Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches September 18, 2018

I propped my camera on the grass and tilted it up to snap this photo of the 1894 Valley Grove church, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.

 

A view of a section of the Valley Grove cemetery through a partially open window in the wood-frame church.

 

But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.

 

Duo churches grace the hilltop, the clapboard church replacing the original stone church for worship.

 

Inside the 1894 church with Doug Ohman’s equipment set up for his talk about country churches.

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

Imagine how many preachers preached from this pulpit. Ohman ended his talk with a short “sermon” advising us to view people and situations from the inside rather than the outside. He used a visual–that of a stained glass window appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside.

 

Altar details hold history.

 

We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.

 

Vintage photos and artifacts were propped on windows in the stone church.

 

As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

A woman demonstrated the art of making krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, available for sampling.

 

Old buggies on the grounds added to the sense of history.

 

A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.

 

Valley Grove is an oft-photographed site with photos and artwork of the churches gracing notecards for sale at the country social.

 

This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…

 

 

He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.

 

A snippet of the musical group Hutenanny, which performed under a sprawling oak.

 

Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.

 

As I watched draft horses pull a wagon through the prairie, I imagined immigrant families traversing the prairie also.

 

I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.

 

Efforts have been onging since 2007 to restore the 1862 limestone church.

 

Inside the plain stone church, a rebuilt chandelier adds elegance.

 

The Valley Grove Preservation Society has worked hard to restore both churches. Valley Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

 

It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.

 

Every celebration calls for cake, including this cake served inside the stone church at the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling