Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Fish art along the Mississippi in Monticello October 20, 2022

The Mississippi River in Monticello, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

ALMOST ON A DAILY BASIS now I hear and read media reports about the Mississippi River, reportedly at its lowest level in a decade. Lack of rain led to this situation which is now causing shipping problems, concerns about drinking water supplies and issues with salt water creeping into the river.

Fish art along the Mississippi in Monticello. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I need only look at lakes, rivers, streams and creeks in southern Minnesota to see how drought is affecting our waterways. Dry creek beds, exposed rock, clearly low water levels raise my concern.

Arrows on the public art list locations along the Mississippi. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Some 270 miles to the north of Faribault in Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River begins. Like most Minnesotans, I’ve walked across the headwaters. The Mississippi starts as a narrow, knee-deep river that widens and deepens and flows 694 miles through Minnesota. It passes through communities like Bemidji (at its northern-most point), Brainerd, Little Falls, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, Hastings and many towns and cities in between before spilling into Iowa on its 2,350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

These lovely homes are next to the park by the river. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Recently, on a return trip home from a family member’s lake cabin in the Brainerd Lakes area, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch at West Bridge Park in Monticello. On the northwest edge of the Twin Cities metro, this community hugs the Mississippi. The park, just off State Highway 25 by the river bridge, is easily accessible, but noisy with the steady drone of traffic.

Community members designed and painted the individual fish for this project. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The creativity in these fish is unique, a reflection of the community. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Another version of funky fish from community creators. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Yet, even if not peaceful, the park is worth visiting. I discovered here a MontiArts Community Project, “The Funky Fish Sign.” Wooden fish cut-outs painted by community members are attached to the trunk of a dead oak as are wooden arrows crafted from old park benches. Those arrows list destinations and river miles from Monticello. To Lake Itasca, 443 river miles. To St. Paul, 43 river miles. To New Orleans, 1,776 river miles.

Public art posted on a dead oak removed from a local cemetery and “replanted” along the Mississippi River bank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

This riverside fish tree meets MontiArts’ goal of “using the arts to build community.” This truly was a community project with residents, interns and city employees working together to create public art that connects Monticello to the Mississippi from beginning to end.

I especially like the buffalo plaid on this fish. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But this is about more than a river and geography. In an online video about the project, I learned that the variety in the painted fish represents the differences in people. We are each unique.

From afar, “The Funky Fish Sign” blends into the riverside landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As individual as we are, though, we are collectively all residents of Earth. We are tasked with caring for natural resources like water, like the mighty Mississippi. This beautiful, scenic, powerful waterway is vital to our economy, vital to our water supply, vital to our leisure, our enjoyment, and, in Monticello, to connecting creativity and community.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Along the Cannon River, by a dam in Faribault August 16, 2022

The picturesque Faribault Mill along the Cannon River in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

THE RIVERS RUN THROUGH, the Cannon and the Straight converging on Faribault’s north side at Two Rivers Park.

A view of the Cannon River looking west while standing on the walkway over the dam next to Father Slevin Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The history, the founding of my southeastern Minnesota community is channeled through these waterways. In the history of the Dakota who first called this place home. In the history of the fur traders, including town founder Alexander Faribault, who settled along and traveled the rivers. In the history of flour mills and sawmills and the renowned Faribault Woolen Mill, established in 1865.

There’s a buffer of plants along the shores of the Cannon in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Whenever I walk the Northern Link Trail in North Alexander Park along the Cannon River Reservoir, I pause to view the 1892 Faribault Mill. Often I photograph this iconic brick building aside the appropriately-named Woolen Mill Dam. I appreciate this long-standing business, still operating today, weaving fine woolen blankets and more that have garnered national respect for quality craftsmanship.

Ghost signs on the Faribault Mill along the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Ghost signs on the building’s exterior remind me of this mill’s long history here, along the river, by the dam.

There’s a notable absence of water at this dam on the Cannon River in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A grassy patch away, a second dam manages river flow next to Father Slevin Park. But when I last visited the area on August 7, I saw bare concrete with only a trickle of water leaking through boards at that smaller dam. Rather than rushing water defining this place, stagnant ponding water defines it.

The drying river bed and stagnant water below the dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I observed green algae and litter on the water’s surface. I observed exposed rocks and plants growing where water should flow. All are evidence of the drought conditions we are experiencing here in southern Minnesota. We’ve had some rain since I paused beside the dam. But not enough to totally compensate for the lack of moisture.

Fishing in the Cannon River at Father Slevin Park near the Woolen Mill Dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Typically, anglers frequent the river banks below this particular dam. But not now. Not in this summer of drought. These dry weather conditions plague so many locations across the country and world as the effects of climate change continue. One need only look to the West, to the decades of drought, the wildfires and the ever-growing tensions over water to understand the crisis.

I’ve seen more grasshoppers this year than in recent years, including this one among plants on the Cannon River bank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Locally, low river levels visually remind me that we are not untouched by evolving weather patterns. There was a time when I held a heightened awareness of weather as my farmer father looked to the sky, waiting for rain clouds to open, to drench his corn and soybean fields. I remember the summer of 1976 when he purchased boxcar loads of hay from Montana to feed our livestock. Worry defined that summer.

I spotted this buoy tucked next to a corner of the dam, hugging the shore above the dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

And now worry edges into my thoughts as I observe the stillness. No sound of rushing water. No sight of rushing water. Only the exposed concrete dam and the stagnant water pooling below.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Thankful for rain… June 29, 2021

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Playing in the rain in July 2014 in southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

RAIN, RAIN, oh, glorious rain.

Much-needed rain fell here in southeastern Minnesota over the weekend and into Monday, easing the drought that has left lawns parched brown and soybean and corn fields stressed.

Rain fell from late morning to late afternoon Saturday, with 3.5 inches collected in the rain gauge at our house. More fell on Sunday, although those were showers rather than anything substantial. Monday afternoon, just as I was about to hang laundry on the line, raindrops began falling. That ended plans to hang clothes outdoors. But I was OK with that given the steady rain.

I still think like the farmer’s daughter that I am with my dad’s words echoing in my brain. I can almost hear him saying, “They got more rain north of Echo.” No matter how much rain fell on his fields near Vesta, he always thought Echo, seven miles to the north, got more. Or that their crops always looked better.

I never understood Dad’s dissatisfaction. And I can’t ask; he’s been gone 18 years now. But if Echo got rain, good for the farmers near that small southwestern Minnesota town.

Right now all of Minnesota needs rain. And if you got some, no matter how much or where, then I’m thankful.

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TELL ME: Are you dealing with a drought or rain shortage where you live? Or if you live in Minnesota and got recent rain, how much?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Minnesota disasters up close April 14, 2016

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

DISASTER. How do you define that word? In a Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit currently displayed at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, disaster covers everything from tornadoes to the 35W bridge collapse to the grasshopper plague, drought, blizzards and more.

I personally remember many Minnesota disasters—such as the bridge collapse; the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the 1998 St. Peter-Comfrey tornadoes; the 1968 Tracy tornado which killed nine; the drought of 1976; and the devastating floods of September 2010.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota's deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota’s deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

This week, Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week, seems an appropriate time to focus on the topic of disasters and to show you the MHS exhibit, Minnesota Disasters: Stories of Strength and Survival.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retainted by Lantz.

I expect many of you have been, at some point, personally impacted by a disaster. The deadly Tracy tornado forever put the fear of tornadoes in my heart. That southwestern Minnesota community lies only 25 miles from my hometown; I saw the devastation in Tracy. Decades later, a tornado damaged the farm where I grew up and high winds partially ripped the roof from my home church of St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta. I respect the powerful forces of nature, specifically of wind.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

A debris pile on the edge of the St. John’s Lutheran Church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof (covered with a tarp here) and brick from the bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2011.

Elsewhere in Minnesota—in Belview, St. Peter and individual farm sites across Minnesota—I’ve seen the damage a tornado can cause.  I reported on and photographed tornado damage while working as a newspaper reporter. When a tornado warning siren blows, you won’t see me standing in the driveway looking for the twister. I’ll be sheltering in the basement.

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything.

I cannot imagine grasshoppers so thick that they obliterated everything.

As I perused the MHS disaster exhibit and the accompanying stories of disasters in Steele County, I realized the depth of loss Minnesotans have endured. The Grasshopper Plague of 1873-1877 recounts how locusts devoured even the laundry hanging on clotheslines.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

On February 5, 1924, forty-one miners drowned in the Milford Mine near Crosby in northern Minnesota. “For God’s sake, run!” one miner shouted to his co-workers. A warning like that floods the mind with fear. I’d never heard of the mine disaster until touring the MHS exhibit in Owatonna. Now I’ll never forget it.

Because I have extended family in the Hinckley area, I was fully aware of The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 which claimed 418 lives. To read of feet baking inside shoes and stockings from the fire is horrifying.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

As bad as those and many other natural disasters, Minnesotans voted the drought of the 1920s and 30s (the Dust Bowl era) as the “number-one state weather event of the 20th century,” according to information posted in the exhibit. I was born decades after that disaster. But, as a teen, I recall a Good Friday dust storm that blew into Redwood County. We were shopping in nearby Marshall and arrived home to find the house layered in dirt; we’d left the windows open. For hours we worked to wash away the grime.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our rural Vesta driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. I’m standing here with my mom, older brother and three younger siblings.

Blizzards, especially, imprinted upon my memory. There is nothing like a prairie blizzard that drives snow across open farm fields, sculpting the snow into rock-hard drifts around buildings and trees. Those winter storms of the 1960s and mid-1970s created all kinds of problems with roads closed, the power out and cows to be milked. Snowstorms of today don’t compare. And, no, I didn’t walk two miles to school uphill in a blizzard. Rather, in one particularly snowy winter, I rode to town on my dad’s cab-less John Deere tractor so I could catch the bus at Don’s Cafe to ride the 20 miles to junior high school in Redwood Falls. The bus drove sometimes on a single lane cut through snowbanks higher than the bus.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

Tell me, what’s your story of dealing with a natural disaster? If you don’t have one, be thankful.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a look at disasters in Steele County, Minnesota. The disasters exhibit will be on display through March 2017 at the history center in Owatonna. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Too much rain & too little June 17, 2014

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RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY, come again another day.

Driving home in the rain Saturday afternoon near Owatonna.

Driving home in the rain Saturday afternoon near Owatonna.

Minnesotans are wishing just that. Give us some dry weather after this perpetual rainfall which has inundated our state in recent days.

If only we could ship this moisture west…to California.

My friend Norma would certainly welcome it. She tells me of temps over 110 in the southern central valley region. Dirt, not dust, storms brought unhealthy brown fog that lingered for two days. She tells of waves of dirt and brushing dirt from her car.

I cannot imagine.

She worries about valley fever spores that swirl in the arid climate. Valley fever is a lung infection brought on by inhaling a microscopic fungus that is found in the region’s soil.

She is concerned, too, about orange growers and other farmers. Already food prices are rising in grocery stores.

This area of California needs rain.

Just like Minnesota doesn’t need more moisture right now.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Zumbrota exhibit explores water during this year of extreme drought October 19, 2012

I LOVE THE ARTS.

And I expect part of that passion comes from the lack of arts in my life when I was growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, out there in “the middle of nowhere,” as some would say, life focused more on survival than anything.

By survival I mean my father earning enough money to support his wife and six children on a modest crop and dairy farm.

So much depended on the weather, on the rain or lack thereof. Enough rain meant a bountiful crop to feed the cattle and/or sell grain on the market. Too little rain meant scrimping on feed and less money to pay the bills, buy the groceries, clothe the family.

But let’s circle back to my original statement about loving the arts and connect that to water.

Recently I entered, and successfully competed in, an “It’s All One Water” poetry competition sponsored by the Zumbro Watershed Partnership and Crossings at Carnegie, a privately-owned art center in Zumbrota.

This evening a public reception will be held at Crossings, 320 East Avenue, beginning at 6:30 p.m. It is an opportunity to view works by 56 writers and photographers who “explored the aspects of water which fascinate them and created their own artistic expression of this most basic foundation for life,” according to promo info for the event.

At 7:30 p.m., writers, photographers and guests will move down the block to the historic Zumbrota State Theatre where writers will read their works while the water-themed photographs are projected onto a screen.

I will read my “In which Autumn searches for Water.”

My poetic expression about water traces back to my farm roots, to that constant and undeniable link between the land and the sky.

That connection is so much a part of my fiber that I cannot think about water in recreational terms—I can’t swim, don’t like being on the water and grew up in a Minnesota county without a natural lake. Rather, for me, water has always been about sustaining life, about growing a crop, about watering the cows or watering plants or measuring rainfall.

So when I learned of the “It’s All One Water” poetry competition shortly after an autumn walk at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, where I found dry ponds, I knew exactly what I would write. I personified Autumn, creating a thirsty woman in search of an also personified Water. It works and I think well, especially given the current historic drought conditions throughout our country.

About a third of Minnesota is suffering from extreme drought. On Thursday the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a news release urging Minnesotans to adopt water conservation measures (no washing vehicles, watering lawns and trees, etc.) as drought conditions are straining our state’s water resources.

Here’s a snippet of my drought-related water poem, verse three of five:

But she finds there, at the pond site, the absence of Water,
only thin reeds of cattails and defiant weeds in the cracked soil,
deep varicose veins crisscrossing Earth.

You can hear me read “In which Autumn searches for Water” this evening or view the entire exhibit from now until the end of October at Crossings. Hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursdays; or from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays. A limited number of chapbooks are available. Monies from Minnesota’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund helped to fund the “It’s All One Water” exhibit.

CLICK HERE to reach the Crossings at Carnegie website.

CLICK HERE to link to the Zumbro Watershed Partnership website.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW drought conditions in the U.S.