Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Checking in on small town cafes April 9, 2020

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The sole cafe in my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

IN RURAL COMMUNITIES, restaurants serve as gathering spots, as social hubs, for those who live there. Farmers, retired or not, meet for coffee and cards at the local cafe. Some return for dinner—that would be the noon meal in farming country—joined by younger men. Women come, too, for food and conversation. Plus families and others, like me, pop in from out of town on occasion.

But all of that has changed because of COVID-19. Those restaurants which center these small towns (along with churches and schools) are now closed to in-house dining. And that’s a challenge for those who rely on these places to connect with friends and family, to socialize.

 

Looking south from the cafe to the bank on the corner and the Vesta water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I wondered about my hometown of Vesta, a farming community of some 320 in southwestern Minnesota. The one-block Main Street looks much different than when I grew up on a dairy and crop farm south of town decades ago. There’s still a grain elevator, a bank, a post office and a few other businesses. Years ago, though, hardware stores, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, a barbershop…filled the block.

Community leaders had the foresight, when the last restaurant closed, to build a community cafe, the Vesta Cafe. When my mom still lived in Vesta, prior to her move to a senior care center in nearby Belview, Randy and I occasionally ate at the restaurant. I saw the importance of this gathering spot to locals. In 2012, I helped bring a Little Free Library to my hometown, which doesn’t have a public library or even a bookmobile. Since then the sharing of books and magazines has expanded to include jigsaw puzzles.

But back to now. I went online to see how the Vesta Cafe is faring during these difficult times. And if Facebook is any indication, the cafe is experiencing enthusiastic support from the community. A full menu is posted for April with meals to go. That includes Easter dinner, available for pick-up between 10 am-12:30 pm. Sunday. For $8.95, you’ll get a choice of roast beef or ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots, a dinner roll and dessert. Orders must be placed in advance.

Reading through the menu posted on Facebook, I see the rural influence. Like a beef commercial—roast beef layered between pieces of white bread, topped with a scoop of mashed potatoes and then smothered in gravy. It was my dad’s favorite meal on the rare occasion he ate at a cafe. Other rural-centric meals feature liver and onions, scalloped potatoes and ham, sausage and sauerkraut, and meatloaf.

But the Vesta Cafe also offers menu items like walleye, BBQ ribs, shrimp and, now, take-and-bake pizzas.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

I’m pleased, that during these challenging times, my hometown continues to support its sole restaurant. I also want to give a shout-out to The Amboy Cottage Cafe, a lovely eatery I discovered in the small town of Amboy, south of Mankato, six years ago. The made-from-scratch food is exceptional and unusual for a farming community. Offerings range from burgers to tuna melts to Salmon Quiche and Foraged Nettle Lasagna. The Amboy eatery continues to cook and bake (pies, rolls, bread pudding, etc), offering curbside pickup for several hours on limited days.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad, ordered at the Amboy Cottage Cafe in July 2014. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It is my hope that these small town restaurants can survive. They are more than simply a place to enjoy a good meal. They are a place to gather, to talk, to connect and share each others heartaches and joys. And daily lives.

TELL ME: Do you know of a small town restaurant that continues to thrive during this time of COVID-19 restrictions? I’d love to hear about these eateries that center our rural communities.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids September 25, 2017

An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.

 

“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.

 

At Smoky Hills Art Gallery, I discovered this lovely mural.

 

I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.

 

Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.

 

For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.

 

I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.

 

 

 

On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.

 

I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.

 

Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.

 

Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.

 

There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.

 

My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.

 

But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.

 

 

Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.

 

 

I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.

 

 

Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.

 

 

As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.

 

 

Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.

 

Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from La Crosse: The historic downtown through my camera lens March 22, 2017

Crossing the Mississippi River from La Crescent, Minnesota, into La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

WITH MY APPRECIATION of historic buildings, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has become a favorite occasional destination. This Mississippi River town bordering Minnesota is about a half-way meeting point between my Faribault home and my second daughter’s home in eastern Wisconsin. We recently met there for a Saturday afternoon of dining and exploring.

 

Nearing downtown La Crosse.

 

I love shopping in La Crosse. Mostly photoshopping. While the rest of the family focuses on getting from one shop to the next, I am constantly distracted by the endless photo opportunities. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up,” I repeat.

 

Entering the historic downtown.

 

Signage painted on buildings draws my eye.

 

Some communities restrict signage on historic buildings. But in downtown La Crosse, anything seems to go, creating a visually diverse landscape of signs that pop color and interest into the streetscape. It works, adding character to this downtown.

 

Then I stand and swing my camera lens upward to photograph architectural details, vintage lettering on buildings and the many colorful and creative signs that landmark downtown businesses.

 

Downtown La Crosse is one busy place. On-street parking is a challenge to secure. However, four parking ramps are situated in the downtown and offer free parking on weekends. Same goes for street parking. The downtown features lots of one-way streets.

 

Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch a photographer’s eye.

 

Bridesmaids head for an ice cream treat at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor, a must-stop ice cream shop and more along historic Pearl Street. Love The Pearl’s homemade ice cream.

 

Or I keep my camera at street level, capturing streetscapes. This downtown pulses with people and traffic.

 

Outside Kroner True Value Hardware store.

 

The day after St. Patrick’s Day, I spotted this cup of green beer on a window ledge in a bar. I also saw a glass of beer outside a bar entrance. Downtown La Crosse is packed with bars, I believe the highest per capita of any U.S. city, according to numerous online sources. (Google it.)

 

The ultimate (in my opinion) “I’m from Wisconsin” t-shirt showcased in the window of The Cheddarhead Store on Pearl Street.

 

Occasionally I direct my lens down to at-my-feet details or toward window scenes.

 

This colorful signage welcomes downtown visitors to Historic Pearl Street West.

 

I photographed this barge on the Mississippi River which edges downtown La Crosse.

 

The dining options in La Crosse are many, including Big Boar Barbecue. No, I haven’t eaten there. Yet.

 

Downtown La Crosse truly rates as a photographer’s/visitor’s dream—if you love historic river towns with aged, detailed architecture; colorful signage; character; diverse dining and drinking options; and a variety of unique shops.

FYI: Please check back for more posts from La Crosse.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesotan’s impression of Davis Square in Somerville June 9, 2016

Banners mark Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Banners mark Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.

UP UNTIL RECENTLY, I was unfamiliar with squares. Not as in geometric shapes, but as in a geographical location in a city. When my son, who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, would talk about Davis, Harvard and Porter Squares, I pictured a park-like setting centering cultural events.

A streetscape in Davis Square.

A streetscape in Davis Square.

Well, a square is not exactly or solely that. Rather, the two squares I visited (Davis and Porter) recently are the convergence of about a half-dozen streets with businesses surrounding them. These seem city versions of small town Main Streets with a mix of retail, restaurants, professional, service and entertainment oriented businesses and nonprofits packed into a compact area.

A biker squeezes around a bus in busy Davis Square.

A biker squeezes around a bus in busy Davis Square.

Sure, there’s a bricked area with picnic and patio tables, benches, trees and art in Davis Square. But lacking are the lawn, abundance of flowers and water features I expected. Hard surfaces handle the heavy pedestrian, bike and vehicle traffic that make this place visually chaotic for a rural Minnesotan like me.

A snapshot of pedestrian traffic.

A snapshot of pedestrian traffic.

When my husband, son and I—all native Minnesotans—waited for the “walk” signal to cross a street, we found ourselves standing alone while others hurried around us, intent on getting wherever they were going. Pedestrians obviously rule here. People just step right in front of vehicles, seemingly oblivious that they could be struck. That, more than anything, scared me during a recent trip to greater Boston.

Mass transit is a necessity in this densely populated metro area.

Mass transit is a necessity in this densely populated metro area.

As for the converging streets in the square, you better know where you’re driving. Sort of like roundabouts but not, these intersections are confusing to someone unfamiliar with the streets and how the traffic pattern works. I understand why public transportation, available at the squares, is the preferred way of getting around.

On a beautiful late May afternoon, we chose to dine outside The Boston Burger Company.

On a beautiful late May afternoon, we chose to dine outside The Boston Burger Company.

That all said, I enjoyed people-watching in Davis Square where the three of us dined at The Boston Burger Company late on a Monday afternoon.

The 420 burger was way too thick to fit in my mouth.

The 420 burger was way too thick to fit in my mouth.

I ordered the 420 burger (mozzarella sticks, fried mac & cheese, onion rings, fries, bacon, golden BBQ sauce and American cheese) available at 4:20 for $4.20.

That sandwich board would be for a burger.

That sandwich board would be for a burger.

And, yes, 420 was explained to me as I was totally clueless that it references cannabis. Anyone who knows me well would also be surprised that I actually ate a burger.

My son let me sample his King burger. I loved it. And the beans were great, too. Authentic Boston baked perhaps?

My son let me sample his The King burger. I loved it. And the beans were great, too. Authentic Boston baked perhaps?

The husband, as I expected, ordered his predictable burger, one topped with blue cheese. The son chose The King, a burger featuring peanut butter, bacon and a fried banana dusted in cinnamon and sugar. It was delicious.

I regret not taking the time to step inside this theatre.

I regret not taking the time to step inside this theatre.

I’d highly recommend dining outside The Boston Burger Company across from the Somerville Theatre for a front row seat to people-watching. I was thoroughly entertained.

Most cyclists take biking safety seriously. And they should given the heavy vehicle traffic.

Most cyclists take biking safety seriously. And they should given the heavy vehicle traffic.

The list of characters was ever-changing. From the inebriated man whom we worried was about to pee in public, to the young man dribbling a basketball, to the cyclist businessman with his pants legs rolled up to the woman with crimson hair to the chain of daycare kids to the man shouting to himself, I could have penned a dozen stories prompted by the people I saw.

I noticed lots of kids with their parents when I was at Davis Square.

I noticed lots of kids with their parents when I was at Davis Square.

One thing was particularly noticeable to me. With the exception of parents and their kids, I noticed few people interacting. It was as if all these individuals crossing Davis Square were in their own little worlds, en route to wherever they needed to be. The pace was hurried. The scene reminded me of the ants in the Ant Hill Farm my oldest brother had as a kid.

This is the most unusual cyclist I saw with his son riding in front.

This is the most unusual cyclist I saw.

I understand that those who frequent this area may not view Davis Square as I did on a late Monday afternoon in late May. And that’s OK. I was, after all, simply a visitor from Minnesota not widely-traveled outside the Midwest.

BONUS ART PHOTOS:

This colorful art creatively disguises a utility box. I love this type of street art.

This colorful art creatively disguises a utility box. I love this type of street art.

One of two sculptures I spotted.

One of two sculptures I spotted. The bronze masks on the Davis Square sculptures were installed after the original sculptures were vandalized. The sculptures are based on actual people who lived in the Square area.

I spotted this sign while dining, but then forgot to check out the park once I finished my burger.

I spotted this sign while dining, but then forgot to check out the park once I finished my burger.

Lucky for us, there was room to park in one of the public parking lots late on a Monday afternoon.

Lucky for us, there was room to park in one of the public parking lots late on a Monday afternoon. That’s where I photographed the colorful car art.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faribault is about blankets, beer, blue cheese & a whole lot more April 28, 2016

Faribault's new promotional billboard, visible while traveling southbound along Interstate 35 near the city. Faribault is about a half hour south of the Twin Cities metro.

Faribault’s new promotional billboard, visible while traveling southbound along Interstate 35 near the city. Faribault is about a half hour south of the Twin Cities metro and about an hour from the Iowa border. Perfect for a day trip.

MY COMMUNITY OF FARIBAULT could easily fall into that grey space of endless towns perched along Interstate 35 from the Texas-Mexico border to Duluth in northeastern Minnesota.

But Faribault, pronounced fair-uh-boh, because it’s a French name, isn’t just any other community. This is a city of some 23,000 with a strong sense of history. Drive a few miles off I-35 to see the aged buildings along and branching off Central Avenue and scattered throughout town. We have historic churches (like the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour) and the historic Shattuck-St. Mary’s School and wonderful old houses.

A new billboard along I-35 hints at what you’ll discover in this southeastern Minnesota community named after founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault.

Let’s zoom in on billboard details:

Strolling along Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault late on a Saturday afternoon in December 2011.

This remains one of my all-time favorite shots of Faribault’s Central Avenue, our Main Street. It showcases the aged buildings and beauty of our historic downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, December 2011.

HISTORIC DOWNTOWN: Aged buildings, most beautifully restored, border Central Avenue for several blocks. If you appreciate old architecture, history and home-grown businesses, then you’ll enjoy our downtown.

Award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola from Caves of Faribault.

Award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola from Caves of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

BLUE CHEESE: Award-winning blue and Gorgonzola cheeses are produced and aged in Faribault, in sandstone caves along the Straight River. I’m crazy about AmaBlu, St. Pete’s Select and AmaGorg cheeses. All are sold at The Cheese Cave, a Central Avenue retail shop that also serves up a limited menu of soup (seasonal), sandwiches, salads, pizza and more. The fresh cheese curds, flavored and plain, are a must-try. Iowa-based Swiss Valley Farms now owns the once locally-owned retail shop and cheese company.

We wanted to sample all of the beers on tap, so we ordered a flight.

Samples from a flight of F-Town beer. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

BEER: F-Town Brewing Company opened in the downtown historic district, just a half-block off Central Avenue, last summer. It’s a great addition to our community, continuing a tradition of early beer brewing in Faribault by the Fleckenstein brothers.

Perusing merchandise at the recently reopened Faribault Woolen Mill retail store.

Perusing merchandise at the Faribault Woolen Mill retail store. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

BLANKETS: The historic Faribault Woolen Mill has been weaving blankets for some 150 years. Visit The Mill Store (open daily except Sunday) and/or tour the mill (every Friday or the second Saturday of the month) along the banks of the Cannon River. This business produces quality made blankets, throws, scarves, etc., in the time-honored tradition of hands-on looming by employees who’ve been around for a long time.

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BILLBOARDS SHOWCASE only a quick visual of what any place offers. So here are additional personal recommendations from my favorites and must-see list of Faribault attractions:

This restored 1915 clock was installed on the Security State Bank Building, 302 Central Avenue, on Saturday.

This restored 1915 clock was installed in 2015 on the Security State Bank Building, 302 Central Avenue. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ART: Stop at the Paradise Center for the Arts, a restored theater, to peruse the galleries and gift shops or to take in a show.

Admire the recently-restored Security Bank Building clock at 302 Central Avenue.

At the south end of Central Avenue, at its intersection with Division Street, admire the art throughout Buckham Memorial Library. Don’t miss the Charles Connick stained glass window, the Greek murals or the exterior clock tower.

Throughout the downtown area are numerous murals depicting scenes from Faribault history. I love this concept of combining art and history in such a highly-visible public way.

While I’ve never toured Whillock Studio, home to woodcarver Ivan Whillock, I’d suggest a visit. Locally, his work can be seen in churches, at the library and more. Noted woodcarver Marv Kaisersatt also calls Faribault home. Kaisersatt keeps a low profile. But I was lucky enough to visit his second floor downtown studio (not open to the public) several years ago when penning a magazine article.

Folks waited in line for these cupcakes.

Folks waited in line at last summer’s Faribault Farmers Market for these cupcakes from Bluebird Cakery. The business now has a storefront location at 318 Central Avenue, Suite 101. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

FOOD: Hands-down, The Signature Bar & Grill serves the best thin crust (or any) pizza in town. I always order the Italian sausage. The old-fashioned bar area is reminiscent of Cheers.

The Depot Bar & Grill, housed in an old train depot, is always a good dining choice. Warm weather outdoor dining is available on a patio next to the railroad tracks. It’s a thrill to feel the power of a train roar past only feet away.

Faribault offers many ethnic dining choices ranging from Mexican to Somali to Chinese, Thai, etc. Gran Plaza Mexican Grill downtown is a local favorite.

Fairly new to downtown Faribault is Bluebird Cakery, specializing in cupcakes (plus other sweet treats) and assorted coffees, etc. I’ve been there several times and each time it’s been super busy. Choosing cupcakes proves difficult given all of the enticing flavors.

I’m not a fan of fast food or fast food chains. But for an authentic American fast food dining experience, Faribault’s A & W still offers car hop service during the warm months. And I do love a frosty mug of A & W root beer.

New to Faribault, and hidden away in the Faribo West Mall, is Smoqehouse Restaurant. I’ve been there once and will definitely be back as I love pulled pork and other savory smoked meats. The smokey smell alone is enough to draw me in. Take note that if you want to eat here after the mall closes on say a Saturday evening, you need to use the back entrance across from the Walmart Auto Center.

Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a family-owned shoe store along Central Avenue in Faribault.

Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a family-owned shoe store along Central Avenue in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SHOPPING: I’m not much of a shopper. But I do like thrift stores–you’ll find Good Will, the Salvation Army, All Seasons Community Services Thrift and Jan’s Thrift Shop in Faribault along with some used clothing shops.

Third-generation family-owned Burkhartzmeyer Shoes is a Faribault staple offering full shoe-fitting services (yes, they measure your feet and put the shoe on your foot) and shoe repair. This place is reminiscent of a bygone era when outstanding personal customer service mattered. I know nearly everyone who works here and these are salt-of-the-earth wonderful people. Shoe boxes are tied with a cotton string and you’ll even get a sucker if you want one.

We also have gift shops, antique stores, an architectural salvage business and more in our historic downtown.

Tables packed with colorful flowers fill the Faribault Garden Center.

Tables packed with colorful flowers fill the Faribault Garden Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

FOR THE GARDENER:

Farmer Seed and Nursery, in an aged building along Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street, is a fun place to poke around for anything plant and garden related. This business has provided American gardeners with plants, bulbs, seeds, etc. for more than 120 years through its mail order catalog (also now online) business. It’s especially fun to tour during the holidays when themed Christmas trees pack the store.

Donahue’s Greenhouse is open for the season, drawing gardeners from all over to this massive family-owned greenhouse/retail shop at 420 SW Tenth Street. After a long winter, this feels like walking into summer. I get a bit overwhelmed with all of the choices at Donahue’s, thus I often shop at the smaller Faribault Garden Center or Northstar Seed & Nursery.

Twiehoff Garden & Nursery on the east side is another great choice for plants and then fresh produce throughout the growing season. Housed in a no-frills pole shed style building which lends an earthy authenticity, this 52-year-old business is operated by the friendly Twiehoff family. It’s one of my main sources for local fresh seasonal produce along with the Faribault Farmers Market.

Biking through River Bend Nature Center.

Biking through River Bend Nature Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

NATURE: One of my favorite places for an in-town get-away is River Bend Nature Center. Faribault also has an extensive trail system for biking and walking.

City View Park, on the east side by the water tower, offers a beautiful overlook of Faribault.

The restored Tilt-A-Whirl sits in downtown Faribault, just two blocks from Buckham Memorial Library.

The restored Tilt-A-Whirl sits in downtown Faribault next to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, just two blocks from Buckham Memorial Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

HISTORY: It’s everywhere in Faribault. In the architecture of old buildings. On murals. In the Rice County Historical Society Museum. In our churches, especially The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour. In the historic Hutchinson House Bed & Breakfast. Even in a restored Tilt-A-Whirl car located on the corner by Burkhartzmeyer Shoes. Yes, the Tilt-A-Whirl originated in Faribault and, up until a few years ago, was still made here.

I love Faribault. I’ve lived here more than half my life now. I don’t have the connection of family roots. But I do have the connection to place. Faribault is home.

DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS about Faribault? If so, ask away and I’ll try to answer.

FYI: Chambers of Commerce and tourism centers in Faribault, Owatonna and Northfield have joined in promoting visits to their communities through a Minne-Roadtrip venture. All three cities lie along the I-35 corridor, with Faribault in the middle. Click here to learn more about this promotion. I’ve explored all three communities; they are definitely worth your visit.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II from Wanamingo: Lunching at Area 57 March 22, 2016

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A signature classy black awning showed us we'd found Area 57.

Area 57 Coffee Cafe lies in downtown Wanamingo, Minnesota, population around 1,100.

“JUST GET THERE BY 2,” Peggy Ryland advised.

There is Area 57 Coffee Cafe, an eatery that is anything but your typical small town Minnesota restaurant.

Located in the heart of Wanamingo, which sits along State Highways 60 and 57 (thus the name), Area 57 possesses a hip and urban feel. It’s totally unexpected in a farming community with a sprawling John Deere dealership on the west edge of town and grain bins at the north end of Main Street.

Ryland, who is from nearby Cannon Falls and who runs a custom embroidery, design and printing business in Kenyon, recommended the eatery when my husband and I stopped by her shop on a Saturday morning. We were on a day trip to wherever and were seeking a good place for lunch. Peggy assured us Area 57 fit our requirement of great homemade food as she praised the soup and sandwiches, the coffee selections and the pie.

A signature black awning and classy lighting grace Area 57.

A signature black awning and classy lighting grace Area 57.

With Peggy’s notations that the restaurant is small, busy and closes at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, we hurried through two thrift stores in Kenyon and then aimed east 10 miles to Wanamingo. Once downtown, we easily found the non-descript brick Area 57 building with the black awning, just as Peggy described.

Wanamingo's source for a burger and a beer.

Wanamingo’s source for a burger and a beer. This eatery rates good reviews on Trip Advisor.

Across the street we simultaneously spotted JB’s Tavern’s sign advertising Great Burgers and Cold Beer. I observed Randy’s hesitation as we walked toward the place with soup and sandwiches. I knew he was thinking burgers and beer. I suggested perhaps we’d need to dine separately. We did so years ago while in Henderson. But this time he obliged and accompanied me to Area 57.

Although a small eatery, Area 57 had plenty of space when we dined there on a Saturday around noon.

Although a small eatery, Area 57 had plenty of space available for us around noon on a recent Saturday.

Once inside, I knew we’d made the right choice. I liked the setting—the sage walls accented by black wainscoting, the comfortable cluster of cozy chairs around a free-standing fireplace, the chalkboard beverage board, the artful travel décor…

A welcoming spot inside the cafe to read, visit and/or relax.

A welcoming spot inside the cafe to read, visit and/or relax over a cup of specialty coffee.

I felt welcomed here. At home.

The daily specials are posted at each table.

The daily specials are posted at each table.

Perusing the menu before ordering at the counter, I eventually settled on the special of the day, half a Rachel sandwich with a cup of soup. I chose tomato soup with roasted red pepper and Gouda over beer cheese soup. Randy ordered a Philly Beef and Cheese sandwich, an atypical choice for him given the sauteed green peppers and onions. He assured me he could eat green peppers.

There are plenty of specialty coffee choices.

There are plenty of specialty coffee choices.

There isn’t a single burger on the menu. I later learned that Area 57 doesn’t want to compete with the bar and grill across the street in serving burgers. That’s small town nice.

My Rachel sandwich served with red pepper tomato soup, chips and a pickle.

My Rachel sandwich served with red pepper tomato soup, chips and a pickle.

Service was quick. My smoked turkey and sauerkraut sandwich oozed with melted Swiss cheese, the flavors blending well with the house dressing. It paired nicely with the tomato soup, a customer favorite. Randy liked his Philly sandwich and the accompanying chips. He didn’t even pick off the peppers or onions.

The homemade pies, like this Oreo cream, were mighty tempting.

The homemade pies, like this Oreo cream, were mighty tempting.

I contemplated dessert, eying pie choices like Oreo, coconut and banana cream in addition to mint chip and other over-sized cookies and Area 57’s bestselling homemade dessert, raspberry bread pudding with whiskey sauce. In the end, I decided I was just too full for a sweet treat. Next time.

A few doors away sits Wanamingo Meats.

A few doors away sits Wanamingo Meats & Catering.

Other menu items such as Crunchy Ranch Chicken with Strawberry Salad, Chipotle Chicken and Cheddar Panini with soup and more sound tasty. Area 57 is also known for breakfast. Omelette selections include a Farmer’s Omelette made from three eggs, cheese and fresh vegetables. That’s fitting for a community centered around agriculture, with Wanamingo Meats and Catering and grain bins within eyesight of Area 57 Coffee Cafe.

Area 57 is open 12 hours on weekdays. This artsy travel and time-themed setting is staged inside Area 57.

Area 57 is open 12 hours on weekdays. This artsy travel and time-themed setting is staged inside Area 57.

FYI: Area 57 is open from 7:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Check back tomorrow for my third post in this six-part “from Wanamingo” series. I’ll tell you about this community’s connection to a well-known hymn.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring La Crosse Part II: Drinking & dining October 21, 2015

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Turtle Stack Brewery, 125 Second Street South in downtown La Crosse.

Turtle Stack Brewery, 125 Second Street South in downtown La Crosse.

FROM PREVIOUS VISITS to La Crosse, Wisconsin, I don’t recall the downtown as crazy busy as last weekend. Friday evening we circled block after block after block trying to find a parking spot near a newly-opened brewery. Construction doesn’t help. But even without that, there seems an obvious shortage of street-side and other free parking spaces in this Mississippi River town.

The IPA I tried.

The IPA I tried.

Randy's flight.

Randy’s flight from Turtle Stack Brewery.

After finally securing parking, my husband, our daughter Miranda and I popped into Turtle Stack Brewery, one of La Crosse’s newest breweries. For a Friday evening, this sparse place with shiny wood slab tables supported by pipe was surprisingly quiet. Randy and Miranda ordered a flight of four brews while I selected a single sample. After tasting the beers—ranging from lager to ale, stout and IPA—we weren’t raving about any of them. Not that we are experts. But we’ve each tried enough craft beers to know when we really like a brewery’s offerings.

Buzzard Billy's

Buzzard Billy’s, 222 Pearl Street. It’s frustrating to see empty lots like the one next to Buzzard Billy’s with signs threatening towing if you park there and aren’t a customer of the business owning the space. And, yes, that’s a parking ramp. But we didn’t want to spend money for parking when we were already dropping a lot of money downtown.

From Turtle Stack, we headed around the corner for dinner at Buzzard Billy’s, a favorite of Miranda, who’d eaten there while attending the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Normally I would not wait 45 minutes to be seated. But I determined that Creole and Cajun food would be worth the wait. So we secured our spot in line then crossed Pearl Street to check out The Cheddarhead Store, source of Wisconsin cow and cheese related merchandise including cheese.

Pearl Street West includes Cheddarheads, a Wisconsin gift shop on the right in this image.

Pearl Street West includes Cheddarheads, a Wisconsin gift shop on the right in this image.

Inside Cheddarheads you'll find lots of Wisconsin themes t-shirts like this one displayed in the window.

Inside Cheddarheads you’ll find lots of Wisconsin themed t-shirts like this one displayed in the window.

Another view of Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse. I love the old buildings and the signage here.

Another view of Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse. I love the old buildings and the signage.

Eventually, after also perusing Art—211 Pearl, in the same complex of businesses known as Pearl Street West, photographing some nightscapes and stashing my camera in the van, we headed back to Buzzard Billy’s with 15 minutes to spare.

Finally, we were seated in the noisy bar area, where waitresses, hands balancing large trays of food overhead, squeezed between standing room only bar patrons and tables. It looks like a disaster waiting to happen.

While I didn’t care for the bar dining spot, I loved the food. We all did. I chose a spicy Shrimp Creole. Miranda opted for a Crawfish Platter and Randy a pasta with Andouille sausage. Service was quick. It helped that we had our menu choices pre-picked and that I told the welcoming and friendly waitress I was really really hungry. She took our food orders to the kitchen before bringing beverages. Not long after, our meals arrived piping hot. I tried my first ever hush puppies and crawfish sampled from Miranda’s platter. I will confess here that I thought hush puppies were potatoes rather than corn meal. Can you tell I’m a northerner who’s not well-traveled?

Another dining option a half a block away from Buzzard Billy's.

Another dining option a half a block away from Buzzard Billy’s.

Hungry for pizza? This was a busy place.

Every college town needs pizza places.

I love this Prime Rib sign.

I love this Prime Rib sign.

Once my left-overs were boxed, we headed upstairs to walk through The Starlite Lounge, a 1950s cocktail lounge. Oh, how I wished I hadn’t left my camera in the van. The lounge is now on my list of places to patronize the next time I’m in La Crosse. This throwback setting of curving aqua couches and swivel chairs appears the perfect place to try my first ever martini.

Signage marks another La Crosse bar.

Signage marks another La Crosse bar.

No shortage of places to have a beer in downtown La Crosse.

No shortage of places to have a beer in downtown La Crosse.

Yup, another bar...

Yup, another bar…

The sophisticated Starlite Lounge seems out of place in La Crosse, known for its beer-focused Oktoberfest and downtown bars frequented by college students. But that’s OK. With so many drinking establishments, bars need to distinguish themselves. And let me tell you, there are a lot of bars in downtown La Crosse.

The Pearl, a quaint shop serving homemade ice cream.

The Pearl, a quaint shop serving homemade ice cream.

CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a look at another downtown eatery and an ice cream shop.

© 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

 

Transforming an historic building into Seven Sisters Coffee, a community gathering spot & more in rural Minnesota October 23, 2012

This 1892 former bank building and 95-year bakery anchoring a corner of Lamberton’s Main Street is being renovated into Seven Sisters Coffee by a young couple with connections to this area of southwestern Minnesota. After the business opens, the upstairs will be renovated into loft style apartments.

DAVID AND MICHELLE can see beyond the crumbling mortar, the moisture damage, the buckling floor boards, the teal paint.

Just barely into major renovation of an historic 1892 bank building and former long-time bakery in downtown Lamberton, this couple is thoughtfully and methodically working toward their summer 2013 goal of opening Seven Sisters Coffee.

This shows the side and back view of the building, with the rear part added on to the original. Soot from a 2005 fire, which destroyed Plum Creek Crafts next door, mars the brick. Behind the building, a tree was removed and plans are to install a patio area for outdoor dining. They saved a slice of the tree to build a table.

Even the name, Seven Sisters, holds special significance for the pair as Michelle is one of seven sisters and three brothers who grew up in Lamberton, a strong agricultural community of 822 in Redwood County on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Additionally, Michelle notes that Seven Sisters possesses multiple meanings—in Greek mythology, astronomy and even as a mountain range.

The old sign for the former Sanger’s Bakery still graces the building.

The couple may, perhaps, feel at times as if they are scaling a mountain to reach their goal of establishing a combination cafe, coffee shop and entertainment venue in the 1,900 square foot first floor of the 8,000 square foot brick building. But they are purposeful and focused and driven every week to travel 2 ½ hours from their home to proceed with their project on the prairie.

Michelle and David  are keeping the original candy and bakery goods counters and the vintage cabinet, photographed here in the front part of the building. This area of the former bank and bakery will house the cafe and soda fountain. The couple discovered a dumb waiter hidden in the area behind them in the corner.

David envisions Seven Sisters as “an artistic haven as well as a community space.” He expects “townies,” he says, to frequent the front Main Street side of the building, the bright and cheery cafe section offering a full breakfast and lunch menu and ice cream treats from a soda fountain.

Fifty loaves of bread could be baked in this 1960s vintage two-ton rotary oven. It occupies much of the space in the middle room which will become a cozy coffee shop. This room and the front former bakery/soda fountain area were painted teal after Bob’s niece first chose that hue for the bathroom. Bob loved the color so much that he painted the rest of the place teal. The color has been on the walls for 50 years. No, they are not keeping the teal color.

An oversized mixer also occupies space in the middle room.

The smaller middle section, once a post office entry, baking area and even home to the Sanger family, will be transformed into a warm and intimate coffee shop.

The back room, with focal point brick walls, will become an entertainment venue and artists’ haven.

And in the rear area of exposed brick walls, David expects artists and others to hang out in a more energetic and modern New York loft style space devoted to music and art and private event rental.

Tour this building, inside and out, with David and Michelle and you can see the overwhelming amount of work, inside and out, that needs to be done before Seven Sisters becomes a reality in a community already embracing the business venture.

Locals as well as those living in neighboring towns such as Revere, Jeffers and Tracy and even farther away in the regional hub city of Marshall are ecstatic about Seven Sisters, David says.

Original coffee cups and Bob Sanger’s special cup are stacked under the lunch counter.

The older gas burners Bob Sanger apparently used to make coffee, etc.

When locals George and Vern, for example, stop by to check on the renovation, David invites them inside for coffee. The two were coffee klatsch buddies of Bob Sanger, long-time bakery owner who died in March. Sanger purchased the bakery from his father, Nick, in 1961. Between Bob, Nick and previous owner, Martin Kuhar, the building has housed a bakery in the First National Bank building for 95 years.

A vintage photo of bakery owner Bob Sanger who died in March at the age of 80.

A vintage photo of the First National Bank.

Says David of his and Michelle’s decision to purchase the former bakery after Bob Sanger’s death:

The building is positively gorgeous and has a fascinating history. We had admired it for some time. The quality of the construction is superior to similar buildings of that era. We’ve always talked about opening our own business and the location and timing were right.

Our review of the local economy and the needs of the surrounding area indicates a very strong potential for growth and a serious need for a business of this kind. By offering excellence in service in three different approaches (cafe, coffee shop, event space) we will offset some of the inherent risk of this type of business. In short, it was a perfect confluence of events. We got lucky.

The pair is determined also to buy local as much as possible. Dry goods will come from Griffith’s Grocery across the street. They plan to work with Brau Brothers Brewing and Fieldstone Vineyards, located in the region. They’ll grow their own herbs.

It is clear in talking to David and Michelle that they appreciate the historic gem they’ve purchased.

A section of this original lunch counter built by Bob Sanger will be refurbished and topped with granite.

They’re attempting, they say, to retain as much of the natural charm as possible. For example, they plan to refurbish the soda fountain built by Bob; relocate an original bank fireplace facade and tile into the coffee shop and install an electric fireplace; refinish the wood floors; keep the tin ceiling; reuse the candy and bakery counters; restore an old player piano; and more.

Wooden floors, like this behind the lunch counter, run throughout the building. In one section, however, where the bank vault once stood, the floor is made of pipestone granite.

This shows a section of the original tin ceiling in the front part of the building. Ceilings are a lofty 12 and one-half feet high.

Plans are to move the facade and tile from the this original First National Bank fireplace into the coffee shop, which David will manage. 

The couple is also uncovering and sifting through collectible treasures like WW I and WW II artifacts, signage, rocks, and more accumulated by Bob. So much was damaged though, beyond saving, by moisture problems in the building, David says. But they are saving what they can, possibly incorporating some of their treasures into Seven Sisters.

A pile of recently found treasures.

Among the old books uncovered was this one on poultry. Bob Sanger kept a flock of 100 chickens at his house, Michelle says. He used the eggs at his bakery and also sold eggs.

Another find, a vintage bomber transport chart damaged by water, like many of the old items found in the building.

Inedible silver cake decorating balls remain from Bob’s days of baking wedding cakes.

The couple found empty candy boxes (pictured here) and candy still in boxes inside the former bakery.

Michelle has fond memories of coming to Sanger’s for sweet treats. She remembers penny Tootsie Rolls and gumballs and candy cigarettes sold at the candy counter:

Thinking about the hundreds of people who have memories of this building, I really hope we can fill that same role for the next generations.

FYI: Lamberton is located along U.S. Highway 14 about 10 miles east of Walnut Grove, childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House children’s book series. The area is a strong draw for summer tourists interested in Wilder’s books and the Little House on the Prairie television series set in Walnut Grove.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Healthy & hearty dining at the retro Highland Cafe in southeastern Minnesota October 22, 2012

A side view of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe.

FROM THE EXTERIOR, a side view of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe in unincorporated Highland in rural Fillmore County, Minnesota, presents a mishmash of angles, work in progress and a corrugated metal roof that seems more fitting for a machine shed than a restaurant.

Face on, the front facade is rather plain and unassuming, until you aim your focus upward to the weathered wooden sign: “Highland Store est. 1894.”

The unassuming front of the Highland Cafe.

That single simple sign hints at the treasure you’ll discover once you step inside this combination cafe, mini-store and Seventh Day Adventist mission outreach next to County Road 10.

A vintage pop sign and a neon OPEN sign next to and on a front window.

Enter this historic building in Highland and you just have to stop and take in the novelty of this place which once served as a general store in this strong agricultural and tourism region of southeastern Minnesota.

A dining room overview with a mini gift shop tucked in the back.

The cafe’s charm and good, home-cooked and healthy food draw not only locals, but tourists/users of the area’s state recreational trails and regional diners from Rochester some 50 miles to the north and west.

My husband and I have come here for lunch early on a Monday afternoon in early October while on a day trip to view the fall colors. We prefer one-of-a-kind small-town cafes to chain restaurants and are thrilled with the unique, down-home atmosphere we discover at the Highland Cafe. It’s as if we’ve walked into the kitchens of our childhood, minus the red-and-white checked linoleum floor.

This is the scene near the front of the dining room where vintage tables and chairs are drenched in sunlight on an October afternoon. This is the kind of spot where you can read a book, work on your laptop or chat it up with the locals or others.

This eatery features the original wood floor topped by a mix of 1940s and 1950s vintage laminate chrome-legged/edged tables and chairs that set the mood for casual dining. There’s nothing matchy, matchy perfect about the décor here and that unpretentiousness suits me perfectly.

The absolutely fabulous lunch counter.

If you prefer to dine at a lunch counter, you’ll find one of those, too, painted in the most unexpected eye-jolting red that contrasts with the dark wood floor and cream-hued wood plank walls.

The main menu offers plenty of healthy choices.

The Highland Cafe, you’ll discover, is as much about the casual country atmosphere as about the food. You’ll read words like organic, multigrain, no sugar, soymilk, super antioxidant and fresh on the whiteboard main menu. You’ll also find comfort foods, like real mashed potatoes and gravy, along with fresh vegetables harvested from the cafe garden out back.

Troy Starks hustles behind the lunch counter toward the kitchen.

Even once mostly meat-and-potato eating local farmers have come around to eating healthier, says Troy Starks who on this Monday is waiting tables while his sister, cafe owner Vicki Hudson, is shopping for groceries. It took some time and convincing, but those stolid farmers are now sometimes ordering the cafe’s super oxidant salads.

The hearty breakfast my husband ordered, even though the hour was well past breakfast: two organic eggs, multigrain toast, hashbrowns and kielbasa. He broke the egg yolks before I photographed his meal.

While my husband and I await our orders—his a plate of breakfast foods and mine a chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of corn chowder—I strike up a conversation with R.J., dining alone at the table next to us. He’s eating a burger. Turns out young R.J. farms just up the road and sells his grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef to the cafe.

When I point out to R.J. that he’s paying to eat the beef he sold to the cafe, he shoots back with a quick-witted, “Well, at least I know it’s (the beef) good.”

My meal: a chicken salad sandwich and tasty corn chowder.

Good and filling most assuredly define the food here. I wished I wasn’t too full to order a slice of pie or bread pudding or a piece of apple crisp for dessert. But I am. Next time…

And this, dear readers, is where I originally ended this post, which has been sitting in my draft box. Now I must add to this story because cafe owner Vicki Hudson announced to me in an email on Friday that the cafe she purchased five years ago will be closing just before Thanksgiving.

Her mother Sharyn Taylor, the cafe’s chief cook, is “getting tired and will not be up to working another year, so we are closing our doors,” Vicki writes. “…we are going to turn the upstairs into a bed and breakfast and then sell it as a combination bed and breakfast and cafe. It would not be the same without my mom and I feel she has done a tremendous job the past five years.”

Vicki continues: “Maybe there will be someone out there interested in carrying on.”

There. If you are interested in carrying on the fine tradition of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe, preserving a piece of southeastern Minnesota history and more, contact Vicki. Honestly, don’t you just love this unique small town dining spot? I do.

The dessert menu on this particular Monday in October.

FYI: The Historic Highland Store and Cafe is located along Fillmore County Road 10 southeast of Lanesboro in unicorporated Highland. Hours are from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, closed Saturdays and open from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday, until just before Thanksgiving.

Yes, the cafe is closed on Saturdays because the building also serves as a ministry for the Seventh Day Adventist Highland Chapel with Sabbath school beginning at 9:30 a.m. followed by an 11 a.m. church service and vegetarian potluck. Bible study is also held at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and is open to all.

For more information about the Historic Highland Store and Cafe, click here to reach the cafe’s website.

After the lunch rush, Troy Starks and his mom, Sharyn Taylor, sit down to relax and chat. Sharyn is the cafe’s cook.

A comfy and cozy front corner of the cafe.

Even early on a Monday afternoon, the cafe is fairly busy. Occasionally local Amish dine here, intriguing tourists who come to this region of Minnesota. None were here on the Monday we visited. We were told that young Amish women have also worked here on occasion in the kitchen. And at least one  did not show up for work one day, having left the Amish order to “go Englisch.”

The art market and health and beauty aids department behind the dining room offers an eclectic mix of merchandise.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling