Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

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

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

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

 

Altar details hold history.

 

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

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Let the little children come…to the playground February 21, 2018

 

TRAVELING DOWN A SNOW slicked county road toward Little Prairie United Methodist Church south of Dundas, I expected nothing out of the ordinary. Just a familiar country church with jolting red doors marking a rural intersection.

 

 

But then, to the left of the church, set back from the county road and next to the parking lot, I spotted a structure. Inaccessible unless I wanted to slog through snow. But visually accessible via the telephoto lens of my camera.

 

 

I noted a mini church facade marked as Little Prairie Playground, complete with those signature red double doors, stained glass and a bell tower. How clever. How fun. How cute.

Since I didn’t want to plow through snow for a close-up look, I checked out the church Facebook page, which reveals volunteers constructing this playground last spring with a June dedication.

 

 

Behind that mini church front and through those doors, kids will find a slide, mini climbing wall, swings and more, the more including an aged bell rung by the pull of a rope. The bell honors Anna Mae Little, whose farm family once lived nearest the church.

 

 

As I snapped a few photos, I considered that I need to return in the spring for another photo shoot and perhaps to bring my two-year-old granddaughter here to play in the quiet of the countryside in the holy presence of this place.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: All images are edited using an artistic filter.

 

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.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

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

 

Blessings, beer & baseball in St. Patrick January 18, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a story from summer-time, season inappropriate. But, in the throes of a Minnesota winter, we need reminders that summer will return. In something like four months.

Across the road from the St. Patrick of Cedar Lake Township Catholic Church cemetery sits St. Patrick's Tavern.

Across the road from the St. Patrick of Cedar Lake Township Catholic Church and cemetery sits St. Patrick’s Tavern.

A BAR AND A CHURCH. It’s not an uncommon pairing in parts of rural Minnesota, in Catholic faith communities especially.

The bar recently changed ownership and became St. Patrick's Tavern.

The bar recently changed ownership and became St. Patrick’s Tavern.

Blessings and beer.

St. Patrick Catholic Church of Cedar Lake Township.

St. Patrick Catholic Church of Cedar Lake Township.

On a Sunday afternoon drive in the summer of 2015, my husband and I happened upon St. Patrick, an unincorporated burg in Scott County. There, upon a hill, sits St. Patrick Catholic Church of Cedar Lake Township. Out the front door and down the hill rests the bar, appropriately named St. Patrick’s Tavern. And on the back side of the hill lies the baseball field, St. Patrick’s Bonin Field. It’s named after Father Leon Bonin, a strong supporter of baseball in St. Patrick.

St. Patrick's Bonin Field

St. Patrick’s Bonin Field

Blessings, beer and baseball. How decidedly rural Minnesotan.

BONUS PHOTOS:

St. Patrick's Tavern in St. Patrick, Minnesota

St. Patrick’s Tavern is located at 24436 Old Highway 13 Blvd. in St. Patrick, Minnesota.

Cruising past St. Patrick's Tavern on a Sunday afternoon.

Cruising past St. Patrick’s Tavern on a Sunday afternoon.

More signage on St. Patrick's Tavern.

More signage on St. Patrick’s Tavern.

TELL ME: Do you know of any similar hamlets that offer blessings, beer and baseball. I’d like to hear your stories.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: When memories cruise into a car show August 4, 2016

A 1964 Chevy SS.

A 1964 Chevy SS.

THERE ARE REASONS we love the things we do. Always reasons. And at the Cruise-In Car Show held last weekend at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, there was a reason my husband voted for a 1964 Chevy SS as his favorite car. He once owned a similar Chevy. Not an SS. But a rusted out 1964 Chevy Impala. He wishes he still had that vintage vehicle, albeit in pristine condition.

The tail light on the 1958 Chevy I liked.

The tail light on the 1958 Chevy I liked.

I favored a cherry red 1958 Chevy that reminded me of the car my maternal grandpa drove. I remember mostly the salmon (not red) hue, the distinctive click of the blinker and the bumpy plastic protecting the seats. Grandpa’s car may not even have been a Chevy. But the lines of this car looked familiar.

Look at the graceful lines in these vintage cars.

Look at the graceful lines in these vintage cars.

My appreciation of vehicles is more about lines, curves and colors—the visual artistic appeal—rather than performance. Perhaps that’s why current day cars seem less attractive than those of 50 years ago.

Several tractors were registered at the show.

Several tractors were registered at the show.

As I approached the four tractors parked at the cruise-in, I hoped to see a B Farmall or John Deere like the ones from my childhood farm. But there were none. It’s difficult for me to think of 1970s tractors as collectibles. There’s a reason for that and it’s called aging. My aging.

At the request of St. John's car cruise-in organizers, I climbed a 10-foot step ladder to photograph the scene.

At the request of St. John’s car cruise-in organizers, I climbed a 10-foot step ladder to photograph the event.

These days I find myself growing more nostalgic. I am drawn to that which defined my past. I find that a tad unsettling, this yearning for seemingly simpler days when life was less complicated, less stressful, less cluttered. The “good old days,” they call them. Am I that old already to think that way?

Chevrolets are popular collector cars.

Chevrolets are popular collector cars.

Perhaps this is really what car shows are all about. Not about shiny vehicles or souped up whatever, but rather about memories and appreciating the past.

BONUS PHOTOS:

A tractor owner left his key in his tractor, complete with key chain from the Little Brown Church in the Vale.

A tractor owner left his key in his tractor, complete with key chain from the Little Brown Church in the Vale.

I have an affinity for Mustangs that traces to my teen years.

I have an affinity for Mustangs that traces to my teen years.

I was intrigued by these gauges on the exterior of a car, just outside the driver's side of the windshield.

I was intrigued by these gauges on the exterior of a car, just outside the driver’s side of the windshield.

Because green is my favorite color, I am naturally drawn to this car.

Because green is my favorite color, I am naturally drawn to this car owned by a Minnesotan who is a big Green Bay Packers fan.

Likewise, this blue on a blue Volkswagon also drew my eye and my interest.

Likewise, this blue on a blue Volkswagon also drew my eye and my interest.

FYI: Click here to read my first post from St. John’s Cruise-In Car Show. And check back tomorrow for one final post from this rural Faribault event.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cruisn’ to church, but not for a sermon July 27, 2016

UCC-CarShow-page-001

 

FOR ST. JOHN’S UNITED CHURCH of Christ, Wheeling Township, a weekend Cruise-In Car Show offers an opportunity to bring the community together.

There’s no ulterior motive. This isn’t a fundraiser. The church isn’t trying to get folks to join.

Rather, says Steve Wille of the St. John’s Revitalization Group, the Car Show is strictly a social event aimed at bringing folks together in a neighborly sort of way. I like that. Visiting with your neighbors, he says, seems to be a lost art.

The parking lot at St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation's annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

St. John’s, a country church located east of Faribault near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, is good at reaching out to the community. The congregation hosts annual events like the Big Woods Run, The Last Supper Drama, German Fest, an ice cream social and more. I’ve been there many times, often enough that congregants know me. These folks are country friendly and welcoming. And they’re fantastic cooks and bakers.

No St. John’s event is complete without food. Pork sandwiches and snacks will be available at the 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Cruise-In Car Show.

Car Show is a bit of a misnomer, though. Trucks and tractors are also welcome with first place trophies awarded to each of the top three.

If you enjoy cruise-ins, country churches, a rural setting and visiting, consider attending (or participating in) St. John’s first-ever Cruise-In Car Show.

FYI: St. John’s is located 10 miles northeast of Faribault. Take Minnesota State Highway 60 east for eight miles and then turn north onto Rice County 24. Drive two miles to 19086 Jacobs Avenue.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: The detailed craftsmanship of Holden Lutheran Church April 1, 2016

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Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota.

Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota.

IT IS THE DETAILS, always the details, that define a place, a person, a whatever. In long-standing country churches, especially, detailed craftsmanship prevails.

The sanctuary as photographed from the balcony.

The sanctuary as photographed from the balcony.

Craftsmanship and beauty at the altar.

Craftsmanship and beauty at the altar.

This glorious Easter themed window shines above the altar.

This glorious Easter themed window shines above the altar.

Looking from the front of the sanctuary to the rear and the balcony.

Looking from the front of the sanctuary to the rear and the balcony.

Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota, is a prime example with countless stained glass windows, handcarved wood and chiseled stone. I can imagine the rough hands of a Norwegian farmer, the calloused hands of a bricklayer, the creative hands of an artist shaping this church into this glorious house of worship.

I assume this is an original vintage light suspended in the sanctuary.

I assume this is an original vintage light suspended in the sanctuary.

I wonder, though, did long ago parishioners form committees, as Lutherans are wont to do, or did they simply do what needed to be done? The current congregation has several committees, including a Property Management Committee.

Look at the details of three distant crosses in this snippet of a stained glass window.

Look at the detail of three distant crosses in this snippet of a stained glass window.

However Holden evolved, I am impressed, as I often am, by the efforts entailed in building a structure like this for $56,687 in 1924 without modern day tools and equipment. How did they do it? Hard work and determination, I expect.

Gravestones bear many Norwegian names.

Gravestones bear many Norwegian names.

It takes a lot of money to sustain and improve such a massive structure and to pay the heating and other bills. That Holden continues to do so reveals faithfulness, tenacity and a determined spirit that traces to the Norwegian immigrants who founded this congregation.

Confirmation photos hang above a history timeline.

Confirmation photos hang above a history timeline.

History remains an integral part of Holden as evidenced in a time-line posted inside the church and in photos displayed.

Hanging from the pulpit.

The art of a seamstress hangs from the pulpit.

This bible, lying open on the lectern, was turned to

This bible, lying on the lectern, is open to Proverbs 6 – 8.

I photographed this counted cross-stitch art in the church basement. It seems especially fitting for this rural region of Minnesota.

I photographed this counted cross-stitch art in the church basement. It seems especially fitting for this rural region of Minnesota.

Details, too, still matter. One need only look to see them. It is the details, always the details, that define a place like Holden Lutheran Church.

A simple banner message for those exiting the church entry to the south.

A simple banner message for those exiting the church to the south.

FYI: Click here to read my first post on Holden.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling