Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The things you learn about Minnesota prisons while on the road October 25, 2017

 

ONCE UPON A TIME, beginning in the late 1870s, inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater, built agricultural equipment. Through the years they crafted threshing machines, hay rakes, barge wagons, manure spreaders and more.

 

 

This proved news to me. But Randy noted that as we followed a tractor pulling a gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13 on Sunday afternoon. He pegged the wagon as 1970s vintage prisoner made.

 

 

Online research confirmed Randy’s claim in articles published in Farm Collector magazine. According to those stories, prisoners built ag equipment until 2006.

 

 

Today inmates within Minnesota’s correctional system—including right here in my community of Faribault—produce products through the prison system’s MINNCOR Industries. Those range from residential and office furniture to clothing to printed materials to cabinetry and more.

 

Prisoner made furniture at Buckham Memorial Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.

 

When I visit my local library, I can sit on inmate built easy chairs or loveseats, some upholstered in knock-knock joke fabric with this favorite prisoner joke:

How do prisoners make phone calls?

With cell phones.

 

 

Much has changed since the days of building manure spreaders…and gravity boxes

 

 

as time passes in the rearview mirror of prison life.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The season of autumn in rural Minnesota, a photo essay October 24, 2017

 

IN THE SEASON of autumn, farm memories draw me back to the land.

 

 

To follow country gravel roads

 

 

and county highways

 

 

past sweeping fields of corn

 

 

harvested,

 

A vintage Gleaner combine harvests a cornfield along LeSueur County Road 13 near Lake Jefferson.

under harvest

 

Partially harvested…

 

and unharvested.

 

 

Roads lead me by farm sites,

 

 

aged stately barns

 

Near historic Marysburg in LeSueur County.

 

and mammoth bins awaiting the yield.

 

Following a tractor pulling a 1970s era gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I observe, too, farmers creeping tractors trailing wagons,

 

 

zipping along rural roadways

 

Visiting at the intersection of LeSueur County roads 13 and 16.

 

and stalled in conversation at a rural intersection.

 

Cattle graze along 241st Avenue, just off LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I scan the landscape with the eyes of someone who misses the farm,

 

A harvested field glistens with puddled rainwater and mud. Too much rain has slowed the harvest for farmers in southern Minnesota. They will be working long days and nights to catch up and get the crop in before the snow flies.

 

who remembers the hurry of her farmer father,

 

Enjoying a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon along Waseca County Road 22.

 

who follows country roads in the season of autumn.

 

FYI: I shot these images in Rice, LeSueur and Waseca counties during a Sunday afternoon, October 22, drive with my husband.

Check back for more photos from that drive.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering the arts at an historic Minnesota ag show, Part IV September 12, 2017

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Farm art on a dish at the flea market.

 

AN EVENT FOCUSING on farming of bygone years might be the last place you would expect to experience the arts. But the biannual Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show always showcases the arts through music, hands-on demos, flea market vendors and more. At least from my perspective.

 

The Czech Area Concertina Club performs.

 

 

 

 

 

This year I watched and listened as seasoned musicians eased concertinas in and out, in and out. A trio of kids twirled on the gravel floor of the music barn next to a John Deere tractor in an impromptu dance recital.

 

 

At the flea market, jars of golden honey showcased the culinary arts, beeswax candles the visual arts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the booth of Larry and Nicholas Ahrens, I found a gallery of garden art crafted from gas cans, shovels, railroad spikes, horseshoes, golf clubs and more. I admire the ingenuity of artists who can sculpt such art from what some might consider junk. This pair does it well.

 

 

Likewise handcrafted embroidered greeting cards from Boho Boutique and Gifts, New Prague, drew my interest for their uniqueness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often I see art in flea market merchandise displays—a cluster of angled rolling pins, a collage of toy farm wagons, three pieces of vintage 70s Sarah Coventry jewelry, a solo woodcarving and more.

 

 

 

 

 

On the back of a t-shirt.

 

As an appreciator of the graphic arts, I am drawn to letters and words in advertising, in comic books, machinery manuals and even on license plates.

 

 

To my surprise, I discovered the literary arts on a tree mural memorial in the words of Psalm 96:12. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy.

 

 

Beyond those words, outside on the grassy field punctuated by shade trees, I saw art, too, in the curves of tractor bodies, the spokes of a steering wheel, the jagged treads of a tire. This ag-focused event celebrates the arts with a decidedly rural twist.

 

Please check back for one more post in this five-part series.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oddities at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show, Part III September 8, 2017

Rows and rows of vintage tractors are a main attraction at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show.

 

WHEN I’M OUT and about with my camera whether at an event or simply exploring a small town or other setting, I often seek out the off-the-wall, the unusual, the humorous. The Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show in rural Dundas offers all three. I appreciate the creativity and humor displayed there. In these troubling and difficult times, we need diversions. We need laughter.

So I targeted seven scenes that grabbed my photographic attention in the categories of odd, funny, weird and, most certainly, creative. Take a look.

 

 

At the flea market, I noticed a fake bloody hand positioned next to vintage saws. Randy suggested we buy the appendage to gift to my sister at her annual Halloween-themed autumn soup party. The hand, the vendor said, was not for sale. His sister staged it next to the saws as a marketing gimmick. I’d like to meet his sister and introduce her to mine.

 

 

 

 

Then there’s Mike, who brought his 1930 Model A to the show. Typically one expects shiny restored cars showcased by proud owners. The Northfield man’s vintage Ford, though, is riddled with bullet holes. On purpose. After paying $800 for the car, Mike was advised that the decrepit Ford was not worth the $30K he would spend to properly refurbish it. Not to be discouraged, Mike and a friend shot up the Model A then created a story about Jesse James III killing two bank tellers while robbing a southern Missouri bank in 1932. The car was his get-away vehicle. Now the bullet-riddled Ford and the accompanying legend garner more interest than if Mike had spent all that money restoring his car.

 

 

Parked next to the Model A was yet another original—a customized Ford Courier pick-up transformed into a double-headed car by the crafty Andy’s Auto Body of Webster. That turned a few heads, including mine. And made me laugh.

 

 

Not everyone was laughing at the toy John Deere tractor George Pinc placed inside a jar atop his Farmall tractor. He got a less than courteous comment from a show attendee. George didn’t care. He’s not a loyal-to-one-brand type of guy. But he assuredly is a man with a sense of humor.

 

 

I don’t know the story behind the horns clamped to the top of another tractor. But the add-on caused me to smile.

 

 

And then, as I walked between rows of tractors, I noticed a boy (I think Mike’s son) on a banana seat bike towing a cooler. Again, I just had to smile at the ingenuity. Got a problem? Solve it.

 

 

Finally, there’s the water bottle. By itself, tucked in the crook of a tree, it means nothing. But there’s a story. I watched a guy stretch and place the bottle in the vee. Before he entered a porta potty. How smart is that? Got a problem? Solve it.

Sometimes in life you have to think and act beyond the expected and laugh. Just laugh.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A tractor so deere featured at historic ag show, Part II September 7, 2017

A snippet of the many vintage tractors displayed at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show in rural Dundas, Minnesota.

 

DRIVING AWAY FROM THE RICE COUNTY Steam & Gas Engines Show, Randy and I reminisced about a long ago popular farming event in our respective rural Minnesota hometown areas. That would be John Deere Days, an annual implement dealership open house. At the ones I attended in Redwood Falls, families enjoyed a free meal of BBQs, baked beans and individual servings of ice cream eaten with mini wooden spoons from plastic cups. Funny how one recalls such details five decades later.

 

There were plenty of John Deere tractors on the grounds.

 

A vintage John Deere combine.

 

I found the vintage hay loader especially interesting.

 

I remember, too, going to the local theater afterward to watch movies about John Deere tractors and other farming equipment. To a farm girl who viewed less than a handful of big screen movies during her entire childhood, these yearly John Deere promo flicks rated as a big deal.

 

Not every tractor emblem at the show has been restored. I like the ones that bear the marks of hard use on the farm.

 

But before the film reel rolled, several lucky attendees won door prizes. Like silver dollars. Randy won a bag of seed corn. His dad, who planted the silage seed corn on his Morrison County farm, was likely more thrilled than his son about that prize.

 

John Deere tractors and related equipment got front row display space.

 

So what prompted our memories of John Deere Days after attending the recent historic ag show in rural Dundas? It was this year’s selection of the John Deere as the honored tractor line. I hold a fondness for The Long Green Line that traces back to my dad’s John Deere. There’s a certain comfort in the auditory memories of putt-putt-putt. Anything that specifically reminds me of my nearly 18 years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm—and that would be John Deeres—yields sweet thoughts.

 

Identifying words on the side of a John Deere tractor at the Dundas show.

 

I really should tour the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

 

My dad owned a later model Ford, unlike these earlier Ford tractors.

 

Unlike my great nephew Landon who, at age four, is loyal solely to John Deere, I am not. My dad also owned Farmalls, Internationals and Fords. He, however, only ever allowed me to drive the B Farmall.

 

A leaping deer has long been John Deere’s iconic symbol.

 

Nothing runs like a Deere. That catchy coined phrase endures still as do the signature green and yellow and leaping deer symbols of this implement company. I appreciate those long-lasting recognizable tags that trace to my rural roots and remind me of my youth on a Minnesota farm.

 

Do you, like me, have sweet memories of a John Deere tractor?

 

TELL ME: Do you have memories of events like John Deere Days? Or do you hold a fondness for a particular tractor line? I’d love to hear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Minnesota’s agricultural heritage at a steam & gas engines show, Part I September 6, 2017

A steam engine tractor plows a field. The men standing on the plow guide the blades to the proper plowing depth via levers.

 

AS SEASONS SHIFT from the growing days of summer to the harvest days of autumn here in Minnesota, aged tractors, threshing machines and other vintage agricultural equipment roll out of storage for annual threshing and steam and gas engine shows.

 

The engineers at the helm of the steam engine tractor concentrate on guiding it along the field.

 

On display under plexiglass: a replica 1920s threshing scene crafted by David Terry.

 

It’s a common scene this clustering of folks around vintage tractors.

 

These events mark a celebration of the past, a preservation of history, the remembering of a way of life, a focus on the labor intensive efforts of long ago farming. Here retired farmers lean against tractor wheels, men guide massive steam engines, kids learn and an honoring of times past prevails.

 

After finishing a plowing pass in the field, the steam engine tractor heads back to the other end.

 

Sunday afternoon I embraced Minnesota’s agricultural history at the annual Labor Day weekend Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show in rural Dundas. I didn’t view every aspect of the event, but enough to once again feel a deep appreciation and respect for my rural heritage.

 

John Deeres were the featured tractor this year.

 

I love meeting friendly and photogenic vendors who are willing to be photographed.

 

Flea market vendors offer merchandise ranging from glassware to tools to clothing and lots more, including many agricultural related items.

 

With camera in hand, I roamed part of the grounds looking for photo ops that would present a personal and unique perspective of the show. From the flea market to the music shed to the rows of tractors and the vintage playground, I found my photos. There is so much heart and soul here and an obvious love of all things related to farming of bygone decades.

 

These girls rode their vintage banana seat bikes from Northfield. And, yes, there parents were at the show.

 

Carefree dancing and twirling as only kids will do.

 

Even the playground equipment is vintage.

 

I’m especially delighted that so many kids attend. Kids pedaling banana seat bikes. Kids twirling to the old-time music of the Czech Area Concertina Club. Kids steering tractors. Kids swinging on heavy horse swings now banned from most playgrounds.

 

Some families, like the Pinc family, bring multiple tractors in multiple brands.

 

Generations spanning infants to elders come to this show ground along Minnesota State Highway 3 under a sky that holds the haze of autumn, of a sun that still blazes heat in the afternoon, of a land that yields its bounty to the harvesters. Here on these acres, memories rise like a prayer of thanksgiving as summer eases into autumn.

TELL ME: Do you attend these types of historic farming shows? If yes, I’d like to hear more.

PLEASE CHECK back for additional photo rich posts as I continue my series from the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

West of Mankato August 23, 2017

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

 

WHEN I TELL FELLOW MINNESOTANS I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, specifically near the small town of Vesta, I typically get a blank stare. So, when “Vesta” doesn’t register with them, I mention Marshall to the west and Redwood Falls to the east of my hometown. Both are county seats and fair-sized communities, in my opinion.

 

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling to southwestern Minnesota.

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling through southern Minnesota toward the prairie.

 

Even after dropping those two names, I still often get that quizzical look. It’s as if they have no idea there’s anything west of Mankato.

 

This barn along U.S. Highway 14 west of Sleepy Eye always catches my eye.

Gotta love this barn between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.

 

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

 

 

But there is. Lots. Land and sky and small towns and oddities and grain elevators, and corn and soybean fields stretching into forever. There are pitch-black skies perfect for star-gazing and sunsets so bold I sometimes wonder why I ever left this land.

 

There are so many well-kept barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

There are so many beautiful old barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

I understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I simply want others to see that this corner of Minnesota, just like the lakes and woods to the north and the rolling hills and rivers to the south and the Twin Cities metro, is lovely and quirky and interesting in a peaceful prairie way.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

U.S. Highway 14 passes through many small towns, like Sleepy Eye where these guys were shopping for a car.

Shopping for cars in Sleepy Eye, one of many small towns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

 

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

 

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

 

FYI: All of these photos are from my files and were taken along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Lamberton. That would be west of Mankato.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling