Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Walters wheels his way to help others September 29, 2017

 

HEADING SOUTH FROM HACKENSACK along Minnesota State Highway 371 on a recent Sunday, I spotted a colorful, over-sized wheel rolling along an adjacent trail. I fired off three frames with my camera—none of them particularly good images—and wondered.

I need wonder no more. Recent Twin Cities media coverage of Gary Walters’ fundraising efforts revealed the story behind what I’d seen and photographed in that fleeting on-the-road moment.

 

 

This Brainerd area insurance and finance man and the star of “That Guy Adventures aka Walters Wacky Adventures” today completes a 200-mile, 14-day round trip hamster wheel walk along the Paul Bunyan Trail from Brainerd to Bemidji and back. He’s raising monies for three charities—Kids Against Hunger—Brainerd Lakes Area; Confidence Learning Center; and Brainerd Public School Foundation.

I admire the efforts of this father of four and grandfather of five. It takes someone with creative ideas, a passion for helping others, an engaging personality, a sense of humor, physical stamina and more to pull off something like this.

 

The historic Brainerd water tower where Gary Walters once lived for nine days.

 

But this isn’t the first time Walters has challenged himself. Among his other adventures—living on the Brainerd water tower for nine straight days, 24/7; losing 100 pounds; and unicycling for 24 hours around the Brainerd High School track.

Yup, that Gary Walters, he’s quite a guy.

 

TELL ME: I’d like to hear about any especially creative charity fundraising efforts you’ve encountered through the years. Maybe even your own idea.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I was “this close” to Prince Farming’s hometown & more March 17, 2015

MAPPING OUT A ROUTE from Mason City to Dubuque, Iowa, last summer, I routed our drive through Strawberry Point, which is 10 miles from Arlington. Remember that.

The world's largest strawberry sculpture is made of fiberglass, weighs 1,430 pounds, is 15 feet high, 12 feet wide and was constructed in 1967.

The world’s largest strawberry sculpture is made of fiberglass, weighs 1,430 pounds, is 15 feet high, 12 feet wide and was constructed in 1967.

Strawberry Point is home to the world’s largest strawberry. I delight in kitschy roadside art, thus the stop in this town of nearly 1,300.

I'm not sure this motel is open anymore.

There’s even a Strawberry Motel.

Homespun address signage in Strawberry Point.

Homespun address signage in Strawberry Point.

A sweet message.

A sweet message outside a cafe.

Additionally, I find the name, Strawberry Point, charming. Its name history traces to the soldiers, traders and railroad workers who savored the wild strawberries growing along the area’s trails and hillsides.

Driving into Strawberry Point.

Driving into Strawberry Point.

On the late August afternoon my husband and I drove into Strawberry Point, I was tired and crabby. Mostly due to the excessive heat and humidity. But also due to the endless travel through an Iowa countryside that seemed monotonous in fields and flatness. This is unusual for me to feel this way given my appreciation for rural prairie landscapes.

This impressive building anchors a corner in downtown Strawberry Point and houses a coffee shop/cafe and hotel.

This impressive building anchors a corner in downtown Strawberry Point and houses a coffee shop/cafe and hotel.

Had I not been in such a funky mood, I would have explored more. Looking now at my photos from downtown Strawberry Point, I see what I missed. That sprawling brick corner building labeled Coffee Shop/The Franklin Hotel calls for exploration. Just like other places in Iowa.

The strawberry sculpture sits in the heart of downtown Strawberry Point.

The strawberry sculpture sits in the heart of downtown Strawberry Point.

How many of you had heard of Arlington, Iowa, before this season’s reality TV show The Bachelor aired? The star, bachelor farmer Chris Soules, dubbed “Prince Farming”, is from Arlington.

Signage remained from  RAGBRAI, the bike ride across Iowa.

Signage remained from RAGBRAI, the bike ride across Iowa.

Last July Soules met with RAGBRAI bikers in Strawberry Point, greeting folks in a fire department fundraiser. I missed him by a month. Not that I had even heard of him then.

While I don’t agree with the premise of The Bachelor, trying to find true love by dating multiple women simultaneously, I do see the show’s current value to Iowa, specifically, Arlington. That community of less than 500 is using its moment in the spotlight to raise funds for a new community center via sales of “The Other Bachelors of Arlington, Iowa” calendars. Local farmer and community volunteer John Fedeler came up with the calendar idea featuring 12 Arlington bachelors. Brilliant.

From what I’ve read on the campaign’s Facebook page, it’s a tastefully done calendar that can be yours for $14.99 plus $2 for shipping.

For example, here’s the bio on Mr. September, Jordan:

Mr. September was born in Arlington and helps out on his family’s farm. When he is not farming with his father, Mr. September works to grow his computer consulting business and practices his piloting skill. Mr. September is more reserved about details of his love life, but joked that he will be a “bachelor till the rapture”. Mr. September would give you the shirt off of his back if you needed it and is not afraid to reach out a helping hand.

A farm site somewhere in notheast Iowa between Nashua and Strawberry Point.

A farm site somewhere in notheast Iowa between Nashua and Strawberry Point.

He sounds like one wholesome Iowa farm boy to me.

Somewhere in northeastern Iowa.

Somewhere in northeastern Iowa.

And isn’t that the image we have of Iowa—a good, wholesome place of mostly farm fields and small towns? Pigs and corn. Fields of opportunities?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering the June 13, 1968, killer tornado in Tracy, Minnesota June 10, 2013

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, then 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town on June 13, 1968. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Lantz was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. Copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Lantz.

TORNADO WARNING. Those two weather words, more than any other, cause me to panic. For good reason.

I was not quite twelve when an F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, struck the nearby community of Tracy on June 13, 1968. The twister left nine dead, 125 injured and buildings demolished.

I remember, a day or two afterward, our family piling into our Chevy for the 25-mile drive through southwestern Minnesota farm country to view the devastation. Twisted trees. Flattened homes and businesses. Boxcars haphazardly tossed.

This photo by the Tracy Headlight Herald shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado.

This photo by the Tracy Headlight Herald shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado. Photo courtesy of Scott Thoma.

A catastrophic scene like that impresses upon a young mind a deep fear and respect for the power of a tornado.

Added to the visual impact was my father’s spotting of the tornado from our farm those many miles to the north and east as he did the evening milking. He thought the twister was much nearer. Decades later, a less severe tornado would hit the farm place, and the community, where I grew up. Two summers ago, severe winds also ravaged my hometown of Vesta.

This Thursday, the residents of Tracy and others will gather to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Tracy tornado touchdown.

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma's just-published book.

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma’s book.

Tracy native Scott Thoma of Willmar, who wrote Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado, is among those on the Tracy Tornado Memorial Committee and the coordinator for Thursday’s program. The June 13 event will feature an evening of remembrance and fundraising and a coming together of community.

At 7:03 p.m., the moment the killer twister touched down in Tracy, attendees will honor the nine who died with a moment of silence in Central Park. Thoma will read their names and a bell will toll for each: Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harnden, 75; Barbara Holbrook, 50; Ellen Morgan, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; Paul Swanson, 60; Walter Swanson, 47; Nancy Viahos, 2; and Otelia Werner, 75.

Longtime resident, the Rev. Homer Dobson, will “say a few words,” Thoma says.

A photographer for the Tracy Headlight Herald captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School.

A photographer for the Tracy Headlight Herald captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Scott Thoma.

I expect the commemoration will be an emotional event, and rightly so. Even with the passage of nearly five decades, grief lingers. And each time a tornado devastates a community and lives are lost, such as in Moore, Oklahoma (struck, like Tracy, by an F5), memories resurface, fear rises.

Besides remembering the nine, the community will continue raising funds for a new tornado memorial to replace the one falling into disrepair. Over $10,000 have been raised with about $5,000 more needed for the six-foot high black granite monument that will sit along U.S. Highway 14 near the “Tornado Tree” sculpture. That steel tree, built in 1989, replicates the original tornado tree, a gnarled elm that withstood the forces of the twister.

An artist's rendering of the tornado monument. The words on the bench will read "Tracy Tornado Monument" and an engraving of Eric Lantz's tornado photo will be etched below the clock and above the story. Image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

An artist’s rendering of the tornado monument. The words on the bench will read “Tracy Tornado Monument” and an engraving of Eric Lantz’s tornado photo will be etched below the clock and above the story. Image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

The new three-sided marker will feature the story of the tornado and a well-known photo by Eric Lantz etched on the front, according to Thoma. Names and ages of the tornado victims will be listed on another side. And on the back side, visitors will find a stone bench.

On all three sides, a clock will be etched into the stone, stopped at 7:03 p.m., the time the tornado reached the Tracy city limits.

The memorial is expected to be done this summer and unveiled during Boxcar Days, an annual community celebration, on September 2.

In the meantime, there’s still memorial money to be raised and Thoma is doing his part, donating $3 to the monument fund for every book sold. He is selling Out of the Blue from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Thursday at the Tornado Tree Memorial along Highway 14. Root beer floats will also be available with all proceeds directed to the memorial.

Thoma will talk about the tornado and his book at 4 p.m. at the Tracy Library. I read and reviewed Out of the Blue a year ago and you can read that review by clicking here.

As is customary with most small town events, there’s a meal involved in the Tracy tornado anniversary. Folks will gather at the fire hall from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. for a “freewill donation potluck supper,” Thoma says. The Tracy Community Band plays at 7 p.m. across the street in Central Park. And at 8 p.m., somewhere in town, the Tracy Library will show the movie Twister.

If you’re interested in buying a copy of Out of the Blue and/or donating to the Tracy Tornado Memorial fund, email Thoma at scott@thomabooks.com or call (320) 894-6007.

You can also order his book online by clicking here.

If you lived through the Tracy tornado or have any stories to share about the storm, please submit a comment. I’d like to hear from you. Other comments are also welcome.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Kona Ice franchisee brings treats & fundraising to southern Minnesota June 6, 2013

IT WAS THE CATCHY carnival style music that first drew me to the window, to see the colorful tropical-themed ice cream truck parked across the street from my house on a cool Monday evening. Except this wasn’t exactly an ice cream truck, as I would soon learn.

The Kona Ice Southern Lakes truck parked across the street from my house on Monday evening.

The Kona Ice Southern Lakes truck parked across the street from my house on Monday evening.

I grabbed my camera and snapped three quick photos before the vehicle pulled away from the curb, leaving me uninformed. Until I googled “Kona Ice.”

As it turns out, I know the owner of Kona Ice Southern Lakes. Faribault resident Todd Carver was just wrapping up his first day of vending flavored shaved ice when he stopped in my neighborhood.

Wednesday afternoon, his third day in business, Todd was back per my request and his offer to stop by so we could chat and I could sample Kona Ice served from his franchised truck.

Todd guides tempered, shaved ice into a cup.

Todd guides tempered, shaved ice into a cup while a neighbor boy waits.

Ice, Todd adding flavor

Todd adds French vanilla flavoring to shaved ice.

A French vanilla Kona Ice.

A French vanilla Kona Ice.

Todd had barely parked when a neighbor boy showed up for a French vanilla Kona Ice. After that, while I photographed and we sat in folding chairs on my driveway and talked shop, a half dozen more neighborhood kids arrived to try flavors like pina colada, bubblegum and blue raspberry.

A dollar bill and coins for a treat.

A dollar bill and coins for a treat.

One brought a bag of coins, parceling the needed change onto the driveway before ordering.

Me? I sampled a complimentary Tiger’s Blood, a delicious melding of strawberry and coconut, and the company’s bestselling flavor combination. Todd’s right. Kona Ice is nothing, nothing at all, like the chipped ice snow cones of my childhood carnival memories. Rather, the shaved ice, as he says, “absorbs the flavor like a sponge.” Every ice shaving is infused with flavor.

The patented Flavorware system inside the truck is duplicated on the exterior for self-service.

The patented Flavorware system inside the truck is duplicated on the exterior for self-service.

Not only that, Kona Ice features a patented system, Flavorwave, in which customers can dispense the fruit flavor(s) of choice onto the shaved ice. Thirty other special flavors are available upon request and prepared by Todd.

Todd advises customers to count to three to get just the right amount of flavoring on their shaved ices.

A neighbor girls flavors her shaved ice at the self-serve Flavorwave dispenser.

With prices ranging from $2 for a kiddie size to $5 for an oversized color-changing plastic cup (which you can bring back for $3 refills), Todd notes that Kona Ice is an affordable treat.

Parked on the side street by my house Wednesday afternoon.

Parked on the side street by my house Wednesday afternoon.

As much as this new businessman raves about the product, it is the fundraising aspect of this company which sold him on purchasing a Kona Ice franchise, the fourth one in Minnesota. Two are based in the Twin Cities metro with the third in Duluth.

Ask Todd to show up at a fundraiser for your school, sports team, nonprofit or such and he’ll cut you a check for 20 percent of his sales before he drives away.

This is where the story of this life-long Faribault resident, without full-time employment since February 2010, gets personal. Todd remembers the kindness of a local businessman who hand-made a uniform for him when he joined the community’s first traveling basketball team. There was no uniform to fit the five-foot, 10-inch tall middleschooler, towering above his teammates, until the kind man stepped up to help.

“I never forgot that,” Todd says.

For that reason, he is eager to give back, to help kids. He’s been a player and a coach, raised two now college-age sons, Marshall and Logan. They will assist with the business as will wife Gail, a Christian day school teacher. He understands fundraising. That giving back to the community proved the pivotal selling point for his mobile franchise which covers the region from south of Owatonna into the Farmington and Lakeville area.

Nationwide, Kona Ice expects to reach $10 million in givebacks to communities in more than 40 states by the end of 2013.

The colorful characters which are part of the Kona story are displayed on the colorful truck.

The characters which are part of the Kona story are displayed on the colorful truck.

Todd also likes the educational aspect of Kona Ice—which offers an app with games for kids—and the fictional storyline of Kona the penguin (from the island of Gooba Jooba) and friends Crabbington, Squawksworth (a parrot), dolphins Splish and Splash, and Solomon the Sun.

This new franchise owner brings experience vending county fair concessions in high school, a background in finance as treasurer at his church, a long-time desire to own a food-related business and an enthusiasm for working with people to Kona Ice Southern Lakes.

Todd advises customers to count to three as they dispense flavor onto the ice, to get the right amount of flavoring.

Todd advises customers to count to three as they dispense flavor onto the ice, to get the right amount of flavoring.

Just days into vending, Todd’s already served Kona Ice at a daycare graduation—driving across town to get his truck, tempering his ice to April snowfall snowball consistency and arriving within 50 minutes of getting the request.

Mostly, he’s meandering through Faribault neighborhoods, like mine, with that “beautiful billboard” of a truck, introducing adults and kids alike to Kona Ice.

Enjoying her Kona Ice.

Enjoying her Kona Ice.

He revels in customers’ first-bite “wow” reactions like:

“Holy cow, this really tastes good.”

“Outstanding.”

“Amazing.”

Flavor jugs and dispensing system inside the truck.

Flavor jugs and dispensing system inside the truck.

FYI: To book Kona Ice Southern Lakes for your next fundraiser, contact Todd at tcarver@kona-ice.com or call (507) 330-4514. Please tell Todd I sent you.

Click here to reach the company website and learn more details about every aspect of Kona Ice.

Click here to reach the Facebook page of Todd’s Kona Ice business.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fill the grain bin in Dennison October 6, 2011

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SO, TODAY WE’RE GOING to talk signs. Not just any signs, but those homemade signs you find in rural Minnesota.

Chances are, no matter where you live, you drive or walk by creative signage every day and don’t give it a second thought. The signs have simply become part of your landscape. You fail to notice either the messages or the art.

And, yes, signs fall into my definition of art.

But then one day an outsider like me comes to town. And I view your town with fresh eyes. I notice the details—the windows and doors, the wood and brick, and the signs that define your community.

Main Street in Dennison, from city hall north.

That is how I happened upon a unique fundraising sign in Dennison, a community of 168 which straddles the Rice/Goodhue county lines in southeastern Minnesota. My husband and I stopped in Dennison while on a Sunday afternoon drive to view the fall colors in the Sogn Valley area.

There, along Goodhue County Road 9, the main east-west road through town, I found this sign appropriately placed by the Farmers State Bank.

Fronting the road and the bank, this sign tracks contributions to the park fund.

Now, whoever dreamed up this sign deserves some type of recognition for effort and creativity.

Dennison is a farming community. The sign reflects that ag heritage with the half-full grain bin. You did notice the corn and the grain bin, right?

The goal is to fill this grain bin and build that park. Want to help? Contact the city or Farmers State Bank.

The promoters of this park project could have designed the typical graph or thermometer sign to track contributions. But, instead, the sign honors the rural heart of Dennison. You simply have to appreciate that type of creative thinking.

You also have to value the sense of community that defines towns like Dennison. Here folks work together to raise funds for a park and don’t/probably can’t rely on government.

Well done, Dennison, and may you get a good corn yield this fall. Enough to fill the bin.

CHECK BACK for another post featuring interesting signage I found in rural Minnesota.

CLICK HERE to see signs I photographed recently in downtown Janesville.

ALSO, CLICK HERE to see sign images taken a year ago in Pemberton.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“It could be cancer, but you’re too healthy” August 7, 2010

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Layton Fossum, cancer survivor, poses with a luminary bag given in his honor at the Straight River Stroll in Faribault Friday night.

MEET LAYTON FOSSUM. Two years ago the Northfield man suffered from a raspy throat, a hearing loss and then a twitch in his face.

Must be a virus, the doctors initially told him. But the then 45-year-old persisted and eventually was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer with a name he struggles to pronounce. So he simply says “head and neck cancer.”

After a 10 ½-hour surgery that was supposed to take three, he emerged with 40 fewer lymph nodes, but thankful to be alive. Next he would explore his post-operative treatment options, traveling to Houston, Seattle, Illinois and California before finally settling on radiation at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Illinois.

Through-out his journey, this Malt-O-Meal employee who missed six months of work due to his cancer and is happier than ever now to go to work, has remained positive. Even today he can joke about his experience. “I told my wife I’m worth more. I have gold in me,” Layton tells me Friday night at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during the American Cancer Society Straight River Stroll.

Thousands gathered Friday evening at the Straight River Stroll at the Rice County Fairgrounds to raise funds for cancer research to remember, celebrate and pray for those touched by cancer.

Layton points to his right eye and the lump of gold in his eyelid. Because he no longer has facial nerves on the right side, he needs the weight to help close the lid, which will shut only when he closes the opposite lid.

Then Layton shows me his ear, which, too, was reshaped during reconstructive surgery to tighten his drooping face.

Layton has no hearing in his right ear, which was reshaped during reconstructive facial surgery.

Yet, despite all he has undergone, despite the changes in his appearance, Layton remains upbeat and eager to tell his story. He was invited back to Zion and spoke for 1 ½ hours to a roomful of suit-and-ties, he says.

Before his diagnosis two years ago, Layton was the picture of health, the last one you would expect to get cancer, a friend says.

He heard the same from doctors: “It could be cancer, but you’re too healthy.”

Still, he did have cancer. And Friday evening Layton was among those celebrating their cancer-free lives at the Straight River Stroll, a Relay for Life event to fund cancer research. As I walked beside him, switching from his right to left side so he could hear me, I marveled at this man who stopped often, bent low to read the names written on white paper bags in memory of, praying for and rejoicing with those who, like him, endured cancer.

Some lost the battle. Some won. Some are still fighting.

This team of kids set out luminaries by the wagonful.

Among the personalized bags, I discovered this especially touching one drawn by a child in celebration of a father's survival.

Words of encouragement for Mike Schulz.

A luminary honors Sandy Doehling, who died of breast cancer.

Kids and teens, even adults, lined up to have their hair spray painted at a booth to raise funds for cancer research.

A volunteer ratted and sprayed a girl's hair, all to raise monies for cancer research at the Straight River Stroll.

Kids could climb inside this race car, with a hood especially designed to recognize those who have endured cancer. The hood is placed on the car, which races at Elko Speedway, only for special occasions like the Stroll.

Faribault resident Jerry Kes led the Stroll as an honored cancer survivor.

As dusk settled, volunteers began lighting the luminaries which stretched and wound around the fairgrounds.

(This post is written in memory of my dad, who died of esophageal cancer in 2003; my nephew, Justin, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001; and my mom, who is a breast cancer survivor.)

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling