Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Some thoughts on aging vehicles, horse power & more December 29, 2020

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My father-in-law, Tom Helbling, painted this holiday scene and gifted it to Randy and me. Every December I pull the painting from my stored art collection and hang it on the dining room wall. It’s among my most treasured artwork.

AS RANDY AND I DISCUSSED YET another issue with our aging vehicles over dinner, I glanced at the painting on our dining room wall. “Sometimes I wish we got around by horse and buggy,” I said. “Life would be simpler.”

Or would it? There would be horses to feed, wagons or sleighs to fix, manure to pitch from a barn we don’t have. And our travel would be limited. Nah, wouldn’t work.

Our used van, purchased from a private party and photographed quite a number of years ago. It’s marked by rust now, from winter exposure to salt, sand and chemicals placed on Minnesota roadways. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So we continue to keep our 2003 Chevy Impala with 276,000 miles and our 2005 Dodge Caravan with some 175,000 miles in running order. Or should I say Randy does? He’s an automotive machinist (that’s different than a mechanic) and is pretty darned skilled in vehicle maintenance and repair after 40+ years in the profession. This year he’s done brake work on both vehicles, put a new sway bar in the car and replaced a belt tensioner and belt, alternator and radiator in the van. Oh, and done regular oil changes.

Randy’s skills save us lots in labor costs. But parts alone, even with his work place discount, still ran $865.

I figured with all those repairs already this year, we were good to go for awhile. But then Randy texted recently that the heater in the car wasn’t working. He had one long, cold 22-minute commute to work. He thought the problem may be a blown fuse. It wasn’t. And, not being skilled in the electrical components of a vehicle or wanting to navigate repair inside/under the dashboard, he let the guys at Witt Bros Service in Northfield work their repair magic. They’re a great, trustworthy crew, located across the parking lot from Randy’s work place. Still, sinking $200 (most of that in parts) into a nearly 18-year-old car gives reason to pause. But, hey, where can you buy a well-maintained used car for that price?

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop in 2015. I display this every May during Kentucky Derby time. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Now, if we weren’t paying $1,868/month in health insurance premiums in 2021 (up $144/month from this year), we could drive newer, nicer vehicles. Thus far in 2020, we’ve forked out $20,447 for health insurance premiums with deductibles of $4,250/each. Sigh. Nearly $21,000 could go a long way toward paying for a vehicle upgrade or anything for that matter. But, hey, at least we have health insurance (that is basically worthless unless we have a major health event) and wheels, not horses, to get around.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Faribault: A Sunday morning walk in the park July 27, 2020

Randy and I walked Sunday morning along a recreational trail in Faribault’s North Alexander Park. The path follows the Cannon River. That’s the Faribault Woolen Mill in the distance.


MID SUNDAY MORNING and I desire to get out of the house. For one reason. A mouse. After I went to bed Saturday evening, Randy spotted a mouse running across the living room. Have I told you yet that I am terrified of mice? I understand that my fear is irrational. But that does not change my feelings about rodents. I’ve had too many mouse encounters—in a bathroom in the dead of night while pregnant. Another with a mouse found floating dead in a crockpot. And a live mouse in a silverware drawer. Yes, I detest mice. I figured if we left the house, we would come home to find the elusive mouse caught in a trap. Snap. Dead. It didn’t happen.


The trail winds through a wooded part of the park. At the distant shelter, a group was setting up for a grad party.


But, hey, we had a nice time at North Alexander Park in Faribault, where we walked a recreational trail and I paused numerous times to take photos. It proved a welcome break from mouse brain. And also provided photos for this blog. Win-win.


Three growing ducklings in a row.


The watchful mama duck trails behind.


Overnight rainfall raised the water level of the Cannon River considerably, but not to flood stage.


As usual, ducks and geese populated this park and I found myself dodging droppings. For the first time ever, I also observed a couple throwing bread to the fowl. I thought to myself, please do not encourage them to wander away from the river and onto the pathways further into the park.


Typically, this playground is swarming with kids.


Randy and I saw a few other humans. Walking dogs. Setting up for a graduation party. A dad and his two kids on the playground.





And on a nearby tree, a beautiful woodpecker searching for bugs. (If only he could scout out mice.)


The empty softball diamond. Check back for some interesting signage photos.


Across the road, the softball diamonds were vacant. On a typical summer weekend, they would likely be busy with tournaments.


Looking through the fence at the Faribault Aquatic Center. No kids. No pool open this summer.


This sign made me laugh. Check the weather forecast before you head to the pool.


On this incredibly hot and humid July day, the pool remained closed due to COVID-19.


Likewise, just down the street, the Faribault Aquatic Center was also vacant, locked down due to COVID-19. I took a few photos and laughed at a sign inside the front entry that advised of no refunds in the event of lightning. It rained all night Saturday into early Sunday morning here in Faribault. Plenty of thunder and lightning.





Across the road at the Rice County Fairgrounds we found one final surprise—a horse show. Not yet underway, but in the process. I’ve always liked horses.

But mice? No. Not one bit…


You know you’re in rural Minnesota when… November 3, 2016

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…you discover a sign like this at a city park.

I photographed this at Earl B. Himle Memorial Park in Hayfield, Minnesota, population around 1,300. Credit goes to my husband for spotting the sign.

Check back as I bring you a three-part series of posts from Hayfield.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Memories of all the pretty little horses September 15, 2016

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Free horse and baby stuff 002 - Copy


WHEN MY NEIGHBOR PLACED a pile of baby equipment on the boulevard recently along with an oversized plastic toy horse, memories rushed back of my dear second daughter and her love of all things horses.

As a preschooler, Miranda obsessed over equines, wanting to check out only books about horses from the library. She drew pastel horses with Magic Markers. And she played with toy horses. Endlessly.

Now a plastic tote heaped with her childhood horses rests on a shelf in the basement, in storage. Those equines represent memories, sweet and treasured of a daughter I love beyond words.

I was tempted to dash across Willow Street and pluck that horse from the grass. But I left it there for the young girl who opened the passenger side of her mom’s SUV and scooped the critter into her arms. Perhaps some day her mom will pack that horse away in a plastic container and remember when her little girl loved horses.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Horse-drawn wagon rides honor Christmases past in Faribault December 14, 2015

Mike Fuchs guides his team or horses southbound on Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault late Saturday afternoon.

Mike Fuchs guides his team of horses southbound on Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault late Saturday afternoon.


BELLS JINGLED AS HORSES clopped along Faribault’s Central Avenue late Saturday afternoon pulling Santa’s Wagon, although Santa was missing.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 79 close-up


Traffic jammed and shoppers paused to watch.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 84 close-up of Mike & horses


And occasionally along the route, Mike Fuchs reined his team to a halt for exiting and boarding passengers.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 89 near Security Bank clock


The horses trod past aged buildings and the recently-refurbished Security Bank Building clock.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 92 red car following


Time slowed for drivers trailing Santa’s Wagon. But no horns honked.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 94 horses in motion


For a few hours on a December Saturday afternoon, time flashed back to yesteryear, to days when horse power truly meant horse power.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 101 by print shop


It is good to slow down, to travel at the pace of a horse’s stride, to listen to the repeat rhythm of hooves upon pavement, to hear sleigh bells ring.


Santa's horse-drawn wagon, 106 by State Bank


There is time in the haste of life, in the crazy busyness of the Christmas season, for a horse-drawn wagon ride.


Check back for more weekend holiday stories in and around Faribault, including a precious portrait you won’t want to miss tomorrow.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


When fashion wins over horses April 29, 2015

FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, my now nearly 83-year-old mom has been enthralled by the Kentucky Derby.

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting for a song last fall at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. The scene reminds me of the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, on the official Derby website store, paint-by-number horse paintings are available for purchase.

I purchased this stunning unframed 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting for a song last fall at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. The scene reminds me of the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, on the official Derby website store, paint-by-number horse kits are available for purchase.

This week I asked her why, something I felt compelled to know because, well, time slips away and then we wish we’d asked these questions. So I phoned her at her assisted living apartment 120 miles away in southwestern Minnesota, catching her right before lunch.

“It’s because of the hats they wear, not because of the horses,” she replied. And here, all along, I thought her Derby interest was fixed on the horses.

She continued: “It’s unbelievable to me what kind of crazy hats they wear. They’re so big.”

The fancy hat I purchased months ago for a Kentucky Derby party.

The fancy hat I purchased months ago for a Kentucky Derby party.

In that moment I wished Mom could join my husband and me for the Big Hats & Big Hearts Annual Auction for the Arts and Kentucky Derby Party at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday. That celebration includes viewing of the race, live and silent auctions, and Derby food and drinks.

Kentucky Derby hats

Kentucky Derby hats at The Crafty Maven, 212 Central Avenue, on display in early April.  Photo courtesy of The Crafty Maven.

A bonus is the current gallery exhibit, “A great place to hang your hat,” running through May 5 and sponsored by The Crafty Maven. That downtown Faribault shop offers an assortment of Derby hats and will even custom embellish hats for the big race day.

While I’m sitting in the Paradise theatre watching the Derby on the big screen, my mom will have her TV tuned to the festivities. She’ll review the list of contenders and choose a horse solely on liking its name. That’s precisely how I pick a horse. Neither of us cares about their rankings, only the names.

Names of past Derby winners are listed on a commemorative drinking glass gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann.

Names of past Derby winners are listed on a commemorative drinking glass gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann.

Of the 140 Kentucky Derby winners, I remember only one—that of triple crown and 1973 winner Secretariat. Aristides won the first race in 1875. Reviewing the list of horses for the 141st Derby run, Bold Conquest grabs my fancy.

My vintage paint-by-number horse painting up close.

My vintage paint-by-number horse painting up close.

I wonder which horse Mom will choose. She’s never been to Churchill Downs, but years ago attended several races at Minnesota’s Canterbury Park. The Shakopee horse race track is hosting a Kentucky Derby party on Saturday. Mom and her sister Rachel selected horses at Canterbury based on liking their names. Once, though, they picked a horse co-owned by the son of the veterinarian from my hometown.

My friend Beth Ann, who spoils me, gifted me with official Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses from 1986 and 1991.

My friend Beth Ann, who spoils me, gifted me with official Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses from 1986 and 1991.

I wish Mom could travel to Louisville, sit in the stands in a big fancy hat and sip mint juleps. She’s always wanted to attend the Derby. But at her age, she never will. Life is like a horse race. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we don’t.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Here comes Santa Claus & his horses December 16, 2014

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IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK  a lot like Christmas…

Free horse-drawn wagon rides were offered around downtown Faribault Saturday afternoon. Here the wagon, with Santa aboard, passes The Depot Bar and Grill.

Free horse-drawn wagon rides were offered around downtown Faribault Saturday afternoon. Here the wagon, with Santa aboard, passes The Depot Bar and Grill.

with a one-horse two-horse open sleigh wagon winding around and through historic downtown Faribault.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Horse/Pferd crazy in Minnesota und Deutschland April 7, 2011

This isn't my stick horse; mine is long gone. But my parents made stick horses for my two daughters 20-plus years ago. This horse belongs to one of them.

GROWING UP ON A SOUTHWESTERN Minnesota farm, I wanted a horse. Bad. Really, really bad.

But Dad wasn’t buying my and my siblings’ pleas to “Please, please, pretty please, Dad, can we get a horse?”

He stood firm in his belief that horses were dangerous. And then he would give us the facts to back up his fear. Dad would regale us over and over again with the tale of the boy he’d seen lying in the Redwood Falls Hospital with a hoof print embedded in his forehead. Whether that story was entirely true or a bit of exaggeration, I’ll never know. I only knew, unequivocally, that Dad didn’t want any of his six kids kicked in the head by a horse.

I think he also had concerns about keeping an animal that wasn’t earning its keep on our dairy and crop farm. With tractors, he didn’t need horses that, in his opinion, would do nothing except consume corn and hay that he needed for the cattle.

And so my siblings and I improvised. Socks with eyes, mouths and ears and with yarn manes sewn on and then jammed onto sticks became our horses. Stick horses. I rode mine around the farmyard so much that I easily could have ridden to Montana and back.

These were the days, too, of television westerns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide. These were the days of shooting cap guns and, even though this is certainly not politically-correct today, of playing “cowboys and Indians.”

When my siblings and I weren’t riding our stick horses with guns blazing, we were riding our bicycles. Up and down the driveway. On the rock-hard dirt paths we’d carved through the grove. We pedaled furiously, escaping robbers and savages on our bikes turned horses.

On occasion, we also straddled empty barrels, slipping our feet into stirrups we’d fashioned from baler twine. We were, if anything, innovative, resourceful and imaginative.

Dad wasn’t giving us our horse, so we made do.

For my oldest brother, making do also meant attempting to ride a steer. I don’t recall that he was ever bucked off. But I also don’t remember that he succeeded in his mission.


My second daughter went through a phase, when she was about four years old, of being obsessed with horses. She drew horse pictures non-stop. I read every horse book to her available through the southeastern Minnesota library system. And I bought her toy horses, all of which are still in a plastic tote for her to someday claim.

All of which brings me to this story. Have you heard about the 15-year-old German girl who trained a cow that she can ride like a horse? Her parents, like my dad, told her she couldn’t have a horse. So she improvised.

Shortly after Luna was born on the family’s farm two years ago, Regina Mayer started working with the animal. Her persistence paid off as she can now saddle up and ride the cow like a horse. Luna even is trained to jump over hurdles.

I like the spunk of this teen. Knowing what I know about cattle, I realize just how determined Regina had to be to get her “horse.”

Apparently my brothers, sisters and I weren’t determined enough. So, instead, we settled for sticks, bikes and barrels. And, on occasion, we cajoled a relative into riding her horse from several miles away to our farm. She would allow us to climb into the saddle for a walk around the farmyard. It was then that I discovered I really didn’t feel all that comfortable riding a horse. But I never told my dad. Not once.


One of the many horses in my second daughter's collection.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Sunday afternoon at Valley Grove September 21, 2010

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PRAIRIE GRASSES and wild flowers dipped in the wind, swaying to the folksy music of Hütenänny. And I thought, as l listened, of the movie, Sweet Land, filmed in southwestern Minnesota and based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s book.

But I wasn’t in the southwestern part of the state. Rather, I stood atop a prairie hillside in southeastern Minnesota, in the backyard of the Valley Grove churches, delighting in the rhythm of the Nordic music so fitting for this place settled by Norwegian immigrants.

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

Valley Grove visitors can walk through a restored prairie, where wildflowers grow.

On this Sunday afternoon in September, folks gathered outside and inside the 1862 stone church and the neighboring 1894 white clapboard church, in the graveyard, underneath the majestic sprawling oak where the musicians played, and on the prairie, close to the land.

Visitors spread quilts upon the grass and enjoyed the music of Hutenanny.

A group of mostly Northfield area musicians performed as Hutenanny at the Valley Grove Country Social. On Sunday evenings they perform as the Northern Roots Session at the Contented Cow in Northfield.

A member of Hutenanny dresses country for the folksy Nordic music performed at Sunday's Social.

In the churchyard, next to the simple wooden church, youngsters swish-swished goat milk into a pail, admired colorful caged chickens and crafted ropes to twirl high above their heads.

Kathy Zeman of next-door Simple Harvest Organic Farm gave a young boy lessons in milking a goat.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens attracted lots of interest.

Along the fenceline that guards the duo hillside churches near Nerstrand, families waited to board a horse-drawn wagon that would take them along a path past the churchyard, up and down the prairie hill, where, if they looked, the land stretched down to farms and to woods tipped in the first rustic colors of autumn.

A horse-drawn wagon carried visitors on a path through the 50-acre prairie.

Inside the 1894 historic church, a musician pressed pedals and keys and tugged at pulls as the faithful lifted their voices in reverent song. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” they sang, followed by “Amazing Grace.”

Organists performed several concerts inside the 1894 Valley Grove Church on a pipe organ built in St. Louis and installed in 1911.

Art and bluebirds and old photos. Sunshine, mixed with clouds. Memories shared, new memories made. Photos snapped. Gravesites visited. Hugs exchanged. All comprised the Valley Grove Country Social, a soul-satisfying way to spend a Sunday afternoon in September in Minnesota.

An archway at the entry to the Valley Grove churchyard.

The Valley Grove churches are on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Old-fashioned hydrangea bushes nestle against the clapboard church.

The spire of the 1894 church can be seen for miles.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society is working to preserve the buildings, land and history for future generations.

CHECK OUT THESE PLACES/GROUPS referenced in this Minnesota Prairie Roots blog post:

Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota

Simple Harvest Organic Farm

The Contented Cow

Northern Roots Session

ALSO CHECK OUT my previous Valley Grove posts published Oct. 9, 19 and 31, 2009, and Nov. 2, 2009, on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling