Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Little General Store on the Prairie March 27, 2013

I LOVE BERNADETTE THOOFT’S infectious laugh and outgoing personality. And I love what this mother of seven is doing for my hometown.

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

In February she opened The Store: Thrift and More in Vesta, population 330 and the only town along the 40-mile stretch of Minnesota Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and Marshall.

The “more” part of Bernadette’s store includes eight shelving units stocked with foodstuff, personal care items, paper products and more in addition to perishables stashed in nearby coolers.

The grocery section of the store includes basic perishables like dairy products, some fruit, lettuce and more. Canned, boxed and bagged foods, personal care items, and miscellaneous items like greeting cards, tape and such fill eight shelving units.

The grocery section of the store includes basic perishables like dairy products, organic eggs, some fruit, lettuce and more. Canned, boxed and bagged foods; personal care items; and miscellaneous items like greeting cards, tape and such fill eight shelving units.

I don’t know exactly how long my hometown has been without a grocery store. But it’s been awhile. Locals, like my 80-year-old mom, have had to drive 20 miles either east or west to find the nearest grocery store. Now this community’s residents, many of them elderly, need only walk or drive to the west edge of town to buy a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, organic eggs from Bernadette and Matt Thooft’s farm, fruit and an assortment of processed foods that include SPAM, much to my mom’s delight.

This is huge, to have groceries and basic necessities available in Vesta. Bernadette even offered to have her 11-year-old son deliver right to my mom’s doorstep a block away. Such small-town neighborliness simply warms my heart. Many times the good people of Vesta have assisted my mother. And for that, I am grateful.

Looking toward the back thrift section of the floor.

Looking from the front grocery section toward the back thrift area of The Store.

Bernadette tells me she originally hadn’t planned on stocking groceries, rather dedicating her floor space to thrift items that range from kitchenware to toys, books to clothing, gift items to home décor and an assortment of other merchandise.

Vintage glasses in the thrift section.

Vintage glasses in the thrift section.

Bernadette offers a great selection of used books for all ages.

Bernadette offers a great selection of used books for all ages.

You'll also find a selection of clothes.

You’ll also find a shoes and clothing.

One of my favorite finds in The Store, an $8 vintage Pyrex casserole, which I nearly purchased.

One of my favorite finds in The Store, an $8 vintage Pyrex casserole, which I nearly purchased.

But then she started getting requests to carry groceries. So Bernadette decided to buy food and products her family can use. That way, if items don’t sell, she doesn’t lose anything. Once a week this entrepreneur mother drives the 20 miles west to Hy-Vee Foods in Marshall, reselling her purchases in Vesta at a slightly marked up price that will help cover gas expenses.

Jason Kramer stops in to buy a few grocery items from Bernadette.

Jason Kramer stops in to buy a few grocery items from Bernadette.

Already several local families come to The Store once a week to purchase their groceries, she says. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, Jason Kramer popped in from his home across the street to pick up Oreos, chips, bread and milk. He calls opening of The Store “flippin’ awesome.”

It is that type of enthusiasm Bernadette hopes for from other Vesta area residents. She needs their support, and business off the highway, to make her venture work in this isolated prairie town.

Just another view of the store with Bernadette bagging Jason's purchases.

Just another view of the store and Bernadette’s office with Bernadette bagging Jason’s purchases.

In the short time I perused the store and spoke with Bernadette, several others stopped in—two middle schoolers to eye the toy collection and eventually purchase candy, a middle-aged couple scanning thrift items and then Jason for his groceries. I walked out with a kettle for my college-aged son and my husband grabbed packaging tape and a dispenser.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store. Those are our purchases on the counter, that kettle and tape.

Bernadette says she’s aiming to recreate a Mom and Pop general store with a little bit of everything. I was delighted to find candy lining the 1800s checkout counter, reminding me of the penny candy I bought at Rasmussen’s Grocery while growing up in Vesta. The vintage counter, purchased from a Lake Benton antique store, originated from a general store between Lake Benton and Brookings, South Dakota. It’s the perfect fit for The Store, lending that historic authenticity reminiscent of yesteryear.

Like the old-fashioned general store, Bernadette has set up candy display, including my favorite Tootsie Pops.

Like the old-fashioned general store, Bernadette has set up a candy display, including my favorite Tootsie Pops.

I can remember when Vesta boasted two hardware stores, several restaurants/bars and a grocery store along with other businesses, in its one-block Main Street.

Rarely does a new business open here. But Bernadette, who lives on a farm near Lucan seven miles to the south, was looking to locate along the highway, conveniently next door to her husband’s business, Matt’s Frame Repair.

A young customer exits The Store, left, while three of the Thooft kids, including Maxwell, 4, and Beatrice, 21 months, hang out with Mom.

A young customer exits The Store, left, while three of the Thooft kids, including Maxwell, 4, and Beatrice, 21 months, hang out with Mom. The Thooft’s children include an 11-year-old, two 7-year-olds, two 4-year-olds, a 3-year-old and a 21-month-old.

She likes that Matt can walk over for lunch and spend time with her and the kids, ranging in age from 21 months to 11 years. She affectionately calls her seven, five of them birth children, two adopted, “the hoodlums.” The kids hang out in a room built into a corner of the poleshed style building.

Look around and you'll see Bernadette's sense of humor in signage and props like this doll perched upon the cash register.

Look around and you’ll see Bernadette’s sense of humor in signage and props like this doll perched upon the cash register.

While the kids play and Matt naps in that corner playroom, Bernadette tends to customers on this Saturday afternoon in March. Her laptop sits open on her desk, her reference source for the thrift merchandise purchased primarily from online auctions and also from garage sales.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

Bernadette is donating 10 percent of thrift sale proceeds to local charities like the United Way, a crisis nursery, area schools and the broader Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. She’s also created a “Believe in the Backpack” charity whereby she fills backpacks for kids in foster care.

In the short time I’ve spent with Bernadette, it’s clear to me that this Osakis native and former daycare provider loves kids and cares about folks in my hometown enough to open her own little general store on the prairie. And for that I am grateful.

This sign graces the front of The Store: Thrift and More.

This sign graces the front of The Store: Thrift and More.

FYI: The Store: Thrift and More is open from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday; and with varied hours on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Tuesday.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


You will never believe what I saw in the grocery store today December 2, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:56 PM
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SO…I’M STROLLING down the produce aisle at HyVee in Faribault this afternoon, romaine lettuce dropped in my shopping cart, aiming for the tofu, when I spot the dogs. Two smallish white dogs nestled on a plaid bed inside a white-haired woman’s shopping cart.

I may have stood there for a moment with my mouth agape. I wanted to say something like, “Lady, what are you doing with your dogs in a grocery store?”

But, to be honest, I was so stunned that I weaved around her and continued on my way, all the while wondering why anyone, except those who have service dogs, would think it alright to bring these obviously pampered pets into a grocery store.

I saw dogs similar to this one (except white fur) in the grocery store today. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I saw dogs similar to this one, except with white fur, in the grocery store today. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Is this even legal in Minnesota? I would think not for a variety of reasons, the first being health concerns.

I would not want to be the next customer placing my food in that cart.

I suppose, in hindsight, I should have tracked down a manager and registered my concern.

But I didn’t.

Am I wrong? Is it OK to bring a non-service dog into a grocery store?

I once saw a woman shopping in a women’s clothing store with a dog tucked in the crook of her arm. I was appalled then. But this, this grocery store sighting tops even that.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Hastings: The comfortable familiarity of an old-fashioned grocery store November 1, 2012

Reissner’s Meats & Grocery in historic downtown Hastings, Minnesota.

YOU KNOW HOW SOMETIMES, when you step into a place, you feel like you’ve been there before, but you haven’t.

That would be Reissner’s Meats and Grocery in historic downtown Hastings.

Third-generation owner Dick Reissner.

Entering this narrow two-aisle store with a mustachioed, gray-haired shopkeeper in a butcher’s apron leaning on the front counter, I experienced a sense of familiarity tracing back to my childhood. Reissner’s reminds me of the corner grocery in my hometown of Vesta where I purchased my favorite Tootsie Pop suckers, Bazooka bubble gum and yellow packs of Juicy Fruit gum from the candy counter on many a trip to town with Mom.

Honestly, I cannot remember much else about Rasmussen’s Grocery except the candy and the wood floors and the big old screen door that banged shut behind me.

Aisle one with the candy counter to the left.

Reissner’s in Hastings possesses that same nostalgic feel, even a vintage look in the red-and-white tile floors, the mishmash of merchandise, the hulking and energy-sucking open cooler that holds pop, and the price stickers adhered to canned foods and more.

Dick Reissner reads at the front counter while I explore his store.

Richard (Dick) Otto Reissner was preoccupied with reading when I walked in on a recent Saturday afternoon and didn’t seem to want to be bothered. So I didn’t query him with the list of questions formulating in my mind as I perused the aisles.

Vintage photos which clued me in as to the history of this place.

Therefore I have no stories to share with you about this third-generation family business. Only photos.

The exterior sign, which dates the business to 1902.

I totally forgot to search for the lefse or ask about  Grandma Ruth.

The vintage toys, etc., are not for sale.

An old, old cooler…

How often do you see price stickers on food anymore?

I have no clue, none, why there’s a saddle, right, in the grocery store.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Expecting better customer service December 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:55 AM
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EVERY FOUR TO SIX WEEKS, my husband and I make a major grocery shopping trip with a divide and conquer plan. It’s easier that way.

With two lists and two carts, we work the store. He handles most of the meat and fruit selection, the snack aisle and dairy products. I take the rest. The tag team approach gets us in and out of the store faster. Less time in the store, less money spent.

Wednesday evening, however, after all 68 items had been scanned, my husband slid a gift card through the payment system and our plan disintegrated. The computer locked up. We wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

I realize these things happen. But the manager, rather than deal with the situation in a calm, professional manner, became visibly and verbally flustered. His agitation only added to my frustration.

I didn’t need to hear that this lock-up has happened previously on this computer with gift cards. Fix the darned thing then, alright.

While we stood there, the check-out clerk and two other employees moved, unbagged, rescanned and repacked all 68 items at an adjacent check-out lane.

Meanwhile, the manager directed other shoppers away from the “bad” lane and simultaneously paged for assistance. He finally realized that flicking off the lane light would effectively steer shoppers away from the malfunctioning computer.

When the final grocery bill of $118.02 was rung up for the second time, I expected perhaps a discount or a gift card as a good will expression of apology. That didn’t happen. We were simply reminded, for about the umpteenth time, that this problem has previously occurred and that, had we waited for the frozen computer to be fixed, we would have stood there at least 10 minutes.

Like we weren’t anyway. Waiting for more than 10 minutes.

Let’s all repeat these two words together umpteen times: “Good customer service.”

SHOULD THE MANAGER have responded differently? Tell me about an experience with customer service–good, bad or otherwise. Just keep your comments family-friendly and libel-free.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thanks for the laughs, Wisconsin September 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:59 PM
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WISCONSINITES, YOU MAKE me laugh. A cow mooing in the produce department of a grocery store? Honestly. Seriously. How funny is that?

So here’s how this bovine encounter played out. About two months ago my husband, son and I stopped at the StoneRidge Piggly Wiggly in Wautoma in east central Wisconsin to pick up deli meat for a picnic lunch.

This was right after we stopped at The Milty Wilty drive-in for an ice cream treat. But that’s another story for another day.

I walked into the Piggly Wiggly and dawdled in the produce department while my husband headed to the deli counter. Then I heard a cow mooing.

What the heck? I was not in a barn.

But, I was in Wisconsin.

Because I am nearly deaf in one ear, I cannot distinguish the source of sound. So I just stood there for awhile among the apples and lettuce and array of other fruits and vegetables attempting to decipher the source of that bellowing cow.

Then I walked over to the deli counter and told my husband, “I just heard a cow mooing.”

The woman standing next to him started laughing and then explained: “Whenever water sprays onto the vegetables, the cow moos. Makes me laugh every time.” I didn’t even ask her to tell me how that rigged up system works.

But I did think to myself, since this is a Piggly Wiggly store, perhaps a squealing pig would be more appropriate. But then again, maybe not; I was in the Dairyland State, after all.

A few other things you should know about Wautoma’s Piggly Wiggly. The grocery store, which also includes StoneRidge Meat, smells like smoked meat. Some folks might like that smell; I don’t happen to be one of them.

If you need to drop off a deer for processing, follow the signage at the back of the store for deer deposit.

I took this picture of StoneRidge Piggly Wiggly, with that deer out front, last winter.

Signage for deer drop off at the back of the Piggly Wiggly complex.

And just in case you would like a brat, which seems to be another of those Wisconsin “things,” you can stop at Uncle Butch’s Brat Barn right outside the Piggly Wiggly. It wasn’t open when we were there, but I bet my husband wished it had been. He loves brats. Me, not so much.

The brat barn, not to be confused with a dairy or pig barn. You can purchase StoneRidge meats here.

But I sure enjoyed my experience at the Piggly Wiggly, right down to the “Pig Point$” sign I read when I walked out the door.

Thanks for the laughs, Wisconsin neighbors.

Please, may I have some Pig Points? I don't know what they are, but I think I'd like some.

IF YOU ARE A WISCONSIN resident and would like to share some other unique quirks about your state, I’d like to hear. Ditto if you are a traveler and have discovered some interesting finds in the Dairyland State. Oh, and if you are a non-Minnesotan and have found quirks in my home state, share those, too. I’d like to hear how others view Minnesota. Submit a comment.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An old-fashioned grocery store, moosehead and all, thrives in Ellendale August 5, 2011

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg's Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine.

WHEN ANDREW LERBERG bagged a moose in northern Minnesota in 1919, the animal was brought by rail to Ellendale and the moosehead proudly displayed in the family’s grocery store.

Ninety-two years later, that moosehead still hangs at Lerberg’s Foods, above a framed photo of Andrew with his trophy and above processed fruits and vegetables stacked on grocery store shelves.

Look down the grocery aisle to your left and you'll see the moosehead that is part of Lerberg's lore.

Ross Sletten, who purchased the business in 2007 from Andy Lerberg, will tell you the moosehead came with the store and that originally the rifle used to shoot the animal rested in its antlers. Not any more. Times have changed.

But not everything has changed at Lerberg’s. The original tongue-and-groove maple floor, tin ceiling, small-town-friendly atmosphere and more speak to the history of this 1914 brick building and to the long-standing grocery store owned by three generations of Lerbergs—Andrew, who started the business (in another building) in 1901, Arthur and Andy.

The original tongue-in-groove maple floor in front of the meat counter.

The produce department of Lerberg's Foods.

Ross began working at Lerberg’s in 1976 and, on a recent Sunday, three of his five kids—Brett, 18, Cassidy, 14, and Noah, 12—were all working at the store that anchors a corner of the main street in Ellendale, population around 600.

This long-time employee, now owner/manager, is clearly proud of his grocery store, which he claims is the oldest grocery store in Steele County and the second oldest in Minnesota.

That’s easy to believe when you walk upon the worn tongue-and-groove floor between the narrow aisles—of which there are three—pause to appreciate the tin ceiling, and listen to Ross. He’ll tell you about the tailor who had a shop in the store’s current-day upstairs office or about the eggs, ducks and chickens locals once traded for goods.

He’ll point out the store’s original coffee grinder resting on a shelf above the dairy section or direct your attention to the original wooden butcher block back in the meat department and still in use today (grandfathered in, he says).

Lerberg's Foods owner/manager Ross Sletten points out the original butcher block, which he still uses.

Cassidy Sletten, 14, checks out groceries on a Sunday morning.

He runs a business which, on a Sunday morning, teems with customers—folks picking up a few groceries after church, kids treating themselves to slushies from the machine at the front of the store, a 9-year-old purchasing several cartons of eggs for his mom, a guy buying three bags of water softener salt.

Located just the right distance (meaning too far) from Albert Lea, Austin, Owatonna and Mankato, the store draws customers who will shop locally rather than drive to regional hub cities, Ross says. He can offer competitive prices, he says, through his supplier, Nash Finch.

A street-side sign in Lerberg's front window thanks customers for their patronage.

Already, 12-year-old Noah Sletten is thinking about his future and maybe someday taking over the business. “I think it would be kind of fun to own something old,” Noah says, then smiles.

For someone like me, who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota and frequented a grocery store with tongue-and-groove floors, a tin ceiling, a candy counter (where I bought my favorite Bazooka bubblegum for a penny), a toy rack and groceries lining two aisles, discovering Lerberg’s Foods brought back so many memories. I couldn’t get enough of this old-time style store.

The only thing missing, I told 14-year-old check-out clerk Cassidy Sletten before leaving her family’s store, was the old-style screen door that would bang behind me. She gave me a puzzled look.

“Ask your dad,” I said, smiled, and walked out the door.

Candy at the end of a check-out counter tempts kids. There are peanuts for the adults.

And right before you walk out the door, you'll see this strategically-placed rack of toys.

A side view of the grocery store looking toward the main street through Ellendale. A customer is carrying a bag of water softener pellets, stacked in front of the pop machine. The slushie slurping kids had to temporarily give up their hang-out spot so he could grab three bags of salt.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Snow peas at the farmers’ market February 18, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:45 AM
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Faribault Farmers' Market sign, photographed during the summer.

MY HUSBAND AND I HAD some fun recently at our teen’s expense.

We were talking about food samples at the grocery store and I was raving about the bread. My spouse was telling me about the fish from Vietnam and how a shopper declared he wouldn’t eat anything from that country because of the parasites. I’m guessing he was a Vietnam War veteran.

Our son caught snippets of our conversation, remaining checked out for most of the exchange as is typical of him. Apparently any words said by the parents are not worthy of his full attention.

That is why, whenever he jumps into the middle of a discussion, his statements usually make no sense.

“What, you got bread at the farmer’s market?” he interjected into our grocery store sample conversation.

Now if we were teenagers, my husband and I would have rolled our eyes. But we didn’t.

One of us responded with something like, “You think there’s a farmers’ market in winter?” Well, maybe in some communities, but not in Central Park in Faribault, Minnesota, in February, even if the temp soared to nearly 50 degrees recently.

Besides, we added, it’s not like the local vendors would have any fresh fruits and vegetables to sell.

Then my husband, who possesses a sense of humor that balances my seriousness, thought for a moment.

Of course, he said, they could sell iceberg lettuce and snow peas, and, I added, freeze pops and snow cones.

And, oh, yeah, the Dairy Queen folks could peddle Blizzards.

By that time, the teen had already begun checking out. I could see it in his rolling eyes, in the dismissive shake of his head, in the vibe that indicated he thought his parents were nuts.

We just laughed.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling