Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Kenyon: An historic train depot up close June 11, 2020

These tracks run past The Depot Bar & Grill (in the background) in my community of Faribault, Minnesota. I can hear these trains from my home. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOMETIMES IN THE EVENING, when the traffic lessens on my busy street, I hear the train, horn blasting, wheels rumbling from the tracks just blocks away.

 

Railroad art created by John Cartwright. The Shoreview artist was selling copies of his ink drawings during the 2012 Railroad Swap Meet in Randolph, Minnesota. Visit his website at ArtRail.com for more information. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

There was a time, decades ago, when railroads connected communities, carrying passengers and freight, grain, coal… Bringing mail and goods like lumber and much more. But those days are long gone, those versatile trains all but a memory for many rural Minnesota communities.

Sure, trains still run, but along main routes and without the diverse economic importance of decades past.

 

The Depot Bar & Grill, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

With the railroad’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also came the abandonment of train depots. Many of those hubs of commerce were torn down or left to decay. But some remain. In Faribault, a former depot houses The Depot Bar & Grill, among my favorite local dining spots. Another historic depot serves as a business center.

 

The old train depot, repurposed as a shelter/gathering spot, sits in Depot Park, Kenyon.

 

And in the nearby small town of Kenyon, the once busy Chicago Great Western Railroad depot serves as a gathering spot at Depot Park. You can rent the building—with amenities of refrigerator, stove, sink, restroom, 29 chairs and eight tables—for $30 weekdays or for $40 on a Saturday or Sunday.

 

A back and side view of the Kenyon Depot.

 

On a recent day trip to Aspelund Peony Gardens & Winery, Randy and I stopped first at Kenyon’s Depot Park for a picnic lunch. It’s a lovely spot, centered by that depot, a playground and a swimming pool.

 

The history of the Kenyon Depot is summarized in an on-site sign.

 

The sign is posted prominently on the depot.

 

The bottom portion of that informational sign.

 

After finishing my turkey sandwich, grapes and strawberries, I grabbed my camera and walked over for a closer look at the old depot, built around 1885. I peered inside the windows, studied the roof-line, read the signage. The railroad once held an important place in Kenyon and the surrounding area by providing freight and passenger service. Immigrants arrived here by train. Farmers shipped milk, awaited the arrival of seed and tools and farm implements. And mail.

 

Identifying signage on the front of the Kenyon Depot.

 

Posted next to the old depot.

 

This side of the depot faces the park space.

 

When rail service shut down here in the late 1960s or early 70s (I read conflicting information online), a local house mover bought the depot. And in 1974, he, upon approval of the city, moved the depot to the park.

 

A vintage light.

 

I noticed these letters/numbers on a corner of the depot. Anyone know what they signify?

 

Tape on window trim.

 

But there’s one more interesting piece of history about this building, a story shared in a 2012 letter to The Kenyon Leader written by former Mayor John L. Cole. According to Cole, the Kenyon High School Class of 1975 was tasked with painting the depot after “getting into trouble” during a class trip to Grandview Lodge in Brainerd. Now he doesn’t explain what that “trouble” may have been. But Cole thanks the class, emphasizing that something good came out of the bad.

 

This drinking fountain next to the depot has been around for awhile.

 

As a 1974 high school graduate (from a school nowhere near Kenyon), I can only guess. We were on the tail end of the Vietnam War, a bit vocal and determined and rebellious. My class got into trouble for choosing “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” as our class song. Not exactly fitting for a high school graduation ceremony. I expect had we gone on a trip like the teens from Kenyon, we, too, would have gotten into trouble.

 

This street lamp, I’m guessing vintage, stands near the depot.

 

I digress. But history has a way of connecting us. Through stories. Through places. Like depots that hold the history of a community and its people.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Park art August 8, 2017

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THE POSTCARD STYLE MURAL pops color in to the mini shelterhouse at Lions Park in Waterville.

But it’s more than that. The painting by Kimberly Baerg also provides a snapshot glimpse of this southeastern Minnesota resort and farming community.

 

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Examine the details and you will see a tractor, a canoe, a buggy, a train. All important in the history of this town.

 

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This mini mural is an example of how a little artistic ingenuity, effort and paint can transform an otherwise plain cement block wall in to a canvas that promotes a place, shares history and pops with community pride.

Well done, Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part VI From La Crosse: Atop Grandad Bluff March 30, 2017

Driving toward the landmark Grandad Bluff from downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin. The 600-foot high bluff towers in the distance.

 

THE BRISK MARCH AFTERNOON WIND did not lend itself to standing atop a bluff. So I thought. I pulled on my hand-knit stocking cap, buttoned my wool coat, wrapped a plaid scarf around my neck and tucked my hands inside gloves. I was ready to face the fierce winter wind of Wisconsin.

 

The view of La Crosse from this bluff is stunning.

 

But I needn’t have concerned myself about the cold. Exiting the van in Grandad Bluff Park, I found the air still, no brutal wind slapping my skin as it had along the Mississippi River in downtown La Crosse. We—my husband, second daughter and her husband—were all surprised. We expected uncomfortable temps that would send us scurrying back to the van shortly. Rather, we found this spot 600 feet above the city to be calm. How could that be? I still have not figured it out.

 

 

 

 

The city’s landmark Grandad Bluff—the highest bluff in the La Crosse area with views of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa—teemed with visitors.

 

 

My son-in-law John photographs my husband, Randy, and daughter Miranda.

 

 

A haze hung over the distant landscape as I surveyed the scene of gridded streets, buildings exposed by naked trees, slips of water tracing through the land, distant river valley bluffs rising.

 

Peering through binoculars at the scene below.

 

It took me awhile to assimilate, to edge near the solid fencing overlooking the city. I am a flatlander, an embracer of prairie and horizontal lines, not at all a fan of heights.

 

I walked part way to the second scenic outlook point before turning back.

 

But with my camera for comfort, I could view the scene far below. For awhile.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Several signs provide background history on the bluff and surrounding area.

 

A flag flies atop the bluff.

 

Nearing the top of the bluff, you’ll pass by the Apline Inn Bar & Grill, a long-time La Crosse establishment. I need to check this out.

 

FYI: This concludes my six-part “From La Crosse” series.

Click here to view a story and photos from an October 2015 visit to Grandad Bluff. Autumn is an absolutely beautiful time to view the river valley from this scenic overlook.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods on an autumn afternoon in southern Minnesota November 10, 2016

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autumn-day-35-walking-in-leaves

 

I DOUBT I’VE EVER SEEN so many oak leaves layering the ground. Thick. Brown. Rustling underfoot.

As my husband and I hiked into Kaplan’s Woods in Owatonna on Sunday afternoon, I noticed the abundance of oaks that distinguishes this city park from other parks/nature centers I’ve visited.

There’s something about an oak that denotes history and strength.

Yet, the distraction of all those oak leaves crackling underfoot doesn’t detract from my ability to notice nature’s details.

 

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Flash of yellow among mostly brown and grey.

 

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Bare (or mostly bare) branches set against a signature cobalt blue November sky.

 

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Fungi laddering up a tree trunk. Beautiful in an artistic, natural way. Like Nature’s sculpture.

 

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And then an unnatural road block at the end of a muddied path. “A gated community,” Randy jokes. And we laugh. Together. In the woods, under the oaks.

 

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In the dirt, initials carved with a stick, an “A” and maybe a “U.” Another Audrey? Probably not.

We turn around, our path blocked. I suggest we return to the main trail into the woods. We’re unfamiliar with this place and I have no intention of getting lost. Neither does Randy.

 

kaplans-woods-34-moss-on-trees

 

Leaves crunch beneath our shoes. But then I stop abruptly, swing my camera left toward a moss covered log, the golden light falling just right.

I fail to hear or notice the runner closing in behind us. I’m in the zone, focused on photographing a selected scene. Randy, however, is watchful. He warns me. We step aside and continue on, a biker now barreling toward us on his mountain bike.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

You know you’re in rural Minnesota when… November 3, 2016

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rural-mn-52-no-horses-or-ponies-sign

 

…you discover a sign like this at a city park.

I photographed this at Earl B. Himle Memorial Park in Hayfield, Minnesota, population around 1,300. Credit goes to my husband for spotting the sign.

Check back as I bring you a three-part series of posts from Hayfield.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Appleton: A ring dance on a wedding day August 25, 2016

The Ring Dance fountain in City Park, Appleton, Wisconsin

The Ring Dance fountain in City Park, Appleton, Wisconsin

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT KIDS and water on a hot summer day that brings joy and, for me, a longing for the carefree days of youth.

 

Ring Dance fountain, #51 from a distance

 

Perhaps that is why I am so drawn to a piece of art centering City Park in Appleton, Wisconsin. “Ring Dance,” created by internationally-acclaimed sculptor Dallas Anderson, a native of nearby Neenah, is a must-see for me nearly every time I visit Appleton.

 

Ring Dance fountain, #56 cavorting

 

On my most recent stop at the park on a hot and humid late July afternoon, I envied the cavorting carved kids cooling off in the fountain. And I envied the young women also cooling their heels in the water as they posed for bridal party photos.

 

Ring Dance fountain, #54 hands up

 

Not wanting to interfere with the professional wedding photo shoot, I snapped a few quick shots and called it good. Typically I would take more care in composing images, but I wanted to be respectful.

 

Ring Dance fountain, #58 bride watching

 

I’m always curious about public art that draws me back repeatedly. This $483,000 sculpture, according to info I found online, was funded with private donations and was installed 20 years ago.

 

"Ring Dance" seems fitting for a wedding photo shoot. Here the couple poses near a massive round flowerbed in City Park.

“Ring Dance” seems fitting for a wedding photo shoot. Here the couple poses near a massive round flowerbed in City Park.

I also learned of a Minnesota connection. Sculptor Dallas Anderson, who died in 2009, received his Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, 20 minutes from my home and 300 miles from Appleton. Interesting how life circles and connects…

TELL ME, do you have a favorite water fountain sculpture? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My favorite small scale Minnesota zoo June 23, 2016

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I grew up on a dairy farmer, thus was excited to see these calves.

I grew up on a dairy farm and am always excited to see calves.

WITH SUMMER OFFICIALLY on the calendar, it’s the perfect time to take the kids or grandkids to the zoo. For many Minnesotans, that most likely would be the Minnesota Zoo or Como Park Zoo.

Just a small section of the Farm, which includes two barns.

Just a small section of the Farm, which includes two barns and a shelter available for rent, right.

But I’ve discovered a much smaller rural-themed zoo in Greater Minnesota that impresses me. And, bonus, no metro traffic or pressing crowds. Welcome to Sibley Farm at Sibley Park in Mankato. I’ve posted previously about this southern Minnesota zoo. But now seems a good time to showcase it again during peak season.

Kids can climb aboard this tractor and another on the adjoining playground.

Kids can climb aboard this tractor and another on the adjoining agriculturally-themed playground.

I last visited Sibley Farm on a cold and windy day in mid-May with minimal time to explore. Even with less than ideal weather, families were there enjoying the baby and other farm animals and the farm-themed playground.

The sheep were snuggling on the spring day I visited Sibley Farm.

The sheep were snuggling on the spring day I visited Sibley Farm.

It is the full-on rural aspect of this zoo which most appeals to me. Most families are so far removed from farm life today that they need this indirect exposure. Even kids who live in the country. Even those who live in Mankato, right in the heart of Minnesota farm land.

A shorn alpaca.

A shorn alpaca.

Sibley Farm provides a place to connect with and learn about farm life. It also preserves Minnesota’s rural heritage. That’s important. My own three grown kids are only a generation removed from the farm. Yet, their knowledge of farming is limited. It’s important to me that they recognize and value the rural heritage that shaped the Kletscher and Helbling families. I expect many farm-raised parents and grandparents feel the same. Sibley Farm is a great place to learn about farming in a fun and interactive way.

Sibley Farm includes a water feature complete with goldfish.

Sibley Farm includes a water feature complete with goldfish.

Tell me, what’s your favorite zoo and why?

FYI: Sibley Farm is located at 900 Mound Avenue, Mankato, within Sibley Park and is open from 6:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. daily mid-spring through early fall. Admission is free.

Besides the farm, Sibley Park offers softball fields, tennis courts, walking trails, lovely gardens, fishing, a winter sliding hill, poetry and more.

Click here to read my previous post about Sibley Farm. And click here to read a story about Sibley Park.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What makes a great park, in my opinion June 23, 2015

IN THE PAST FEW DAYS, after visiting Bridge Square in Northfield and Morehouse Park in Owatonna, I’ve thought about what makes a great community gathering place. When considering a spot for a picnic or simply a place to relax, what do I seek?

A view of the Straight River from the pedestrian bridge in Morehouse Park.

A view of the Straight River from the pedestrian bridge in Morehouse Park.

Water. Whether a river or a fountain or a lake, water tops my list. There’s something about water that soothes, that eases life’s worries. I’m not a water sports person. But I love the sound of rushing water like that of the Straight River roaring over the dam in Morehouse Park or the fountain spraying in Bridge Square, just across the street from the Cannon River.

Water roars over rocks in the Straight River at Moreshouse Park.

Water roars over rocks in the Straight River at Morehouse Park.

A trail of geese in the tranquil part of the Straight River.

A trail of geese in the tranquil part of the Straight River.

On a beautiful summer afternoon, a woman fishes the Straight River.

On a beautiful summer afternoon, a woman fishes the Straight River.

Water offers a place to wish, to think or not, to fish, to canoe, to observe nature. Still as geese gliding. Hopeful as pennies tossed into a fountain. Turbulent water tumbling over rocks as calming as white noise.

A recreational trail slices through Morehouse Park, bridging the Straight River.

A recreational trail slices through Morehouse Park, bridging the Straight River.

I also want a park that’s aesthetically pleasing, clean, green, obviously cared for and appreciated.

Gorgeous flower baskets hang along the recreational bridge.

Gorgeous flower baskets hang along the recreational bridge.

In Morehouse Park, generous baskets of petunias suspended from a pedestrian bridge make a statement that says this community cares. The park is a busy place with a trail winding through that draws bikers, skaters, walkers and photographers like me.

At Bridge Square, the fountain entices all ages to perch beside the water, to rest on benches, to purchase popcorn from the popcorn wagon.

Morehouse Park includes a playground, tennis court and horseshoe pits along with other amenities.

Morehouse Park includes a playground, tennis court and horseshoe pits along with other amenities.

In both parks I feel a sense of community, of closeness in appreciating a beautiful spot in the heart of a city. There’s a certain vibrancy, a rhythm, a definitive weaving of people and place.

Ducks and geese overrun Morehouse Park. So watch for droppings. Everywhere.

Ducks and geese overrun Morehouse Park. So watch for droppings. Everywhere.

And that is what I seek in a park. Not just a picnic table under a tree. But a certain sense of belonging, of connecting with nature and community on a Minnesota summer day.

BONUS PHOTOS from Sunday afternoon at Morehouse Park:

A sign next to the bridge reads: "When we preserve a historic place, we preserve a part of who we are."

A sign next to the bridge reads: “When we preserve a historic place, we preserve a part of who we are.”

A robin hops along the bank of the Straight River in the dappled sunlight of a June afternoon.

A robin hops along the bank of the Straight River in the dappled sunlight of a June afternoon.

Waterfowl aplenty populate sections of the park.

Waterfowl aplenty populate sections of the park.

Geese hug the riverbank.

Geese hug the riverbank.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Ring, not rain, dance in a Wisconsin park June 20, 2014

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CITY PARK IN APPLETON, WISCONSIN, is one of those parks that causes you to linger and appreciate.

"Ring Dance" by sculptor Dallas Anderson serves as City Park's focal point. Private donations paid for the $483,000 fountain sculpture which was dedicated in August 1996.

“Ring Dance” by sculptor Dallas Anderson serves as City Park’s focal point. Private donations paid for the $483,000 fountain sculpture which was dedicated in August 1996.

It’s the setting as much as the fountain sculpture focal point that pull me into this neighborhood park next to Lawrence University on the eastern edge of downtown.

Spectacular one-of-a-kind historic homes define the neighborhood.

Spectacular one-of-a-kind historic homes define the neighborhood.

Historic, sprawling homes draw my eyes to inviting front porches and turrets and other architectural details. Homes so lovely I would move into any of them if I had the money.

A beautiful bush flowers during my May visit to City Park.

A beautiful bush flowers during my May visit to City Park.

Rather, I covet that which I cannot own, imagine gleaming wood floors creaking with age, thick plaster walls, shining banisters, banks of windows streaming sunlight into rooms pasted with cabbage rose wallpaper.

Hubert House Film House

The Hubert House Film House, right across from City Park, is part of Lawrence University.

The writer in me is writing the stories of these homes as my eyes scan exteriors while strolling the park perimeter.

Impressive First English Lutheran Church.

Impressive First English Lutheran Church.

And then, I pause to study First English Lutheran Church, a strong stone structure that dominates a street corner. Stunning.

close-up

Moving in as close as I can without water spraying onto my camera.

Back in City Park, the lure of water leads me to the fountain, where sculpted children dance, ankles intertwined.

Fountain information imprinted upon a plaque.

Fountain information imprinted upon a plaque.

If I could, I would join the circle, the “Ring Dance,” washing away worries.

A rainbow...

A rainbow…

But on this evening, sunlight on water beaming a rainbow, I simply appreciate the moment.

Rush of bubbling water. Sunlight fading in the golden hour. Time here, with the man and daughter I love.

BONUS PHOTOS from an earlier visit in August 2011:

Impatiens fill planters in the park.

Impatiens fill planters in the park.

Time with grandma in the park.

Circling “Ring Dance.”

A food truck stops at City Park.

A food truck stops at City Park.

FYI: For more information about “Ring Dance” sculptor Dallas Anderson, click here.

This coming Sunday, June 22, City Park, 500 E. Franklin Street, hosts the annual Juneteenth Festival sponsored by African Heritage, Inc., and the City of Appleton. The noon to 5 p.m. free admission event celebrates freedom, unity and community. The fest  includes performances by Chicago-based Ayodele Drum & Dance, a Michael Jackson impersonator and other musicians; showing of “Stone of Hope: Black Experiences in Appleton,” a pop-up museum exhibit; games; and children’s activities. Food vendors will also be on site. For more information about Juneteenth Festival, click here.  

Click here to read a previous post from City Park. And watch for a future post on an unusual tree discovered here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Black squirrels, oh, my May 23, 2014

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Squirrel number one scampers from the park across the street as soon as I approach with my camera. I don't have a telephoto lens, thus the distant view.

Squirrel number one scampers from the park across the street as soon as I approach. (I don’t have a telephoto lens.)

NO, THIS IS NOT one of those “Why did the chicken squirrel cross the road?” joke stories.

Rather, I am wondering, have you ever seen a black squirrel?

I manage to get a bit closer to squirrel number two.

I manage to get a bit closer to squirrel number two.

I hadn’t until last weekend while at City Park in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin.

My second daughter, who attended college in western Wisconsin and now lives on the eastern side of the state, couldn’t believe I’d never, in nearly 60 years of life, seen anything but grey or red squirrels.

My husband also had never spotted a black squirrel although he once saw an albino in the woods on his central Minnesota childhood farm home.

There are plenty of trees in Appleton's City Park, where I snapped one quick shot before the squirrel scooted out of camera range.

There are plenty of trees in Appleton’s City Park, where I snapped one quick shot before the squirrel scooted out of camera range.

I don’t recall any squirrels on my native southwestern Minnesota prairie farm while growing up. Maybe the shortage of trees had something to do with their absence.

In any case, I was intrigued by the two black squirrels in City Park. My daughter found my interest rather amusing. Sometimes it just doesn’t take much to entertain me.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling