Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oddities & art at a rural Minnesota flea market September 3, 2013

WHENEVER I SHOP a flea market with my camera, I challenge myself to find and photograph items that rate as unique, odd, artistic. I consider shapes and fonts, weirdness and, really, anything unusual that catches my eye.

Sunday afternoon browsing the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show Flea Market in rural Dundas provided plenty of subject matter.

Here are my top picks for flea market art and oddities, starting with the weirdest, a trio of doll heads in a colander:

Kind of creepy if you ask me.

Kind of creepy if you ask me.

The same vendor, Lou of Mantiques LLC (gotta appreciate that creative name), also offered another odd item, a child’s coffin, for sale. It drew my interest in that unsettled sort of way when you’re curious enough to ask but are uncertain you want to hear the story.

A child's coffin.

A child’s coffin.

According to Lou, who speaks with a thick accent even after 18 years away from Boston, during the diphtheria epidemic parents built coffins in advance, storing the boxes in barns in anticipation of their children’s deaths. Sad. Just plain sad. The coffin Lou was selling has never, obviously, been used but was passed down through the generations. Not in his family; some other. I can’t imagine anyone buying this coffin, but…

Michniewicz Sales presents "Quality Lawn Ornaments" made in the USA.

Michniewicz Sales presents “Quality Lawn Ornaments” made in the USA, in living color.

To balance the melancholy of that story, let me show you a sampling of Bob Michniewicz’ kitschy lawn ornaments. I first met Bob a year ago at the same flea market, photographed and blogged about him (click here to read that post). He was happy to see me again as, apparently, the publicity I gave him last September resulted in the sale of 10 cow lawn ornaments. Bob extended an open invitation to photograph his art anytime I please.

Tool and/or art, you decide.

Tools and/or art, you decide.

Now not all vendors are likely aware that they’ve created art. Or perhaps the art unfolds in the eyes of the beholder. While most flea market shoppers would see open end wrenches, dies, a brush and a turnbuckle hook when viewing these tools, I see something more—a collage.

Historic art.

Historic art.

Ditto for community celebration and homecoming buttons. These are mini pieces of historic art. Mini, however, would not describe the Albert Lea Tigers’ “Stomp the Packers” (as in Austin, not Green Bay) homecoming button. That button is the size of a dessert plate. Wowza.

A vendor's "trailer."

A vendor’s “trailer.”

Finally, my camera lens landed on a vintage Winnebago camper because, yes, sometimes even a camper converted into a flea market merchandise hauler can be a work of art in angled lines and graphics.

There you have it. My top picks from this year’s flea market.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Kitschy Minnesota county fair art in Morris August 14, 2013

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I MAY HAVE MISSED attending the Stevens County Fair in Morris when I was in this western Minnesota community for a family reunion this past weekend.

Fair, front view of sign

But I didn’t miss this kitschy piece of fair advertising positioned on the corner of the Family Dollar parking lot downtown.

Fair, exhibits chair

I expect most of the locals are so used to seeing this mini Ferris wheel rolled out every summer that they think nothing of it. However, as an outsider and one who appreciates such homegrown creativity, this certainly caught my attention.

Fair, end view

My two regrets are these:

That I could not attend the fair because, even though I am not a fan of tromping around a fairgrounds among a crowd of people, I expect this rural fair would have appealed to me.

I did not see this Ferris wheel brightened by the holiday lights attached to the frame. In my mind’s eye, I can visualize the Christmas bulbs popping with color in the fading prairie sunset.

Fair, demo chair

THAT ALL SAID, if any current or former Stevens County residents can enlighten me as to the history of this homemade Ferris wheel, please share. Who made it, when, has it always been parked downtown…?

Fair, food chair

And what about the fair itself? What do you love about the Stevens County Fair?

For the rest of you readers, did/will you attend a county fair this summer? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Say cheese, a Wisconsin experience April 30, 2011

TO TRULY EXPERIENCE Wisconsin, you must, must, visit a cheese store, like Simon’s Specialty Cheese Retail Store in Little Chute, northeast of Appleton. Simon’s offers a Wisconsin experience you’ll long remember.

Simon's Specialty Cheese is one of the retail outlets for Trega Foods, Ltd., which produces natural curds and mozzarella sticks right next door at its Little Chute plant.

And, yes, bring your camera to Simon’s for some touristy photos. Photo ops abound in every aisle.

Start by trying on the cheesehead hats. They’re perfect if you’re a Packers’ fan or are looking for a Halloween costume or, ummmmm, just want to make a fashion statement say in some place like London. I would not, however, recommend wearing a cheesehead hat in Minnesota.

Shoppers, aka tourists, don cheesehead hats and pose for photos at Simon's.

If this boxy style or color doesn’t suit you, then scoot down the aisle and try on a wolf or moose head piece. I would not, however, recommend wearing a furry animal hat in the Wisconsin woods, especially during hunting season.

A wolf disguise... Just a thought here, Simon's, but since your geographical region is called "the Fox Cities/Fox Valley" after the Fox River, how about stocking some fox hats?

If you’re looking for truly unique sunglasses that will turn heads at the beach this summer, then select cheese shades. I promise no one will even consider stealing your chic eyewear. I would not, however, recommend wearing these to, say, Minnesota’s Lake Calhoun, Lake Mille Lacs or Gull Lake.

Chic Wisconsin eyewear modeled by a Minnesotan who likely prefers anonymity.

Now, if you’re hosting a party, you’ve come to the right place. Simon’s offers plenty of conversation starter food choices. Grab a handful or two of cheddar cheese shapes. Cows. Barns. Cupcakes. Beer mugs. I would not, however, recommend purchasing the green and gold Packers and football cheese shapes if you are hosting a football (or any other) party in Minnesota.

Cheddar cheese shapes that are kitschy cute.

Along that same party line, pick up a few bottles of beer fish batter or bread mix. I would not, however, recommend stashing these near Spotted Cow (or any other beer) lest you mistakenly toss the bottled mix into the cooler before leaving on that annual fishing trip up north.

Wisconsin fish batter and beer bread mix, not to be confused with a Wisconsin beer like Spotted Cow.

Finally, even the romantic can find a gift at Simon’s. What better way to say “I love you” for a non-occasion than with a jug of bottled milk? A heart logo on the glass bottle adds just the right romantic touch. I would not, however, recommend this as a replacement for flowers no matter your state of residence.

Romantic or nostalgic, bottled milk is available at Simon's.

There, you have it, directly from someone who’s experienced Simon’s Specialty Cheese and enjoyed every aisle of photo op kitschy-ness. This store is a must-see for anyone visiting Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling