged for a good 15 minutes on a grassy wedge of land along a main route through Osakis, southeast of Alexandria.

Here quilts, clipped to clothesline strung between a light post and trees, drew my husband and me off the road. When we turned onto the side street and I spotted the black buggy, I couldn’t believe our luck. I’ve wanted, always, to encounter the Amish up close and photograph them.

The Amish buggy parked at a roadside market in Osakis.

But then Right niggled my conscience: “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish.”

At least without asking, I thought, although Temptation urged me to click the shutter button of my camera immediately and then ask. But I didn’t. “Is it OK if I take your picture?” I inquired of the bonneted mother cozied with her two black-bonneted daughters on a blanket spread upon the grass.


What did I expect? That she would say “yes” and smile for the camera. So I tried again. “How about if I photograph you from the back?”


I tried for the third time. “Can I photograph your quilts and baked goods?”

The Amish mom agreed, as long as I didn’t include her or her two pre-teen daughters in my photos. But I was still tempted, oh, so tempted, to sneak them into the images. Would they notice if I edged the camera lens over the clothesline while photographing the quilts?

Right prevailed and I photographed the hand-stitched blankets, the rows of baskets, the preserves and homemade noodles and that black buggy, minus its passengers and minus the horse that was tethered in the shade of trees behind nearby buildings.

I should also have photographed the fly swatters and woven rugs, but I didn’t want to push my luck, appear too pushy and offend these Amish.

Beautiful, hand-stitched quilts stretched on the clothesline.

Preserves and a few baked goods remained when we arrived at this mini Amish market late Saturday afternoon.

This close-up photo shows the detailed stitching in these hand-stitched Amish quilts.

Hand-woven baskets for sale by the Amish.

All the while the two young girls watched me like a hawk. I could feel their eyes following me, boring into my conscience. I wondered what they were thinking. Were they interested in my fancy schmancy camera, or did they simply wish me gone?

Were they worried that I would photograph them, thereby stealing their souls or creating a graven image, or whatever reason the Amish have for shunning photos of themselves?

I remained so focused on possible covert photo ops that I failed to notice details, except those black bonnets, the blue and plum dresses and the wide, plain copper-colored wedding band on the mother’s ring finger (which I wanted to photograph). I wish I had noticed their shoes.

I also failed to ask many questions of the trio. I learned that they live 10 miles east of Osakis, that the buggy trip takes an hour and that they come to town every Saturday (not in winter, of course) to peddle their goods. All of this the mother shared in a brogue that I couldn’t place, but which reminded me of a far-away homeland, of the thick tongue of an immigrant.

While the mother spoke, her two daughters perched, respectful, still and mute as statues, until I looked directly into the brown eyes of one and asked whether she had made any of the market merchandise.

“Cookies,” she blurted, her face blossoming into an appreciative smile.

I wished in that moment, more than any, that I could have photographed her happiness, shown you the delight blooming upon that young Amish girl’s face when I paused to acknowledge her presence, to include her, to boost her self-confidence.

But I could not. “Thou shalt not photograph the Amish.”

Not on this June Saturday afternoon in Osakis.

The one item we purchased, a superb (except for the burned crust), flavorful $6 pie oozing with tasty red raspberries. FYI, there were no cookies remaining or I would have bought some.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling