Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

More than a car show September 20, 2019


CAR CRUISES REPRESENT much more than a bunch of vintage vehicles washed and waxed for prime public viewing.





Car Cruises represent passion, family projects, heritage, stories, history, art…whatever perspective you bring to a car show.





But most of all, they represent community. I’ve attended enough car shows, most in my city of Faribault, to recognize that these events bring folks together. To mingle in the street or on the sidewalk to talk cars. Or family. Or weather. Maybe even politics, but probably not.





While the vehicles take participants and attendees back in time, so does the overall feel of a car show. In this high tech busy world, we need to remember the importance of gathering and of visiting. Face-to-face, cellphones tucked away.




Faribault offers one final opportunity this season to embrace togetherness at the Faribault Car Cruise Night set for 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday, September 20, at Faribault Harley-Davidson, a move from the usual Central Avenue location. I prefer the intimate and historic downtown setting. But I also understand the need to change things up a bit.




The Harley dealer is also offering a free showing of the classic movie, American Graffiti, at 6 p.m. (according to promotional info). The event is advertised as family-friendly with offerings of popcorn, s’mores, pop and a bonfire. Bring your lawn chairs and blankets.



This vintage wagon promotes tourism and the Minne-Roadtrip that includes the communities of Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna.



I appreciate the efforts of Faribault Main Street and others who organize Car Cruise Night. They are building community, connecting us with one another. Exactly what we need in an ever-increasingly disconnected world.


All of these photos were taken at the August Faribault Car Cruise Night in historic downtown Faribault.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Up close with Santa & his Santa Mobile in southern Minnesota December 11, 2017


IN ALL MY YEARS of writing, I’ve never interviewed Santa. That changed after I spotted Santa’s wheels recently in the parking lot of a Faribault retailer. I grabbed my camera and photographed the cherry red Cadillac marked by SANTA 1 vanity license plates and an array of festive adornments.

But I needed more. I needed to learn the identity of Santa and hear his story.


This sticker on the Santa Mobile led me to Dave Kelley.


So I phoned 75-year-old Dave Kelley, a professional Santa since 2010 with the help of his wife, Judi. The couple was doing laundry and baking cookies on the mid-week morning I called their Eagle Lake home. Even Santa needs to catch up after a busy weekend. Dave’s gigs average 35 – 45 a holiday season at company gatherings, private parties, senior citizen homes, daycare centers, charity events and more in a region of southern Minnesota stretching from Fairmont to the Twin Cities. On the day I saw the Santa Mobile, Dave appeared at Faribault Harley Davidson.


Dave Kelley, aka Santa, photographed during his recent visit to Faribault Harley Davidson. Photo courtesy of Faribault Harley Davidson.


In our lengthy conversation, this retiree’s love of and satisfaction in being Santa shone as bright as Rudolph’s shiny red nose. His satisfaction comes in meeting people’s expectations of Santa. “There is no such thing as Santa,” Dave says, explaining rather that he is the personification of Santa, of all the lore and stories and individual expectations people hold.

Yet, if a child asks whether he’s the real Santa, this great grandfather replies without hesitation, “Yes, I am.”


It took the Kelleys five years to get the SANTA 1 plates previously licensed to someone else. Throughout his life, Dave has worked a wide variety of jobs from farmer to lawyer to pet store owner to safety adviser at a manufacturer and more. When he tried on a Santa suit for the first time in 2009, he liked it. That led him to become a professional Santa.


He looks, he notes, like a Nordic Santa, the Coca Cola Santa, not a polished plastic Hollywood version. And that appeals to Minnesotans. Because he looks like Santa even without his hair styled, his beard curled or his red suit, Dave always stays in character. It wouldn’t do, he says, for an impressionable child to see Santa drinking a beer at a restaurant or to hear Santa using bad language.

Take the time Dave and Judi were vacationing in Key West. A family approached them on the beach, their son wanting to meet Santa. Five years later, the now 10-year-old boy still calls the Kelleys several times a year to inquire about the reindeer or Mrs. Claus or whatever.



Dave’s thoughtful approach to playing Santa impresses me. Rather than tower over children, he gets down to their level. And rather than booming the traditional ho, ho, ho, which he says are “hard sounds,” he uses the more gentle Merry Christmas accompanied by a chuckle.

He aims to be unintimidating, gentle, kind and pleasant. “Santa can never be grumpy.”

Even when the kids are grumpy, this Santa maintains his composure. He refuses, he says, to be part of photos that will traumatize a terrified and crying child. Sometimes he can duck into a photo unnoticed while a parent holds a child. If not, he won’t, suggesting instead that the parent wait a year and try again.



He has a little fun with kids questioning the existence of Santa. Dave seeds doubt in their minds, telling them Santa gives underwear and socks to those who don’t believe. Likewise, he’ll nudge kids toward kindness, toward thinking about more than what they want under the Christmas tree. “Would you like me to bring something for your sister, too?” he sometimes asks.

While interacting with more than 2,000 kids each holiday brings Dave joy, his time with seniors in memory care units brings him the deepest joy. There’s nothing, he says, like taking these elderly to a place they haven’t been in 65 years—back to memories of Santa.


The Merry Christmas signage and the antlers don’t go onto Santa’s car until Thanksgiving Day. Dave decks out his car just for fun, not necessarily to advertise.


His work as a professional Santa allows him to go places, too, to afford a nice winter trip out of Minnesota with Judi. Dave welcomes the much-needed retreat after weeks of engagements and hundreds of miles traveled in his decked out Santa Mobile.


FYI: Click here to learn about Dave Kelley and other “real bearded” Santas in Minnesota at Internet Home of the North Star Santas.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The patriotic pride of Harley riders August 16, 2012

Bikers and others gather for a post hospice ride party at Faribault Harley-Davidson.

LONG GONE, at least in my mind, is the image of Harley riders as rough outlaw types roaring along our roadways, storming into towns, raising hell.

When they travel in a pack now, it’s usually for a purpose, like last Saturday’s fifth annual ride to benefit the Faribault Area Hospice.

While my husband and I missed the ride (he doesn’t have a Harley anymore, his 1977 Sportster being totaled more than a decade ago by a teen who ran a stop sign, plowed into the bike and sent Randy to the hospital), that didn’t keep us from checking out the post ride activities and bikes at Faribault Harley-Davidson.

I’ll be the first to admit that attending a biking event isn’t exactly on the top of my to-do list. But sometimes wives go along for the ride, just like husbands accompany their wives to artsy happenings that they’d probably rather skip.

As always, I carried my camera with hopes that maybe, just maybe, I’d find something worth photographing beyond the rows of bikes I knew Randy would be eying.

The Harley dress code: black leather.

Well, it wasn’t the masses of Harleys which caught my attention, but the details on individual bikes. I hope I didn’t make any of the Harley riders, who can appear intimidating in their black leather, nervous. I threaded my way among the parked bikes, bending, crouching, occasionally setting my camera onto the freshly seal-coated asphalt as I snapped photos.

The unique skull kickstand. Any significance to this skull, readers?

And as I wandered, a picture began to develop of the men and women who ride Harleys, or at least those in attendance at The Ride for Hospice party in Faribault. Except for the skulls on one bike and the boney foot kickstand on another, I found nothing particularly unusual.

The flag on the left honors SPC Mathew Kahler, killed in Afghanistan in 2008.

Rather, I discovered a common theme of patriotism among bikers who have served their country and/or want to honor those serving. It was heart-warming and uplifting to see such support.

One of two blessing stickers I noticed on bikes.

Equally pleasing were stickers I spotted on two bikes indicating they had been blessed. I expect blessings were flowing all around on Saturday as these bikers opened their wallets and their hearts to help hospice, an organization which, at some point, touches nearly all of our lives.

Another patriotically adorned bike and a Vietnam veteran’s jacket along with Ernie from Sesame Street.

Proud to be an American and driving an American made Harley-Davidson.

Patriotic patches seem a popular adornment on Harley attire.

These boots, sitting next to a bike, reminded me of the phrase “boots on the ground” when soldiers hit the ground running.

The yellow flag represents the Minnesota Patriot Guard.

Patriotism displayed, right down to the license plate on this bike.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling