Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A photographic journey through the prairie to Fargo May 24, 2013

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Rural scene, I94

ON THE WAY WEST TO FARGO, the land is wide, the sky big.

Rural scene, Sauk Centre

Fields and farm sites—punctuated by occasional cities, like Sauk Centre, Alexandria and Fergus Falls, and exits to small towns—once west of St. Cloud, define the Interstate 94 corridor leading northwest to the North Dakota border.

Rural scene, Downer sign

It is a place that can be both unsettling and freeing, depending on your perspective, your mood, your experiences.

Rural scene, farmhouse

Raised on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, even I am sometimes overwhelmed by the infinite spaciousness of this prairie, this sky.

Rural scene, lone tree

I ground myself with my camera, locking on scenes that root me to the earth, give me the security of feeling tethered.

Rural scenes, barn and silo

And when I do that, I notice the details of lines and shapes—in fence posts and grain bins, a lone farmhouse or a single tree, the angle of a barn roof or the vertical rise of a silo.

Rural, bins

I still feel small in this expanse. But I, at least, feel less lost in the vastness.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The enduring smiley face May 18, 2013

Freeport water tower

I DON’T CARE how many times I’ve seen this water tower smiling down at me along Interstate 94 in Freeport. I still react with a smile each time I spot it.

In a community which is reportedly the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, this water tower epitomizes “Have a good day” in a singular visual.

And that, my friends, makes me happy.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Touring Rothsay, the “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota” May 17, 2013

DAILY, THOUSANDS OF TRAVELERS zip by Rothsay on Interstate 94, mostly oblivious to this rural Wilkin County community which claims notoriety as the “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.”

If not for the 18-foot high prairie chicken statue perched atop a hill overlooking the interstate, few would notice Rothsay. (Click here to view my previous prairie chicken post.)

Small

The local combination lumberyard and hardware store, a mainstay of small towns.

But this community of nearly 500 is worth a stop for anyone who appreciates small towns as I do. I delight in the businesses which define communities like this—the local co-op, hardware store and lumberyard. The bank. The home-grown eateries and one-of-a-kind shops. The efforts to preserve history.

Vehicles parked behind the body shop.

Vehicles parked behind the automotive body and repair shop.

Even the vehicles parked along the quiet streets, the unlocked bikes beside the school, tell a story.

On this stop in Rothsay, I had only time for a quick photographic perusal. That was enough to satisfy my desire to view this community, to feel its heartbeat.

Most rural communities are home to a cooperative.

Most rural communities are home to a famer’s cooperative.

I just had to appreciate the name of this ice cream shop in Rothsay, with a mosquito atop the roof.

I just had to appreciate the name of this ice cream shop in Rothsay, with a mosquito atop the roof.

A church turned thrift store.

A church turned thrift store.

Ole and Lena's Pizzeria serves pizza, pasta and sandwiches. No lutefisk listed on the outdoor sign.

Ole and Lena’s Pizzeria serves pizza, pasta and sandwiches. No lutefisk or lefse listed on the outdoor sign.

Typically the nicest building in town, the bank.

Typically the nicest building in town, the bank.

From what I observed, this is an historic blacksmith shop, not a working one. Note the bikes in the background parked outside the public school.

From what I observed, this is an historic blacksmith shop, not a working one. Note the unlocked bikes in the background parked outside the public school.

FYI: Click here to read my previous post about the Wilkin County Sheriff’s Department office in Rothsay.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a prairie chicken saves the day May 14, 2013

NUMEROUS TIMES ON TRIPS to and from Fargo, I’ve wanted to stop and photograph a kitschy roadside attraction along Interstate 94 on the edge of Rothsay. But time never allowed, until Friday morning.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

I convinced my husband, who didn’t seem as excited as me, that we had time for a photo op with an 18-foot tall, 8,000-pound prairie chicken. He sat in the van while I did a quick photo shoot in the whipping wind.

In the right background of this photo, you can see the smoke rising from a grass fire along Interstate 94 near Rothsay late Friday morning.

In the right background of this photo, you can see smoke.

From our hilltop position next to the interstate, we noticed a towering plume of white smoke in the distance. Randy speculated a controlled burn at a nearby wildlife refuge. I wasn’t so sure. Who would be crazy enough to light the land afire on a windy day like Friday? But what do I know?

The road to the left leads into Rothsay, "The Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota."

The road to the left leads into Rothsay, “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.”

So…given my curiosity about this self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” we drove into Rothsay and meandered through residential areas before parking across from the Wilkin County Sheriff’s Department office (that’s another story) to scout out the town.

Soon, the wail of sirens pierced the quiet of an unexciting Friday morning in Rothsay as a rescue squad vehicle and fire truck roared out of town. To that fire, I presumed.

I shot a few more photos and then, just as we were about to leave the downtown, spotted a thrift store in an old church. We stopped.

This photo shows a section of the road ditch burned Friday morning along I-94 near Rothsay and photographed several hours later.

This photo shows a section of the road ditch burned Friday morning along I-94 near Rothsay and photographed several hours later.

When I met a local exiting the thrift shop, I asked if he knew anything about the fire. As I expected, he did. Word travels fast in a small town like Rothsay, population around 500. The fire, he said, was burning in the road ditch along the west side of the interstate about a mile north of town.

“Could have started with a bearing going out on a truck,” he speculated.

Or a cigarette butt tossed out a vehicle window, I thought.

Then he advised us not to take the interstate. “Go past the truck stop on the edge of town and keep going straight north til you get to County Road 108. Turn onto that and it will take you back onto the interstate,” he repeated. Thrice.

He reckoned that drivers, blinded by the smoke, might be piling into one another on the roadway. “They don’t slow down like they should.”

More of the charred road ditch from the Friday morning grass fire which halted traffic and caused accidents.

More of the charred road ditch from the Friday morning grass fire which halted traffic and caused accidents.

Randy wasn’t so sure the elderly man was right. I was. He seemed quite sure of his information.

As we aimed toward the edge of Rothsay, my indecisive husband suggested that we watch for southbound traffic on I-94. There was none. So north we traveled on a county road, soon catching glimpses of long lines of stopped traffic on both sides of the interstate.

From the County Road 108 entrance ramp nearly all the way to Moorhead, a distance of about 40 miles, we had the entire interstate mostly to ourselves. Talk about an eerie feeling. But better to freewheel along the interstate than to be stuck in traffic at the dual emergency site of a grass fire and multiple crashes.

So that is my story of how a prairie chicken, and a kindly man from Rothsay, saved the day for us.

And, I suppose, I can take some credit, too, as I suggested we stop in Rothsay. If not for my desire to photograph kitschy art, we would have driven right into that smoke and…perhaps another vehicle.

The feet of the giant prairie chicken along with info about the statue built in 1976 by artist

The feet of the giant “booming” prairie chicken along with info about the statue erected in 1976.

FYI: According to minimal information I found online, several crashes resulted from the large grass fire burning along I-94 near mile marker 36 north of Rothsay. I couldn’t find any details.

Also, according to info I read online, the 23-mile section of roadway from the Downer exit to Rothsay is known as “the Bermuda Triangle of I-94” because of the high volume of crashes during the winter months. The article doesn’t cite grass fires. Click here to read that story.

This past weekend, numerous grass fires were reported in this region of Minnesota. Click here to read about the fires.

Also, due to the high fire danger in many areas of Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources has issued burning restrictions in specific counties. Click here to learn more about those restrictions.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An on-the-road field report May 13, 2013

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Near St. Cloud Thursday afternoon.

Near St. Cloud Thursday afternoon on a day that seemed more November-like than May.

IN TYPICAL FORMER farm girl and farm boy fashion, my husband and I watched for farmers in the fields during our 600-mile round trip between Faribault and Fargo on Thursday and Friday to retrieve our youngest from North Dakota State University.

We traveled the interstate to Fargo, but took the back roads south and east (mostly Minnesota Highways 15 and 19) on the way home to avoid the road construction and traffic snarls near Clearwater and in the metro Friday evening.

Working the field near the Sabin exit.

Working the field near the Sabin exit Friday.

Digging, also near Exit 15 to Sabin.

Digging, also near Exit 15 to Sabin.

East of Moorhead, draft horses seed small grain.

East of Moorhead, draft horses seed small grain.

Based on our observations from Interstate 94, farmers between Fergus Falls and Moorhead, a distance of about 50 miles, are the most advanced in spring field work within the region we traveled.

Photographed near Collegeville.

Photographed near Collegeville on Thursday afternoon.

A Freeport area farm.

A Freeport area farm with an, as of Thursday afternoon, unworked field.

Field work before then rates as spotty and really only begins in the St. Cloud area.

As the sun begins to set along Minnesota Highway 15, a John Deere works the land.

As the sun begins to set along Minnesota Highway 15, a John Deere works the land.

North of Winthrop Friday evening.

North of Winthrop Friday evening, dust flies in the field.

Driving south on Minnesota 15 between I-94 and Winthrop Friday evening, we noticed lots of farmers out and about.

But then, heading east on State Highway 19, we saw fields basically untouched since last fall.

I expect, at least in southern Minnesota where we had those monumental late spring snowfalls, farmers are getting a wee worried about getting corn in the ground.

The sun sets across the prairie north of Winthrop on Friday.

The sun sets across the prairie north of Winthrop on Friday.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Just like the Clampetts May 11, 2013

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Just like The Beverly Hillbillies, a rocking chair is secured atop this van.

Just like The Beverly Hillbillies, a rocking chair is secured atop this van.

MOVING WEST or heading west and north up to the lake cabin? I’m not sure given the cargo and the Maine license plate on the boat trailer.

But the fictional Clampett family of the 1962-1971 comedic television series, The Beverly Hillbillies, has nothing on these travelers spotted along Interstate 94 about five miles east of Alexandria Thursday afternoon.

What do you think? Lake cabin or permanent move?

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dog sled or boat? April 22, 2013

DEAR SON,

In less than three weeks you finish your spring semester classes at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Traveling Interstate 94 on our way to Fargo with hours to go. File photo.

Traveling Interstate 94 on our way to Fargo with hours to go. File photo.

Your dad and I are wondering whether we should come by dog sled or boat to retrieve you and your belongings once we cross the border into North Dakota. What would you suggest?

I’ll admit that, with the continuing snowfall in Fargo, I’m beginning to wonder if your winter will ever end. Kind of like here in southern Minnesota.

The Red River

The placid and narrow Red River photographed from Lindenwood Park in Fargo, June 2012.

And, I’m quite concerned about flooding of the Red River. Everything I read or hear seems to indicate record high water levels.

I viewed a computer simulated graphic of the Red at 42 feet.  (Click here.)  I know NDSU isn’t by the river, but the graphic shows the campus close to an area protected by levees and near areas which could be affected by back up of flood waters through the sewer system. I know, I know, nothing to worry about, right?

I suppose I just have to trust that Fargo officials have the situation under control. I read on the City of Fargo website that Sandbag Central has reopened and that levees will be built to 43 feet, protecting to a river level of 41 feet with two feet of “freeboard,” whatever that means.

The Sertoma Freedom Bridge over the Red River, linking Fargo and Moorhead.

The Sertoma Freedom Bridge over the Red River, linking Lindenwood Park in Fargo and Gooseberry Mound Park in Moorhead. File photo from June 2012.

It’s difficult to imagine, after seeing the Red last summer, how this river could flood into a raging and destructive force. Remember when we walked across that foot bridge over the Red linking Minnesota and North Dakota? I recall not being at all impressed with the size of the river.

The flat landscape near Fargo, on the Minnesota side. File photo.

The flat landscape near Fargo, on the Minnesota side. File photo from February 2012.

But when I consider the flat landscape in and around Fargo, flatter even than the prairie where I grew up (you know, that place you term “the middle of nowhere”), I understand. I compare the flooding of Fargo to spilling a glass of milk onto a table. The milk runs everywhere.

Anyway, when you have time between classes, could you drop me a line and advise?

Dog sled or boat?

Love,
Mom

P.S.  Does Interstate 94, which spans the Red River between Moorhead and Fargo, remain open if the Red floods?

UPDATE: According to information posted at 4:09 p.m. April 23 on the NDSU website, there are “no foreseen threats to the NDSU campus.” The university has a response team in place and continues to monitor the projected Red River level reports and attend meetings with the Fargo City Commission. Click here to read the flood-related statement posted on the NDSU website.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling