Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches September 18, 2018

I propped my camera on the grass and tilted it up to snap this photo of the 1894 Valley Grove church, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.

 

A view of a section of the Valley Grove cemetery through a partially open window in the wood-frame church.

 

But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.

 

Duo churches grace the hilltop, the clapboard church replacing the original stone church for worship.

 

Inside the 1894 church with Doug Ohman’s equipment set up for his talk about country churches.

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

Imagine how many preachers preached from this pulpit. Ohman ended his talk with a short “sermon” advising us to view people and situations from the inside rather than the outside. He used a visual–that of a stained glass window appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside.

 

Altar details hold history.

 

We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.

 

Vintage photos and artifacts were propped on windows in the stone church.

 

As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

A woman demonstrated the art of making krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, available for sampling.

 

Old buggies on the grounds added to the sense of history.

 

A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.

 

Valley Grove is an oft-photographed site with photos and artwork of the churches gracing notecards for sale at the country social.

 

This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…

 

 

He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.

 

A snippet of the musical group Hutenanny, which performed under a sprawling oak.

 

Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.

 

As I watched draft horses pull a wagon through the prairie, I imagined immigrant families traversing the prairie also.

 

I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.

 

Efforts have been onging since 2007 to restore the 1862 limestone church.

 

Inside the plain stone church, a rebuilt chandelier adds elegance.

 

The Valley Grove Preservation Society has worked hard to restore both churches. Valley Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

 

It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.

 

Every celebration calls for cake, including this cake served inside the stone church at the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Little school on the prairie July 8, 2013

The former Little Prairie School District 15 country schoolhouse near Dundas in rural Rice County Minnesota.

AS THE STORY GOES, and I’ve no reason to believe it’s been embellished, the teacher kept the students inside for recess one afternoon because of coyotes roaming the school grounds.

True story from the one-room Chimney Butte School, rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in the early 1960s.

Scrape the mud from your shoes on the metal scraper, left, before stepping inside the Little Prairie school.

This tale, which I suppose does not make it a tale if it’s the truth, flits through my mind every time I step inside a country school, like that at Little Prairie. My husband, one of the Chimney Butte students sheltered from the ranging coyotes, and I came across the 1885 Little Prairie School District 15 country school as we traveled the back roads between Faribault and Dundas.

We’ve previously driven Rice County roads 8 and 77 through the heart of Little Prairie. But I’d only noticed then the historic Little Prairie United Methodist Church and not the old schoolhouse kitty-corner across the tar road.

As I always do, I tried the schoolhouse doors, hoping to get inside, knowing they would be locked. So I cupped my hands around my eyes to reduce the glare and peeked inside the windows, then lifted my camera and shot a few photos.

I’ve never seen or ridden a merry-go-round like this one in the Little Prairie school yard. It gently swayed up and down as we circled.

And then, as we spun on the merry-go-round, we noticed the car parked by the church and the man sitting on a bench outside with his back to us. We contemplated that he might be the pastor, a man with a key. Randy even went so far as to suggest that he likely was waiting between appointments to counsel couples engaged to be married.

A blackboard, with pertinent historical info about the school.

Eventually the man spotted us, crossed the road and we were in. Pastor Gordon, as he introduced himself, wasn’t leaving us outside for the coyotes, not that we saw any lurking in the vicinity. And, yes, he said, he was between pre-marriage counseling sessions.

Like us, Pastor Gordon Deuel did not grow up in Rice County. Like me, he’s from southwestern Minnesota, except farther west than me, from the prairie town of Hendricks on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. He feels at home here, where he’s pastored Little Prairie for seven years.

I tell you this because he cannot recite the detailed history of the Little Prairie School as a local would. But he possesses, like Randy and me, a deep appreciation for the preservation and history of old buildings such as country schoolhouses and churches.

A back and side view of the school, surrounded mostly by cornfields.

Just that morning his congregation had planned to gather in the school yard for a worship service and community potluck picnic. But the heavy dew moved the event into the church. The school is opened several times a year for public touring and occasionally for solo stops like ours or group tours by former students.

Looking to the front and one side of the school.

We came away from our chat with a realization that the people of Little Prairie care deeply for their little country schoolhouse. Although owned by the church, the school is really a community project embraced by those who live around Little Prairie and/or attend the Methodist church and also by members of the local Full-O-Pep 4-H Club, Pastor Gordon informs us. They form the informal “Schoolhouse Committee” which maintains the building and property.

Pastor Gordon remembers how several terminally ill individuals from the Northfield and Faribault areas wanted to give back to the community. So, for a small fee, they were hired to paint the exterior of the school.

Many old books were lined precisely on a table behind the teacher’s desk.

Such care for country schools is shown likewise at the 1881 District 20 Millersburg School to the north and west near Millersburg. There members of the Christdala Preservation Association have converted the one-room country school into a museum. Randy and I discovered it two years ago, during the annual association meeting and worship service at Christdala Evangelical Swedish Lutheran Church just down Rice County Road 1.

Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman, in his Minnesota Byways series book Schoolhouses of Minnesota, features “120 color photographs that illuminate the simple, often abandoned, sometimes refurbished, and nearly vanishing Minnesota pioneer and early schoolhouses.”

That’s Little Prairie School on the cover of Doug Ohman’s book.

Gracing the cover of that volume—Little Prairie School District #15.

The school entry, with a place to hang coats, right, and a sink to wash up, left.

Another view of that same entry with the water fountain to the left of the sink.

The school treasurer’s bookkeeping register from 1929.

If only I’d had time to peruse all the wonderful old books inside this school.

Looking toward the back of the school.

An old shed, I think the outhouse; I did not peer inside.

FYI: These images were shot last summer when my husband and I stopped at the school while on a Sunday afternoon drive.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When your day fails to go as planned January 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:30 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I RECENTLY READ somewhere—and I read a lot—if you want to make God laugh, plan your day.

Well, God must have been rolling on the floor, laughing until he cried and his belly hurt on Thursday because I had one of those days. You know, the kind that veers completely from your intended course of action.

My main goal for the day was to finish pulling together financial information for the professional who completes our taxes. Now those of you who know me, either personally or via this blog, realize how much I detest numbers. Math whiz I am not. And to add to the stress this year, I once again need to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid after a two-year respite. I despise forms, especially when numbers comprise the bulk of the required information.

I never got to the numbers on Thursday.

Rather, I spent most of my morning researching information for a document my husband needs for a church meeting on Sunday. I’m happy to help him, but I never thought the project would consume hours of my time.

I expect God was getting a chuckle out of that, his subtle reminder that perhaps I should give just a little more of my time to him.

The rest of the day slipped away in work-related issues with precious little time for writing.

Have you noticed the repeat of the word “time” in all three of the above paragraphs? Why am I so obsessed with time?

Despite my day failing to go as planned, I knew I had a delightful evening ahead. My husband and I had been planning for weeks to attend a presentation by Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman who has published a series of “Minnesota Byways” books.

But then, 50 minutes before Ohman’s talk, my husband called. The car had broken down on his way home from work and he needed a ride and a tow.

Long story short, we missed Ohman’s 6 p.m.presentation. (Who chooses these times anyway?)

After a late supper, kitchen clean-up and e-mail catch-up, I finally kicked back in the recliner to finish the final chapters in Still Standing: The Story of SSG John Kriesel by John Kriesel as told to Jim Kosmo.

About then, God must have been muttering to himself, “Well, she thinks she’s had a bad day…”

He was right, of course. Put in the perspective of all the problems and tragedies a day can bring, my Thursday rated as just fine, thank you. My legs weren’t blown off in a roadside blast. I wasn’t fighting to live. None of my friends had been killed in Iraq.

Minnesota National Guardsman Kriesel had dealt with all of that and managed to overcome, to be positive, to move forward with his life. His story is about as inspiring as any you’ll ever read.

And then, when I finished that book Thursday evening, I picked up Conversations with the Land by Jim VanDerPol, a Chippewa County farmer and writer. I’m only a few essays into his book, but already I appreciate the approach he takes to the land and to life in general. He pauses to notice, to savor, to value his land and his role as tender of the earth. His writing resonates with me, reconnects me to the prairie of my youth, the land that still influences my writing.

And so my Thursday ended and a new day has begun with a sunrise so splendid that my husband called to tell me about it, as he often does when the morning sky is especially beautiful.

The remnants of today's sunrise as viewed from my office window.

Several weeks ago, I started penning this poem after pausing to watch the sunrise:

Jam on toast

My fingertips lift within a mere whisper of the keyboard

as I halt, half-thought, words interrupted mid-sentence,

to tilt my head toward the window and the sunrise

spreading gold and pink across the sky like jam on toast.

#

In that morning moment, I want nothing more

than to dip my fingers into the jar of dawn,

to sample her sweetness, to taste of her earthy goodness,

to delight in sunshine and rain and succulent fruit plucked from vines.

#

PERHAPS TODAY should be the day I finish this poem.

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Doug Ohman preserves Minnesota in photos January 25, 2012

MANY YEARS AGO I heard Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman talk about his Churches of Minnesota book, a project in his “Minnesota Byways” series published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

He’s an impressive speaker, sharing his love for photographing those subjects which hold historical, community and personal significance for so many Minnesotans.

Thus far he’s covered Minnesota churches, barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries in his series. I don’t think I’ve missed any and I’ve read most. His books also include prose by well-known Minnesota writers like Will Weaver, Jon Hassler and Bill Holm.

If you’re at all interested in the places that are so integral to our lives, you’ll want to read Ohman’s books and, if you have the opportunity, hear him speak.

Buckham Memorial Library, built in 1929, features a Charles Connick stained glass window and Greek murals.

Thursday night, January 26, this noted photographer travels to my community of Faribault, to Buckham Memorial Library, to present “Free to All: Libraries of Minnesota” as part of the Minnesota Book Award Author Tour. His book, Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota’s State Parks, was a 2011 MNBA nominee.

I’ll be there for several reasons: I enjoy Ohman’s books. I want to learn more about his approach to photography. I’m interested in learning more about libraries in Minnesota. I appreciate libraries.

He’ll be at the Faribault library at 6 p.m. for this free event. A photo of Buckham, by the way, is included in his Libraries of Minnesota.

Southeastern Minnesota residents will have plenty of other opportunities to hear Ohman speak on his “Minnesota Byways” series as a dozen additional appearances are scheduled through-out the Southeastern Libraries Cooperating regional library system. Click here to view a complete listing of Ohman’s upcoming visits. His presentations will vary—from schoolhouses to churches to farms and more—depending on location.

I’d recommend taking in one of Ohman’s presentations. You’ll gain insights into Minnesota history and photography and more from a photographer who possesses an unbridled enthusiasm for preserving, in images, that which is part of the Minnesota landscape.

The Houston Public Library is on the cover of Ohman's book, Libraries of Minnesota. I shot this photo last summer of the library in the southeastern corner of our state.

Built in 1912, the library in Janesville is an Andrew Carnegie library on the National Register of Historic Places.

A statue of Linus greets visitors to the Dyckman Free Library in Sleepy Eye. Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoons, based his character Linus on real-life friend Linus Maurer, a Sleepy Eye native. Maurer, a cartoonist, worked with Schulz. Ohman, who managed the former Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America, includes a photo of Linus at the Sleepy Eye library in his book.

Several summers ago I photographed this 1930s Works Progress Administration log cabin in Hackensack. Sitting on the shore of Birch Lake next to a towering statue of Lucette Diana Kensack (Paul Bunyan's sweetheart), the cabin today houses the Hackensack Lending Library.

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED in reading another book about libraries, check out Carnegie Libraries of Minnesota by Kevin Clemens. The book highlights the history and architecture of Minnesota’s Carnegie libraries, primarily in photos. Click here to learn more about the book.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling