Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A snapshot of downtown Elysian, Minnesota July 1, 2020

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Rural Minnesota, somewhere between Elysian and Faribault.


IF YOU GAVE ME THE CHOICE of visiting a big city or a small town, I would always choose rural over urban. In small towns, I feel the most comfortable, the most rooted. I grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota, on a farm a mile south of Vesta, current population around 300.


On a back country gravel road, we met this farmer who had been raking hay.


Because of that upbringing, I find myself drawn to the countryside and to small towns. To explore. To photograph. To see for myself what defines these rural places.


That same tractor in the side passenger mirror. I love following gravel roads.


On a recent Sunday, Randy and I did a day trip along back country roads, eventually landing in nearby Elysian, population around 600. We picnicked in a lakeside park shelter before driving downtown. There we walked on a beautiful June afternoon, taking in the aged buildings and sharing our thoughts about them.


Once the home of the Elysian Co-op Creamery.


Sometimes we have grand ideas. Like turning the “for lease” former creamery into a brewery. Because, well, we like craft beer and the building looks like an ideal fit for a brewery in this community that draws summer visitors to area lakes.


This old garage still stands strong.


One of my favorite buildings in Elysian is Pribyl Bro’s Garage, its current use unknown to me. But I love the look of this place, which reminds me of a winery in Cannon Falls. There’s another idea.


If you’re interested in joining the local volunteer fire department…


Further down the street, we paused to read signage posted on the windows of City Hall. I’m always drawn to these local postings, which reveal a lot about a town. I focused on the notice seeking firefighters. Minutes earlier we’d watched the fire department use a tanker truck to fill a residential above-ground swimming pool.


A rare outdoor public pay phone.


Next, we spotted an outdoor public pay phone, seldom seen in this day of cellphones. It stands outside a stunning mini brick building. (I noticed a lot of brick buildings in Elysian.) Randy pulled out his cell and dialed the number listed on the pay phone, thinking it would ring. It didn’t.


Just one more shot to show the small town setting.


Then he grew weary of waiting for me. “How many pictures do you have to take of a phone?” he asked. Clearly he doesn’t think like a photographer excited about discovering something not often seen. But, he had a point. I framed a few more images and moved on.


Gracing the window boxes at a realty office, if I remember correctly.


We paused on a street corner, me to photograph window boxes crammed with Fourth of July themed décor and flowers. Elysian typically hosts a big holiday celebration. But this year’s events are scaled down to fireworks at 10 pm on Friday, July 3, and the Fourth of July Boat & Pontoon Parade around Lake Francis from noon until 1 pm on July 4. The town sits along Lake Francis. City of Elysian and Lake Francis residents can join the parade, which offers generous cash prizes for creative decorating and enthusiasm by boaters. Plus, the Elysian Area Chamber of Commerce has sponsored a Light-Up July Fourth event encouraging residents and businesses to decorate their homes, businesses, trees, shrubs and more with red, white and blue lights. Judging is Friday with cash prizes awarded.


Many small towns have corner bars, so it seems.


From those window boxes, I shifted my camera lens to Fischer’s Corner Bar.


There are a lot of old brick buildings in downtown Elysian.


And then I swung my Canon to the right and Pamela’s Pet Shop. Probably a bank at one time, we decided, before turning to retrace our route back to the van.


Now that hair salons have reopened in Minnesota, I expect this place is busy.


From across the street, I stopped to photograph Trailside Trims, appreciating the bicycles propped out front with flower baskets, a nod to the many bikers who pass through and stop in Elysian while using the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. Elysian is the midpoint for this 39-mile paved recreational trail running between Faribault and Mankato.


I don’t advocate defacing public or private property. But I do find graffiti interesting.


And, finally, I paused one final time. To study the many names etched into the brick of Pribyl Bro’s Garage. Morgan, whoever she is, wins with her name appearing most often. By writing her name here, Morgan is now part of the history of this place, this small town.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


This ain’t no museum July 11, 2017

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SMALL TOWNS PRESENT a visual smorgasbord of signage that often humors, delights and entertains me. While day tripping to southeastern Minnesota communities last week, I spotted numerous such signs, including this one on the front display window of Thrifty Chix in Elysian:



I confess that I’ve often been guilty of museum type viewing in shops, especially antique shops. I enjoy perusing vintage and antique merchandise that I remember with fondness from years past. Seldom do I purchase anything, primarily because of cost but also because I don’t really “need” whatever I want.

This particular sign caused me to pause and consider and, then, to laugh out loud. Humor, when used well, works for me. How about you?

TELL ME about any particularly humorous signs you’ve discovered.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Closed, much to my disappointment July 10, 2017

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SOMETIMES IT’S JUST too hot to do business…apparently.


Photographed last week in downtown Elysian, Minnesota, when the temp hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Elysian: A memorable small town Minnesota summer celebration July 9, 2015

Vintage vehicles lined several blocks of Elysian's Main Street for the 21st annual Car, Motorcycle and Tractor Show on Sunday, July 5.

Vintage vehicles line several blocks of Elysian’s Main Street for the 21st annual Car, Motorcycle and Tractor Show on Sunday, July 5.

FOLKS IN SMALL TOWNS have a way of working together to create community events that are truly remarkable. It’s that sense of ownership, that strong connection to place, the importance of tradition and the love of community and family which, I think, prompt locals to continue year after year with time-honored celebrations like Elysian’s July Fourth weekend gathering.

Another view of the car show.

Another view of the car show.

Sunday afternoon we drove through this southeastern Minnesota lakeside town on our return to Faribault from southwestern Minnesota. I noticed the Car Show sign along Minnesota Highway 60 and people gathered. So we stopped. While the husband perused the vintage cars, the son and I watched the Kids’ Pedal Tractor Pull and checked out the Trail of History.

As we were leaving, Miss Elysian royalty were handing out Car Show trophies.

As we were leaving, Miss Elysian royalty were handing out Car Show trophies.

The holiday weekend celebration was winding down when we arrived. So we missed a lot. Yet, there was enough to see that I’m enticed to return next summer. Events actually began June 26 with royalty coronations and end this Saturday with two triathlons.

Farmers Friends 4-H Club advertised its root beer floats on a vintage chalkboard along the Trail of History, which the club sponsored.

Farme’rs Friends 4-H Club advertised its root beer floats on a vintage chalkboard along the Trail of History. When we ordered the floats, a woman scooped vanilla ice cream into red solo cups and handed us cans of root beer to make our own floats. How small town is that?

As we lounged with root beer floats on grass in the shade of trees lining the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, I considered how fortunate I was to enjoy small town Minnesota on a stunning summer afternoon with two guys I love.

Sawing wood the old-fashioned way next to the Farmer's Friends 4-H Club tent.

Sawing wood the old-fashioned way next to the Farmer’s Friends 4-H Club tent.

Love this grassroots sign.

Love this grassroots sign posted in front of the food tent.

Old-fashioned games like a pop ring toss were available to play.

Old-fashioned games like a pop ring toss were available to play.

On the Trail of History, the Horner explained how items are crafted from horns/bones.

On the Trail of History, “the Horner” explained how items are crafted from horns/bones.

Another historian shared how plants can be used as natural remedies.

Another historian shared how plants can be used as natural remedies.

A fitting July Fourth weekend sign posted outside a Trail of History tent.

A fitting July Fourth weekend sign posted outside a Trail of History tent.

I absolutely love this aged building along Elysian's Main Street. These two cars were in the car show.

An aged garage along Elysian’s Main Street serves as the backdrop for cars in the Car Show.


WHAT ABOUT YOU? Is there a community event you attend or volunteer with each year? What makes for a successful community celebration?

FYI: Click here to see my previous post about the Kids’ Pedal Tractor Pull in Elysian.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Pedal power & princesses in small town Minnesota July 8, 2015

Every single contestant was encouraged.

Every single contestant is encouraged.

THERE’S SOMETHING SUBLIMELY SWEET about a kids’ pedal tractor pull. I think it’s an underlying sense of community pulling together, of almost physically placing your feet on the pedals and willing a toy tractor to move forward that endears me to this rural competition.

Spectators, including a reenactor from the nearby History of Trails, line the trail.

Spectators, including a reenactor from the nearby Trails of History, line the trail for the pedal tractor pull.

Sunday afternoon in small town Elysian, I first heard the encouraging roar of the crowd before I spotted folks lining a section of the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail for the Kid Power Pedal Pull.



The coveted trophies.

The coveted trophies.

Here, along this paved path, youngsters gripped the steering wheel of a mini White tractor and powered forward, aiming to win a tractor topped trophy.


Pedal tractor pull, princess pedaling in Elysian, 384


Pedal tractor pull, princess close-up in Elysian, 389


Pedal tractor pull, princess pedaling view 3 in Elysian, 392


I especially delighted in the determined and dainty Second Princess of Elysian who settled onto the tractor seat in her fancy lavender dress, grasped the wheel and pedaled in sandals, all the while smiling. If ever there was a princess who owned the moment, it was this sweet little girl.


Pedal tractor pull, a kiss for the winner in Elysian, 376


Equally as memorable was the moment a mother bent to kiss the cheek of her son who’d just received a trophy.

He came from the Trails of History to observe the pedal tractor pull with friends.

He came from the Trails of History to observe the pedal tractor pull with friends.

More reenactors watching.

More reenactors watching.

Another reenactor at the pedal pull.

Another reenactor at the pedal pull.

The event drew all ages.

The event drew all ages.

As I watched, I observed not only the contestants but also those watching the competition. These are the moments worth noticing, worth celebrating.

Princesses and winners pose for photos.

Princesses and winners pose for photos.

This is what life is all about in small town Minnesota. The moments. The sense of community. The coming together of all ages for awhile on a Sunday summer afternoon to be entertained. Applause. Smiles. Princesses.

FYI: Please check back for more photos from Elysian’s weekend celebration of the Fourth of July.

Click here to learn more about Kid Power Pedal Tractor Pulls.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A sweet surprise: An old sorghum mill on a southern Minnesota elk farm & more August 10, 2012

HOW MANY TIMES HAS MY FAMILY driven Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian, unaware of Okaman Elk Farm to the south not far from the highway? Too many.

My husband Randy and I almost missed Okaman’s again last Sunday as we traveled along Waseca County Roads 3 and 5. If not for the colorful miniature train transporting kids and adults along the shoulder of the road, we likely would have passed right by.

Passing by the Okaman Elk Express in our car on a Sunday afternoon.

But that train stopped us in our tracks and caused us to turn around and drive back to the farm.

There we discovered much more than a plain old elk farm. We also found family-friendly activities, a farmers’ market, art, animals and history.

The historic Seha Sorghum Mill.

In 1991, Don and Joyce Kaplan bought this historic place to raise elk and then sell the meat. Their business sits on the site of Okaman, a town established in 1855 between Lake Elysian and Lily Lake. Here, according to a posted sign, several hotels, a theater, the Buckout Flour Mill, the Okaman School and the Seha Sorghum Mill were located.

Inside the sorghum mill.

It is that 1895 sorghum mill, which produced and sold sorghum syrup until 1953, that most interested me. Randy and I poked our way through and around the old mill trying to determine how the whole operation worked. I think he understood the process much better than me.

Apparently wagons of sorghum were unloaded atop the hill behind the mill where the canes were crushed and the juice then flowed into steam-heated cookers, or something like that.

The original steam boiler stands behind the sorghum mill.

According to the Waseca County Historical Society website, Cornelius L. Seha built the mill, today the only known historical sorghum mill remaining in Minnesota and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Because the mill today is basically an old building and steam boiler with weeds and brush growing around the holding tanks, equipment and structures, everything is left open to self-interpretation. Perhaps someday this historic site can be restored and specific educational information posted.

Cats roam the farm.

Then, perhaps, the younger farm visitors will be more interested in the historic buildings. They are, for now, focused on  the donkeys and alpacas, the goats and elk and dog, and especially, the cats and kittens. Or perhaps the playground equipment.

Visitors are free to wander the pasture with the alpacas, donkeys and goats.

Loved this sign at the petting zoo telling visitors that the animals are fed daily.

The farm is open seven days a week to the 3,000 – 4,000 visitors who stop by annually, says Joyce Kaplan. The Kaplans may not always be around, but guests are invited to peruse the place on their own. Just follow a few rules like:

You can enter the petting zoo pens or pastures at your own risk. Please don’t allow children to chase the animals and no dogs allowed. Close gates behind you.

Veggies from R & C Produce of Otisco.

Canned mixed veggies from Val’s Yard ‘N Gardens (Joe & Val Zimprich of Le Center).

Reusable price stickers in the back of the Zimprichs’ truck.

While the farm is always open, on Sundays from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. during the summertime harvest and into October, farmers’ market vendors set up in the farmyard peddling their garden fresh produce and other products.

An art gallery is housed in an old barn.

That beautiful old barn, with an art gallery and studio in the haymow.

Antler art, including chandeliers, inside the art gallery with Paul Ristau’s art studio behind the windows pictured here.

Inside the gift shop and adjacent art gallery, you’ll find gifts anytime and the creations of artist and craftsman Paul Ristau, who renovates homes and businesses and is a mason specializing in stone fireplaces. He was doing some tile work for the Kaplans and ended up as their in-house artist focusing on the creation of antler art. He has a workshop in the haymow-turned-art-gallery where his elk antler chandeliers are a focal point.

A Native American influence on art hung in Paul Ristau’s studio.

A Native American influence is visible in Ristau’s art given his interaction with those living on the White Earth Indian Reservation where he once drove bus.

Of course, the farm also sells elk meat, inside the original 1893 homestead. The farm is now down to 23 elk, according to Joyce Kaplan who says she grew up on a farm and has been cleaning barns all her life and maybe it’s time soon to stop cleaning barns.

The final activity of the day, feeding apples to the elk.

On the Sunday I visited, her husband was handing out apples so the kids could feed the elk.

And the Okaman Elk Express was chugging along the shoulder of the roadway, thrilling the kids and, bonus, drawing in visitors like my husband and me.

You’ll find binoculars in the barn to view the elk in the pasture.

FYI: To find Okaman Elk Farm, take Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian 1 ½ miles and then turn south to the intersections of Waseca County roads 3 and 5. The farm is open year-round. Click here to reach the farm’s website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An urban spa in Elysian November 18, 2010

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OCCASIONALLY, I RUN across something that strikes me as odd/out-of-place/unusual/interesting/nonconforming.

I strung those similar words together because I couldn’t decide which one perfectly fits the business name in the photo below.



Shylah's Urban Spa is located next to American Legion Post 311 in Elysian.


“Why would I categorize this business title as an oddity?” you ask.

Well, because Shylah’s Urban Spa is located on Main Street in Elysian, a town of 580 residents located northeast of Mankato along Minnesota Highway 60. Elysian doesn’t exactly qualify as an urban community even when its population swells during the busy summer tourist season.

I could guess why Shylah inserted “urban” into her spa name. Perhaps the word choice relates more to the atmosphere and experience than to the small-town location.

Shylah’s Urban Spa is, according to information on the city of Elysian website, a “Unique salon offering all the latest trends! We offer all hair services, nail services, massage, permanent cosmetics, eyelash extensions and hair extensions.”

Now, I have never been to a spa. But, if I was to patronize one, I would expect to find those services. So if Shylah wants her customers to think they are in New York City or Minneapolis or even Mankato, instead of Main Street Elysian, that’s fine by me.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Serving up bullheads in Elysian October 1, 2010

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A sign advertises the October 2 Bullhead Feed at the Elysian Legion, 106 E. Main St.

OK, FOLKS, if you’re looking for something different to do on Saturday night, how about attending a Bullhead Feed?

Yeah, that’s as in those yellow-bellied, whiskered fish that are about as ugly as a fish can be.

Anyway, American Legion Post #311 in Elysian is hosting its first Bullhead Feed of the season on Saturday. I know because I was in Elysian this afternoon and read the sign posted on the Legion.

I’ve heard about these first-Saturday-night-of-the-month feeds from my brother-in-law, who happens to be a native of Waterville, Bullhead Capital of the World, just down Minnesota Highway 60 from the Bullhead Feed site.

Although my relative raves about the bullheads, he hasn’t quite convinced me that they’re worth eating. I ate bullheads as a child, but I didn’t know that tastier fish existed. Heck, at least they weren’t fish sticks was my naïve opinion back then.

But apparently plenty of Elysianites, Watervillians and others like bullheads as the Legion offers these monthly feeds from October through May in this town of 580.

I’m unsure what time the Legionnaires start serving bullheads. But I figure if you show up around 5 p.m., you might find the door open. Just make sure you use the bar door.

A sign on the Legion directs patrons to the bar door.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling