Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating William Kent Krueger’s latest bestseller, This Tender Land January 24, 2020

I’VE LONG BEEN A FAN of Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series and stand-alone book, Ordinary Grace. But now I can add another title to that list. This Tender Land.

Ten days after I picked up the book from Buckham Memorial Library, where I’d been on a waiting list for months to get the 2019 release, I’d finished the novel. And I didn’t start reading it immediately as I had to first finish The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal.

In a nutshell, This Tender Land tells the story of orphaned brothers, Odie and Albert, who are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School, although they are not Native Americans. Yes, such schools really existed long ago. The school is not so much a school as a prison with cruelty and abuse defining life there.

This fictional book, set primarily in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, weaves actual history into the storyline. Much of that history focuses on the mistreatment of native peoples during and following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how that carried through to subsequent generations. I’m familiar with that history having grown up in Redwood County, at the epicenter (along with Brown County) of that war. Krueger clearly did his research and then took that information and made it personal through characters, scenes and setting.

But this is much more than a historically-based book of fiction. This is a story about family and friends, about searching and discovery, about hope and despair, about love and loss, about cruelty and kindness, about redefining rich and poor, about anger and spirituality and forgiveness and finding one’s self. This book really makes you think as the story twists and turns and all those themes emerge.

At one point, after reading a line on page 288, I cried. When was the last time you cried while reading a book? I cried at 12-year-old Odie’s observation of women who’ve suffered and yet never given up hope, who’ve forgiven… It was a powerful sentence for me personally.

When a book can move me like that, I feel a deep respect for the author, for his talent, for his writing. There’s a reason William Kent Krueger’s books are bestsellers and in demand at libraries. He writes with depth and authenticity in ways that resonate.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inside an historic Faribault church along Fourth Avenue December 18, 2019

A Christmas star serves as a current focal point inside the sanctuary of Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, Faribault.

 

AS A WOMAN OF FAITH, as an appreciator of the arts, as a creative, I hold a fondness for historic churches. That includes Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Faribault, where Hillary Clinton once spoke. I don’t recall the year or reason for her visit, only that my then grade-school-aged daughters, who attended school just blocks away, went to see her. Not for any political reason but because she was the First Lady.

 

The entry to Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, Faribault.

 

Inside the sanctuary of Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, Faribault.

 

I remember that bit of history each time I step inside this 1915 church across the street from the Rice County Government Services building. From the exterior, the church appears more courthouse-like than faith center with imposing columns defining the entry. Inside, the sanctuary circles below a dome rather than the expected typical narrow straight-away of churches from that era. Soaring stained glass windows allow in plenty of natural light to offset the dark wood.

 

Just down the street from Fourth Avenue sits the Congregational Church of Faribault, UCC.

 

Sometimes I wonder how many born and raised locals have never stepped inside this lovely space. Faribault has many historic churches, an asset which I think needs more promotion and a deeper appreciation. The history and art, especially in windows like the Tiffany stained glass at the Congregational Church of Faribault, UCC, are local treasures. My church, Trinity Lutheran, and the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour showcase beautiful stained glass also.

 

A seasonal message posted on a hallway wall next to a community bulletin board.

 

But back to Fourth Avenue. After finishing my meal during the annual Community Christmas Dinner there, I walked around the sanctuary, which connects to an educational wing built in 1964.

 

The art of a wiseman.

 

All three wisemen in a corner of the sanctuary.

 

I looked at the Christmas decorations

 

Ready for winter, snow shovels lean against an entry wall.

 

and for nuances that define this as a house of worship in Minnesota.

 

A bulletin board just inside another entry shows a seasonal message and support for Ruth’s House, a local shelter for women.

 

With minimal time, I didn’t poke around as much as I typically do. Still, I photographed enough to show you a glimpse of this house of worship, home to a faith family that always feels warm and welcoming each time I visit.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Night at the Museum” brings history to life & memories, too, Part II October 2, 2019

Chatting it up in the Harvest and Heritage Halls.

 

THE ENTHUSIASM OF THE KIDS impressed me. Girls in Laura Ingalls Wilder style calico bonnets and prairie skirts and dresses. Boys in period caps and hats and bib overalls. And then the teens in football jerseys, celebrating locally-grown 1941 Heismann Trophy winner Bruce Smith.

 

A photo cut-out of Bruce Smith next to Pleasant Valley School and next to a grassy area where kids (mostly) tossed footballs.

 

All engaged in Night at the Museum, an event hosted by the Rice County Historical Society last Saturday. They led activities, participated and presented a local living history that reminded me of those who settled and grew this southeastern Minnesota county.

 

Checking out the one-room Pleasant Valley School.

 

One of many vintage books inside Pleasant Valley School.

 

Pleasant Valley School, built in the 1850s, and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in 1869. Both were relocated to the Rice County Historical Society grounds.

 

While it’s easy to romanticize that life, the reality is that life back-in-the-day was labor intensive and often difficult. But also joyful. Just like today, only different in the joys and challenges. Back then students learned from books and used slates and chalk. Lots of rote memorization within the confines of a bare bones one-room country school. Today’s kids use different tools—primarily technology. And hopefully they learn in better ways than simply memorizing and regurgitating.

 

 

As I pounded out words on a manual typewriter in the Heritage and Harvest Halls, I thought how grateful I am for computers. Writing and photography are so much easier with this tool. No more xxxxing out words on paper or buying and processing film. When I spoke with my husband Randy on a crank telephone, I recalled the days without a telephone and how my mom ran to the neighbor’s farm when a fire started in a hay bunk next to the barn. Now I use a cellphone and, yes, also a landline. Watching two men team up on sharpening an axe, I recalled the mean rooster on my childhood farm. When we’d all had enough of his terrorizing us, Dad grabbed the axe.

 

Visitors ride in a wagon pulled by a vintage John Deere tractor during Night at the Museum.

 

 

One of many area business signs now displayed at the museum.

 

When I saw a Surge milking machine, I remembered how hard my dad worked on our family’s crop and dairy farm and all those years I helped with barn chores and watched Dad head out to the field on his John Deere tractor.

 

Behind glass, memorabilia from a local dairy, closed years ago.

 

A storyteller, left, roasts hot dogs with another volunteer.

 

 

These are the places, the times, I remembered as I walked from spot to spot at the Rice County Historical Museum grounds. Night at the Museum provided many opportunities for reflection, for remembering when I was young (er)…

 

Folks gathered around the fire to hear these musicians perform at Night at the Museum.

 

FYI: Please click here to read my first post about this year’s Night at the Museum.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with history during “Night at the Museum,” Part I October 1, 2019

This volunteer informed visitors about the history of an 1856 log cabin, once located near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

WHEN HISTORY BECOMES AUTHENTIC, I get interested. Not to say I dismiss museum exhibits packed with information, artifacts and such. But I engage most with the past when that past comes alive.

 

The festive setting outside the late 1850s Pleasant Valley School welcomed visitors to A Night at the Museum.

 

That happened Saturday during the Rice County Historical Society’s annual Night at the Museum. Volunteers dressed in period costume took visitors like me back in time—

 

Gathering outside Pleasant Valley School before “class.”

 

Inside the school entry, a place to wash.

 

 

 

Propped against the wall at the front of the classroom.

 

As the early evening sun slants through the windows, class begins.

 

into a one-room country school,

 

Next to the school, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in 1869 and moved here in 1959 from Cannon City, Minnesota.

 

Waiting for “worshipers” to enter the church.

 

 

Beautiful vintage altar cloth authentic to the church.

 

 

An 1800s hymnbook.

 

an aged Episcopal church,

 

Outside the 1856 log cabin, visitors could walk on stilts and mow lawn.

 

 

Inside the log cabin, a young visitor learns about pioneer era beds.

 

an 1856 log cabin…

I found myself watching, listening, experiencing the history of Rice County, Minnesota. I didn’t grow up here so this place doesn’t hold the same significance it would for life-long residents rooted here for generations. But I’ve lived in Faribault long enough to care about the history of this county and the people who shaped it.

 

Inside the Harvest and Heritage Halls, many local business signs are now displayed. I remember these businesses, some of which closed in recent years. I love signage for its art and its history.

 

And I’ve lived long enough to now see items like local business signs, typewriters, telephones, a Surge milking machine and more in museum exhibits.

I am grateful for efforts to preserve these parts of our past and to showcase history during interactive events like Night at the Museum. To witness history in this way connects me personally to the past of this place I’ve called home since 1982.

FYI: Check back for Part II from this living history event.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wine, wheat & unwinding at a Wanamingo area winery September 25, 2019

Heritage Wheat Demonstration Day at Aspelund Winery.

 

VISIT ASPELUND WINERY and Peony Gardens between Kenyon and Wanamingo, and you’ll discover a place of peace. I love this country spot. For its quiet setting. Its beauty. The genuine friendliness of owners Bruce and Dawn Rohl. And the wine.

 

So many lovely peonies in multitudes of colors, shapes and scents. The Rohls hybridize, grow and sell peony plants. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, June 2016.

 

In the spring, I delight in the peony fields bursting with color and fragrance.

 

A pile of wheat awaits threshing.

 

In autumn, the changing hues of the surrounding farmland delight me as I sip wine on the tasting room deck.

 

Separating the wheat with a treadle-powered threshing machine.

 

This past Sunday afternoon brought a new experience as I watched the threshing of wheat, then grinding into flour. The winery hosted Heritage Wheat Demonstration Day, part of the Cannon Falls Area Historical Society’s Heritage Wheat Project.

 

First, threshing the wheat.

 

Grinding and regrinding the wheat into fine flour.

 

Bruce Rohl grinds the wheat into flour.

 

After observing that process, I held a deeper appreciation for the early farmers who worked hard to grow, harvest, separate and grind wheat into flour. What a job.

 

 

But, oh, the delicious result—the grainy textured bread…

 

 

I didn’t just watch this demo, though. I wandered through the vineyard, already harvested. Photographed a golden apple.

 

Rows of flint corn border the driveway into the winery.

 

The Rohls grind this flint corn into corn meal for cornbread. They also grow popcorn, offered for sale and also for complementary tasting with their wines.

 

Examined the towering flint corn the Rohls grow and grind into corn meal.

 

 

 

I paused, too, to photograph a homemade (I think) vehicle parked on the grounds.

 

A mug of mulled Lady Cara-Mel wine from Aspelund Winery.

 

And, of course, no visit here is complete without wine, this time mulled and sipped from a mug. Perfect for an autumn afternoon on the deck overlooking the ever-changing Minnesota countryside.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating the history & beauty of Valley Grove on a September afternoon September 18, 2019

A horse-drawn wagon takes visitors through the prairie at Valley Grove with the Big Woods in the distance. When fall colors change, the treeline is spectacular.

 

I CONSIDER IT ONE of the most scenic spots in Rice County. A location that presents a sweeping vista of the countryside from atop a hill adjacent to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Autumn, especially, at Valley Grove offers a visual delight.

 

Folks gather in the restored 1862 stone church for cake, hot dogs, beverages and conversation.

 

On Sunday afternoon, in hot and humid temps that felt anything but autumn-like, I attended the annual Valley Grove Country Social hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society.

 

The beautiful and well-preserved historic churches of Valley Grove as photographed from the cemetery.

 

The group aims to preserve and maintain this place on the National Register of Historic Sites. Here, on this land claimed by early Norwegian immigrants, two churches (built in 1862 and 1894) stand next to a cemetery and next to the prairie.

 

An historic photo and flowers grace a window ledge inside the stone church.

 

These crosses, crafted from Valley Grove burr oaks, were on sale.

 

One of six sets of historic sconces to be installed in the stone church as preservation efforts continue.

 

To visit here is to feel a deep appreciation for the history of this place and those who chose this site to build houses of worship.

 

Hutenanny, a Northfield-based traditional Nordic music group, entertains those attending the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

Making music with Hutenanny.

 

A sing-along inside the wood-frame church.

 

To attend the country social is to experience history—through music,

 

Donna Johnson of the mother-daughter duo Nordic Arts demonstrates the Norwegian art of rosemaling.

 

These sisters try rosemaling using crayons rather than paint.

 

An example of Nordic Arts’ art.

 

art,

Hewing a log next to the wood-frame church.

 

demonstrations, historical talks,

 

Learning how to make a rope.

 

Rope-making up close.

 

Kids especially loved doing laundry the old-fashioned way.

 

hands-on activities and more.

 

The Valley Grove churches.

 

I always feel such a peace at Valley Grove. As if the world of today exists somewhere distant.

 

A simple floral still-life on a windowsill in the wood-frame church.

 

It’s good for the soul to take time on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September to step back in time. Not necessarily to idealize life then—because it was hard. But to gather with others in the countryside far from traffic and distractions and the noise of modern-day life.

 

I noticed these dolls lying on the ground behind the old stone church. So fitting for the day.

 

To appreciate simpler times

 

Such beauty in this floral bouquet adorning a window ledge in the wooden church.

 

and simple beauty.

 

Valley Grove wildflowers at prairie’s edge.

 

To gather under the burr oaks, to walk the prairie, to study tombstones, to sing in the same church where early settlers sang, to watch youngsters craft ropes and walk on stilts. And so much more.

 

Built in 1862.

 

I appreciate the preservationists who understand the personal and historic importance of Valley Grove, of not allowing these churches to fall into disrepair like too many other shuttered country churches. They clearly value the land, the efforts of their forefathers, the importance of this place. Still today.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling