Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Brainerd memories November 20, 2017

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Life could be compared to a beaded necklace, each bead representing a memory. Together the beads form a necklace, an accumulation of our life stories. Artist Cyrus Swann created this necklace with handmade porcelain beads and displayed at Crossing Arts Alliance in downtown Brainerd as part of the recent “ART TO WEAR, TEXTILES AND BEYOND” exhibit.

 

MORE AND MORE THESE DAYS, the quickness of time catches me by surprise like the first brisk wind of winter stinging my face.

 

Like the varied art in the “ART TO WEAR, TEXTILES AND BEYOND” exhibit, we each hold unique qualities, shaped by our experiences, our personalities and more. The center showcased garment is the work of Carolyn Abbott and is titled “Missus Carolyn Quite Contrary.”

 

I pull my wool jacket closer, tighten my scarf, wrap my hands in the warmth of gloves. Those actions won’t stop winter. But they keep me warm, comfortable.

So do positive memories.

 

This art by Lisa Jordan seems to hold years of memories.

 

Many decades of memories—difficult and joyful, mundane and remarkable, everyday and extraordinary—crowd my brain. Some seem so distant, as if another person lived that life in another place in another body.

In reviewing my life, I page through the chapters of growing up, of college and jobs and then marriage and family and, finally, today, the reality of a house now empty of children with Randy and me back at start.

 

 

We brought to our marriage those years when no connection existed between us. And those are the 25 years that still yield discoveries. On a recent trip to central Minnesota, we stayed two nights in Brainerd. Randy attended vocational school there more than 40 years ago. He knows the town. I don’t.

 

Chain businesses, and homegrown businesses, edge main routes in Brainerd. Many are new since Randy lived here in the mid 1970s.

 

But in four decades, things change. That proved the resounding theme. “That wasn’t there. That’s gone,” Randy repeated. And on and on. In the context of revisiting a community you left long ago, the reality of aging strikes hard.

 

I always appreciate public art, including this sculpture of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on a downtown Brainerd street corner.

 

One of my favorite discoveries: this gathering space for knitters inside Utrinkets, a yarn, antiques and boutique shop along Laurel Street. Loved the place and the people.

 

It was nice to see this locally owned bridal and formal wear shop downtown.

 

Downtown carried a sense of emptiness, surprising us both as we pulled into Brainerd on a late mid-week afternoon in September. I held a preconceived image of a city crammed with mom-and-pop shops. Sure, they exist. But not as in you can’t find a place to park and we’ll never have enough time to get to all these shops (like in Park Rapids or Stillwater).

As a side note, while writing this post I learned that Brainerd is among two Minnesota cities recently selected as one of 20 finalists competing for the coveted spot of featured town in Small Business Revolution–Main Street, Season Three. The other is Owatonna, just a dozen miles from my home. The winner garners a substantial monetary prize and a Main Street revitalization plan.

 

No photo ban at the bridal shop, but a shoe ban instead, which makes sense.

 

But back to my Brainerd visit, where, after our stop downtown and a long day of travel, I wanted a craft beer. Much searching and many wrong turns, later, we eventually found Roundhouse Brewery in a railroad yard posted with signs forbidding photography. Photo bans irk me when I view so much visual storytelling potential. So I drank my beer, chatted it up with locals and simply enjoyed the evening before we headed to a hotel and dinner out.

 

I laughed at this sign outside Hockey House Minnesota in downtown Brainerd.

 

The next day we aimed north to Nisswa and Pequot Lakes, returning to our Brainerd hotel and a second town tour as the sun edged evening toward night. I tried to be patient while Randy wove the van down street after street, even snailing by Granny Growler’s house where he and two friends rented rooms and strained spaghetti in the bath tub. (The upstairs lacked a kitchen.) I’ve heard the tale too many times not to believe its truth.

 

The Crow Wing County Courthouse.

 

Randy talked of walking to the nearby vo-tech, now part of the high school campus, and reminisced about working in the tire shop at JC Penney. Or was it Sears? His words blurred, the memories he spoke holding much more meaning for him than for me.

 

The historic water tower, photographed as we drove by it.

 

The landmark Lions head drinking fountain, here since 1968.

 

 

Still, in the decades of change, some things remain unchanged in Brainerd—like the water tower and the lion’s head drinking fountain. There’s comfort in that, in tangible places that endure time, that still hold seasons of memories.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

In Owatonna: Sign sign everywhere a sign March 3, 2016

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Downtown Owatonna streetscape 1

 

THIS PHOTO, SHOT while driving through downtown Owatonna, calls for close study. There’s just so much here. It’s like a Where’s Waldo or an I Spy book. The longer I look at this image, the more I see.

Signs dominate. They are everywhere, although one is missing in the empty frame above the bar.

Notice also the art—murals, bicycle bike racks and an artsy boxed street lamp.

Notice the buildings with a hodgepodge of bricks and a history to which I am oblivious. I’m sure locals know the story behind The Emporium Dry Goods Groceries Shoes signage.

Owatonna apparently has a thing about signs, at least to my visitor’s eyes. Around the corner in the heart of downtown, “thirty minute parking signs” populate the retail area where I shopped. These made me feel unwelcome, like “Don’t linger and shop in our downtown.” I kept checking my watch while perusing the merchandise at a party supply store.

Upon leaving that shop, I noticed signs popping up everywhere like unsightly weeds. I can’t recall specific messages. But most had to do with parking or loitering or other city ordinances. I doubt I’ve ever seen so many signs in a single Minnesota downtown. Visually, the sign clutter detracts. From a visitor perspective, the signs send a message that is not exactly welcoming. The next time I’m in Owatonna, I intend to examine this issue more closely. Maybe count the signs…

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Touring historic downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, not Alabama March 4, 2013

A snippet overview of First Street in downtown Montgomery.

A snippet overview of First Street in downtown Montgomery late on a Sunday afternoon.

EARLY ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON in the dead of a Minnesota winter, downtown Montgomery, except for vehicles clustered around Hilltop Hall for a theatrical performance and around locals bars, is mostly quiet.

A mural on the

A mural depicts downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The occasional pick-up truck cruises First Street, the main north-south route through the heart of this Le Sueur County farming community of nearly 3,000 noted for its strong Czech heritage.

Although this self-proclaimed “Kolacky Capital of the World” lies only about 25 miles northwest of my Faribault home, I’ve never really explored the town except to attend three plays at Hilltop Hall and to write a magazine feature story about Franke’s Bakery. The 99-year-old bakery specializes in kolacky, a folded Czech pastry filled with poppy seeds or fruit.

Franke's Bakery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Franke’s Bakery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

On this Sunday afternoon the bakery is closed. And so are most other businesses. Without distracting vehicles, I can fully appreciate the historic architectural qualities of this downtown. From the aged brick buildings to the vintage signage to the woodframe storefronts that always remind me of something out of a Western, I am smitten with these buildings, this business district.

I must, I tell myself, return to Montgomery when these businesses are open. I can only imagine what discoveries await me.

I love antique shops and thrift stores, so you can bet Sweet Repeats Resale Shop is on my list of places to check out.

I love antique shops and thrift stores, so you can bet Sweet Repeats Resale Shop is on my list of places to check out.

Look, another antique shop, La Nette's Antiques'n Lace.

Look, another antique shop, La Nette’s Antiques’n Lace.

Lots of super cool vintage signage in Montgomery.

Lots of super cool vintage signage in Montgomery.

Because my eldest daughter is in love with a Schmidt boy (nothing to do with the beer), I had to photograph this sign. The striped building is the local meat market.

Because my eldest daughter is in love with a Schmidt boy (nothing to do with the beer), I had to photograph this sign. The striped building is the local meat market.

On the National Register of Historic Places, the historic Westerman Lumber Company office and house is home to Pizzeria 201. The restaurant makes homemade pizzas, a wide selection of Italian foods and more.

On the National Register of Historic Places, the historic Westerman Lumber Company office and house is home to Pizzeria 201. The restaurant makes homemade pizzas, a wide selection of Italian foods and more. I’ve heard rave reviews about the food.

So small town: burgers and a meat raffle promoted on a whiteboard in a restaurant window.

So small town: burgers and a meat raffle promoted on a whiteboard in a restaurant window.

I don't expect I'll get inside this vintage 1800s house tucked between businesses on First Street, but I could try. That's the office of the local newspaper, The Montgomery Messenger, on the left.

I don’t expect I’ll get inside this vintage 1800s house tucked between businesses on First Street, but I could try. That’s the office of the local newspaper, The Montgomery Messenger, on the left.

I absolutely love these small towns that have kept their historic buildings.

I absolutely love these small towns that have kept their historic buildings like this one dated 1896.

TOMORROW, IN THIS FIVE-PART SERIES from Montgomery, I take you to Hilltop Hall, which I’ve visited thrice. After that, we’ll go inside Franke’s Bakery, with photos from my 2010 visit there; I don’t expect much has changed. Next, I’ll show you how this community honors its veterans in a unique way. And then, to end my five-part series on Montgomery, I’ll show you several bonus photos from the town.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Downtown Faribault in December in black & white December 22, 2011

The former Security Bank building anchors a corner of Central Avenue in downtown Faribault.

PHOTOS DEVOID of distracting color possess a certain surreal, dreamy quality and a vintage feel that have always appealed to me.

Some of the best images I’ve seen hearken from years ago which just goes to prove that technology doesn’t always equate better results.

While filing through photos I shot in historic downtown Faribault on Saturday afternoon and evening, I decided to play with my photo editing tools and desaturate several images. I liked the results so much that I stripped every frame of color.

The results, I think, impress even more upon the viewer the history of this early Minnesota community that stretches back to its founding by fur trader Alexander Faribault in 1852.

We’re a city rich in history with 40 properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

With that perspective, please join me on a quick photo tour of the downtown area. Certainly much more comprises our downtown than what you see in the seven images here.

I invite you to explore on your own, to immerse yourself in the history that defines Faribault.

Historic buildings along Central Avenue.

Dandelet Jewelry occupies the former 1882 Dandelet Dry Goods building, which was renovated in 1985.

A scene from the movie, "Grumpy Old Men," was shot in the former drug store to the right in this image. Today the building houses a pawn shop.

A holiday display window at Erickson Furniture, in business since 1956 and located along Fifth Street Northwest just a block off Central Avenue. Erickson Furniture won first place in the Main Street window decorating contest with its suspended green chairs, holiday ornaments and lights.

Holiday decorations in a business window along Third Street Northwest just off Central.

A sign in the window of Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a third-generation family-owned shoe store founded in 1949.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post about Faribault’s historic downtown.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling