Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Mazeppa: When fire destroys a community gathering place March 12, 2018

 

PERUSE THE FACEBOOK PAGE for WD’s Bar & Grill in Mazeppa and you get a strong sense of what this business means to the folks of this small southeastern Minnesota community north of Rochester.

 

 

Here locals gather to celebrate special occasions like Valentine’s Day with prime rib and jumbo shrimp dinners. Or birthdays with burgers and a beer. And during this season of Lent, a Friday Night Fish Fry draws crowds. This seems the place to be—to meet your family, your friends, your neighbors, to commune over good food and conversation.

 

 

But no more. Early Sunday morning this 1900 brick corner building in the heart of this town burned. I can only imagine how locals are reeling from the loss of a community gathering spot. When a town of around 800 loses a business, it loses part of its identity. I should note, though, that Mazeppa still has other bars/restaurants/gathering places.

 

 

I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 and found it an especially interesting community to photograph given the historic buildings and also the incredible building signage created by resident sign painter Mike Meyer. If only I’d stepped inside WD’s Bar & Grill during that brief visit. There’s a lesson to be learned in that. Although I documented this town with my camera, I didn’t really experience it. I didn’t walk into that long-time bar and grill and observe the locals, feel the heartbeat of this community. I regret that now.

Even if WD’s chooses to rebuild, something will have been lost. Not in the people. But in the setting of history, of a rooted sense of place.

 

The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

FYI: Click here to read a post from November 2015 about another small town bar and grill destroyed by fire. Last time I passed by nearly two weeks ago, a new building stood on the site in Courtland, presumably the rebuilt The Crow Bar & Grill.

Please check back soon for more photos from my October 2016 stop in Mazeppa, including the signage of Mike Meyer. It’s time I post those forgotten filed images.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Photo memories of St. Mary’s of Melrose March 12, 2016

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The Church of St. Mary rises above the land, defining Melrose. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

The Church of St. Mary rises above Melrose. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

TODAY, AS I PHOTOGRAPHED two rural Minnesota Lutheran Churches, I thought of another church I photographed nearly five years ago in Melrose. The Church of St. Mary. It’s a beautiful Catholic church. Opulent and splendid and filled with a spirit of holiness.

Friday afternoon that magnificent 1898 church 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities caught fire. Damage is estimated at $1 million.

To current and former parishioners of St. Mary’s and to the Melrose community, I am deeply sorry.

A view from the back of St. Mary's Catholic Church looking toward the main altar.

A view from the back of St. Mary’s looking toward the main altar. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

When I photograph a church, I do so because I appreciate the beauty, history, art, and faithfulness therein. I understand the significance of a house of worship in connecting and centering a church family and in building generations of memories and a tradition of faith.

Just look at this detailed side altar. I could have spent hours in St. Mary's.

Just look at this detailed side altar. I could have spent hours in St. Mary’s. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

Today I understand even more, though, how important my work of visually preserving small town and country churches. If my St. Mary’s photos from 2011 comfort the folks of Melrose in the aftermath of this devastating fire, then I am blessed.

Click here to see my first photo essay, “Hail St. Mary’s of Melrose.”

Click here to see my second photo essay, “St. Mary’s of Melrose, Part II.”

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts after tragedy strikes Minnesota’s Amish community January 13, 2016

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Driving Fillmore County Road 21 north of Canton toward Henrytown then west to Dennis and Mary Hershberger's farm. This is deep in Minnesota Amish country.

Driving Fillmore County Road 21 north of Canton toward Henrytown then west to Dennis and Mary Hershberger’s farm. This is deep in Minnesota Amish country. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

THREE SUMMERS AGO, my husband and I explored the extreme southeastern portion of Minnesota that is home to pockets of Amish. During that tour, just north of Canton, we followed back roads to the home of Dennis Hershberger, a gifted carpenter who crafts raw wood into stunning pieces of furniture at his Countryside Furniture business.

An overview of Canton's historic area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

An overview of Canton’s historic area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Today I am thinking of Dennis and other Canton area Amish suffering the loss of two community members who died in an early Monday morning house fire. The victims have been tentatively identified as a local bishop, Yost Hershberger, 58, and his son, Ben, 18. Three other family members went to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

My final shot on the Hershberger farm: the barn, the buggies, the stack of wood.

A snapshot of Dennis Hershberger’s farm yard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I don’t know whether Dennis the carpenter is related to the two men who died. Hershberger is a common name among the Amish. But Dennis and his family live near the scene of Monday’s fatal house fire along Fillmore County Road 21. Whether connected by blood or by community, the commonality of grief now unites this Amish settlement.

Just last May, 23-year-old Yost J. Hershberger of Decorah, Iowa, died after being trapped between a logging truck and a trailer in nearby rural Mabel. Another tragedy within this tight-knit community of Amish.

On this day, I feel a deep sense of sadness for the Hershberger family, for these Amish of southeastern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Courtland: When fire destroys a small town Minnesota bar & grill November 23, 2015

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The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

EVERY SMALL TOWN needs a Crow Bar & Grill. For the food, the drinks, but, mostly as a community gathering spot. A place to lunch with friends and family and neighbors. A place to socialize and sympathize and support and celebrate.

Thursday afternoon, Courtland, located along U.S. Highway 14 east of New Ulm, lost The Crow Bar to a wind-swept fire. It’s a devastating loss in a community of only 635. According to media accounts, the blaze started in the attic area and resulted in enough water and smoke damage that the bar and grill will be a total loss. But the destructive fire is about more than losing a building and a business. It’s also about the impact on locals.

The Crow Bar, up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

The Crow Bar & Grill, up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

Sunday morning I chatted with a friend and distant relative who, like my mom, has roots in Courtland. Howard is part of a Faribault-based accordion trio that recently entertained noon-time diners at The Crow Bar. Now he worries how his bachelor farmer brother will adjust to losing the place where he dined four days a week with friends. They’ll likely move across the street to Swany’s Pub. Yet, it won’t be the same, Howard says.

That’s the thing about small towns. Businesses and people are intertwined in a way that stretches beyond the wallet. Locals hold emotional ownership in Main Street businesses. They care. Without them, businesses cannot survive. The Crow Bar wove into the lives of those who call/called the Courtland area home.

One need only turn to Facebook to read the praises sung for the Crow Bar:

  • Love great people that visit the crow. And one awesome owner and staff.
  • The Crow Bar has the freshest burgers around! Great small town bar and bingo on Saturday is fun too!
  • Hi From Pensacola Florida! Loved Courtland when I was there! Great food too yall!! Miss it still!
The Crow Bar in Courtland advertises food specials.

The Crow Bar in Courtland advertises food specials. Photographed in October 2015 as my husband and I drove through Courtland.

Shortly before noon on Thursday, with customers already seated inside The Crow Bar for their noon meal, the fire broke out. Everyone exited safely, including an upstairs apartment resident.

At 12:49 p.m., Swany’s Pub across the street posted this message on Facebook:

Our heart goes out to our neighbors at the Crow Bar

My heart goes out to the folks of Courtland. Having grown up in rural southwestern Minnesota, I understand how devastating the loss of The Crow Bar & Grill to the community. When the lone cafe in my hometown of Vesta closed, residents rallied to build and open a community cafe. Courtland, at least, has Swany’s Pub. And, I expect with time, those who frequented The Crow will feel comfortably at home across the street.

That’s the human, beyond-the-fire, side of the story. How will Courtland area residents adapt? How are they coping with the loss of a place that’s been a long-time part of their community?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mourning Hazel and Isaiah, siblings who perished in a rural Minnesota house fire December 12, 2013

THE WORDS WRENCH at my heart as I read them. Words of consolation from family and friends attempting to comfort Matt and Bernadette Thooft, who lost two of their children in a house fire on Wednesday, December 4, near Lucan in my native southwestern Minnesota.

Anita Schoniger comments on the Stephens Funeral Service obituary page for the Thooft children: Auntie Nut loves you to the moon and back Miss Hazel Ann and my little Isaiah.

Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, died in the fire.

Beautiful babies…special angels…a happy little boy with a big smile…

A mother who’s lost a child writes: People say time heals all wounds, but honestly in this situation I’ve learned that time doesn’t heal that empty feeling you have in your heart, it just makes each day easier to get out of bed.

Such heartfelt words written by those who knew, or didn’t know, Hazel and Isaiah, their parents and five siblings, Zachary, 11; Augustus, Hazel’s twin; Maxwell and Abigail, both 4; and Beatrice Grace, 2.

On Friday, the lives of Hazel and Isaiah will be remembered and celebrated at funeral services set for 10:30 a.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Wabasso. Visitation is scheduled at the church for 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday and for an hour prior to services Friday.

Hazel Thooft

Hazel Thooft

Reading the obituaries of these two siblings, I smile at the independence of Hazel, who often wore mismatched outfits and several shirts at a time. This St. Anne’s Catholic School second grader liked doing things her own way, embraced art and dancing and singing. She loved school and reading and, it seems to me, simply being among people.

Isaiah Thooft

Isaiah Thooft

Her younger brother Isaiah, likewise, loved people and laughter and possessed a bit of a mischievous streak. You can see that in his wide grin, in the revelation that this Wabasso Public School preschooler liked to play tricks on others. He, too, enjoyed books and several times a week visited the library. A boy after my own heart, appreciating the written word.

Both children, clearly, were outgoing and loved.

I cannot imagine a grief as deep as losing a child.

I take comfort in knowing that the Thooft family possesses a deep faith in God. It is that faith and the support of family, friends and strangers, and of the small communities of southwestern Minnesota, which will carry them through their grief.

Already, the Thoofts have received an outpouring of financial and emotional support via Giveforward accounts set up to assist them. As of early Wednesday evening, 232 donations totaling around $15,000 had been made to the family. First Independent Bank of Lucan and the United Way of Southwest Minnesota are also accepting donations. Click here to learn details about how you can donate.

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JUST A NOTE: The Thoofts own two businesses, Matt’s Frame Repair and The Store (which I blogged about in March), in my hometown of Vesta. That is among the reasons this tragedy touches me personally. According to an update posted on The Store Facebook page yesterday morning, the combination thrift and grocery store which Bernadette ran solo will remain closed until further notice.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo credit: Stephens Funeral Service

 

How you can assist two families in need after a tragic southwestern Minnesota fire December 6, 2013

2:15 P.M. FRIDAY, UPDATE TWO: The two children who died in the house fire Wednesday afternoon near Lucan have been identified by a family friend as Hazel Thooft, 7, and her brother, Isaiah, 4, according to a just-published story in The Minneapolis Star Tribune. (To read that story, click here.) Hazel was a second grader at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Wabasso and Isaiah attended preschool in the Wabasso School District.

The Wabasso Public School District is where I attended school in grades 9-12.

The remainder of this post was written this morning with information on benefit funds also just updated.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an update to my post about a house fire outside of Lucan in Redwood County in rural southwestern Minnesota which claimed the lives of two children Wednesday afternoon and also seriously injured a firefighter from my hometown of Vesta. Click here to read my initial story.

THE BODY OF A SECOND CHILD, as yet unidentified, was recovered late Thursday afternoon from the ruins of the Bernadette and Matt Thooft home, according to numerous news reports. Authorities found the first child’s body late Wednesday. Their names and ages have not yet been released.

Bernadette and Matt and several children escaped the fire.

A Vesta firefighter, Neal Hansen, remains hospitalized with serious leg injuries after he slipped on ice and was run over by a fire truck.

Online fundraising sites have now been established to raise monies for the Thooft and Hansen families.

Giveforward Thooft family - Copy

Via the Giveforward website, you can support the Thoofts either at Thooft Family Fund (click here) with a $25,000 goal or at Lucan Family loss from house fire (click here) with a $30,000 goal. As of this update, $8,030 have been raised.

First Independent Bank of Lucan has established a fund to collect monetary donations for the Thooft family. Checks should be made payable to and sent to the following address: Matt & Bernadette Thooft Benefit, P.O. Box 138, Lucan, MN. 56255. Donations may also be made in person at First Independent Bank locations in Lucan, Marshall (main bank and at Walmart location), Russell, Ruthton, Balaton, Wood Lake, Beardsley and Hanley Falls. Call (888) 747-2214 or email rhillesheim@fibmn.com for more information.

The United Way of Southwest Minnesota, 109 South 5th St., Suite 300, Marshall, MN., 56258, is also helping the Thooft family. The organization is accepting donations of gift cards and of clothing, toiletries and non-perishable food items. Additionally, the family will need furniture. Contact the United Way with information on the furniture you have available. When the family is ready to accept that furniture, volunteers will pick up and deliver the items. Email unitedway@unitedwayswmn.org or call (507) 929-2273.

The American Red Cross assisted the family with immediate needs, too.

Giveforward Hansen family - Copy

Fundraising efforts also continue online at Giveforward for the injured Vesta volunteer firefighter at Neal Hansen Benefit. Click here to help Neal and Tiffany, the parents of a two-year-old son. The campaign, as of this update, has raised $4,530, surpassing its $3,000 goal.

This tragedy has weighed heavy on my heart. I met the Thooft family in March when I stopped at Bernadette’s new business, The Store, a combination thrift shop and grocery store in my hometown of Vesta, population around 320. New businesses do not open all that often in this rural community, so I was excited and blogged about this in my post, “Little General Store on the Prairie”. (Click here to read.) Right next door, Bernadette’s husband runs Matt’s Frame Repair.

I was especially delighted to meet Bernadette, a woman with a big heart. I instantly warmed to her outgoing personality and sense of humor. She affectionately dubbed her seven children “the hoodlums” in the most loving way. Several of the youngest kids were showing off for me and posing for photos while I interviewed Bernadette. Now, to think…

Please, give to either/both of these families if you can and support them in prayer. Also, spread the word via social media.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Near Menahga: “The perfect recipe for a fire” May 16, 2013

It's easy to understand how fire could race through acres of pines under hot, dry and windy conditions. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Itasca State Park.

It’s easy to understand how fire could race through acres of pines under hot, dry and windy conditions. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Itasca State Park, used for illustration purposes only and not within the Green Valley Fire area.

HUNDREDS OF MILES removed from the Green Valley Fire raging in the Park Rapids/Menahga area of northwestern Minnesota, I cannot even fathom the challenges faced by firefighters, the fears experienced by residents.

My connection to the region comes via the co-editor of a literary journal, The Talking Stick, in which I’ve been published several times. Late Wednesday afternoon I emailed Sharon Harris of rural Menahga, concerned about her and extended family who live nearer Park Rapids than Menahga.

The fire came within two miles of Harris’ home and that of her mother, sister and niece. They had to evacuate their pets—cats and dogs—to a local animal clinic. Without a trailer, though, Harris’ niece had to leave her horses behind.

“We were lucky,” says Harris, who was able to return to her home and sleep overnight after evacuating her pets.

Not so fortunate were those who lost their homes—at last count 12 homes, two commercial properties and 43 outbuildings in Hubbard and Wadena counties, according to information posted at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on the Minnesota Incident Command System website.

Harris, who works in Menahga at the First National Bank of Menahga and Sebeka, says many bank customers lost their homes.

The fire, which has reportedly burned through a pine stand of 7,100 acres, is 25 percent contained, according to the most recent information posted by the MNICS Wednesday evening. Click here to read details.

Harris, off work due to a family medical situation, drove to Menahga late Wednesday evening to catch up on work. She writes:

So much smoke still in the air in the area where the wildfire jumped Highway 71. It is right around Blueberry Golf Course and the Hubbard County/Wadena County line where it crossed. I guess the golf course is okay, amazingly. So it will be Friday before I drive to Menahga in the daytime and will be able to see any damages.

She remembers well the weather conditions on Tuesday, the day the fire began around 3 p.m. and then quickly spread to the area north of Menahga. Harris says:

I have never felt such a wind that day (Tuesday). When I drove from Menahga to Park Rapids around 4 p.m. that day, the wind just buffeted my car all over the road. Crazy. The perfect recipe for a fire: so hot, so dry, and wild wind.

And, as often happens in the early, uncertain stages of a major wildfire, locals are speculating about its cause. “I heard that lightning started it. Before that, I heard that someone was doing a controlled burn and it got away from them…”

No matter the cause, the facts stand: Twelve homes destroyed. Two commercial properties gone. Forty-three outbuildings burned. Already.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling