Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Put your money in the can August 2, 2017

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THIS TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, roadside stands pop up with a bounty of fresh garden produce. Some are staffed. Some are not.



On Sunday evening, Randy and I stopped at an unmanned stand along U.S. Highway 14 as we passed through Courtland (between New Ulm and Mankato) after a weekend in southwestern Minnesota. We needed potatoes and always appreciate newly-dug spuds.



Pickings were slim at that time of day. But we found a bag of potatoes for $2 that fit our needs. Randy pulled two bills from his wallet and deposited the money in a mammoth coffee can labeled PUT MONEY HERE.

I love this trustworthiness that exists in rural Minnesota.



But apparently the gardener doesn’t trust Mother Nature. Inside the coffee can, an over-sized stone weighted the container against the wind.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A long day for the Easter Bunny April 17, 2017

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The Easter Bunny at 11 a.m.



The Easter Bunny at 4 p.m.


FYI: Photographed in a front yard while driving by on U.S. Highway 14 in Courtland on Easter.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts & scenes along the Highway 14 detour October 5, 2016

TYPICALLY, ROAD CONSTRUCTION frustrates me. Unexpected delays and detours add to travel time and sometimes to distance.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet, nearing the detour.

But I welcome at least one major road project in southern Minnesota—the expansion of U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet in to a four-lane. This stretch rates as one of the most dangerous roadways in rural Minnesota. Traffic volume along the narrow highway is high. Passing is mostly difficult and dangerous.

The improvements are needed to make this a safer highway. If only the expansion would run all the way to New Ulm.

On the detour route.

The detour route took us through Nicollet County farm land,aiming for Courtland.

Traveling to southwestern Minnesota last Saturday, my husband and I steered away from the Highway 14 project by taking Minnesota Highway 99 between St. Peter and Nicollet. Except this time 99 was closed before we reached Nicollet and we were rerouted onto the official Highway 14 detour route.










The detour added about 15 minutes to our drive time. But that was OK. I enjoy rural landscapes and passing places like Immanuel Lutheran Church and School, rural Courtland, the home congregation of my maternal ancestors.




As we rounded Nicollet County Road 25 near its intersection with Highway 14, a spectacular view of the Minnesota River Valley unfolded before us. Vast blue sky striped with grey clouds butted the distant tree line. I could see for miles and miles and miles. It is not the mountains. But, still, the scene wrote lines of poetry before my prairie native eyes.

TELL ME: What are your thoughts on road construction, detours and/or dangerous roadways?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Autumn, Southern Minnesota’s season of harvest & hope October 4, 2016

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Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land.

Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land early Saturday evening.

HARVEST. That word holds the seasons of a farmer’s hope.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

From spring planting to summer growth to autumn ripening, a farmer focuses on the outcome—a yield that brims with golden corn and soybeans.

Harvesting between St. Peter and Nicollet.

Harvest equipment sits in a cornfield west of St. Peter.

Through months of looking toward the skies, of weathering too much or too little rainfall, of watching heat shimmer waves across fields, of tending and waiting, a farmer anticipates this season of harvest.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

On a day trip Saturday from the southeastern to the southwestern side of Minnesota—through Rice, Le Sueur, Blue Earth, Nicollet, Brown and Redwood counties and back—I observed the harvest. Minimal on the eastern side, which has been flooded with too much recent rainfall, but in full swing in the counties of Brown and Redwood.

Combing beans near New Ulm.

Combining beans near New Ulm.

Farmers worked the land, dust enveloping combines.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Grain trucks idled in fields and barreled down county roads toward local elevators

Near Courtland.

Near Courtland.

Grain bins near Waterville.

Grain bins near Waterville.

or homestead grain bins.

Driving into Courtland.

Driving into Courtland.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

The landscape crawled with tractors and combines and trucks, farmers at the wheels, guiding the crops toward harvest.

White among fields of golden crops.

A harvested field against a farm site backdrop of white.

And I observed it all. No longer an intimate part of this process as I once was so many decades ago on my Redwood County childhood farm, I am still connected to this season by the memories that trace deep within me.

West of New Ulm, grain wagons sit in a field.

West of New Ulm.

Harvest still holds me in hope.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Courtland: When fire destroys a small town Minnesota bar & grill November 23, 2015

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The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

EVERY SMALL TOWN needs a Crow Bar & Grill. For the food, the drinks, but, mostly as a community gathering spot. A place to lunch with friends and family and neighbors. A place to socialize and sympathize and support and celebrate.

Thursday afternoon, Courtland, located along U.S. Highway 14 east of New Ulm, lost The Crow Bar to a wind-swept fire. It’s a devastating loss in a community of only 635. According to media accounts, the blaze started in the attic area and resulted in enough water and smoke damage that the bar and grill will be a total loss. But the destructive fire is about more than losing a building and a business. It’s also about the impact on locals.

The Crow Bar, up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

The Crow Bar & Grill, up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

Sunday morning I chatted with a friend and distant relative who, like my mom, has roots in Courtland. Howard is part of a Faribault-based accordion trio that recently entertained noon-time diners at The Crow Bar. Now he worries how his bachelor farmer brother will adjust to losing the place where he dined four days a week with friends. They’ll likely move across the street to Swany’s Pub. Yet, it won’t be the same, Howard says.

That’s the thing about small towns. Businesses and people are intertwined in a way that stretches beyond the wallet. Locals hold emotional ownership in Main Street businesses. They care. Without them, businesses cannot survive. The Crow Bar wove into the lives of those who call/called the Courtland area home.

One need only turn to Facebook to read the praises sung for the Crow Bar:

  • Love great people that visit the crow. And one awesome owner and staff.
  • The Crow Bar has the freshest burgers around! Great small town bar and bingo on Saturday is fun too!
  • Hi From Pensacola Florida! Loved Courtland when I was there! Great food too yall!! Miss it still!
The Crow Bar in Courtland advertises food specials.

The Crow Bar in Courtland advertises food specials. Photographed in October 2015 as my husband and I drove through Courtland.

Shortly before noon on Thursday, with customers already seated inside The Crow Bar for their noon meal, the fire broke out. Everyone exited safely, including an upstairs apartment resident.

At 12:49 p.m., Swany’s Pub across the street posted this message on Facebook:

Our heart goes out to our neighbors at the Crow Bar

My heart goes out to the folks of Courtland. Having grown up in rural southwestern Minnesota, I understand how devastating the loss of The Crow Bar & Grill to the community. When the lone cafe in my hometown of Vesta closed, residents rallied to build and open a community cafe. Courtland, at least, has Swany’s Pub. And, I expect with time, those who frequented The Crow will feel comfortably at home across the street.

That’s the human, beyond-the-fire, side of the story. How will Courtland area residents adapt? How are they coping with the loss of a place that’s been a long-time part of their community?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The place where everybody knows your name… August 12, 2014

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DO YOU EVER WONDER about a business name, how it came to be? I do.

A popular watering hole in Courtland, Minnesota. Look closely at the sign and you'll see a small crow perched on the letter "O."

A popular watering hole in Courtland, Minnesota. Look closely at the sign and you’ll see a small crow perched on the letter “O.”

Let’s take The Crow Bar and Grill in Courtland along U.S. Highway 14 just east of New Ulm. I’ve passed this bar countless times on my way to and from my native southwestern Minnesota. I even imbibed there many decades ago.

But not until this last trip, did my husband and I discuss the bar’s moniker. I’d always assumed The Crow Bar was linked to the obnoxious bird by the same name. I write “obnoxious” because crows  awaken me too many mornings with a raucous caw, caw, caw. I’m right, according to the miniscule crow perched on the “O” in the bar’s signage.

My husband, however, contemplated that the name could also refer to a crow bar, as in a tool. How clever. Perfect. The Crow Bar.

Never been inside this bar in downtown Farmington.

Never been inside this bar in downtown Farmington.

Over in Farmington, south of the Twin Cities metro, I came across Gossips Bar & Grill with the tag line, You heard it here first!

Now isn’t that the truth when it comes to bar talk and old crows.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I may not read music, but… January 29, 2012

GROWING UP, I ALWAYS wanted to play the piano. But I never had the opportunity, although one Christmas I received a toy accordion that temporarily satisfied my yearning to create music.

There was neither money nor space for a piano within the budget constraints of a poor farm family or within the walls of a cramped southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

And so the years passed without music.

During junior high school I struggled through required music classes, once fake-playing the ukulele at a Christmas concert because the music teacher failed to recognize that I could not read musical notes.

In high school when so many classmates were joining band, I was not among them. Remember that money issue? Still there.

A few years later my younger siblings were allowed to join band—one sister choosing the flute, the other the clarinet. The brothers focused on sports. For awhile I tried to play my sister’s flute, without much success.

During college, a friend allowed me to strum her guitar. The strings bit into my fingertips so I quickly lost interest.

Years later when I had children, I was determined they would have the musical opportunities I never had. I started them on a mini toy organ. Later, the eldest tried playing my sister’s flute for awhile, then quit. The second daughter borrowed my youngest sister’s clarinet, sticking with band lessons for several years. My son had no interest in an instrument until recently, when he inquired about playing the guitar. He’s meeting with a family member soon to try out guitar-playing.

I tell you all of this because of a recent musical opportunity that came my way. It’s ironic really, given my inability to play any type of instrument or, in fact, read a single musical note. If you put a song sheet in front of me right now, I’d stare at it like I was reading Greek.

But composer Curtis Lanoue, also an elementary music teacher and the director of music at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Miami, found the music in my soul. Seeking a cover photo for his 29-page Four Organ Preludes Based on Common Hymn Tunes book, Lanoue did an online image search and discovered my photo of the old pipe organ at Immanuel Lutheran Church, rural Courtland, Minnesota, the congregational home of my maternal forefathers.

“As you can imagine, there were a ton of (image) results,” Lanoue says. “Most of them were those flowery European organs in the cathedrals. That didn’t go too well with the style of the music. Somehow through the eye strain of looking through hundreds of photos, I found yours. It’s not surprising my eye was drawn to it as I was raised in a Midwest Lutheran church.”

Once I received a copy of this musician’s recently self-published book, I understood why he selected my photo of Immanuel’s organ that was built in 1895 by Vogelpohl and Spaeth Organ Company of New Ulm at a cost of $1,500.

It’s the perfect fit for Lanoue’s preludes based on the definitively Lutheran hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” and on “Amazing Grace,” “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee,” and “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

As I flip through these compositions written by a musician with degrees in jazz performance and studio jazz writing and experience as a working organist since age 16, I can only smile at the contrast between his vast musical knowledge and talent and my musical illiteracy.

FYI: You can purchase Four Organ Preludes Based on Common Hymn Tunes for $9.99 by clicking on this link: https://www.createspace.com/3734555

Disclaimer: I am expecting payment for use of my cover image and have received a free copy of Lanoue’s book. This post, however, has been written solely at my discretion.

A rear photo shot of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Courtland, looking up to the balcony (where the 1895 pipe organ is located) and toward the spacious fellowship hall.

The beautiful pipes on Immanuel's organ.

JUST BECAUSE I THOUGHT it important to include, here’s some additional information about Immanuel’s organ, as shared by Immanuel’s pastor, Wayne Bernau:

The 1895 organ was renovated in 1988 at a cost of $25,000.

When Immanuel built a new church in 2007, Rollie Rutz and crew from Rutz Organ Company in Morristown (about 10 miles from my Faribault home), helped move the organ from the old church into the balcony of the new sanctuary.

A set of chimes was added to the organ in 2007.

Immanuel’s organ is today valued at around $200,000.

Says Pastor Bernau: “With the balcony constructed the way it is and the excellent acoustics for music in our new church, I believe the organ sounds better now, maybe twice as good, as it ever did in our 1881 building.”

I’ve heard the organ played in Immanuel and I agree. The acoustics in the new house of worship truly showcase the sounds of this 117-year-old organ played each Sunday by Lisa (Bode) Fischer, the daughter of my mom’s first cousin and a descendant of the Bode family members who helped found this rural congregation in the Minnesota River Valley more than a century ago.

A historical sign outside of Immanuel Lutheran Church, east of Courtland, Minnesota.

This photo, taken in September, shows primarily Immanuel's social hall and the adjacent cemetery where many of my Bode forefathers are buried.

A view of Immanuel's sanctuary from the balcony. The pews, the chancel furnishings and the stained glass windows from the old church were incorporated into the new church.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


These Minnesota Girl Scouts are tough cookies March 6, 2011

I’VE HAD GIRL SCOUTS knock on my door to sell Girl Scout cookies.

I’ve had Girl Scouts approach me at church to sell cookies.

I’ve seen Girl Scouts selling cookies at the grocery store and at the mall.

But…, until this weekend I’d never seen Girl Scouts bundled in caps, coats, snowpants, mittens and boots selling Girl Scout cookies outside a Minnesota gas station as temperatures hovered around 30 degrees. And that’s without the windchill.

I wasn't sure what the group was selling until we got right up to the gas station. I was ready with my camera.

As my family drove through the small southern Minnesota town of Courtland around noon today, these Nicollet Girl Scouts and their moms were peddling cookies at the Shell station along U.S. Highway 14. FYI, Courtland lies west of Nicollet, which lies west of Mankato.

I have to give these girls and their moms credit for their devotion to the cause. I doubt I would have stood out there in brisk March winds selling sweet treats. These Girl Scouts are some tough cookies.

And, no, I’m ashamed to say that we did not stop. I snapped these images as we passed by. But, clearly, the Girl Scout in the second photo wanted me to stop.

Girls and their moms peddled Girl Scout cookies in Courtland.

After I uploaded the photos into my computer, I noticed the smaller sign on the box on the back of the pickup truck: “Buy cookies and donate them to our military troops!! We do the shipping for you!!” That would have been one more good reason to stop.

To the Nicollet Girl Scouts, I admire your patriotism and your determination. Clearly you’re not going to let a Minnesota winter keep you from reaching your goals.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling