Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Along Goodhue County Road 8, past fields, farms & ghost towns November 16, 2021

Just outside of Cannon Falls along Goodhue County Road 8, we stopped to admire the treeline and the gravel road winding toward it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

WHITE ROCK. Belle Creek. Hader. They are among the 60-plus ghost towns of Goodhue County. Places that once thrived, marked now only by signs along a road, a cluster of homes, perhaps a church or abandoned buildings.

Oh, lovely hues of autumn near Cannon Falls. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Yet, acknowledging their existence, as the Goodhue County Historical Society does with roadside signs, matters. Because these towns mattered to previous generations and still matter to those with connections to the likes of Aspelund, Burr Oak Springs, Crystal Springs, Eidsvold, Skyberg and so many more with names that hint at heritage and sound poetically beautiful.

Snugging CR 8, a well-kept barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

On a road trip to Goodhue County a month ago, Randy and I followed County Road 8 east and then south of Cannon Falls back toward Faribault.

Clouds and trees and field along CR 8. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Our route took us past clusters of woods, some tinged in autumn hues.

Goodhue County Road 8 near Cannon Falls sweeps into the valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Soon the road curved and swept into the valley, rows of corn rolling across the landscape. Only groves of trees surrounding farm sites broke the vista of endless unharvested fields.

Somewhere between White Rock and Belle Creek, this farmyard drew my eye. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Sometimes those farmyards hugged the paved road and I caught a close-up glimpse of farms, some with aged weathered barns and outbuildings, others updated with modern equipment and structures.

Likely a former creamery in Belle Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

In Belle Creek, Randy and I noticed a white building, likely a former creamery. Creameries often graced these small settlements, a necessity for farmers who sold cream for butter-making.

In Belle Creek, a building with an unknown-to-us story. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Another building in Belle Creek left us guessing at its past life. Perhaps a general store. Then a dance hall. We could be way off…

Seeing cows in the countryside takes me back in time. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)
Near Hader, I spotted calves outside their huts. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Occasionally, we spotted cattle, cows, calves. Growing up on a dairy farm, I delight in seeing bovines, especially Holsteins. But rare are the small family farms today that still raise animals. Corporate and mega farms have mostly replaced that self-sufficient lifestyle. That’s reality.

Lots of sky and cornfields along CR 8 in Goodhue County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

Just like ghost towns, many farms have become, in some ways, ghost farms. They are but ghosts of the past. Ghosts of their former selves and purposes. I see that in decaying, empty buildings, especially barns. I see that in the absence of livestock. I see that in families who can no longer support themselves solely via the farm.

Farm after farm after farm defines this area of Goodhue County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2021)

All of this is unsettling. But with time comes change. And with change must come acceptance and perhaps also an added historical appreciation for the past.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Of rural roads & polka music in Minnesota Czech country October 21, 2021

A farm site near Richter Woods County Park, rural Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

AS WE ROLLED THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE on an October afternoon in rural Minnesota, Randy switched on the radio. To KCHK, a New Prague-based radio station.

Gravel roads, sky and fields stretch before us in the southern Minnesota countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Polka music pulsed through the van in a rhythmic beat. It was an unusual station choice given I listen primarily to contemporary Christian music on KTIS and Randy enjoys talk radio. But, occasionally on his 22-minute drive home from work, Randy tunes in to KCHK to listen to late afternoon featured 50s-70s music.

A farm site tucks behind a hill in LeSueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

In the heart of Czech country, though, the radio station is known for its day-time polka programming.

Occasionally we passed between colorful treelines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
A common Minnesota harvest scene: a farm truck parked in a field. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Love the copper hue of this barn roof on a farm just off State Highway 13 between New Prague and Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

As we drove along back country gravel roads—past farm sites and harvested fields and farmers working in the fields—the rhythm of polkas, of accordions pushed in and pulled out to create music, set a joyful tone. The music fit the scenes unfolding before us.

The music reminded me, too, of wedding dances back home decades ago in southwestern Minnesota. Of couples twirling across a well-worn wooden dance floor. Of booze bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Of extended families gathered in a simple town hall to celebrate a marriage. Of The Bunny Hop and The Butterfly and all those dances that brought people together for an evening of fun.

Just harvested corn flows into a grain truck along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Those memories lingered as polkas played on KCHK. As just-harvested corn flowed into a grain truck. As we passed a mailbox with the name Skluzacek posted thereon. We were deep in the heart of Czech country near New Prague/Lonsdale/Montgomery.

Near Richter Woods County Park west of Montgomery, a farm site overlooks the countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

There is something incredibly comforting about the mix of memory and music and meandering in rural Minnesota. Moments like this impress upon me the need to simply be. To recognize the value in an afternoon drive in the country. No destination. No haste. No agenda.

A farm site hugs a cornfield along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Time to just appreciate. The hard work of the farmer during harvest. The farm sites. Gravel roads.

As we passed this rural property along 60th Street West southeast of New Prague, I photographed this horse sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

And the unexpected sighting of horseshoe art where horses graze.

Oh, the glorious hues of autumn in rural southern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

I treasure the memories shared and made with my husband of nearly 40 years as we followed rural routes, polka music thrumming in the background.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflections after a country drive April 1, 2021

Farmland dominates the landscape east of Faribault near Minnesota State Highway 60.

EAST OF FARIBAULT, the land stretches long and flat. Wide open. Fields punctuated by farm sites.

We followed this narrow, and muddy, gravel road.

Gravel and asphalt roads divide farmland into grids. Orderly. As if a ruler was laid across the earth and straight lines inked thereon.

Building sites break the monotony of fields.

Sunday afternoon, after a hike at Falls Creek County Park, Randy and I took a country drive. We are farm-raised, decades removed from the farm, but with an enduring connection to the land.

An old hayrack, so familiar to me, parked in a field east of Faribault.

On the cusp of spring planting time in Minnesota, the draw back to the land, to the familiarity of fields, calls. For me, there’s this deep yearning, this need to lay my eyes on the bare earth or the residue of last year’s crops.

I feel connected to all of this via my rural upbringing in southwestern Minnesota.

At times my heart aches for missing the land. I want to smell the scent of soil, to touch the cold earth, to remember all those springs back on the farm. The steady rhythm of the tractor, the corn kernels pouring into the planter and then the faint hint of green lining the black fields.

An aged abandoned outbuilding on a former farm site just outside Nerstrand.

Much about farming has changed since my leaving of the land in the early 1970s. But the basics remain. The planting, the growing and harvesting.

Power poles along a gravel road are such a strong rural visual.

And even though I’ve lived in town far more decades than on a farm, my rural upbringing roots me to the land and takes me back each season. To honor my hardworking farmer dad. To equally appreciate my mom who gardened and fed and raised six children on the land. My hardworking parents instilled in me a love of the land, a connection to place and the innate need to follow gravel roads into the countryside.

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)
A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980.

This post is dedicated in loving memory of my farmer father, Elvern Kletscher, who died on April 7, 2003. Thank you, Dad, for raising me to appreciate the land, for teaching me the value of hard work. for instilling in me a love of God and of family. I am grateful. And I miss you.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Following the backroads of Rice County into autumn October 2, 2020

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Fall colors as photographed in rural Rice County, Minnesota, on September 26.


THIS AUTUMN FEELS especially fleeting, as if the days are slipping too quickly into the cold and dark of winter’s grip. The sun now rises shortly after 7 a.m. and sets just before 7 p.m. The darkness is closing in and I feel it.


Ripening corn and soybean fields surround this farm site in Rice County.


This year, more than ever, I feel an urgency to get outdoors, to delight in every single moment of autumnal beauty, of semi warm temps, of days without snow.


Heading uphill on the backroads of Rice County last Saturday.


And I feel this way due to COVID-19. The reality is that the winter ahead will prove challenging as we hunker down indoors, limiting our contact with others as we attempt to stay healthy and protect others. At least that’s my plan, Randy’s plan.


Cornfields ripen, awaiting the harvest. I feel like we’re all waiting. Just waiting in this season of COVID.


We’ve already managed seven months of this cautiousness, this recognition that we hold a responsibility to do our part. For ourselves. And for our friends, family and neighbors. I’m particularly worried these days about the upsurge in cases in Wisconsin, where our daughter and her husband and our son live. But I worry, too, about Randy facing potential COVID exposure daily at work because of a failure among others to mask, mask properly or to follow other safety/health regulations. I am beyond frustrated, as I’ve stated here in previous posts.


Another Rice County farm site. COVID knows no differences between rural and urban. We’re seeing that now in Minnesota, where cases of the virus in rural counties are spiking.


We’re weary of it all. Truly weary. Who isn’t experiencing COVID fatigue? But, as our health officials have advised, this is no time to let down our guard, to give up, to live our lives like there’s no pandemic. Because Randy and I are trying to be careful, we gravitate outdoors, whether on countryside drives or hiking. Nature and time outdoors provide a peaceful and uplifting escape.


Driving down Rice County’s backroads to view the ripening crops and fall colors.


Last Saturday took us onto backroads in our county of Rice, where we’ve found fall colors to be especially lovely. And mostly undiscovered. We had no particular destination and I can’t even tell you where we drove. But we drive and turn and turn and drive and follow whatever roads seem interesting.


Farm sites prove interesting to me on these rural drives.


The overcast day wasn’t especially beautiful for leaf-viewing. But, this time of year, you take what you get and enjoy whatever appears before you.


Color tints treelines in rural Rice County.


I encourage each of you, especially if you live in the Rice County area or other parts of Minnesota, to take a fall color drive this weekend. These days are fleeting as leaves change colors and fall, moving us closer and closer to the long winter ahead.


TELL ME: Do you have a recommendation for a great place to view fall colors?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Delighting in a Sunday afternoon drive in rural Minnesota May 12, 2020

We met an occasional vehicle on our country drive southeast of Faribault, Minnesota.


I ABSOLUTELY, UNDENIABLY needed this. To drive into the countryside on a Sunday afternoon. To get away. To view the greening of the land. To forget for a half hour about the realities of life. To focus on nature. To photograph rural Minnesota.


We drove past farm sites.


Past lovely barns…


Clouds and cold weather defined Mother’s Day in southern Minnesota.


And that’s exactly what Randy and I did mid Mother’s Day afternoon, aiming southeast of Faribault to follow back country gravel roads. My sense of direction doesn’t exist. I trust Randy to steer us onto roadways that fulfill my need to go at a leisurely pace, to stop when I see something I must photograph, to appreciate the details of place.


Following gravel roads. Up and down.


Occasionally the cloud-heavy sky spit rain onto the windshield as we dipped up and down, hilltops offering sweeping vistas of a lush landscape.


We spotted corn coming up in this field along 250th Street East southeast of Faribault.


Corn popped green, curving rows into one field.


Chickens strayed from a farm site across the road to a field.


Those chickens seem so small in the vastness of farm fields.


Rogue chickens paused in another field to observe us while I swung my lens to photograph them.


An old farm site along 233rd Street East.


It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a gas barrel like this.


At one point, atop a hill, we studied a farm site below with broad barn, weathered corn crib and a red gas barrel next to an aged shed. Such building sites remind me of yesteryear, when an assortment of small structures defined a farm place.


That baby goat wanted so badly to scale that rock, without success.


Even the adult goats are cute.


And then, the road curved, leading us to the sweetest surprise of the drive—goats, fenced on both sides of the roadway. Windows rolled down, we heard their plaintive baa and watched as a baby goat struggled to climb a rock. I ooohed and aaahed over the cuteness of these goats.


Spring blooms, finally, in southeastern Minnesota.


Too soon we headed back to town. Randy needed to light the charcoal grill to smoke and cook a pork roast for supper. A Zoom call with family awaited us, too. But, in that short time, I found exactly what I needed—a joyful, therapeutic and sweet escape into the southeastern Minnesota countryside.


© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Documenting rural Minnesota February 6, 2020


I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.



Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?



Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.



Independent farmers either quit, expand or try to hang on for one more year. Some have become innovative—diversifying, organizing, working together to grow and sell local.



The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.



Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.



And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.



FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.


BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.


Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.


It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.


A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.


This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.


Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.


Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.


Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.


Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.


A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.


Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.


I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.


But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.


Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.


Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Winter exposure in southern Minnesota March 15, 2018

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Near New Ulm.


IN THE NAKEDNESS of winter, when trees are stripped bare of leaves, when fields lie exposed to the elements, rural Minnesota seems especially vulnerable.


Near Essig along US Highway 14.


In no other season do I notice more the intimate details of this place.


Along US Highway 14 somewhere west of Owatonna.


Red barns seem redder.


By Morgan


Power poles appear more intrusive.


Morgan, Minnesota


Grain elevators dominate, shoving grey mass into an already colorless landscape.

All of this I see through eyes that crave now the melting of snow, the cloaking of the land in the greening of spring.


NOTE: All images have been edited to create an artsy look.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The shifting of seasons in Minnesota November 4, 2015


Grey skies hang over a barn and harvested cornfield west of Sleepy Eye along U.S. Highway 14 on a late October morning.

AS THE SEASON SHIFTS here in Minnesota, I struggle to hold onto the light. To the color. To memories of lush landscapes and warm days.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota on a late October morning.

I am no fan of the transition months—November and March. I’ve always thought these the least visually inviting. Grey skies dominate. Cold winds rage. The land appears devoid of color. Black fields. Muted tones. Everywhere.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

But then a barn flashes red in the monotone landscape.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Sun spotlights through the clouds beaming light upon the land. A patch of blue emerges overhead.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville. I’ve seen some of the prettiest fall colors near my Faribault home. This is true every year.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

I begin to notice patches of color—autumn leaves still hanging on, corn carpeting fields, defiant red barns still standing.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

Reasons to smile. Reasons to appreciate November. This eleventh month raises my awareness of thankfulness. Thankfulness that I live in Minnesota, a state of four seasons, of changing landscapes, of bountiful harvests. And this week of unexpected November warmth.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A photographic journey through rural western Wisconsin November 5, 2014

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Rural, red barn, bin and field




Rural, round bales


Rural, harvested cornfield


Rural, white barn and silos

Farm buildings.

All draw my eyes to the landscape, my hand to the camera, eye to the viewfinder, finger to shutter button.


Rural, red barn and Harvestores


Flash of color: A red barn.


Rural, red barn, fields and grey sheds


Rural scenes unfold before me on this drive through western Wisconsin, from Nelson north to St. Croix Falls in early October.


Rural, red barn and lone cow


I am linked to the land by my past, daughter of a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farmer. Even after 40 years away from the farm, fields and farm sites hold my heart more than any grid of city blocks or cluster of homes or urban anything.

If I could, I would live in the country again, close to the scent of dried corn stalks and fertile black soil.


Rural, house by trees


I would live under a sky that overwhelms, inside a white farmhouse with a welcoming front porch. That was always my dream.

But dreams cost money. Instead, I have lived in an old house along an arterial street in a town of some 23,000 for 30 years. I am grateful to have a house, to live in a community I love among dear friends.


Rural, country church and cemetery


Still, a part of my soul yearns, aches for the land I left.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling