Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town November 8, 2018

The ethnicity of Ulen displayed on a business sign. I absolutely love the artistry of this signage.


I’D NEVER BEEN TO ULEN, a decidedly Norwegian-American community of some 600 in northwestern Minnesota. But it was on our route from Hendrum back to Detroit Lakes last week Thursday.



Ulen looks like many other small towns in this remote agricultural region. There’s a school, a grain elevator, a few businesses downtown. Typical.


Approaching the grain elevator complex, we notice the rising dust.


But then Randy and I observed something not so typical—the demolition of an aged grain elevator. Back in their heyday, these rectangular buildings rose like cathedrals on the prairie, visible for miles. They centered communities, held the harvest. Now many sit empty, replaced by massive grain bins and towering grain silos that hold no aesthetic appeal.

I don’t know the story behind the removal of the vintage elevator in Ulen. I can speculate. But speculation isn’t truth.



I know only that I felt a sense of sadness as Randy and I sat in our van watching the dust fly while demolition equipment chomped away chunks of this historic building. We missed seeing the elevator in-tact given our late arrival.



After a bit we drove back through town, past the Ulen Museum, formerly the Viking Sword Museum (the Viking sword found near Ulen has been proven a legend, not truth), then past the Top Hat Theatre.



When we spotted a vintage house for sale on a corner lot, Randy stopped to pick up a flier. He asked me to guess the price. “$47,000,” I said. Oh, how wrong that guess. The five-bedroom, two-bath house of 3,088 square feet and with four garage stalls is priced at $179,900. No, we’re not interested in living in Ulen, home to a Turkey BBQ going on its 58th year.



As we exited town, a plain green poleshed caught my eye. Lena’s Lefse, the sign thereon read. Now I know a lot of people who love lefse, who make lefse each holiday season. I’ll eat it just to be polite. I’m convinced the appeal of lefse is more about family tradition and heritage than taste. But then I’m not Norwegian. And I’m not from Ulen. Nor do I know a good Ole and Lena joke to share right now.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Farmington, Part I: A quick look at downtown August 7, 2018


ON ONE OF THE FIRST warm weekends of spring here in Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Farmington, a south metro community we’ve visited once prior. It was the kind of sunny late April afternoon ideal for meandering with my camera.





Farmington, given its nearness to the Twin Cites and population of 22,000-plus, surprises me with its small town feel. At least in the downtown business district. Here primarily professional services businesses and bars and restaurants occupy space along with minimal retail and government services.



We popped into two gift shops, but otherwise simply walked through the downtown. On this afternoon, steak on the grill—from the Farmington Steak House and the VFW Steak Fry—scented the gusty winds. Had it been any other time of day than mid-afternoon, we would have been tempted to dine at one or the other. We weren’t even hungry for ice cream from Cow Interrupted! Ice Cream Studio. Next visit.




Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


Around the corner and a block away from the ice cream shop, this town’s agricultural roots remain visible in an aged grain elevator and grain bins. In too many communities, such vintage elevators have deteriorated or disappeared. I hope Farmington folks understand the historic and aesthetic value of these structures, real assets to the downtown.





Likewise the Lion’s Club street clock that marks a stunning brick building anchoring a corner in the heart of the business district. I love that clock. And the historic building.



And the mural on the side of the Farmington Steak House.





I delighted, too, in the humor of local marketing and the handwritten note posted by the barber. These are the details that give a town character, that personalize a place, that make me want to return.



HOW ABOUT YOU? What draws your interest in a community if you are viewing it for the first time during a pop-in visit?

CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a closer look at that Steak House mural as I publish a second post that has been in draft for a few months.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Honoring the small town feed mill March 6, 2014

The Lonsdale Feed Mill.

The Lonsdale Feed Mill.

SOME TERM THEM “Cathedrals of the Prairie.”

Feed mill, close-up top

I know them simply as “the elevator” or “the feed mill,” the grey structures which, for years, have graced our farming communities.

Feed mill, back of

 They hold memories for me of bouncing in the pick-up truck, seated beside my farmer father, to the Vesta Feed Mill.

Feed mill, truck

Deafening roar of machines grinding corn.

Feed mill, bags of feed

Dust layering surfaces. The memorable smell of ground feed, as memorable as the scent of freshly-cut alfalfa. Stacked bags awaiting pick-up or delivery.

Feed mill, front 2

Like barns, these feed mills and elevators are disappearing from rural America, replaced by more modern structures. Or simply falling apart.

I hold on to fading memories. And I promise to pay photographic reverence to these Cathedrals of the Prairie whenever I can.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Old Glory at the elevator in Castle Rock May 6, 2013

Farmers Mill and Elevator, Inc., Castle Rock, family-owned for 70 years by third generation.

Farmers Mill and Elevator, Inc., Castle Rock, family-owned for 70 years by third generation.

SMALL TOWN GRAIN elevators, like barns, beckon me to photograph them, for I fear that these skyscrapers of the prairie, as some have called them, will someday vanish.

Recently, on a pass through Castle Rock, an unincorporated village located about six miles north of Northfield in Dakota County, I spotted Farmers Mill and Elevator, Inc.

The grey of the elevator complex matched the grey skies in a landscape late in welcoming spring.

Despite that seasonal indifference over which we possess no control, I noticed the prevailing spirit of rural patriotism in an American flag stretching her stars and stripes in the brisk April afternoon wind.

Grey be gone. Red, white and blue flourishes, at least atop the grain elevator in Castle Rock.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Guess the pig’s weight and other farm stories from New Richland July 29, 2011

VENTURE INTO RURAL MINNESOTA—and we’re talking the small farming communities here, not what metro folks call “Greater Minnesota” or “outstate Minnesota”—and you’ll connect to our state’s agrarian roots in some interesting ways.

Take New Richland, for example, a town of 1,200 in southeastern Waseca County. Drive into town and you’ll see the usual grain bins and elevator and other farm-related businesses you would expect in an agricultural community.

A cluster of grain bins in the heart of New Richland.

But then explore a little more and you’ll discover just how much this town values its agricultural heritage. Take the post office. Peek around the corner…

A corner of the New Richland Post Office. Note the grain bins a few blocks away.

Around the post office corner you'll find this mural which reflects the connection between city and country.

A snippet of the country portion of the mural. I wonder how the artist decided what type of tractor to feature?

Country connects to city in this detailed mural.

and you’ll find a mural depicting farm and city.

Now I’ve seen many a mural in my day, and I’d rate this as among the best. I wish I knew who to credit for this detailed artwork that draws the eye along the winding country road, down the train tracks to the grain elevator or along city streets to downtown. But I couldn’t find any information about the mural in a quick online search.

However, I did learn more about New Richland and the pride this community takes in its agricultural roots. Just a few weeks ago the town celebrated its 28th annual Farm & City Days. Events included the usual parade, street dance, bingo, antique car show, medallion hunt and such.

But I found a few activities that definitely say country through and through.

Teams of two competed in the  second annual Chore Boy Race. (Just for the record, girls can participate, too; the winners were Molly Flor and Brandon Mullenbach). Anyway, it’s a contest that involves eggs, milk, hay, grain and wheelbarrows. You can learn more about the competition by clicking here and reading this story in the local newspaper, The Star Eagle.

I found a Chore Boy Race contestant application online and one Farm & City Days Facebook page photo and these rules (some in boldface):  “You must wear all your chore clothes at all times. This includes but is not limited to Boots, Hat, Bibs & Gloves.”

OK then, got that?

If you’d rather use your brain than your brawn, Farm & City Days offers a “Guess the weight of the pig” contest at $1 a guess. The person with the closest guess wins the pig and processing at Morgan’s Meat Market. This year two entrants correctly guessed the exact weight of 208 pounds and agreed to split the hog, according to the Farm & City Days Facebook page.

If you didn’t win the pig, you could still eat pork by buying a pork sandwich meal from the Waseca County Pork Producers at the city park.

Two other agricultural-themed activities included a kids’ tractor pull and a Farm vs. City 3-person Scramble at a golf course.

I’m disappointed I missed Farm & City Days because it sounds like one heckuva good time, as small-town celebrations typically are. But I wouldn’t even have known about this annual farm-city event if I hadn’t been poking around New Richland last Sunday, spotted that mural on the side of the post office and then gone online to learn more about it, which I didn’t, but I did.

This John Deere tractor was parked outside the funeral home in New Richland on Sunday afternoon.

My husband and I stopped in New Richland while on a recent Sunday afternoon drive. Check out my July 24 blog post from this community and watch for future stories and photos from New Richland.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Storm rips through my hometown of Vesta July 2, 2011

WHENEVER ONE of my siblings calls saying, “I just want you to know Mom is OK, but…,” I prepare myself mentally for her latest health crises.

But Friday evening when my sister Lanae reached me via cell phone while my husband and I were en route to a party near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, the news was totally unexpected.

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota had been struck by straight-line winds.

While my mom’s house—once the retirement home of my paternal grandparents—had gone apparently unscathed, other structures in town were damaged. But at least my mother and aunts and uncles and a niece were safe.

In my sister’s early report, which came second-hand via relatives in the area, she shared that half the roof was ripped off our home church, St. John’s Lutheran. Hours later, after arriving home from the party, I found photos in my email in-box of the storm’s destruction. I nearly broke down and cried when I saw my home church with the partially missing roof.

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vesta with the roof half ripped off during the Friday evening storm.

The images also showed damage to the grain elevator and bins in Vesta and trees down on the home place half a mile from town.

Damage to one of the grain bins at the local elevator.

The grain elevator complex, the visual defining landmark in the farming community of Vesta, was ravaged by winds. You'll see the damage near the top of the old grain elevator.

A close-up of the damage wrought upon the old elevator.

Another shot showing some of the debris and damage at the elevator complex.

The wind toppled trees on the farm where I grew up a half mile south of Vesta.

During that phone conversation with my sister, as my husband and I drove along the gravel road toward the gathering with friends, I wanted nothing more than to turn around, pack our suitcase and drive to Vesta 2 ½ hours away.

That’s exactly how I felt more than three decades ago when I lived in Gaylord and the farm where I grew up was hit by a tornado, taking down a silo and tossing grain wagons around the field.

But on this Friday evening, with storms rolling in from the west, I knew this was not practical. I would need to rely on my siblings to keep me informed. My middle brother, who lives in Lamberton some 25 miles away, was on his way to Vesta. I called my two daughters to tell them about the storm.

I wanted so much, though, to also speak with my mom. I needed the comfort of hearing her voice. I wanted to learn about her storm experience. But the phone lines were down in Vesta. Even though Mom owns a cell phone, I doubt she remembers how to use it. She’s never quite adjusted to technology.

And so now it’s Saturday morning and I am exhausted after a night of tossing and turning. Storms do that to me.

Thoughts of my home church—where I was married and attended the funerals of my father, Grandma Kletscher, Grandpa Bode and Uncle Mike—churned through my mind. I worried about where congregants will worship, whether the interior of the church was damaged, if the church, my home church, can be repaired.

I hope today to get some answers and, if I do, I’ll pass that information along to you.

I’ll also share images I shot last night of the storm clouds hanging dark and ominous over the farm site where we gathered with friends for an early Fourth of July celebration.

Nature provided the fireworks—lightning bolt after lightning bolt zig-zagging horizontally across the forbidding sky for hours. Except for some wind and rain, our area escaped the storm that ravaged Vesta and Marshall and other communities to the west.

IF YOU HAVE STORM stories to share from last evening, please submit a comment. KLGR Radio in Redwood Falls is this morning reporting winds of up to 100 mph in Redwood County and the sightings of possible funnel clouds. Click here to read that news report.

FOR THOSE OF YOU UNFAMILIAR with southwestern Minnesota, Vesta sits along State Highway 19 half way between Redwood Falls and Marshall.

Photos courtesy of Brian and Vicki.

©  Copyright 2011 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


Sign, sign, everywhere a sign in Pemberton September 22, 2010

A welcome to Pemberton sign along State Highway 83.

PEM-BER-TON. The word rolls off my tongue in three syllables, a cadence of sound that names a southern Minnesota town.

I’d never been to this community southeast of Mankato on Minnesota Highway 83, only heard of it tacked onto the end of Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton Public Schools.

But Saturday evening I was in Pemberton for a wedding reception and dance. I arrived early, wanting to explore this town of about 250 before heading over to the former school turned community center.

My quick tour revealed the usual run-down, boarded-up old buildings balanced by a well-groomed park and newer homes. Mostly, though, I was intrigued by the signs on downtown buildings.

Pemberton's main street was quiet on Saturday except for wedding guests driving through downtown.

When was the last time you saw a FALLOUT SHELTER sign? I found one tacked onto the front of a boarded brick building whose original purpose I wouldn’t even want to guess. The faint writing at the bottom of the sign warned: NOT TO BE REPRODUCED OR USED WITHOUT DEFENSE DEPARTMENT PERMISSION.

For those of you who grew up during the 1960s, during the Cold War, like me, a FALLOUT SHELTER sign brings back memories of teachers instructing students to duck under desks and protect their heads, as if that was going to do any good in the event of a nuclear attack.

My husband recalls the particular concern about Communist attacks given his central Minnesota school’s “close” proximity to North Dakota missile silos.

Thankfully those Cold War days of hysteria are behind us and many, many years have passed since I’ve seen a FALLOUT SHELTER sign.

A Fallout Shelter sign on a downtown brick building. Another sign, on the door, warns: Harley Parking Only: All Others Will be Crushed.

The brick building upon which the Fallout Shelter sign is posted.

Across the street, I spotted a weathered PIONEER SEEDS sign on an old garage and, as a boy pedaled past on his bicycle, considered how carefree small-town life can sometimes be. I never allowed my children, when they were elementary-aged, to ride their bikes solo in Faribault. But that’s the difference between small towns and mid-sized cities like mine.

An old Pioneer Seeds sign drew my eye to this building.

And you won’t see a sign like this in most towns: WANTED DEER HIDES—Trade For Gloves. Another sign identified a corner white wood frame building with gaudy blue paint trim as White Fox Fur & Feather Company, supplier of natural materials for the fly fishing industry, according to the company Web site.

Turn your deer hides in here, at White Fox Fur & Feather Company, in exchange for gloves.

I wondered if any of the other wedding reception attendees noticed the downtown signs that tell the story of Pemberton, past and present.

At Jamie’s Pemberton Pub, a pit stop for the wedding party, signs informed me of Mexican Night, Texas Hold ‘Em, Pitcher Night, All day Happy Hour, a Steak Fry and the small-town bar standby, karaoke. Obviously, this is “the place” in Pemberton.

Jamie's Pemberton Pub seems to be the happening place in Pemberton.

I wondered about WOOD N STUFF, about the wood stuff built inside the non-descript building with the overhead garage door. The building could use a bit of polishing, maybe some decorative wood work, to draw customers. Or maybe the place is closed.

What types of products are made at Wood N Stuff?

Closed. The Pemberton Café, likely once the local hot spot for coffee and cards, sits forlorn, windows shuttered, grass sneaking through the cracks in the sidewalk, in a scene all too common in rural Minnesota.

The abandoned Pemberton Cafe on the town's main street.

Yet, despite the abandoned buildings, the closed school, Pemberton survives, anchored like all farming communities by the grain elevator. This is home, a town with a busy convenience store, a post office, a beautiful community center, a park for the kids and a FALLOUT SHELTER.

Approaching Pemberton from the east, the grain elevator and bins mark the skyline.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling