Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

First impressions of downtown Madison, Wisconsin June 11, 2018

 

 

AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T particularly like big cities, and I realize that term is relative, I like Madison. That surprised me.

 

The modernistic entrance to the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

 

The Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

 

But on my recent first visit to Wisconsin’s capital city of 252,000-plus, I discovered a downtown that mixes historic and contemporary to create an energetic, yet small town inviting, vibe. Granted, I only spent an hour downtown and popped into only one shop on a Sunday morning. But that was enough for me to grasp a sense of place, a place I want to explore further.

 

 

Looking toward the capitol.

 

 

This is a foot-friendly city with State Street, a pedestrian mall, stretching for blocks from the University of Wisconsin—Madison to the state capitol building. This is also a bike-friendly city. I noted, too, many restaurants with outdoor dining along tree-hugged streets. Madison visually impresses with its greenery seemingly everywhere.

 

 

With the exception of homeless people I observed alongside a building near the capitol, I never felt like I was in an overpowering-to-my-senses urban area.

 

 

 

 

I felt, instead, like I was in greater Boston, which has the same smallish within a large metro area feel. Pie-slice street corners and angled buildings remind me of Porter and Davis Squares on the East Coast. Just less busy with pedestrians actually respectful of motor vehicle traffic.

 

 

Likewise, the packed, porch-fronted old houses of the downtown Madison area neighborhoods remind me of the old neighborhoods around Tufts University (where my son attended college) in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I expect had UW-Madison been in session, I would have seen lots of college students in the heart of this city given the university’s downtown location.

 

 

 

 

I found plenty to focus my attention. Architecture and signage always draw my interest and Madison offers visual variety in both.

 

 

After an hour-long tour through downtown with family, I determined that I need to return, to step inside the buildings, the places, that define the center of this capital city.

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Madison, what would you suggest I see on my next visit? Please check back for two more posts from Madison, including one on Bucky Badger craziness.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Embracing Shattuck-St. Mary’s outreach into the Faribault community May 4, 2018

An arch frames Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

THURSDAY EVENING I ATTENDED a free concert by the Minnesota Sinfonia. At Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault.

This evening, if I choose, I can attend “The Wizard of Oz on Ice.” Again, at no charge and on the campus of Shattuck, a prestigious private prep school in Faribault. The Shattuck-St. Mary’s Figure Skating Club show begins at 7 p.m. in the SSM Sports Complex.

 

The Shattuck-St. Mary’s Crack Squad performs in the 2015 Faribault Memorial Day parade. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Then, at 1 p.m. Sunday, I can attend a Town Drill. Again, at no charge, at Shattuck and at 1 p.m. in Johnson Gym. The Wooden Soldiers Drill Team, celebrating its 100th anniversary, performs along with The Crack Squad. That precision drill squad first performed in 1882.

 

In the Shumway Hall entry hall, carolers sing for Christmas Walk guests. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I appreciate how Shattuck continues to open its doors to the community through free events like these and the annual Campus Christmas Walk and community Easter Egg Hunt. And I appreciate, too, the Fesler-Lampert and Acoustic Roots Performing Arts Series which brings musicians, theatre and more to this historic campus. I attended the St. Paul-based History Theatre’s “Sweet Land the musical” here in October. Had Shattuck not brought the production to Faribault, I never would have seen this show based on one of my favorite movies.

 

The Shattuck-St. Mary’s campus features beautiful stone buildings constructed in the 1800s, including Shumway Hall with its landmark bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the arts series events are typically pay-for shows, the Sinfonia concert on Thursday was free, as are all concerts by this Twin Cities-based orchestra. For someone like me who has only been to an orchestra concert several times in her life, this is an absolute gift. To listen to music ranging from soothing to barn dance raucous by professional musicians in such an historic theatre simply made me happy. Several times I tipped my head back to take in the wood-wrapped walls and ceiling, then turned to view sunlight streaming colors through clustered narrow stained glass windows. The cool of the evening wafted through open windows as did the chimes of the Shumway Hall clock tower bell. Musicians, in a quirky interruption, paused to let the chimes ring before continuing their concert.

 

The Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the Shattuck campus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As the Sinfonia director noted, Shattuck could be a setting for a Harry Potter movie. I agree. This place of massive, aged stone buildings has that look. It feels more like a college campus than a prep school excelling in academics, the arts and sports. I am grateful for its presence in Faribault. And I am grateful for a school that welcomes the community onto its campus.

If you’ve never been to Shattuck, I’d encourage you to attend an event there, to take in the historic beauty of this place on Faribault’s east side.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II March 9, 2018

 

WHEN I SEE A COMMUNITY like Sleepy Eye with so many architecturally-pleasing historic buildings, I wish I could wave a financial wand.

 

 

If I could, I would sweep away the metal, the wood, the stucco, the fake fronts that hide the bones of these beautiful, mostly-brick, structures. I would restore them to their grandeur, drawing the interest of motorists passing through this southwestern Minnesota community. I would give people a reason to stop, to check out the architecture, the unique small town shops and eateries. Many do. More could.

 

Details like this curved, ornate railing on city hall add visual interest and charm.

 

I would also make this busy main street more pedestrian and visually-friendly with bump-out corners graced by public art and lovely flower planters.  I would replace concrete sidewalks with brick, or at least edge them in brick. I’d buy some paint and repair windows and fix unsafe and run-down buildings…if only I held a magical wand of unlimited finances.

 

This map, from a vintage Orchid Inn promo, shows Sleepy Eye’s location in southwestern Minnesota.

 

With US Highway 14, a major east-west roadway running right through Sleepy Eye, heavy traffic is already here. And the bonus of this route as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway adds to the potential.

 

These architecturally detailed buildings hold Sleepy Eye’s history in dates and names.

 

You have to look upward to see the true beauty of these historic buildings.

 

A rooster weather vane drew my interest atop city hall, housed in a former bank.

 

If I had unlimited financial resources, I would do all of these things for this Brown County community west of New Ulm. But magical wishes differ from reality. It takes money to make these improvements. And I expect the merchants here, like those in so many small farming communities, are simply happy they’re still in business given competition from regional shopping centers, Big Box stores and online sources.

 

In numerous buildings I noted lovely tile, inside and out.

 

Yet, small towns like Sleepy Eye offer an alternative, a welcome break from the sameness of mass everything. Places like Sleepy Eye Stained Glass draw customers from all over to purchase stained glass supplies or to get stained glass windows and more restored. Three local antique shops, other shops and the friendliness and service of small town proprietors are additional draws. Schweiss Meats is a popular place for those who appreciate small town meat markets.

 

The old Pix Theatre needs lots of work inside and out. The intention is to save and restore the marquee, according to EDA Coordinator Kurk Kramer.

 

Within a year or so, two local physicians hope to reopen the abandoned Pix Theatre as a nano-brewery and coffee shop, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk K. Kramer. He also runs K & J Antiques and Collectibles. If all goes as planned, the former Orchid Inn motel and event center will become AGlobal, a STEM-based learning center with a focus on agriculture. Additionally, the Orchid would house a language immersion institute.

 

 

 

 

Those plans show me people are working hard to keep this community thriving, with businesses that distinguish Sleepy Eye from other small Minnesota towns. EDA Coordinator Kramer noted that Sleepy Eye is also home to a business (Mark Thomas Company) which serves the funeral home industry by producing such products as handcrafted wooden urns. Who knew? Not me.

 

Sleepy Eye honors its namesake on its water tower.

 

But I do know that Sleepy Eye is named after Chief Sleepy Eyes, buried at a monument site marking his grave. Everywhere you will see the respected Dakota leader’s portrait. He brings historical interest and identity to Sleepy Eye. Those are existing strengths.

 

 

Perhaps some day these historic downtown buildings will all be restored. I appreciate that some already are. Funds are available through the Sleepy Eye Downtown Rehabilitation Incentive Program to make improvements. So perhaps my vision for this small Minnesota town will evolve into more than simply a wish…

 

FYI: Highway 14 improvements in downtown Sleepy Eye this summer call for sidewalk replacement, pedestrian flashers at ped crossings and more. Click here to read details.

Please check back next week for “The Art of Signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III.”

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Two Minnesota towns July 27, 2017

Fields and sky envelope a farm building just west of Wabasso in my native Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I GREW UP ON THE PRAIRIE, a place of earth and sky and wind. Land and sky stretch into forever there, broken only by farm sites and the grain elevators and water towers that define small towns.

 

Along Minnesota Highway 19, this sign once marked my hometown. That sign has since been replaced. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County once bustled with businesses—a lumberyard, feed mill, hardware stores, grocers, cafes, a blacksmith… Now the one-block center of town is mostly empty, vacant lots replacing wood-frame buildings that once housed local shops. Time, economics and abandonment rotted the structures into decay and eventual collapse or demolition.

 

One of the few businesses remaining downtown, the Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? The back story of my prairie hometown, where buildings were built mostly of wood rather than brick or stone, led me to a deep respect and appreciation for communities that have retained buildings of yesteryear. Cities like Cannon Falls, founded in 1854. By comparison, Vesta was founded in 1900.

 

The rear of an historic stone building in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Cannon Falls still has a thriving downtown landmarked by 29 properties in a Commercial Historic District. It’s population of around 4,000 and location between Rochester and the metro contrast sharply with Vesta’s population of 300 in the much more rural southwestern corner of Minnesota.

 

This sign marks the aged former Firemen’s Hall, now the Cannon Falls Museum, pictured below. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

The Cannon Falls Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Drive through Cannon Falls neighborhoods and you will see history still standing. In Vesta, history comes in photos and memories. It’s sad really. But that is reality.

 

The Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal congregation founded in Cannon Falls in 1866. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Because I grew up without solid stone buildings in a place that unsettles many for its breadth of sky and land, I am drawn to stone structures. They portray a strength and permanency that defies time and change. Yet I expect both masons and carpenters shared the same dreams of a better life, of prosperity and success.

 

Another lovely stone building photographed behind downtown Cannon Falls buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

That’s the underlying truth. Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something. The land remains—the same earth upon which early settlers planted their boots and stood with hope in their hearts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part V from La Crosse: A final look at downtown March 29, 2017

 

IN ONE FINAL PHOTO sweep through downtown La Crosse, I present a collage of images.

 

 

I am drawn to signs and architecture, to distinct characteristics which define a town’s personality.

 

 

 

 

La Crosse is a river town, storied in history. You can see that in the aged buildings which flank streets that bend, like the Mississippi River. History holds a place of honor within this downtown.

 

 

 

 

Yet, this Wisconsin city is not stodgy, existing only in the past. Rather, La Crosse is like a sometimes flamboyant relative claiming attention with loud colors and signs and messages. I doubt I’ve ever seen more vivid and unique signage in a small Midwestern city.

 

 

 

But that does not surprise given La Crosse’s considerable number of downtown drinking establishments. Wisconsinites love their booze. And this is a college town. Visit in the daytime or early evening and you can avoid that whole bar scene, although remnants of night life may linger the morning after with beer in a glass outside a bar door. (True sighting.)

 

 

 

 

La Crosse seems, too, part big city urban yet rooted in rural. Somehow the blend works in a downtown that draws all ages.

 

 

FYI: Please check back for one more post in this “From La Crosse” series as I take you to one of the city’s most notable natural landmarks.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part IV from La Crosse: Applauding this city’s entertaining visuals March 27, 2017

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DOWNTOWN LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN presents a visual delight that requires spotlight focus to view every detail.

 

 

 

 

Colorful signs compete for attention along storefronts that are themselves architectural attractions.

 

Stained glass art displayed in the front window at Vision of Light Stained Glass, 129 S. Fourth Street.

 

A vintage department store box showcased in a window display.

 

Shoppers enter Antique Center, which presents an inviting window display.

 

Creative window displays draw more interest.

 

 

From almost any place, you hold a ring-side seat to pedestrians and vehicles performing should I cross/should I stop theatrics.

 

Buzzard Billys serves fantastic Cajun-Creole food. Be forewarned that it’s a busy place.

 

This riverside town rates as a must-see destination for anyone who delights in entertainment. Actual entertainment and the kind of entertainment that comes from being a watcher, an observer, an appreciator of a city with a visual character all its own.

 

The Starlite Lounge, a 1950s style cocktail lounge, is located on the second floor of Buzzard Billys. It was closed during the time frame I visited La Crosse. But I saw the lounge on a previous visit and hope to photograph it next time I’m in town.

 

La Crosse performs well under the scrutiny of my camera lens, earning my applause for a place that draws my photographic and personal interest.

TELL ME: Have you visited La Crosse? If, yes, what do you like about the city? If not, would you visit and why?

FYI: Please check back as I continue my “From La Crosse” series.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from La Crosse: The historic downtown through my camera lens March 22, 2017

Crossing the Mississippi River from La Crescent, Minnesota, into La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

WITH MY APPRECIATION of historic buildings, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has become a favorite occasional destination. This Mississippi River town bordering Minnesota is about a half-way meeting point between my Faribault home and my second daughter’s home in eastern Wisconsin. We recently met there for a Saturday afternoon of dining and exploring.

 

Nearing downtown La Crosse.

 

I love shopping in La Crosse. Mostly photoshopping. While the rest of the family focuses on getting from one shop to the next, I am constantly distracted by the endless photo opportunities. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up,” I repeat.

 

Entering the historic downtown.

 

Signage painted on buildings draws my eye.

 

Some communities restrict signage on historic buildings. But in downtown La Crosse, anything seems to go, creating a visually diverse landscape of signs that pop color and interest into the streetscape. It works, adding character to this downtown.

 

Then I stand and swing my camera lens upward to photograph architectural details, vintage lettering on buildings and the many colorful and creative signs that landmark downtown businesses.

 

Downtown La Crosse is one busy place. On-street parking is a challenge to secure. However, four parking ramps are situated in the downtown and offer free parking on weekends. Same goes for street parking. The downtown features lots of one-way streets.

 

Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch a photographer’s eye.

 

Bridesmaids head for an ice cream treat at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor, a must-stop ice cream shop and more along historic Pearl Street. Love The Pearl’s homemade ice cream.

 

Or I keep my camera at street level, capturing streetscapes. This downtown pulses with people and traffic.

 

Outside Kroner True Value Hardware store.

 

The day after St. Patrick’s Day, I spotted this cup of green beer on a window ledge in a bar. I also saw a glass of beer outside a bar entrance. Downtown La Crosse is packed with bars, I believe the highest per capita of any U.S. city, according to numerous online sources. (Google it.)

 

The ultimate (in my opinion) “I’m from Wisconsin” t-shirt showcased in the window of The Cheddarhead Store on Pearl Street.

 

Occasionally I direct my lens down to at-my-feet details or toward window scenes.

 

This colorful signage welcomes downtown visitors to Historic Pearl Street West.

 

I photographed this barge on the Mississippi River which edges downtown La Crosse.

 

The dining options in La Crosse are many, including Big Boar Barbecue. No, I haven’t eaten there. Yet.

 

Downtown La Crosse truly rates as a photographer’s/visitor’s dream—if you love historic river towns with aged, detailed architecture; colorful signage; character; diverse dining and drinking options; and a variety of unique shops.

FYI: Please check back for more posts from La Crosse.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling