Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Off the interstate in Mauston, Wisconsin: A community that’s dairy proud June 5, 2018

A glimpse of Mauston’s rural character.

 

IF YOU NEVER EXIT the interstate into a small town, you miss so much. Like the Cowtastic CowMoonity of Mauston. That would be in southwestern Wisconsin, just off Interstate 90/94 half-way between Minneapolis and Chicago.

 

 

A search for a picnic spot led Randy and me into this community of nearly 4,500 on a recent Saturday. After securing unclear directions to a park at a local convenience store/gas station, we ended up lost and seemingly headed out of town.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we happened upon the cows. And I momentarily forgot all about lunch, so excited was I over the herd curving along a ballpark fence. We’d just discovered, quite by happenstance, the Cowtastic CowMoonity Project of the Juneau County Dairy Promotion Council. At the under-renovation Mauston Lions Park, complete with picnic shelter, tables, restrooms and playground equipment.

 

 

 

 

After eating my turkey sandwich, clementine and yogurt—yes, yogurt—I headed over to the 60-head herd, camera in hand. You can bet this former dairy farm girl and former Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess candidate was excited.

 

 

 

 

It’s clear this community embraces all things dairy. This marks the fourth annual cow art project designed to promote the dairy industry via those cow cut-outs and panels of dairy facts and trivia.

 

 

 

 

Nonprofits, youth clubs, organizations and businesses purchase plywood cut-outs and then create cow art showcased along the park fence during June Dairy Month. So this is about more than just agriculture. Cowtastic CowMoonity also promotes local businesses and causes.

 

 

I love this folksy idea. What a creative way to educate, raise awareness and to show appreciation for the dairy industry, especially family-owned farms, in The Dairyland State.

 

 

 

 

The promotion of the dairy industry doesn’t end, though, when June Dairy Month ends at the end of June. Ten of the cows, selected by a secret panel of judges, are relocated to Veteran’s Memorial Park during the Juneau County Fair, this year from August 12 – 19. Good luck with that, judges. The public then votes for its favorite with the top cow earning a $100 prize.

 

 

 

 

Because of those cows, I’ll remember the CowMoonity of Mauston. I’d suggest this creative and dairy proud community visibly promote this outdoor educational art endeavor along the interstate. Or perhaps station a Cowtastic cow or three near that busy busy convenience store/gas station just off busy busy Interstate 90/94.

 

 

FYI: Want to play Wisconsin dairy trivia? Click here.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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On the road in Wisconsin: Deer & cows & more, oh, my June 4, 2018

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About to enter Wisconsin at La Crosse.

 

SINCE MY SECOND DAUGHTER moved to Wisconsin seven, or maybe it’s eight, years ago, I’ve grown to love this neighbor to the east of Minnesota.

 

Crossing the Mississippi River with Minnesota to the right, Wisconsin to the left.

 

A particularly scenic vista heading west toward La Crosse and eventually Minnesota.

 

 

I like Wisconsin’s rural character, its rolling hills and bluffs and open farmland.

 

East of La Crosse.

 

 

 

Cow cut-outs line a ballpark fence in Mauston. Can you correctly answer the dairy trivia question? Check the end of this post for the answer. And also check back tomorrow to learn all about this herd of cows.

 

I like the quaint farm sites, the cows grazing and the proud promotion of dairy. This is, after all, the Dairyland State.

 

A cheese-promoting mouse statue along the interstate.

 

I’m amused by the obsession with brat frys and cheese and the Green Bay Packers.

 

I’ve never seen so many dead deer as in Wisconsin, except in Pennsylvania. Live ones, too. On the return trip to Minnesota from Madison, I counted 17 dead deer along the interstate. I likely missed some. I didn’t count the miscellaneous roadkill. On the trip out, I saw even more dead deer, but didn’t tally those.

 

I’m not so amused, though, by all the dead deer along roadways.

 

This message flashed multiple times on signs along the interstate on Memorial Day weekend. During the 538-mile round trip to Madison and back to Faribault, I saw only one law enforcement officer, a policeman just outside Kenyon, MN. I wish one would have been around to catch the driver of the car that passed a semi on the left shoulder of the interstate in Wisconsin.

 

Nor do I find the drinking culture particularly positive.

 

As expected, there’s plenty of road construction mixed into summer travel.

 

But all in all, I find Wisconsin an interesting and beautiful state with small town nuances that often delight me.

 

The Wisconsin Dells, with its many waterparks, is a popular tourist destination. Here vehicles are backed up along the interstate following a serious car crash. I was thankful we were on the opposite side. Traffic gridlock stretched for many miles.

 

I am now in the process of discovering a region of Wisconsin previously unvisited. That’s the Madison area. In the past, visits to my daughter took me off the interstate at Tomah and across the state to Oshkosh and then a bit north into the Fox Valley. Now she lives in Madison, a Memorial Day weekend destination. It’s a four-hour drive, an hour less than the previous drive. But it’s still scenic and so quintessential Wisconsin.

 

FYI: Please check back for more posts from Wisconsin, including one on those cows in Mauston and several posts from Madison. All photos here were taken along Interstates 90 and 94, except the image in Mauston.

TRIVIA QUESTION ANSWER: D. Holstein

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Stats & humor from America’s Dairyland November 8, 2015

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A dairy farm along Highway 14/61 south of La Crosse.

A dairy farm along Highway 14/61 south of La Crosse. It appears, though, that this barn no longer houses cows.

I’VE LEARNED A LOT about Wisconsin in the five years since my second daughter moved to Appleton on the eastern side of the state.

I’ve learned that Wisconsinites are crazy about the Green Bay Packers. If you want to travel with minimal traffic through Wisconsin, drive while a Packers game is on. Most everybody will be holed up at home/a friend’s house or gathered in a bar watching the football game in their Packers’ green and gold.

I’ve also learned that Wisconsin residents love their beer and brats as noted by all the bars and signs advertising Brat Fries. Grocery stores even sell brat buns dyed Packers’ green and gold.

And then there’s the cheese. Oh, yes. Wisconsinites love their cheese. Big time. You can even find football and cow shaped cheeses.

 

A memorable barn due to the humorous signage.

 

This state is known as America’s Dairyland. According to the Wisconsin Dairy Producers Milk Marketing Board’s 2014 data, Wisconsin produces 13.5 percent of the country’s milk and 25.4 percent of the cheese. That comes from 1,271,000 cows housed on 10,290 licensed dairy farms.

Apparently New York dairy farmers who resettled in southern Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s propelled this region into cheese-making. New York was, at the time, the leading dairy producer. Today this East Coast state remains the third top dairy state behind California and Wisconsin.

As someone who grew up on a family dairy farm—in southwestern Minnesota—I value the dairy industry. Pass the cheese, please.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Owatonna exhibit celebrates Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World October 8, 2013

MILK COURSES through my veins, for I am the daughter of a dairy farmer.

Inside the Wegners' barn, where dairy products come from.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Ron and Diane Wegner’s rural Faribault dairy barn.

Growing up, I labored in the barn beside my dad and siblings—feeding cows, bedding straw, lugging pails of milk to the bulk tank, washing milking machines, scraping manure and more.

I smelled of cow, watched bovines’ tails flick flies and rise to release streams of splashing hot pee into barn gutters.

Sandpaper rough tongues sometimes grated across my skin. Cold, wet noses dampened the sleeves of my chore coat.

I carried gallons of frothy fresh milk to the house for pasteurization and consumption.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. The Steele County exhibit features  photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier carved butter heads from past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A current exhibit at the Steele County History Center features photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier this year, carved butter heads from recent past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

I knew cows and milk and once competed for Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess, a title I coveted but could not win because I lacked the poise and confidence and beauty to represent the industry.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

These memories flit through my mind as I consider a recent visit to the Steele County History Center in Owatonna to tour the featured exhibit, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

It’s a must-see exhibit which will trigger memories for those who grew up on dairy farms and educate those who didn’t. And, even with my dairying background, I learned a lot about the history of dairy farming in Steele County.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

For example, Steele County gained its world-wide Butter Capitol reputation after Owatonna Manufacturing Company invented the mechanized butter churn in 1893, revolutionizing the dairy industry.

But two decades prior, in 1873, the county was well on its way to establishing a strong dairy reputation with four local cheese factories producing 150,000 pounds of cheese, more than any other Minnesota county.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

At one point, Steele County boasted two dozen-plus creameries.

Coveted butter

Hope Creamery, south of Owatonna, still produces coveted, award-winning Grade A butter in small batches. Butter boxes from Steele County creameries are displayed behind glass in the exhibit.

In December 1926, thieves stole 19 tubs of butter valued at $700 from the Steele Center Creamery.

Two Steele County women, Mina Holmes and Marianne McRostie, won numerous national awards for their hand-churned butter.

Photos of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Images of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Yes, so many accomplishments led to this southern Minnesota county holding the title of Butter Capitol of the World from 1898 – 1940, says Jerry Ganfield, who along with a committee of four women involved in the dairy industry, created this remarkable exhibit. Ganfield, holds a background in communications and marketing, grew up in Iowa and worked one summer during college as a milkhouse operator. Today he lives in a barn turned house near Bixsby and volunteers with the Steele County Historical Society, serving on its board of directors.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County's dairy industry.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County’s dairy industry.

Work on the Butter Capitol exhibit began in January with the historic display debuting in mid-July. It runs through November 10. Eventually, many of the items will be returned to the farm machinery building in the Village of Yesteryear (next to the Steele County History Center) where most were previously displayed.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on the model cow in the photo above.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on a model cow.

Perhaps I am a bit biased being a dairy farmer’s daughter and all. But this exhibit is one of the most impressive, thorough, detailed and interesting I’ve seen in a county history center.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World is well worth a drive to Owatonna to peruse.  Just give yourself two hours, minimum, to tour the display.

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BONUS PHOTOS:

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. I've never seen one prior to this. The exhibit also features an incredible handcrafted replica of a barn.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. The exhibit also features a handcrafted replica of a barn.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in the background display.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in this display. My dad used these before he installed a pipeline.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items. Indian Maid Feeds was sold from the late 1950s – 1984 by Owatonna Elevator Company. The brand pictured an Indian maiden to recall the legend of Princess Owatonna, whose health was restored by drinking the mineral spring waters of the area. The exhibit also features a large wooden logo of the princess that once rested atop the elevator. You’ll need to visit the exhibit to see that vintage art.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County History Center/Historical Society, housed in a fabulous new building opened in April 2012, click here.

The Steele County History Center encourages kids to join its Time Travelers Club and History Detectives. The detectives meet at 10:15 a.m. and the travelers at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna.

Click here to read a Minnesota Public Radio story about Hope Creamery.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More photos from “A Day on the Farm,” Rice County, Minnesota June 24, 2013

BECAUSE I APPRECIATE  family dairy farms and because I am grateful to Ron and Diane Wegner and their daughters, Brianna and Kaylee, for opening their farm to area residents, here are more photos from “A Day on the Farm.” The Wegners hosted this event on Saturday in rural Rice County, Minnesota. Click here to see additional photos from my first post.

The beautiful old barn on the Wegners' property.

The beautiful old barn on the Wegners’ third-generation family farm.

The Wegners milk 50 registered Holsteins.

The Wegners milk 50 registered Holsteins.

A barn door...

This scene inside the barn caught my farm girl eye.

Fence leaning and wagon towing.

Fence leaning and wagon towing.

Twins Kelly and Emily, almost two, visit the farm with their dad.

Twins Kelly and Emily, almost two, visit the farm with their dad.

Rice County Dairy Maid Kelsey Kuball applied temporary tattoos.

Rice County Dairy Maid Kelsey Kuball applies a temporary tattoo to a young visitor’s arm.

A farm cat that was just a wee skittish with about 600 strangers visiting the farm.

A farm cat that was just a wee skittish with about 600 strangers wandering around the farm.

Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner waits for kids to arrive for a photo with the calf.

Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner waits for kids to arrive for a photo shoot with the calf.

A trio of silos next to the Wegners' barn.

A trio of silos next to the Wegners’ barn.

My favorite outbuilding, to the left.

My favorite outbuilding, to the left.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reconnecting with my rural roots at “A Day on the Farm” June 23, 2013

NEARLY FORTY YEARS AGO I left the family farm in southwestern Minnesota bound for college in Mankato.

All these decades later I still miss the farm, yearn for those days of country quiet, the soothing pulse of the milking machine, the bellow of a cow, the nudge of a calf, the unmistakable scent of freshly-baled alfalfa.

Walking toward the Wegners' farm south of Faribault.

My first glimpse of the Wegners’ farm south of Faribault.

Saturday afternoon I reconnected with my rural roots at “A Day on the Farm” hosted by Ron and Diane Wegner and their daughters, Brianna and Kaylee, and sponsored by the Rice County American Dairy Association and the Minnesota Beef Council.

Vehicles lined both sides of Appleton Avenue near the Wegners' farm.

Vehicles lined both sides of Appleton Avenue near the Wegners’ farm.

The free meal was provided by the Minnesota Beef Council, the Rice County American Dairy Association and Hastings Co-op Creamery (to which the Wegners sell their milk).

The free meal was provided by the Minnesota Beef Council, the Rice County American Dairy Association and Hastings Co-op Creamery (to which the Wegners sell their milk).

Vehicles lined the gravel road leading to the Wegners’ dairy and crop farm south of Faribault as skies cleared and almost 600 visitors lined up for free cheeseburgers, malts and milk and then wandered the farm site.

Visitors toured the barn to see the cows and calves.

Visitors toured the barn to see the cows and calves.

It was a near perfect day—albeit a bit sultry—to check out this dairy operation, which, with 50 registered Holstein milk cows, 50 head of young stock and 15 springing heifers, still fits the definition of a family farm.

Rice County Dairy Princess Tracie Korbel takes photos while Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner tends the calf.

Rice County Dairy Princess Tracie Korbel takes photos while Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner tends the calf.

Turning the calf/kid photos into buttons.

Turning the calf/kid photos into buttons.

I felt comfortably at home here, remembering my years of feeding calves as I watched Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner tend a calf while Princess Tracie Korbel photographed youngsters with the baby animal. The photos were then adhered to buttons.

Two-year-old Benjamin points out his "Got milk?" tattoo.

Two-year-old Benjamin points out his “Got milk?” tattoo.

Simple country pleasures: swinging and playing cow bean bag toss.

Simple country pleasures: swinging and playing cow bean bag toss.

The hay bale maze between the barn and the house. The scent of freshly baled alfalfa caused me to linger here for awhile.

The hay bale maze between the barn and the house. The scent of freshly baled alfalfa caused me to linger here for awhile.

Other kids’ activities included a hay bale maze, cow bean bag toss, temporary tattoo applications and a ride on a swing tied to a tree. Fun stuff on a rare stunning summer afternoon.

Ava, 2 1/2, lives in the Twin Cities. Her grandparents, who live near Dundas, brought her to the farm because she loves animals.

Ava, 2 1/2, lives in the Twin Cities. Her grandparents, who live near Dundas, brought her to the farm because she loves animals. My husband and I dined with Ava and her grandparents.

Familiarizing kids with a farm seemed a common thread among many for coming to the farm, according to host Ron Wegner. He heard on Saturday from many grandparents who grew up on farms and brought their grandkids because “they don’t know what a cow is.”

Inside the Wegners' barn, where dairy products come from.

Inside the Wegners’ dairy barn.

But Ron was hoping to educate more than the younger generation. When I asked why he agreed to open his farm to strangers for three hours, he explained that he wanted “the town people to come to a dairy farm and see where milk products come from.”

Benjamin, 2, lives on a buffalo farm near Lonsdale. His mom brought him to see a dairy farm. She was posing him for a photo on the tractor when I happened by.

Benjamin, 2, lives on a buffalo farm near Lonsdale. His mom brought him to see a dairy farm. She was posing him for a photo on the tractor when I happened by.

And that seemed as good a reason as any to someone like me, who grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm.

Several calves inside the barn were a hit among visitors.

Several calves inside the barn were a hit among visitors.

CHECK BACK for more photos from “A Day on the Farm” in rural Faribault.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A wannabe dairy princess June 20, 2013

The barn where I labored alongside my father while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

The barn where I labored alongside my father and siblings while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

GROWING UP ON A MINNESOTA DAIRY FARM, I’ve always loved dairy products.

Fresh milk from our herd of Holsteins.

Butter and cheese from the bulk truck driver who picked up milk from our farm.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop's delicious maple bacon sundae.

One of my new favorite ice cream treats, a maple bacon sundae from Singing Hills Coffee Shop in Waterville. File photo.

Ice cream from the Schwans man. (My older brother often sneaked the tin can of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and climbed atop the haystack to eat his fill. He failed to remove his spoon, leaving damning evidence connecting him to the ice cream caper. I was too obedient to attempt such thievery.)

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce made a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing.

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce make a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing. File photo.

My cheese tastes have, thankfully, expanded beyond American and Velveeta, staples of my childhood. I especially favor the blue cheeses made and aged in sandstone caves right here in Faribault and sold under the names Amablu and St. Pete’s Select. If you like blue cheese, this is your cheese.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

I bring up this topic of dairy products because June marks an annual celebration of all things dairy during “June Dairy Month.” This moniker is imprinted upon my brain. I once ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for Redwood County dairy princess.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertised the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertises the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Steele County, to the south of my Rice County home, is apparently a big dairy county having at one time served as home to more than 20 creameries. One remains, in the unincorporated village of Hope, producing Hope Creamery butter in small batches. The creamy’s organic butter is especially popular in certain Twin Cities metro eateries.

Owatonna, the county seat, once claimed itself to be “The Butter Capital of the World.” That butter capital title will be the subject of an exhibit opening August 1 and running through November 10 at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. The exhibit will feature the area’s rich dairy history to current day dairy farming in the county. Events will include a roundtable discussion on the dairy industry and, for the kids, butter making and a visit from a real calf.

Notice the cow art on the milkhouse in this image taken this past summer.

Cow art on the milkhouse of my friends Deb and John, who once milked cows in rural Dundas. File photo.

Calves. I love calves. More than any aspect of farming, I loved feeding calves buckets of warm milk replacer or handfuls of pellets. I once named a calf Princess and she became my “pet,” as much as a farm animal can be a pet. Then my older brother—the one who ate ice cream when he wasn’t supposed to—told me one day that my calf had died. I raced upstairs to my bedroom and sobbed and sobbed. Turns out he made up the whole story of Princess’ early demise. She was very much alive.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Falker of JMF Studio.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Faklker of JMF Studio. File image.

And so, on this day when I consider June Dairy Month, my mind churns with thoughts of butter and ice cream, of calves and of the dairy princess crown I never wore.

FYI: Faribault area dairy farmers Ron and Diane Wegner are hosting “A Day on the Farm” from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. this Saturday, June 22. Their farm is located just south of Faribault at 25156 Appleton Avenue. The event includes children’s activities, photos with a baby calf and free cheeseburgers, malts and milk. Event sponsors are the Rice County American Dairy Association and the Minnesota Beef Council. The Wegners’ daughter, Kaylee, is the current Rice County dairy princess.

The Redwood County American Dairy Association in my home county of Redwood in southwestern Minnesota is sponsoring a coloring contest for kids and a trivia contest for adults. Click here for details. 

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling