Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The winds of December topple holiday trees December 6, 2021

The Holiday Tree Display in Faribault, late Sunday afternoon, when winds tipped trees. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

WICKED WINDS SWEEPING from the northwest into Faribault Sunday afternoon into Monday brought more than cold temps. The strong winds also toppled Christmas trees displayed in Central Park.

Tipped tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Fallen ornaments atop a Christmas tree skirt. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Fallen snowman tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Randy and I headed out to view the Holiday Tree Display, a project of the City of Faribault Parks and Recreation Department, after the Vikings game. When we pulled up, we observed numerous trees lying on the ground, ornaments littering the lawn, tree toppers askew.

A member of the Wunderlich family stands near the tree (left front) he and his sister donated. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
A cross tops the tree donated by the Wunderlich family. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Tubes of sand anchor a tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Several tree sponsors arrived to deal with the unexpected damage. A Wunderlich family member who, along with his sister set up a tree honoring loved ones and community members who died of cancer, headed across the street to Ace Hardware for sandbags. I noticed sandbags anchoring several trees. And when two women came to upright their trees, Randy and I convinced them to let the trees lie given the prevailing winds.

Randy chats Sunday afternoon with a member of the Wunderlich family. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Even though toppled onto the ground, this star topper still shines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
A particularly beautifully-decorated tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

When Randy drove by the holiday display Monday morning on his way to work, he reported more trees down with only perhaps 10 of the 34 still standing. Winds still blew, with the temp dipping into the single digits. It feels a lot like winter now. No snow here, though. But central and northern Minnesota got enough to create travel issues and necessitate late school starts.

Across the street, the beautiful, historic Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour provides a lovely backdrop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Ah, Minnesota. I expect next year precautions will be taken to keep those holiday trees standing straight.

An unusual tree sponsor name. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
So many beautiful ornaments. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Grey against grey. A rustic star. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

This is only the second year of a project which spreads Christmas joy. All trees are sponsored and decorated by local businesses, organizations, civic groups, etc., and then donated to families/individuals without a tree. It’s a great idea, one which garnered the 2020 Minnesota Recreation and Park Association Award of Excellence for Faribault Parks and Rec.

In the grey of a December day, this red star brings light. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

I feel thankful to live in a community of generosity.

Found among the ornaments. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021.)

None of us ever knows when strong winds will sweep into our lives and knock us down. None of us ever knows when we will need the kindness of others to uplift us, to help us stand, to support us. To give us hope. There is something to be learned from wicked winter winds. We need one another, even if sometimes we think we don’t.

Photographed Sunday afternoon. All trees have now been placed upright. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

FYI: The trees have now been placed upright and staked, and will be displayed until December 10.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Finding the perfect imperfect Christmas tree

A family searches for just the right tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

TYPICALLY, WE DON’T BUY our Christmas tree until later in December. But this year we purchased ours the day after Thanksgiving. Why? Because I didn’t want to risk Ken’s Christmas Trees running out of trees.

Like so many other items (remember the run on toilet paper?), there’s a supposed shortage of Christmas trees. True? I’m uncertain. But the fact is that Faribault has far fewer places to purchase real trees than just a few years ago. Faribault Garden Center closed. Farmers Seed and Nursery closed. And Donahue’s Greenhouse stopped selling Christmas trees a while back when they opted to open only in spring and summer.

Of course, trees can still be found in multiple locations in and around Faribault. But none of the trees are quite like Ken’s. If you prefer old-fashioned/Charlie Brown style, this is your go-to place. I prefer imperfect to perfect, short-needled to long and short to tall.

Customers flock to Ken’s tree lot post Thanksgiving. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

So on the day after Thanksgiving, Randy and I headed to Ken’s Christmas Trees in his pop-up parking lot location at 1407 Fourth Street Northwest across from Arby’s in Faribault. When we arrived, the place was buzzing with customers. When I saw a tree I liked, I asked for it to be set aside while I continued my search. I wasn’t about to risk losing my perfect tree to a perfect stranger. In the end, that first tree made it atop our van.

That’s Ken, far right, walking towards us. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

We chatted a bit with Ken Mueller, who has operated this seasonal business since 1988. The tree lot has been in existence since 1939 under a different name, different locations. Randy knows Ken from back whenever. He’s a down-to-earth, hardworking guy with a big smile and a friendly attitude. Perfect for vending trees. Ken shared that he raised his prices this year (we paid $35, his lowest price) to offset increased costs of hauling all those trees from Up North to southern Minnesota. He’s bringing in 630 trees in four loads. That may sound like a lot, but not when you draw customers far and wide who are looking for trees like Ken’s.

You’ll find more than just trees here. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

Besides trees, customers will also find porch pots, wreaths, garlands, evergreen gnomes and dogwood.

Choosing a tree… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

Our tree isn’t inside the house yet. This early in December seems too early to bring it into the warmth and heat. But soon. When I untangle and layer the lights, hang vintage and homemade ornaments, and then drape the branches in strands of tinsel, I’ll flash back to the Christmas trees of childhood. The Charlie Brown trees. So imperfectly perfect.

Folksy signage adds to the charm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

FYI: Ken’s Christmas Trees is open from 2 – 7 pm Monday-Friday; 9 am – 6 pm Saturday; and 11 am – 6 pm Sunday.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Christmas & beyond at Apple Creek Orchard December 2, 2021

A gnome greets shoppers outside Apple Creek Boutique. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

TIS THE SEASON…to buy locally-grown apples.

Apples and wreaths for sale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

Saturday afternoon Randy and I aimed west out of Faribault to Apple Creek Orchard, 5524 185th Street West, for a bag of apples. But we found much more. We found Christmas and, more importantly, the Christmas spirit.

A snapshot of the boutique. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

This wasn’t just about picking up a bag of apples and then leaving. This was about lingering and engaging in a festive setting. This was about chatting with co-owner Tami Theis, who welcomed us with warmth. I felt like more than just a customer. I felt valued. Appreciated. As if I was talking to a friend. And that gives me reason to return (beyond just apples).

Honey (and maple syrup) from local producers is sold in the shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

Tami and her husband, Kevin, are new owners of the orchard purchased from Dan Ableman. During this visit and a previous one, Tami expressed her appreciation for Dan’s knowledge and help as they learn the ins and outs of operating an orchard.

Holiday wreaths for sale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

But the couple is also infusing new ideas into a family-owned and operated agri-entertainment business. Wagon rides. Apple slinging. A corn maze. Photo props. All were a part of their fall offerings. And now they’ve transitioned to Christmas.

A gnome peeks from behind a row of Christmas trees at Apple Creek Orchard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

As we entered the farmyard, I noticed immediately the Christmas trees fronting the poleshed style store. I had no idea Apple Creek sold trees. They do—Canadian fir at $10/foot—plus seasonal pots, wreaths and garlands.

An example of Geralyn Thelen’s beautiful fused glass art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

And inside the boutique, which, yes, includes refrigeration units filled with bagged apples, there’s more. Clothing. Seasonal décor. Honey, Maple syrup. Gift boxes of local goods. And, on this Saturday, the fused glass art of Northfield artist Geralyn Thelen, who set up shop for the day. (She’s hosting a holiday open house from 10 am – 4 pm December 3-5 at her home studio, 2001 Lincoln Street South, Northfield. Guests are required to wear face masks. If you can’t attend, you are welcome to schedule an appointment. Call 507.581.1239.)

This Santa “talks” and moves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

A life-sized animated Santa, standing near a Christmas tree and against a sleigh backdrop, adds to the holiday setting. The real Santa visits the orchard on Saturday, December 11, in a “Cocoa with Santa” by appointment event from 10 am – 4 pm. The cost is $20 for a 15-minute visit and photo with Santa. (Register on the website.)

Cider, coffee and cocoa are available from the beverage bar. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)
I set my cider down to take photos outside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

Tami set up a Hot Cocoa Bar inside the store, with offerings of not only cocoa, but also coffee and homemade apple cider. I highly-recommend the cider. I stepped outside to sip my beverage while perusing the trees corralled in portable fencing and seasonal décor staged among straw bales. The cider, hand-pressed at the orchard and made with Tami’s special recipe (cinnamon, nutmeg and oranges), was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. I stepped back inside to tell her that. Eventually, the Theises will sell their cider with Tami’s recipe included.

Fronting the store, holiday decor and that welcoming gnome. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

And come June 2022, if all goes as planned with contractors, the couple will open The Blossom event venue. A place for gatherings—wedding receptions, holiday parties, corporate events, graduation parties (two Theis kids will be the first) and other celebrations.

In keeping with their agri-entertainment goals, the Theises are also adding a wiffle ball field, which Tami says her husband is especially excited about. They’ll also offer homemade pizza, donuts, caramels and that cider I savored so much. I look forward to trying some or all. I fully expect the Theis family to succeed in their endeavor. They are a team. Committed. Enthusiastic. Hard-working. Friendly. They bring something new to the Faribault area. Already, Apple Creek Orchard is drawing customers from all over, including the metro. The Theis family is providing experiences, which create memories and bond families. All in a beautiful rural setting.


FYI: Apple Creek Orchard is currently open from 9 am – 6 pm Thursday-Sunday. Check the orchard Facebook page for updates.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Christmas at the hardware store December 17, 2020

Ace Hardware in Faribault, photographed at dusk on December 5.

WHEN WE SHOP at the local hardware store, it’s typically to pick up necessities for a home repair. Like last Sunday, Randy ran downtown to Ace to purchase a toilet handle operating system. I can’t even count the number of times he’s replaced this as Faribault’s incredibly hard water corrodes the metal piece inside the tank. My apologies to all you plumbing knowledgeable people for that amateurish explanation. But it’s frustrating. This time Randy opted for plastic.

Ace carries so much more than plumbing and other basic hardware necessities. There’ s a Hallmark card shop inside the store. And a paint center. And everything you need for grilling, including the Big Green Egg, although Randy will never deviate from his charcoal-fired Weber. There are tools and slippers and novelty gift items and…

When I photographed the lot on December 5, there was a wide selection of trees.

If we needed a Christmas tree, we could find that at the hardware store, too. Real trees lined a makeshift tree lot outside the front door when I stopped by on December 5. Currently all live trees, spruce tops, dogwood and porch pots are priced at 50 percent off. While supplies last. And, yes, we’ve been known to wait until just days before Christmas to purchase our tree. Not this year, though. Plus I’ve found my go-to source for Charlie Brown trees at Ken’s Christmas Trees.

The festive Christmas tree lot at Ace offers more than just trees.

As I walked away from Ace Hardware, I paused to photograph the blow-up Nativity scene above the store entry. I’ve seen Santas and snowmen and every other type of outdoor holiday inflatable, but never the Holy Family. How uplifting to view this little family staged there, in a place of honor, as customers hurried in and out of the hardware store.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Finding a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in Faribault December 10, 2020

Our family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That’s me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings.

EACH DECEMBER, I FIND myself on a quest for a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I like my tree small, shaped by nature and reminiscent of the Christmas trees of my youth. Those tinseled childhood trees sat on the end of the Formica kitchen table in our cramped southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

Even though I live in a house with more room, although small by today’s standards, I still want a basic short-needled Charlie Brown tree. Such a tree brings back many happy holiday memories.

Some of the trees available at Ken’s Christmas Trees.

I’ve found a source for such a tree here in Faribault, my go-to spot for the past several Christmases, although last year I didn’t get a tree. It had been a challenging year and I just did not feel up to holiday decorating.

But this year is different. This year I want, need, the joy of Christmas decorations filling my house. With lights. Tinsel. Candle angels and Santas and a snowman that I’ve had for decades. A wooden stable handcrafted by my maternal grandpa along with figurines cast in plaster of Paris. Plastic nativities gifted to me by Sunday School teachers more than 50 years ago. The scent of pine.

Ken’s Christmas Trees, located behind Taco John’s.

This is the stuff of Christmas in my house. All of these are meaningful, connected to places, people, experiences. Joy. The Charlie Brown tree I found at Ken’s Christmas Trees (formerly Kuntze Christmas Tree Lot now at a new location and with a new name, but still operated by the Mueller family) makes my heart happy.

Randy and I bought our tree earlier than usual this year. I figured Ken’s would have a run on trees given three local businesses that once sold trees are either out of business or no longer selling them. It seems my decision to buy early was a smart one. As we pulled into Ken’s new location, sandwiched in a lot between Taco John’s and a house just off Minnesota State Highway 21/Rice County Road 48 near its intersection with Highway 60, others were arriving to purchase trees in a steady stream.

Ken’s features Charlie Brown trees.

“I need a Charlie Brown tree,” I announced to Ken’s son, TJ, upon greeting him. He assured me that’s all they had.

Tools of the Christmas tree trade and also the table for sawing the ends of trunks.

I’m not all that particular about our tree—although Randy may disagree—so we quickly chose a tree. I noticed that Ken’s inventory differed from previous years with long and lean trees. I prefer mine shorter rather than tall and pencil thin.

TJ fastens our tree for the short drive across town.

No matter, these trees are proving popular. Not only with the locals, but with folks from the Twin Cities metro who are driving to Faribault to buy these old-fashioned Charlie Brown style Christmas trees. I overheard TJ telling a customer that.

Our tree, cut and ready to take inside the house after Randy sawed the trunk.

He’s a friendly young man, just like his dad. TJ offered to saw the end of the trunk for optimal water uptake. Randy opted out. And then he secured the tree to the top of our van, asking how far we were traveling to assure the tree stayed put. With that done, TJ thanked us and added, “God bless you folks.”

The tree in a corner of our living room, awaiting a Christmas tree skirt and decorating.

I left feeling grateful for my Charlie Brown Christmas tree and for the wonderful experience of buying local from a family that exudes joy.

Signage and a rustic tree (which I love) mark the entrance to Ken’s Christmas Tree lot.

TELL ME: Do you buy a real Christmas tree? If so, what’s your source and what type of tree do you purchase?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Faribault: Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree December 5, 2020

A star shines atop a tree at Central Park as the sun sets Saturday evening.

THIS WEEKEND IN FARIBAULT, we would have celebrated Winterfest, complete with a lighted holiday parade, fireworks and more. But, due to COVID-19, organizers canceled the celebration. And rightly so.

Santa at Central Park.

But then the Faribault Parks and Recreation Department got creative, coming up with a Drive-by Tree Display as part of the community’s annual Hometown Holidays celebration, which typically centers at the library with activities and the arrival of Santa on a fire truck. None of that happened.

Decorated trees line the sidewalk in Faribault’s Central Park.
Each tree is uniquely decorated.
The display is just across the street from the historic cathedral.

This year we have Christmas trees—a line of 19 decorated evergreens stretched along one block on the east side of Central Park next to Second Avenue and across from the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour.

We arrived around 4 pm with plenty of time to view the trees before dark.
Detailed ornaments grace many of the trees.
The lights turned on as the sun set.

Randy and I checked out the display around sunset Saturday evening. It’s beautiful. In daylight. And even more lovely when the sun colors orange into the sky and darkness edges in and the holiday lights switch on.

Randy walks ahead of me, northbound along the row of trees.
Among the many simple and beautiful toppers.
Looking to the south…

Meant to be a drive-by look-and-see, Randy and I opted to walk by. The timing of our visit meant few people in the park. We had our masks in hand if needed.

An angel tops a tree.
I loved viewing and photographing the wide variety of tree toppers.
Especially beautiful as the sun colored the sky.

Walking by and stopping at the trees provided a close up look of ornaments, of tree toppers, of all the details that made each tree a holiday delight.

A downtown hair salon decorated this tree.
A local church created a faith-themed tree.
Another tree sponsor: Faribault Heritage Days.

Each of the 19 trees was decorated by a business or non-profit or organization. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and effort put into decorating the trees, which will be given to St. Vincent DePaul and donated to needy families.

I’m reflected in a bulb as I photograph it.

But most of all, I appreciate this gift to my community. Now, more than ever, we need to feel uplifted, joyful, happy. And I felt all of those when I photographed these decorated trees.

A group participating in the Faribault Parks & Recreation Department’s version of The Amazing Race poses for a photo in Central Park.
Posted in Central Park for participants in Faribault’s The Amazing Race.
Santa is centered in the tree display.

If I would change one thing, it would be to leave these trees displayed for more than a few days. They went up on Thursday. Sunday, December 6, marks your last time to view the Drive-by Tree Display.

A star glows atop a tree.
The lovely trees drew both motorists who slowly drove by and also pedestrians.
The largest tree stands in front of the historic Central Park Bandshell.

What a gift. Thank you, Faribault Parks and Recreation and all who participated in what I hope will become an annual community tradition.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Finding the perfect little Christmas tree in Faribault December 19, 2016

Our family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That's me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings.

The Kletscher family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That’s me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings.

FEW PHOTOS EXIST OF ME as a child. So I treasure each one, especially a rare color print of me and four siblings clustered around the kitchen table on Christmas Eve 1964. We are dressed in our Sunday best, back home from worship services at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. I’m surprised we were willing to pose given the pile of presents.




But it is not the gifts or the setting or even the impatient look on my middle brother’s face that remain imprinted upon my memory so many decades removed from the farm. It is the Christmas tree. I never realized how small that table-topped tree until I grew into adulthood. But it’s short, maybe three feet. I recall going to the local grocer and sorting through trees leaning in the snow against the side of the grocery store. Such memories.




A few years ago, with my three children grown and gone, I decided to down-size our Christmas tree from average to small. I longed for a tree like the ones of my childhood. Imperfect and short with short needles. And I found that tree at Kuntze Christmas Tree Lot along Second Avenue Northwest in Faribault.




This no-frills lot run since 1988 by Ken Mueller (and in business since 1939) features fresh-cut, untrimmed trees from a dairy farm near Duluth. They’re as natural as a tree can be. Shaped by nature. Pinecones and leaves still clinging to branches. Pliable, fresh needles. Exactly what I wanted.




This season, Ken’s had a run on trees. Donahue’s Greenhouse, a major supplier of Christmas trees to locals, is no longer open during the holiday season. So on the date I shopped, December 10, I found a limited selection of trees in Ken’s lot. He’s not planning to restock. After sorting through about a half-dozen trees, my husband and I chose our Charlie Brown tree and Ken placed it in the back of our van. Yes, the tree is that small.




Randy handed him $20, told him to keep the $4 change and they chatted for a bit because this tree salesman is a talker. Plus I wanted to snap a few photos.




Now the tree stands in my living room, nestled between a window and a chest of drawers my dad once shared with his oldest brother. I snapped a selfie of myself with the tree after stringing the lights. I’m not good at selfies. (Or maybe I am since I meant for the tree to be the focus.)




I’m much better at choosing a tree that reminds me of happy childhood Christmases on the family farm. For me, it’s all about the memories.

BONUS PHOTO: The message on the back of Ken’s business card:




TELL ME: If you have a Christmas tree in your house, is it real or fake? Why?

This year the Christmas Tree Promotion Board has launched a campaign of “It’s Christmas. Keep it real.”  The board markets the tradition, scent and natural beauty of real trees.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Christmas tree eating goats to debut at River Bend January 22, 2016

WHEN I FIRST READ about goats eating Christmas trees, I was skeptical. But then I watched a video on Goat Dispatch and saw for myself goats devouring these sharp-needled evergreens.

This Sunday afternoon, January 24, River Bend Nature Center in Faribault will feature the Christmas tree eating goats at Winterfest. The event runs from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Randy unloads our Christmas tree.

Randy unloads our Christmas tree.

Last Sunday afternoon, on one of Minnesota’s coldest winter days thus far this season, my husband and I headed across town to River Bend. The parking lot was empty as we unlatched our Charlie Brown tree from the roof of the van and Randy pulled it onto a pile of discarded holiday trees.

I photographed these goats grazing in a pasture near Northfield in August 2015. They are not a part of Goat Dispatch.

I photographed these goats grazing in a pasture near Northfield in August 2015. They are not a part of Goat Dispatch.

I remember as a child reading that goats will eat tin cans. I may have gotten that idea from The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a favorite childhood fable. Myth or truth? Probably truth.

Goats graze on buckthorn at River Bend Nature Center, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

Goats graze on buckthorn at River Bend Nature Center, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

Goat Dispatch, a rural Faribault business that rents out goats for land management/brush removal grazing, states online that goats have narrow strong mouths. I would expect that given Goat Dispatch goats have attacked invasive buckthorn at River Bend. I’m quite familiar with the sharp thorns of buckthorn.

This sign was posted on a fence enclosing Goat Dispatch goats at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

This sign was posted on a fence enclosing Goat Dispatch goats at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

And I personally know Goat Dispatch owners Jake and Amanda Langeslag. This young couple is about as down-to-earth friendly and honest as they come. They are passionate about the environment and their goats and their business. If they say goats eat Christmas trees—and they show that in a video—I believe them.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Christmas tree that would make Charlie Brown proud December 19, 2014

IT’S NOT QUITE a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But close, my husband assessed.

Christmas tree vendor Ken Mueller helps my husband, Randy, load our old-fashioned Christmas tree into our van.

Christmas tree vendor Ken Mueller helps my husband, Randy, load our old-fashioned Christmas tree into our van.

He’s correct and I’m beyond delighted with our purchase this year of an old-fashioned untrimmed Christmas tree grown on a dairy farm near Duluth.

Our short-needled tree resembles the two on the left. It's perfect.

Our short-needled tree resembles the two on the left. It’s perfect.

The short, scrubby tree with the unbalanced shape and sparse branches reminds me of the Christmas trees which topped one end of our grey Formica kitchen table in the cramped farmhouse where I grew up in southwestern Minnesota during the 1950s and 1960s.

That’s the type of tree I’ve always wanted in my adulthood, but never found until this year. Short and beautiful, bedecked in tinsel and decorated with ornaments like a wax lamb, never hung too close to a holiday light, and the glittery shimmer of a silver church with red windows. That’s my tree memory.

Even the sign is down-home appealing.

Even the sign is down-home appealing.

All these decades living in Faribault, I could have had this type of imperfect tree, if only I’d paused to look.

Ken leases land from the Kuntze family for his seasonal tree lot.

Ken leases land from the Kuntze family for his seasonal tree lot.

Since 1988, Ken Mueller has been selling old-fashioned trees on a leased lot on the north edge of Faribault, just down the road from the Rice County Historical Society and across the street from a liquor store and gas station. He remembers his wife selling trees, baby strapped to back. His daughter is 26 now.

You'll find trees in varying  sizes at Ken's lot.

You’ll find trees in varying sizes at Ken’s lot. That’s the one we chose on the right.

Countless years I’ve passed the Kuntze Christmas Tree Lot, noticing the scraggly trees leaning against wood frames and, in the evening, spotlighted by glaring light bulbs. And I just passed right by.

I didn't ask when these trees were cut. But ours is not all dry with needles shedding.

I didn’t ask when these trees were cut. But ours is not all dry with needles shedding.

Mueller’s trees are hauled down from Duluth to peddle to customers like me desiring a nature-shaped tree that is anything but Christmas card perfect. He sells nearly 300.

Our tree cost $12, well, $15 if you include the $3 tip my husband gave Ken. Not only perfect, but Charlie Brown affordable.

SO WHAT’S YOUR IDEA of a “perfect” tree? Does it match mine, or does it look something like these, photographed at Farmer Seed and Nursery, where we began our quest and usually buy our Christmas tree (but didn’t this year because of the cost):

There are plenty of trees to choose from inside and outside the historic Farmer Seed and Nursery.

There are plenty of trees to choose from inside and outside the historic Farmer Seed and Nursery.

Tools of the tree selling trade.

Tools of the tree selling trade.

Farmer Seed offers a wide assortment of flocked trees in the most unusual hues.

Farmer Seed offers a wide assortment of flocked trees.

I love exploring the nooks and crannies of the historic Farmer Seed and Nursery as much as viewing the tree offerings. The flocked trees are up a ramp in a maze of rooms with

I love exploring the nooks and crannies of the historic Farmer Seed and Nursery as much as viewing the tree offerings. The flocked trees are up a ramp in a maze of rooms with wood floors and beautiful, sturdy beams. There’s a certain rustic charm in this complex building.

Flocked trees come in an assortment of hues, even orange.

Flocked trees come in an assortment of hues, even orange.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” November 30, 2011


A delightful holiday musical for the entire family. It’s the true story of a Great Lakes schooner, whose captain risks life and limb to transport Christmas trees to the German immigrants in Chicago during the late 1800’s. The result was the Christmas tree tradition spread throughout the Midwest and America.

Attend The Merlin Players’ production of The Christmas Schooner, opening Friday, December 2, at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault, and you’ll never view a Christmas tree in quite the same way. Guaranteed, you’ll appreciate your tree a whole lot more and the ease with which you can pull yours from storage, browse in a Christmas tree lot or tromp through the woods to chop down your own.

Allow me to take you 6 ½ hours away from Faribault to eastern Wisconsin, to Rawley Point, a piece of land that juts into Lake Michigan in Point Beach State Forest five miles north of Two Rivers.

Rawley Point at Point Beach State Forest along Lake Michigan in early August.

Off this point 26 ships sank or became stranded, including the steamship Vernon, which broke up in stormy waters in 1877 with 52 lives lost. Only one seaman survived.

Then there’s the Rouse Simmons schooner, widely known as “The Christmas Tree Ship.” With Captain Herman Schuenemann at the helm, the ship left Thompson, Michigan, on November 22, 1912, bound for Chicago with a holiday cargo of Upper Peninsula Christmas trees. (Sorry, but I can’t explain the discrepancy in dates between the play promo and the true date of the schooner’s demise.)

A painting of the Christmas Tree Schooner at the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum in Two Rivers.

The schooner, with 16 crew members, never reached Chicago. Not until 59 years later was she found in 170 feet of water off Rawley Point, her Christmas trees still stashed in her hold. The schooner remains preserved in the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

The beach at Rawley Point on a Sunday afternoon in August.

Walking Rawley Point beach on an August afternoon, the only hazards are stinky dead fish and driftwood.

The U.S. Coast Guard's erector style lighthouse at Rawley Point rises 113 feet above Lake Michigan. The light is one of the largest and brightest on the Great Lakes and can be seen from 19 miles away.

This past summer my family visited Point Beach State Forest and attractions in nearby Two Rivers, all within an hour’s drive of my second daughter’s home in Appleton, Wisconsin. On that Sunday afternoon, strolling along the sandy beach near Rawley Point Lighthouse, it seemed impossible that Lake Michigan could transform into stormy waters that would become a grave for so many.

But it did.

Now you can experience the touching and tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” via The Merlin Players’ The Christmas Schooner production. I saw this performance several years ago at the Paradise.

I cried.

I’ve never cried before at a play.

The historic Rogers Street Fishing Village includes the 1886 Two Rivers' North Pier Lighthouse, to the right.

Inside the Coast Guard museum, a worker points to a model of the Rawley Point Lighthouse, which was moved from a French exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 to Rawley Point.

You'll find information and artifacts from area shipwrecks at the fishing village and museum.

FYI: Performances of The Christmas Schooner are set for 7:30 p.m. December 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 and at 2 p.m. December 4 and 11 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Admission is $14 for adults and $9 for those 12 and under. For tickets, call (507) 332-7372 or stop in during box office hours, from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday or from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday.

I’d highly-recommend buying tickets in advance.

CLICK HERE for information about the Rouse Simmons schooner from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

CLICK HERE for info about Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

CLICK HERE for info on Point Beach State Forest.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post I wrote about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling