Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesota northwoods experience: Climbing a fire tower (or not) October 6, 2021

Just a short distance from this roundabout by Pequot Lakes, you can see the Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower peeking through the treetops. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Really high! Be careful and don’t climb if you fear heights or experience dizziness.

The warning sign and rules posted at the base of the fire tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I heeded the warning and stayed put. Feet on the ground. Camera aimed skyward. Toward the 100-foot high Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower just outside Pequot Lakes in the central Minnesota lakes region. The top of the tower pokes through the trees, barely visible from State Highway 371. Turn off that arterial road onto Crow Wing County Road 11, turn left, and you’ve reached the fire tower park.

A little background on the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park (named after the county commissioner instrumental in developing this 40-acre park) offers visitors an opportunity to hike to, and then climb, the historic tower built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. As one who prefers low to high, I was up for the 0.3 mile hike, but not the climb.

Lots of info packs signs in the outdoor interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
The iconic Smokey the Bear reminds us that we can prevent forest fires. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
We are to blame for nearly all of Minnesota’s wildfires, according to this park sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Before Randy and I headed onto the trail, though, we read the interpretative signage featuring information on the tower (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), Minnesota wildfires and other notable fire facts. This summer marked an especially busy fire season in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Those of us living in the southern part of the state felt the effects also with smoke drifting from the north (including Canada) and from the west (California). That created hazy skies and unhealthy air some days, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Lots to read here, including Paul Bunyan’s fire tower story. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also read a bit of Paul Bunyan lore, a fun addition to the park located in the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway area. This region of Minnesota is big on lumberjack stories about Paul and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox. The Pequot Lakes water tower is even shaped like Paul’s over-sized fishing bobber.

The pristine picnic shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Signs point the way to the fire tower trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
On the way to the tower, this large yellow mushroom temporarily distracted me. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once we’d finished reading, and then admiring the beautiful new picnic shelter, we started off on the pea rock-covered trail through the woods and toward the tower. Up. Up. Up.

When the trail gets especially steep, steps aid in the climb. I took this photo on the descent. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

After awhile, I began to tire, to wonder, how much farther? And just as I was about to declare myself done climbing steps, Randy assured me the tower was just around the bend. Yes.

Looking up at the tower, all of which I couldn’t fit in a photo, I determined I was not climbing that high. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Once there, I stood at the base of the tower, reading the rules and warnings. I decided I best admire the ironwork from below. And I did. There’s a lot to be said for the 1930s workmanship of skilled craftsmen.

The underside of the tower shows layers of stairs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Randy, though, started up the layered steps leading to a seven-foot square enclosed look-out space at the top of the tower. At that height, fire watchers could see for 20 miles.

If you look closely, you can see Randy with only a few more flights to reach the top. At this point, he decided not to go any farther. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

As I watched, Randy climbed. Steady at first, but soon slowing, pausing to rest. “You don’t have to go all the way to the top,” I shouted from below. He continued, to just above treetop level, and then stopped. He had reached his comfort height level.

The tower is fenced at the base. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I can only imagine how spectacular the view this time of year, in this season of autumn when the woods fire with color. We visited in mid-September, when color was just beginning to tinge trees.

Randy exits the tower, several flights short of reaching the top. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Eventually, we began our retreat down the trail, much easier than ascending.

An incredibly vibrant mushroom thrives trailside. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Occasionally I stopped to photograph scenery, including species of orange and yellow mushrooms. Simply stunning fungi.

Sadly…a carving on a birch tree along the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

We also paused to visit with a retired couple on their way to the tower. They have a generational lake home in the area, like so many who vacation here. While we chatted, a young runner passed us. I admired her stamina and figured she’d face no physical challenges climbing the 100-foot tower.

The story of Sassy the bear is included in the interpretative area. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Just like a domesticated black bear that once escaped and scampered up the tower. A ranger lured him down with a bag of marshmallows. That is not the stuff of Paul Bunyan lore, but of life in the Minnesota northwoods. This historic fire tower, which once provided a jungle gym for a bear and a place to scout for wildfires, now offers a unique spot to view the surrounding woods and lakes and towns. If you don’t fear heights or experience dizziness.

FYI: The Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower is open from dawn to dusk during the warm season, meaning not during Minnesota winters. Heed the rules. And be advised that getting to the tower is a work-out.

Right now should be a really good time to catch a spectacular view of the fall colors from the fire tower.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Gabitaweegama & the Faribault connection September 29, 2021

Two weeks ago, leaves were already changing color at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I NEVER EXPECTED that my search for information about Mission Park in Mission Township in the central Minnesota lakes region would connect to Faribault. But it did. To my church, Trinity Lutheran.

Among the many mushrooms I discovered in the woods at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

But let’s back up a minute. As I read the township history, I noted that Mission Township is named after a mission founded there among the Ojibwe in 1857 by the “Rev. Ottmar Cloetter,” a pastor with the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

Even brown oak leaves hold beauty. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Almost immediately I questioned the spelling of the surname as “Cloetter.” The Rev. O.H. (Ottomar Helmut) Cloeter served as pastor at Trinity from 1957-1978. The name similarities between the Faribault pastor and the missionary noted in the township history gave me reason to pause. And investigate.

More mushrooms growing in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

That led me to the Minnesota Digital Library and a 1931 letter from O. Cloeter of Vernon Center. He was the son of the pastor who moved from Michigan to start a mission among the Ojibwe. Located 14 miles north of current-day Brainerd, the mission station was called Gabitaweegama. That means “parallel waters,” denoting the mission’s location on a strip of land between the Mississippi River and Mission Creek. Ernst Ottmar Cloeter (not Cloetter) settled there with his young family in a newly-built log cabin. During the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Crossing-the-Sky, a leader of the Gull and Rabbit Lake Ojibwe, advised Cloeter and his family to leave (presumably for their safety). The mission station was destroyed and Cloeter relocated to Crow Wing.

Another oak changing color at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Six generations of Cloeter men would go on to become pastors, including O.H. Cloeter—great grandson of the long ago missionary. The younger Cloeter ended his ministry at Trinity in Faribault. I found it interesting that his family’s pastoral history traces back to Mission Township and to Mission Park, a park I appreciate for its quiet, wooded natural beauty. Now I also value the park for its sacred and historical connection.

Birch trees populate the northwoods, including at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

When I next walk the trails of Mission Park, I will consider the Ojibwe and how some perhaps resented the intrusion of a white missionary into their culture and lives while others embraced the newcomers. Here, among the woods and rivers and lakes, the Ojibwe hunted for deer, gathered berries, crafted birch bark in to canoes, raised their families… They lived off and of the land that would become Minnesota.

A pinecone dropped upright onto a path at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

And I’ll consider, too, how the Rev. Ernst Ottmar Cloeter settled here in the year before Minnesota became a state with expectations of connecting with these Native Peoples. It’s interesting how history and people intertwine. How choices and actions connect us, even after 164 years.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesotans write about pandemics & social justice in “This Was 2020” September 8, 2021

A collection of essays and poems by Minnesotans, including me. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

RAW. HONEST. EMOTIONAL. POWERFUL.

Those words describe This Was 2020: Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Year. This collection of 54 poems and essays by 51 writers is a finalist for the Minnesota Author Project: Communities Create Award. Two other books are vying for this MNWrites MNReads honor supported by the Minnesota Library Foundation. The winner will be announced at the Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference in October.

The collection includes my poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic.” Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I am humbled and honored to have “Funeral During a Pandemic” selected for publication in this award-nominated book. In my poem, I share my thoughts and experiences from my father-in-law’s funeral in a small rural Minnesota town. During a pandemic.

The book features short bios on each writer. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As the title of this collection conveys, the 170 pages of writing focus on pandemics and social justice. Those who penned these pieces, solicited by the Ramsey County Library via a competition, are a diverse group. In age. In writing backgrounds, although many are seasoned writers with extensive writing credentials. In skin color and ethnicity. In perspective and experience. That said, most writers live in the metro with a few of us from other places in Minnesota, including several from my county of Rice.

Those from outside the metro include a 12-year-old from New Market. Evelyn Pierson, in “My Experience at the George Floyd Memorial,” writes of her emotional reaction to visiting the site where Floyd died at the hands of police on May 25, 2020. It’s heart-wrenching—to feel her torrent of emotions, to read her insights and thoughts, to envision her tears. But it’s important, even necessary, to hear the voice of this eighth grader.

Just like it’s necessary to read Brainerd resident Susan Smith-Grier’s essay, “Black in White.” I find her observations and experiences of a black woman living in a primarily white community to be particularly powerful. She moved with her parents/family to north central Minnesota in the early 70s to escape the violence in Chicago. One of very few black families in her new northern home. The death of George Floyd triggered childhood memories of tear gas and rubber bullets, fires and looting…and then, today, a bit of hope that things will change.

Hope weaves into many of the pieces. As does overcoming the fear, the loss, the grief and more that too often defined 2020.

In his poem, “The streets emptied out, but their lungs,” Moyosore Orimoloye reminds us that, despite lungs filling with fluid from COVID, lungs also filled with song on the balconies of Turin.

The incredible cover art features the work of Carolyn Olson, “Grocery Store Cashier and Bagger (Essential Workers Portrait Series #1). 2020, Duluth, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

So many writers detailed how the pandemic affected them—from worries about going grocery shopping to separation from loved ones to ways in which they learned to cope. I found Dave Ryan’s “Living and Dying in Memory Care” profoundly relatable given my mom lives in a long-term care center. I’ve experienced some of the same scenarios—trying to visit through a window, for example. Before he could no longer visit his mom due to COVID restrictions, Ryan installed a video camera in her room. That connected him to her. But then the unthinkable happened. As I read the conclusion of his essay, my heart broke right along with his.

On the back cover, a summary of the book and a list of the writers whose work was selected for inclusion in this collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

These are stories you need to read. Real. Life. Authentic. Eye-opening (especially Chee Vang’s “To Kuv Niam,” about how her mother was treated upon contracting COVID). I learned so much, particularly from those writers who have experienced social injustice. From those writers, too, who live in the Twin Cities, who are widely-traveled and who have seen and experienced much more than a farmer’s daughter from southwestern Minnesota.

But I share one commonality with poet and educator Katie Vagnino of south Minneapolis. I am, like her, a Rapunzel with overgrown hair.

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FYI: I encourage each one of you to purchase This Was 2020 by clicking here or buying it elsewhere (in print or as an e-book). Besides the 54 pieces, the book includes writing prompts, a discussion guide and a short list of grief, mental health, and anti-racism resources. This truly rates as an outstanding collection of writing that documents historical events which have forever changed us.

Publication of this book was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thank you, Minnesota voters, for supporting the arts. And thank you, Paul Lai of the Ramsey County Library for your hard work on, and dedication to, this book project. I appreciate you and every single writer who contributed to this exceptional must-read book.

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© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota mining disaster up close & personal at Milford Mine Memorial Park September 2, 2021

A peaceful and lovely scene at Milford Mine Memorial Park on a hazy July afternoon, rural Crosby. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

IN A BEAUTIFUL NATURAL SETTING, among the woods and water and wetlands, an American tragedy unfolded nearly 100 years ago on the Cuyuna Iron Range. In the late afternoon of February 5, 1924, water seeped into and then flooded the Milford Mine near Crosby, killing 41 miners in Minnesota’s worst mining disaster.

Information about the mine disaster is included in a traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society. I photographed this at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Their deaths left 38 women without husbands. And 83 children without fathers.

This sign marks the gravel road entry to the memorial park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Today the memories of those 41 hardworking iron ore miners, and the seven who survived the mine collapse, are honored at Milford Mine Memorial Park. The Crow Wing County Park is located four miles north of Crosby, just off County Road 30. The Milford Mine Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places, so important is this to the region’s mining history.

Those who died in the mine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
The first boardwalk lists the victims’ names, spaced along the path. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
Signs along the trail honor each miner. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

This is truly a remarkable park that covers the history of this event in a deeply personal way. Through names on boardwalks and brief bios on signs, this park moves this disaster beyond statistics. Only then do we begin to understand, to feel the loss.

Honoring George Butkovich. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

George Butkovich, 29, an Austrian immigrant married to Anna Perpich (a well-known name to Minnesotans who remember our 34th and 36th governor, Rudy Perpich, a native of the Iron Range) died in the mine. He lived with Anna and their three children in Ironton.

A summary of the disaster. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Emil A. Carlson, 29, from Finland, was the father of four and married to Elma. They lived in Crosby.

The bios of four who died in the mine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Nels R. Pitari, 37, also a Finnish immigrant, was married to Hilda. They lived in Brainerd and had four children, one only five months old at the time of his father’s death.

The park is not only a great place to learn about history, but also a great place to hike and enjoy nature.
Bold berries pop alongside the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
Not to be missed, the many wildflowers gracing this park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

According to signage at Milford Memorial Park, the park “is an attempt to preserve the memory of those who gave their lives to pursue the American dream, provide for their families and build their community.” That’s necessary to understand given the importance of iron ore mining in this region. The high grade ore from the Milford Mine was used in the production of steel. This region of Minnesota was built around iron ore mining.

History honored and shared… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Many who came to this area arrived from across the US, Canada and the European continent. They were a diverse group, looking to better their lives, to raise their families in a new place, to build strong communities.

Site of the timber shaft. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
What I presume to be iron ore. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
The entry to the mine shaft is fenced around and over. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

In walking through the park, pausing often to read the history of this place and to view marked sites like the machine and blacksmith shops and the mine and timber shafts, I felt a sense of reverence, a sense of understanding of the loss connected to this land.

Originally named Lake Foley, the lake has since been renamed Milford Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
Water lilies in Milford Lake, Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.
A flower brightens woods’ edge near the lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Investigators determined that pressure from Lake Foley, connected to adjoining wetlands, caused water to rush into the mine resulting in the collapse of the mine’s walls. Within 20 minutes of that occurrence, the 200-foot deep mine shaft filled to within 15 feet of the surface. That allowed only minimal time for the miners to attempt an escape. Only seven got out. They, too, are recognized at the memorial park on a survivors’ boardwalk: Carl Frals, Harry Hosford, Mike Zakotnik…

Lengthy memorial boardwalks curve into the park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

As I walked the boardwalks and trails, I felt sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer tragedy of the Milford Mine Disaster. So much loss. So much grief and pain. So many father-less children. And it is that, perhaps, which touched me the most.

NOTE: Milford Mine Memorial Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. I encourage you to visit, to experience this important part of Minnesota history.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The leaping deer of Deerwood August 24, 2021

Leaping whitetail deer art in Deerwood, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I APPRECIATE OUTDOOR public art. That includes kitschy roadside sculptures that define communities. The walleye in Garrison. The prairie chicken in Rothsay. The otter in Fergus Falls. Babe the Blue Ox in countless Up North Minnesota towns.

And in Deerwood, a Crow Wing County community of around 550, a leaping whitetail deer. The jumping deer, located in Elmer Park, is visible from Highway 6. I snapped a shot of it from the road last trip through this town in mid-July.

A little poking around online revealed that Deerwood was originally known as Withington. But, after being too often confused with Worthington in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, it was officially named Deerwood. That makes sense given its location among the lakes and hardwoods of central Minnesota where deer abound.

I learned a bit more history. Cuyler Adams of Deerwood discovered the iron ore which led to mining in this region. Thus the name Cuyuna Range—a combination of Adams’ first name and the name of his dog, Una.

Oh, the things you learn upon seeing, and photographing, a memorable deer sculpture next to a roadway.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite roadside sculpture? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Revisiting & appreciating Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse August 18, 2021

Little Prairie School, rural Dundas, Minnesota. The date on the building conflicts with the date on an on-site memorial and I don’t know why. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

MANY YEARS HAVE PASSED since Randy and I stopped at the Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse, rural Dundas. But on a recent weekend afternoon, we picnicked on the school grounds, next to a cornfield and a stone’s throw away from a vintage outhouse.

We ate our picnic lunch here. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I embraced this rural Bridgewater Township setting as I ate my sandwich and watched the occasional vehicle fly by on paved Rice County Road 8. Mostly, though, quiet prevailed.

Little Prairie United Methodist Church, repaired following a damaging tornado several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

When I finished my lunch, I grabbed my camera to document the country school and more, including Little Prairie United Methodist Church just across the road. Last visit, the then-pastor toured us through the church and then unlocked the schoolhouse. This time, I had to settle for peering through a school window.

A paver honors Little Prairie founders, the Emerys. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Little Prairie—a name that resonates with my prairie roots—was settled in 1855 when Jacob and Eliza Emery homesteaded here. He’s noted as the church founder on a paver at the Little Prairie Community Memorial, new since our last visit. Emery, as history goes, cut a 3-mile track through the Big Woods to find this 60-acre prairie. Little Prairie.

A memorial honors the people of Little Prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.
Among the “farmer” pavers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.
Students remembered. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

A study of the memorial pavers reveals names of early settlers, farmers, teachers, families and others with connections to this prairie place. History imprinted upon stone.

I pushed Randy briefly on the merry-go-round, Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Beyond that, when I let this place speak to me, I could hear the voices of children as they played tag on the playground. Or circled on the aged merry-go-round. Screams. Laughter. Joy. Maybe even pleas to stop the dizziness.

The mud scraper. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I could hear, too, the scraping of shoes on the mud scraper bolted to cement steps outside the front doors.

A necessity at rural schools, the water pump. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I could hear the creak of the water pump handle moving up and down, up and down.

The outhouse has been painted since the last time I was here and a screen added.

I could hear the bang of the outhouse door.

A view inside the classroom through a window. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Locked doors kept me from accessing the school. But I imagined the determined voice of a teacher, the recitation of spelling words, the scratch of chalk upon slate, the clomp of shoes upon wooden floor…

A back view of the simple country schoolhouse. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

This schoolhouse, built in 1858, holds no personal meaning to me. Yet, I cherish it. Within these walls, children learned. They flourished. They grew friendships and knowledge and, I expect, a deep appreciation for their community. This place. This Little Prairie.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Merry-go-round details. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2021.
Information on ordering and purchasing a memorial paver for $225 is available inside this mailbox on the schoolhouse steps. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

MAN HIGH II: Historic journey toward space from a Minnesota iron mine pit July 21, 2021

A view of MAN HIGH II, a capsule launched in Minnesota in 1957, laying the groundwork for future space travel. This replica sits in a Crosby, MN., museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

WHEN JEFF BEZOS, founder of Amazon, and three others blasted into space Tuesday morning aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket from the west Texas desert, the world watched.

Major Simons made the cover of LIFE magazine in 1957. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

But when Air Force Major David Simons lifted toward the edges of space in a capsule the size of a telephone booth on August 19, 1957, from a Minnesota iron ore pit, far fewer watched. Yet, the journey of MAN HIGH II to an altitude of 19 miles (a new record) was equally, if not more, significant.

A full view of the replica capsule shows just how small this spaceship. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
A student created this informative MAN HIGH display, now part of the museum exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
A mural in downtown Crosby honors PROJECT MAN HIGH. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

I learned about this unknown, at least to me and I expect many others, event last week while vacationing in the central Minnesota Brainerd lakes area. A replica capsule and exhibit at the Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby tell the story of this amazing flight toward space. The museum defines PROJECT MAN HIGH as the “first manned space flight.” Simons, 35, an astronaut, scientist and medical doctor, proved man could survive just on the edge of space, for at least 32 hours.

The astronaut aboard MAN HIGH viewed the world through these windows, small compared to the spacious windows in the 2021 Blue Origin’s New Shepard. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

This 1957 mission was kept intentionally secretive given the time period. Months later the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The space race was on.

Museum visitors can climb into the mock capsule. The actual seat was a sling type seat, different than the one placed in the replica. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

That Minnesota played an important role in the U.S. efforts to win that race is significant. And, of all places, this happened in an iron mine pit outside a small mining community on the Cuyuna Range. A 200-foot wide paper-thin balloon holding 3 million cubic feet of helium lifted the capsule skyward from the base of the Portsmouth iron mine pit. Eventually the spaceship landed in a flax field near the North Dakota/South Dakota border. And, as our tour guide Tim told me, Simons was met by a rancher and a young boy on horseback. That boy showed more interested in an arriving helicopter than the capsule, so the story goes.

Major David Simons, depicted on a mural in Crosby. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

The story of MAN HIGH II truly impresses me, especially after seeing the small size of the replica capsule and feeling the thinness of the helium balloon. (The actual capsule is displayed at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.) Simons was one brave man to confine himself inside that tight space for 44 hours. He was sealed in well before arriving at the iron mine pit from South Saint Paul. Claustrophobia got the best of another candidate. I would feel the same. Simons endured much—lack of sleep, extreme temperatures, uncertain weather, and the very real fear that he could die if the thin helium balloon developed even a crack.

1957 technology: Technicians used this pressure monitor to monitor the MAN HIGH flight. The equipment sat in the basement of the local high school until the school was demolished. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As much as Jeff Bezos and crew made history with their 62-mile high, 10-minute and 25-second space journey, using the best technology possible, the flight of MAN HIGH II 64 years ago from a Minnesota mine pit impresses me even more. The people behind the 1957 flight truly represent pioneering in space. They blazed the trail for men to land on the moon and, yesterday, for civilians like Bezos to pursue space travel.

The Soo Line Depot Museum showcases local history. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

FYI: The Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby houses a detailed display on MAN HIGH II. You can climb inside the replica capsule for a photo. Tour guide Tim was especially knowledgeable. You can also visit the site of the launch, the Portsmouth Pit by Crosby, although I didn’t this time. Next trip. I encourage you to check out the Crosby museum, which also highlights Minnesota’s worst mining disaster. More on that in an upcoming post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A look back at the 1918 pandemic in Northfield & similarities to today July 14, 2021

Minnie’s obit, published in the Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

FIRST DEATH BY INFLUENZA

Minnie Marko died at her home after a brief illness of pneumonia, according to her obituary published in the November 15, 1918, issue of the Northfield News.

The death of the 21-year-old is just one of many topics in a timeline, “1918-1920 Influenza in Northfield, Minnesota.” Three Carleton College students worked with the Northfield Historical Society to create the timeline in 2020.

Headlines in the November 15, 1918, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

It’s an interesting read, showing the striking similarities between the Spanish flu and the COVID-19 pandemics. Thanks to Northfield writer and photographer Margit Johnson for featuring the research in a recent post on her blog, Elevation99. I recommend you read Margit’s post and then follow the link to the timeline.

I did just that, scanning headlines like these:

IT’S UP TO YOU TO FIGHT THE FLU (10/25/1918)

FOUR STUDENTS AT ST. OLAF DIE DUE TO INFLUENZA (11/21/1918)

NO CHRISTMAS CHURCH SERVICE IN NORTHFIELD (12/22/1918)

COLLEGES RETURN, WITH RESTRICTIONS (1/1919)

BELOVED CARLETON PROFESSOR FRED B. HILL DIES OF INFLUENZA (1/29/1919)

As I read the headlines and the brief summaries that followed, I considered how quickly information, and misinformation, spreads today. I considered how public health officials then, and now, recognized the seriousness of the virus and took efforts to stop the spread of the virus. The State Board of Public Health forbade public funerals and ordered wearing of gauze masks on streets and in public buildings in November 1918. Sound familiar?

Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

But perhaps the timeline entry that struck me most personally was this item in a list of Ten Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News:

10. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.

Think about that as it relates to COVID-19. Just like in 1918, our choices today affect more than ourselves. Before COVID numbers dropped in our country due to vaccinations, too many people refused to wear masks (and to wear them properly over mouth AND nose). And now people are refusing vaccination for reasons ranging from political to distrust of the vaccine (and thus of science) to believing the virus won’t make them seriously sick or kill them. It can and it does.

History tells us to expect a resurgence of the virus if such me-centered attitudes and behaviors prevail. As in 1918, the message that bears repeating is this: This is not just about us individually. This is about all of us. About caring for one another. About understanding that our choices affect the health, and thus the lives, of others.

People are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19. That’s especially true in states with low vaccination rates. Missouri, for example, has the most aggressive Delta variant outbreak, according to recent media reports. In Minnesota, Crow Wing and Cass Counties (in the heart of lake and cabin country) are experiencing a noticeable increase in COVID cases. All of this concerns health officials. And it should concern us, too, especially those who are not vaccinated, whether by choice or because they are too young for vaccination. This virus can mutate, as it did into the highly-contagious Delta variant, putting people at an even higher risk of serious illness and death.

The grief of those losing loved ones today is no less than the family of Minnie Marko, 21, who died in 1918 in Northfield. Minnie didn’t have the option of a vaccine. We do.

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FYI: I’d encourage you to read my June 11 post about a 46-year-old Minot, N.D., man who regretted not getting vaccinated. Rob Tersteeg died of COVID. His dying wish was that his journey with this “vicious virus” would convince others to get vaccinated. He made his wife promise to get their kids vaccinated. His family grieves, just like Minnie’s.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: When graffiti overtakes nature & history May 6, 2021

A view of the Straight River and the railroad bridge crossing it, photographed from the footbridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

IF NOT FOR THE OFFENSIVE GRAFFITI, the natural setting would be particularly inviting. But obscene words and disturbing messages kept me from fully enjoying the trail leading from Faribault’s Teepee Tonka Park into River Bend Nature Center.

Along the trail from Teepee Tonka Park into River Bend Nature Center, I saw trees tagged with graffiti. Here I’m approaching the footbridge crossing the Straight River. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Even trees were tagged with paint. That’s a first.

Randy looks over the Straight River. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

On the footbridge which spans the Straight River, I found the most disturbing of accusations—J**** killed my mother. That shifted my already on-alert mode to what the h*** is going on in these woods? I read derogatory comments about Faribault. And I thought, why do those who hate this community so much stay here?

This marker on one end of the bridge remains unmarred. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I tried to overlook all that awful graffiti, but it was just too much to dismiss. I wouldn’t bring a child here, not one who can read anyway.

I expect there’s a story behind this beautiful railroad bridge over the Straight River. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Yet, there’s much to see and appreciate here, if you look beyond the tagging, the offensive messages. Nature and history intertwine, leaving me with more questions than answers.

I felt tempted to climb these stairs, but didn’t have the energy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

A lengthy stairway climbs a hillside. Slabs of limestone and chunks of concrete—perhaps foundations of long ago buildings—cling to steep banks.

Graffiti mars the tunnel entrance. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And then there’s the tunnel. The 442-foot-long tunnel, which I refused to enter. One look at the graffiti at the entry, especially the rat art, and I knew, no way, would I walk through that former root cellar. So I photographed that space, editing out the obscenities (which proved nearly impossible).

A sign above the tunnel details its history. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And I photographed the sign above, which summarizes the history of this 1937 Works Progress Administration project. Workers hand dug the tunnel with picks, hauling the dirt and rocks away with wheelbarrows. Once complete, the tunnel served as a root cellar for the Minnesota School and Colony (later known as The Faribault State School and Hospital). The Teepee Tonka Tunnel once held 25-30 carloads of vegetables to feed the 2,300 residents and 350 employees. Most of those potatoes, carrots, beets, onions and cabbage were grown on the school farm.

Another snippet of the tunnel graffiti. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Now the history, the hard work, the humanity were dishonored by those who use this as a canvas for words and art that shouldn’t be here.

Trees tower over the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

All of this saddened me as I retraced my steps, watched as a young man walked along the railroad tracks, backpack strapped on, county music blaring. This should be a place of peace. Not only noise-wise, but also mentally. I pictured picnic tables near a footbridge devoid of menacing messages. I pictured a beautiful natural setting where I could bring my grandchildren. But, in reality, I understood that those tables would only be defaced, maybe even burned.

The beautiful Straight River, which winds past Teepee Tonka Park and River Bend Nature Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This could be so much. A respite. Water and woods converging. River flowing with history. Images of men hard at work tunneling into a 60-foot high hill. I could envision all of that…the possibilities beyond that which I’d seen.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lyon County exhibit receives state history award April 30, 2021

My poem with accompanying photos in the Lyon County exhibit. Photo courtesy of the LCHS.

ONLY A FEW DAYS AGO, I wrote about the inclusion of my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit at a county museum in Marshall.

Now the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums (MALHM) has named the Lyon County Historical Society (LCHS) a recipient of a 2021 Minnesota History Award for that exhibit. That honor is a credit to LCHS Executive Director Jennifer Andries, staff, board, volunteers and, yes, also locals who contributed stories, artifacts and more in the crafting of this exhibit.

A portion of the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit focuses on 4-H and more. Photo courtesy of the LCHS.

Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis also deserves recognition as lead contractor for the project. I was first contacted by Museology in January 2020 about inclusion of my rural-themed poem in this exhibit focusing on Lyon County and also reflective of the surrounding area in southwestern Minnesota. I feel incredibly honored to be part of an award-winning exhibit that connects people to the history of this rural region.

MALHM awards were also given to historical societies in Anoka, Carver and St. Louis counties and to the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault (RCHS), earned the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award for 30-plus years of service to organizations across Minnesota, including the RCHS, Northfield Historical Society and the MALHM. The award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions and demonstrated leadership to Minnesota’s history community on a broad scale.

The state-wide Alliance serves some 500-plus local history groups throughout Minnesota with a basic mission “of connecting people to nearby history.” It also provides peer-to-peer support and aims “to raise the quality of work in the local history field in Minnesota.”

Mrs. Morris takes a break from making applesauce during A Night at the Museum at the Rice County Historical Society. This is an example of local living history. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

A time existed when I didn’t appreciate history or history centers like I do now. My shift in appreciating history came when museum exhibits changed. When they became more personal and interactive. When an artifact was not just something encased in glass, but an object with meaning, purpose, depth. When living history became a standard. When stories became part of the story.

I photographed this abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta (my hometown) on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in 2012. The house is no longer there. But it looks similar to the one in which I lived during the first 10-plus years of my life. This is the landscape of my upbringing and the place which shaped me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

That brings me back to my “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” After I posted on Tuesday about the poem’s inclusion in the Lyon County exhibit, my cousin Diane emailed a 1958 photo of my parents. And while I’m not sharing that image here, I will tell you that I was overjoyed to see a different side of my parents other than as, well, simply parents. They were young and clearly blissfully, joyfully in love. Diane also shared that her parents and mine would often attend dances together, leaving the kids with Grandma. As one of the oldest, Diane helped look after the babies, including me. I’d never heard that story or seen that black-and-white snapshot. To receive both now—with my dad long gone and my mom in failing health—was a gift. Such a gift.

I hope my poem, inspired by my mom, yet representative of all the hardworking farm women of the 1950s and 1960s, is also a gift to those who read it. I hope those who read my words, who view the accompanying photos, will reflect and feel gratitude for these strong rural women.

I shall forever feel grateful to my mom and to the rural region which shaped me and continues to inspire me today in my writing and photography.

FYI: If you didn’t see my back story on “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” please click here to read that initial post. The post includes my poem and more info about the new Lyon County exhibit.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling