Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Wheeling Township, Part III: More images & words from Germanfest October 4, 2017

A farm site along Minnesota State Highway 60 near St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault.


IN A RURAL SETTING not far from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, the members, families and friends of St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, serve not only an incredible German dinner each September, but also incredible hospitality.



Shirley checks and refills food on the serving line.


Even the pickles are homemade.


Through my many years of attending dinners, luncheons and other events at this country church, I’ve gotten to know these friendly folks—Lynn, Kim, Doug, Craig, Shirley… I can’t come and go without stopping to greet and hug sweet Elsie, who now into her nineties still works in the kitchen stirring gravy or potato salad or cutting and plating pies (during the church ice cream socials). Truly, these dinners are labors of love.


Here two volunteers, in ethnic costumes, take a break at the root beer stand.


Petting zoo animals come from a nearby farm.


There’s always a well put together historical display.


I can only imagine the tremendous time, effort and energy involved in pulling off Germanfest, an event which features more than just the showcased ethnic meal which this year fed some 650. I appreciate the country store and market that offer home-baked and garden grown goods and more. I appreciate, too, the quilts stitched by talented hands and the music and petting zoo and historical displays and more.


On the church altar, a beautiful harvest display.


There’s something divinely wonderful about a Minnesota church festival that reconnects me to the land, that brings a sense of peace in a world brimming with too much discontent and chaos.



This gentleman arrived from four miles away in his Model T Ford.


Congregants make and sell crab apple jelly from trees growing on church property.


Dressed in lederhosen, a volunteer pauses to enjoy the music and check out the market under the tent.


Lucy, seven months, and her grandpa listen to the old-time music.


The Ray Sands Band plays tunes like “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie…”


I observed these guys kicked back and relaxing to the music of the Ray Sands Band.


A display of German items honors the congregation’s heritage.


I enjoyed this over-sized woodcarving of a fisherman.


Church festivals are made for visiting.


Ice cream cones of feed for animals in the petting zoo were popular with the kids.


These piglets were among animals in the petting zoo.


Even the church windowsills are adorned with harvest themed decor.


One final look at St. John’s UCC as we drive away.


NOTE: To all my readers who wish I would have told you about this church dinner in advance, I’m sorry. Please mark your 2018 calendars for next September. Germanfest is always held around the same time annually.

But I can tell you about another outstanding area church dinner set for 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. this Sunday, October 8, at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. With a homemade meal of turkey, ham and all the fixings, it’s one of the best (in my opinion) church dinners around. The event also includes a craft and bake sale in the church basement. Click here to read previous posts about Trinity’s fall dinner.

Please check back for one last post in my four-part series from Germanfest. You won’t want to miss this final, especially endearing, photo essay. Click here to read my first post and click here to read my second post, both published last week.

© 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Gather with the Norwegians and the Lutherans this weekend in rural Minnesota June 21, 2013

IF YOU’RE NORWEGIAN (which I’m not), appreciate historic country churches (which I do), rejoice in the preservation of old buildings (which I do) and value worshiping God in a rural setting (which I do), then venture into Monkey Valley this weekend.

If you can’t resist a tasty meal in a church basement (which I can’t), love strawberries (which I do), enjoy good fellowship with the locals (which I do) and delight in a beautiful and historic country church (which I do), drive south of Monkey Valley to Moland on Sunday.

A rear view of the Old Stone Church, a simple structure with three shuttered windows running along each side of the building.

A rear view of the Old Stone Church, a simple structure with three shuttered windows running along each side of the building.

Within miles of each other, two area churches are celebrating this weekend, first with a Norwegian church service in an 1875 limestone church, appropriately called the Old Stone Church and located 2.3 miles south and west of Kenyon along Monkey Valley Road.

A stone's throw from the Old Stone Church, a view of Monkey Valley.

A stone’s throw from the Old Stone Church, a view of Monkey Valley.

The road name alone was enough to draw me to this ethnic worship service three years ago. As one story goes, monkeys escaped here from a traveling circus and fled into the woods. True or not, I’m buying it.

During a worship service filled with music, choir and congregational members sing in Norwegian, "Ja, vi elsker."

During a worship service filled with music, choir and congregational members sing in Norwegian, “Ja, vi elsker.”

To read about the Norwegian worship service I attended in 2010 and to learn more about the Old Stone Church, click here and here and here.

Sunday’s once-a-year worship service begins at 9:30 a.m.

Moland Lutheran Church, a Norwegian Lutheran church south of Kenyon in Steele County, the subject of my post which was Freshly Pressed in July 2010.

Moland Lutheran Church, a Norwegian Lutheran church south of Kenyon in Steele County near Owatonna.

About the time the service wraps up at the Old Stone Church and you’ve finished mingling, you’ll start thinking about lunch, conveniently served at Moland Lutheran Church a few miles to the south and west at 7618 84th Avenue N.E., rural Kenyon, close to where the counties of Rice, Steele, Dodge and Goodhue meet.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Moland folks will serve pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad, strawberries with angel food cake and/or ice cream, chocolate cake (if the menu is the same as in 2010) and beverages. As church meals go, I’d highly recommend this one for the food, the hospitality and setting.

Be sure to check out the sanctuary and history of this 1884 country church before leaving. Moland reminds me of the Lutheran church I attended growing up in southwestern Minnesota.

The Moland folks serve a generous amount of strawberries with two scoops of ice cream.

The Moland folks serve a generous amount of strawberries with two scoops of ice cream.

To read my 2010 post on the Moland strawberry festival, click here.

My Moland post, “In Praise of Preserving Country Churches,” was featured in WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” on July 9, 2010. That’s a huge honor for any blogger, to have his/her work selected as among the best of the day from WordPress blogs world-wide. You can read about that honor by clicking here. Last year I was also featured in WordPress and you can read that post about the Faribault Heritage Days Soapbox Derby by clicking here.

The real honors, though, go to all those men and women out there who preserve country churches and serve all those delicious meals in church basements.

FYI: To read about more church dinners/meals, check out the Faribault-based blog, Church Cuisine of Minnesota, by clicking here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A closer look at St. John’s Germanfest October 2, 2011

Kassandra and the goat that would soon be hers.

IN MY OPINION, Kim Keller rates as a pretty easy-going mom. I mean, she let her 10-year-old daughter bring a goat home from Germanfest. Honestly, if you were a kid, wouldn’t you want Kim for your mom?

So here’s how I found out about this goat thing. I was wandering the church grounds at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, last Sunday afternoon during Germanfest searching for photo ops.

I followed a girl leading a wisp of a goat, a kid (not the girl) which seemed a bit stubborn and independent as goats are wont to be. This wasn’t Kim’s daughter and I wasn’t having any luck capturing a photo I liked.

Then along came Kassandra, Kim’s daughter, with a bottle of milk. The goat, which apparently wasn’t all that hungry, didn’t seem too interested in drinking. But Kassandra pursued the goat and I pursued the goat and Kassandra until we both got what we wanted: her the goat, me the photo.

Kim took it all in stride—said it was just another animal to add to the family’s menagerie.

Another goat in the Germanfest petting zoo.

A volunteer dressed in an ethnic German costume tends a petting zoo bunny.

Geese and other fowl were popular petting zoo attractions.

IF YOU’RE A REGULAR FOLLOWER of Minnesota Prairie Roots, you should have figured out by now that I pay attention to detail. You’ll read that in my writing, see it in my photography.

I don’t view situations and scenes like most folks. I’m constantly searching for a new angle from which to shoot a photo or tell a story.

I engage my senses, even though one of them, my hearing, is not what it once was due to sudden sensory hearing loss (and now near-deafness) in my right ear. But I did hear Craig Keller comment from the Germanfest dance floor, as I aimed my camera toward the dancers, that this would be on the internet.

So, Craig, just because you said that, here you are, on the internet.

That's Craig, dressed in his lederhosen, dancing with his partner on the right. On the left is Amy's mom, Annette. The Stuttgart Three is performing.

I saw these artsy music stands and thought, “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something like these.” They jogged my memory of old-time wedding dances in town halls, the chicken dance, dollar dance, polka until you can’t polka any more…

I’VE COORDINATED SOME major public events in my life, namely a school book festival and an art show at my church, several times, not to mention more youth group fundraisers than I care to remember.

But one thing I refuse to do is coordinate anything that involves food. Although I cook and bake, I do not particularly enjoy cooking. I love to bake, but seldom bake because then, you know, I eat the baked goods, which I don’t need.

Now, after that rambling paragraph, let’s get to the point. I am in awe of people like the volunteers at St. John’s United Church of Christ who prepare enough food to feed the multitudes, this year around 700.

One of the many volunteer worker lists I saw posted in the fellowship hall area.

Long-time church member and volunteer Elsie Keller prepares German potato salad.

ONE OF THE BEST PLACES to discover artistic talent, I’ve learned, is at silent auctions. Honestly, look what I found at Germanfest.

No words needed.

Woodcarvings for sale at the silent auction.

Inside St. John's sanctuary, homemade quilts blanketed the pews. They were not for sale. Each church family was asked to bring a quilt for display along with the story behind it. Up front, three women demonstrated stitching techniques.

I DON’T KNOW how many Germanfest attendees paused to examine the German books and documents displayed in the church narthex. But I’m always interested in such items because not only am I 100 percent German and interested in “old stuff,” but I once considered majoring in German in college (which means I would not have become a writer; I think I made the right choice).

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

A Deutsche document from St. John's.

FINALLY, BECAUSE I CAN, I wanted to show you this photo of pumpkins at the farmer’s market section of Germanfest.

To be truthful, though, it wasn’t the pumpkins that interested me as much as the antique table. Those legs caught my eye and I wanted to throw that checkered tablecloth right off the table top and slide my hand across the worn wood.

Country store pumpkins on that old table I noticed.

THE NEXT TIME you’re out and about, I challenge you to notice the details.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A close-up look at the Veseli Ho-Down August 24, 2011

A banner below the hill by Most Holy Trinity Church and school welcomed attendees.

WHENEVER I ATTEND an event like the Veseli Ho-Down, or go anywhere, I notice the details.

That skill has evolved from my years as a writer, fine-tuned also by my work as a photographer. Photography encourages me to seek the faces, even the hands and feet, of individuals in a crowd to tell a story in an unexpected way.

I apply that same method to photographing buildings and activities, anything really. Give an overall picture, but then move in to showcase the often overlooked details.

That said, as promised in a previous post, below are more photos from the festival my husband and I attended on Sunday at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Veseli, near Lonsdale in northwestern Rice County. Enjoy the details, from my perspective, of the Veseli Ho-Down.

First...the crowd...and then a closer look at individuals, and more, at the festival...

An employee from a Bloomington group home brought residents and their therapy bird, Buddy, to her hometown for the Ho-Down. The parakeet (is that correct?) quickly attracted the attention of fest-goers like this girl.

An 11 a.m. polka mass started the day's activities. I took this snippet image of worshipers from the balcony of Most Holy Trinity. I'll feature detailed photos of the church in another post, so check back.

While technically not the best photo, I still like this image for the story it tells of women taking a break from their work in the church basement. When I noticed the rosaries and cross above the kitchen window opening, I knew I had to photograph this scene. The volunteers were selling baked goods.

Kolacky, a Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the festival.

The New Prague Czech Singers performed in their mother tongue under a tent in mid-afternoon.

I upped the contrast on this image to make the colors pop on this costume worn by a Czech singer.

The hands of the bingo number caller, or whatever you call a person who calls bingo numbers.

A sign on a propped-open-with-a-rock church basement door directs fest-goers to the bake sale. To the left in the photo is the station for the hog raffle.

I met 94-year-old (almost 95) Celia enjoying a burger in the company of her great niece, Brenda. I was charmed by her beautiful face and quiet elegance. Ceila grew up near Webster and today lives on a farm with her bachelor son near Lonsdale. Celia typically attends about a half-dozen area church festivals each summer. Her great aunt likes visiting with people and enjoys the Czech music, Brenda says. A few weeks ago Celia won $100, half a hog and $10 playing bingo at the Immaculate Conception Church festival in Lonsdale. She's one lucky lady.

The kids, as kids will, chased each other up and down the handicapped entrance to the church.

Waiting for customers at the duck pond in the kids' games tent.

I laughed when I saw this sign on yellow beans for sale. That's an interesting way to sell produce.

I am Lutheran. We do not do raffles. But everywhere I turned at the Ho-Down, someone was pedaling raffle tickets. As I waited in line for the chicken dinner, two men pushed Split the Pot raffle tickets. For $1, you buy a ticket. Every hour a winner is selected and gets half the money. The rest goes to the church. No, we did not win, but we contributed to Most Holy Trinity. These guys hustled the grounds all afternoon.

And where did all that raffle and other money go? Right through the cashier's window in the former Catholic school. I walked by this building numerous times before I noticed the sign, the open window and the well-worn step-up step. It's details like this that tell the complete story of small-town events like the Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Celebrating the Czech heritage at Veseli Ho-Down August 23, 2011

AROUND 10:15 a.m. we pull into Veseli, population 200, in northwestern Rice County and are directed to a parking spot on a ball field just below Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church. My husband Randy and I have barely exited our car when Fritz and young Joe arrive in their golf cart, offering us a ride around the block so we don’t have to climb the steep hill to the church.

We learn on the short jaunt that this marks the 44th annual Holy Trinity celebration, which began as a typical church festival but today has evolved into the Veseli Ho-Down.

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down.

A fest-goer sports a Veseli Ho-Down t-shirt.

It is an event complete with a polka mass, raffles galore, a chicken dinner, kids’ games, home-baked Czech goodies, bingo, entertainment by 11 musical groups and beer, lots of beer.

In between all the activity, you’ll catch snippets of the Czech mother tongue, spoken by the old-timers from Veseli, Lonsdale, Montgomery, New Prague and Webster.

But you needn’t be Czech, or even Catholic, to enjoy this event that swells Veseli’s population on this Sunday in August. I’m Lutheran and I’m German. Chat it up with those attending, and you’ll discover that many grew up in Veseli, or the area, and are back for the day to celebrate, support the church and mingle with family and friends.

John Hertaus Jr. and his wife, Joseth (she’s part French and has a name of French origin), coordinate the chicken dinner served from a tent to around 1,000 diners. Down the hill and around the corner by Novak’s Garage, volunteers grill the 514 chickens, which are then placed in surplus military issue containers and hauled on a wagon to the church grounds.

The Hertauses keep a watchful eye on the entire chicken dinner, which was added to the festival, along with the polka mass, about 20 years ago upon the suggestion of John Jr.’s parents, John Sr. and Rita.

Well before 11 a.m., attendees are already buying $10 tickets for the chicken dinner and filing into the sanctuary. By mass time, worshippers pack the pews, fill folding chairs along the side aisles and overflow into the church entry. Without a program—they ran out—I can’t follow the worship service, so I just sit and stand and fold my hands and bow my head when I am supposed to do so.

The polka mass begins.

A view from the balcony of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

Soaring pillars, stenciling and stained glass windows define the sides of the church.

In this image, notice the details: the hats attached to clips on the back of the pew and the name tags, with parishioners' names, tagging the pew ends. I asked my husband, a former Catholic, about the name tags. He said that in some churches families rented pews. I don't know whether that is still practiced at Holy Trinity.

In between, I take photos, plastering myself against the thick support pillars that block my view of the altar area. I slip upstairs for awhile to get a bird’s eye view of the crowd. Back in my wall-hugging folding chair, I notice the details—the name tags attached to pew ends, the pew back clips for hats, the stenciled walls and ceiling, the stained glass windows, the time-worn wood, the cracked plaster walls, the ornate altar, the sway of hands and feet and bodies to music that seems more suited for an old-time dance than a church service.

Yet, even though I can’t understand any of the words sung with the concertina, trumpet, drums, keyboard and bass guitar due to acoustics and my hearing loss, I still feel spiritually uplifted by music that shouts praise instead of party.

Muzikante, pojd’te hart, tu pisnicku, co mam rad,

Dneska budem ja a moje pany, Panu Bohu dekovat.

Ted and Dorothy Winczewski drove two hours from Coon Rapids to celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary after reading about the polka mass in The Catholic Spirit. “It was just something to do, something spiritual,” Dorothy says. The polka music reminds her of the wedding dances she attended in New Prague while growing up in nearby Shakopee. “I loved it.”

Shoppers look over the mostly Czech baked goods filling tables in the church basement.

The mocha cakes we bought.

In the church basement, while perusing the tables covered with Czech and other treats like kolacky, buchta, koblihy and mocha cakes, I meet a native of nearby Montgomery now living in Bloomington who has orders from his coffee group to pick up poppyseed kolacky. He does.

Most of the goods are baked on-site. And, yes, my husband and I leave with koblihy (like raised doughnuts) and mocha cakes (absolutely divine yellow mini-cakes frosted on all sides and rolled in nuts).

As we wander the church grounds, I am struck by the universal age appeal of this festival. From weeks-old babes to those in their 90s, the Ho-Down draws everyone. And they are friendly lot.

Clarence Smisek

When I approach 88-year-old Clarence Smisek of New Prague, dressed in an ethnic costume as a long-time member of the New Prague Czech Singers, he flashes a broad smile and informs me that Veseli means “to be happy.” He’s right. I later check Google translate. This Czech, who grew up a mile south of Veseli, was baptized at Holy Trinity and up until recently gave tours of the church, seemed a happy fellow.

He also tells me that Smisek means “to smile,” although I can’t verify that.

Ask Clarence to define the Czech people, and he’ll tell you this: “They are hard-working people and they are generous.”

I agree, based on the hard work, time and energy that I know goes into planning and carrying out a successful festival like the Veseli Ho-Down.

But I’d add two more adjectives to Clarence’s description of the Czech. That would be fun-loving and friendly.

CONTINUE SCROLLING BELOW for more Ho-Down images and then check back for additional posts featuring festival photos. Also scan The Catholic Spirit, your local newspaper or elsewhere, and plan to attend a Minnesota church festival this fall.

The front of the historic 1905 Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Veseli.

I found cousins Kayla, right, and Brianna sitting on the bank of steep steps leading to the church entry. Kayla, who attends Holy Trinity, won a cake in the cake walk and later would help with clean-up at the tattoo station. Brianna was visiting from Zumbrota.

I waited in line for my chicken dinner next to Bradley, 15, of New Prague and his grandma, Janet, from Veseli. They picked up 11 dinners. Bradley didn't wear the hat just for the Ho-Down. He wears it every day.

My husband and I split a single chicken dinner (half a chicken.)

A volunteer staffs a Spin-the-Wheel prize booth that proved popular with kids. A blue tarp providing shade over the game area lends a bluish tint to this photograph.

A partial view of the festivities from the back side of the church.

The New Prague Czech Singers sing during the mid-afternoon, one of 11 musical groups who donated their time and talents. The youngest member of the group is her 50s and learned Czech from her grandmother.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling