Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Montgomery revisited, Part I February 26, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:15 AM
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A section of downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, with its many historic buildings.

 

I DOUBT I’VE WRITTEN about any small Minnesota community more than I’ve written about Montgomery. Located within a half hour of my Faribault home, it’s a quick drive away. And Montgomery offers just enough to keep me returning.

 

Signs always draw my eye, including this one. It’s simple, nostalgic…

 

Especially interesting is the downtown with eye-catching signage, aged buildings and home-grown shops.

 

Among the sweet offerings at the long-time, popular Franke’s Bakery.

 

An old-fashioned bakery.

 

Outside the entry to the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center located in Hilltop Hall.

 

A thriving Arts & Heritage Center.

 

Beer to go at Montgomery Brewing.

 

A brewery with outstanding craft beers.

 

The friendly young man I met while photographing downtown. He paused to let me pet Buddy.

 

Friendly people.

 

Everywhere downtown you’ll find signs promoting kolacky.

 

A deep appreciation for the area’s Czech heritage. Combine those and you have a small town that appeals to me.

 

Third-generation Franke’s Bakery is known for its kolacky.

 

I recognize that what interests me may not interest you. But there’s something to be said for small towns with a strong sense of identity and pride in that identity. For Montgomery, it’s the tag, “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The kolacky is a bun-like Czech pastry filled with a fruit or poppyseed filling. Risking the wrath of the Czech, I will tell you that it’s not a favorite of mine. I’d choose a doughnut before a kolacky. But then I am of German descent and was not raised in this area of Minnesota.

 

Stand in the grocery store parking lot and you can see the grain elevator in one direction, the brewery in another and the main street through downtown, too.

 

None of that matters really. What matters is that I like Montgomery. Unleash me with a camera in this town and I get excited about the photo ops, all the ways I can capture the essence of this place. If my creative work is anything, it has always been about defining place.

 

Spotted in the window of a downtown business. These handwritten signs give a place character.

 

I will always feel most comfortable in a rural town like Montgomery. I appreciate a place where I can view a grain elevator, spot handwritten signs on business doors and windows, chat it up with the locals, stop to pet a passerby’s dog and stand in the middle of Main Street to take a photo without worry of traffic.

Now that my photo essay about Montgomery has published in the March issue of Southern Minn Scene magazine, I am free to share more photos from my January day trip to this Le Sueur County community. Enjoy and watch for additional posts highlighting Montgomery as I, once again, define this place in images and words.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sweet finds in Montgomery, Part III: Inside the bakery & the drugstore April 12, 2013

Franke's Bakery opened in 1914.

Franke’s Bakery opened in 1914.

NO VISIT TO MONTGOMERY would be complete without a stop at Franke’s Bakery, noted for kolacky, a fruit-filled (or poppy seed-filled) pastry beloved by this community of mostly Czech descendants.

One busy place on a Saturday.

One busy place on a Saturday. To the left, Jule Franke and Mary Ann Kaisersatt work the counter.

In business for 99 years, this bakery bustles with customers dropping in for sweet treats, breads and coffee room chat.

This 18-month-old Montgomery resident stopped in with her dad, grandma and sister for a treat Saturday morning.

This 18-month-old Montgomery resident stopped in with her dad, grandma and sister for a treat Saturday morning.

“You just missed your dad,” noted a baker parceling out sweets to a customer on a recent Saturday morning. “I saw him on the street.”

The tiled exterior entry to Franke's with a sign on the lower part of the door reading: "Kolacky Days Celebration  Czechoslovakian American Heritage.

The beautiful exterior entry to Franke’s with a sign on the lower part of the door that reads: “Kolacky Days Celebration Czechoslovakian-American Heritage.” Montgomery celebrates Kolacky Days each July. You can bet this bakery is especially busy then preparing the ethnic pastry for the celebration.

Yes, this bakery, this south-central Minnesota community, is that kind of place, where everybody seemingly knows everybody and their whereabouts. And I mean that in the kindest of ways.

My Bavarian bismarck. FYI, Franke's ships its baked goods, so feel free to order. The bakery makes this promise: "We bake our breads and rolls fresh everyday the old fashioned way without all those preservatives.

My Bavarian bismarck. FYI, Franke’s ships its baked goods, so feel free to order. The bakery makes this promise: “We bake our breads and rolls fresh everyday the old fashioned way without all those preservatives.”

Randy and I bopped in for 75-cent bismarcks, mine Bavarian (custard-filled), his raspberry, before continuing our perusal of Montgomery’s downtown business district.

Posted on businesses throughout downtown Montgomery, you will find photos and military biios of veterans. This is the Montgomery Veteran's Project, a way of honor the town's veterans.

Posted on businesses throughout downtown Montgomery, you will find photos and military biios of veterans. This is the Montgomery Veteran’s Project, a way of honor the town’s veterans.

When I noticed the lovely floral sign marking Herrmann (how non-Czech is that name?) Drug, Cards & Gifts, I just had to stop at this local pharmacy and general merchandise store marketing everything from shampoo to kitchenware to gifts and Titans school apparel.

The drugstore sells Titans apparel for the local school.

The drugstore sells Titans apparel for the Montgomery-Lonsdale-Le Center school, Tri-City United.

My husband insisted I photograph these "made in China" towels from American Mills. He wants me to submit this to Jay Leno.

My husband insisted I photograph these “Made in China” towels from American Mills and sold at Herrmann Drug. He wants me to submit this to Jay Leno.

I was impressed with the selection; no need to run to some Big Box store when you have Herrmann Drug. And how lucky this town of nearly 3,000 is to have a pharmacy…and so much more.

Herrmann Drug's pharmacy is located at the rear of the store.

Herrmann Drug’s pharmacy is located at the rear of the store.

READERS: We’re not finished yet with our tour of Montgomery. Check back for two more posts. And if you missed my Montgomery stories from earlier this week, backtrack to Sunday and start reading.

To read a previous post on Franke’s Bakery, click here.

And to read about the Montgomery Veteran’s Project, click here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery, Part III: Franke’s Bakery, a sweet spot in the “Kolacky Capital of the World” March 6, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:10 AM
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EDITOR’S NOTE: In the spring of 2010, I visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a now 99-year-old business which truly embraces the community’s Czech heritage. This feature published in Minnesota Moments magazine and I’m reprinting it here as written three years ago, with the addition of many more photos. This is the third in a five-part series of stories from Montgomery. Enjoy.

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky.

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky.

JULE FRANKE AND MARY ANN KAISERSATT work side-by-side in the bakery kitchen, their fingers swiftly and expertly stretching, folding and tucking corners of dough squares across dollops of prune filling.

In an hour, they will have made 50 dozen kolacky, the trademark Czech pastry of 96-year-old Franke’s Bakery in downtown Montgomery, self-proclaimed “Kolacky Capital of the World.”

Unbaked prune kolacky.

Unbaked prune-filled kolacky.

As Franke shapes the neat little dough packages upon the lightly-floured wooden countertop in this room that smells of yeast and baking bread, she describes the Czech treat. It’s “like a sweet dough with a filling,” she says. And at Franke’s, those fillings are the popular prune and poppy seed, plus apricot, apple and raspberry.

For 50 years now, this woman, who confesses that she is not Czech but German, has been making kolacky. “I’m not from here and I’m not Czech, until I married the baker,” she says, smiling.

“The baker” would be Alvin “Butch” Franke, her husband of 52 years who died last December. His father, Emil, a German with a little Czech heritage, grew up in Czechoslovakia, immigrated to America in the early 1900s and opened the bakery in 1914. Butch followed in his baker father’s footsteps. And then Butch and Jule’s son, Bob, became involved in the family business 25 years ago.

Franke's Bakery anchors a corner of downtown Montgomery.

Franke’s Bakery anchors a corner of downtown Montgomery.

Today this bakery, located in the heart of Minnesota Czech country, is nationally-known for its ethnic pastry. Franke’s ships packages of kolacky via priority mail all over the U.S., especially before holidays like Easter. Those customers often grew up in the area, Franke says, and will simply mail a check and a request for kolacky.

Customers orders hang in the kitchen.

Customers orders hang in the kitchen.

The bakery also has a loyal customer base locally and in the Twin Cities area.

The bakery retains the charm of yesteryear.

The bakery retains the charm of yesteryear.

But at no time is the demand for Franke’s kolacky higher than during Montgomery’s annual celebration of its Czech heritage, Kolacky Days, set this summer for July 23 – 25. Franke enlists her children and their families to make 2,000 dozen kolacky for the weekend event that includes a home-baked kolacky contest and a kolacky eating competition. During the celebration, Franke’s kolacky are sold at the bakery and in Memorial Park.

A selection of Franke's Bakery bread.

A selection of Franke’s Bakery bread, made without preservatives.

Yet, day-to-day, this Czech treat remains a mainstay at this bakery, also known for its rye bread.

Czech, Slovakian and American flags grace the bakery counter.

Czech, Slovakian and American flags grace the bakery counter.

“Vitáme Vás!” (“We welcome you”) imprinted on a window placard, miniature Czech and Slovakian flags set upon the countertop and humorous signs like “PARKING FOR CZECHS ONLY—ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOWED” embrace the area’s rich Czech heritage.

Among the sweet treats.

Among the sweet treats.

Here locals gather for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat, sliding into wooden booths in this 1931 building—the original bakery burned—that retains the charm of yesteryear.

Behind the scenes in the bakery's kitchen.

Behind the scenes in the bakery’s kitchen.

Five days a week Franke arrives here at 5:30 a.m. to help prepare baked goods, following family recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Soon fresh-baked doughnuts, Bismarcks, cookies, breads, turnovers, bars, buns, kolacky and more fill display shelves.

She has no plans to retire.

“This is in her blood,” says employee Kaisersatt.

Flour scoop...

Flour scoop…

The women laugh as they continue to fold dough, lifting and gently placing the square treats onto parchment paper-lined trays that hold five dozen kolacky. Kaisersatt scoots around to the other side of the work station across the slippery, flour-dusted floor to grab a kettle of milk wash. She dips her wide brush into the liquid and sweeps the bristles across the unbaked mounds of dough.

This, Franke says, helps to brown and keep the kolacky moist. The dough will rest overnight, then go into a steambox for an hour to rise before baking in the morning.

As appealing as the ethnic treat is to customers, the slender Franke admits, “I don’t eat too many (kolacky). I don’t care too much for sweets.”

But, obviously, customers do, as they’ve supported this family-owned business through three generations, for nearly 100 years.

You can't miss the sign marking Franke's Bakery, a family-owned business in Montgomery for 99 years.

You can’t miss the sign marking Franke’s Bakery, a family-owned business in Montgomery for 99 years.

FYI: Franke’s Bakery is open from 6:15 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Friday and from 6:15 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Saturday. The bakery is closed on Sunday and Monday. Call Franke’s at (507) 364-5025 for more information. Visit the bakery website by clicking here.