Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A first in Minnesota, a meat vending machine in Ellendale October 19, 2017

Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale is co-owned by Donnavon Eaker and her daughter, Rachael Lee. Steve, married to Donnavon, died in 2006. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

YOU CAN BUY candy, snacks, sandwiches, pop and more from a vending machine. Ditto for renting movies and getting cash. Now a small southeastern Minnesota meat market is offering its award-winning smoked and cured meat products to customers via a vending machine.

 

The Ellendale Centennial Mural along Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I couldn’t quite believe this when I heard a radio spot promoting the newly-installed meat vending machine outside Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna. But there it was, documented on Steve’s Facebook page and promoted as the first of its kind in Minnesota and second in the U.S. The machine comes from Germany.

 

Smokey Acres is the in-house label for Steve’s meats. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Smokey Acres…Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

An artsy window display at Steve’s promotes its fresh cut meat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Installed last week, the vending machine seems like a smart move on the part of the Ellendale market, a family run business for more than 40 years. The shop can’t be open all the time, frustrating consumers who today seemingly want 24/7 access to Steve’s products. Now happy customers can come anytime day or night for beef sticks, cheese curds and more, yes, even bacon. Just bring your debit or credit card; the machine doesn’t accept cash or Ebt cards.

 

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

This meat vending machine is creating quite the buzz in this community of nearly 700 where you’ll also find an old-fashioned grocery store—Lerberg’s Foods—worth visiting.

 

Steve’s is one of those small town meat markets that draws customers both far and wide for its quality products. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

While Steve’s claims their refrigerated meat vending machine as the first in Minnesota, some 100 miles away to the north in Hudson, Wisconsin, RJ’s Meats installed one earlier this year.

 

TELL ME: What do you think of this idea?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small-town Minnesota murals: Grassroots art January 30, 2012

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DRIVE INTO MONTGOMERY or New Richland, Ellendale or West Concord, or many small Minnesota towns, and you’ll find grassroots art, my term for Main Street murals.

It’s art that’s out-front and public, depicting the history and feel of a community.

Such murals typically offer a visual snapshot of the past, impressing upon visitors and locals a defined sense of place.

In Ellendale, for example, a locomotive and depot comprise about a third of the 16-foot by 32-foot mural on the side of the Ellendale Café. The train points to the community’s roots as a railroad town, established in 1900 when the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railroad passed through on its way to Minneapolis. Ellendale is named after the railroad president’s wife, Ellen Dale Ives, known for her humanitarian works.

The Ellendale Centennial Mural photographed last summer.

The Sweere brothers of the Twin Cities-based National Mural Company and natives of nearby Owatonna painted the 1999 Ellendale Centennial Mural.

The mural, by the way, is just across the street from Lerberg’s Foods, an old-fashioned grocery store established in 1901 and complete with a moosehead on the wall. (Click here to read an earlier post about this must-visit grocery store.)

The city section of the mural stretching along the side of the New Richland post office.

In neighboring New Richland, the Sweere brothers also created the 12.5-foot by 65-foot mural brushed onto an exterior cement block wall of the post office. In this 2003 grassroots art, train tracks visually divide the mural into city and country scenes. It is a point this community emphasizes—not the division of the two, but the link between rural and town. Each July this Waseca County town of 1,200 celebrates Farm and City Days.

The rural portion of the New Richland mural.

Should you be interested in moving to New Richland, you might want to click here and check out this deal: The city is offering free land to individuals looking to build a new home in the Homestake Subdivision on the northwest side of town within a year of acquiring the deed. (Note that you’ll need to pay the special assessments.) Just thought I’d throw that land offer out there.

A 1950s version of West Concord is showcased in the mural on the side of a bowling alley.

To the east, over in West Concord, cars, not trains, define that town’s mural on the side of Wescon Lanes next to West Concord Centennial Park. The art depicts a 1950s street-scape, a nod to a community that celebrates summer with weekly car cruises and an annual West Concord Historical Society Car and Truck  Show in July.

Just down the street, you can shop at Woody’s Auto Literature and More.

Montgomery, Minnesota's mural

Traveling back west over to Montgomery in Le Sueur County, you’ll spot a mural of Main Street just across from famous Franke’s Bakery, known for its kolacky (Czech pastry). Local sign-painter Victor Garcia painted the scene based on an early 1900s photo of this town founded by Czech immigrants.

A close-up shot of the Montgomery mural

So there you have it—abbreviated visual histories of four small southeastern Minnesota towns showcased in grassroots art. Think about that the next time you see a mural.

The Mural Society of Faribault created this mural honoring the Tilt-A-Whirl amusement ride, made in Faribault since 1926. Today Gold Star Manufacturing still produces the fiberglass cars for this ride.

DO YOU KNOW of any small towns that tell their stories via murals? In Faribault, where I live, five murals are posted on buildings in the downtown area. With a population of more than 20,000, Faribault isn’t exactly a small town, not from my perspective anyway. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to peruse the murals which depict differing aspects of this city’s history.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An old-fashioned grocery store, moosehead and all, thrives in Ellendale August 5, 2011

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg's Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine.

WHEN ANDREW LERBERG bagged a moose in northern Minnesota in 1919, the animal was brought by rail to Ellendale and the moosehead proudly displayed in the family’s grocery store.

Ninety-two years later, that moosehead still hangs at Lerberg’s Foods, above a framed photo of Andrew with his trophy and above processed fruits and vegetables stacked on grocery store shelves.

Look down the grocery aisle to your left and you'll see the moosehead that is part of Lerberg's lore.

Ross Sletten, who purchased the business in 2007 from Andy Lerberg, will tell you the moosehead came with the store and that originally the rifle used to shoot the animal rested in its antlers. Not any more. Times have changed.

But not everything has changed at Lerberg’s. The original tongue-and-groove maple floor, tin ceiling, small-town-friendly atmosphere and more speak to the history of this 1914 brick building and to the long-standing grocery store owned by three generations of Lerbergs—Andrew, who started the business (in another building) in 1901, Arthur and Andy.

The original tongue-in-groove maple floor in front of the meat counter.

The produce department of Lerberg's Foods.

Ross began working at Lerberg’s in 1976 and, on a recent Sunday, three of his five kids—Brett, 18, Cassidy, 14, and Noah, 12—were all working at the store that anchors a corner of the main street in Ellendale, population around 600.

This long-time employee, now owner/manager, is clearly proud of his grocery store, which he claims is the oldest grocery store in Steele County and the second oldest in Minnesota.

That’s easy to believe when you walk upon the worn tongue-and-groove floor between the narrow aisles—of which there are three—pause to appreciate the tin ceiling, and listen to Ross. He’ll tell you about the tailor who had a shop in the store’s current-day upstairs office or about the eggs, ducks and chickens locals once traded for goods.

He’ll point out the store’s original coffee grinder resting on a shelf above the dairy section or direct your attention to the original wooden butcher block back in the meat department and still in use today (grandfathered in, he says).

Lerberg's Foods owner/manager Ross Sletten points out the original butcher block, which he still uses.

Cassidy Sletten, 14, checks out groceries on a Sunday morning.

He runs a business which, on a Sunday morning, teems with customers—folks picking up a few groceries after church, kids treating themselves to slushies from the machine at the front of the store, a 9-year-old purchasing several cartons of eggs for his mom, a guy buying three bags of water softener salt.

Located just the right distance (meaning too far) from Albert Lea, Austin, Owatonna and Mankato, the store draws customers who will shop locally rather than drive to regional hub cities, Ross says. He can offer competitive prices, he says, through his supplier, Nash Finch.

A street-side sign in Lerberg's front window thanks customers for their patronage.

Already, 12-year-old Noah Sletten is thinking about his future and maybe someday taking over the business. “I think it would be kind of fun to own something old,” Noah says, then smiles.

For someone like me, who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota and frequented a grocery store with tongue-and-groove floors, a tin ceiling, a candy counter (where I bought my favorite Bazooka bubblegum for a penny), a toy rack and groceries lining two aisles, discovering Lerberg’s Foods brought back so many memories. I couldn’t get enough of this old-time style store.

The only thing missing, I told 14-year-old check-out clerk Cassidy Sletten before leaving her family’s store, was the old-style screen door that would bang behind me. She gave me a puzzled look.

“Ask your dad,” I said, smiled, and walked out the door.

Candy at the end of a check-out counter tempts kids. There are peanuts for the adults.

And right before you walk out the door, you'll see this strategically-placed rack of toys.

A side view of the grocery store looking toward the main street through Ellendale. A customer is carrying a bag of water softener pellets, stacked in front of the pop machine. The slushie slurping kids had to temporarily give up their hang-out spot so he could grab three bags of salt.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling