Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

I’m a princess, but not of the Milky Way August 15, 2020

Past Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


“I LOVE YOU, my Little Princess.”

Oh, how sweet those loving words from my Aunt Dorothy, who has always called me her “Little Princess.” And still does. In every phone conversation between Minnesota and New Jersey, she ends our call with those endearing words.

It’s not that I’m much of a princess. Far from it. At least not in the sense of how most of us visualize royalty. I’m a tee and jeans woman. No glitz, no glam, no nail polish. And, in recent years, I’ve allowed my hair to go naturally and beautifully grey. Because, you know, I’m tired of putting chemicals on my head and I earned every grey strand…so I’m owning it.


The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up. I spent a lot of hours through my childhood working in this barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


But there was a time, back in my teen years, when I wanted to be a real princess. As in the Redwood County dairy princess. So I competed for that title, recognizing from the minute I stepped into the room of competitors, that I had no chance. I may have been a hands-on, working-in-the-barn daughter of a dairy farmer, but I didn’t possess the confidence, poise or other skills to represent Minnesota’s dairy industry.


The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A past exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna featured photos of previous royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The judges chose a competent young woman, whose name I don’t recall, to rein as the Redwood County dairy ambassador along with other county princesses from throughout the state. Dairy princesses have been a Minnesota tradition for 67 years, highlighted in crowning of Princess Kay of the Milky Way around the time of our State Fair. Wednesday evening, Olmsted County Dairy Princess Brenna Connelly of Byron was crowned in a private ceremony among 10 masked and social distancing candidates.


A Princess Kay of the Milky Way butter carving in the Minnesota History Center’s MN150 exhibit and photographed several years ago at the Steele County History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Post coronation in a typical year, the new state princess and nine other candidates sit in a special refrigerated and rotating cooler in the dairy building at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to get their heads carved in blocks of butter while fair visitors crowd around and watch. But this year, because of COVID-19, there is no fair. But the butter sculpting tradition continues, with notable changes.

Each county princess, starting with the new 67th Princess Kay of the Milky Way, will sit alone in the 40-degree butter sculpting booth with Litchfield artist Gerry Kulzer as he sculpts their likenesses from 90-pound blocks of Dinner Bell Creamery butter. They will be masked and social distancing. And when it comes to getting the princesses’ noses and mouths just right, each young woman will move outside the cooler and onto a ladder and remove her mask.


I’ve only attended the Minnesota State Fair a few times in my life, the last time decades ago. Many people love the fair. But I don’t because of the crowds. This mug came from my father-in-law’s collection of mugs.


Crowds won’t watch from inside the dairy building. Rather, updates are posted thrice daily on the Princess Kay Facebook page, starting at 10:30 am and continuing through August 22. The sculpting, which takes from six to eight hours, begins at 8:30 am and ends at 5 pm with several breaks. You can only imagine the challenges of sitting in 40 degrees for a prolonged period of time. We may be hardy Minnesotans to whom that temp feels balmy come mid-winter. But in August, not so much.

Once the butter sculpting is done, the princesses take their blocks of butters back to their respective homes and then do what they wish with them. The new princess is sharing hers with family and friends first and then with a food shelf. In past years, I’ve read stories about princess butter heads buttering corn at community sweetcorn feeds. But this year I don’t expect that to happen. Or at least it shouldn’t.


Inside the Ron and Diane Wegner dairy barn during a dairy day several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


That I was never chosen as a county dairy princess nearly 50 years ago was the right decision. I feel no disappointment because, I’ve always been a princess…in the eyes of my beloved Aunt Dorothy.


© Copyright 2020 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