Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A teaser trailer to Mason City, Iowa, attractions September 23, 2014

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IOWA. We Minnesotans joke about our neighbor to the south.

“What’s in Iowa?”

“Why would you ever want to go there?”

Well, my fellow Minnesotans and anyone who has ever shunned Iowa, there are many reasons to visit this Midwestern state. Iowa is about much more than the slogan, “Fields of Opportunities,” bannered on a Welcome to Iowa sign as you cross the border aiming south.

You'll see lots of farms as you drive through Iowa, including this one off Interstate 35 just across the Minnesota border.

You’ll see lots of farms as you drive through Iowa, including this one off Interstate 35 just across the Minnesota border.

Yes, you will see an abundance of endless fields and lots of barns. Northeastern Iowa is even designated a Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area celebrating agriculture.  But you’ll also discover charming river towns and other interesting attractions, too.

Welcome to Mason City, a community of some 28,000 in northeastern Iowa.

Welcome to Mason City, a community of some 28,000 in northeastern Iowa.

We’ll start our journey off Interstate 35 just across the border in Mason City, home of my friend, Beth Ann Chiles, who blogs at It’s Just Life. Beth Ann welcomed my husband and me into her northeastern Iowa community, touring us around town on a hot and steamy August Sunday afternoon. Yes, we were practically dripping sweat. But, it was a great tour and a wonderful day and overnight spent with a friend whom I cherish.

Friend and blogger Beth Ann, right, was our personal tour guide in Mason City.

Friend and blogger Beth Ann, right, was our personal tour guide in Mason City.

Here’s a sneak peek from my visit to Mason City:

This sign does not point to downtown Mason City, but rather to a quirky and interesting attraction.

This sign does not point to downtown Mason City, but rather to a quirky and interesting attraction.

Any guesses as to what this might be?

Any guesses as to what this might be? Photographed in the heart of downtown Mason City.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of interest.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of architectural interest.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Check back for a closer look at these attractions as we tour Mason City before journeying toward the eastern border of Iowa.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A Sunday afternoon at Valley Grove September 21, 2010

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PRAIRIE GRASSES and wild flowers dipped in the wind, swaying to the folksy music of Hütenänny. And I thought, as l listened, of the movie, Sweet Land, filmed in southwestern Minnesota and based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s book.

But I wasn’t in the southwestern part of the state. Rather, I stood atop a prairie hillside in southeastern Minnesota, in the backyard of the Valley Grove churches, delighting in the rhythm of the Nordic music so fitting for this place settled by Norwegian immigrants.

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

Valley Grove visitors can walk through a restored prairie, where wildflowers grow.

On this Sunday afternoon in September, folks gathered outside and inside the 1862 stone church and the neighboring 1894 white clapboard church, in the graveyard, underneath the majestic sprawling oak where the musicians played, and on the prairie, close to the land.

Visitors spread quilts upon the grass and enjoyed the music of Hutenanny.

A group of mostly Northfield area musicians performed as Hutenanny at the Valley Grove Country Social. On Sunday evenings they perform as the Northern Roots Session at the Contented Cow in Northfield.

A member of Hutenanny dresses country for the folksy Nordic music performed at Sunday's Social.

In the churchyard, next to the simple wooden church, youngsters swish-swished goat milk into a pail, admired colorful caged chickens and crafted ropes to twirl high above their heads.

Kathy Zeman of next-door Simple Harvest Organic Farm gave a young boy lessons in milking a goat.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens attracted lots of interest.

Along the fenceline that guards the duo hillside churches near Nerstrand, families waited to board a horse-drawn wagon that would take them along a path past the churchyard, up and down the prairie hill, where, if they looked, the land stretched down to farms and to woods tipped in the first rustic colors of autumn.

A horse-drawn wagon carried visitors on a path through the 50-acre prairie.

Inside the 1894 historic church, a musician pressed pedals and keys and tugged at pulls as the faithful lifted their voices in reverent song. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” they sang, followed by “Amazing Grace.”

Organists performed several concerts inside the 1894 Valley Grove Church on a pipe organ built in St. Louis and installed in 1911.

Art and bluebirds and old photos. Sunshine, mixed with clouds. Memories shared, new memories made. Photos snapped. Gravesites visited. Hugs exchanged. All comprised the Valley Grove Country Social, a soul-satisfying way to spend a Sunday afternoon in September in Minnesota.

An archway at the entry to the Valley Grove churchyard.

The Valley Grove churches are on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Old-fashioned hydrangea bushes nestle against the clapboard church.

The spire of the 1894 church can be seen for miles.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society is working to preserve the buildings, land and history for future generations.

CHECK OUT THESE PLACES/GROUPS referenced in this Minnesota Prairie Roots blog post:

Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota

Simple Harvest Organic Farm

The Contented Cow

Northern Roots Session

ALSO CHECK OUT my previous Valley Grove posts published Oct. 9, 19 and 31, 2009, and Nov. 2, 2009, on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling