Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Christmas at the hardware store December 17, 2020

Ace Hardware in Faribault, photographed at dusk on December 5.

WHEN WE SHOP at the local hardware store, it’s typically to pick up necessities for a home repair. Like last Sunday, Randy ran downtown to Ace to purchase a toilet handle operating system. I can’t even count the number of times he’s replaced this as Faribault’s incredibly hard water corrodes the metal piece inside the tank. My apologies to all you plumbing knowledgeable people for that amateurish explanation. But it’s frustrating. This time Randy opted for plastic.

Ace carries so much more than plumbing and other basic hardware necessities. There’ s a Hallmark card shop inside the store. And a paint center. And everything you need for grilling, including the Big Green Egg, although Randy will never deviate from his charcoal-fired Weber. There are tools and slippers and novelty gift items and…

When I photographed the lot on December 5, there was a wide selection of trees.

If we needed a Christmas tree, we could find that at the hardware store, too. Real trees lined a makeshift tree lot outside the front door when I stopped by on December 5. Currently all live trees, spruce tops, dogwood and porch pots are priced at 50 percent off. While supplies last. And, yes, we’ve been known to wait until just days before Christmas to purchase our tree. Not this year, though. Plus I’ve found my go-to source for Charlie Brown trees at Ken’s Christmas Trees.

The festive Christmas tree lot at Ace offers more than just trees.

As I walked away from Ace Hardware, I paused to photograph the blow-up Nativity scene above the store entry. I’ve seen Santas and snowmen and every other type of outdoor holiday inflatable, but never the Holy Family. How uplifting to view this little family staged there, in a place of honor, as customers hurried in and out of the hardware store.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discovering the character of Pequot Lakes at the hardware store August 17, 2018

This sign hangs on the side of the hardware store. You won’t find a fire warden sign in southern Minnesota.


WHENEVER I VISIT a small town, I am drawn to the details that give a community character. Like Thurlow Hardware and Rental in Pequot Lakes.


The bobber water tower in Pequot Lakes.


I visited this central Minnesota town nearly a year ago. This area and parts north are decidedly different from my home region in the southeastern section of the state. To the north, lakes and woods abound and Paul Bunyan lore is prevalent in tourist attractions, business names and more. Pequot Lakes, for example, features a water tower resembling a Bunyan-sized bobber.


Inside the hardware store are lots of taxidermied animals hanging above the aisles.


A northwoods culture prevails, stamps upon these towns.


I always look for signage that reveals more about the place I am visiting.


These folks also appreciate their heritage.





These details I noticed, along with vintage signage, as I checked out that small town hardware store.

TELL ME: Do you explore small towns? If yes, what draws your interest? Give me a specific example, if you wish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Uniquely Pequot Lakes August 16, 2018


PEQUOT LAKES. That central Minnesota town name rolls off my tongue in a poetic way that pleases me. Pequot Lakes.


Kids walk home from school in Pequot Lakes on a mid-September afternoon.


A short vacation in mid-September 2017 took Randy and me to this community of some 2,000 in the Brainerd Lakes area, a popular summer vacation and weekend destination spot. On the day of our end-of-the-season visit, few people were in Pequot Lakes. I prefer the quiet of an uncrowded location with no hurry, no schedule.






I knew even before we drove into town that I wanted to photograph the unique bobber-shaped water tower that marks the community as a fishing destination. I’ve previously photographed the tower and the Babe the Blue Ox sculpture in Bobber Park.





After finishing that shoot, we poked around town, ducking into Thurlow Hardware and Rental complete with trophy head mounts. While I’m not one who likes suspended dead animal heads, I recognize this as part of the hunting culture. Plus, the trophies make for a memorable visual characterizing Thurlow.





We ended our late Thursday afternoon visit with a quick tour through the Jack Pine Center mini mall.


Art details on the Babe the Blue Ox sculpture.


It was a slow day in Pequot Lakes. Just like some days on the lake, when the bobber floats and the fish don’t bite.


FYI: Please check back for more photos from Thurlow Hardware.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


There’s something about a hardware store May 22, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , ,

PICTURE A SMALL TOWN hardware store and what image comes to mind?

Mine: Narrow aisles, wood floors, loose bolts and nails tucked into cubbies along the wall, and rolls of coiled, perforated caps for cap guns.

That was the 1960s.

Today most hardware stores don’t sell in bulk. Everything’s pre-packaged. I doubt you’ll find caps for a cap gun or wood floors either.

Jerry's ACE Hardware in the small town of Kenyon, Minnesota.

Jerry’s ACE Hardware in the small town of Kenyon (not Faribault), Minnesota.

Yet, the hardware store remains a small town staple, the go-to place for plumbing supplies, mouse traps, paint, other basic essentials of home repair and more.

I live in a community of nearly 25,000, no small town by my definition. Faribault has two hardware stores, one of them, ACE, in the downtown area. The place is busy, always busy. It’s not because prices are low. Rather it’s because of the service.

From the moment you walk in the door, an employee is there to answer your questions, lead you to whatever it is you need. And that worker sticks around until he/she is certain you have what you need. These folks are, for the most part, knowledgeable.

You can’t beat great customer service.

And then there’s that help-yourself-to-a-bag-of-popcorn popcorn machine…

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A sweet surprise on Small Business Saturday in Faribault November 24, 2012

A Small Business Saturday promotional bag with my purchases inside.

“THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING LOCAL,” she said, then handed me a Shop Small shopping bag that contained a $10 Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Chamber Check.

So how’s that for a sweet surprise at Faribault Ace Hardware on Small Business Saturday, a day to support and celebrate small businesses?

My husband and I stopped by our local, friendly hardware store this morning for a cordless drill (on sale already on Black Friday, but two still left on the shelves), drain cleaner and lint traps.

After paying $47.81, Randy perused the winter gloves. And that’s when Barb Larson from the local Chamber thanked us for shopping local, handed me the Shop Small bag and asked to take my photo with her cell phone.

The really interesting thing here is that I knew Chamber folks would be roaming downtown Faribault today handing out those Chamber bucks. I even told my college son we needed to wait until Saturday to shop for shoes at Burkhartzmeyer Shoes for that sole reason.

But I’d forgotten. So the Chamber thank you was, indeed, a surprise.

As soon as the son returns home from dining at Augusto’s Ristorante, a downtown Italian restaurant, which is fabulous by the way, we’ll head a few blocks away to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a third-generation family shoe store. At this shoe store, employees and store owners measure and slip shoes onto your feet and will even repair your shoes. How’s that for small town service?

About half a block from Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, I dropped more money in my downtown, at Keepers Antiques. I’m supporting my local small businesses.

Have you shopped local today or recently?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Long-time North Mankato hardware store closing November 2, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:01 AM
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A view of the North Mankato business district where Mutch Northside Hardware is located.

TWICE IN THE PAST MONTH, I have visited businesses which have since announced plans to close. First I wrote about the Historic Highland Store and Cafe (click here to read that story), slated to close shortly before Thanksgiving.

The owners of Mutch Hardware are retiring this month.

Now, even before I could post about it, I’ve learned that old-fashioned Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato will shut its doors this month. During neither visit was even the slightest hint made to me that these places would soon close.

I really do not know what to say. I do not bring bad luck. I can only conclude that my visits were meant to be, that through my photography I am helping preserve pieces of Minnesota business history. And in the instance of the hardware store, I am also preserving the memories and legacy of the Mutch family.

A view of the old-fashioned hardware store from the upstairs office.

WHEN I MET Dave and Sandy Mutch a month ago, it was a quiet Monday afternoon in their North Mankato hardware store just across the Minnesota River bridge from Mankato.

Dave Mutch behind the original store counter with the original cash register and the original scale (behind him).

Dave was putzing in the back of the store while Sandy worked up front. And as I started poking around, roaming between the narrow aisles, noticing things like bulk nails in bins, an outdated rotary dial telephone, the antique hand crank cash register, a wall calendar dating back to 1969, the creaking wood floor, notes from customers, baseball cards and a turtle shell, Dave eased away from his work.

The store specializes in window repair.

I met a man content with life, happy to help customers—to fix their windows, duplicate keys, mix paint. He seemed in no hurry, his conversation flowing at a slow and easy pace.

Bulk bins of yesteryear, still in use.

I wondered aloud to Dave how his mom-and-pop business could compete against big box retailers. “We’re willing to do what other people won’t do,” he said then. He also noted that his store stocks merchandise that others don’t, although he did not offer specifics.

In this basement workshop space, Dave has spent many an hour through the decades repairing windows.

That focus on friendly customer service was clear to me as Dave led me into the basement of his building constructed and opened in 1926 as a hardware store. He works on windows in the depths of that basement, which also holds excess store merchandise. Eighty-six years as a neighborhood hardware store, and in the Mutch family since 1969. Remarkable.

This dated turtle shells marks the year Harold and Bernice incorporated Mutch Northside Hardware.

Dave’s parents, Harold and Bernice, incorporated Mutch Northside Hardware in 1969, opening in January 1970. Dave worked part-time at his parents’ hardware store while studying business at Mankato State University. He purchased half of the business in 1972. By 1979, he and Sandy, who holds a degree in social work, were full-time owners.

Soon Dave will close and lock the front door for the last time.

Soon they will be retirees. They’ll hold a closing sale and auction and then put the building up for sale.

With this long-time hardware store closing, I have to wonder who will repair the torn screens, who will replace the broken window glass, who will meet the hardware needs of the Mankato area residents dependent on Mutch Hardware for supplies and advice? Who will replace the Mutches’ friendly service? Where will customers find the one-of-a-kind merchandise not stocked at big box retailers?

Who? Where?

There’s a lot to be said for places like Mutch Northside Hardware. A lot.

An aging sign posted in the store along with notes from mothers giving their children permission to purchase paint, etc.

Cans of paint rim the top shelf next to the original tin ceiling in the 1926 building.

Before the Mutch family bought the business, it was Austin North Side Hardware, as noted in this 1969 calendar still hanging in the store.

A customer steps up to the original check out counter, where the wood floor is especially worn.

One of several narrow aisles crammed on both sides with merchandise.

Baseballs cards and a painting of the North Mankato business district add to the cluttered and nostalgic charm of Mutch Hardware.

A seasonal front window display beckons gardeners. Hand-lettered signs in the window advertise window and screen repair and canning supplies. The Mutches did not advertise, relying instead on word-of-mouth to promote their business, Dave said.

The upstairs office with the low tin ceiling and the original rolltop desk.

The back door.

Mutch Hardware’s last calendar.

Soon Mutch Hardware will ring up its final sales on this cash register dating to the early 1900s and close the doors on 86 years of continuous hardware store history in North Mankato.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Canning jars and funeral info at the hardware store July 24, 2011

A sign in the Gambles' hardware store window gives updated visitation and funeral information to the residents of the New Richland area.

SHE PULLED UP ALONGSIDE the curb Sunday afternoon, leaned toward the semi-open window on the passenger side of her van and asked if my husband or I knew why Rodney had died. “He seemed so young,” she said.

“We’re not from here,” I answered. “I have no idea.”

But I had a question for her: “Why is his funeral information in the Gambles’ window?”

She didn’t exactly have a response for me—not one I can publicly share anyway—so I took this as one of those small-town oddities.

Even finding a Gambles hardware store in New Richland, population around 1,200, seemed an oddity. But there it was, sandwiched between New Richland Drug and Blondie’s Grill, along a main drag in this Waseca County community. These hardware stores were common when Randy and I were growing up in the 1960s, but not so much now.

Gambles stores, like this one in New Richland, were once common in Minnesota small towns. From 1925 - 1928, Gamble-Skogmo was headquartered in Fergus Falls and then moved to Minneapolis.

As surprised and delighted as we were to find the Gambles store, we were even more surprised to see that funeral and visitation information posted in the front window next to the canning jars.

But apparently this business place public posting is a usual practice in New Richland since the elderly van driver pulled up in front of Gambles for the sole purpose of checking out the information about Rodney Arnold.

Randy, wanting to know how she defined “seemed so young,” inquired while I snapped photos of that seemingly out-of-place sign in the hardware store window.

“He was maybe in his early 60s,” the woman, probably in her late 70s or early 80s, guessed, then drove off.

For the record, Rodney Arnold was 62. Upon our return home, I went online to Friedrichs Funeral Home and checked. I also learned that this self-employed dry wall installer met his friends every morning for coffee at Dads Good Stuff, just a few doors down from Gambles.

The things you learn if you simply take the time to stop along a small-town Minnesota Main Street…to read the latest funeral information.

The flashy front door of Dads Good Stuff.

Unfortunately, Dads Good Stuff antique, etc., store was closed when we were in New Richland Sunday afternoon.

Just a close-up shot of New Richland's Gambles store, which was closed when we were in town.

READERS: This is the first of many posts I’ll publish this week about a Sunday afternoon drive south to Hope, west to Ellendale and New Richland, north to Otisco and Waseca, and then back home to Faribault, with two country church stops in between.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Appreciating mom-and-pop businesses like Mutch Hardware June 27, 2011

Buildings across the street reflect in the windows of Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato where these signs hang on a front plate-glass window.

“Grass Seed and Fertilizer.”

“We cut glass and plexiglass.”

I didn’t need grass seed or fertilizer or any glass cut. Yet, the signage drew me to the storefront plate-glass window of the hardware store along Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato. How often do you see business signs like this with letters printed in near-perfect penmanship between two penciled ruler lines on white tagboard?

After I admired the simplicity of this advertising in a world of mass-produced, flashy, signage, I noticed the old screen door. That did it. I was smitten with this place, this Mutch Northside Hardware that, from the exterior, reminded me of the small town hardware stores of my youth.

You know, the kind of store where you can buy everything and anything. The place packed with merchandise from floor to ceiling, aisles narrow as a sidewalk crack. Nails and bolts jumbled in scarred cubbies. Belts dangling from hooks on pegboard. Wooden floors that creak.

Mutch Hardware is crammed with merchandise, some of it displayed in the window fronts.

An old ACE Hardware sign decorates the front door where a handwritten sign is posted listing store hours.

I could almost hear the vintage screen door slam shut behind me as I stood outside the closed hardware store, hands cupped around my eyes, peering inside. It was late Saturday afternoon and I was hours too late to step inside Mutch Hardware, much to my disappointment.

But that didn’t stop a flood of memories from washing over me. Memories of going to town with my dad, stopping at Joe Engel’s Hardware store on Vesta’s main street to pick up a few bolts or maybe a belt or something else for the farm.

My siblings and I had another reason for hitching a ride to the southwestern Minnesota hardware store with our dad. Joe Engel’s supplied our ammo—coiled rolls of red-perforated paper pocked with gun powder for our toy cap guns. This was the 1960s, and even though not politically-correct today, an era of playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I remember those days with a depth of fondness that I doubt today’s tech-oriented kids will ever experience.

I would like to take each of them inside a business like Mutch Hardware, where I expect helpful, personal service, care and friendliness accompany each purchase. Places like this seem rare in our fast-paced world of big box stores run by corporations in far away cities. Few mom-and-pop stores can survive in today’s economy. That is reality.

I’m not a prima donna; I shop chain stores as much as anyone. Yet when I see a business such as Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato, I take notice. I appreciate the hardworking men and women who, as independent business owners, still offer us a shopping option.

Outside Mutch Northside Hardware, a place reminiscent of bygone days.

DOES AN OLD-FASHIONED mom-and-pop type business like Mutch Northside Hardware exist in your community, or do you know of one somewhere? I’d like to hear. Tell me about it by submitting a comment.

This image of a section of Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato shows the following businesses, from left: Like-Nu-Cleaners, Christy's Cafe, Mutch Northside Hardware, Skillings & Associates, Dino's Gourmet Pizzeria, Craft-n-Floral Center, the U.S. Post Office, Frandsen Bank & Trust and Bobby Joe's Pub.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling