Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Another world award for Caves of Faribault cheese March 21, 2022

Felix, Caves of Faribault’s latest award-winning blue cheese. (Photo source: Caves of Faribault Facebook page)

THERE SEEMS TO BE no middle of the road here, no riding the fence. Either you like it or you don’t. And I, for one, love blue cheese. I cannot think of a cheese I don’t love, although processed cheeses rate lower than others on my taste buds.

I live in a community where world class cheese is produced. This year the Caves of Faribault team brought home the bronze in the Blue Veined Cheeses with Exterior Molding category of the World Championship Cheese Contest held recently in Madison, Wisconsin. That award was given to Felix blue cheese, named after Caves founder, Felix Frederiksen.

Award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola from Caves of Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

The number of awards won by Caves of Faribault cheesemakers in the past dozen years in numerous competitions is lengthy and impressive. (See the awards list here; you’ll scroll and scroll.)

Surprisingly, I have not yet tasted Felix blue cheese. Described as having a “dense, fudgy texture,” it’s aged for 60 days minimum in caves carved in the 1850s into sandstone bluffs along the Straight River. Originally, those caves were used by local beer-makers. The process for crafting Felix allows the sandstone caves to “create a natural rind that picks up on the different microflora that inhabit the caves,” according to the Caves website. That’s the basic scientific explanation. I mostly just care that the blue cheese tastes good.

Once my primary source of local cheese, The Cheese Cave closed several years ago. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

My go-to Caves cheeses have been their long-standing Amablu®, Amagorg® (Gorgonzola) and St. Pete’s Select® (blue cheese). With the closing of the Caves downtown Faribault retail store and restaurant a number of years ago, finding our Caves cheese locally has dropped to one source, HyVee grocery store. Note that it’s available in many other places throughout Minnesota and in all other 49 states and internationally. Illinois-based Prairie Farms Dairy Inc now owns Caves of Faribault. Ownership changes often result in changes away from local focus.

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce make a perfect salad, topped with lemon poppyseed dressing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2011)

Cheesemaking has a history in Faribault tracing back to 1936 and that first cheesemaker, Felix Frederiksen. Faribault, according to the Caves website, is the home of America’s first blue cheese. And now, 86 years later, local cheesemakers continue to craft award-winning blue cheese in sandstone caves along the river. Cheese that I, for one, love.

Big Woods Blue from Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand, by the Big Woods (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

FYI: There are other award-winning cheesemakers in this region of southern Minnesota, including Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand, and CannonBelles Cheese, Cannon Falls. Both are part of the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market producers group. That locally-sourced/grown/raised/crafted market held its last inside winter market recently, but restarts in the warm season at its outdoor location under the carport at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault. The first outdoor market is from noon – 3 pm Saturday, April 16. The next follows from 10 am – 2 pm on Saturday, May 14.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo credit: Caves of Faribault Facebook page


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


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.


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling