Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A sweet surprise: An old sorghum mill on a southern Minnesota elk farm & more August 10, 2012

HOW MANY TIMES HAS MY FAMILY driven Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian, unaware of Okaman Elk Farm to the south not far from the highway? Too many.

My husband Randy and I almost missed Okaman’s again last Sunday as we traveled along Waseca County Roads 3 and 5. If not for the colorful miniature train transporting kids and adults along the shoulder of the road, we likely would have passed right by.

Passing by the Okaman Elk Express in our car on a Sunday afternoon.

But that train stopped us in our tracks and caused us to turn around and drive back to the farm.

There we discovered much more than a plain old elk farm. We also found family-friendly activities, a farmers’ market, art, animals and history.

The historic Seha Sorghum Mill.

In 1991, Don and Joyce Kaplan bought this historic place to raise elk and then sell the meat. Their business sits on the site of Okaman, a town established in 1855 between Lake Elysian and Lily Lake. Here, according to a posted sign, several hotels, a theater, the Buckout Flour Mill, the Okaman School and the Seha Sorghum Mill were located.

Inside the sorghum mill.

It is that 1895 sorghum mill, which produced and sold sorghum syrup until 1953, that most interested me. Randy and I poked our way through and around the old mill trying to determine how the whole operation worked. I think he understood the process much better than me.

Apparently wagons of sorghum were unloaded atop the hill behind the mill where the canes were crushed and the juice then flowed into steam-heated cookers, or something like that.

The original steam boiler stands behind the sorghum mill.

According to the Waseca County Historical Society website, Cornelius L. Seha built the mill, today the only known historical sorghum mill remaining in Minnesota and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Because the mill today is basically an old building and steam boiler with weeds and brush growing around the holding tanks, equipment and structures, everything is left open to self-interpretation. Perhaps someday this historic site can be restored and specific educational information posted.

Cats roam the farm.

Then, perhaps, the younger farm visitors will be more interested in the historic buildings. They are, for now, focused on  the donkeys and alpacas, the goats and elk and dog, and especially, the cats and kittens. Or perhaps the playground equipment.

Visitors are free to wander the pasture with the alpacas, donkeys and goats.

Loved this sign at the petting zoo telling visitors that the animals are fed daily.

The farm is open seven days a week to the 3,000 – 4,000 visitors who stop by annually, says Joyce Kaplan. The Kaplans may not always be around, but guests are invited to peruse the place on their own. Just follow a few rules like:

You can enter the petting zoo pens or pastures at your own risk. Please don’t allow children to chase the animals and no dogs allowed. Close gates behind you.

Veggies from R & C Produce of Otisco.

Canned mixed veggies from Val’s Yard ‘N Gardens (Joe & Val Zimprich of Le Center).

Reusable price stickers in the back of the Zimprichs’ truck.

While the farm is always open, on Sundays from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. during the summertime harvest and into October, farmers’ market vendors set up in the farmyard peddling their garden fresh produce and other products.

An art gallery is housed in an old barn.

That beautiful old barn, with an art gallery and studio in the haymow.

Antler art, including chandeliers, inside the art gallery with Paul Ristau’s art studio behind the windows pictured here.

Inside the gift shop and adjacent art gallery, you’ll find gifts anytime and the creations of artist and craftsman Paul Ristau, who renovates homes and businesses and is a mason specializing in stone fireplaces. He was doing some tile work for the Kaplans and ended up as their in-house artist focusing on the creation of antler art. He has a workshop in the haymow-turned-art-gallery where his elk antler chandeliers are a focal point.

A Native American influence on art hung in Paul Ristau’s studio.

A Native American influence is visible in Ristau’s art given his interaction with those living on the White Earth Indian Reservation where he once drove bus.

Of course, the farm also sells elk meat, inside the original 1893 homestead. The farm is now down to 23 elk, according to Joyce Kaplan who says she grew up on a farm and has been cleaning barns all her life and maybe it’s time soon to stop cleaning barns.

The final activity of the day, feeding apples to the elk.

On the Sunday I visited, her husband was handing out apples so the kids could feed the elk.

And the Okaman Elk Express was chugging along the shoulder of the roadway, thrilling the kids and, bonus, drawing in visitors like my husband and me.

You’ll find binoculars in the barn to view the elk in the pasture.

FYI: To find Okaman Elk Farm, take Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian 1 ½ miles and then turn south to the intersections of Waseca County roads 3 and 5. The farm is open year-round. Click here to reach the farm’s website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Visit Christdala Church for worship, art and a history tied to outlaws September 25, 2010

Steps lead from Rice County Road 1 to Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church.

I DOUBT ANY OTHER MINNESOTA church can claim roots in a notorious attempted bank robbery. But Christdala Evangelical Swedish Lutheran Church of rural Millersburg can.

The long-dissolved congregation traces its origins back to the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank in nearby Northfield. During that failed crime, Nicolaus Gustafson, a Swedish immigrant from Millersburg, was shot point blank in the head by outlaw Cole Younger. He died four days later and was buried in Northfield because the Millersburg Swedish community didn’t have a graveyard, or a church.

The evening of the bank robbery, the Swedish immigrants met to talk about constructing a church and soon thereafter built Christdala.

This Sunday, September 26, the Christdala Church Preservation and Cemetery Association will open the doors to this historic church which sits high atop a hill overlooking Circle Lake just west of Millersburg along Rice County Road 1. On this roadway that passes by the 1878 country church, the James-Younger Gang fled after the botched Northfield raid.

The doors to Christdala, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I’ll be there Sunday for the 2 p.m. fall worship service led by the Rev. Ralph Baumgartner, pastor of Galilee Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roseville, who has family ties to Christdala. I’m anxious to get inside this sanctuary, which I’ve only viewed through the slats of Venetian blinds while photographing the locked building on a Sunday afternoon in July.

I've only peered through the blinds into the sanctuary.

This Sunday I’ll arrive well before worshipers and the curious and the families with a connection to Christdala. I’ll arrive with a van full of paintings by my 92-year-old artist friend, Rhody Yule of Faribault. Rhody, who has been creating art for 76 years, did an oil painting of the church in 1969. He’s showing that piece and eight other religious-themed works at Christdala’s open house.

He’ll talk a bit. I’ll talk a bit. But mostly, we welcome visitors to pause and study the paintings, to feel the emotions painted into the faces of the disciples, of Christ, of a woman in reverent prayer. Rhody paints with a heart of faith reflected in his art.

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church painted in 1969 by Rhody Yule.

A snippet of Rhody Yule's painting, one of nine he will show at Christdala.

Christdala visitors can also pick up a copy of God’s Angry Man—The Incredible Journey of Private Joe Haan by B.Wayne Quist. The newly-released book tells the true, powerful life story of Haan (Quist’s uncle), who grew up in an Owatonna orphanage and who served in Patton’s Third Army during WW II. Quist, a member of the Christdala Preservation Association, will donate profits from Sunday’s book sales to Christdala.

Copies of the fall issue of Minnesota Moments magazine, featuring my photo essay on country churches, will also be on sale with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the church.

B. Wayne Quist will sell copies of his latest book, God's Angry Man.

Before and after the worship service, visitors can tour the 1881 Millersburg School, which the Christdala preservation group has refurbished and is transitioning into a community museum. Exhibits include church and school records, photos, military medals and records, Indian artifacts, an old doctor’s buggy and more. Faribault genealogist and preservation member John Dalby will be at the schoolhouse to answer questions.

The Millersburg School has been refurbished and will feature exhibits tied to local history.

Sunday promises to be an interesting day for those who gather at Christdala. It will be a day of history and of art, of worship, of thoughtful remembrances at gravesites, of families reuniting and of others simply coming together on this spot, this Christdala, this “Christ’s Valley,” here where the outlaws once escaped on their galloping horses.

A side view of the 1878 Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover image courtesy of B. Wayne Quist and schoolhouse image courtesy of John Dalby.


Step into yesteryear at the stark, yet welcoming, Ottawa Town Hall September 17, 2010

The Ottawa Town Hall was built in 1860 from local limestone.

I ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT believe my good fortune. After peering through a front window into the old town hall and wondering why the lights were on, I pulled (or pushed; I can’t recall which) on the front door. Much to my elation, the door gave way.

Let me preface this by saying that in the past when I have clicked door latches or turned knobs on historic buildings, mostly churches, I’ve met resistance, meaning I was locked out.

I tried the door latch and the door was, to my surprise, unlocked.

But, ah, to feel the door sway, allowing me entrance, gave me that momentary feeling of surprised satisfaction. And look, just look, at what awaited me inside the Ottawa Town Hall.

Inside, the stark room stretched out before me.

Simplistic beauty best describes the interior of this former general store constructed in 1860 from local limestone and today among six Ottawa buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

To find this village platted in 1853 along the Minnesota River, follow winding Le Sueur County Road 23 northeast of St. Peter. And when you get there, after reading the historical marker and picking up a self-guided tour brochure from the town hall kiosk, try the door.

If you’re as fortunate as me, you’ll step into yesteryear, onto scuffed wood-plank floors, into a building that has been the Ottawa Town Hall since 1902.

If you’re like me, you’ll stand there for a moment or two or three taking in the atmosphere of this place. You can see history in the beadboard walls and ceiling, in the stage flanked by steps and adorned with a scenic canvas curtain reminiscent of melodrama days, in the lone American flag, in the curved-back wooden chairs stacked precisely along the wall.

The stage intrigues me. Who performed here? Do actors and actresses ever grace this stage today?

I tugged at the two side doors that would have given me access to the stage. But, alas, they were locked.

I stroked the stiff canvas of the stage curtian and admired the painted florals.

Ottawa Town Hall chairs

Even the stacked chairs seemed a sculpture of historic art.

If you like “fancy,” you won’t appreciate the starkness of a room awash in white under the blazing light of bare bulbs.

For me, though, there’s something about this town hall that soothes, comforts, makes me feel right at home, as if the door was meant to be left unlocked, the lights switched on in an inviting welcome.

Though rather plain, the town hall possesses a certain welcoming charm.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling