Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

So much to appreciate about Northfield’s Bridge Square September 7, 2022

An overview of Bridge Square looking toward Division Street. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

BRIDGE SQUARE IN THE HEART of historic downtown Northfield holds a yesteryear appeal as a long-time community gathering spot along the Cannon River. Today its purpose remains as relevant as ever. I’ve observed festivals and concerts here, focused events like Earth Day and the Riverwalk Market Fair, read poetry here, heard music, watched college students chalk messages onto concrete. Individuals, too, pause here to enjoy the fountain sculpture and other art, to picnic, to simply embrace this beautiful spot.

A banner in downtown Northfield promotes the community’s annual celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

This park centers Northfield, home to many home-grown shops and eateries and best-known perhaps for the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank by the James-Younger Gang. This week Northfield honors the long ago townspeople and a heroic bank cashier who stood up to the outlaws. The town will buzz with activities and people, all here to celebrate Defeat of Jesse James Days. That runs September 7-11.

The Northfield Historical Society by Bridge Square once housed the First National Bank. The bank entry is around the corner and not shown here. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Weeks before this event I was in Northfield, first touring the Northfield Cemetery to view the gravesites of bank employee Joseph Lee Heywood and Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson, both shot and killed by the outlaws. Gustafson, at the time of the raid, was vending vegetables in, I believe, current day Bridge Square. The First National Bank is located around the corner.

The popcorn wagon has set up in Bridge Square since the 1970s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Popcorn boxes lined up in the wagon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The popcorn wagon brings back memories of Vern’s Popcorn Stand in my hometown of Vesta. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

My focus on that afternoon was not on the historic robbery, but rather on Bridge Square. I noticed first the 1918 popcorn wagon which is open from mid-May to mid-September and operated by FiftyNorth, the local center for seniors. It was closed when I was there. But I could imagine the sound of popping kernels, the scent, the taste of buttery popcorn scooped into boxes. There’s something about a popcorn stand that hearkens to bygone days.

“How much for that doggie in the window?” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And there’s something about an old-time barbershop such as Bridge Square Barbers with a barbershop pole and then, bonus, a doggie in the window. I spotted the dog lying on a fleece bed in a corner. Seemingly content, only lifting his head when I approached for a close-up photo.

Love this barbershop dog photographed through the window. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Earlier this year a sign in that barbershop window prompted me to write a story, “Barbershop Prompt,” which I submitted to a writing competition. My story earned second place in creative nonfiction and will publish in volume 31 of The Talking Stick, a northern Minnesota-based anthology. I also earned an honorable mention in fiction. Once the book publishes, I’ll share more.

Beautiful flowers circle an art installation in Bridge Square near the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I also took in the art of Bridge Square. Northfield is big on the arts with an Artists on Main Street program, sidewalk poetry and other art installations in addition to the performing arts.

The historic Ames Mill sits along the Cannon River. Originally a flour mill, the mill later was used to produce Malt-O-Meal hot cereals and is today owned by Post Consumer Brands. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And then there’s the history. Aged buildings like the riverside Ames Mill. The river running through is a real asset to the downtown, especially with a river walk behind buildings hugging Division Street.

Detailed top of the art installation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

At the heart of all of it is Bridge Square—a place which melds history and art, land and sky and river, commerce and individuality. Most importantly, the village square brings peoples together to converse, to celebrate, to honor, to discuss, to disagree, to buy popcorn from the popcorn wagon, to simply be.

Bird in flight in the Bridge Square sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

TELL ME: Does your community have an outdoor gathering spot like Bridge Square?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, blessed summer eve on a Minnesota farm June 30, 2011

If you look closely, you will see the farm dog in front of the 1915 farmhouse to which a machine shed was added.

WIDE SWATHS OF SHADOWS sliced across the farmyard as the sun edged toward the horizon on a whisper of a summer night.

The old farm dog, tethered to a chain next to the 1915 farmhouse-turned-granary-turned storage shed, rose from his resting place on a paw-worn patch of grass. Water and food bowls rested on the single cement step nearby, within his reach.

The dog didn’t bark, didn’t lunge, just let me be as I moved into his territory. He stood, paced and then eased onto his haunches, acknowledging my non-threatening presence as I dropped to one knee to view the world from his perspective.

I wanted only to photograph this guardian of the farm on a summer evening as absolutely picture-perfect as any day you’ll get in Minnesota. Still. Serene. Colors sharp like new crayons. Sunlight, eye-blinding bright to the west, on the other side of the barn, outside the dogs’ reach.

This June evening, for these few hours, this watchdog could not roam the farmyard. He could only eye the visitors seated across the gravel drive at a picnic table. Friends gathered for pizza and lemonade sweetened with fresh strawberries and then more berries atop angel food cake and ice cream topped off with whipped cream.

Laughter punctuated conversation. Then bibles flipped open to words written upon pages thin as butterfly wings. The shrill call of a cardinal pierced the silence between ideas shared and scripture read.

Then, as the farm dog watched, the friends bowed their heads in a prayer of thanksgiving—gratitude to God for protecting the owners of this farm from serious injury in a motor vehicle accident the previous day. A rear-end collision. Truck spinning, tipping onto its side along a Minnesota highway. Glass in teeth and waistbands and hair.

None of this the guard dog knew on this most blessed of summer evenings on a Minnesota farm.

TODAY, JUNE 30, has been designated as “Maroon Day” in Minnesota, historically the deadliest day on our state’s roadways. Since 2000, more fatal crashes have occurred on this final day of June, leading into the July Fourth holiday, than on any other day of the year. Statistics show 30 fatal crashes resulting in 35 deaths.

All of Minnesota’s nearly 600 state troopers, in their signature maroon vehicles, will be patrolling today.

Buckle up. Drive carefully and be safe.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Ice Man and his dog June 20, 2011

I’LL NEVER SEE THIS GUY again, this man in the muscle shirt with hair shaved scalp-close, fingers cradling a cigarette, a can of Keystone Ice nearly knocking at his knee as he slumps, cross-legged, on a block of Kasota stone by Riverfront Park in Mankato.

Lines harden his forehead. Shadows darken his eyes. Skin exposed to summer sun has already bronzed his face, his upper body, his muscular arms.

I wonder about his life, but don’t ask. Have he and his two buddies, passing the time nearby on their own blocks of hard, hard stone, had hard lives? I can almost see it in their eyes, imagine their lives. Jobs lost. Relationships broken. Regrets. Bars. Beer and cigarettes. Maybe whiskey and women.

But I don’t pry, and only he—the guy with the Keystone Ice—volunteers any information, speaks to me after I approach the trio because I see a photo opportunity in a man and his dog, brick buildings and a riverside railroad track. My eyes sweep across the scene, pushing the view into the lens of my camera, into these images that tell a story.

Rugged life in a river town. A blue collar man’s grimy, steel-toed work shoes. Elevators. Train tracks leading away. Peeling paint. Boarded-up buildings which The Ice Man wishes were torn down and which I tell him should be refurbished.

We disagree. But he still smiles a smile as wide as the manic, muddy Minnesota River raging past the park.

He tells me then, after I snap a series of photos, that he can’t take his dog—a service dog, he claims, and says he has the card to prove it—into Riverfront Park. Dogs are banned from some Mankato parks and this is one of them.

He suggests I photograph his dog next to the white line and words sprayed onto the tar: NO PETS IN PARK.

At first I balk, say, no, I won’t do that.

But then I reconsider, give The Ice Man his defiant moment. As his dog struggles to cross the line into the park, he tugs on the leash, holding her back. He’s already told me how, a day earlier, he hasn’t crossed the line to hear a $15 outdoor concert staged here. Instead, he’s followed the trail nearer the venue site, listened to the music from there. He’s clearly proud of his evasive, I’ve-outsmarted-them tactic.

Then we part ways. I continue reading poetry imprinted upon a sidewalk circling the park’s trail head building. He returns to his hard stone to swig his Keystone Ice beer and smoke his cigarettes.

His life is so different from mine. Yet, for five minutes we’ve connected and the poetry of his life shows in these images of The Ice Man and his dog.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling