Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The enduring smiley face May 18, 2013

Freeport water tower

I DON’T CARE how many times I’ve seen this water tower smiling down at me along Interstate 94 in Freeport. I still react with a smile each time I spot it.

In a community which is reportedly the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, this water tower epitomizes “Have a good day” in a singular visual.

And that, my friends, makes me happy.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Farewell to the Swany White Flour Mill of Freeport December 28, 2011

Freeport promotes itself as "The city with a smile!" That's the smiling water tower to the right and the Swany White Flour Mill to the left in front of the church steeple in this June 2011 image. Freeport is among the communities after which Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon is fashioned.

CROSSING THE OVERPASS into Freeport last June, I snapped a quick landscape photo with the town’s charming water tower smiling at travelers along Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.

I should have focused, though, on the old-fashioned grain elevator-style flour mill to the left in my framed image.

Late Tuesday afternoon this historic icon, the Swany White Four Mill, built in 1897 and owned by the Thelen family since 1903, burned. Minnesota has lost an important part of her history, a still-functioning mill of yesteryear that specialized in producing commercial grade and organic flour and was known for its famous Swany White Buttercake Pancake and Waffle Mix.

That I never realized the importance of this towering, aged building on that June afternoon saddens me for I am typically drawn to small-town elevators. But when my husband and I swung into Freeport late on that Saturday afternoon 6 ½ months ago, we were more interested in finding Charlie’s Café, a popular dining spot in this town of 450. We were hungry. Charlie’s was packed, so we left town without eating there, but not until I snapped photos of the café and Sacred Heart Church and School.

Popular Charlie's Cafe is noted for its tasty homemade food including caramel rolls, meringue pies and hot beef commercials. To the right is the Pioneer Inn, after which Garrison Keillor modeled The Sidetrack Tap in his fictional Lake Wobegon. Keillor and his family lived near Freeport in the early 1970s.

Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, described by Garrison Keillor as "a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof."

Sacred Heart School in Freeport, a lovely old building that caught my eye.

I totally missed out on the Swany White Flour Mill, simply because I was unaware of its important existence.

Eleven years ago, though, the historic mill, Charlie’s and other central Minnesota scenes were photographed by National Geographic photographer Richard Olsenius, illustrating a story, “In Search of Lake Wobegon,” by Garrison Keillor, expanded in 2001 as a book. A sister-in-law gave me her copy of the December 2000 National Geographic recently, knowing how much I would appreciate Keillor’s writing and the black-and-white images by Olsenius. I do.

Keillor rented a farmhouse south of Freeport some 40 years ago. He and his family weren’t exactly embraced by the community during the three years they lived there. Keillor writes about his experiences in the magazine piece, where he reveals that his fictional Lake Wobegon is based on life in central Minnesota, including Freeport.

I wonder if Keillor is reflecting on those years in Freeport as news of the Swany White Flour Mill’s demise reaches him. A eulogy or a tribute to this historic mill would seem fitting for Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcasting from Honolulu, Hawaii, on New Year’s Eve, far from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It hasn’t exactly been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

 

I’ve never met Garrison Keillor, but… June 8, 2011

SO, HOW WOULD YOU feel if a photo you took was incorporated into a video/slide show narrated by Garrison Keillor?

Would you slip on your red shoes, lace up the laces and dance a polka?

Since I don’t own red shoes like Keillor and I don’t polka, I enthused to my husband repeatedly about my stroke of luck. I haven’t really boasted to anyone else. We don’t do that sort of thing here in Minnesota. But, I thought maybe I could tell a few of you. A photo I shot of winter on the Minnesota prairie is part of a video/slideshow narrated by our state’s most famous storyteller.

Now, how does this happen to a blogger like me who happily blogs along each day with words and photos from Minnesota, without a thought, not a single thought, that Keillor may someday come into my life. Well, I didn’t exactly meet him and I haven’t exactly spoken to him, but…

A MONTH AGO, Chris Jones, director of the Center for Educational Technologies at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, commented on my January 7, 2010, blog post, “Wind and snow equal brutal conditions on the Minnesota prairie.” He was inquiring about using my photo of winter on the prairie in a video/slideshow for retiring President R. Judson Carlberg and his wife, Jan.

Typically I do not personally respond to comments via email. I am cautious that way, protective of my email address and of anybody out there who may not have my best interests in mind. So I didn’t, just like that, snap your fingers, fire off a response to Jones. First I sleuthed. Honestly, I had never heard of Gordon College and I sure can’t spell Massachusetts.

Here’s what I learned from the college’s website: “Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, is among the top Christian colleges in the nation and the only nondenominational Christian college in New England. Gordon is committed to excellence in liberal arts education, spiritual development and academic freedom informed by a framework of faith.”

I am Lutheran and that all sounded conservative enough for me.

So I emailed Jones, with several questions. You really didn’t expect me to not have questions, did you? I asked Mr. Gordon College guy: “Could you explain to me the nature of this video, which photo you are interested in using and where this video will be shown?”

That’s when he dropped Garrison Keillor’s name as the video/slideshow narrator. Sure. Yeah. Use my photo. Wherever. Whenever. Fine with me. Credit me and Minnesota Prairie Roots, send me a link to the completed video and allow me to blog about this and we’ve got a deal.

And so we did. Have a deal. After I promised not to publicly share the video with you. Sorry, I wish I could because it’s an entertaining media presentation, but I gave my word.

I also gave my word that I would make it clear to you, dear readers, that Garrison Keillor doesn’t just go around every day narrating surprise media presentations for college presidents’ retirement parties.

He met Jud and Jan Carlberg on a cruise. They struck up a friendship and, later, when the college was planning the video/slideshow, a Gordon writer “thought boldly, imagining this as a wonderful surprise for the Carlbergs, and started making inquiries,” Paul Rogati, Gordon’s CET multimedia designer, shared in a follow-up email. “When Mr. Keillor agreed to record the narration, the script was written for his style of monologue, with a reference to the winters on the prairies of Minnesota. Your image was a perfect match.”

"The photograph," taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota.

And that is how my photo taken in January 2010 along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota became connected to Garrison Keillor.

My prairie picture is one of many, many, many images incorporated into this retirement tribute to a “tall Scandinavian scholar from Fall River, Massachusetts” who was inaugurated as Gordon’s seventh president “in a swirling March blizzard” in 1993.

Yes, the whole piece is pure “A Prairie Home Companion” style and it’s a pleasure listening to Keillor’s silken voice glide across the words penned by authors Jo Kadlecek and Martha Stout.

The monologue opens like Keillor’s radio show, but “on Coy Pond on the campus of Gordon College.” It is a pond which “sometimes freezes up solid enough to go ice fishing on,” Keillor professes. And “there are rumors of an ice fishing shack being built” by the retired president with more time on his hands.

Several other references are made to Minnesota in a presentation that mixes humor with factual information about the Carlbergs’ 35-year tenure at Gordon, a “college which includes Lutherans” and which offers students off-campus experiences in places like the Minnesota prairie.

Then, finally, at the end of the video, the Carlbergs are invited to “sometime come up to the prairies of Minnesota to see what winter is all about.” A snippet of my photo appears on the screen, slowly panning out to show the full winter prairie landscape frame.

I’m not sure which the Carlbergs will do first in their retirement—sneak past Gordon College security and park an ice fishing shack on Coy Pond or visit southwestern Minnesota in winter, where, no doubt, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”

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WHEN (not if) the Carlbergs travel to Minnesota in the winter, they will also see scenes like this on the southwestern Minnesota prairie:

An elevator along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

The sun begins to set on the Minnesota prairie.

Barns abound in the agricultural region of southwestern Minnesota, this one along U.S. Highway 14.

A picturesque farm site just north of Lamberton in Redwood County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Top Minnesota Prairie Roots posts honor “strong women” December 31, 2010

GARRISON KEILLOR, in defining the residents of his fictional Lake Wobegon, characterized all the women as strong.

The same could be said for four women I met this past fall while pulling together a series of stories that I’ve selected as my most memorable posts of 2010 here at Minnesota Prairie Roots.

I had no difficulty choosing my favorite posts, because, hands down, the eight stories I wrote in the aftermath of devastating southern Minnesota floods were clearly the most powerful, emotional and heart-wrenching stories I shared in 2010.

A Zumbro Falls home destroyed by the late September flood.

These posts, interestingly enough, evolved by accident. My husband and I were on a Sunday afternoon drive to view the fall colors when we drove into Zumbro Falls, a Wabasha County town of some 200 that was inundated with late September floodwaters. Everywhere we looked, we saw damaged homes.

That’s where I met Zumbro Falls resident Tracy Yennie, who lost her home in the flood. This hard-scrabble young woman willingly shared her story, as did Jackie (I didn’t get her last name), Susie Shones and Katie Shones of nearby Hammond.

Tracy Yennie hangs out in downtown Zumbro Falls 2 1/2 weeks after floodwaters destroyed her home..

These women spoke openly, honestly and frankly about their frustrations, their fears and their concerns about the future. Yet, despite that, they, Yennie especially, maintained a semblance of humor. When Yennie pondered my question about life returning to normal, she replied: “What’s normal? Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”

Throughout their ordeal, Zumbro Falls residents maintained a sense of humor, like that seen in this sign I photographed on the garage of a flood-damaged split-level house along Water Street.

If you have not read these powerful interviews with the strong women of Zumbro Falls, Jarrett and Hammond, then go to “Archives” on my home page, click on “October 2010” and scroll to my October 11, 13 and 14 posts.

You will be impressed by the strength of these women.

In addition to these four, I will also remember a family that was cleaning up their flooded Zumbro Falls property. I asked to photograph them, but the mother lashed out at me, refusing my request. In that moment and in the next moment, when I saw the blank, sad look on her young daughter’s face, I realized the personal, emotional depth of this tragedy.

I was forever changed by that encounter.

The flood-damaged garage of the Zumbro Falls resident who refused my request for a photo.

My stories also brought out the goodness in others. Gary Schmidt of the Twin Cities responded to a November 12 appeal for help in the flooded region. He offered to bring some 10 volunteers to Hammond for several days around January 20. He’s with a church group that has assisted flood victims during the past six years in New Orleans, Rushford, Iowa City and Indiana.

The exposed side of the restaurant/grocery in Hammond, where a portion of a building once stood. The building was lying in a heap in the street.

When I last heard from Schmidt, he was coordinating with a Woodbury church group that helped earlier in Hammond and with Katie Shones, the Hammond resident I interviewed.

You can expect me to follow-up on that volunteerism.

And, next fall, you can expect me to revisit the strong women of Zumbro Falls, Jarrett and Hammond. I’ve promised them I’ll return.

A sign of hope in Zumbro Falls, next to a gas station, on my visit there less than three weeks after the flood.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

 

An auction at the Clear Lake Farmer’s Elevator December 23, 2010

 

I shot this image while waiting for a train by the Clear Lake Farmer's Elevator.

HEY, DO YOU ENJOY attending auctions? Ever heard of a consignment hay auction? I hadn’t either, until Saturday morning when my family drove through Clear Lake en route to St. Cloud.

We were waiting for a train to pass through town when I noticed pick-up trucks parked near the Clear Lake Farmer’s Elevator and some guys loitering next to a stack of hay. My husband quickly spied the hay auction sign to his left.

I quickly pulled out my camera because I recognized this small-town occurrence as something worth photographing, but which likely never has been photographed.

The whole scene had a Garrison Keillor quality about it, almost like we’d driven up to the Lake Wobegon Farmer’s Elevator.

It was something about the starkness and grayness of the setting, the way the men stood, the rural feel of the whole place that drew me in and kept me clicking the camera shutter.

 

A snow pile blocked my view of the hay auction until we inched forward.

On the third Saturday of each month, October - April, the Clear Lake Farmer's Elevator holds a consignment hay auction beginning at 10:30 a.m. The elevator is just off U.S. Highway 10 in Clear Lake southeast of St. Cloud.

When I saw the photos, I was pleased as punch with the results. Capturing snippets of small-town Minnesota life like this reconnects me to my rural roots and, in some small way, preserves an important part of our agricultural history.

 

Small square grass bales sold for $2.25 - $3.20 bale at Saturday's auction, according to online auction results.

Round grass mix bales sold for $39 each. "We still have people asking for straw and bags of ear corn to feed birds, etc.," the online auction info reads.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling