Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Back in Vesta for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion July 31, 2018

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This sign once marked my hometown. It’s gone now, replaced by a different sign. I prefer this vintage familiar one. It has character. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


AS WE SWEPT THE PARK SHELTER and washed picnic tables in preparation for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion in my hometown of Vesta on Sunday, a woman passed by with a cluster of children. A petite woman in an Asian rice hat and authentic attire from her Vietnamese homeland.

I never saw her face, only heard that she is married to a college professor and lives in a house a ball field away. And sometimes sells egg rolls downtown.


The prayer I wrote and read before our noon potluck.


The moment imprinted upon me. When I grew up in this rural Minnesota small town in the late 50s, 60s and early 70s, we were all the same race. White. Only our religions separated us—lots of Lutherans and Catholics with some Brethren and Presbyterians thrown in the mix.


A snippet of the Kletscher family lineage, my grandfather being Henry.


To see diversity all these years later in this prairie town pleases me. Change doesn’t always come easily in a place where generations of families are rooted.

Family brought me back to Vesta, to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and their families. And a few significant others. I appreciate that we still value each other enough to gather every year in the city park located along gravel roads and across from cornfields. This year my siblings and I hosted.


Food for the potluck meal spreads across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter during a previous reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Good food and conversation mark the reunion. I always make a point of moving from lawn chair circle to lawn chair circle so I can talk with nearly everyone. Conversations this year ranged from babies to flooding to a cousin getting out of an emotionally abusive marriage. He’s happy now, happier than he’s been in a long time. “Love is blind,” he noted. I encouraged him, told him how glad I am that he is now free.


Cards full of information used in the family jeopardy competition.


While that conversation ran deep, there were many light-hearted moments. Like those that came during the first-ever Kletscher Family Jeopardy Game which I planned and hosted. Team Sauerkraut (or Sour Kraut) easily defeated Team Hot Dish in a competition that sometimes seemed more like Family Feud than Jeopardy. All in good fun.

In the shade of towering trees on a July afternoon of perfect Minnesota weather, we laughed. We remembered. And we, the descendants of German immigrants, built new memories in a town where diversity once applied only to differences in religion.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Building memories & reconnecting at a Minnesota family reunion August 24, 2017

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Seven of the eight living Helbling siblings, including my husband, Randy, in the front row, gathered last Saturday for the annual family reunion.


FROM PONIES TO GOATS, German potato salad to kuchen, a scavenger hunt to a trivia game and more, all were part of the annual Helbling Family Reunion held Saturday on a rural Faribault acreage.


A neighbor brought over two ponies, a hit with all ages.


Randy and I co-hosted the event with a nephew and his wife, creating shared experiences to connect generations spanning from age one into their sixties.


The Helbling cousins posed for a portrait that includes my three children, front center and back right.


Nearly 50 of us gathered, first for a meal of mostly German and some American foods, and then for an afternoon of fun under a canopy of sprawling oaks.


Even though she was too little to really bounce, my granddaughter, Izzy, still loved the bouncy house as did all the other kids.


Emmett, who just turned one and was the youngest at the reunion, is already practicing his bean bag tossing.


Likewise 16-month-old Izzy, second youngest in the Helbling family, dropped bean bags in holes.


Kids jumped in the bouncy house while adults tossed bean bags into holes in angled boards.


Among the gnomes I hid.

Among the gnomes I hid.


I sent some kids on a scavenger hunt for gnomes and ceramic animals tucked into hiding places below sunflowers and lilac bushes and in and around trees and more. They raced with enthusiasm, clues in hand, to search for the treasures on a day as perfect as they get here in southern Minnesota in August.


I pulled stories from a family history book published in 1993, printed them on paper with graphics and then displayed all on a table. Some of the stories were part of the family history trivia contest.


Later, after the bean bag tournament ended, the adults answered questions about family history in a trivia contest. Three scored a perfect ten, proving they know that roaming coyotes once kept the three oldest Helbling children indoors during recess at a one-room country school in North Dakota in the 1960s.


Getting all the kids to sit still for a portrait proved impossible.


One dashed away…


The final portrait, minus one.


This is the stuff of family history, of stories that can be told and retold through generations. Stories unique to this family once rooted in Germany, then moved to Russia before emigrating to America.


Katherine, 5,  took time to create art.


I am not, by blood, a Helbling. But for 35 years I have been part of this family which still cares enough each August to gather for a reunion. While the majority travel from various parts of Minnesota, others arrived here this year from Boston, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.


My three kids, Amber, left, Miranda and Caleb, having fun with the German photo props.


My great nieces and sweet sisters, Meghan, left, and Katherine. Their mom said they look forward to the reunion.


The Helbling cousins having fun with photo props.


There were the traditional posed family portraits juxtaposed with informal and fun photo ops using German themed props ordered online. A set salvaged from Vacation Bible School served as an Alps mountain backdrop.


My niece Amber and I picked wildflowers, garden flowers, grasses and weeds and then arranged bouquets in bier steins.


Adding to the ethnic bend were bier steins filled with mostly wildflowers and weeds culled from fields and yards, the impromptu vases set on banquet tables draped in yellow, black and red, the colors of the German flag. The themed reunion honored the Helbling family’s German heritage. As a detail-oriented creative type, I delight in adding such memorable details. Family members noticed and appreciated.


Family members hammered nails into a stump in games of hammerschlagen.


As the day wended from bright afternoon sunshine to dusk and a spectacular sunset, the sound of nails hammered into a stump in games of hammerschlagen ceased. Voices rose and fell in conversation while lines formed for the evening meal of build your own burgers. At the grill, Randy took orders for burgers topped with American, pepperjack or blue cheeses. Much to our surprise, many chose blue cheese made and aged in sandstone caves some six miles away in the heart of Faribault.


We are creating memories for the next generation. Here my husband and our granddaughter play bean bag toss. Sort of.


And then, while Randy and I grabbed our burgers from the grill and finally sat down to eat, others piled onto a wagon for a hayride around the rural acreage. I wished I could have joined them, even taken photos. But I needed to refuel after a fun, but exhausting, day. It takes effort and energy and hard work to carry out a family reunion. But it’s so worth it for the memories created, the love and experiences shared as a family.

TELL ME: Does your family hold reunions? I’d love to hear details.

CLICK HERE to read posts about past family reunions.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Preparing for a family reunion August 15, 2017

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At last year’s reunion, the young adults and kids played a human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2016.


FOOD, FUN AND FAMILY. Those three words focus my attention and energy this week with the annual Helbling Family Reunion just days away. Randy and I are co-hosting with a nephew and his wife.

Gatherings like this of nearly 50 people take substantial planning and implementation. But I love doing this sort of thing.


Randy found this Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck, North Dakota, at a New Ulm thrift store. He’ll use it at the reunion. His family roots are in the Bismarck-Mandan area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.


A year ago, we chose a German theme to honor the family’s heritage. We’ll have a German meal complete with brats, German potato salad, sauerbraten, sauerkraut, kuchen, homemade pretzels and American foods, too. Food assignments were made months ago.

Following the German theme, I created a scavenger hunt for the kids to find gnomes and animals.

I culled the family history book for stories, some of which will be part of a trivia contest.


Using discarded props from Vacation Bible School past, Randy and I crafted this mountain backdrop.


And then, because I am a photographer who considers it vital to document events like this, Randy and I crafted a photo backdrop and the eldest daughter ordered German themed props for fun photo ops.

I’m always all about making a celebration special with decorating details. So off to Dollar Tree I went to scoop up plastic tablecloths, napkins and cups in black, red and yellow, the colors of the German flag.

Wildflowers and garden flowers will fill bier steins as table centerpieces.


Randy and I are on the right, pictured here with other siblings and in-laws. Several are missing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2016.


I want to make this day special and memorable for a family I love and have been part of for 35 years. I expect plenty of laughter and BS as we talk and mingle and have fun together.

As much as I am excited about seeing many of my in-laws, I am especially happy that my son is flying in from Boston for a long weekend. My second daughter and her husband are driving from northeastern Wisconsin. And my eldest, her husband and baby girl are arriving from an hour away. I cannot wait to have all of my kids together for a day. We last saw each other at Christmas.

Now, as the days wind down, I consider all I have yet to do. Although the reunion is not at my house, I still have to clean and cook for overnight guests. I started that job last week but then stopped after the city sealcoated my street and dust filtered into my house day after day after day. There were times when I couldn’t see a block away for the dust stirred up by the traffic. Sigh.

And then I had a bit of a setback in my physical therapy and some limitations placed on me yesterday. Apparently I pushed myself too hard with weight lifting and general overall lifting resulting in near constant pain in my recovering shoulder. Now I’m on a weight restriction which should allow my muscles to rest and recover. I so did not need that this week.

But then that’s life. I’ll do what I can and leave the rest to others.

And if I have time to write more here this week, I will. If not, then I won’t, because right now I’m focused on food, fun and, most important, family.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A quick stop in the Minnesota German city of New Ulm August 3, 2017

Domeier’s German Store, snugged into a residential neighborhood for decades, is a must-see German import shop in New Ulm.


NESTLED IN THE MINNESOTA RIVER Valley, New Ulm has long been one of my favorite Minnesota communities. I love not only the sweep and rise of the valley and hills, but also the vibe of this definitively German city.


Nutcrackers peer out a window at Domeier’s.


My maternal family roots run deep in this region. Drop the surname Bode at the Guten Tag Haus in downtown New Ulm and a look of familiarity flashes across a clerk’s face. She knows the name. My ancestors settled just to the east in the farmland surrounding nearby Courtland.

Last weekend en route to a wedding in southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I scheduled time in New Ulm to peruse a thrift store and two German gift shops. I was looking for ethnic items for an upcoming Helbling family reunion. We’re having an Oktoberfest theme to celebrate my in-laws’ heritage. The mini German flags I needed as accents for bouquets of flowers in steins were elusive given the community’s recent Bavarian Blast. I found one at a price I was willing to pay. I need six.


The thrift shop Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck is perfect given the Helblings settled (and still mostly live) in that region of North Dakota. I found the last remaining 99-cent cotton German flag at the Guten Tag Haus.


Still, we scored, among other items, two bier mugs at the MVAC Thrift Store, German chocolate mice at Domeier’s German Store and that coveted German flag at the Guten Tag Haus, some at Crazy Days bargain prices. Success.


A snippet view of German Park.


This monument in German Park honors those who suffered in the US-Dakota War of 1862 which was centered in southwestern Minnesota.


Nearby a whimsical sculpture reminds visitors to keep the park clean.


In between shopping, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch and a respite at the beautiful German Park a block from New Ulm’s main drag. Here a fountain centers lovely gardens and pieces of art.

Whenever I’m in New Ulm, I feel comfortably at home. Sure, my ancestral roots are in this region. But it’s more than that. This southwestern Minnesota community works hard to preserve and present its German heritage in a welcoming way. I love that about New Ulm.


FYI: Click here to read a 2015 photo rich post I published on beautiful German Park.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Family reunion craziness with Hungry Hungry Hippos August 18, 2016

Hungry Hungry Hippos board game cover #9


THUNK, THUNK, THUNK. The rapid clatter of four hippo mouths banging against plastic in a furious game of Hungry Hungry Hippos is enough to make any parent or grandparent crave silence.


Hungry Hungry Hippos game #13


But preschoolers love this noisy Milton Bradley game in which players slam levers that open Henry, Homer, Harry and Happy hippos’ mouths to marble-sized white balls. The object is to gather as many balls as possible as quickly as possible.

For now, my Hungry Hungry Hippos game sits boxed in a spare bedroom closet, the four hippos’ mouths clamped in blessed silence. I’ve strategically placed the game at the bottom of a board game stack, hoping any preschool visitors to my home will fail to notice it. They always spot it.


Hungry Hungry Hippos human version #116


This past weekend my husband’s family took this favorite childhood game to a whole new level with the human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos played at the Helbling family reunion. We were advised in advance to wear bike helmets and long-sleeved shirts and pants if we wished to participate. Just like kids, we didn’t listen.


Hungry Hungry Hippos human version #117


But, just like kids, the young adults loved the game which had them lying tummy down on hand-built creeper type platforms shoved toward a pile of colorful balls with upside down laundry baskets acting as hippo mouths.


Hungry Hungry Hippos human version #119


The human hippos were hilarious to watch. It’s not a game for those without upper body strength or an inability to latch onto a laundry basket while simultaneously attempting to capture all those balls tummy side down.


Hungry Hungry Hippos human version #135


All participants were under the age of thirty.


Reunion, Helbling family 2016 137


After the young adults finished their brief play, the preschool and elementary-aged contestants joined the fun. They loved this version as much as the original. And more.


Hungry Hungry Hippos baskets become train #155


Once done, the kids climbed into laundry baskets set atop a creeper and went for a ride with Engineer Matt pushing the imaginary train.

TELL ME, have you played any such creative games at a family reunion? I’d like to hear. My husband and I are hosting the family reunion next year along with other family members and are planning an Oktoberfest theme in honor of our German heritage. It may be difficult to top Hungry Hungry Hippos, though.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Connecting with loved ones at a Minnesota family reunion August 17, 2016

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Cousins Evelyn, left, and Sierra are the same age.

Cousins Evelyn, left, and Sierra, both about 16 months old.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE a family reunion?

Family: my eldest daughter, Amber and her husband, Marc, and their daughter, Isabelle.

Family: my eldest daughter, Amber; her husband, Marc; and their daughter, Isabelle.

I define those two words as an annual gathering of related people who love and care for one another. They meet to have fun, to laugh and cry together, to joke and also carry on serious conversations, to remember and to make memories. It’s all about reconnecting and maintaining the strong bond of family.

Saturday marked a perfect Minnesota summer day for the Helbling family reunion in a stunning setting.

Saturday marked a perfect summer day for the Helbling family reunion in a rural Minnesota location.

Last weekend my husband’s family reunited at his youngest sister and her husband’s rural acreage north of the metro. It’s a beautiful property with woods and pond in a serene setting that I really did not want to leave on Sunday afternoon.

Four-month-old Izzy's feet.

Four-month-old Izzy’s feet.

On this land, 43 of us came together—from as distant as west central Missouri and Grand Rapids, Michigan—for the Helbling family reunion. Thirty-two adults. Eleven kids. And two babies. Every year in recent years there have been new babies.

Sierra tugs at her mommy's shirt.

Sierra tugs at her mommy’s shirt.

Missing were my father-in-law, who is recovering from a stroke, and eight others. We remembered, too, those who are no longer with us—my mother-in-law, gone nearly 23 years now, and my nephew who died of cancer 15 years ago. A small group of us, including Justin’s parents, honored him on Sunday with a pizza lunch.

Brothers-in-law Randy and Marty catch up as smoke trails from three grills.

Brothers-in-law Randy and Marty catch up as smoke trails from three grills.

Through shared experiences, we bond as only family can in joy and in grief.

My husband, Randy, is on the right with his siblings who attended the reunion.

My husband, Randy, is on the right with his siblings who attended the reunion. He is the oldest boy in a family of nine children.

On this weekend, we paused for family portraits, understanding the importance of documenting our presence for future generations. We laughed and cheered as young adults and then kids competed in the human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Many threw bean bags in a tournament. Others basked in the bright sunshine on the pond dock watching a cattail float on the water. We cradled snail shells, paddled in the paddle boat, gave hugs and high fives.

Baby Emmett was passed from arm to arm.

Baby Emmett was passed around all day.

We celebrated successes and welcomed the newest Helbling family member, Emmett, born only two weeks prior.

Justin stands atop a deck and calls the family to lunch by blowing into a conch shell.

Justin stands atop a deck and calls the family to lunch by blowing in to a conch shell.

The memories continued to stack as kids chased a baby bunny found in a window well. Great nieces plucked sun-ripened tomatoes. A niece’s husband summoned family to lunch by blowing in to a conch shell. Adults tossed batons and wood chunks onto the lawn in the Scandinavian game of Kubb. Four slim family members stuffed themselves inside a cardboard box, just for fun. And in the deep dark of night, those sleeping in tents awakened to the eerie howling of wolves from a nearby sanctuary.

Balls, purchased for a human game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, proved popular with the kids. Here four-month-old Izzy doesn't know quite what to do when set among the orbs.

Balls, purchased for a human game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, proved popular with the kids. Here four-month-old Izzy doesn’t know quite what to do when set among the orbs.

This is the stuff of memories. This is the stuff of family reunions.

Cousins found a hole in the yard and proceeded to dig and dig.

Cousins found a hole in the yard and proceeded to dig and dig.

TELL ME, do you have an annual family reunion? What are some of your memories of that event? For me, I have a lingering physical memory of Saturday’s reunion in the form of multiple intensely itchy chigger bites.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a post about the human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos which was played at the reunion.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The faith of my forefathers September 12, 2014

A view of Immanuel from the church balcony. The pews, the chancel furnishings and the stained glass windows from the old church were incorporated into the new church.

A view of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Courtland, from the balcony. The pews, the chancel furnishings and the stained glass windows from the old church were incorporated into the new sanctuary. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I love to tell the story,
’twill be my theme in glory,
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

Katherine Hankey

IT SEEMED A FITTING HYMN sung by the Men’s Choir during a recent Sunday morning worship service at Immanuel Lutheran Church, rural Courtland, Minnesota.

Male voices blended in perfect harmony, a soothing symphony of the aged song that transcends time, a hymn as powerful today as it was for past generations.

Karl Jr. and Anna Bode, their nine children and a daughter-in-law. That's by grandpa, Lawrence (originally spelled Lorenz) in the front row in the white dress.

Karl Jr. and Anna Bode, their nine children and a daughter-in-law. That’s my grandpa, Lawrence (originally spelled Lorenz), in the second row in the glasses.

And the past prevailed on this Sunday, a day set aside for a reunion of the descendants of Karl Johann Bode, Jr. and his wife, Anna (Dallman).

The Karl Jr. and Anna Bode siblings, including my grandfather, Lawrence, right front.

An old photo of the Karl Jr. and Anna Bode siblings, including my grandfather, Lawrence, right front.

My husband and I were there, representing my mom and our siblings—the daughter and grandchildren of Lawrence and Josephine Bode.

A historical sign outside of Immanuel Lutheran Church, east of Courtland, Minnesota.

A historical sign outside of Immanuel Lutheran Church, east of Courtland, Minnesota.

Fitting Scripture read:

Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.

Deuteronomy 32:7

Beautiful aged stained glass windows highlight the sanctuary.

Beautiful aged stained glass windows highlight the sanctuary.

My Bode forefathers left a strong legacy of faith, evident in this very church they helped found in 1859 after moving from Illinois to Minnesota. Stained glass windows from the old church have been incorporated into the new, a visual connecting today’s generation to those before them.

The symbolic bouquet.

The symbolic bouquet.

Red roses in a stunning altar bouquet honored my great grandparents. Nine yellow roses represented each of their children, Herman, Alma, Otto, Paul, Emil, George, Lawrence, Carl and Ervel.

The Bode cousins pose for a photo at the reunion.

The Bode first cousins pose for a photo at the reunion.

I am proud to be a part of the Bode family, a family still firmly standing upon a foundation of faith.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling