Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Focus on Buckman, more than just any small Minnesota town January 25, 2021

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The heart of small town Buckman, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE a small town?

For some, it’s a community to pass by or through en route to wherever.

For others, it’s an occasional destination to visit extended family.

But for some of us, it’s the place of our roots.

The vacated farm implement dealership in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Randy and I both grew up on dairy and crop farms near small towns—him near Buckman in central Minnesota and me just outside Vesta in southwestern Minnesota. Those communities, once thriving with elementary schools and many businesses, are no longer hubs of local commerce or education. Much has changed since we each left our respective rural towns in 1974.

Sev’s Food & Liquor sits along Minnesota Highway 5 in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Yet, the core of our hometowns, with populations under 300 and 145 miles apart, remains unchanged. Community spirit and neighborliness and a certain connection to place remain particularly strong. Often, generations of families live within miles of each other. Churches center these towns, too, as do bars, both community gathering spots.

It’s not often now that either of us returns to our hometowns. The farms we grew up on are no longer in the family, a loss I feel deeply. I return only for funerals and the annual family reunion. Only occasionally do we divert to Buckman so we can visit the gravesites of Randy’s mom and brother, Brian.

Randy attended elementary school at St. Michael’s (now gone) in Buckman and the rest of his schooling in Pierz. This bus was parked outside a garage in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

We did just that this past fall after spending time at a family member’s guest lake cabin in the Brainerd Lakes area. Buckman lies some 40 miles to the south of Brainerd. We drove through Pierz, where Randy attended junior and senior high schools, on our way to his hometown.

Minnesota Highway 25 runs through the middle of Buckman, here looking north in the heart of downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Some seven miles later, we pulled off Minnesota State Highway 25, which slices through Buckman, and turned into St. Michael’s Cemetery. I always feel such a sense of sadness upon visiting my mother-in-law’s gravesite. She died way too young at age 59, just months before her grandson, our son, was born.

A massive stone cross monument marks St. Michael’s Cemetery in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Tragedies, like those of the Dehler family, are written upon tombstones in this cemetery landmarked by a towering stone cross.

The entry to Family Memorial Park, across the street from the bus garage and cemetery, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
A plaque honors the Dehlers, four of whom died in a car-train collision. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Inside Family Memorial Park, Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Across the street, Family Memorial Park—with a mini playground, picnic tables and gazebo—honors 36-year-old Suzette Dehler and her children, Gerald, 15, Christopher, 14, and Tammi, 8. They died in a car-train accident in July 1986.

Photographed from the park, the back of Sev’s with the Buckman water tower in the distance. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

On this autumn afternoon, we picnicked there, behind Sev’s Food & Liquor and across the street from the bus garage. A dog barked at the neighboring house, breaking the small town silence.

Buckman still centers around agriculture, as seen in this ag business on the north end of town. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

To the north, massive grain bins define this as an agricultural community.

To the west of Family Memorial Park, St. Michael’s Catholic Church rises above Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

And to the west, the steeple of St. Michael’s Catholic Church rises above Buckman. It’s a beautiful church, recently refurbished, and an integral part of this town. Randy worshiped here with classmates from St. Michael’s Parochial School and with his parents and siblings. He served as an altar boy, too. We mourned his mom here and a few years later he stood as best man when his dad remarried. I photographed the wedding.

On this day, I carried my camera inside again, this time to document the sanctuary. I feel like a foreigner inside Catholic churches, which are typically massive and ornate, so different from the simple Lutheran churches of my upbringing.

Check back as I take you inside St. Michael’s in a series of posts focusing solely on this church. The art inside will, I expect, impress you. And remind you that, even in the smallest of towns, treasures await our discovery.

Upcoming posts will also feature more photos from Buckman and several from neighboring Pierz.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Traveling back home to the southwestern Minnesota prairie September 5, 2011

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The land and sky stretch out before us as we drive along Minnesota Highway 67 between Morgan and Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota at sunset Friday.

MY HUSBAND, SON and I traveled this weekend to my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota, the place that inspired the name for this blog, Minnesota Prairie Roots.

My roots run deep into this land, into the soil of Redwood County where I grew up on a dairy and crop farm. Although I left the farm 38 years ago at age 17, the fall after graduating from Wabasso High School, I still consider this home. It is the place that shaped who I became as a person and a writer.

It is the land that still inspires me in my writing and my photography.

Most Minnesotans don’t give this area of the state a second thought. In fact, I have discovered in my nearly 30 years of residing in Faribault, in southeastern Minnesota, that many residents of my community don’t know what lies west of Mankato. They think the state ends there.

That frustrates me to no end. In trying to explain the location of  Vesta, I typically say “half way between Redwood Falls and Marshall on Highway 19.” Usually I get a blank stare. What more can I say?

The sign that marks my hometown, population around 350 and home of the nation's first electric co-op.

They consider my hometown in the middle of nowhere. I don’t disagree with that. But I like the middle of nowhere. The prairie possesses a beauty unlike any other. The wind. The sky. The acres and acres of cropland punctuated by farm places and small towns appeal to me. They quiet my soul, uplift my spirit, connect to me in a way that I can’t explain.

This trip we were driving west in the evening, into the sunset. The ribbon of roadway between Morgan and Redwood Falls stretched into seeming infinity under a sky banded by clouds.

The sun sets as we travel along Minnesota Highway 67 northwest of Morgan toward Redwood Falls.

This stretch of highway between Morgan and Redwood Falls seems to go on forever, as do the utility poles.

It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

What more can I say? I love my southwestern Minnesota prairie, the place that will always be my home, no matter where I live.

I prefer grain bins to skyscrapers. I shot this image as we traveled northwest of Morgan at sunset Friday.

My son told me I take a picture of this grain elevator complex every time we drive through Morgan. He is probably right. But I don't care. I see something different each time, each season, in which I photograph it.

My second shot of the elevator in Morgan, taken from the car while driving back to Faribault Sunday afternoon.

This trip I seemed to focus my camera on utility poles, which go on and on across the flat expanse of the prairie. I find a certain artistic appeal in this scene southeast of Morgan.

Soybean fields, pictured here, and corn fields define this rich farm land.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling