Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Northfield: Snapshots of an abbreviated Defeat of Jesse James Days September 17, 2020

The site of the 1876 attempted bank robbery, now the Northfield Historical Society.

 

TYPICALLY, THE DEFEAT OF JESSE JAMES DAYS in Northfield finds Randy and me avoiding this college town only 20 minutes from Faribault. Crowds and congestion keep us away as thousands converge on this southeastern Minnesota community to celebrate the defeat of the James-Younger Gang in a September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank.

 

Waiting for fair food at one of several stands.

 

But this year, because of COVID-19, the mega celebration scaled back, leaving Northfield busy, but not packed. And so we walked around downtown for a bit on Saturday afternoon, after we replenished our book supply at the local public library—our original reason for being in Northfield.

 

The LOVE mural painted on a pizza place in Northfield drew lots of fans taking photos, including me.

 

On our way to Bridge Square, a riverside community gathering spot in the heart of this historic downtown, I paused to photograph the latest public art project here—a floral mural painted on the side of the Domino’s Pizza building by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre. (More info and photos on that tomorrow.)

 

One of the many Sidewalk Poetry poems imprinted into cement in downtown Northfield.

 

Northfield’s appreciation of the arts—from visual to literary to performing—is one of the qualities I most value about this community. As a poet, I especially enjoy the poetry imprinted upon sidewalks.

 

An impromptu concert in Bridge Square.

 

A fountain, monument and the iconic popcorn wagon define Bridge Square in the warmer weather season.

 

Buying a corn dog…

 

I was delighted also to see and hear a guitarist quietly strumming music in the town square while people walked by, stopped at the iconic popcorn wagon or waited in line for corn dogs and cheese curds. Several food vendors lined a street by the park.

 

The Defeat of Jesse James Days royalty out and about.

 

Among fest-goers I spotted Defeat of Jesse James royalty in their denim attire, red bandanna masks, crowns and boots, the masks a reminder not of outlaws but of COVID-19.

 

Photographed through the bakery’s front window, the feet-shaped pastries.

 

Yet, in the throes of a global pandemic, some aspects of the celebration remained unchanged. At Quality Bakery a half a block away from Bridge Square, the western-themed window displays featured the bakery’s signature celebration pastry—De-Feet of Jesse James.

 

A sign outside a Division Street business fits the theme of the celebration.

 

For a bit of this Saturday, it felt good to embrace this long-running event, to experience a sense of community, to celebrate the defeat of the bad guys.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, so excited to see an Oscar Mayer wiener on wheels September 9, 2020

Heading into Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.

 

SO…WE’RE DRIVING along the interstate, entering Madison, Wisconsin, on a mid-July afternoon. Traffic is getting heavier. Drivers are weaving their vehicles in and out of traffic lanes. Trip after trip to this capital city we’ve noticed the increases in speed and aggressive driving as we near Madison.

But this time something other than the traffic chaos diverts our attention. Up ahead I spot a bright yellow vehicle with what looks like a hot dog atop the roof. Could this be…yes, it is, the Wienermobile.

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…

Remember that jingle? I expect you do. The catchy words and tune proved memorable, an advertising success in promoting hot dogs.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.

 

On this summer day, one of six Wienermobiles circulating throughout the US is here, perhaps for a stop in Madison or on its way to Milwaukee or even Chicago to the east. I don’t know. But I smile at the sight of this American icon.

 

In Dane County, Wisconsin, location of the state capital, Madison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.

 

The sighting led me to research the 27-foot-long Wienermobile, first created in 1936. That includes one crafted in Madison in 1969, recently restored and now under ownership of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Too big for the Society’s museum, the iconic “Old Number 7” Wienermobile will be displayed outside the downtown Madison museum during special events and also shown elsewhere in the state.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.

 

Up until the closure of the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison in June 2017, that Wienermobile stood outside company headquarters. When Oscar Mayer’s parent company, Kraft, merged with H.J. Heinz Co., corporate restructuring resulted in closure of the Madison facility. A local business staple for more than 100 years as a producer of hot dogs and lunch meat, this was a big loss to the city. The Madison plant at one time employed 4,000 people, but by 2013, only 1,300. Still, that’s a lot of jobs.

But, at least Madison kept its Wienermobile.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A fair alternative September 4, 2020

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Photographed on August 29 in the Ace Hardware store parking lot, Faribault, Minnesota.

 

MINNESOTANS LOVE THEIR FAIRS. County and then state. And right about now, crowds would be converging on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights for the final days of the Great Minnesota Get Together.

But not me; I haven’t attended in nearly 40 years. And not anyone at the fair this year due to COVID-19 and the resulting cancellation of this big food/entertainment party.

While the fair features everything from crop art (gone virtual this year) to farm animals, from carnival rides to marketplaces, from politicians (especially this election year) to princesses, the food seems the draw. Anything on-a-stick. And a lot not on a stick.

To satisfy the hungry masses missing fair food, the State Fair this year offered a drive-through Food Parade at the fairgrounds for $20/vehicle plus whatever the cost for the foods ordered from 16 participating vendors. Tickets quickly sold out for the food frenzy event that continues through Labor Day weekend.

While people are waiting in their vehicles for turkey legs, mini donuts, egg rolls on-a-stick, sno cones, walleye cakes, funnel cakes, Sweet Martha’s cookies and much more, I’m content to avoid the congestion.

I know faithful fair food devotees will tell you it’s not the same…but I spotted this food stand in the parking lot of the local Ace Hardware Store on Saturday morning. Cheese curds and pronto pups vended right here in Faribault. No need to travel to the Cities or pay $20 or wait in line at the fairgrounds.

I already hear the protests. “But it’s not the fair!” And that would be accurate. No crowds pressing in. No feeling of togetherness. No endless food choices. Just a taste of the fair, right in my backyard. In hardware store and other parking lots around Minnesota. Streetside. On fairgrounds in Rice and Steele counties during special food events earlier this summer. And even in some restaurants. It may not be the same experience as the State Fair, but, hey, it’s something. Which is better than nothing during a global pandemic.

FYI: To find pop-up fair food stands in Minnesota, visit the Fair Food Finder Facebook page by clicking here.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than free pears August 20, 2020

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I photographed this roadside sign in Northfield on Sunday.

 

PICK A PEAR. Or two. Or three.

The roadside invitation to pluck pears from two trees at 203 West Woodley Street, Northfield, proved a first for me.

First, I’ve never seen such an offer. And second, I’ve never seen a pear tree.

The pears I’ve eaten come from the grocery store. They are much larger, more golden and decidedly more perfect.

 

 

But there’s something about picking fruit directly from the tree that appeals to me. And I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity.

So when Randy and I drove past the sign, we did a quick swing back around the block to check out the pears. Neither of us knows anything about home-grown pears. So the note about pushing on the top or picking hard ones and waiting a few days for them to ripen was particularly helpful.

 

 

Randy grabbed four pears—one yellow, the others green—while I grabbed my camera and took photos.

I ate the mini yellow pear for lunch the next day; it was too small to share. I found it dry, not at all juicy. Had there not been a browning blemish, I may have waited longer. The three remaining green pears are now inside a brown paper bag on the kitchen counter, hopefully ripening and not rotting.

 

This is the place, 203 West Woodley Street.

 

Whatever the outcome, I find the FREE PEARS offer such a fine example of kindness and generosity, something we all need right now. More than ever.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

LaNette’s, more than a coffee shop in small town Montgomery August 18, 2020

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A view outside LaNette’s Coffee Shop, 225 First Street South, Montgomery, Minnesota.

 

FOUR PLASTIC MOLDED CHAIRS in a blue that seems more beachy than rural Minnesota, angle outside LaNette’s Coffee Shop. Two women sit here, sip coffee, engage in conversation on this sunny summer Saturday morning.

 

A close-up of that kitschy cute cone art.

 

The occasional vehicle passes by or stops at the stop sign before crossing or turning onto First Street. LaNette’s anchors a corner on the south end of Montgomery’s main business district and is housed in a small brick building marked by smiling waffle cone art that identifies this as more than just a coffee source.

Besides a variety of coffees and bakery treats like muffins, cinnamon rolls and cookies, Owner LaNette also serves up ice cream in homemade waffle cones. I’ve yet to try any of her treats. Next visit.

 

Pat Preble won first place for “Old Barn” and “Cows in the Field,” both displayed in the front window of the coffee shop.

 

But this time in town, I’d already eaten my sweet for the day—from Franke’s Bakery just up the street. Instead, I popped into La Nette’s for a closer look at the art displayed in her front window as part of the local “Celebrating Farmers and Agriculture” Exhibit coordinated by the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center. I asked LaNette if I could turn a barn painting by Pat Preble to photograph it. She quickly agreed.

 

An example of the art in LaNette’s.

 

I noticed the work of other artists showcased and available for purchase in LaNette’s shop. I love when local businesses support local artists. And writers, as noted by a Hometown Authors section in a wall display.

 

The inviting interior.

 

An antique doorstop keeps the front door open.

 

LaNette’s with mismatched tables and chairs, inviting sitting spaces, art, a few antiques, a pine plank floor and the aforementioned beverages and treats, has a comfortable feel of neighborliness. Of gathering with friends. Of catching up on family and town news. Of enjoying the often slower pace of life found in small town Minnesota. Of contentment.

 

A neon sign in the front windows signals that the coffee shop is open.

 

FYI: LaNette’s Coffee Shop is open from 6 am – 3 pm Monday-Saturday. Please check back for one final post from Montgomery tomorrow.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The story of a library garden August 10, 2020

The vegetable garden on the side of Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota.

 

LEMON CUCUMBERS. Purple beans. Dill. Snap peas. Kohlrabi.

 

A developing ground cherry? Or something else?

 

Dill.

 

Ground cherries.

 

The list of vegetables grown in a community garden at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault also includes ground cherries, tomatoes, Swiss chard, eggplant, cilantro, rosemary. Plus clover and sunflowers. And maybe some plants I’ve missed.

 

A vegetable blossom.

 

Several types of tomatoes grow in the garden.

 

Purple beans.

 

While I had hoped to harvest beans during a recent stop, I found them still too small and other vegetables (the ones I would eat) not yet ready for picking.

 

 

Sunflowers burst color into the garden.

 

Another view of the garden.

 

But I still took time to photograph this wedge garden, a project of Friends of the Library. The Friends Organic Learning Garden was designed several years ago as a place for folks to gather and learn how to:

  • grow delicious organic food
  • care for the earth and our water supply
  • support pollinators
  • connect with others in the community

 

There’s a bee lawn right next to the vegetable garden.

 

Another unidentified vegetable developing.

 

A warning sign next to the library and by the bee lawn.

 

It’s a great idea. Anything that brings people together, educates and meets a need—providing food—certainly holds value. I have, in past years, enjoyed vegetables from the library garden. That includes lemon cucumbers, which Lisa Reuvers, library employee and lead master gardener, says “were a hit a couple of years ago.”

 

The garden features a hummingbird sculpture, “The Color of Flight, by Jorge Ponticas. This was funded by the “Artists on Main Street” program several years ago.

 

I’ll keep an eye on those coveted orb-shaped cucumbers as they ripen and grab a few for salads…

 

TELL ME: Does your community have a similar garden? Or are you a gardener? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Welcome, anglers & vegetable lovers August 8, 2020

The sign marking Lake Country Convenience & Bait in tiny Shieldville, Minnesota.

 

AT LAKE COUNTRY CONVENIENCE & Bait in Shieldsville, you can pick up a Heggie’s pizza, meat from Dean’s Smoke Shack, firewood, a fishing or hunting license, coffee, even a face mask, and much more.

Need bait? Pull out your Minnow Punch Card. Buy six scoops of minnows and the seventh is free.

Fuel up. And, if you need to use the restroom, Lake Country claims to have “the cleanest bathrooms in the area.” Rather important in these days of COVID-19.

This convenience store/gas station/bait shop also claims to have “the best soft serve ice cream in Rice County,” although Dairy Queen may dispute that.

 

The sign on the back of the vegetable stand and visible from Minnesota State Highway 21 with the convenience store seen in the background.

 

But there’s one more aspect of Lake Country Convenience that may just draw you to this business serving the community of Shieldsville and the surrounding lakes area. That’s Mark’s Fresh Veggies, a seasonal pop-up vegetable stand.

 

 

Recently, while driving through Shieldsville, which is about 10 miles northwest of Faribault, Randy and I stopped to check out Mark’s produce, displayed inside a small metal shed next to the Lake Country parking lot. The portable shed appears to also serve as an ice fishing shelter in the winter.

 

The non-descript entrance to Mark’s Fresh Veggies Stand.

 

The produce is divided into bins in the handcrafted display area.

 

 

 

We pulled up, waited for another customer to exit the tiny vegetable shed and then went inside, masked, and looking for fresh sweetcorn. We found the corn, along with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and cabbage, all separated in custom-built compartments. The kohlrabi were gone; no problem for me as I don’t particularly like them.

 

Put your money here.

 

I expected payment would be inside the convenience store. But, nope, Mark has set up an honor system payment plan. I love this, when roadside vegetable vendors trust customers. Mark provides bags, a scale, and even a notebook to jot down purchases before dropping payment into a secure metal box. And then, he’s even thoughtfully set out hand sanitizer.

 

Choose your corn.

 

Weigh your tomatoes, or just pay 75 cents for two.

 

Note your purchases.

 

Randy bagged our six ears of sweetcorn while I chose two tomatoes. He paid. And then we exited Mark’s Fresh Veggies Stand, grateful for gardeners like Mark who provide us with fresh seasonal vegetables here in southern Minnesota.

 

Mark’s Fresh Veggies, one of many sources for fresh produce in Rice County.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite spot to get local fresh produce? We buy from a variety of local vendors, including those at the Faribault Farmers’ Market.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Checking in on small town cafes April 9, 2020

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The sole cafe in my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

IN RURAL COMMUNITIES, restaurants serve as gathering spots, as social hubs, for those who live there. Farmers, retired or not, meet for coffee and cards at the local cafe. Some return for dinner—that would be the noon meal in farming country—joined by younger men. Women come, too, for food and conversation. Plus families and others, like me, pop in from out of town on occasion.

But all of that has changed because of COVID-19. Those restaurants which center these small towns (along with churches and schools) are now closed to in-house dining. And that’s a challenge for those who rely on these places to connect with friends and family, to socialize.

 

Looking south from the cafe to the bank on the corner and the Vesta water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I wondered about my hometown of Vesta, a farming community of some 320 in southwestern Minnesota. The one-block Main Street looks much different than when I grew up on a dairy and crop farm south of town decades ago. There’s still a grain elevator, a bank, a post office and a few other businesses. Years ago, though, hardware stores, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, a barbershop…filled the block.

Community leaders had the foresight, when the last restaurant closed, to build a community cafe, the Vesta Cafe. When my mom still lived in Vesta, prior to her move to a senior care center in nearby Belview, Randy and I occasionally ate at the restaurant. I saw the importance of this gathering spot to locals. In 2012, I helped bring a Little Free Library to my hometown, which doesn’t have a public library or even a bookmobile. Since then the sharing of books and magazines has expanded to include jigsaw puzzles.

But back to now. I went online to see how the Vesta Cafe is faring during these difficult times. And if Facebook is any indication, the cafe is experiencing enthusiastic support from the community. A full menu is posted for April with meals to go. That includes Easter dinner, available for pick-up between 10 am-12:30 pm. Sunday. For $8.95, you’ll get a choice of roast beef or ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots, a dinner roll and dessert. Orders must be placed in advance.

Reading through the menu posted on Facebook, I see the rural influence. Like a beef commercial—roast beef layered between pieces of white bread, topped with a scoop of mashed potatoes and then smothered in gravy. It was my dad’s favorite meal on the rare occasion he ate at a cafe. Other rural-centric meals feature liver and onions, scalloped potatoes and ham, sausage and sauerkraut, and meatloaf.

But the Vesta Cafe also offers menu items like walleye, BBQ ribs, shrimp and, now, take-and-bake pizzas.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

I’m pleased, that during these challenging times, my hometown continues to support its sole restaurant. I also want to give a shout-out to The Amboy Cottage Cafe, a lovely eatery I discovered in the small town of Amboy, south of Mankato, six years ago. The made-from-scratch food is exceptional and unusual for a farming community. Offerings range from burgers to tuna melts to Salmon Quiche and Foraged Nettle Lasagna. The Amboy eatery continues to cook and bake (pies, rolls, bread pudding, etc), offering curbside pickup for several hours on limited days.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad, ordered at the Amboy Cottage Cafe in July 2014. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It is my hope that these small town restaurants can survive. They are more than simply a place to enjoy a good meal. They are a place to gather, to talk, to connect and share each others heartaches and joys. And daily lives.

TELL ME: Do you know of a small town restaurant that continues to thrive during this time of COVID-19 restrictions? I’d love to hear about these eateries that center our rural communities.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Yeah, the Little DQ opens in Faribault February 28, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the Little DQ of Faribault.

 

JUST AS WINTER BEGINS to feel too long, a sure sign of spring springs forth in my southeastern Minnesota community. The Little DQ of Faribault opens today. And the masses are rejoicing, if Facebook is an indication of how much locals welcome need this break from winter.

Every year for the past several, Randy and I, like so many others here in the land of cold and snow, have embraced this re-opening of the walk-up/drive-up Dairy Queen at 309 Lyndale Avenue North. The cozy ice cream shop closed for the season on November 1, while the larger Dairy Queen Brazier, just down Minnesota State Highway 60 to the west, stays open year-round.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Around this time each February, the Little DQ opens with a Peanut Buster Parfait special, this year priced at $1.99 (same as last), limit of three, from February 28 to March 1. The deal is good at both locations. But you can bet the lines will be longer at the smaller DQ. This place holds nostalgic charm. That coupled with the traditional spring opening special draw winter-weary ice cream lovers.

 

Set against a backdrop of snow, the Peanut Buster Parfait. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Never mind the calories—710. It’s best not to think about those as you dig into the hot fudge, the peanuts, the sweet sweet ice cream.

It’s seldom Randy and I indulge in Dairy Queen. But this Peanut Buster Parfait special, well, we can’t let it pass. We sit in our van with the heater blasting warmth while we enjoy our first unofficial taste of spring.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

All about community at annual Christmas dinner in Faribault December 16, 2019

 

IT IS, IN EVERY SENSE of the word, a community dinner.

 

 

From the moment I arrived at the Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church annual Community Christmas Dinner late Sunday morning in Faribault, I felt welcomed. Welcomed first by the door-holder/greeter dressed like an authentic Minnesotan in winter coat, boots and warm bomber hat. I didn’t envy his job on this cold December day. But he greeted me with a smile, commenting on Randy’s kindness in dropping me off at the door per my desire to avoid walking on snow and ice.

 

 

 

 

Down a flight of stairs, David and Jack greeted me, David being a Vietnam vet and Jack his service dog. A free-will offering at the dinner benefited the Northfield-based nonprofit Believet Canine Service Partners, which trains service dogs for veterans. I thought it particularly effective to have a vet and his dog at the dinner.

 

Volunteers serve a generous Christmas dinner.

 

 

Cupcake servers delivered the dessert to diners.

 

Once shed of my own winter garb, I waited for Randy and then, together, we walked through the doorway into the basement dining hall, already filling with dinner guests. There another greeter welcomed us and directed us to find a seat while waiting to get in the buffet line. Randy found a place next to Dale, a Wabasso High School classmate of mine, and his wife. Dale lives near Faribault and works in town. It’s always nice to occasionally run into him. Later, over dinner, we caught up and chatted about the class reunion he attended, and I missed, in September.

 

The scene outside Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, Faribault, on Sunday.

 

Before I got my meal, though, I roamed taking photos. But not before I stopped to say hi to Greg, a friend and pastor of this church. He stood near the buffet line greeting guests. Yet another warm welcome.

 

Refilling the roaster with chicken.

 

A short while later Randy and I stood in line next to the mayor of Faribault, familiar with my blog, he said. I’m always thankful for those who appreciate the work I do here on Minnesota Prairie Roots. I try, in many ways, to build a welcoming sense of community through my writing and photography.

 

 

 

A print of the Minnesota state photograph, “Grace,” graces the basement dining hall, foreground. It hung near the table where I ate.

 

As servers scooped chicken breast, meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, carrots and a roll onto my plate, I thanked them. It takes a lot of work to put on a dinner that feeds around 400 people in my community. The serving portions were especially generous—too much for me. I later invited Randy to eat the remainder of my food, including half of a carrot cake cupcake that, although delicious, I simply could not finish.

 

The assortment of cupcakes led me to Cupcake Central.

 

Cupcake Central.

 

Enjoying a cupcake, the guy with the personalized tie.

 

While Randy continued eating, I looked for more photo ops, chatted with a man sporting a tie that featured photos of his grandchildren. He has a personalized tie collection numbering in the hundreds and used the photo ties as conversation starters while working as a speech pathologist. Oh, the things you learn when you pause to engage others. It’s all about community.

 

 

Not to be missed, the important dishwashing crew.

 

Then I popped into the kitchen.

 

These women wait for their ride.

 

I paused also to chat with a pastor I know from a rural church. Then another friend. More community connections. I could have talked longer. But Randy and I had an afternoon engagement to wrap Christmas gifts for the Angel Tree Project at our church, Trinity Lutheran. So we grabbed out coats and headed up to the sanctuary for a quick look at this beautiful, historic church. (See those photos in a future post.)

 

I took this photo through the window as the greeter helped a guest into a car.

 

But then I spotted one more photo op—the greeter helping two elderly women to a car pulled curbside. He asked for my help holding the church door. I leaned into the cold and held the door. Because this is what it’s all about. Being there for one another in this place called community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling