Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In a Minnesota cemetery: Oh, sweet baby, who were you? June 16, 2016


Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund 169 baby grave marker


I’VE TOURED MANY RURAL CEMETERIES. But never have I seen a grave marker that so saddened me as the one I spotted on the edge of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church Cemetery in Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.


Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund, 172 baby grave & flip flop


Smaller than the length of my size eight flip flop, the simple slab of concrete tilted barely above the earth. Inscribed thereon, in cursive, was a single word—Baby.


Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund 170 baby grave marker close-up


Certainly I’ve seen grave markers of many babies. But this one, because of its minimal size and placement under trees along the cemetery boundary and its simplicity of design, caused me to pause. I am a mother and a new grandmother. And I suppose in the humanity of that, thinking of my own love for my daughters, son and granddaughter, I empathized with the grief of such a loss.

A section of the cemetery that lies next to Emmanuel Lutheran Church and next to a field.

A section of the cemetery that lies next to Emmanuel Lutheran Church and a field.

Aged tombstones, which I assume once stood vertically, are now cemented flat into the ground.

Aged tombstones, which I assume once stood vertically, are now cemented flat into the ground.

The names reflect the ethnicity of the immigrant families who settled in the Aspelund area.

The names reflect the ethnicity of the immigrant families who settled in the Aspelund area.

Dates are missing from the in-ground marker of Hans, whom I believe to be an early immigrant.

Dates are missing from the in-ground marker of Hans, whom I believe to be an early immigrant.

A beautiful sheltered gravesite

A beautiful sheltered gravesite for John and Maren.

Love the immigrant names of Johannes and Engeborg. So poetic.

Love the immigrant names of Johannes and Engeborg. So poetic.

As I further explored the cemetery—reading the Scandinavian names, studying tombstones and admiring the meticulously kept grounds—I couldn’t shake the image of that baby’s gravestone. Who was he/she? Who were the parents? Why did he/she die?

Next to this list of rules is a graveyard directory, which we couldn't decipher.

Next to this list of rules is a graveyard directory, which we couldn’t decipher.

Hoping to find answers on a posted cemetery directory, neither my husband or I could figure out how to match names with platted marker locations. So I left, still wondering about this precious baby buried here beneath trees in rural Goodhue County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Aspelund: More than a southern Minnesota ghost town June 15, 2016

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A lovely sprawling home in Aspelund.

A lovely, sprawling farm home in Aspelund.

TECHNICALLY, ASPELUND is classified as a ghost town by the Goodhue County Historical Society. There’s no longer a post office in this spot along County 1 Boulevard in west central Goodhue County, apparently the reason for the ghost town tag.

The community's church, Emmanuel Lutheran.

The community’s church, Emmanuel Lutheran.

But my observations, and thus definition, of Aspelund differ. People still live here—on at least two farms—and worship here and attend to local government business in the Wanamingo Town Hall.

The area around Aspelund is beautiful Minnesota countryside with a mix of fields and woods, flatland and hills.

The area around Aspelund is beautiful Minnesota countryside with a mix of fields and woods, flatland and hills.

Aspelund doesn’t appear ghost townish to me. Rural, yes.

Making hay on the outskirts of Aspelund.

Working an alfalfa field on the outskirts of Aspelund.

One of two barns in Aspelund.

One of two barns in Aspelund.

Traffic through Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.

Traffic through Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday afternoon, I observed farmers in fields, a youth group meeting in Emmanuel Lutheran Church, and a biker, motorists and farmers passing through this settlement.

Inside Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

Inside Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Local churches centered the community, especially during the days of early settlement.

Places like Aspelund impress upon me their historical and current value in rural Minnesota. Mostly Norwegians settled here to farm the land, to re-establish their lives in a new land of opportunity. I admire their strength and determination. They endured much—poverty, isolation, disease, homesickness and more. They persevered. Just like their descendants who remain 150-plus years later.

The old Wanamingo Township Hall, built in 1862, stands next to the church.

The old Wanamingo Township Hall, built in 1862, stands next to the church.

Aspelund’s ethnic roots are documented in family names on gravestones, in the records of churches like Emmanuel and nearby Holden Lutheran, and in current voter registration rolls.

The current town hall.

The current town hall.

Even the name of the settlement itself, Aspelund, comes from a town in Norway. Oh, how those early immigrants must have missed their homeland. And how their descendants still appreciate the Mother Land today.

Photographed in Aspelund.

Photographed in Aspelund.

FYI: Check back tomorrow as I take you into the Emmanuel cemetery. Click here to read yesterday’s post about Aspelund Winery and Aspelund Peony Gardens.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Wondering about the Wanamingo Town Hall April 8, 2016

Wanamingo Town Hall, 112 view one


WOOD-FRAME TOWN HALLS aged by time hold a sense of history that always leaves me wondering.

The Wanamingo Town Hall, which I recently photographed in the ghost town of Aspelund in Goodhue County, is no exception. I thought a simple internet search would yield answers. It didn’t.


Wanamingo Town Hall, 113 view two


So I am left to wonder about this simple structure built during the Civil War and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Was this originally a schoolhouse as town halls often were? Is it still used for township activities? For 4-H meetings? As a polling place? I found a photo of a new pole shed style town hall online indicating this historic building is no longer used by township government.

I also learned some history of the area from the book, Minnesota Geographic Names—Their Origins and Historic Significance, written by Warren Upham and published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1920. Wanamingo, the author writes, “settled in 1854, organized in 1858, is almost wholly occupied by prosperous Norwegian farmers” (page 209).

Today Wanamingo Township remains agriculture-based. And you can still see the strong Norwegian heritage in family surnames, in country churches, in business names and more. Is the area still occupied by primarily prosperous Norwegian farmers? That I can’t answer.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts following a country drive west of Wanamingo March 30, 2016

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Rural Minnesota, 102 barn & cattle


WE ALL HAVE OUR PLACE of comfort, the place that brings us peace and allows us to escape, if but for a minute or an hour or a day.

For me, that’s a drive in the country, along the less-traveled back roads of Minnesota.


Rural Minnesota, 106 barn and corn stubble


I am of the land, of sky and fields and barns and silos and farmhouses. Rural Minnesota shaped me into the person I’ve become. A writer. A photographer. A poet. A keeper of rural life and of small towns.


Rural Minnesota, 110 barn & Harverstore silos



Memories of farm life tuck away in my heart. Doing chores—feeding calves and cows and scooping silage and manure. Walking beans. Picking rock. Gathering around the supper table with my parents and siblings to eat that which we’d grown and raised. Playing in the grove. Racing across rock solid snowdrifts sculpted by the prairie wind.

Life on the farm wasn’t easy. But it was good. Good in the sort of way that comes from working hard and understanding that family and faith come first.


Rural Minnesota, 111 house in Aspelund


I grew up poor. There were no birthday gifts, except from an aunt, my godmother. A meal was sometimes comprised of a kettle of plain white rice. Clothes were sometimes stitched from feed sacks and most certainly handed down. There was no telephone or television or indoor bathroom in the early years of my life. I went to church and Sunday School every week.

I am grateful my parents were never wealthy in the monetary sense. I would not be the person I am today. It is not important to me to have the newest or latest or best. I am content with what I have. I consider myself grounded and honest and loyal. Down-to-earth. Rooted. I love the land and I love family.


Rural Minnesota, 103 barn & silo


These are the thoughts that surface when I journey through the Minnesota countryside, when I photograph barns and farmhouses and other rural scenes. I am capturing the essence of the place that shaped me. Land. Sky. Fields. Barns. Silos. Farmhouses. And, yes, my family and my faith.


Rural Minnesota, 108 sprawling farmhouse


FYI: These images were taken while traveling along Goodhue County Road 30 west of Wanamingo, Minnesota, and in Aspelund, a slight veer to the north. I did not grow up in this area. Rather, I was raised on a dairy and crop farm in Redwood County, on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. My childhood home was nothing like the houses pictured here. Ours was a tiny woodframe farmhouse heated by an oil burning stove in the living room. The kitchen had an interior trap door that led to a dirt cellar. It was cramped. But it was home.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part III from Wanamingo: The connection to a beloved hymn March 23, 2016

The Lars Larson log cabin sits next to the water tower in Wanamingo. The information center can be seen to the right

The Lars Larson log cabin sits next to the water tower in Wanamingo. The blue grey structure to the right is the information center.

IN THE UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES, beneath an aged water tower and next to an historic log cabin, an unexpected bit of Wanamingo’s history is revealed. It is typed on sheets of paper sandwiched under Plexiglas in a handcrafted case labeled Information Center.

The song: It Is Well With My Soul.

The song: It Is Well With My Soul. The writer and composer’s names are highlighted in blue.

It is the story of the beloved hymn, It Is Well With My Soul, and its link to this Southeastern Minnesota farming community of nearly 1,100.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.

My lips move in silence as I read the familiar words, the familiar melody chorusing comfort. It is well, it is well with my soul.

The story of the Spaffords and the hymn, along with images, is posted.

The story of the Spaffords and the hymn, along with images, is posted.

I’d never considered the story behind the words. But now that I’m reading about Horatio and Anna Spafford’s personal tragedy, I am deeply moved. The couple lost their four oldest daughters at sea when the Ville du Haure collided with an English sailing ship en route to Europe in 1873. Only Anna survived, cabling her husband, who remained back home on business, with two words: Saved Alone.

During his voyage to see his grieving wife, Horatio penned It Is Well With My Soul. Three years later, Philip Bliss composed the accompanying music.

This sign marks the log cabin.

This sign marks the log cabin.

But what does any of this have to do with Wanamingo? The connection begins about two decades earlier when 14-year-old Anna Larson journeys to Wanamingo Township from Chicago to be with her ill father. Lars E. Larson moved to Minnesota the year prior in hopes farming would improve his health. He died in the spring of 1857, within a year of Anna’s arrival. That same year, Anna, 15, met her Sunday School teacher, 29-year-old Horatio Spafford. In 1861, she married Horatio, a then successful Chicago attorney.

Within 10 years, the Spaffords have four daughters. And then those girls are dead, drowned at sea. Their mother, Anna, survives, kept afloat by a plank until she is rescued.

How many people drive by this log cabin on Main Street in Wanamingo and never stop? We were tipped off by a local to the story I've shared here, thus my husband and I stopped.

How many people drive by this log cabin on Main Street in Wanamingo and never stop? I was tipped off by a local to the story I’ve shared here, thus I stopped.

Having read this story behind the familiar hymn while standing in the shadow of the Wanamingo water tower next to the Larson log cabin, I am moved. I am moved by the faith of Horatio Spafford who, in sorrow rolling like sea billows, penned such profound and comforting words. It is well, it is well with my soul.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for another post in my “from Wanamingo” series. I will take you inside Trinity Lutheran Church.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discovering Vasa, an historic Swedish settlement in Minnesota March 25, 2013

Driving into Vasa, established in 1868, according to a the historical marker, right.

Driving into Vasa, established in 1868, according to a the historical marker, right.

IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH to draw me off the appointed route.

Recently, a sign for a church soup luncheon caused my husband and me to veer off Minnesota Highway 19 near Red Wing into historic Vasa, established in 1868.

We opted not to partake of the soup, although that was a tough call given my love of soup and church dinners. But we were under a time crunch with limited hours to get to Red Wing and back.

So Randy and I did a quick drive through Vasa, named in honor of King Gustav Vasa, Swedish ruler from 1523-1560. Hans Mattson encouraged Swedish immigrants to settle here in this place originally known as Mattson’s Settlement.

Several of Vasa's old buildings.

Several of Vasa’s old buildings.

From an outsider’s perspective, there’s not much to the several blocks long Vasa—some houses, an abandoned creamery, by the looks of it a former schoolhouse or town hall, then Vasa Lutheran Church atop the hill with the Lutheran Center across the road.

Vasa Lutheran Church, the congregation which started Lutheran Social Services, originally Vasa Children's Home.

Vasa Lutheran Church, the congregation which started Lutheran Social Services, originally Vasa Children’s Home. Construction on this church building began in 1867 with dedication in 1870.

Turns out, though, as I would later learn, that this seemingly obscure town along the highway is “the most intact and unchanged of the original Swedish colonies of Minnesota.” Vasa is designated on the National Historic Register as the Vasa Historic District with 19 structures of historical significance. I should have done my homework before we headed into Goodhue County.

This street sign led me to investigate and learn about the Vasa Children's Home.

This street sign led me to investigate and learn about the Vasa Children’s Home.

While in Vasa, I spotted an OLD CHILDRENS HOME RD street sign by the church. When Randy turned the car onto that road, he should have kept going. My instincts told me a story awaited us. Instead, we turned into a drive leading around the church. Had we continued along Old Children’s Home Road, we would have discovered the former Vasa Children’s Home built in 1899 and today a private residence. The home opened in 1865 in the Vasa church basement when four orphans arrived in town. This is considered the birthplace of Lutheran Social Services.

See what you learn when you detour off the planned route.

FYI: To learn more about the history of the Vasa Children’s Home, click here.

To learn more about Vasa Lutheran Church, click here.

For historic info on Vasa, click here. Also click on the highlighted phrases within the post for additional information.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Driving into a ghost town on Hogsback Road July 23, 2012

An old building, perhaps a former blacksmith shop, in Belvidere Mills.

GHOST TOWNS INTRIGUE ME. I wonder—who lived in these places and were these towns once thriving and why did people leave?

Often, placement of the railroad determined which Minnesota town survived, which did not.

Recently my husband and I, on one of our day trips, turned off Goodhue County Road 3 about 10 miles south of Red Wing, onto Hogsback Road and into Belvidere Mills.

Yes, Hogsback Road. When you read a street sign like that, you just know there’s a story somewhere that’s been passed down from generation to generation. If only I knew the right old codger to consult for a little history lesson on the road that now also is called Wellscreek Trail. I’ll travel on Hogsback Road, thank you.

The former Belvidere Mills creamery, modernized into a garage.

The first view we got of the lovely old barn in Belvidere Mills.

And so we did, up the hill on Hogsback Road past a handful (or less) of houses and the old creamery and a stately red barn and past another old building (perhaps a blacksmith shop), around a curve in the gravel road and we were already out of Belvidere Mills. We turned around and backtracked.

Our second view, the side, of the barn as we backtracked into the ghost town.

And back again past the old building in the top photograph, this a side shot. What is it, readers?

Thanks to signage placed by the Goodhue County Historical Society along the county road, we knew this was the site of the former Belvidere Mills, established in 1858.

The historical society has marked some 60 ghost towns in Goodhue County with signage to “preserve their history and to recognize their historical contribution.” All either once had, or currently have, post offices.

They also have intriguing names like Black Oak, Cannon Junction, Featherstone, Roscoe Centre, Skyberg and White Willow.

And then there are the Goodhue County Minnesota ghost towns of—ready for this—Lena, Norway and Miami.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Alpacas in Sogn Valley October 9, 2011

An alpaca outside the craft barn at Sogn Valley Alpacas & Crafts.

I DREW MY HAND across the scarves, stroking the silky, kitten-soft spun fiber of the alpacas.

Hats. Scarves. Prayer shawls. Afghans. Rugs. Clothing. Some tucked inside the small-scale barn shed that mimics the real barn a stone’s throw away. Other merchandise is draped across tables and clothes-drying racks outside, near the penned camel-hued alpaca that chose to ignore me for the most part.

Welcome to Sogn Valley Alpacas & Crafts along Goodhue County 14 Boulevard, rural Cannon Falls, a spur-of-the-moment stop on a recent drive to view the fall colors.

Jayne and R.J. Boersma's Sogn Valley Alpacas & Crafts near Cannon Falls.

Scarves and hats, close-up, and prayer shawls in the background displayed outside.

Silky soft clothing hanging inside the craft barn.

My husband and I missed the fleece demo at 1 p.m., the spinning wheel demo inside and the alpaca farm tour, unless, of course, it was self-guided.

We, in fact, missed any human contact. Not a soul was to be seen except for alpacas and chickens scratching and flapping too close for my fear-of-chickens comfort.

I checked out the merchandise, unsuccessfully tried to coax the elusive alpaca into posing prettily for a photo, side-stepped chicken poop, considered photographing pumpkins and squash splayed out on a picnic table, and then snapped one final photo of an “AGRICULTURE KEEPS AMERICA GROWING” sign before hopping into the car.

The sign supporting agriculture on the side of a shed at the alpaca farm.

© Copyright 2011 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


A Sunday drive to view the fall colors in Sogn Valley October 4, 2011

A colorful hillside in the Sogn Valley area of southeastern Minnesota.

MINNESOTANS, THIS is your week.

Get outside. View the fall colors. Experience rural Minnesota at the height of harvest. This could be our best week, weather-wise, until next spring. Not that I’m trying to forecast gray skies and cold and that dreaded word, “snow,” but I’ve lived here long enough—55 years—to realize you should “make hay while the sun shines.”

I took my own advice on Sunday when the husband and I went on a fall color drive to the historic agricultural Sogn Valley area of quaint farms and wooded, rolling hills in northwestern Goodhue County.

We originally planned to paint a bedroom ceiling Sunday afternoon. But then, when a friend asked if the ceiling needed to be painted that day, we decided the project could wait. The afternoon was too beautiful to spend indoors with our eyes focused toward a ceiling instead of upward toward clear blue skies accented by the changing leaves of autumn.

So, just to offer you some visual encouragement to do a fall color drive or go for a walk this week, here are some photos I snapped on that Sunday drive.

We followed this gravel road, 20th Avenue, between Goodhue County Road 9 and Vang Lutheran Church.

Along 20th Avenue, I spotted these picturesque farm buildings.

I photographed Vang Lutheran Church across the cornfield west of the Potpourri Mill Log Cabin 10 minutes north of Kenyon or 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities.

An autumn-themed setting greets shoppers at the seasonal Harvest Thyme Craft Show at the Potpourri Mill Log Cabin, 2290 Goodhue County 49 Boulevard, Dennison. Remaining weekend show hours are 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. October 8-9 and October 15 - 16.

We were driving westbound on Goodhue County Road 9 toward Sogn.

You'll see lots of old barns, like this one along 20th Avenue, in this historic agricultural region.

Farmers are in the fields harvesting corn (pictured here) and soybeans.

The Sogn Valley area offers scenic fall color viewing in a rural landscape with little traffic. To truly experience the region, turn off the highway onto back gravel roads. Have a plat book handy and a navigator with a good sense of direction, which would not be me.

CHECK BACK FOR more photos from this autumn drive and for a post on Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, a popular fall color destination. The park parking lot was overflowing on Sunday. Colors were spectacular.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling