Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

En route to the Red River Valley of Minnesota November 6, 2018

Somewhere on a back road between Detroit Lakes and Hendrum.

 

TRAVELING NORTHWEST TOWARD the Red River Valley from Detroit Lakes last Thursday morning, I thought I was mentally prepared for the vastness, the flatness that define this area. I am, after all, a native of the southwestern Minnesota prairie. And I’ve been to Fargo-Moorhead, which is tabletop flat.

 

Trucks hauling crops are the most common vehicles on roads in these parts this time of year.

 

But this route was different. This nearly 1.5 hour drive took Randy and me off the interstate and onto back county roads and state highways as we aimed toward Hendrum in Norman County. At times we drove for endless miles without sighting another vehicle. It’s unsettling to feel such isolation, to know that you are miles between towns, that the distance between farm places stretches farther and farther.

 

Our route took us through several small towns, including Borup just 20 miles southeast of Hendrum.

 

Yet, I tried to make the best of this drive to visit friends who once lived in Faribault. A job relocated the family of seven to this town of 300 some 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead along U.S. Highway 75.

 

Mountains of sugar beets are prevalent in this region.

 

As we headed toward Hendrum, Randy and I, both Minnesota farm-raised, observed the progress of harvest—seemingly slowed by too much rain. In places, mud from farm equipment stamped the roadway and signs warned of slippery surfaces. Acres and acres of corn remain to be harvested. Muddy conditions, however, apparently don’t stop the picking of sugar beets, a major crop in this region. Our friends’ oldest son works at a sugar beet plant as he saves money to attend a college in Washington, D.C. I can only imagine the cultural shock of moving from remote northwestern Minnesota to our nation’s capital.

 

Clusters of grain bins are common in this agricultural area.

 

This is an area that truly is Red River Valley flat, that seems to an outsider rather desolate. But, framed in a positive way, it is a peaceful place. Wide. Spacious. Uncluttered by traffic and housing developments.

 

 

It is a land marked by grain bins and by small town elevators, which can be seen for miles—seven miles once, Randy noted.

 

 

It is a land marked, too, by rectangles of stacked bales rising like barges along our route toward the Red River.

 

 

Here the land and sky seem endless.

 

 

Here agriculture anchors the economy.

 

 

Although I couldn’t live here given the flatness, the remoteness, I can appreciate that others call this place home.

TELL ME: Have you been to the Red River Valley of Minnesota or neighboring North Dakota?

RELATED: Check out this story (click here) by Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio about a Sugar Beet Museum in Minnesota.

CHECK BACK as I take you into Hendrum. You won’t want to miss the humor of Hendrum.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Exploring Red Wing Part III: Down by the river August 28, 2018

RED WING IS ABOUT POTTERY and shoes and history. But it’s also about the river. The Mighty Mississippi.

 

A view of Red Wing from the Bay Point Park area shows Barn Bluff and the bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin.

A view of Red Wing from the Bay Point Park area shows Barn Bluff and the bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin.

 

A brief visit to this southeastern Minnesota river town in the fall of 2014 led me to the water, to Bay Point Park, a lovely riverside respite. Here, on an afternoon when the autumn wind blew brisk with cold, I photographed boats, bluff, bridge, bins and boat houses.

 

Recreation (boats) and commerce (grain elevator and bins) mingle here.

Recreation (boats) and commerce (grain elevator and bins) mingle along the Mississippi.

 

Red Wing is one of those naturally beautiful communities where the muse of the river lures you in. Water does that. Here, standing in the park, I could see the commerce, the recreation, the history, the appeal and importance the Mississippi River holds in Red Wing.

 

Another view from the Bay Point Park area.

Another view from the Bay Point Park area.

 

And I considered then what power this waterway possesses, flowing 2,350 miles from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, through towns like Red Wing, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

The historic Boat House Village draws lots of interest.

The historic Boat House Village draws lots of interest.

 

sculpture

This sculpture of a young Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator born in Little Falls, MN., stands in Bay Point Park.

 

Lots and lots of boats.

Lots and lots of boats. The city of Red Wing operates the Ole Miss Marina, in two locations in the city.

 

Trains run along the river by the grain elevators.

Trains run along the river by the grain elevators.

 

The side tourists don't always see, or photograph.

The side tourists don’t always see, or photograph.

 

The iconic Red Wing logo graces a grain elevator.

The iconic Red Wing logo graces a grain elevator.

 

FYI: Click here and here to read my previous posts on Red Wing.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Observing the Minnesota harvest October 25, 2016

A farm site between Kenyon and Faribault.

A farm site between Kenyon and Faribault.

ALONG GRAVEL ROADS and across fields, farm machinery kicked up dust, shrouding rural southeastern Minnesota in pockets of hazy grey.

Somewhere southeast of rochester.

Somewhere southeast of Rochester.

Dust sometimes trailed plumes behind tractors.

All American Co-op in Stewartville Saturday afternoon.

All American Co-op in Stewartville Saturday afternoon.

The elevator in Hayfield.

Grain bins in Hayfield.

In small towns, tractors pulling grain wagons and trucks loaded with corn or soybeans waited at local elevators.

Bees wings accumulating along Main Street in Hayfield.

Bees wings (chaff from corn cobs) accumulate along Main Street in Hayfield.

And bees wings drifted, tinting Main Street and sidewalks red.

Near Root River County Park in Olmsted County.

Near Root River County Park in Olmsted County.

Near Wanamingo...

Near Wanamingo…

In township after township after township, I observed farmers gathering in the crops and working the land on Saturday. A good drying day. Sunshine and crisp temps. Perfect to finish the harvest.

A cluster of bins near Hayfield.

A cluster of bins by Hayfield.

A day trip drive this time of year requires patience as combines, trucks and tractors clog roadways, slowing traffic. But that’s OK. Sometimes we need to creep along, to simply appreciate this land and the farmers who plant, tend and gather in the crops.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When the polka music fades in Seaforth December 10, 2015

Northbound on Redwood County Road 7 just minutes from Seaforth.

Northbound on Redwood County Road 7 just minutes from Seaforth.

ON MY LAST VISIT back to my native southwestern Minnesota in late October, my husband and I drove through Seaforth. This community of 86 residents lies seven miles to the east of my hometown of Vesta in Redwood County.

A farm site along CR 7 near Seaforth.

A farm site along CR 7 near Seaforth.

When I was growing up, my school bus passed Seaforth en route to Wabasso, stopping along the way to pick up farm kids.

The former post office in Seaforth. Like so many small town post offices, the one in Seaforth was closed.

Like so many small town post offices, the one in Seaforth was closed by the U.S. Postal Service.

On occasion I attended a funeral, bridal shower or wedding at the Lutheran church in Seaforth at a parish that, because of diminishing congregational size, closed years ago. The church is now a house.

One of the many buttons my mom saved from Seaforth Polka Days.

One of the many buttons my mom saved from Seaforth Polka Days.

As a teen and young adult, I sometimes attended Seaforth Polka Days, an annual July event featuring, as you would expect, polka bands. For 42 years, Seaforth has hosted this celebration and billed itself as “The Smallest Polka Town in the Nation.” That will be no more, I learned from my mom, who today resides in an assisted living apartment in Belview the next town north of Seaforth. Mom didn’t know details. So I turned to the internet and found this July 14 entry on the Seaforth Polka Days Facebook page:

It is the end of an era, the booster club has decided that this will be the last year for polka days. Every year becomes harder to find enough volunteers to work and crowds have been smaller as well. Let’s make this year one to remember. Spread the word that it will be the last, for those who always planned to come one of these years or for those who have fond memories from years past this weekend will be your last chance to celebrate polka days in Seaforth!

Still open or shuttered, I don't know.

Still open or shuttered, I don’t know.

Such decisions to end large-scale small town celebrations are not uncommon. Year after year, the same locals often find themselves planning and working these events.

A scene in the heart of Seaforth.

A scene in the heart of Seaforth.

Yet, Seaforth isn’t totally giving up. Area residents are still planning a 2016 community celebration during the last full weekend in July: softball games, bean bag toss competition, the fire department fundraising supper, tractor pulls, a DJ and one polka band (instead of many) and “buckets of beer.”

On the north edge of Seaforth, even the grain elevator is closed.

On the north edge of Seaforth, even the grain elevator is closed.

Now they’re soliciting names. Online Facebook suggestions thus far include C4th Small Town Days, C4th Clear Creak (sic) Days, C4th Clear Creak (sic) Fest, C4th Hometown Days, C4th Summer Days, Polka Days Part 2 and, finally, Redneck Fest.

Look closely, and you can see the faded words "Farmers

Look closely, and you can see the faded words “Farmers Grain Co.”

Thoughts, on any of this?

Last I knew, my Uncle Milan owned this grain elevator complex. I don't know whether he still does.

Last I knew, my Uncle Milan owned this grain elevator complex. I don’t know whether he still does.

Do you help plan and work at a small town celebration? Do you attend small town celebrations? Let’s hear. Why are such events important to rural communities like Seaforth?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Heading back home to the southwestern Minnesota prairie for Christmas December 26, 2010

We drove along U.S. Highway 14 as we traveled to southwestern Minnesota for Christmas. This stretch is between the Sanborn corners and Lamberton.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, my family and I celebrated Christmas Eve with my mom and four of my five siblings, and their families, “back home” on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

It was my mom’s wish that all of us be there, attending Christmas Eve church services with her at our home church, St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta.

Our Christmas together was as wonderful and memorable and as full of laughter and love as I expected it would be.

Initially, I doubted that we would make the 2 ½-hour trip west given the steady snow that began falling early Christmas Eve, slicking the highways and creating difficult driving conditions. But by the time we left Faribault around 2:30 p.m. Friday, the snow had stopped and major highways were clear.

So, with the trunk packed full of luggage, air mattresses and sleeping bags, presents and coolers, the five of us crammed ourselves into the car (along with pillows and board games on our laps) for the journey to Redwood County. We were headed first to my brother’s house just north of Lamberton.

When we got to New Ulm, nearly 1 ½ hours into the trip, I dug my camera out of the camera bag wedged near my feet and snapped occasional photos of the prairie. It is the land I most love—the place my kids call “the middle of nowhere.”

A train travels east along U.S. Highway 14 between Essig and Sleepy Eye while we travel west.

I love this land of plowed fields and wide open spaces, of small-town grain elevators occasionally punctuating the vast skies, of cozy farm sites sheltered by barren trees.

I love, especially, the red barns accented by the fresh-fallen snow, portraying an agrarian beauty that perhaps only someone who grew up on a farm can appreciate.

As much as I have disliked all of the snow we’ve had this winter, I saw only a beautiful winter wonderland when I was back home for Christmas on the prairie.

The sun begins setting over the prairie as we head west, passing through Sleepy Eye and Springfield before reaching Lamberton. We saw only occasional glimpses of sun on a mostly gray day.

The elevators in Sleepy Eye. Small-town prairie elevators like this can be seen for miles away.

One of many picturesque barns along U.S. Highway 14.

Elevators and trains are a common site along U.S. Highway 14 in the rich farmland of southwestern Minnesota. We've nearly reached our destination when I photograph this elevator complex near sunset.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling