Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Floral & finds in Plainview, a creative shop honoring the past June 24, 2022

Detailed signage banners Young Love Floral & Finds in downtown Plainview, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

IT’S THE TYPE OF BUSINESS any small town would welcome. Home-grown. Creative. Beautifully-designed. And busy, at least during my weekend stop.

My view upon entering the shop. Shantelle Speedling is behind the counter/work space at the rear of the display area. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

When I entered Young Love Floral & Finds in downtown Plainview on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May, I paused and took in the scene before continuing up several stairs into this inviting space.

The Mallard Seeds sign came with the building. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In this historic building, which housed the Plainview Hotel, then the First National Bank beginning in 1902 followed by Mallard Seeds, Shantelle Speedling has created a shop that honors the history and stories of this place. She worked in this space for 14 years, testing seed corn germination for the seed company.

If you want a quick peek at local history, view the historic photos posted in the shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Here, in a side room reserved for small celebrations and crafting parties/make-and-take events, local historic photos fill a well-used bulletin board pocked with holes. A bold, vintage Mallard Seeds sign accents the black-and-white and sepia photo collage.

The closed doors lead to the vault, now a storage space, with the heavy vault door open to the right. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Just around the corner, the in-tact original bank vault now serves as a walk-in storage space and a point of interest in this shop of florals and finds.

Created from wood flowers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

As a trained floral designer, this busy mother of three uses wood (yes, wood) and silk flowers to create stunning centerpieces, bouquets, wreaths and more. I observed a collection of her designs ready for a wedding. She also does casket sprays and florals for any occasion.

A sampling of the artfully-displayed merchandise. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

The “Finds” part of her business is equally as impressive. Home décor and other items, including cow prints which drew my farm girl eyes, are decidedly rural and artfully-displayed. Propped on aged furniture, hung on barn red doors, set atop stacked wooden boxes…

Looking from the back of the shop toward the front. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This place feels like it fits Plainview, a small farming community northeast of Rochester in southeastern Minnesota’s Wabasha County. Speedling took care to retain the historic rural character of the building, right down to keeping the original embossed ceiling, refreshing it with a new coat of paint.

Newspaper stories and more are displayed on a bulletin board in the side event room. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

There’s something to be said for a shopkeeper who values the past—here an historic building—enough to make it work in the present. Speedling has accomplished that. And now she’s imprinting her stories, her history, growing her business in a building where guests once stayed, merchants once banked and seeds once germinated.

Centerpieces created by Shantelle Speedling cram the back countertop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

FYI: Click here to read my previous posts on Plainview, including features on two other businesses, The Shop on Broadway and J.T. Variety & Toys. Please check back for two more stories in my series on this small Minnesota town. You may also be interested in reading these recent posts from neighboring Elgin.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“The Seed Keeper,” an award-winning book every Minnesotan should read June 21, 2022

Cover design by Mary Austin Speaker. Cover beadwork art by Holly Young. (Credit: Publisher, Milkweed Editions)

VISUALIZE A PACKET OF SEEDS. Then open the envelope and spill a handful of seeds onto your open palm. What do you see? You likely envision seeds planted in rich black soil, covered, watered, sprouting, growing, yielding and, then, harvested. And while that visual is accurate, seeds hold more. Much more.

Photographed at Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa. The farm specializes in saving heirloom/heritage seeds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2018, used here for illustration only)

I just finished reading The Seed Keeper, Diane Wilson’s debut novel and winner of the 2022 Minnesota Book Award in the Novel & Short Story category. I’ve never felt so profoundly and deeply moved by a book rooted in history. Wilson’s writing is like a seed planted, nurtured, then yielding a harvest of insight and understanding.

Part of a public art installation at the Northfield Earth Day Celebration in April. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

Hers is the story of the Dakota people, specifically of several generations of women, The Seed Keepers. Hers is the story of a connection to the land, sky, water, seeds and of reclaiming that relationship. Hers is a story of wrongs done to indigenous people in Minnesota, of atrocities and challenges and struggles. Past and present. Hers is a story of wrongful family separation and of reuniting with family and community.

A full view of the art planted in Northfield for Earth Day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

At the core of Wilson’s novel are the seeds. The seeds, stored in a willow basket, and eventually passed through the generations. The seeds that not only provided food for their families’ survival, but held the stories of Dakota ancestors and a way of life.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on December 26, 1862. Wilson references the park, and the theme of forgiveness, in her novel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2012)

The subject of this book holds personal interest to me because of its setting in southwestern Minnesota, site of The US-Dakota War of 1862. Wilson covers that war, including the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato. As a native of Redwood County, I studied that war, even researched and wrote a term paper on the topic some 50 years ago. But I expect if I read that paper now, I would find many inaccuracies. My writing was shaped by the White (settlers’) narrative without consideration of the Dakota. I long ago realized the failings of that narrow-minded, biased perspective.

Even though I wasn’t taught the whole story, at least I was aware of The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was centered in my home region and in neighboring Brown County, where my maternal ancestors fled their rural New Ulm farm for safety in St. Peter. Many Minnesotans, I’ve discovered, are unaware of this important part of our state’s history.

The Seed Keeper, though fictional, reveals just how devastating this war was to the Dakota people in removal from their native land, in their imprisonment and in efforts by Whites to control and shape them. I found this sentence penned by the author to be particularly powerful: What the white settlers called progress was a storm of fury thundering its way across the land, and none of us were strong enough to withstand it.

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park in Mankato. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2019)

Still, strength sprouts and grows in The Seed Keeper through a riveting storyline that stretches back to Marie Blackbird in 1862 and then follows main character Rosalie Iron Wing through the decades to 2002. Even her name, Iron Wing, evokes strength and freedom. Rosalie marries a White farmer, births a son and her two worlds collide.

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. The quote represents the many broken treaties between the Dakota and the U.S. government. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013)

I was especially drawn to this statement by a Dakota elder in Wilson’s book: People don’t understand how hard it is to be Indian. I’m not talking about all the sad history. I’m talking about a way of life that demands your best every single day. Being Dakhóta means every step you take is a prayer.

Wilson writes with authenticity as a Mdewakanton descendant, enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation. She’s walked the steps of the Dakhóta.

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TELL ME: Have you read The Seed Keeper and, if so, what are your thoughts? I’d encourage everyone, Minnesotan or not, to read this award-winning novel.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts on slavery & race on Juneteenth June 19, 2022

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018)

AS A WHITE WOMAN and writer living in rural Minnesota, writing on the topic of Juneteenth isn’t easy or comfortable. Yet, it’s important for me to do so, to publicly recognize the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

Why? Simply put, I care. I care that African Americans were treated with such disrespect, that they were “owned,” for no one should “own” anyone. Yet, these men, women and children were owned, used and abused by White slave owners who worked them, controlled them, imprisoned them, built our country’s early economy on their hardworking backs.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, acquired in Africa. Margaret’s husband served as a missionary in Nigeria. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on slavery. But the very thought of it shakes me to the core. I can only imagine the emotions felt by those whose ancestors worked in servitude—in cotton and tobacco fields, in homes, in barns, on vast plantations…

Taking time on one June day to reflect on the freeing of slaves seems the least I can do. June 19th marks the date in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure the freedom of all enslaved people.

One of many hearts incorporated into a sculpture, “Spreading the Love” by Geralyn Thelen and Dale Lewis, located in downtown Northfield, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

Beyond reflecting on this date in history, I’ve tried to educate myself by reading, a skill most slaves were denied. Reading, whether stories written by reliable media, nonfiction or even fiction rooted in history, opens my mind to understanding. And with understanding comes compassion and an unwillingness to remain silent.

Too many times during my 60-plus years of life I’ve seen (think Confederate flags) and heard the animosities expressed toward people of color. And while this doesn’t apply specifically to Black people and slavery, I will speak up if someone starts bashing our local immigrant population with false claims and other unkind words. I fully recognize that, because my skin is colorless, my life is likely easier without preconceived ideas/prejudices/denied opportunities.

Love this uplifting message posted along a recreational trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I appreciate that thoughts in this country are shifting, that we as a people are acknowledging past wrongs, that we’re trying. On the flip side, I see, too, hatred rising in ways I would never have imagined possible.

I admit that I grew up in a household where my father occasionally used the “n” word. It hurts to write that. The “n” word was part of his rural vocabulary, of the time, of growing up among others just like him. White. I grew up similarly, totally surrounded by those of Scandinavian, German, Polish, Irish and other descent, none with roots in Africa.

But I moved away, grew my knowledge and experiences, grew my exposure to new ideas and people and places. I’ve also gained insights into the challenges Blacks face from a biracial son-in-law. Today I live in a diverse neighborhood of Americans who are White, Latino, African…and I’m thankful for that. They carry, in their family histories, struggles and joys, the imprints of those who came before them. Today I honor those African Americans in Texas who 156 years ago first celebrated their freedom from slavery with “Jubilee Day” on June 19, 1866. And I honor all those slaves forced into lives not of their choosing, without freedom, but determined to be free.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At Potsdam: Reflections on a country church May 31, 2022

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Potsdam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

NO MATTER HOW MANY country churches I discover, how many adjoining cemeteries I meander, my interest in these sacred places never wanes.

Detailed signage provides basic info about Immanuel Lutheran. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent day trip in southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I found Immanuel Lutheran Church of Potsdam, an unincorporated community close to Elgin. We bypassed it initially, then turned around to explore the church grounds along Minnesota State Highway 247.

A back and side view of Immanuel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Immanuel fits the bucolic image of a rural church—constructed of wood painted white, cross-topped steeple, bell snugged inside tower, stained glass windows running the length of the sanctuary.

Looking up toward the bell tower. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This church is especially well-maintained, not always the case in rural houses of worship with often dwindling congregations.

The locked front doors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I longed to get inside this Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, to view the sanctuary, to settle into a pew, to see the art therein, to experience the peace such a place holds. But, as I expected, the front doors were locked.

Across the highway, a red barn. In the cemetery, gray stones. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
The German word “LIEBE” means love, found on a gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Beautiful flower art on an aged gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

So instead, I walked around the exterior, studying the details, bracing myself against the strong wind sweeping across this hilltop location. In the distance, twin silos rose on a farm site. Across the highway, a red barn contrasted with the gray of tombstones lodged under pines.

This is very much a farming area as noted by a farm wagon parked next to the cemetery on this Saturday and by the surrounding fields and farm sites. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

We briefly walked the cemetery, marveling at the early birth dates of some buried here—born in 1823, died in 1877. Clearly there are stories here of journeys across the ocean to America, then more travel westward to this land, this Minnesota. I expect those stories hold hardship and loss and struggles and, also, incredible strength, determination and resilience.

Pines tower over the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I claim no personal connection to anyone here. Yet, I feel a kinship in ancestors who left the Old Country. I feel, too, a kinship of faith. For it was faith which sustained many who left families an ocean away to forge a new life. Here they settled, built a church, planted pines. Here they gathered to celebrate and mourn. To pray and praise and plant hope upon the land.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About those Northfield cows April 25, 2022

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Holstein cow art adorns the milkhouse on the barn of friends in rural Dundas (near Northfield). These farmers once milked Holsteins. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2011)

NOW BILLED AS “A Classic American River Town” by the local tourism office, Northfield fits that description. This southern Minnesota community, where the James-Younger gang was defeated in 1876, hugs the Cannon River. The historic downtown is filled with mostly home-grown shops and eateries. And, as cliché as it sounds, Northfield is quaint and charming.

I love Northfield. If the cost of houses in 1984 had not been significantly higher than in neighboring Faribault, Randy and I would be living there. Instead, Randy has commuted from Faribault to Northfield to work as an automotive machinist for too many decades. But such is life and we’re happy to call Faribault home.

“Protect the herd” plays off the city’s “Cows, Colleges & Contentment” slogan. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

But back to Northfield. There was a time when this city actively tagged its community with the phrase “Cows, Colleges & Contentment.” That slogan still graces some signage. I observed a cow-themed sign encouraging masking early in the pandemic. “Protect the herd” focused the message from the City of Northfield. I thought that incredibly powerful and catchy. You know, we’re all in this together type attitude. Care about one another.

I understand how “contentment” fits this community. And colleges, too, as Northfield is home to St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.

The blue cow I spotted recently in downtown Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

But I didn’t quite get the “cows” part until I found an explanation on the Visit Northfield website. In summary, in the late 1890s, a local farmer/newspaper editor suggested Northfield could attract businesses by focusing on breeding of Holstein cows. That eventually happened with 5,532 Holstein dairy cattle and 261 breeders in the area by 1916, a Northfield Holstein Club and the moniker, “Holstein Capital of America,” attached to Northfield. The aforementioned colleges also established Holstein herds. I encourage you to read the full story about the Northfield cows by clicking here.

Downtown Bicycles’ blue cow image. Now, what’s with the hot dog? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

On a recent walk through downtown Northfield, I didn’t see any Holsteins. But I happened upon a blue cow painted on an orange door. The cow graphic marks Downtown Bicycles, 321 Division Street. Seeing that cow brought to mind the “Cows, Colleges & Contentment” theme, which led me to uncover the story behind the bovines of Northfield.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faith art focus during Holy Week April 14, 2022

The birth of Christ depicted at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, Minnesota. This is my husband’s home church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020)

STAINED GLASS ART graces many a church. Most often that art depicts the history of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection.

This stained glass window inside the Mother of Good Counsel Votive Chapel at The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, Wisconsin, depicts Mary and Jesus. I often think of Mary during Holy Week and how great her loss in losing her son. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

So it’s fitting that this week, Holy Week, I share some images from my archives of beautiful stained glass windows discovered in my wanderings. As a woman of faith, an art appreciator and one who values churches, I am drawn to this art form.

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Stained glass window in the sanctuary of Vang Lutheran Church, rural Dennison, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2014)

My husband, Randy, has dabbled in stained glass art and I know from watching him that creating this art takes time, patience, skill and dedication. He took a stained glass class locally decades ago, has crafted several sun catchers and also repaired aged windows at our church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault. I hope that when he retires, he can more fully embrace this art form.

Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha. Stained glass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020)

That sidebar aside, I feel such gratitude to those long ago craftsmen who labored to create stained glass windows for churches. Such windows enhance worship, infusing a sanctuary with beauty and a visual telling of biblical stories. Like the birth of Jesus. The agony of his suffering, death and glorious resurrection.

A stained glass window inside Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota, depicts Jesus’ crucifixion. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

Like illustrations in a book, the art of stained glass adds to the words, opens our eyes to better see that which we hear and read.

This stained glass window of the women and angel at Jesus’ empty tomb rises above the altar at Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

Art adds a depth to my understanding and to my faith.

This shows a snippet of the center stained glass window in a trio above the altar at Trinity Lutheran Church, Wanamingo, Minnesota. This section shows Jesus risen from the dead. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

As we near the end of Holy Week, please take time to reflect on the stained glass art here or within your own community.

A photo of Christ’s face from a stained glass window in my church, Trinity Lutheran, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

And may this art bless you as it has me. Have a joyful and blessed Easter!

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

History talk focuses on early African American residents of our area March 31, 2022

Promo courtesy of Rice County Historical Society.

WHAT DO WE REALLY know about the people and places we call home? Do we know the full story, the full history? Likely not.

This evening the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault hosts a History Talk, “Early African Americans in Southeast Minnesota,” by professional genealogist, lecturer and oral historian Mica Anders. She will share stories about some early African American residents of Rice County and more.

Anders researched African Americans who settled in southeastern Minnesota early on via a history fellowship. The result is her touring history talk and an exhibit, “Early African Americans of Southeast Minnesota,” on display until July 31 at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis.

Her efforts will certainly enlighten and expand our knowledge of the African Americans who helped shape (and continue to shape) this place, this southeastern Minnesota.

 

Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove March 30, 2022

The cemetery at Valley Grove sidles near the two historic Norwegian churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.

Art and heritage and faith and lives remembered. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Today I am drawn to cemeteries, especially rural cemeteries. That includes the hilltop Valley Grove Cemetery in rural Nerstrand.

Oaks edge the cemetery and a road along it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.

The cemetery surrounds three sides of the 1862 stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?

Erik Floren’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The in-ground marker of Ole Hemvig. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Honoring Thomas and Einar Halvorsen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2022)

Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.

On Clyde Heggedahl’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.

A faith and love-filled message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.

A special marker for a veteran’s grave. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.

The old stone church and cemetery at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.

What’s the story behind the “Snuffy” nickname? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.

Posted on the gated entry to Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Whispers of history & heritage at Valley Grove March 29, 2022

Valley Grove churches rise over the hill as I follow the prairie path back to the church grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

ATOP THIS HILL, here on the edge of the Big Woods among acres of fields near Nerstrand, I hear the whispers. Wrapping around the two historic churches. Rising from the cemetery. Sweeping through the tall prairie grasses.

The cemetery sits next to the churches, then rings the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

This is Valley Grove, overlooking the countryside, the place where Norwegian immigrants came. Here they crafted their first church from stone in 1862, then built a second, of wood, in 1894. Both still stand.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society cares about the land, too, with restoration and preservation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
I spotted swirls of prairie grass alongside a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Dried hydrangea alongside the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The churches, cemetery and surrounding 50 acres are today owned, preserved and managed by the Valley Grove Preservation Society. They are a favorite nearby rural destination for me. I appreciate the natural beauty, the history, the country quiet and more. Even the wind.

A view from the parking lot, outside the fenced grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent March Sunday afternoon I walked the prairie paths, wound among aged tombstones, admired the sturdy churches. And while I’ve wandered these grounds many times and attended community celebrations inside and outside the church buildings, each visit brings new discoveries and reminders of why I love this place so much.

Atop the steeple of the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I value the rural-ness. On this afternoon, the shrill crow of a rooster, the sharp crack of gunshots and the barks of two dogs running loose broke the silence. In the context of location, the sounds fit. Not that I like gunshots echoing or strange canines circling me. But they did no harm as I continued along the stomped, sometimes soggy grass trail back toward the Valley Grove Cemetery and churches.

Land and sky define the prairie path. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

When following the prairie paths under a wide sky, I hear whispers of the past. Of wheels creaking under the weight of wagons crammed with an immigrant family’s belongings. Of a young mother bent over her baby, singing a soothing song from the Old Country. Of a weary farmer sighing after a long day of breaking the land.

The roofline and steeple of the simple 1862 stone church rise above the rural landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If this place could speak, it would whisper the stories of all those Norwegian immigrants who settled in and around Valley Grove and then gathered on this hilltop location to worship, socialize, celebrate, mourn.

The 1894 church closeup. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The bell in the wooden church still rings for special occasions. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On this winter day, the church doors are locked. But I’ve been inside both buildings. They are basic. Simple. Mostly unadorned. The wooden church is still used today for special worship services like weddings. The old stone church serves primarily as a social gathering room. Both are well preserved. Valued.

In the foreground, the back of the old stone church, which sits near the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon four tapestries, woven in the Norwegian billedvev tradition, will grace the walls of the stone church. Minneapolis weaver Robbie LaFleur was commissioned by the Valley Grove Preservation Society to create the art. It features the plants, animals, land, immigrants and churches of Valley Grove. A grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places funded the project. LaFleur’s tapestries will be showcased during a Syttende Mail celebration from 2-4 pm Sunday, May 15.

One of many Oles buried at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Much art already exists at Valley Grove, within the cemetery. I consider tombstones to be works of art, documentations of lives. The stone markers are many, from aged to recent. Names engraved thereon reflect the primarily Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. If these tombstones among the oaks could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. Of life in the Old Country. And of life in the New World, of this place, this Valley Grove.

FYI: Please check back for a post about the Valley Grove Cemetery.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections from Minnesota rooted in Ukraine February 25, 2022

I pulled stories from a family history book for a family history trivia contest at a 2017 Helbling reunion. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2017)

YESTERDAY I PULLED A SPIRAL-BOUND family genealogy book from an upstairs closet. Compiled in 1993 by my sister-in-law Vivian, the book details the families of Alfred Helbling and Rosa Schaner Knoll Helbling. For someone like me who married into the Helbling family, it takes effort to understand the information therein, especially with second marriages (due to deaths) and stepchildren.

A stone building in southern Wisconsin, used for illustration only. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

But I’m clear on one fact—the Helbling ancestors are considered “Germans from Russia.” As the family tree shows, the Helblings trace their roots back to Wingen, Alsace in the Rhine River Plain. Like many Germans, they left their homeland for Russia when Russian Czarina Catherine the Great (a former German princess) promised free farmland and more to immigrants. My husband Randy’s great great great great grandfather and his family were among the founding fathers of the Catholic colony of Speier in 1809. That’s in the southern area of current day Ukraine near the Black Sea port city of Odessa.

So now you understand why I pulled that family genealogy book from the closet. The unfolding invasion of Ukraine (including in Odessa) resonates with me in a way that is personal. This land, now under attack by the Russian military, was once home to the Helbling family. They arrived in this area with hopes and dreams.

As often happens in history, leadership and policies change. That prompted Randy’s great grandparents, Russian-born Valentine and Emina Helbling, to emigrate to the U.S. from Russia. They arrived in Mandan, North Dakota in May 1893. Accompanying them were their three sons, including 5-year-old Alfred, Randy’s grandpa.

“Threshing on the home place, rural St. Anthony, North Dakota,” a painting by my father-in-law. Thomas Helbling. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m always amazed at the generational closeness of my husband to his family’s homeland. Mine is a generation farther removed (from Germany). In 1898, Valentine and Emina homesteaded a claim near St. Anthony south of Mandan. That young boy who traversed the ocean from Russia with his parents would also farm there as would Randy’s father, Tom. When Randy was seven, his family uprooted and moved to central Minnesota.

As I consider all of this family history, I wonder at the dreams and challenges. To leave your home country behind, understanding you would never return, takes fortitude. I can only imagine the fortitude Ukrainians must tap in to today as they face a Russian invasion.

Early in his marriage, Alfred Helbling faced an unspeakable loss—the tragic death of his first wife. Katherine, 27, apparently lost her balance, fell into a well and died while retrieving a container of milk stored inside.

Artwork created by Gracie for a 2018 student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2018)

Today people are dying in Ukraine, a country that suddenly doesn’t seem all that far away. An ocean and some 5,200 miles separate this land from Minnesota. But when I page through the spiral-bound genealogy of the Helbling family, I feel much closer. Closer in a way that causes me to feel emotional. Upset. Concerned. Worried about not only the future of Ukraine, but also of this world.

FYI: If you’re interested in learning more about “Germans from Russia,” click here to reach North Dakota State University’s “Germans from Russia Heritage Collection” website.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling