Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In praise of Northern Prairie Culture: How Fargo of You April 16, 2014

This water tower is located in West Fargo, an area of shopping malls, restaurants, Big Box stores, hotels, etc.

This water tower is located in West Fargo, an area of shopping malls, restaurants, Big Box stores, hotels, etc. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

TWO DAYS AFTER I FINISHED reading Marc de Celle’s book, How Fargo of You, a 10-episode mini series, Fargo, debuted (yesterday) on FX television. Excellent. Timing is everything.

I receive my TV reception from a rooftop antenna, so there will be no watching Fargo for me. Rather I have to rely on synopses and reviews posted online. The series plays off the Coen brothers’ (native Minnesotans Joel and Ethan) 1996 award-winning film by the same name. (Click here to read my review of that movie.) The Coens are two of the executive producers for this new show penned by Noah Hawley and featuring Oscar winning actor Billy Bob Thornton.

The VHS cover of the movie Fargo.

The VHS cover of the movie Fargo.

You can expect dark comedy, crime, stereotypes and that noted, albeit not fully accurate, Fargo accent. About half of the Fargo series is set in fictionalized Bemidji, Minnesota. Since I haven’t seen the new series, I can’t accurately review it.

Marc de Celle's book cover

But I can talk about de Celle’s book. He’s also written a follow-up, Close Encounters of the Fargo Kind, which I’ve yet to read. This is a compilation of others’ stories rather than simply his own.

In summary, de Celle, who moved with his family in 2005 from Phoenix to Fargo, writes about his personal “How Fargo of You” experiences in his first book. That’s the tag line he’s attached to unfamiliar and unexpected positive experiences in his new home.

He’s not a Fargo native, his closest ties to the region in his Wisconsin native wife and her best friend, Melody, who lives in Fargo. That friend initially drew the family to Fargo for a visit. So de Celle views this area of the country with a perspective of someone unaccustomed to, as he defines it, Northern Prairie Culture. And, yes, that includes Minnesota.

The famous woodchipper from the movie, Fargo, is a focal point in the Visitors Center. Other film memorabilia is also on display.

The famous woodchipper from the movie Fargo is a focal point in the Fargo Visitors Center. Other film memorabilia is also on display. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Unlike the film and TV series, this writer promises: “No goofy accents. No murderers on the loose. No weird plot twists. Just real Fargo.”

And that’s exactly what you’ll read in de Celle’s first book—a compilation of all that is good about Fargo folks, and those living within several hundred miles of this North Dakota/Minnesota border town.

Shortly after the de Celle family arrives in their new community just outside of Fargo, they encounter their first Fargo moment in teenagers helping unload their belongings. And the neighbor-helping-neighbor stories and overall niceties of the region’s people just continue from there.

From the pump and then pay at the gas station, to the shared story of a Minnesota farmer assisting college students with a flat tire and the farmer’s wife then preparing a little lunch to motorist merging courtesy to homemade rhubarb pie served at a rural restaurant where a stranger picks up the tab for a cashless de Celle to Fargo residents’ efforts to save their community from the flooding Red River and more, you will read stories that warm your heart.

A scene from November in downtown Fargo.

A scene from downtown Fargo. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

This is truly a feel-good book, one which makes you thankful, for the most part, to live in this region of the U.S.

De Celle does note, though, the environmental realities in Fargo’s harsh winters, the flat landscape and the strong and endless wind. I especially laughed at his fly-clinging-to-the-windshield wind story given my son spent his first year of college at  North Dakota State University on Fargo’s particularly windy north side.

In February 2013, I received this text from my then 19-year-old: “This cheap Walmart hat stands zero chance against the Fargo wind.” He then proceeded to order a Russian military surplus fur cap online to replace the mass-manufactured stocking cap.

While at NDSU, my son worked and volunteered in the Technology Incubator as part of an Entrepreneurial Scholarship. He is walking away from two major scholarships at NDSU to attend Tufts University.

The NDSU Technology Incubator referenced in de Celle’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

After that first year, the son left NDSU and now attends college in Boston, where the climate is less challenging and his current university a better fit. While in Fargo, he worked at the NDSU Technology Incubator, which de Celle describes in his book as “the hippest looking building this side of Minneapolis.”

I’ll agree that the modern architecture looks pretty sleek situated next to open fields where the wind does, indeed, blow with determined fierceness.

A view of the 300 block on North Broadway, including signage for the Fargo Theatre, built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a venue for independent and foreign films, concerts, plays and more.

A view of the 300 block on North Broadway in downtown Fargo, including signage for the Fargo Theatre, built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a venue for independent and foreign films, concerts, plays and more. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In the time shortly before my son moved to North Dakota and in the nine months thereafter, I got to know Fargo somewhat. It is the charming downtown, with its mostly old buildings, which most endears me to this community. And the people. They were, as de Celle has found, always kind and friendly.

He does expose, though, one issue—that of a workforce he terms as “the most overqualified, underpaid, competent and ethical” in the U.S. “Underpaid” jumps out at me, when really “overqualified, competent and ethical” should.

Then de Celle balances this with his summation that the majority of folks in Fargo value relationships over stuff. That apparently partially explains why people choose to live in Fargo when they could earn more money elsewhere doing the same job.

Now that’s my kind of place, my kind of people.

The landscape: flat and into forever.

The landscape: flat and into forever in the Fargo area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But I’m going to be honest here. Even though I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, which I thought to be about as flat and open sky country as exists, I found the landscape of Fargo even flatter, the wind more fierce, the environment harsher.

Every visit to Fargo, I felt unsettled. Like my son before me, I doubt I could last more than a winter in North Dakota. Rather, I live across the border nearly 300 miles to the south and east, still within Northern Prairie Culture in a state known for “Minnesota Nice.” Probably a lot, I’ve concluded, like “How Fargo of You” nice.

Disclaimer: Author Marc de Celle purchased one of my photos for usage on his website and gave me complimentary copies of his two books. That, however, did not influence my decision to write this review or the content therein.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Welcome to Fargo, as in the “real” Fargo June 20, 2012

The official Fargo-Moorhead visitors guide reads: A warm welcome awaits you. Our Visitors Center, the “Grain Elevator,” located at Interstate 94 exit 348, has bushels of information, maps, brochures and a gift shop.

THE RAPID POP, pop, pop of tumbling popcorn, its buttery aroma scenting the air, impresses upon my senses as I enter the Fargo-Moorhead Vistors Center on a hang-onto-your-hat, grass-bending windy summer afternoon in North Dakota. (Is it always windy here?)

We’ve arrived in town around 4 p.m., five hours after leaving Faribault. I am determined on this, my third visit to Fargo—the first was 18 ½ years ago passing by on the interstate, the second in February—to see the infamous woodchipper from Minnesotans Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 award-winning dark comedy/crime film, Fargo.

The famous woodchipper from the movie, Fargo, is a focal point in the Visitors Center. Other film memorabilia is also on display.

In all honesty, I don’t recall the “feeding a body into the woodchipper” bit from the movie. Perhaps I shut my eyes or turned away as I cannot handle gruesome scenes. I remember, instead, the accents that made us northerners sound like backwoods hicks.

Visitors can also peruse copies of the Fargo script written by the Coen brothers from Minnesota.

But the F-M Visitors Center hypes up the film and specifically that woodchipper. And why not? Tourists embrace this kind of stuff, this opportunity to pull on furry ear flapper caps, pose next to the “real” woodchipper from the movie and then post the images on “The Woodchipper in Fargo” Facebook page.

I didn’t even attempt to persuade my husband and 18-year-old son to pose for a woodchipper photo.

A Fargo businessman started the Celebrity Walk. When his business moved, the Walk was relocated to the F-M Visitors Center. Some of the cement squares cracked during the move. Others have cracked due to weather.

We just grabbed bags of popcorn, quite fitting for the whole going-on movie theme, and munched while gathering brochures, asking questions and then, back outside, checking out the names imprinted in cement on The Celebrity Walk of Fame. The Coen brothers were noticeably absent.

Of course, you might know that I would photograph the signature and handprints and footprints of a writer, like John Updike, who several times won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

But you’ll find the names, and sometimes hand and footprints and art, of 113 celebrities—from authors to movie stars to musicians and more—here. Notables like The Moody Blues, Bill Gates, Toby Keith, Paul Harvey, Travis Tritt, Conway Twitty, Garth Brooks, Kiss and many more have left their marks on 150-pound squares of cement in Fargo.

Anne Bradley Kiefel’s colorful “Herd About the Prairie” public art sculpture, right, is located at the Visitors Center.

While circling the Celebrity Walk, I broke away to snap photos of the colorful fiberglass buffalo sculpture, “Aunie,” created by Anne Bradley Kiefel as part of a 2006 Lake Agassiz Arts Council public art project, “Herd About the Prairie.” The Visitors Center bison is among 19 such sculptures in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

A looking-up-from-the-ground shot of the buffalo.

Spend any time here, and you’ll soon discover that these F-M folks love their buffalo as much as they love Fargo.

P.S. I just checked out a copy of the movie, Fargo, from my local public library last night. I never intended to do so. But as I was walking past a catch-all basket for books/movies/magazines, there was Fargo, right on the top, staring up at me. Gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it? So…, I will see if I am actually able to watch the woodchippper scene this time around.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling