Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections on Labor Day 2021 September 3, 2021

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Portraits of industrial workers stretch along the Madison-Kipp building in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020.

WITH LABOR DAY only days away, I’m reflecting on employment. Not the unofficial end of summer or the start of school. But on jobs.

I can’t recall a time when jobs seemed so abundant, when businesses can’t find enough workers.

One look at my local paper and shopper shows postings for transit bus drivers, sandwich makers, managers, truck drivers, construction workers, nursing assistants, housekeepers, maintenance people, a city finance clerk, sports reporter, mortgage banker, cylinder delivery driver, pharmaceutical researchers, direct care staff, meat market counter help, digital media specialist, appraiser, engineering tech, bilingual-Somali eligibility worker and more.

Companies are offering sign-on bonuses, free food, enticing benefits and better wages. Not that these higher wages are high enough to meet the ever-growing cost of living in a community like mine with a housing shortage. In both rental and home ownership. I expect many in Faribault struggle to manage monthly rent of $831-$1,315, for a two-bedroom apartment, for example.

Many, despite full-time employment, struggle also to put food on the table, to afford healthcare, and more. Life is not vacations and dining out and having the newest and the best for many. Rather, it’s about getting by and budgeting and shopping thrift stores and stretching dollars until they stretch no more. This is reality.

Strong, determined, skilled… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots seems as wide as ever. And often that distance exists not for a lack of hard work, but rather in the differing values placed on jobs. Or disparities that exist due to greed. Or a lack of appreciation for the knowledge and skills of hands-on laborers, especially, versus white collar workers.

The pandemic, too, has challenged the work force in ways we’ve never experienced. I feel, especially, for those who work in healthcare (namely hospitals), who are overwhelmed by the stress and pressures of caring for COVID patients. I can only imagine how disheartened they feel as cases surge, when it didn’t need to be this way. I can only image how disheartened they feel when dying patients and their families continue to deny the realities of this deadly virus.

That each window focuses on one worker highlights their importance. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020.

I am grateful for all those “essential workers” who continued to go to work when others could stay home and work from the safety of their home offices. Workers like my husband, an automotive machinist. Workers like my cousin, a grocery store cashier. Workers like another cousin, a nurse. Workers like my second daughter, who lost her job as a contract Spanish medical interpreter early in the pandemic and now works as a full-time letter carrier.

Faribault’s newest mural, LOVE FOR ALL, created by Minneapolis artist Jordyn Brennan. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I appreciate, too, the creatives who continue to create during the pandemic. The writers. The artists. The poets. The photographers. The musicians. I think, in the midst of lockdowns and lack of direct access to the arts, we began to understand the value of the arts to our mental health. Art heals. Art provides an escape. Art encourages and uplifts. We need art.

And so this Labor Day, my gratitude for the workforce runs high. But I’m also grateful for the unpaid workers—the volunteers—who serve with compassion and care. They, too, labor, giving from their hearts and souls to help their communities.

I value workers. Paid. And unpaid. Thank you for all you do to make this world a better place.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The things you learn about Minnesota prisons while on the road October 25, 2017


ONCE UPON A TIME, beginning in the late 1870s, inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater, built agricultural equipment. Through the years they crafted threshing machines, hay rakes, barge wagons, manure spreaders and more.



This proved news to me. But Randy noted that as we followed a tractor pulling a gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13 on Sunday afternoon. He pegged the wagon as 1970s vintage prisoner made.



Online research confirmed Randy’s claim in articles published in Farm Collector magazine. According to those stories, prisoners built ag equipment until 2006.



Today inmates within Minnesota’s correctional system—including right here in my community of Faribault—produce products through the prison system’s MINNCOR Industries. Those range from residential and office furniture to clothing to printed materials to cabinetry and more.


Prisoner made furniture at Buckham Memorial Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.


When I visit my local library, I can sit on inmate built easy chairs or loveseats, some upholstered in knock-knock joke fabric with this favorite prisoner joke:

How do prisoners make phone calls?

With cell phones.



Much has changed since the days of building manure spreaders…and gravity boxes



as time passes in the rearview mirror of prison life.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


About those dirty hands July 1, 2017

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the 2016 North Morristown Fourth of July celebration. This photo and a comment on it prompted this post. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.


I FEEL THE NEED to defend my husband. And if I was on Facebook, I’d go directly to the source of an uninformed and hurtful comment about a photo I took of Randy’s hands while he was eating a cheeseburger at the 2016 North Morristown Fourth of July celebration.

The commenter wrote that she would not eat a burger “with those dirty hands/fingernails. Yikes.”


My husband at work in the automotive machine shop where he is employed as the sole employee. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.


I take issue with that. Randy is an automotive machinist and has been for about 40 years. He works in a dirty environment on heads, blocks, brake rotors, flywheels and more that are oily, greasy, filthy—whatever word you choose to define the grime he touches.



His hardworking hands are permanently imprinted with the residue of his labor. He washes his hands multiple times daily. Removing every trace of grease would be nearly impossible. It’s not like he’s coming to the table with hands just pulled from some project. They are as clean as he can get them without extensive scrubbing. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong.


Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.


I’ve often felt that blue collar employees don’t get the respect they deserve. Randy is good at what he does. Really good. His skilled work is in high demand. Always. Few people do what he does. His skills are advanced beyond basic garage mechanics to precision automotive machining. He repairs everything from cars to vans, trucks, semis, forklifts, snowmobiles, motorcycles, tractors and more.

Randy holds an incredibly strong work ethic. I keep telling him that, at his age of 60, he doesn’t need to work so hard and long. He stopped working Saturdays only a few years ago, often puts in 9-hour plus days and, up until this summer, received only 10 vacation days annually. But he continues to work hard because he feels an obligation to his customers, the people depending on him to get their cars back on the road, their tractors in the field, their boats on the water.

I admire his dedication. And I recognize those “dirty hands/fingernails” as those of a man who is not always appreciated as he should be. Without hands-on skilled tradesmen and women, this country could not function. Randy may not have a four-year college degree, but that does not make him or his work any less important than that of a college grad.


Randy’s toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.


I realize I’m getting a tad off topic here. But I grow weary of a society that generally places a higher value on white collar workers. Fresh out of college, our son, now 23, started a job in the tech field at a salary more than double his dad’s pay and with much better benefits. We always want our kids to do better than us. That is a good thing. But this personal example within our family shows the disparity between blue and white collar workers and the minimal value placed on 40 years of experience and those without a four-year degree.


Randy enjoys a BBQ pork sandwich and a beer at the 2013 North Morristown July Fourth celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.


So, yeah, criticize my husband’s hands and you will hear from me. His are the hands of a man who has worked in his field for about four decades. His are the hands of hard work and dedication. His are not unwashed hands holding a burger.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Labor Day reflections: Jeff’s job isn’t just a job September 7, 2015

Jeff Lerum sands a chair in his shop, where he restores and repairs furniture.

Jeff Lerum sands a chair in his shop, where he restores and repairs furniture.

ON THIS LABOR DAY, a day to rest from our labors, consider the craftsman I met on Thursday in Pine Island, Minnesota. He is Jeff Lerum. And he loves his job. Can you say that about your life’s work?

The shop is located in downtown Pine Island, which is north of Rochester.

The shop is located in downtown Pine Island, which is north of Rochester.

For 25 years, Jeff has operated Green’s Antiques and Green’s Stripping and Refinishing. He calls his businesses a “glorified hobby.” That word choice shows passion. As I spoke with Jeff and meandered through his shop, I understood.

A beautiful handcrafted piece of which Jeff is especially fond because of the unique craftsmanship.

A beautiful handcrafted piece of furniture, unique in craftsmanship.

Some of the furniture in the showroom.

Some of the furniture in the showroom.

The side door into Jeff's workshop.

The side door into Jeff’s workshop.

Furniture, finished and unfinished, fills this place. But it’s not just furniture to Jeff. Some are customers’ family heirlooms. Others are treasures he’s rescued from auctions and elsewhere and restored. He especially likes early 1800s handmade furniture. Cupboards are his specialty. He values good solid wood; you won’t find shabby chic style furniture in his shop. Stripping finishes from wood is the main part of his business.

Everywhere there are works in progress, including these stripped chairs.

Everywhere there are works in progress, including these stripped chairs.

He’s a guy who works seven days a week. If he’s not in his shop, he’s making the evening and weekend auction rounds. “I was a picker before there were pickers,” Jeff says.

I spotted this religious icon among all the furniture.

I spotted this crucifix among all the furniture.

He once hit the jackpot with his picking. Inside a cupboard purchased at an estate auction, he found a hidden safe. And $1,700 inside. Jeff checked with the auctioneer on ownership and was told the money was his to keep. As the father of four, I imagine the unexpected windfall was welcome.

A snippet of family photos and more displayed in Jeff's workroom.

A snippet of family photos and more displayed in Jeff’s workshop.

Family photos, a child’s artwork, handmade cards and more plaster his shop door and a section of wall. That tells me a lot about Jeff and the importance of family to him. His business is a family business of 40 years.

Signage for Jeff's business spotted inside his shop.

Signage for the business inside the shop.

This Baby Boomer appears much younger than his 51 years. And I wonder if that comes from doing what he loves or being his own boss or both. Whatever the reasons, it was a joy to meet someone as genuinely enthusiastic about his labor as Jeff.

Artfully displayed furniture that Jeff has restored.

Artfully displayed furniture that Jeff has restored.

In this photo, you can see the harvest table Jeff built.

In this photo, you can see the harvest table Jeff built.

A beautiful table showcased in the showroom.

A beautiful table showcased in the showroom.

His passion shows. In the front showroom space, where furniture is displayed like artwork in a gallery. In the hefty harvest table Jeff crafted from repurposed posts and lumber. In the way Jeff wraps sandpaper around the leg of a chair and sands the wood.

Even Jeff's business cards are displayed in a way that's simple and unique--in a box on a door.

Even Jeff’s business cards are displayed in a way that’s simple and unique–in a box on a door.

His hands, his face, his personality all convey that contentment that comes from making one’s passion one’s life work.


There are other antiques and collectibles in Jeff's shop besides furniture. I absolutely adore this floral print.

There are other antiques and collectibles in the shop besides furniture. I absolutely adore this floral print.

Love this vintage light, too.

Love this vintage light, too.

This cubby unit was among many many pieces of furniture crammed into a space between the showroom and the workshop.

This cubby unit was among many many pieces of furniture crammed into a space between the showroom and the workshop.

More treasures...

More treasures…

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discussing the economy and jobs at a Faribault thrift store June 5, 2012

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“THE ECONOMY WILL only get worse and this time it will be world-wide,” he warns, he being an unemployed, former military man.

“But I think things are getting better,” I counter. “I’ve seen more jobs openings posted in the paper, more houses selling.”

He disagrees, says he has military friends in Europe. Times are tough there and only getting worse.

I am surprised by the doom-and-gloom economic forecast delivered by this 50-something-year-old job seeker during a brief conversation at The Clothes Closet, a used clothing store in downtown Faribault. I don’t know him, but he’s squeezed past me several times, carrying clothing from the back of the store to the check-out counter.

Finally, I can no longer contain my curiosity and comment, “You’re sure buying a lot of clothes.”

“I’m looking for a job,” he says, then begins spilling his story like we are long-time friends.

He can’t make ends meet on his military pension, although he’s grateful for that income, he says. So he’s looking for a job in security, maybe with the border patrol. He’ll travel soon to Corpus Christi in search of work that pays more than $9 an hour.

His 15-year-old daughter, who has been living with her mother, is coming with him. He’s relieved to no longer be paying $900 in monthly child support to a woman he says did not spend the money on their daughter. He seems genuinely happy to have his girl back.

But he’s not so cheerful about the process of applying for a job. “It’s not like it used to be where you can walk in and sell yourself,” he says. He doesn’t like the online resume job-screening process, preferring instead the personal one-on-one contact with a potential employer.

He looks like the type of fellow who could, face-to-face, easily sell himself as a security guard. Ex-military. Big guy. I expect he appears intimidating and authoritative in a uniform.

But for now, for this day, he is an unemployed and worried American buying clothes at a second-hand clothing store in Minnesota.

I was searching in my files for an image to illustrate this post. This particular photo has nothing to do with the man I engaged in conversation or the thrift store where we talked or even his job search. Yet, I consider it fitting for this story, and here’s why. To me, this shot from Main Street in tiny Norwalk exhibits this southwestern Wisconsin community’s optimism. Against the backdrop of weathered and shuttered buildings stand two symbols of optimism: those gorgeous hanging baskets and the American flag. Norwalk, along the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, calls itself “The Black Squirrel Capital of the World.”

WHAT’S YOUR OPINION on the economy? Is is improving or, as the ex-military man predicts, going to get considerably worse here and world-wide by this fall?

According to “employment situation” information released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on June 1, “the unemployment rate (for May) was essentially unchanged at 8.2 percent.” Currently, 12.7 million people are unemployed. The unemployment rate for adult men is 7.8 percent. To read the full report, click here.

ARE YOU LOOKING for a job? Share your experience by submitting a comment. How do you feel about the online job application process used by most businesses?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Following your heart, or not November 28, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 4:25 PM
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Me and my camera, a tool in the writing profession I love.

ARE YOU FOLLOWING your life’s passion in your chosen profession?

That topic came up for discussion at a weekend gathering with extended family.

I was surprised to learn that my uncle always wanted to be a college history professor dressed in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. I looked at him through fresh eyes, wondering why I never knew this about a man who recently retired after decades of driving a delivery truck.

He wasn’t discontent in his job, simply wished that he could have pursued his love of history as his life’s work.

It wasn’t all that long ago when I learned that my maternal grandfather, my uncle’s father, wanted to be a lawyer, not the farmer his father expected him, and pushed him, to become. Today his grandson, my youngest brother, is an attorney.

A sister who always wanted to teach initially chose another profession because a high school counselor told her she wouldn’t find a teaching job. She listened to his advice and attended technical college to become a travel agent. When that didn’t work out, she found herself working at a bank. Later she would enroll in a four-year college and today teaches special education. She still regrets those wasted years of failing to follow her heart.

Likewise, the father of a friend advised her to choose a practical career as a nurse rather than pursue her dream of a career in art. Today she’s still a nurse, pursuing her artistic interests on the side.

My father, upon returning to his southwestern Minnesota farm from a tour of duty as a foot soldier/infantryman during the Korean War, desired a job as a highway patrolman. With only an eighth grade education and likely because it was expected of him, he stayed on the farm to milk cows and work the fields.

I have to applaud my parents for never once pushing any of their six children into a career. Today my siblings are engaged in diverse occupations as a parts manager at a southwestern Minnesota implement dealership, a floral designer, the CEO/GM of an ethanol plant, a special education teacher and an attorney.

I’m the writer, following my passion for language and the written word. In all honesty, though, my husband’s job as an automotive machinist pays the bills and keeps the roof over our heads. My spouse enjoys his work, but he always wanted to be a rural mail carrier and even took a U.S. Postal Service exam some 20-plus years ago to try and break into the postal ranks. That never happened.

I cite all of the above examples because I suspect the majority of us are working at jobs that are not true to our passions in life.

Perhaps it’s circumstances or money or geographical location or a parent who pushed or a counselor who misguided—whatever the reasons, something has kept most of us from working at jobs in which we are truly content, that make our hearts sing.

TELL ME. Are you working at a job that follows your passion? If you aren’t, why not, and what job would allow you to follow your heart?

Let’s hear what you have to say.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


We don’t “need” new stadiums February 2, 2011

I’VE ABOUT HAD IT with Minnesota sports teams thinking taxpayers should help them finance construction of new stadiums.

First the University of Minnesota got their new TCF Stadium. Then the Twins got Target Field.

And, as we know, the Minnesota Vikings have been pushing for a new stadium for years.

The St. Paul Saints have now hopped on the gotta-have-a-new-stadium bandwagon and are proposing a $45 million facility in downtown St. Paul, subsidized, of course, by taxpayer dollars.

Over at Target Center in Minneapolis, a proposal is now on the table to make $150 million in renovations to that building, home to the Timberwolves.

Come on, team owners, athletes, government officials, lobbyists, etc., have you heard of budget shortfalls, the bad economy, unemployment, struggling to make ends meet, high healthcare costs, high gas prices, high food prices, etc.?

I have no time, none, to listen to your list of so-called “needs.” You might “want” a new stadium, but in these difficult economic times, when the average Minnesotan is struggling, you don’t “need” a new stadium.

Here are some real needs:

  • Jobs (and pu….lease don’t tell me stadium projects will create new jobs; those are temporary)
  • Affordable healthcare
  • A decent wage for those who work long, hard hours to provide for themselves and their families (no multi-million dollar contracts here)
  • Lower gas prices
  • Better highways in outstate Minnesota (ever drive Minnesota Highway 3 between Faribault and Northfield or U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and New Ulm?)

Readers, what’s your opinion on the whole gotta-have-a-new-stadium issue? Choose to agree or disagree with me, but you better have a really, really good reason for supporting a new stadium if that’s your stance.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Memories of toiling in the Minnesota cornfields July 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:17 AM
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WHAT’S THE WORST SUMMER JOB you’ve ever worked?

For me, the response to that question practically flies off my tongue. Detasseling corn ranks, hands down, as the worst job I’ve ever held, beating out picking rock and walking beans by acres.

Here’s a scenario of how that part-time summer position played out for me back in the early 1970s in southwestern Minnesota: Rise early to catch a school bus. Bounce along bumpy gravel roads with a bus full of other sleepy teenagers to the edge of a cornfield. Slide on a rain coat. Then begin your day’s work, stretching on your tiptoes to pull tassels from corn stalks.

Rows and rows of corn stretch across acres and acres of land under the hot summer sky.

Dew slides down your arm. Rough corn leaves scratch across every inch of exposed skin. You itch. You sweat. You hurry up. Sometimes you bend low to the earth to snap sucker plants that leech onto the main corn stalk. Your back aches. Your muscles scream.

And then, when you have to urinate, you squat between corn rows and hope no one is watching. Forget toilet paper, unless you’ve stashed some in your pants pocket.

As the sun moves higher in the sky, heat and humidity rise. You shrug off the raincoat. Your skin burns. (Who’s heard of sunscreen?) Sweat trickles down your face, burning your eyes. You sweat and sweat some more.

Come noon, you’re thankful for a break in the shade-tree oasis of a farm yard (if you’re lucky) or in the shade of the school bus. You grab your Styrofoam cooler, remove the cover with grimy hands, unscrew the lid of a quart jar and lift the glass to your lips, gulping Kool-Aid like a thirsty camel.

Hungry from all that physical labor, you wolf down a sandwich, inhale chips, nearly consume an entire apple in several bites.

Then it’s back to the corn for a few more hours of reaching and yanking. The oppressive afternoon heat blasts like a furnace, smothers your breath, sucks away your energy. Your feet drag. Your mind screams: How much longer must I tread this land, pull these tassels, endure this misery?

By 3:00, you are bone-weary, exhausted, thankful that your supervisor has finally hollered, “This is the last round.” You are finished, for the day, with the tug-of-war you’ve played with the corn.

You join the line of subdued teens climbing onto the bus, bodies weighted with lead-heavy weariness.

Tomorrow you’ll return to the farm fields to fight the corn again, all for $1.25 an hour.

In the setting sun, a corn tassel stretches high above the corn plant.

JUST A NOTE: Working conditions in cornfields have improved dramatically since the 1970s. Today detasselers ride machines (I’m pretty sure), have access to bathrooms and certainly earn more than $1.25 an hour.

If you have a worst summer job story, submit a comment and tell Minnesota Prairie Roots readers about your experience.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling