Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Connecting, celebrating & more at Valley Grove Country Social September 21, 2022

Vehicles line the gravel driveway leading to the hilltop Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, during the September 18 Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A COUNTRY SOCIAL EVOKES an essence of history, of community celebration, of activities that hearken to a bygone era. The Valley Grove Country Social held on Sunday afternoon high atop a hill near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park fits that and beyond. This site, the location of two historic churches and an adjoining cemetery, marks one of my favorite places in rural Rice County for its history, natural beauty and peace.

Inside the stone church, now used for fellowship, folks grab refreshments, converse and view historical information and art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Among the newest additions to the stone church are four tapestries woven by Minneapolis artist Robbie LaFleur and reflective of Valley Grove. This one is titled “Pastor Quammen Skis between Parishes.” He was the longest serving pastor at the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A vintage buggy adds another historic aspect to the Valley Grove Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this September afternoon, I delighted in an event that brings people together to celebrate Norwegian heritage and history, people and place, stories past and present, the arts, and, oh, so much more.

Bouquets and vintage photos edge window sills in the oldest church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An organist and violinist play during a recital in the newer church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Horse-drawn wagon rides onto the prairie drew many passengers throughout the afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Grinding corn as part of the hands-on learning opportunities. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Northfield artist David Allen brought his brushes, watercolors and paper to paint on-site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

From garden and prairie flowers tucked into Mason jars set atop window sills in the 1862 stone church to a recital inside the 1894 church to horse-drawn wagon rides to kids grinding corn to an artist painting, the scope of activities proved broad. There was something for everyone from the youngest to the eldest. Generations mingled, connected. One taught, the other learned.

From cemetery’s edge, the open prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Rope making, a nod to Valley Grove’s agrarian roots, was part of the Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
All ages were drawn to these two goats. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

To observe, to converse, to listen, to feel, to experience all of this imprints upon my soul gratitude for those who know this place, this Valley Grove, is worth preserving and sharing. Although I hold no personal connection here, I feel connected. It is my faith, my love of the land, especially the surrounding prairie and farmland, and the quiet of this remote rural location which cause me to feel comfortably at home, at peace.

One of David Allen’s paintings of Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

If you’ve never visited Valley Grove and live near enough to tour, then do. I’ve been here many times to walk the cemetery and grounds, to hike through the prairie, even once sitting on the front steps of the wooden church for a picnic lunch. The churches are locked when not open for events or special services like a wedding or Christmas Eve worship.

A musician performs with the group Hutenanny under the oak trees in the cemetery.

Still, whether inside or outside the two churches, a sense of the past prevails. Gravestone after gravestone bears the names of Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. Study the markers and stories begin to emerge, whether real or imagined. I can only imagine the joys and sorrows shared here.

Toys of yesteryear were available to try. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Valley Grove is about more than a place where historic churches stand next to a cemetery. It is a gathering spot for those who are celebrating, those who are grieving, those who are remembering and, on this afternoon of a Country Social, a place of connecting with community.

Please check back for more photos from the Valley Grove Country Social. And click here to read my first post from the event, a personal piece about a young man named Bjorn.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wood-fired pizza from “where the hills sing & the trees clap” August 13, 2022

On a perfect summer evening, a crowd gathers for music, pizza and conversation at Christ Lutheran Church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

AS OLD COUNTRY BROTHERS belted out popular songs from The Eagles, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton and many others, volunteers across the backyard of Christ Lutheran Church created, baked and delivered homemade wood-fired pizzas to an appreciative crowd. Randy and I were among those attending the last of the summer Holy Smoke concert series and pizza nights Wednesday at the church on the hill on Faribault’s east side.

The roadside sign posted along Minnesota State Highway 60 by the driveway into Christ Lutheran. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Old Country Brothers Gregg and Jeff Sartor perform on August 10. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Smoked brisket pizza. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In its sixth year, Holy Smoke is about more than excellent thin crust pizza and music. This is also about a coming together of community on a perfect August evening in southeastern Minnesota. This is also about giving back. Proceeds from the three summer gatherings benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity and HOPE Center.

A themed t-shirt sported by a volunteer who paused to visit with attendees. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

A message printed on some volunteers’ t-shirts and on a bench dedicated to Pastor Craig and Carol Breimhorst (the pastor died of COVID-19; the first death in our county) references Isaiah 55:12, fitting Scripture for this hilltop church edged by trees and a sweeping lawn descending to Minnesota State Highway 60.

The menu posted just inside the front door, ticket table to the right. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

There’s joy in that biblical reference just as there’s joy among those who make Holy Smoke happen. A ticket taker, whom I thanked, tapped her hand to her heart, showing me from whence her joy rises.

The pizza bakers at the wood-fired oven just outside the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Plenty of heat here. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

An overview of the wood-fired oven system. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I found the same enthusiasm among the crew tending the wood-fired pizza oven. The heat flaming inside to 700-plus degrees made the work station at times uncomfortably hot. But they forged on, baking pizzas.

Volunteers assemble pizzas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Chicken bacon ranch pizza ready for the wood-fired oven. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Inside the fellowship hall, other volunteers layered sliced tomatoes, meat toppings, cheese and more onto rounds of dough.

The busy kitchen crew. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the kitchen, three women worked, two doing dishes, the third snipping chives.

When we arrived at around 5:45 pm to find the parking lot overflowing, I thought the wait would be long. It wasn’t. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Still others rolled pizza cutters across pizzas hot from the oven, pizzas ready for more volunteers to carry to hungry customers. The wait time is short, especially if you order a quarter of a pie.

Attendees spread out across the backyard to listen to Old Country Brothers and to enjoy pizza. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

From my observations, the entire pizza-making and delivery process runs smoothly. Everywhere I saw smiles. Smiles on the faces of volunteers, beginning with the greeter who met us at the door. And smiles among those eating pizza and enjoying the music of Gregg and Jeff Sartor. I felt the joy.

Kids blew and caught bubbles, ran free… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Families and friends gather at Holy Smoke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Kids roll down the steep hillside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Holy Smoke is an event for all ages, from kids blowing bubbles, rolling down the hillside, running across the lawn and climbing on rocks ringing a tree to older folks relaxing in lawn chairs.

There is some on-site seating. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

This is a mostly bring-your-own chairs, own napkins (I’d also advise paper plates, wet wipes and a portable side table) event, although limited picnic table space is available.

Connecting in conversation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Mostly, Holy Smoke seems about community. About connecting. About conversations. About supportive businesses. About joy.

Printed on a t-shirt worn by a pizza baker. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the loveliness of the summer evening, I heard the hills sing. I heard the trees clap. And I tasted some “holy smoke, this is good” smoked brisket pizza.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inspired by Maria Shriver’s reflective book, “I’ve Been Thinking…” August 5, 2022

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Published in 2018, a bestselling book I found at my local library. (Cover source: Amazon)

BE STILL. Two words. Two words that, at their core, seem so simple to follow. Yet, in the busyness and chaos and struggles of life, they often prove difficult to remember, then practice.

What does it mean to “be still”?

New York Times bestselling author, journalist, mother and celebrity Maria Shriver addresses the topic in “A Time to Rest,” a chapter in her book, I’ve Been Thinking…Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life. In the chapter focusing on the importance of rest and reflection, Shriver reminds us to “be still.”

Those two words are a reference to Psalm 46:10 which, several years ago, became a bit of a mantra for me thanks to my friend Steve. Steve is quiet, a man of sparse words. So when he speaks, people tend to listen, really listen. He holds a deep faith. And when he pointed me to a specific verse in a Psalm that would remind me often to “be still” and hear the voice of God, he knew exactly what I needed.

A contemplative and peaceful photo I took, and edited, in December 2017. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

This past week, Shriver’s book has based my morning time of quiet, of prayer and devotional/inspirational reading. I recommend this reflective collection of short themed chapters ending in prayer to anyone, whether a person of faith or not. I fully agree with Shriver’s advice to take time each day for quiet reflection, for thought and for a centering that calms. Be still.

Her inspirational book covers so many topics—empathy, listening, gratitude and much more—that, if we choose to practice them, will make our lives better and this world a much better place, We are, after all, all connected, Shriver writes as she calls for kindness and love to prevail. None of this is new. Yet, to read her words, from her perspective and experiences, reminds me that none of us are truly alone, unless we choose to be alone. Each of us deserves to be valued and appreciated. Heard.

An important message displayed at LARK Toys, Kellogg, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2015)

She encourages each of us to pause before we pass along something we’ve read or heard as truth. Like Shriver, I have worked in journalism and understand the necessity of verification, of truthfulness. She calls for a social kindness movement. I’ll take kindness period in a world where kindness feels more and more elusive.

This quarter-sized token, gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann, lies on my computer desk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

In the end, Shriver holds hope. And I do, too. Hope has been my focus word for many years. Hope, centered in my faith, has carried me through some especially difficult times. We’ve all had them—the struggles that stretch and challenge us. I hope you’ve never felt alone in difficulties. I haven’t.

I need to read books like I’ve Been Thinking…, to remind me of hope. To uplift and encourage and inspire me. To remember always to rest and reflect. To be still.

TELL ME: How do you work at being still? And what does “be still” mean to you?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Holy smoke, time for music & pizza June 7, 2022

The Todd Thompson Band gets up close to the audience at a past Holy Smoke concert. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2017)

TIS THE SEASON for outdoor local summer events and gatherings that feature music and/or food.

Christ Lutheran Church, the church on the hill along State Highway 60 on the east side of Faribault, kicks off its Holy Smoke Pizza Ministry this Wednesday, June 8, from 5-8:30 pm. If you live in the Faribault area, this is a must-attend event for the homemade pizza and the music.

I’ve attended numerous times. The pizza, made in an outdoor oven, is savory/delicious/just darned good. I’d recommend the BBQ brisket. Be prepared to wait. And also come prepared with lawn chairs or blankets as picnic table seating is limited.

A photo of pizza from Grandview Valley Winery, used here for illustration only. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2014)

Whole pizzas, in assorted varieties, cost $22. Quarters are also available for $7. All proceeds benefit local charities, this summer Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota, HOPE Center and Rice County Habitat for Humanity.

While the pizza is certainly a draw, so is the music. This week Relativity, a group featuring a vocalist and instrumentalists on guitar, mandolin and fiddle, performs current top 40 songs to classic and folk rock. The trio includes fiddler/mandolin player Mike Hildebrandt, an inductee into the Minnesota Rock & Country Music Hall of Fame.

The steeple of Christ Lutheran. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2017)

Holy Smoke is not just about music and pizza and giving back to the community. It’s also about gathering with others in a beautiful backyard type setting on a summer evening. It’s a good time to catch up with friends and/or make new friends. Note, though, that anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or who has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive in the past 14 days and is not fully-vaccinated should NOT attend. I am thankful for that safety measure. The first person to die of complications related to COVID-19 in my county of Rice was the Rev. Craig Breimhorst, retired pastor of Christ Lutheran Church. He died in April 2020 after returning from a trip to the Holy Land.

If you can’t make this week’s Holy Smoke, two other Wednesday concert-pizza nights will be held. On July 13, Todd Finney performs and on August 10, Old Country Brothers.

A view of St. John’s at a 2016 car show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2016)

There’s another concert in the area at 7 pm on Wednesday, June 8, that is also worth your consideration. St. John’s United Church of Christ Wheeling Township (near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park) is hosting a summer evening of outdoor worship featuring the music ministry of 29:11 International Exchange. That group is based in Minnesota and South Africa. Its mission is to “facilitate hope and reconciliation through music, cross-cultural relationships and individual artist development…by recognizing that each of us is worthy of understanding and love, we can bridge the ideological, racial and socio-economic gaps that divide us and live together as citizens of the world.” Again, bring lawn chairs or blankets.

I feel grateful to both St. John’s and Christ Lutheran for hosting these outdoor community-focused summer events which benefit attendees and beyond.

TELL ME: Is there a similar event in your community that you try to attend each summer?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At Potsdam: Reflections on a country church May 31, 2022

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Potsdam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

NO MATTER HOW MANY country churches I discover, how many adjoining cemeteries I meander, my interest in these sacred places never wanes.

Detailed signage provides basic info about Immanuel Lutheran. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent day trip in southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I found Immanuel Lutheran Church of Potsdam, an unincorporated community close to Elgin. We bypassed it initially, then turned around to explore the church grounds along Minnesota State Highway 247.

A back and side view of Immanuel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Immanuel fits the bucolic image of a rural church—constructed of wood painted white, cross-topped steeple, bell snugged inside tower, stained glass windows running the length of the sanctuary.

Looking up toward the bell tower. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This church is especially well-maintained, not always the case in rural houses of worship with often dwindling congregations.

The locked front doors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I longed to get inside this Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, to view the sanctuary, to settle into a pew, to see the art therein, to experience the peace such a place holds. But, as I expected, the front doors were locked.

Across the highway, a red barn. In the cemetery, gray stones. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
The German word “LIEBE” means love, found on a gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Beautiful flower art on an aged gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

So instead, I walked around the exterior, studying the details, bracing myself against the strong wind sweeping across this hilltop location. In the distance, twin silos rose on a farm site. Across the highway, a red barn contrasted with the gray of tombstones lodged under pines.

This is very much a farming area as noted by a farm wagon parked next to the cemetery on this Saturday and by the surrounding fields and farm sites. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

We briefly walked the cemetery, marveling at the early birth dates of some buried here—born in 1823, died in 1877. Clearly there are stories here of journeys across the ocean to America, then more travel westward to this land, this Minnesota. I expect those stories hold hardship and loss and struggles and, also, incredible strength, determination and resilience.

Pines tower over the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I claim no personal connection to anyone here. Yet, I feel a kinship in ancestors who left the Old Country. I feel, too, a kinship of faith. For it was faith which sustained many who left families an ocean away to forge a new life. Here they settled, built a church, planted pines. Here they gathered to celebrate and mourn. To pray and praise and plant hope upon the land.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

With gratitude to an anonymous friend May 20, 2022

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Love in three languages along the Virtues Trail in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2018)

THE GREETING CARD arrived in a non-descript blue envelope, our names and address printed in reddish marker. No return address, only a flower sticker in the upper left corner. A Saint Paul, MN postmark with a May 13, 2022, date inked the paper next to a floral postage stamp. And, on the back, an artsy heart sticker graced the envelope flap.

I expected to find a card inside wishing Randy and me the best on our 40th wedding anniversary. I was right on that. I appreciated the verse focused on God’s blessings and a prayer for continued blessings in our lives.

From an anonymous friend, an anniversary wish and gift. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

But I did not expect the anonymous signature—A friend—or a faith-themed post-it note attached to a $20 bill. That note suggested we treat ourselves, perhaps to Dairy Queen ice cream, and to enjoy our day(s).

The thoughtfulness of this anonymous friend (whom I suspect reads this blog) touched me deeply. There are moments in life when we all need an extra hug, extra words of encouragement, extra kindness. For me, that moment is now. This year, thus far, has proven challenging with the death of my mom in January and recently the news that my husband will be losing his job of 39 years due to a change in business ownership and closure of the automotive machine shop.

A Peanut Buster Parfait from DQ. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

So, when that surprise anniversary card and cash gift arrived, I felt a surge of gratitude for the reminder that others care, that I am blessed by a loving and caring husband of 40 years, that God will, and always has, given us the strength we need to face and work through life’s difficulties.

While walking a recreational trail in Madison, Wisconsin, when my son lived in the Atwood Neighborhood there, I spotted this wonderfully uplifting message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Many times in my life, I’ve been uplifted by others. I’ve tried to do the same. When someone is struggling or celebrating, I acknowledge that. We all need to be heard, understood, loved, cared for, uplifted. Appreciated. Valued. Encouraged.

The Betty, from The S’Cream in Owatonna. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

And today, because of that anonymous friend—who’s apparently read on this blog that Randy and I treat ourselves to Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfaits twice a year (upon opening and closing of the local franchise)—I feel especially cared for. When I taste the sweetness of ice cream, either from DQ or from our favorite area ice cream shop, The S’Cream in Owatonna, I will taste, too, the sweetness of love sent by an anonymous friend.

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TELL ME: How has someone encouraged you in life? Or how have you encouraged someone? I’d like to hear your stories.

I’d like to thank you, my readers, for your kindness, generosity and encouragement through the years. What a blessing you have been in my life.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faith art focus during Holy Week April 14, 2022

The birth of Christ depicted at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, Minnesota. This is my husband’s home church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020)

STAINED GLASS ART graces many a church. Most often that art depicts the history of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection.

This stained glass window inside the Mother of Good Counsel Votive Chapel at The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, Wisconsin, depicts Mary and Jesus. I often think of Mary during Holy Week and how great her loss in losing her son. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

So it’s fitting that this week, Holy Week, I share some images from my archives of beautiful stained glass windows discovered in my wanderings. As a woman of faith, an art appreciator and one who values churches, I am drawn to this art form.

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Stained glass window in the sanctuary of Vang Lutheran Church, rural Dennison, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2014)

My husband, Randy, has dabbled in stained glass art and I know from watching him that creating this art takes time, patience, skill and dedication. He took a stained glass class locally decades ago, has crafted several sun catchers and also repaired aged windows at our church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault. I hope that when he retires, he can more fully embrace this art form.

Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha. Stained glass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020)

That sidebar aside, I feel such gratitude to those long ago craftsmen who labored to create stained glass windows for churches. Such windows enhance worship, infusing a sanctuary with beauty and a visual telling of biblical stories. Like the birth of Jesus. The agony of his suffering, death and glorious resurrection.

A stained glass window inside Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota, depicts Jesus’ crucifixion. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

Like illustrations in a book, the art of stained glass adds to the words, opens our eyes to better see that which we hear and read.

This stained glass window of the women and angel at Jesus’ empty tomb rises above the altar at Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

Art adds a depth to my understanding and to my faith.

This shows a snippet of the center stained glass window in a trio above the altar at Trinity Lutheran Church, Wanamingo, Minnesota. This section shows Jesus risen from the dead. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

As we near the end of Holy Week, please take time to reflect on the stained glass art here or within your own community.

A photo of Christ’s face from a stained glass window in my church, Trinity Lutheran, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

And may this art bless you as it has me. Have a joyful and blessed Easter!

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove March 30, 2022

The cemetery at Valley Grove sidles near the two historic Norwegian churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.

Art and heritage and faith and lives remembered. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Today I am drawn to cemeteries, especially rural cemeteries. That includes the hilltop Valley Grove Cemetery in rural Nerstrand.

Oaks edge the cemetery and a road along it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.

The cemetery surrounds three sides of the 1862 stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?

Erik Floren’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The in-ground marker of Ole Hemvig. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Honoring Thomas and Einar Halvorsen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2022)

Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.

On Clyde Heggedahl’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.

A faith and love-filled message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.

A special marker for a veteran’s grave. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.

The old stone church and cemetery at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.

What’s the story behind the “Snuffy” nickname? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.

Posted on the gated entry to Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Whispers of history & heritage at Valley Grove March 29, 2022

Valley Grove churches rise over the hill as I follow the prairie path back to the church grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

ATOP THIS HILL, here on the edge of the Big Woods among acres of fields near Nerstrand, I hear the whispers. Wrapping around the two historic churches. Rising from the cemetery. Sweeping through the tall prairie grasses.

The cemetery sits next to the churches, then rings the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

This is Valley Grove, overlooking the countryside, the place where Norwegian immigrants came. Here they crafted their first church from stone in 1862, then built a second, of wood, in 1894. Both still stand.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society cares about the land, too, with restoration and preservation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
I spotted swirls of prairie grass alongside a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Dried hydrangea alongside the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The churches, cemetery and surrounding 50 acres are today owned, preserved and managed by the Valley Grove Preservation Society. They are a favorite nearby rural destination for me. I appreciate the natural beauty, the history, the country quiet and more. Even the wind.

A view from the parking lot, outside the fenced grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent March Sunday afternoon I walked the prairie paths, wound among aged tombstones, admired the sturdy churches. And while I’ve wandered these grounds many times and attended community celebrations inside and outside the church buildings, each visit brings new discoveries and reminders of why I love this place so much.

Atop the steeple of the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I value the rural-ness. On this afternoon, the shrill crow of a rooster, the sharp crack of gunshots and the barks of two dogs running loose broke the silence. In the context of location, the sounds fit. Not that I like gunshots echoing or strange canines circling me. But they did no harm as I continued along the stomped, sometimes soggy grass trail back toward the Valley Grove Cemetery and churches.

Land and sky define the prairie path. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

When following the prairie paths under a wide sky, I hear whispers of the past. Of wheels creaking under the weight of wagons crammed with an immigrant family’s belongings. Of a young mother bent over her baby, singing a soothing song from the Old Country. Of a weary farmer sighing after a long day of breaking the land.

The roofline and steeple of the simple 1862 stone church rise above the rural landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If this place could speak, it would whisper the stories of all those Norwegian immigrants who settled in and around Valley Grove and then gathered on this hilltop location to worship, socialize, celebrate, mourn.

The 1894 church closeup. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The bell in the wooden church still rings for special occasions. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On this winter day, the church doors are locked. But I’ve been inside both buildings. They are basic. Simple. Mostly unadorned. The wooden church is still used today for special worship services like weddings. The old stone church serves primarily as a social gathering room. Both are well preserved. Valued.

In the foreground, the back of the old stone church, which sits near the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon four tapestries, woven in the Norwegian billedvev tradition, will grace the walls of the stone church. Minneapolis weaver Robbie LaFleur was commissioned by the Valley Grove Preservation Society to create the art. It features the plants, animals, land, immigrants and churches of Valley Grove. A grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places funded the project. LaFleur’s tapestries will be showcased during a Syttende Mail celebration from 2-4 pm Sunday, May 15.

One of many Oles buried at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Much art already exists at Valley Grove, within the cemetery. I consider tombstones to be works of art, documentations of lives. The stone markers are many, from aged to recent. Names engraved thereon reflect the primarily Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. If these tombstones among the oaks could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. Of life in the Old Country. And of life in the New World, of this place, this Valley Grove.

FYI: Please check back for a post about the Valley Grove Cemetery.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A blizzard of loss & grief February 11, 2022

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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A winter storm creates near white-out conditions along Minnesota State Highway 19 north of my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota in January 2013. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2013)

LOSS STORMS INTO THIS WINTER of 2022 like an old-fashioned Minnesota blizzard. The snow just keeps falling. The wind keeps whipping. Powdery snow blows into rock hard drifts that edge roadways, fill ditches, encircle homes. Visibility is limited. Travel conditions poor. Bitter cold settles in and I feel as if this storm will never end.

Wind chimes from my friend Beth Ann in North Carolina honor my mom. Beth Ann lost her mom just over a year ago and has been a great support to me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Such has been the beginning of the new year, when deaths within my circle defined recent weeks. First, my mom died on January 13. Two days later, my cousin Randy, 50, died unexpectedly. Last week my cousin Kevin’s stepson, Dan, 43, also died unexpectedly. And then, on Tuesday, my friend Patty died.

Just like a winter storm, we must all deal with loss and grief. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of Randy snowblowing our driveway)

It’s a lot at once—this loss, this grief.

Ruth, a friend from Pittsburgh, knit this beautiful prayer/comfort shawl from the softest acrylic yarn fittingly labeled CELESTIAL STRIPES. These are in hues my mom would have liked. Each time I wrap this shawl around my shoulders, I feel Ruth’s love in the warmth and texture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Anyone who’s experienced a Minnesota blizzard understands the analogy. Yet, blizzards always end. We shovel and snow-blow our way out of snow-clogged driveways. We clear the walks and steps. And we get on with life, despite the storm. Yet, we remember.

My friend Mandy colored this beautiful faith-based art for me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I am digging myself out of a blizzard now, working through the drifts of grief. But I’ve never felt alone in this storm. First, as a woman of faith, I’ve felt God’s presence, his strong hand upon the snow shovel. I’ve heard his encouraging voice in the comforting words of pastors shared at these recent funerals (my mom’s attended in-person, the others virtually).

I’ve appreciated the nearly 60 sympathy cards which have landed in my mailbox. I’ve read and reread the encouraging words and notes. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I’ve experienced, too, the support of family and friends who’ve reached out with cards, personal notes, calls, emails, texts, memorials and other thoughtful gifts. My friend Ruth emailed a particularly touching poem, “We Remember Them” by Sylvan and Rabbi Jack Riemer. Each visually impactful line ends with “We remember them.” I’ve printed the poem and posted it on my fridge.

Assorted shovels used in clearing snow from our property. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2021)

I feel incredibly loved, as if an entire neighborhood has showed up with shovels and snowblowers to unclog the driveway, to clear the walk and steps. To help me dig out from this blizzard of loss.

My friend Kathleen from Idaho crafted this beautiful mini altered book honoring my mom and her life. I will share more soon about this book, a comfort to me as I remember my mother. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

There will be days when I feel like hunkering down inside, watching the wind-driven snow pile up, sheltering within my grief. Just like during a blizzard, when going outdoors proves risky.

Inspirational garden art from my sister-in-law Cheryl and family uplifts. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

But winter storms are not forever. Rock hard drifts melt, replaced by the greening earth, new life. The wind calms, stirring peace in summertime breezes. Visibility clears to the window of memories. Roads take us back to places once shared with those we’ve lost. And the bitter cold of death lessens as time passes, as love endures.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling