Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A fall favorite: Trinity North Morristown’s Fall Dinner October 12, 2021

Waiting in line behind Trinity Lutheran Church and School for meals to be delivered to vehicles. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

VEHICLES STACKED UP three rows wide late Sunday morning, crawling toward Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown.

A volunteer welcomes guests, accepts payment, disburses tickets and directs traffic. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As Randy and I waited in our van, I clutched two blue tickets, our tickets to the hottest dinner in town. Or in this case, in rural Rice County. It was the annual Fall Dinner at this country church and school set in the rolling farmland west of Faribault and also the site of a popular July Fourth celebration.

We arrived early in the two-hour take-out event, a switch from the usual dine-in dinner due to the pandemic. But I didn’t want to risk Trinity running out of food. Yes, this full turkey and ham dinner with all the trimmings is that popular. And that good. And reasonably priced at $10.

Young volunteers run back toward the church to grab more meals. Folding chairs separated traffic lanes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

So we waited. Creeping. Idling. Creeping. And while we snail-paced, neighborhood dogs barked. And free-range chickens foraged in the pastor’s yard next to the church. Volunteers sold tickets and directed traffic. And youth, some clad in cowboy boots, scurried to deliver the coveted meals prepared and boxed by many more volunteers in the church basement.

Twenty minutes later, I was reaching through my open van window to accept two bags with our meals inside. The air smelled of Thanksgiving dinner. And I felt thankful to be here, partaking in this annual event, although I missed gathering in the church basement for fellowship.

The main meal: ham, turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, squash and corn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Instead of driving all the way back to Faribault to eat warm, rather than hot, food, Randy and I dined across the road at the July Fourth celebration grounds. I pulled on my flannel shirt, he his jacket, and we perched on the edge of the entertainment stage to fork mouthfuls of turkey and ham and sides.

“The potatoes are lumpy,” Randy noted.

“A sure sign they’re homemade,” I said, affirming his appreciation of real mashed potatoes. Nearly everything served in this generously-portioned meal is homemade. I especially enjoyed the squash, a vegetable I’ve not yet eaten this season.

We saved our coleslaw, cranberries and buns for later. And our dessert, too. Two bars and two slices of cake.

Honoring parade grand marshals. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And while we dined, we chatted about the annual Fourth of July celebration held here on these grounds. We noted the names of parade grand marshals on wooden slabs backing the stage. We remembered the music and crowds and good food—always the food—and the fun times and talked about bringing our young grandchildren here to experience this on Independence Day.

A model of the church, featured in parades, is stored at one end of the stage in the off-season. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

When we finished eating, we bagged our empty Styrofoam take-out containers, plastic-ware and napkins, placed the slaw and cranberries on ice in a cooler and headed out. Randy noted how the mix of grass and weeds, always trampled flat by July Fourth fest-goers, now flourished. The site looked vastly different in the season of autumn, the season of church dinners in Minnesota. And this, my favorite, at Trinity North Morristown in rural Rice County.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite church dinner? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From milling flour to drinking whiskey in Rice County, history tour Part II August 25, 2020

At the ruins of an historic flour mill in Dundas, a kiosk provides historical info, including this map of flour mills in the area.

 

RICE COUNTY IS RICH IN HISTORY, especially in historic buildings. I value that about this region of Minnesota. I appreciate that many aged structures remain, well cared for and treasured. I appreciate, too, those who share their knowledge of the past.

I grew up 120 miles west of here, on the prairie. Given the difference in landscape and settlement time and other factors, the history of southwestern Minnesota differs considerably from southeastern Minnesota. I am still learning about Rice County, the place I’ve called home for 38 years.

 

Vintage vehicles were among those on the history cruise, here at Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church near Millersburg.

 

On Saturday I expanded my understanding of this area by attending the first ever “Cruising Rice County History” tour, an event that took attendees through the county to seven historic sites. In yesterday’s post, I covered three of those places—Prairieville Church, Nerstrand City Hall and Valley Grove Churches.

 

The Archibald Mill ruins are fenced to keep people from wandering onto the historic site.

 

Today we head west to the small town of Dundas, just outside of Northfield, and then even farther west to the even smaller settlement of Millersburg. Pre-tour, I was familiar with each point of interest on the cruise. But I still picked up tidbits of information either new to me or forgotten over the years.

 

A few walls remain of the once flourishing flour mill on the west side of the Cannon River in Dundas.

 

Kiosk info details flour milling history here.

 

Tour participants check in at the flour mill ruins, where they could learn more about Rice County flour mills from local historian Jeff Jarvis, Susan Garwood (director of the RCHS) or read printed info.

 

In Dundas, the ruins of a long-gone flour mill, destroyed by fire, focused the third stop. I learned of the mills the Archibald brothers, from Canada, built here around the 1860s along the banks of the Cannon River. Their flour was world-renowned and their flour patent eventually sold to what is now General Mills. It’s quite a history in a region once known for its flour mills. If only one remained…

 

The history cruise took us throughout rural Rice County. This farm field lies along Rice County Road 1 on the way to Millersburg from Dundas.

 

Before heading to the next stop, Randy and I picnicked at Memorial Park in Dundas. That left us a bit crunched for time as we aimed out of town along Rice County Road 1 past farm sites and farm fields to the Millersburg District #20 School House Museum. We’ve been here before, toured the museum.

 

The former Millersburg School now houses a museum operated by the Christdala Preservation & Cemetery Association. Exhibits include school and church items, tools and info related to the James-Younger bank robbery.

 

While we couldn’t go inside the schoolhouse, we could peek our heads in the door.

 

Appropriately, a bell sat on the check in station at the schoolhouse.

 

An historic marker outside the schoolhouse. You can also see the swings, remaining from the playground, to the right in this photo.

 

The back side of the historical marker outside the schoolhouse.

 

As the story goes, the Younger gang stopped for whiskey at the Millersburg store in September 1876 at the current location of Boonies.

 

But this visit I picked up some info not necessarily related to the 1881 school, but to the 1876 robbery of the First National Bank in nearby Northfield. Here, four members of the James-Younger Gang stopped for whiskey at the then Millersburg Store (today Boonies Bar & Grill across from the schoolhouse), stayed at the Cushman Hotel just down the road and the next day met up with fellow outlaws in Dundas.

 

Christdala’s defining steeple. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places. Randy and I recently picnicked on the front steps of Christdala.

 

I was delighted to find the doors open to Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church.

 

And on their way back from robbing the bank, the gang followed the same route, taking us to the next stop on our tour, Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church. I’ve also visited here many times, including just a few weeks ago. Swedish immigrants built this church in 1878 high atop a hill, spurred by the death of friend and neighbor Nicolaus Gustafson. He was an innocent bystander killed in a shoot out during the Northfield bank raid. Because the Swedish community had no cemetery, Gustafson was buried in Northfield.

 

Simple stained glass windows inside Christdala in colors of the Swedish flag.

 

Today you’ll find Gustafsons buried in the Christdala graveyard along with many others whose surnames end in “son.” This long-closed church was open during the history tour. Although I’ve previously been inside, I wasn’t about to miss another opportunity to step inside this small Swedish church, complete with Swedish flags and stained glass windows in the Swedish colors of blue and yellow.

 

One of the many displays inside the Rice County Historical Society Museum, this one honoring Native Americans who lived in the county.

 

The RCHS recently acquired metal art sculptures from Lockerby Sheet Metal, a long-time Faribault sheet metal fabrication company no longer in business. Those pieces are being restored. This knight currently stands in the museum entry.

 

On the historical society grounds are these two historic buildings: the Pleasant Valley School District #22 schoolhouse (educating children in Bridgewater Township in the late 1850s) and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in Cannon City in 1869 and later moved here.

 

With time pressing to get back to (event sponsor) the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault, Randy and I didn’t linger for long. We needed to turn in our poker run cards and look around the museum and grounds before everything ended. While Randy handed in our losing poker hand, I breezed through the museum exhibits and took a few photos inside and out.

 

Many of these historic places still exist thanks to preservation groups and history enthusiasts.

 

And I considered what a lovely day it had been. Out and about, enjoying and appreciating local history, thanks to the hard work and efforts of those who value Rice County history enough to preserve and share it.

 

Please check back for a follow-up post on an historic building I discovered in Dundas, and not on the tour, but with a powerful and timely message posted.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Cruising Rice County History,” Part I August 24, 2020

This shows a portion of a guide, designed by Jeff Jarvis of West Cedar Studio, for “Cruising Rice County History.”

 

WE CONSIDERED WHETHER WE SHOULD take the tour, expecting that we’d likely visited all of the historic places featured in “Cruising Rice County History,” the first ever cruise of historical sites in our county. But, in the end, because Saturday was beautiful weather-wise and COVID-19 has left us with few leisure options, Randy and I opted to attend the event sponsored by the Rice County Historical Society.

 

First on the tour, Prairieville United Methodist Church, founded in 1870; existing church built in 1902; and congregation dissolved in 2019.

 

Vintage tractors added interest to the stop at the Prairieville country church.

 

A cornfield snugs right up to the Prairieville Cemetery behind the church.

 

We joined 84 other vehicles on the tour, which took us east of Faribault, then north and west and, finally circling back to the RCHS in Faribault. Only one of the seven featured spots—Prairieville United Methodist Church and Cemetery—was a new to us point of interest, although we’re certainly familiar with the country church along Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

First stop: The Rice County Historical Society to pay our $20/vehicle tour fee and pick up our map and other info.

 

Many volunteers worked the event, including this guy who welcomed tour participants at the historical museum.

 

Before heading out of town, the tour took us through historic downtown Faribault, where I thought we were going to see a display of historic brewery items at a local bank. But apparently we are supposed to view this on our own sometime. Anyway, I photographed this banner outside the State Bank of Faribault.

 

Yet, at each stop, from two country churches to flour mill ruins to an old schoolhouse and an historic town hall, we learned new information, both from site hosts and from educational hand-outs.

 

The Nerstrand City Hall (tall brick building)l, built in 1908, is on the National Register of Historic Places. After three wooden buildings were destroyed by a major fire in 1904, the city required all future buildings in the business district to be made of brick or stone and with firewalls between.

 

Nerstrand City Hall, up close.

 

A plaque marks the Nerstrand City Hall as an historic structure.

 

Peering in the windows of the locked city hall.

 

On the back of Nerstrand City Hall, bars cover a window, a reminder that a jail was once housed here.

 

We were disappointed we couldn’t get inside some of the historic buildings, but expect safety concerns factored into closed doors. Participants in the Saturday event were asked to mask up and social distance. And they did. So we felt comfortable.

 

One of the two historic churches at Valley Grove, near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Randy and I have been to this site many times, thus didn’t linger here. It’s one of our favorite spots in rural Rice County. So peaceful and beautiful atop a hill. The woodframe church pictured here and a stone church directly across from it were built by Norwegian immigrants.

 

Two couples, including friends of ours (left), visit outside Nerstrand City Hall. This alley runs between the hall and the fire department.

 

We also chatted from a distance with friends, either hosting site stops or on the tour. What a joy to see familiar faces after months of minimal social interaction. Even if their smiles were hidden behind masks.

 

Driving toward Nerstrand.

 

Driving through rural Rice County, we saw lush fields of towering corn and acres of soybeans among farm sites.

 

The route followed only paved roads, with plenty of gravel roads to see alongside.

 

I also enjoyed the rural route given my love of the country. There’s something freeing about traveling along paved back roads bordered by acres of cropland, intersected by gravel roads, punctuated by farm sites.

 

Young and old attended the “Cruising Rice County History” tour. This photo was taken at Valley Grove.

 

Thank you for joining my photo tour of “Cruising Rice County History,” Part I. Check back for Part II tomorrow.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with history during “Night at the Museum,” Part I October 1, 2019

This volunteer informed visitors about the history of an 1856 log cabin, once located near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

WHEN HISTORY BECOMES AUTHENTIC, I get interested. Not to say I dismiss museum exhibits packed with information, artifacts and such. But I engage most with the past when that past comes alive.

 

The festive setting outside the late 1850s Pleasant Valley School welcomed visitors to A Night at the Museum.

 

That happened Saturday during the Rice County Historical Society’s annual Night at the Museum. Volunteers dressed in period costume took visitors like me back in time—

 

Gathering outside Pleasant Valley School before “class.”

 

Inside the school entry, a place to wash.

 

 

 

Propped against the wall at the front of the classroom.

 

As the early evening sun slants through the windows, class begins.

 

into a one-room country school,

 

Next to the school, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in 1869 and moved here in 1959 from Cannon City, Minnesota.

 

Waiting for “worshipers” to enter the church.

 

 

Beautiful vintage altar cloth authentic to the church.

 

 

An 1800s hymnbook.

 

an aged Episcopal church,

 

Outside the 1856 log cabin, visitors could walk on stilts and mow lawn.

 

 

Inside the log cabin, a young visitor learns about pioneer era beds.

 

an 1856 log cabin…

I found myself watching, listening, experiencing the history of Rice County, Minnesota. I didn’t grow up here so this place doesn’t hold the same significance it would for life-long residents rooted here for generations. But I’ve lived in Faribault long enough to care about the history of this county and the people who shaped it.

 

Inside the Harvest and Heritage Halls, many local business signs are now displayed. I remember these businesses, some of which closed in recent years. I love signage for its art and its history.

 

And I’ve lived long enough to now see items like local business signs, typewriters, telephones, a Surge milking machine and more in museum exhibits.

I am grateful for efforts to preserve these parts of our past and to showcase history during interactive events like Night at the Museum. To witness history in this way connects me personally to the past of this place I’ve called home since 1982.

FYI: Check back for Part II from this living history event.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating the history & beauty of Valley Grove on a September afternoon September 18, 2019

A horse-drawn wagon takes visitors through the prairie at Valley Grove with the Big Woods in the distance. When fall colors change, the treeline is spectacular.

 

I CONSIDER IT ONE of the most scenic spots in Rice County. A location that presents a sweeping vista of the countryside from atop a hill adjacent to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Autumn, especially, at Valley Grove offers a visual delight.

 

Folks gather in the restored 1862 stone church for cake, hot dogs, beverages and conversation.

 

On Sunday afternoon, in hot and humid temps that felt anything but autumn-like, I attended the annual Valley Grove Country Social hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society.

 

The beautiful and well-preserved historic churches of Valley Grove as photographed from the cemetery.

 

The group aims to preserve and maintain this place on the National Register of Historic Sites. Here, on this land claimed by early Norwegian immigrants, two churches (built in 1862 and 1894) stand next to a cemetery and next to the prairie.

 

An historic photo and flowers grace a window ledge inside the stone church.

 

These crosses, crafted from Valley Grove burr oaks, were on sale.

 

One of six sets of historic sconces to be installed in the stone church as preservation efforts continue.

 

To visit here is to feel a deep appreciation for the history of this place and those who chose this site to build houses of worship.

 

Hutenanny, a Northfield-based traditional Nordic music group, entertains those attending the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

Making music with Hutenanny.

 

A sing-along inside the wood-frame church.

 

To attend the country social is to experience history—through music,

 

Donna Johnson of the mother-daughter duo Nordic Arts demonstrates the Norwegian art of rosemaling.

 

These sisters try rosemaling using crayons rather than paint.

 

An example of Nordic Arts’ art.

 

art,

Hewing a log next to the wood-frame church.

 

demonstrations, historical talks,

 

Learning how to make a rope.

 

Rope-making up close.

 

Kids especially loved doing laundry the old-fashioned way.

 

hands-on activities and more.

 

The Valley Grove churches.

 

I always feel such a peace at Valley Grove. As if the world of today exists somewhere distant.

 

A simple floral still-life on a windowsill in the wood-frame church.

 

It’s good for the soul to take time on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September to step back in time. Not necessarily to idealize life then—because it was hard. But to gather with others in the countryside far from traffic and distractions and the noise of modern-day life.

 

I noticed these dolls lying on the ground behind the old stone church. So fitting for the day.

 

To appreciate simpler times

 

Such beauty in this floral bouquet adorning a window ledge in the wooden church.

 

and simple beauty.

 

Valley Grove wildflowers at prairie’s edge.

 

To gather under the burr oaks, to walk the prairie, to study tombstones, to sing in the same church where early settlers sang, to watch youngsters craft ropes and walk on stilts. And so much more.

 

Built in 1862.

 

I appreciate the preservationists who understand the personal and historic importance of Valley Grove, of not allowing these churches to fall into disrepair like too many other shuttered country churches. They clearly value the land, the efforts of their forefathers, the importance of this place. Still today.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The sacred art of Holy Week & of Easter April 21, 2019

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his crucifixion. I photographed this window at Vang Lutheran Church, rural Dennison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

IN MY YEARS of photographing churches, most in rural Minnesota, I’ve grown to appreciate stained glass windows. They prevail in country churches.

 

Jesus’ crucifixion as depicted in a stained glass window inside Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

All tell stories, most biblical. I admire this visual art, this way of sharing scripture and faith that connects beyond words.

 

The beautiful sanctuary of Holden Lutheran Church, filled with stained glass windows. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As sunlight streams through the colored pieces of glass, that bold beauty causes eyes to land on the art, to focus on whatever the artist has chosen to depict. Holiness. Reverence. Hope. Eternal life.

 

The women and angel outside the empty tomb on the risen Lord as interpreted on a stained glass window in Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I sorted through my photo files selecting specific stained glass window images that portray today. Easter.

 

This shows a snippet of the center stained glass window in a trio above the altar at Trinity Lutheran Church, Wanamingo, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

May you see in these stained glass art photos the story of Holy Week and the reason I celebrate Easter—the resurrection of Christ.

 

A photo of Christ’s face from a stained glass window in my church, Trinity Lutheran, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A most blessed and happy Easter to each of you, dear friends.

 

NOTE: As I wrote this post Monday afternoon, I heard breaking news of the devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral. While I’ve never been there, my heart breaks for this loss of a house of worship, for the works of art and history and heritage therein. Such a loss causes me to value even more the stained glass windows of the churches I’ve photographed. 

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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