Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

All about dragonflies at Montgomery Orchard September 1, 2022

From an elevated platform, a bird’s eye view of the corn maze and the countryside at Montgomery Orchard in 2010. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2010)

THIS TIME OF YEAR, I see, hear, feel autumn on Minnesota’s doorstep.

Already the next-door-neighbor’s maple is turning color, red leaves spiraling into my yard. Goldenrod flag the landscape. Crickets chirp, their incessant chorus singing a refrain of autumn’s approach. Mornings feel pull-on-the-jeans-and-sweatshirt crisp until sunshine warms the day.

And apple season time is underway with area orchards opening, complete with apple picking, hay rides, corn mazes and other activities to draw in customers.

Montgomery Orchard signage in 2010. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

This weekend Montgomery Orchard, located a mile east of the intersections of Minnesota state highways 13 and 99 in Montgomery Township, opens for the 2022 season. Now I could write about many other orchards opening, too, but chose this one to highlight because of a unique program there on Saturday, September 3. The Minnesota Dragonfly Society will present information on dragonflies at 11 am and again at 1 pm with dragonfly catching after each presentation.

A dragonfly. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2022)

Now, I’ve never heard of the Dragonfly Society whose mission is “ensuring the conservation of Minnesota’s dragonflies and damselflies through research and education.” I appreciate that as I find dragonflies fascinating.

The Dragonfly Band has also been booked for the Saturday event at the orchard.

Randy walks through the Minnesota Twins-themed maze in October 2010. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

Montgomery Orchard is going all out with the dragonfly theme this year. The six-acre Be-A-Mazed corn maze is shaped like a dragonfly with interactive trivia about the insect posted throughout the cornfield. Two maze options are offered with a shorter half-hour route geared toward families with young children and a second longer route.

I last visited this orchard 12 years ago, not long after it opened. The business has grown substantially since then, now spreading over 105 rural acres. The Cider Haus is open Saturdays and Sundays, serving five in-house made hard ciders, like Northern Trek and Prairie Harvest, and wine, like the award-winning Plum Crazy and The Full Monty.

Montgomery Orchard bagged apples. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2010)

Apples, in nearly a dozen varieties, are grown and sold here throughout the apple season. Currently ready for picking and/or purchase are Zestar and SweeTango.

In Minnesota, visiting an orchard has developed into an experience, exactly as Montgomery Orchard promotes with its tag, “where friends, family and nature come together.” Hikes and hayrides are also part of the offerings here.

Flamin’ Bleu pizza purchased in-house at Pizzeria 201 in April 2013. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

And on Saturday, popular Montgomery-based Pizzeria 201 will be at the orchard vending pizza from its mobile wood-fired pizza oven. Visitors can also purchase caramel apples, jellies, jams and more from the orchard store.

This orchard is just one of many in my region which I’ve visited and recommend. Others include Apple Creek Orchard, rural Faribault; Trumps Orchard, Faribault; and Fireside Orchard & Gardens, rural Northfield.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite apple orchard? What makes it a go-to destination for you?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Buzz Lightyear reappears at my house June 3, 2022

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Buzz Lightyear. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, I determined to locate the oversized Buzz Lightyear my son, now 28, played with as a child. Buzz is the space ranger toy in the computer animated feature film “Toy Story.” The movie stars Andy and his collection of toys, which come to life.

The son’s childhood Buzz Lightyear collection. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

I was searching for Caleb’s Buzz because the grandkids were coming. Last time they stayed overnight, Isabelle and Isaac enjoyed playing with the smaller Buzz Lightyear characters stashed in a tote in the basement. But, oh, I knew they would be impressed with the larger scale ranger who, with batteries inserted, can spew phrases like “To infinity and beyond.” But the challenge was finding that particular Buzz in an upstairs bedroom closet stuffed with totes.

I pulled plastic box after plastic box from the recesses of that dark space. Finally, back in the far corner, after I’d dragged nearly everything out, I found the missing toy. I decided then and there that, as long as I had emptied the closet, I may as well go through everything. What a job.

Just to clarify, most of the “stuff” stuffed into the closet belongs to my son and to my second daughter. The son, back in college 525 miles away pursuing an advanced degree, lives in an apartment with no room for childhood toys. But Miranda lives in a rental house and I decided it’s time she gets her “stuff.” Boxes are now stashed in a corner of a spare bedroom for the next time we see each other. She lives 4.5 hours away in Madison, Wisconsin.

I’m really feeling the need to purge. That’s part of aging and understanding that I don’t want to leave a houseful of material possessions for my kids to sort through some day. I’ve done that with my parents and my in-laws, now all deceased, and it’s not fun.

My son loved playing with this large scale Buzz Lightyear. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

But then I face the dilemma of what to keep so the grandkids have something to play with when they visit and/or stay overnight. I was surprised when they were interested in playing with Buzz Lightyear. But their mom tipped me off that Buzz is the star in an upcoming movie, “Lightyear.” That film releases this month. Who knew? Not this grandma.

Owlette, a character in the currently popular PJ Masks. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo February 2022)

I struggle to keep up with the ever-changing interests of the three and six-year-old grandchildren, especially my granddaughter. Her little brother likes numbers, the solar system and maps/globes. But Isabelle’s interests have ranged—Daniel Tiger, Trolls, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Frozen, Thomas the Tank Engine, Disney princesses, Paw Patrol, PJ Masks… I give up trying to learn the characters’ names before she moves on to the next “in” thing.

But at least I know Buzz Lightyear and Woody and Andy. Yes, those I will keep, along with the Fisher Price bus and the castle and the potholder weaving set and…

TELL ME: If you’re a grandparent, are you up on the latest whatever? And do you keep old toys, games, etc. for the grandkids to play with when visiting?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Straight River Art Festival features fine art, music & more May 19, 2022

Promotional graphic created by artist Jeff Jarvis. (Credit: Straight River Art Festival)

WE ARE A CREATIVE BUNCH, we Minnesotans. And this weekend, 20 creatives from Faribault, Northfield and the surrounding area will showcase their work at the Straight River Art Festival.

The new event runs from 9 am–6 pm Saturday, May 21, at Heritage Park, alongside the Straight River, just a block from Faribault’s historic downtown. There fine artists will set up booths to vend their art, engage in conversation and, for some, demonstrate their crafts.

An example of Tami Resler’s pottery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2021)

Featured art includes stained glass, jewelry, pottery, apparel and accessories, photography, hand-blown glass, textile design, painting, drawing, fiber art, quilting and woodcarving. Some of the artists are familiar, others perhaps not as much. Yet each brings talent and enthusiasm to the creative process. To have them all together in an outdoor setting makes their art easily accessible and visible.

Mark Joseph. (Photo credit: Straight River Art Festival)

Performing artists are also part of the Straight River Art Festival with music by Lil’ Fun Band (11 am-1 pm), Pop Prohibition (1:30-2:30 pm) and Mark Joseph (3-4 pm).

Hands-on art created at a past arts-oriented event in Faribault and unrelated to this Saturday’s festival. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2019)

The Paradise Center for the Arts is involved, too, offering hands-on art activities for kids.

This mural on the back of The Upper East Side in downtown Faribault features the art of Jeff Jarvis, a multi-talented artist at West Cedar Studio, Morristown. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021)

Faribault-based food truck, El Jefe, will be on site vending authentic Mexican food. El Jefe has a restaurant just a block away along Central Avenue, next to Fleur de Lis Gallery. Jess Prill, jewelry artist and gallery owner, is one of the key organizers of the art festival, along with Faribault artists Tami Resler and Paula Person. They’ve also tapped into other artists, like Jeff Jarvis, for help with the fest.

Brigg Evans Textiles are fabric pieces printed from original scanned Seri Batiks created by Suz Klumb, aka Brigg Evans. (Photo credit: Straight River Art Festival)

Prill loves art festivals. And, obviously, art and artists given her creative bend and home-grown Fleur de Lis Gallery. “Faribault is an amazing town with a ton of talent to highlight so I knew this event would be a great way to do that,” she says. She also notes the need for “more fun things for people in the community to do in town.” Her desire to create a new arts festival drew her to Resler and Person, both actively engaged in the arts and with strong connections to local creatives.

Down to Earth Stoneware, pottery by Diane Lockerby. (Photo credit: Straight River Art Festival)

“We are all very passionate about the town and the arts and are very excited to bring this event to the community,” Prill continues.

Bending Sunlight Glassworks, artist Sandra Seelhammer. (Photo credit: Straight River Art Festival)

I’m excited, too, as I share Prill’s love of the arts. I cannot imagine a life without writing and photography. Both feed my spirit, my soul, my need to create. And this Saturday 20 creatives who share that passion will fill Heritage Park with their art and creative energy.

FYI: For more information about the participating artists, visit straightriverartfestival.com by clicking here.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From $221K for Ukrainian kids to top film awards April 5, 2022

The promo for the final owl art auction. (Source: International Owl Center Facebook page)

IN THE MIDST OF WAR and pandemic, inflation and everyday struggles, I want to pause and focus on two recent bits of good news. One comes from the tiny town of Houston in southern Minnesota. The other comes from the glitz and glamour of the entertainment world. Two complete opposites, yet notable in how important each is in this vast connected world of ours.

Let’s start with Houston, where the International Owl Center just concluded its third online “Ukrainian Art Auction for Ukrainian Kids.” The final auction of art created by Ukrainian youth for the center’s annual International Kids’ Owl Art Contest raised $48,893 for UNICEF, designated specifically for kids in Ukraine.

All three auctions raised a whopping $221,353. That’s an incredible amount generated from the sale of 190 pieces of original owl art, limited edition prints and direct donations. The giving spirit of those wanting to help youth in war-town Ukraine stretched well beyond Houston, population around 1,000, to a wide world of caring and generous souls. I am heartened by this show of love and support.

And I am heartened to read on the Owl Center Facebook page that staff connected with some of the young artists and learned that they have fled Ukraine with their families and are safe.

Promo for “Summer of Soul” from the “Summer of Soul” Facebook page.

Now the other bit of positive news has nothing to do with war, but rather with film and music. The documentary, “Summer of Soul,” just won the 2022 Grammy Awards Best Music Film. And a week earlier, it landed an Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature.

Generally, I pay no attention to these awards because, well, they don’t interest me. That’s not to diminish the hard work of these artists because their creativity enriches our lives and world. But I cared about “Summer of Soul” Oscar and Grammy nominations after watching a public television airing of the documentary by filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. His film focused on the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969. Six concerts over six weeks brought 300,000-plus people together in Harlem to celebrate the Black culture, specifically music. Performers included the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips… But Thompson’s film was about more than the music. It was about the issues facing Black people, highlighted in interviews woven into concert footage. Many of these same issues remain today.

There’s more to this story. Although produced 53 years ago, “Summer of Soul” was only recently released. In promos for the film, it’s titled as “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” on ABC. I encourage you to view this enlightening documentary. Experience the music, the culture. And then reflect. For in opening our hearts and minds, we expand our understanding of each other in a world that needs to connect and care.

The International Owl Center, located in downtown Houston, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

To the creatives behind “Summer of Soul” and to the creatives behind the “Ukrainian Art Auction for Ukrainian Kids,” thank you for sharing your talent and for your generosity of spirit. I am grateful.

FYI: The International Owl Center is taking a pause from its “Ukrainian Art for Ukrainian Kids” auctions to prepare for the International Festival of Owls April 30 – May 1. I will update you if/when more fundraisers happen. Or check the International Owl Center Facebook page to stay posted.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Getting cultured in Faribault: From opera to Somali song to booyah September 7, 2021

A promo for Mixed Precipitation’s on-the-road performance. Graphic source: Mixed Precipitation.

IN ONE WEEK’S SPAN, I heard opera for the first time and then seven days later listened to an internationally-known Somali singer perform. Both right here in Faribault. In Central Park.

What a delight to experience these performing arts locally, to be exposed to something new to me.

And at 6 pm Friday, September 10, I’ll be back in Central Park, enjoying “Arla Mae’s Booyah Wagon,” a play presented by Minneapolis-based Sod House Theater.

If I’m sounding a bit giddy, it’s because I am. I love the arts and feel grateful for our local Paradise Center for the Arts. Yet, I often yearn to see more. But I don’t want to go into the metro. And, truth-be-told, there’s always cost to consider. Even in attending local arts events. I expect others in Faribault face the same barriers.

So I feel such gratitude for our long-running free summer Concerts in the Park series. And I feel thankful, too, for sponsoring groups like the City of Faribault Parks & Recreation Department and the Paradise Center for the Arts and the local businesses and residents who helped fund the special events I attended recently.

When Mixed Precipitation brought its The Pickup Truck Opera, Volume 1: The Odyssey to Faribault on August 26, I wondered how I would respond. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I needn’t have concerned myself as the adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey proved lively and entertaining with dancing and over-sized puppets and toe-stomping music. Plus opera. And it was performed on the grass, in front of the historic bandshell from the bed of a blue pickup truck. I felt like I was in a small village of yesteryear being entertained by a traveling troupe.

Dalmar Yare. Photo source: Faribault Parks & Rec Facebook page.

The feel was completely different on September 2, when I set up my lawn chair in Central Park to hear and watch Dalmar Yare, a Somali entertainer from Minnesota and with family ties to Faribault. He describes his music as a blend of traditional Somali styles with hints of western influence.

I quickly found myself swinging my crossed left leg to the tempo of the upbeat music. I didn’t understand what Yare sang in a language foreign to me. But I understood the joy I felt, the joy I saw. Throughout the park, local Somali children, teens and adults gathered to listen. Many danced, especially the kids. It seemed part concert, part celebration, part reunion. Simply joyful.

While I listened, I observed the crowd. I noted the open affection of Somali youth for one another. Young men draped arms over shoulders as did teen girls. Preschool girls in their flowing dresses and hijabs ran hand-in-hand across the park. I noticed, too, a stunningly beautiful 20-something layered in a golden dress and matching hijab, fashionable mini purse dangling from her shoulder. The vibrant colors and patterns of dresses and hijabs swirled like a kaleidoscope. An ever-changing gallery of art.

Dressed in my casual attire of jeans, a tee and a zipped sweatshirt with the hoodie occasionally pulled up to provide warmth and protect me from the rain, I felt under-dressed and conscious of my white-ness. And that’s OK; I needed to feel this. I only wish more long-time Faribault residents would have attended.

Photo source: Sod House Theater

Now this week I’ll learn about booyah, a rich and flavorful stew that is supposedly an Upper Midwest tradition, although I’ve never eaten it. Booyah will theme the Sod House Theater musical comedy about Arla Mae, a rural Minnesotan claiming to operate the state’s first food truck out of which she serves her famous booyah. The play aims to spotlight buying and eating fresh local food. Thus the involvement of James Beard Award-winning chef Ann Kim in creating a special booyah recipe for the production. So what goes into this stew, which is traditionally cooked outdoors in large kettles over a wood fire? You name it: a mix of meats and an assortment of vegetables—onion, potatoes, rutabagas, cabbage, carrots, celery, peppers…

I envision a collage of shapes and colors. Art in a kettle. Art that is new to me. Served to me. Right here in Faribault. In Central Park.

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NOTE: “Arla Mae’s Booyah Wagon” will also be performed in neighboring communities on these dates and at these locations:

Keepsake Cidery, rural Dundas, 6 pm on Thursday, September 23

Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm, rural Waseca, 6 pm on Friday, October 1

Northfield Central Park, Northfield, 6 pm on Thursday, October 7

© Text Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating Faribault’s diversity at international fest July 10 July 8, 2021

Flags representing the many countries from which Faribault residents came are displayed at a past International Festival Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

DECADES AGO, in high school and then in college, I studied the German language. I grew fluent in the native tongue of my forefathers. I felt a sense of accomplishment as my skills advanced. I decided I would major in German in college, until I determined journalism would be a better path. I’ve never regretted that decision because I love words, no matter the language.

My second daughter, though, pursued a foreign language major, earning her college degree in Spanish (much more practical than German) and then becoming a Spanish medical interpreter. Until the pandemic ended that career.

Friends, Nimo Abdi, a sophomore at Faribault High School, left, and Nasteho Farah, a senior when I photographed them in 2012 at the International Festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I share this to lay the foundation for my personal appreciation of other cultures. I’ve never traveled internationally and not all that much domestically, so I welcome the opportunity to experience other countries and cultures locally. From 10 am – 4 pm this Saturday, July 10, diverse cultures focus the 16th annual International Festival Faribault in Central Park.

Pupusas served at the 2011 International Festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Cambodian art at the 2015 fest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Attendees marked a world map with their countries of origin during a previous festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The fest is promoted as “a global bazaar-style event featuring food, music, dance, presentations and goods from around the world.” I’ve attended several times, although not recently, and always enjoyed this Neighbor Meeting Neighbor celebration. Many of those participating in the fest are local residents, shopkeepers and vendors.

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Faribault truly is an ethnically diverse community with a size-able immigrant population and with long-time residents rooted in many countries. Founding father Alexander Faribault, for example, was of French-Canadian and Dakota heritage. Our newest residents come from places like war torn Somalia.

A recently-completed mural in downtown Faribault, LOVE FOR ALL, celebrates our city’s diversity. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2021.

While we’ve struggled in the past to accept one another, I feel like things are settling, that we are beginning to celebrate our differences and recognize the value of those differences.

Downtown Faribault during a Car Cruise Night in 2015 reflects our diversity. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Newcomers to Faribault are here to stay. They live, work and play here. Attend school. Own businesses. And that’s reason to celebrate. We are a stronger community because of our diversity.

Cambodian dancers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.
A young girl’s henna stained foot, photographed at the 2011 fest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
A little girl stands on the opposite side of the group of children waiting to swing at the pinata. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I encourage locals and people from out of town to attend Saturday’s International Festival Faribault. International dancers, music, a flag ceremony, arts and crafts, kids’ activities (including the popular pinata breaking), henna and food from around the world will be among the offerings. Perhaps someone will represent the German heritage by serving sauerkraut and brats or pumping out polkas on an accordion…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back at the Rice County Fairgrounds April 21, 2021

Looking toward food stands and the Midway. To the right, is the outdoor entertainment center. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

VACATED. That word best describes my assessment of the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during a recent walk there.

Many local groups have food stands at the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Picnic tables near the pork food stand. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The presence of 4-Hers at the fair is strong. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

In the absence of people, the absence of animals, the absence of a carnival, the absence of exhibits, the place feels empty. No pulsating lights on the Midway. No smell of grilling burgers. No taste of sugary mini donuts. No shouts of kids. No feel of a prize stuffed animal clutched in arms.

The entertainment space to the left with the St. Luke’s food stand on the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

If everything works out COVID-wise, this fairgrounds will teem with people come late July. Animals will fill barns. Ribbons will mark prize-winning 4-H entries. Greasy cheese curds will satisfy those who crave fair food. The sounds of music and clustered conversations and happy kids will create a steady buzz of noise. Little hands will grasp adult hands and teenage hands will lock in fair love. People will reconnect. Celebrate. Experience that which was lost last summer, during the height of the pandemic.

Love this signage. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The commercial exhibit building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Garden decor stored until the fair. The garden is next to the conservation building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

This is the fair I imagine as I walk past shuttered buildings, as I pause to photograph buildings and signs and expanses of open space.

Just a snippet of the 32 barn swallow nests on Curtis Hall. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

And then I pause outside the 4-H building, Curtis Hall, to photograph the row of barn swallow nests mudded under the eaves. So many. Thirty-two. Too many. If there’s one bird I dislike, it’s the barn swallow. We have a history. As a child, I endured barn swallows swooping over me as I did farm chores. The swallows built their nests on beams above the barn aisle, my direct work route. I felt threatened by them as I shoveled manure into gutters, pushed a wheelbarrow full of ground feed down the aisle. My feelings for the swallow have not changed. Even though they eat mosquitoes, I still don’t like this bird.

Just another view of those swallow nests. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

That’s my sidebar from the fairgrounds, perhaps one you can relate to if you did farm chores like me.

The sheep arena is named after a Rice County deputy killed in the line of duty. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo 2021.
A view of the sheep barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Each of the livestock buildings is numbered. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Fairs are rooted in agriculture. Prize animals. Prize vegetables. A once-a-year opportunity to showcase the best of barns and of gardens. But today’s fair is much more. Entertainment. Creativity. And, above all, a place for communities to come together once a year in one place. To celebrate. To connect.

The Rice County Fair office with the grandstand in the background. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

FYI: The Rice County Fair is tentatively set for July 21-25 in Faribault. Whether it happens depends on all of us. See my previous post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Rice County: Fair or not? April 20, 2021

The Rice County Fair office, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

DECADES AGO, AS A YOUNG newspaper reporter, I covered county fairs. I’d grab my notebook and my camera and head to the fairgrounds. One particular summer, I was assigned to photograph 4-H kids and their animals at the Brown County Free Fair in New Ulm while working for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. I spent days tracking down youth and photographing them with their prize livestock. Pigs. Cows. Sheep. Horses. Chickens. Try getting animals to cooperate for a photo shoot. Not easy. The experience left me so exhausted and fair-weary that I lost all interest in county fairs.

Among the many popular local food booths. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Rice County 4-H is an integral part of the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Next to a livestock building sits this carnival ride, originating in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Ever since, I’ve seldom attended a county fair. But I recognize most people love fairs, including the Rice County Fair here in Faribault. They enjoy the food, the carnival rides, the entertainment, the exhibits and, yes, even all those penned animals hauled to town by 4-H families.

Livestock buildings at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Last summer, COVID-19 canceled our fair. And most other fairs, including The Minnesota State Fair, aka The Great Minnesota Get-Together. This summer, from small town Minnesota to the metro, officials hope to host fairs. In Rice County, the fair board tentatively plans for a July 21-25 fair. Whether that happens will depend on the pandemic and state restrictions on gatherings.

The open air BINGO shed at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Root photo March 2021.
Just across the way from the BINGO shed sits the Beer Garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
One of the newer fair buildings houses open class exhibits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file March 2021.

I’m all for putting health and safety first. This pandemic is far from over with cases of the virus surging. I recognize the weariness folks are feeling, but don’t accept that as an excuse for behavior that is increasing the spread. If people want to enjoy BINGO and beer, cheese curds and carnival rides, art and animals, and so much more at the fair, then they need to intentionally choose to help stop the spread of COVID. Mask up. Properly. Social distance. Stay home when feeling unwell. Get vaccinated.

An example of needed touch-ups. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

On a recent afternoon, Randy and I walked the Rice County Fairgrounds, just to have a different place to explore away from people. The emptiness of the space, without distracting crowds, exposes much. I observed that many of the aging buildings need upkeep, especially paint.

The new public restrooms at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I’m sure fair-goers will appreciate one new addition—the construction of public restrooms.

A view of the grandstand underside. This was rebuilt following an arson fire many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I often wonder why the fairgrounds aren’t used more, especially the grandstand. That said, the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market sets up occasionally at the fairgrounds in Faribault. Car shows and food trucks have also used the grounds. In a year when spread of the virus remains an ongoing concern, this vast outdoor space offers options to indoor gatherings.

Photographed on the side of the Rice County Fair office in March. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Whether the Rice County Fair happens in July remains unknown. It’s really up to us to follow public health and safety mandates/guidelines and to choose vaccination. We’re not powerless. We have the ability to control our behavior, to think beyond ourselves to the public good. To make the fair happen in 2021.

FYI: Rice County is lagging in vaccinations. According to Rice County Public Health April 16 data, 41.7 percent of county residents ages 16 and above have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. That compares to 52 percent statewide. We can do better.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Please check back for more Rice County Fairgrounds photos.

 

In New Ulm: George’s Ballroom, when the music stops April 19, 2021

The boarded entrance to the long-closed George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic oom-pah-pah of the polka, see the couples twirling across the scuffed wooden dance floor, smell the scent of whiskey poured from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.

George’s, on the corner of Center and German Streets, also housed a bar and, at one time, a bowling alley. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Across Minnesota, ballrooms once centered Saturday evenings with wedding receptions, concerts and parties celebrating milestones. The Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall. The Gibbon Ballroom, site of Polka Days, in Gibbon. The Pla-Mor Ballroom in Rochester. George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. And many others.

The historic marquee marks George’s Ballroom. What a beautiful piece of art. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Now most of these entertainment venues are shuttered. Abandoned. Or gone. The places of memories shared in stories. The places of memories photographed. A bride tossing her bouquet. A couple wrapped in each other’s arms. A trio wildly whirling in The Chicken Dance. My parents met at a dance in a southwestern Minnesota ballroom in the early 1950s. So many Minnesotans hold ballroom memories.

The bar entrance is here, the ballroom entry to the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Last summer while in New Ulm, I photographed the exterior of George’s Ballroom, an art deco style brick structure built in 1947 by George Neuwirth. The facility, which could hold up to 3,000 guests, once served as this community’s celebration and concert hub. Lawrence Welk, Glen Miller, The Six Fat Dutchmen and other big name bands played here.

George’s closed in 1991, reopened for awhile under new ownership and then shuttered again—permanently—in the early 2000s. Property taxes went unpaid. Options expired.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the former dance hall faces likely demolition, according to media reports. Cost to restore the ballroom is estimated at $5 million. Cost to demolish it, $1 million. That’s a lot of money. But when you’re dealing with mold from water damage, asbestos and other health and safety issues, costs climb quickly.

Here you can see some of the damage, underneath that BAR sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

All of this saddens me. I love historic buildings. They’re often well-built and hold important historic, community and personal importance. But I am also a realist who recognizes that not everything can be saved.

The marquee first caught my photographic interest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I do hope, though, that the George’s marquee and signage—which drew me to photograph the building in the heart of downtown New Ulm—will be saved. It sounds like that’s the plan. I hope the historic art can be incorporated into an outdoor public space rather than tucked inside, mostly unseen and under appreciated. People need easy access to George’s memorabilia. To photograph. To reminisce. To remember the Saturday nights of Big Bands and polkas and partying with family and friends. With a little creative thinking, George’s can continue to draw locals and others, adding another attraction to a community that excels as a destination city.

TELL ME: What would you do with George’s Ballroom and/or the marquee and signage? I’d love to hear your creative ideas and/or your memories of George’s or other ballrooms.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: Concerts in the Park Series continues during COVID-19 July 20, 2020

Three members of the Long Time Gone band perform during the July 16 Faribault Concerts in the Park Series.

 

MUSIC SPEAKS a universal language. Especially during this global pandemic. It brings people together, yet not together. It brings moments of joy in rhythm and words. It channels thoughts to memories or into the moment, into foot-tapping, circling in dance or simply listening.

 

A snippet of the crowd attending the concert.

 

Each Thursday summer evening, music draws folks to Central Park for the free Faribault Concerts in the Park series based in the historic bandshell. Hundreds spread out across the block-square park on benches, lawnchairs and blankets. Social-distancing. Some wearing face masks, others with masks in hand to wear upon arrival and departure.

These months of COVID-19 concerns are unprecedented in social isolation, in the need to be cautious to limit the spread of this disease. Cases and the positivity rate in Minnesota continue to climb. Today the Minnesota Department of Health reported the first death of a young child (only nine months old and with no underlying health conditions) in Clay County. The upward trends in Minnesota and nation-wide are unsettling as is the continuing reluctance of way too many, at least here in greater Minnesota, to wear face masks.

 

More members of Long Time Gone.

 

Nearly every summer event—from crowded county to state fairs, from community to family celebrations, from all those connective activities we take for granted—have been canceled. And they should be. So to have this outdoor concert series continue, with safeguard practices in place, is such a gift. I am grateful to the Faribault Parks and Rec Department for organizing and to the sponsors and musicians who make these concerts possible. And to the concert-goers for respecting guidelines and distancing and doing everything necessary to keep this event safe and low risk.

 

A view of concert goers sitting near the bandshell. I used a telephoto lens to shoot this and all other images as I sit way back from the bandshell.

 

Randy and I have attended these weekly Thursday summer concerts for decades, from the time our children were little to now as empty nesters. Last week we joined others to hear the classic bluegrass of Long Time Gone, a talented group of musicians, some of whom are in the Minnesota Rock/Country Music Hall of Fame.

 

I looked up to this beautiful view while at the concert.

 

While we listened, a breeze, cool enough at times for some in the audience to wrap themselves in blankets or jackets, stirred through the trees. I tilted my head back to observe the canopy of trees and the golden hue of sunset tinting the sky.

 

Rocco

 

I smiled at Rocco the dog, lying nearby, clearly loved by his engaging owner.

 

Dancing with baby.

 

Near the bandshell, youngsters tossed yellow hula hoops high into the air, the circles spiraling motion. And, on the opposite side, a young mom twirled with her baby in joyous dance.

 

Art created during the concert.

 

I saw, too, several children with paintings created at the limited Kids Art in the Park event during the concert.

 

A couple circles themselves with rope to keep others at a distance.

 

If not for the masks, the definite social distancing, the circle of distancing rope around one couple’s lawnchairs, this scene may have looked like any other Thursday summer evening at Central Park in Faribault. Except it wasn’t and isn’t. I long for the day when I don’t do a mental checklist that includes mask and handsanitizer before leaving the house for something as simple as a concert in the park. I long for those ordinary summer evenings, pre-COVID…

 

FYI: The Everett Smithson Band, featuring traditional blues and funky roots music, performs at the Thursday, July 23, concert beginning at 7 pm. Bring your lawnchairs, your masks, your handsanitizer and your stay safe/care-about-your-neighbor mindset. 

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling