Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Documenting rural Minnesota February 6, 2020

 

I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.

 

 

Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?

 

 

Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.

 

 

Independent farmers either quit, expand or try to hang on for one more year. Some have become innovative—diversifying, organizing, working together to grow and sell local.

 

 

The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.

 

 

Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.

 

 

And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.

 

 

FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Montgomery: Historic photos of Native Americans by Edward Curtis January 31, 2020

Prints of Edward Curtis photos now exhibited at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center.

 

BENEATH PORTRAITS OF KOLACKY DAYS queens, early 1900s era sepia-tone photos stretch along walls and grace tables in the narrow room. Prints of images taken by a man considered one of America’s greatest photographers. Edward S. Curtis.

 

A permanent exhibit of Kolacky Days queen portraits hangs above the temporary exhibit of Edward Curtis photos of Native Americans.

 

A photo of Edward Curtis with info about this noted American photographer.

 

Visitors are welcome to sit and page through Edward Curtis books.

 

Despite his outstanding photographic reputation, Curtis was previously unknown to me. But no more. Recently I visited an exhibit of around 60 selected photos from his “The North American Indian” collection at the Arts and Heritage Center in Montgomery. His entire body of work encompasses 40,000 photos, many published in 20 volumes.

 

Historic Hilltop Hall houses the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center on the right and a floral and gift shop on the left.

 

To see these photos, termed part of the “most complete visual record of Native Americans west of the Mississippi,” right here in rural Minnesota is such a gift. A $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation funded the exhibit in Montgomery, a community of some 3,000 just 20 miles northwest of Faribault.

 

Edward Curtis photographed Native Americans of the west over a 30-year period.

 

Displaying Curtis’ photos here brings the photographer full circle back to Le Sueur County. At the age of five, he moved here with his parents from his native Wisconsin, eventually settling in Cordova. Here he grew up to appreciate the outdoors as he canoed with his preacher father along the Cannon River. By age 17, Curtis was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. In 1887, he moved to Seattle.

 

A snippet of a 1906 comment about Edward Curtis by President Theodore Roosevelt.

 

That’s the backstory of a photographer who earned the praise and financial support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called Curtis a “close observer.” That is evident in the documentary photos of the Native Americans Curtis came to know well and to, clearly, value and love.

 

“Wishham girl,” 1910

 

Text accompanies the “Wishham girl” photo.

 

A portion of the portrait of “Chief Joseph– Nez Perce”, 1903

 

His portraits of western Native Americans document not only a culture, but also history and personalities. As I studied the photos, I admired faces weathered by wind and sun, steady strength in profiles, joy and sadness in eyes. I admired, too, the artistry of woven baskets, handcrafted pottery, curved canoes, feathered headdresses and detailed beadwork.

 

An insightful and beautiful quote by Edward Curtis.

 

I expect if I was to revisit this exhibit, I’d notice details I missed. There’s just so much to see, to take in, to appreciate, to contemplate. A culture. A people. A way of life. A history. A connection to nature.

 

More photos from the exhibit.

 

I am grateful to long-ago photographers like Edward Sheriff Curtis for his efforts in connecting personally with his subjects, for caring and for documenting with his camera. His work is truly remarkable.

 

Info about Edward Curtis included in the show.

 

FYI: “The North American Indian” exhibit at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center continues until Saturday, February 29. The arts center is open from 2 – 5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am – noon Saturdays and is located at 206 First Street North in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 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