Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring Emmett Till on MLK Day January 17, 2022

My community is marking MLK Day, not with a breakfast as planned and promoted in this poster, but rather virtually, due to COVID. (Source: Faribault Diversity Coalition Facebook)

EMMETT TILL. I should recognize that name, right? But, up until watching a limited ABC television series, “Women of the Movement,” I hadn’t heard of this 14-year-old African American murdered in August 1955. Two white men were charged with the crime, and then found not guilty by a Mississippi jury. Till’s death led his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to take action. And that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

A St. Olaf College student watches a video that includes Martin Luther King Jr. during a “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at the college in 2015. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

I should haven known all of this. And the reality that I didn’t weighs on me as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day today.

Eight years to the date after Emmett died, 250,000 people gathered in DC for the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. During this event, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section of a Stephen Somerstein photo featured in a 2015 exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

I expect young Emmett, who lived in Chicago with his mother, but was visiting family in Mississippi when he died, had dreams. He had his entire life ahead of him. His mother warned him, before he headed south on the train, that attitudes toward African Americans differed from those in the north. She advised him to be careful. Cautious around white people. He was reportedly killed after flirting with a married white woman in a shop.

It’s encouraging to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

His death is tragic beyond words. His grieving mother determined to carry on, to reveal the truth, to raise awareness. Mamie Till Mobley spent the rest of her life speaking about racial injustice. And that began with her decision to have an open casket. She wanted the world to see her son—how he had been beaten, shot, his eyes gouged out before his body was tossed into the river.

As I watched this real-life story unfold in the television drama, I sobbed. At the unfathomable cruelty. At the senselessness. At the grief of a mother who endured the unthinkable.

Just months after Emmett’s death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon thereafter, a 26-year-old pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., called for a city-wide bus boycott.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2020)

And here we are today, decades later, with racial injustice issues still existing. Certainly, progress has been made. But in recent years, it feels like we’ve regressed. Discrimination. Efforts to squelch voting rights. Murder. Hatred flaring.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the St. Olaf exhibit and express their thoughts. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015)

I admire Mamie Till Mobley for her courage and tenacity. Her strength. Now it’s up to each of us to honor her son by doing our part. Love. Respect. Speak up. Care. Do what we can to assure that no other mother—although there have been many since—loses a child to hatred.

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

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sleuthing through “Mailbox Mysteries” crafted in Cannon Falls November 15, 2021

I used a magnifying glass to study this vintage Cannon Falls area map, among clues in the “Gangster’s Gold” mystery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

THE “Mailbox Mysteries” SIGN POSTED in the front window of a downtown Cannon Falls insurance agency, drew my interest. I’ve always appreciated a good mystery and I wanted in.

So I headed to the nearby library, home base for the mysteries, to inquire about the featured Gangster’s Gold mystery. Within a week I received an introductory letter about notorious gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz and his $50 million treasure hidden somewhere in the Cannon River Valley.

Background and clues. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

Channeling my inner Nancy Drew, I determined to locate that treasure. If only my sleuthing skills matched my enthusiasm. Right from the start, I couldn’t figure out how to fold, and then use, a Tri-Hexa-Flexa-Coder to de-code a secret message. I needed help. My friend Stephani, who once considered becoming a private investigator but stuck to family genealogy, solved the folding/coding problem.

I realized solving this mystery would not be easy. Exactly as “Mailbox Mysteries” creator Matthew Stelter, Teen and Adult Services Librarian in Cannon Falls, likely intended. He created this interactive mystery series last winter as an outreach program for library patrons stuck at home during COVID-19 and, as he said, “tired of a life lived entirely through a computer screen.” At that time, the library building was closed to visitors. All of the clues for his mysteries are sent via US mail to the home-based investigators.

Eventually, Stelter crafted six mysteries—five for adults and a math-based set, “Postcard Puzzles,” for kids 12 and under. A bit overwhelmed by managing all of those mysteries, Stelter has since tweaked and downsized the “Mailbox Mysteries” to three.

The final clues to locate the hidden treasure. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

His past experience developing escape rooms and murder mysteries shows in “Mailbox Mysteries.” I admire his ability to craft a fictional mystery rooted in facts with added local elements. He uses newspaper clippings, photos, letters, historical documents, maps, coded messages (he created the code for the challenging Hexa-Flexagon) and more in believable story lines.

A seemingly authentic newspaper article, for example, references the long-ago Fleckenstein Brewery in Faribault and a possible connection to the underworld. Turns out that story was pure fiction as is gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz’s connection to Minnesota. He never had ties here, although many gangsters did. Rather, he lived in New York, where his treasure is rumored to be hidden. Schultz died in a gang shoot-out.

So much to consider in solving “Gangster’s Gold.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

In the end, I found the location of the $50 million treasure after hours of dissecting documents—yes, I became a bit obsessed—and using a magnifying glass to better view details on a map. Stelter rewarded me with a personalized Certificate of Commendation and advised me to bring a shovel to dig deep for the buried treasure.

These three items were in the first mailing of “Spy School” mystery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo November 2021)

Now I’m on to the next “Mailbox Mysteries,” Spy School. I’ve received my introductory letter, a brochure for the Vera Atkins Spy Academy and an encoded note warning that the school is compromised.

The arched entry to Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, upper campus, in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

VASA happens to be in Faribault, as printed in a brochure so professionally done that I would think the academy really existed if I didn’t recognize the photos of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Stelter lived at Shattuck for 10 years. I’m also semi-familiar with the campus so I’ll see if that familiarity helps in solving the mystery. As in Gangster’s Gold, I expect this mystery writer to weave more local details into the fictional story line.

While I await the next set of clues, I invite you to join the team of private investigators. Stelter welcomes all Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes types to register by November 30. Simply email your request for Spy School along with your name and complete snail mail address to: mstelter (at) selco (dot) info

Be forewarned, though, that these mysteries are challenging and time-consuming. Yet so worth the satisfaction of solving and of reaching into your mailbox to find, not a bill, but rather the efforts of a talented and creative librarian.

The third “Mailbox Mysteries,” Cypher Cabin, will be available starting December 1.

Good luck, sleuths.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A bit of Norway at a country church in the Sogn Valley November 10, 2021

A simple country church, Eidsvold Norwegian Methodist. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

WHENEVER I HAPPEN upon an aged rural Minnesota church, as I did recently in Leon Township south of Cannon Falls, I wonder about the immigrants who founded it. What are their stories? How did they feel living an ocean apart from their beloved homelands and families? I admire their strength. Their ability to board a ship and sail toward The Land of Opportunity.

A Norwegian name in the Eidsvold Church cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Oftentimes, the very names of these country churches and the names of those buried in the churchyard cemeteries reveal roots and heritage.

A brief history of the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

The small white clapboard church Randy and I discovered on 70th Street in the Sogn Valley area was clearly founded by Norwegian immigrants. Eidsvold Norwegian Methodist Church banners a sign with a brief history. Founded in 1893. Also known as “Ring Church.” Built by Gulbrand Nilson. Last service in 1949.

My initial view of the Eidsvold Church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2021)

An online search dates the congregation’s organization to 1860. Perhaps the signage date references building construction. I couldn’t find much other information other than parishioners originally meeting for worship in homes, a common practice.

My own great grandfather, Rudolph Kletscher, who immigrated to the US from Germany in 1885, eventually settling on a farm near my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota, opened his home for worship. A pastor from the Lutheran church in neighboring Echo led services for 8-9 families and in 1900 those German immigrants built St. John’s Lutheran Church in town.

For those brave souls settling in a new land, I expect their faith provided comfort, strength and hope. And a place to gather, to sing and pray in their mother tongue, to support one another, to socialize. To celebrate. Baptisms. Weddings. Confirmations. Christmas and Easter. And to mourn.

Marthina Ring’s unassuming marker. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

The final service held at Eidsvold, as noted on the church sign, was the funeral of Marthina Ring on April 11, 1949. I determined to find her grave marker and I did. It’s a small, unassuming stone engraved with her birth and death dates. Born March 7, 1865. Died April 6, 1949. Other Ring family stones are larger, more prominent. John Ring, I learned online, was a leading supporter of this church. I have no idea of his connection to Marthina.

Beautiful flowers grace the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

This cemetery appears cared for with golden marigolds, red and pink geraniums and other annuals splashing color among the grey and brown tombstones.

Water at the ready… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Jugs of water snugged against the church foundation show me that someone comes here regularly to water those plants.

A token of love left for a mother. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

And a painted stone placed atop a marker for Virginia Jacobson reveals how much she is missed. Has been missed since her 2006 passing.

The door into Eidsvold was padlocked. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

That this church and graveyard have not been abandoned here among the fields in the Sogn Valley pleases me. This land, this church building, this cemetery meant something to those long ago Norwegian immigrants. And that is to be valued. Cherished. Honored. Celebrated, even by those of us with no connection to Eidsvoll/Eidsvold, Norway.

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IF YOU KNOW more about the Ring Church, please share. I welcome additional information. As is often the case at rural churches, I found the front door locked.

The Goodhue County Historical Society placed this historical interest sign at the ghost town of Eidsvold. The sign was erected to preserve the history of this former post office site and to recognize its historical contribution to the area. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

The Goodhue County Historical Society marks its ghost towns with road signs. In 2010, I photographed the above sign for Eidsvold, near County Road 30.

© Copyright 2021 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