Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Outdoor summer Concerts in the Park a “go” in Faribault June 17, 2020

A July 2015 concert in Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

DURING A TYPICAL SUMMER, the City of Faribault features free Concerts in the Park on Thursday evenings. I’ve attended for decades, taking our kids when they were growing up. It was a family night out. Years later, Randy and I still pack our lawn chairs and head to Central Park for music and visiting.

I expected this summer, there would be no concerts due to COVID-19. But as state restrictions loosen, the Faribault Parks & Rec Department has opted to start those concerts this Thursday, June 18, at 7 pm with the six-member Gold Star Band performing. The band, with members from around the area, plays classic country, 50s/60s and classic rock.

 

Another past concert. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Nine additional musical groups—from Little Chicago to the Lakelanders Barbershop Chorus to Bend in the River Big Band—are on the Thursday schedule from now until August 20. It will be interesting to see how these musicians social-distance in the confined space of a bandshell. For the smaller groups, it shouldn’t be an issue.

 

I photographed this scene in Central Park on Sunday morning, just days before this week’s concert. Park benches had been pulled out of storage, but are obviously not spaced to allow for social distancing. Hopefully they will be moved apart prior to tomorrow evening’s concert.

 

Because these concerts are outdoors in a park that covers a city block, Randy and I feel safe attending. We can easily social-distance. That, and adherence to all Minnesota Department of Health guidelines related to COVID-19, are expected.

But after the concert, we won’t linger to visit with friends, as we usually do. We’ll fold our lawn chairs, carry them to the van and head home, thankful for the evening of music in a safe environment. Yet missing the sense of community that comes from interaction and conversation.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

TV memories prompted by a vintage sign in Faribault May 13, 2020

A vintage sign at a former TV shop in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

TELEVISION. I remember my life without a TV. I am that old and of a poor rural upbringing which made a TV unaffordable for many years.

At some point in my youth, maybe when I was around nine-ish, my parents purchased a small black-and-white TV that rested on a wheeled metal cart. Set along a living room wall, the rack could be pushed and turned for TV viewing from the kitchen.

How exciting to get a TV and watch Lassie, Lost in Space, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Sky King and popular westerns like Gunsmoke. Our show choices were limited to CBS, the only network reception we got on our southwestern Minnesota farm. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite became a favorite as my interest in national and world events and journalism grew.

 

Randy remembers buying a TV here decades ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

I’m getting sidetracked here. But all of this traces to recent photos I took of a former TV service shop along Central Avenue in Faribault. I’ve passed by the place many times with the thought of stopping to photograph the vintage signage. Finally, I did, because I’ve learned the hard way that, if you wait too long, the opportunity will be lost. And I do appreciate the art and history of old signs.

 

The front window of the closed TV shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

Who remembers Zenith TVs, like those sold at Modern TV Service? Or Sylvania, RCA, Maganox? Companies that once dominated the U.S. television market. I can’t tell you the brand of my childhood TV. But I recall the excitement of getting a television and later watching a color console TV at my dad’s cousin Ruby’s house when we visited the Meier family. What a treat.

 

A few weeks ago I photographed the cloud-studded sky, I also photographed the TV antenna atop our house. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Unlike most people today, Randy and I don’t have cable TV or subscribe to any streaming services. Instead, we still rely on a rooftop antenna for reception on the single television in our house. And, living in a valley, that reception often proves unreliable. Spotty. Affected by weather (especially the wind), by a medical helicopter flying over or nearby, even a vehicle passing on the busy street. I am most frustrated that the public television station typically does not come in on our TV. Oh, well, at least we have a TV and it’s color, right? And let’s not forget the remote control, although I wish every set came with two…

TELL ME: Do you remember a time when you didn’t have a television? Anyone out there old-school like us with reception coming only from a roof-top antenna?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From rural Minnesota: Farmer of the Year film showing this weekend in Faribault March 23, 2019

Near Edgerton, 30 miles south of Tyler, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

CALL US THE BOLD NORTH, Fly-over Land, that place that’s too cold and snowy—whatever your description of Minnesota, I love this place. Most of the time.

We are a place of prairie vistas, lakes and woods, rolling hills, river bluffs. We are urban and rural. We are separately and together Minnesota.

The Minnesota I know best, and love most, is rural. South of the Twin Cities metro. Gravel roads and small towns. Church gatherings and family reunions. Popping into the grocery store only to strike up conversations with friends and acquaintances. This is the place of hotdishes (not casseroles) and recipes passed among generations.

 

 

But we are also a place of growth. In technology, industry, education, the arts. This weekend art follows rural roads to my native southwestern Minnesota. To an independent feature film written by former Lincoln County Dairy Princess Kathy Swanson. I blogged a few days ago about Farmer of the Year, a film which Kathy co-produced and directed with her partner, Vince O’Connell.

Even though she now calls Vermont home, Kathy remains true to her rural roots in the writing of this fictional story about a retired farmer embarking on a cross country road trip. I’m thankful for that rural authenticity. I’m thankful for Kathy’s creative focus on her rural southwestern Minnesota. It’s a place too often overlooked. Even by Minnesotans. When I tell people where I grew up, I often get a blank look. So I work my way back east, asking whether they know the location of New Ulm. If not, I backtrack even farther east to Mankato. Or often I will say “half-way between Redwood Falls and Marshall” and let them figure out the precise location of Vesta, my hometown. Portions of the film are shot in Marshall, but most are primarily around Kathy’s hometown of Tyler. That includes on her childhood family farm, still in the family.

 

A scene photographed from Rice County Road 15 between Faribault and Morristown, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I hope you will follow Interstate 35, Minnesota State Highway 60, or whatever highway or backroad to Faribault this weekend to view the Minnesota made film Farmer of the Year by YellowHouse Films. It’s showing at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 23, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

If you are interested in viewing this independent feature film in your community, talk to the folks at your local movie theater or arts center as the film is not widely distributed. Then connect with Kathy at YellowHouse Films so she can follow up. Whether you live in Minnesota or New York or California or any place in between, Kathy’s happy to work with you in bringing Farmer of the Year to a screen in your area. I’d love for you all to see this rural Minnesota made film that features the place of my roots, southwestern Minnesota.

CLICK HERE to view a trailer of the film and for additional info.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling