Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II March 9, 2018


WHEN I SEE A COMMUNITY like Sleepy Eye with so many architecturally-pleasing historic buildings, I wish I could wave a financial wand.



If I could, I would sweep away the metal, the wood, the stucco, the fake fronts that hide the bones of these beautiful, mostly-brick, structures. I would restore them to their grandeur, drawing the interest of motorists passing through this southwestern Minnesota community. I would give people a reason to stop, to check out the architecture, the unique small town shops and eateries. Many do. More could.


Details like this curved, ornate railing on city hall add visual interest and charm.


I would also make this busy main street more pedestrian and visually-friendly with bump-out corners graced by public art and lovely flower planters.  I would replace concrete sidewalks with brick, or at least edge them in brick. I’d buy some paint and repair windows and fix unsafe and run-down buildings…if only I held a magical wand of unlimited finances.


This map, from a vintage Orchid Inn promo, shows Sleepy Eye’s location in southwestern Minnesota.


With US Highway 14, a major east-west roadway running right through Sleepy Eye, heavy traffic is already here. And the bonus of this route as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway adds to the potential.


These architecturally detailed buildings hold Sleepy Eye’s history in dates and names.


You have to look upward to see the true beauty of these historic buildings.


A rooster weather vane drew my interest atop city hall, housed in a former bank.


If I had unlimited financial resources, I would do all of these things for this Brown County community west of New Ulm. But magical wishes differ from reality. It takes money to make these improvements. And I expect the merchants here, like those in so many small farming communities, are simply happy they’re still in business given competition from regional shopping centers, Big Box stores and online sources.


In numerous buildings I noted lovely tile, inside and out.


Yet, small towns like Sleepy Eye offer an alternative, a welcome break from the sameness of mass everything. Places like Sleepy Eye Stained Glass draw customers from all over to purchase stained glass supplies or to get stained glass windows and more restored. Three local antique shops, other shops and the friendliness and service of small town proprietors are additional draws. Schweiss Meats is a popular place for those who appreciate small town meat markets.


The old Pix Theatre needs lots of work inside and out. The intention is to save and restore the marquee, according to EDA Coordinator Kurk Kramer.


Within a year or so, two local physicians hope to reopen the abandoned Pix Theatre as a nano-brewery and coffee shop, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk K. Kramer. He also runs K & J Antiques and Collectibles. If all goes as planned, the former Orchid Inn motel and event center will become AGlobal, a STEM-based learning center with a focus on agriculture. Additionally, the Orchid would house a language immersion institute.





Those plans show me people are working hard to keep this community thriving, with businesses that distinguish Sleepy Eye from other small Minnesota towns. EDA Coordinator Kramer noted that Sleepy Eye is also home to a business (Mark Thomas Company) which serves the funeral home industry by producing such products as handcrafted wooden urns. Who knew? Not me.


Sleepy Eye honors its namesake on its water tower.


But I do know that Sleepy Eye is named after Chief Sleepy Eyes, buried at a monument site marking his grave. Everywhere you will see the respected Dakota leader’s portrait. He brings historical interest and identity to Sleepy Eye. Those are existing strengths.



Perhaps some day these historic downtown buildings will all be restored. I appreciate that some already are. Funds are available through the Sleepy Eye Downtown Rehabilitation Incentive Program to make improvements. So perhaps my vision for this small Minnesota town will evolve into more than simply a wish…


FYI: Highway 14 improvements in downtown Sleepy Eye this summer call for sidewalk replacement, pedestrian flashers at ped crossings and more. Click here to read details.

Please check back next week for “The Art of Signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III.”


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Everyone poops & other examples of positivity in Minnesota February 8, 2017

My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which I got at a recent family reunion.

My great niece Kiera painted this stone that lies on my office desk as a visual reminder of hope. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

WHEN GLOBAL, NATIONAL, state, local and personal issues leave us feeling sad, overwhelmed and anxious, it’s all too easy to give up hope. But it’s precisely the time we most need to search out the positive and shift our focus away from the negative. It’s the time we most need to appreciate one another.

Beautiful flowers for a graduate.

A gift of flowers is always welcome, special occasion or not. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So I searched for a few positive actions to share with you from southern Minnesota.

Read a book to a child, just like Officer Goodman. Listen to him read Everyone Poops in a February 3.

Read a book to a child, just like Officer Goodman. Listen to him read Everyone Poops in a February 3.

Without hesitation, I turned first to the Kenyon Police Department Facebook page, an ongoing source of inspirational, thought-provoking and often humorous pieces by Police Chief Lee Sjolander. Today I direct you to Officer Goodman’s bedtime story, Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi, read by Goodman (a puppet voiced by none other than the Chief). Everyone poops. They sure do.

A scoop shovel worked best for removing this snow. I shovel where the snowblower can't go.

If you live in a snowy state like me, consider shoveling or blowing snow from a neighbor’s driveway and sidewalk. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

East of Kenyon, writer Rosie Schluter is doing her part at the local weekly, The Cannon Falls Beacon. She notes “some of the good things” in a Pebble-Ripple column. Kindness, she writes, can cause a ripple effect. She cites a teacher who directed her students to share a kindness on a paper chain. She cites a neighbor who picks up mail for an elderly neighbor. And on her blog, Along the way, Rosie gives more examples. Often it’s the little things that make all the difference.

A perfect Valentine's Day weekend treat.

Consider baking valentine cookies to gift to someone. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

At the blog Ever Ready, my friend Sue is featuring “Pay It Forward” acts of kindness daily during February. She suggests baking and packaging cookies in valentine bags to share with others. She suggests shoveling snow for others. She suggests surprising someone with a handwritten thank you note. All are great ideas that can uplift and bring joy.

A little girl stands on the opposite side of the group of children waiting to swing at the pinata.

Children can teach us so much about acceptance. This is one of my favorite images, shot several years ago at the International Festival Faribault. Children took turns swinging a stick at a pinata. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Finally, in my community, The Virtues Project Faribault was implemented last year to “inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.” One aspect of that project is a virtues column published weekly in the local daily newspaper and on the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism website. Local residents write on virtues such as cooperation, tolerance and peacefulness. To read the thoughts and ideas of others in my community has truly been insightful, encouraging and positive.

A handwritten thank you card is always a good way to show your appreciation for someone.

A handwritten thank you note is always a good way to show your appreciation for someone.

TELL ME: How are you choosing and showing positivity?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Let’s brainstorm business ideas for an historic building in Lamberton February 18, 2015

IT’S BEEN AWHILE since I’ve thought of the historic 1892 former bank building in downtown Lamberton in my native southwestern Minnesota.

A side shot of the former bakery. Just imagine the possibilities for this spacious building. Let's hear your ideas.

A side shot of the former bakery. Just imagine the possibilities for this spacious building. Let’s hear your ideas. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The 3,250 square foot massive corner brick structure stands empty after a young couple was unable to secure financing to open Seven Sisters Coffee in the summer of 2013. The pair planned to transform the main floor into a community gathering space.

The Van Engens had planned to use the original lunch counter in their coffee shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from October 2012.

Plans were to reuse the original lunch counter in the coffee shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from October 2012.

They intended to serve food in the front section, which last housed long-time Sanger’s Bakery. The back room would serve as a venue for musical performances and the arts and as an event rental space. It seemed like a good idea.

But none of that came to fruition with the failed financing.

The yellow sign in the front window advertises the property for sale through Scenic City Realty.

The yellow sign in the front window advertises the property for sale through Scenic City Realty. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So the building went on the market thereafter, priced at $37,000.

The property remains for sale today, but at a much lower price. It’s now listed at $17,000 by Mike Kaufenberg at Scenic City Realty in Redwood Falls. That drop in price might just be enough to lure a buyer.

The Van Engens began working on this back space last fall in an area intended for entertainment and an artists' haven.

The back room features exposed brick and a wood floor. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I don’t know the current condition of the building given its ongoing vacancy. But I still see the potential here. This place possesses character and history. It’s located in a small town along a major regional highway, U.S. Highway 14, also known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. Wilder’s childhood home of Walnut Grove lies only 11 miles to the west. Walnut Grove draws a lot of tourists, especially during the summer.

Now, back to the reason this property popped into my mind. Have you heard about Hoodstarter.com? Me either, until recently.

Seven young visionaries created this online avenue to identify and gather ideas for vacant storefront properties in the Twin Cities metro area. Folks can then vote on the top suggestions and help fund pitched proposals. It seems like a great idea. I think we’ve all passed vacant storefronts and wished for whatever to fill the spaces in our hoods (neighborhoods/communities).

The former Sanger's Bakery in Lamberton, a Minnesota farming community.

The former Sanger’s Bakery in Lamberton, a Minnesota farming community. The Sanger’s Bakery lettering is no longer on the front window. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Today I’m giving you the opportunity to share your ideas for the old bank building in downtown Lamberton. What do you envision for this property?

And if you contact Mike Kaufenberg at Scenic City Realty, tell him I sent you. Especially if you buy the property.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Brainstorming on Faribault’s future September 29, 2014

NEVER HAVE I BEEN PART of a community’s visioning process.

Until Thursday evening, when eleven of us gathered at the Historic Hutchinson House Bed & Breakfast to discuss Faribault’s strengths, challenges and future under the guidance of hosts Doug and Tami Schluter.

In the distance you can see the clock tower on Shumway Hall at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, photographed last fall from City View Park.

A stunning autumn view of Faribault taken at City View Park show the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

For nearly three hours, our baker’s dozen of Baby Boomers focused on our southeastern Minnesota community through this “Meeting in a Box” session. It was a thoughtful process which allowed every single person the opportunity to speak as we rounded the dining room table, one-by-one taking our turns.

To have this grassroots chance to voice one’s opinion, without interruption (mostly) and in an informal setting, will provide invaluable information to the City of Faribault, which has launched this seven-month-long community visioning process tagged as Community Vision—Faribault 2040.

Leaving the show and driving southbound on Central Avenue through historic downtown Faribault.

A recent shot of a section of historic downtown Faribault’s Central Avenue. This scene represents to me Faribault’s past, present and future.

Projecting 25 years into the future allows our community to be proactive, to plan, to build on strengths, to identify weaknesses, to grow a stronger and better Faribault.

I couldn’t help but think, during this brainstorming session, how my second daughter recently reacted to news of a nephew’s upcoming move from Utah to rural Faribault. “It’s Faribault, Mom,” she said, a definite disdain tinging her words. I wondered how many other twenty-somethings share her attitude, how they can’t wait to graduate and move away.

Keeping our young people here popped up as a challenge facing Faribault. But I expect residents of almost every city or small town feel the same about the exit of their youth. I left my native southwestern Minnesota prairie at age seventeen.

A mural, one of several in the downtown area, promotes historic Faribault.

A mural, one of several in the downtown area, promotes historic Faribault. Our community’s rich history and architecture came up repeatedly as strong assets during the “Meeting in a Box” conversation.

Our discussion, among Faribault natives and those of us who relocated here, began with this statement: “My community is great, because……”

The Cheese Cave is housed in a beautifully-restored building in historic downtown Faribault. The interior, with an arched ceiling and sandstone-colored walls, mimics the caves where Faribault Dairy ages its cheeses.

The Cheese Cave is housed in a beautifully-restored building in historic downtown Faribault, site of many old and well-preserved buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

We could jot down three answers before circling the table and sharing. Once all answers were listed, we voted these as the top five reason’s Faribault is great: variety of educational choices, downtown architecture and rich history, efforts to preserve the past, good mix of businesses and people who care about one another.

Then it was on to the next question, which proved much more difficult: When you look 25 years into Faribault’s future, what are the most important community strengths we should build upon as we plan for Faribault’s future?

Note the Faribault Ochs store in this mid-1920s photo from the private collection of Daniel J. Hoisington.

This mid-1920s photo from the private collection of Daniel J. Hoisington was shot in downtown Faribault. Preserving our rich history and architecture ranked high in discussion at the “Meeting in a Box.”

After significant effort to even understand the question, we responded, then voted for our top five most important community strengths: educational opportunities, grow industries, preserve small town feel, tourism opportunities and preserving historical buildings and history.

Finally, the last question asked us to identify Faribault’s most pressing challenges as we plan for the future.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Diversity-related issues rated high in conversation. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

Those responses flowed fast and easy with the following marked as Faribault’s top challenges: housing code enforcement, crime (specifically domestic violence, drugs and DWIs identified), diversity related issues, city/county/citizen leadership, community planning and poor community pride.

Not much revealed at this “Meeting in a Box” session surprised me.

Yet, it’s good to get our thoughts out there so city leaders are aware of Average Joe or Jane Resident’s concerns. Our long lists of answers—all of them, not just the top five—will be forwarded to city officials. That’s reaffirming, to know that every single response will be passed along.

This week, from 7 – 9 p.m. Thursday, October 2, the Schluters are hosting another “Meeting in a Box.” They’re looking for participants. So, if you want a voice in the conversation about Faribault, contact them.

These sessions are being held through-out the community as the second step in the visioning process. Focus groups and community forums will follow.

For this process to truly reflect Faribault, though, more than just grey-haired Caucasian Baby Boomers will need to provide input. Opinions from all races and ages are needed.

Young people are our future. They will live the longest with the decisions made today. Unless they leave Faribault. Like my two daughters and son.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


You can help: Establishing “water coolers of literacy” in rural Minnesota November 17, 2011

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault

WHEN A NOTICE arrived in my e-mail in-box on Monday that Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was available for me at the local public library, I was thrilled. I’d been number 45 on the waiting list. I figured maybe I’d get the book in say seven years, long after I had forgotten it. Instead I waited only a few months.

Around 6:30 p.m. Monday, on my way to a church meeting, I stopped at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault to pick up this bestselling novel. Much to my dismay, the library appeared closed. It was. And then I remembered the budget cuts that had trimmed evening hours to only Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As frustrated as I sometimes am about shortened night-time hours, I shouldn’t complain. At least I have a library in my community, unlike my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota. Like two dozen other small towns in Redwood, Cottonwood, Murray and Pipestone counties, Vesta residents rely on the services of the Plum Creek Bookmobile to deliver library materials. (Click here to learn more about that bookmobile.)

Once a month the bookmobile pulls onto Vesta’s Main Street, just as it does in towns like Currie, Iona, Revere and other towns you’ve probably not heard of unless you live or grew up in that rural area of Minnesota.

Given how often I use the Faribault library, I’d have a tough time with only once-a-month library access via a bookmobile. But I know that residents of these rural communities, like my 79-year-old mom, are grateful for their library on wheels.

Can more be done, though, to get books into the hands of these rural residents more frequently? I don’t expect that will come via public library systems with already financially-strapped budgets.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the nonprofit Little Free Library project, co-founded two years ago by Todd Bol, a native of Stillwater now living in nearby Hudson, Wisconsin. I spoke at length with Bol earlier this week about this endeavor which places birdhouse-sized mini libraries mostly in front yards and in some public locales.

A Little Free Library seems the ideal way to fill a void in small towns without libraries.

But the problem lies in connecting to these sparsely-populated areas and growing these libraries. Bol wanted to pick my brain on how to best reach these communities and spread the word about opening a Little Free Library.

A recently-opened Little Free Library in a southwest Faribault neighborhood.

Several weeks ago a little library opened in Faribault. I learned about Dale and Joan Smith’s front yard library in the local daily newspaper on the same day I read about one opening in Detroit Lakes. Minnesota now has about a dozen Little Free Libraries with orders for some five more, Bol says. Two of those are going to Lakefield near Worthington in the southwestern corner of the state.

That’s the area I want to target for these libraries which operate on the premise of “Take a book, leave a book.” No library cards. No fee. No anything except a steward of the library and the sharing of donated books.

In a blog post published last week about the Smiths’ library, I challenged Vesta area residents to open a Little Free Library. Thus far, no one has responded.

Bol’s nonprofit is there to help, offering everything from advice to publicity to ready-built mini libraries. Those physical libraries range from a basic no-frills model priced at $375 to original art deluxe models listed at $1,000.

Or, like the Smiths in Faribault, you can build your own and then become a Little Free Library member, for a recommended $50 donation. That entitles you to benefits like a sign, sharing of your story online, listing on the LFL world-wide map and more. (Click here for membership details.)

With monies donated through the LFL’s “Pay It Forward” program, funding is available for underwriting library costs, for signs, donations of the library structure, etc.—all aimed toward helping others open village libraries. Currently the nonprofit is assisting soldiers with placing libraries in Afghanistan. No application process exists to apply for funds, but Bol hopes to eventually establish one.

Some 200 officially-registered Little Free Libraries have opened world-wide, according to Bol, who is especially excited about one planned for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. He’s also thrilled about an upcoming story in an Italian fashion magazine.

Defining himself as a “social entrepreneur by profession,” Bol focuses on change and making a difference. He views a Little Free Library as “a water cooler of literacy.” That comes from a man who says he “leans toward dyslexic” and reads primarily social engineering, quirky nonfiction and history books.

The Smiths of Faribault have filled their Little Library with a variety of books.

A LFL, Bol continues, becomes not only a place to get and give books, but also a community gathering spot, a “unique space of conversation” to discuss reading, books, education and more.

“There’s a sense of community being built through Little Free Libraries,” its co-founder says. He sees social interaction between neighbors who previously may not have met or spoken. A front yard library brings them together.

Bol remembers the moment he realized he was onto something with the Little Free Library concept. He had built and placed a schoolhouse-shaped library in his Hudson front yard honoring his mom, June A. Bol. When folks stopped by to shop at a garage sale he was holding and saw the mini library, they were intrigued. “That’s cute. Can I build it?” customers inquired.

From that spark of community interest, this social entrepreneur and his friend Rick Brooks of Madison, Wisconsin, ran with the idea and co-founded the Little Free Library movement.

Today Bol’s looking to engage others, like me, in spreading the word about these mini libraries. I didn’t come up with a brainstorm of an idea when we talked about how to best reach places like the small towns of southwestern Minnesota without libraries. I only suggested establishing a LFL in the area and then contacting small-town daily and weekly newspapers and radio stations in a publicity blitz.

He suggested a contest that would give away a Little Free Library, something he’s previously done.

Bottom line, it’s going to take networking to grow Little Free Libraries in more remote and rural areas.

Once the interest is established, it’s going to take individuals, families, neighbors and/or organizations to build and tend these libraries—perhaps a 4-H club or a 4-Her, a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, a church youth group, a Friends of the Library organization, a woodworker, a service club like Sertoma or Rotary or…

IF YOU HAVE ideas, any ideas, on how to grow Little Free Libraries in rural Minnesota, please submit a comment and share.

IF YOU HAVE a Little Free Library, plan to open one or need assistance in opening one, submit a comment. Most of all, tell others about this project.

FINALLY, if anyone is specifically interested in opening, building or funding a Little Free Library in my hometown of Vesta, let me know. It’s always been my dream to have a library in Vesta.

CLICK HERE for detailed information about the Little Free Library project.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling