Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Stats & humor from America’s Dairyland November 8, 2015

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A dairy farm along Highway 14/61 south of La Crosse.

A dairy farm along Highway 14/61 south of La Crosse. It appears, though, that this barn no longer houses cows.

I’VE LEARNED A LOT about Wisconsin in the five years since my second daughter moved to Appleton on the eastern side of the state.

I’ve learned that Wisconsinites are crazy about the Green Bay Packers. If you want to travel with minimal traffic through Wisconsin, drive while a Packers game is on. Most everybody will be holed up at home/a friend’s house or gathered in a bar watching the football game in their Packers’ green and gold.

I’ve also learned that Wisconsin residents love their beer and brats as noted by all the bars and signs advertising Brat Fries. Grocery stores even sell brat buns dyed Packers’ green and gold.

And then there’s the cheese. Oh, yes. Wisconsinites love their cheese. Big time. You can even find football and cow shaped cheeses.

 

A memorable barn due to the humorous signage.

 

This state is known as America’s Dairyland. According to the Wisconsin Dairy Producers Milk Marketing Board’s 2014 data, Wisconsin produces 13.5 percent of the country’s milk and 25.4 percent of the cheese. That comes from 1,271,000 cows housed on 10,290 licensed dairy farms.

Apparently New York dairy farmers who resettled in southern Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s propelled this region into cheese-making. New York was, at the time, the leading dairy producer. Today this East Coast state remains the third top dairy state behind California and Wisconsin.

As someone who grew up on a family dairy farm—in southwestern Minnesota—I value the dairy industry. Pass the cheese, please.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Exploring La Crosse Part V: A great place to visit October 26, 2015

Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.

ON THE FRIDAY and Saturday I visited La Crosse, Wisconsin, the city pulsed with people. Driving. Walking through the downtown. Dining. Everything I saw pointed to a vibrant community of some 51,000.

A billboard in La Crosse depicts the natural appeal of this Mississippi River city.

A billboard in La Crosse depicts the natural appeal of this Mississippi River city.

The La Crosse Queen offers cruises on the Mississippi River.

The La Crosse Queen offers seasonal cruises on the Mississippi River. The paddlewheeler docks in Riverside Park near downtown.

A bridge spanning the Mississippi in La Crosse.

A bridge spanning the Mississippi in La Crosse, photographed from Riverside Park.

This is a college town, a regional hub in western Wisconsin, a place of rugged natural beauty, especially in autumn with trees blazing color in the valley and along bluffs.

You can listen to everyday stories of the city by dialing the number posted on street level signs. In the audio, you'll hear first person accounts of events that happened at that exact location. Go ahead, dial the number seen in this image.

You can listen to everyday stories of the city by dialing the number posted on street level signs. In the audio, you’ll hear first person accounts of events that happened at that exact location. Go ahead, dial the number seen in this image.

A snippet of the historic buildings in downtown La Crosse.

A snippet of the historic buildings in downtown La Crosse.

Several businesses are housed in Pearl Street West.

Several businesses are housed in Pearl Street West.

This city presents an architecturally pleasing downtown with the five-block La Crosse Commercial Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 100 buildings in the Historic District about a block from the Mississippi River.

Downtwon La Crosse features stunning architectural details in its downtown Commercial Historic District.

Downtwon La Crosse features stunning architectural details in its downtown Commercial Historic District.

You'll find down-home shops in historic buildings. Cheddarheads offers Wisconsin-themed gifts and t-shirts focusing on cheese and the state's dairy industry.

You’ll find down-home shops in historic buildings. Cheddarheads offers Wisconsin-themed gifts and t-shirts focusing on cheese and the state’s dairy industry.

I could spend an entire afternoon simply strolling through the downtown, eyes focused upward to study curves of windows, artsy architectural details and other aspects of these mostly aged brick buildings. This community obviously cares about these stately structures of the past. And that pleases me.

Corralling wedding balloons in downtown La Crosse.

Corralling wedding balloons in downtown La Crosse.

La Crosse evokes a small town Main Street feel. Yet, for someone like me who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota, La Crosse is anything but small. This city throbs with energy. Heavy downtown traffic. Foot and motor. Busy shops and eateries.

If I could afford the price of a downtown hotel, I would have stayed there rather than along Interstate 90 in an overpriced room (for the condition and age) in a hotel badly in need of updating.

Strolling through downtown La Crosse.

Strolling through downtown La Crosse.

I’ll return to La Crosse. I need more time in this community. More time to explore the downtown. More time to check out the parks. More time to visit museums and art centers and other places of interest. It’s one of those cities that appeals to me. It is large enough to offer lots to do, yet small enough that I feel comfortably at home.

BONUS PHOTOS:

A sign reminds me that I'm in Dairyland.

A sign reminds me that I’m in America’s dairyland.

I notice details, even graffiti on a business side door.

I notice details, even graffiti on a business side door.

This concludes my five-part series from downtown La Crosse. Check back for related posts from the area.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring La Crosse Part IV: Bars aplenty October 23, 2015

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A flight at Turtle Stack Brewery.

A flight at Turtle Stack Brewery.

LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN, HOLDS a reputation as a beer-drinking town.

Want booze with your breakfast? During Oktoberfest you could attend Kegs & Eggs, starting at 6 a.m.

Want booze with your breakfast? During Oktoberfest you could attend Kegs & Eggs, starting at 6 a.m.

 

Weeks after La Crosse's celebration of its German heritage, Oktoberfest signs are still posted.

Weeks after La Crosse’s celebration of its German heritage, Oktoberfest signs are still posted. Overhead permanent signage also directs you to bars.

The city’s annual Oktoberfest and volume of downtown bars back that up. Or just ask any college kid in La Crosse and you’ll likely get the same assessment.

I ate at Buzzard Billy's, which includes a bar, and then walked through The Starlite Lounge (a 1950s style cocktail lounge) afterward.

I ate at Buzzard Billy’s, which includes a bar, and then walked through The Starlite Lounge (a 1950s style cocktail lounge) afterward.

On a recent visit to this Mississippi River town, I spent some time downtown drinking beer (at a brewery), dining and shopping. If I was bar-hopping college age, I could have hung around into the evening and drank until bar closing time. Not that I encourage excessive drinking, but I was once young…

I believe all bars in Wisconsin are now smoke-free.

I believe all bars in Wisconsin are now smoke-free.

Digger's Sting is a retro steakhouse and cocktail bar.

Digger’s Sting is a retro steakhouse and cocktail bar.

Advertised drink specials alongside a sign that

Advertised drink specials alongside a sign that reads: Tavern League of Wisconsin…A Responsible Server.

By far the most creative bar signage.

By far the most creative bar signage.

I noticed, in particular, how La Crosse bars really try to draw patrons inside with creative signage. Take The Library, which clearly aims to attract college students via this message bannered across its awning: If Mom calls, tell her I’m at The Library! My second daughter, who attended the University of Wiscosnin, La Crosse, confirms that The Library truly looks like a library inside. She worked at the library. Not The Library. But at UW-L’s Murphy Library.

Anyone know how many places sell alcohol in downtown La Crosse?

Anyone know how many places sell alcohol in downtown La Crosse?

Should you happen to visit La Crosse, take note of all the bars. Try to count them. I wonder how many line the streets of this historic downtown.

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Check back Monday for the final post in my La Crosse series. And click here, then here and here to read my first three posts.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring La Crosse Part III: Eats & treats October 22, 2015

HOW DO YOU DECIDE where to eat in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin? You don’t. You allow your daughter to choose the restaurant.

A coaster at The Old Crow. I love the simplistic design and minimalist decor.

A coaster at The Old Crow. I love the simplistic design and minimalist decor.

Last Saturday, searching for a place to eat lunch, Miranda’s eyes landed on The Old Crow, an American Gastropub. I was expecting the usual limited fare of burgers and other sandwiches. Instead, we found those and plenty of creative menu choices. Like a burger served between glazed doughnuts. I ordered the smoked bacon, chicken and cheddar flatbread. The daughter and husband both ordered sandwiches. We all liked our food, although getting our meals took awhile. Granted, it was the busy lunch hour and we’d waited 15 minutes to be seated.

My smoked bacon and chicken flatbread cheddar. I wouldn't expect anything less in Wisconsin.

My smoked bacon and chicken flatbread with lots of cheddar. I wouldn’t expect anything less in Wisconsin.

I’m not a fan of sports bars. Typically, I’ve found the food isn’t that great. Nor is the atmosphere. But lots of natural light pours in through large street-side windows at The Old Crow. It features minimalist décor. And, as you might expect, an excessive number of televisions. A Badgers’ football game distracted my husband from conversation. That’s the primary reason I dislike sports bars. I’m out to eat and engage in conversation, not watch football, basketball or hockey. But that’s me. Sports bars fit a need. At the table next to us, a contingent of Badgers fans wore red team attire.

For a sports-focused bar and grill, The Old Crow wins with me in both food and decor.

Antique Center of La Crosse, Ltd., 110 South Third Street

Antique Center of La Crosse, Ltd., 110 South Third Street, with 18,000 square feet of merchandising space.

Details, like this tiled exterior entry, added to the charm of Antique Center.

Details, like this tiled exterior entry, add to the charm of Antique Center. This building once housed Ganterts Furniture Company.

I spotted lots of Oktoberfest buttons. La Crosse recently celebrated its annual Oktoberfest.

I spotted lots of Oktoberfest buttons. La Crosse recently celebrated its annual Oktoberfest.

A small section of the first floor merchandise in this sprawling building.

A small section of the first floor merchandise in this sprawling building.

The store offers an extraordinary amount of merchandise.

The store offers an extraordinary amount of merchandise.

I spotted two vintage dollhouses, wishing I still had mine from my youth.

I spotted two vintage dollhouses, wishing I still had mine from my youth.

I was tempted by this poster because I love vintage graphics.

I was tempted by this poster because I love vintage graphics.

It's fun to look at the clothing and wish I was about 30 years younger than I am.

It’s fun to look at the clothing and wish I was about 30 years younger.

After lunch, we checked out the neighboring Antique Center of La Crosse, Ltd., doing our share to support this business housed in an old furniture store and spanning three floors. We didn’t even hit the basement. You could spend hours in this shop teeming with customers.

With this signage, you can't miss The Pearl.

With this signage, you can’t miss The Pearl.

The Pearl offers m

The Pearl offers many ice cream flavors and types of ice cream treats. The ice cream is homemade by The Pearl.

Even though a tad chilly, we ate our ice cream outdoors. We ordered white chocolate raspberry, maple nut and Cappuccino Oreo.

Even though a tad chilly, we ate our ice cream outdoors. We ordered white chocolate raspberry, maple nut and Cappuccino Oreo.

The old-fashioned look of The Pearl is its charm.

The old-fashioned soda fountain look of The Pearl is its charm.

This clutch of birds dipped their beaks into spilled ice cream outside The Pearl.

We watched this clutch of birds dip their beaks into spilled ice cream outside The Pearl.

The ice cream and candy shop is housed in the complex known as Pearl Street West.

The Pearl Street West complex houses the ice cream and candy shop.

But we had a schedule to keep and ice cream to eat. Not that we were hungry after the filling lunch at The Old Crow. Still, we could not leave downtown La Crosse without eating homemade ice cream at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor. It’s a must stop, for the old-fashioned soda fountain atmosphere and the creamy ice cream. After that treat, I was ready for the 2 1/2 hour drive back home to Faribault.

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CHECK BACK tomorrow for more from La Crosse. Click here to read my first post from La Crosse and click here to read my second post in this Exploring La Crosse series.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring La Crosse Part II: Drinking & dining October 21, 2015

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Turtle Stack Brewery, 125 Second Street South in downtown La Crosse.

Turtle Stack Brewery, 125 Second Street South in downtown La Crosse.

FROM PREVIOUS VISITS to La Crosse, Wisconsin, I don’t recall the downtown as crazy busy as last weekend. Friday evening we circled block after block after block trying to find a parking spot near a newly-opened brewery. Construction doesn’t help. But even without that, there seems an obvious shortage of street-side and other free parking spaces in this Mississippi River town.

The IPA I tried.

The IPA I tried.

Randy's flight.

Randy’s flight from Turtle Stack Brewery.

After finally securing parking, my husband, our daughter Miranda and I popped into Turtle Stack Brewery, one of La Crosse’s newest breweries. For a Friday evening, this sparse place with shiny wood slab tables supported by pipe was surprisingly quiet. Randy and Miranda ordered a flight of four brews while I selected a single sample. After tasting the beers—ranging from lager to ale, stout and IPA—we weren’t raving about any of them. Not that we are experts. But we’ve each tried enough craft beers to know when we really like a brewery’s offerings.

Buzzard Billy's

Buzzard Billy’s, 222 Pearl Street. It’s frustrating to see empty lots like the one next to Buzzard Billy’s with signs threatening towing if you park there and aren’t a customer of the business owning the space. And, yes, that’s a parking ramp. But we didn’t want to spend money for parking when we were already dropping a lot of money downtown.

From Turtle Stack, we headed around the corner for dinner at Buzzard Billy’s, a favorite of Miranda, who’d eaten there while attending the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Normally I would not wait 45 minutes to be seated. But I determined that Creole and Cajun food would be worth the wait. So we secured our spot in line then crossed Pearl Street to check out The Cheddarhead Store, source of Wisconsin cow and cheese related merchandise including cheese.

Pearl Street West includes Cheddarheads, a Wisconsin gift shop on the right in this image.

Pearl Street West includes Cheddarheads, a Wisconsin gift shop on the right in this image.

Inside Cheddarheads you'll find lots of Wisconsin themes t-shirts like this one displayed in the window.

Inside Cheddarheads you’ll find lots of Wisconsin themed t-shirts like this one displayed in the window.

Another view of Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse. I love the old buildings and the signage here.

Another view of Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse. I love the old buildings and the signage.

Eventually, after also perusing Art—211 Pearl, in the same complex of businesses known as Pearl Street West, photographing some nightscapes and stashing my camera in the van, we headed back to Buzzard Billy’s with 15 minutes to spare.

Finally, we were seated in the noisy bar area, where waitresses, hands balancing large trays of food overhead, squeezed between standing room only bar patrons and tables. It looks like a disaster waiting to happen.

While I didn’t care for the bar dining spot, I loved the food. We all did. I chose a spicy Shrimp Creole. Miranda opted for a Crawfish Platter and Randy a pasta with Andouille sausage. Service was quick. It helped that we had our menu choices pre-picked and that I told the welcoming and friendly waitress I was really really hungry. She took our food orders to the kitchen before bringing beverages. Not long after, our meals arrived piping hot. I tried my first ever hush puppies and crawfish sampled from Miranda’s platter. I will confess here that I thought hush puppies were potatoes rather than corn meal. Can you tell I’m a northerner who’s not well-traveled?

Another dining option a half a block away from Buzzard Billy's.

Another dining option a half a block away from Buzzard Billy’s.

Hungry for pizza? This was a busy place.

Every college town needs pizza places.

I love this Prime Rib sign.

I love this Prime Rib sign.

Once my left-overs were boxed, we headed upstairs to walk through The Starlite Lounge, a 1950s cocktail lounge. Oh, how I wished I hadn’t left my camera in the van. The lounge is now on my list of places to patronize the next time I’m in La Crosse. This throwback setting of curving aqua couches and swivel chairs appears the perfect place to try my first ever martini.

Signage marks another La Crosse bar.

Signage marks another La Crosse bar.

No shortage of places to have a beer in downtown La Crosse.

No shortage of places to have a beer in downtown La Crosse.

Yup, another bar...

Yup, another bar…

The sophisticated Starlite Lounge seems out of place in La Crosse, known for its beer-focused Oktoberfest and downtown bars frequented by college students. But that’s OK. With so many drinking establishments, bars need to distinguish themselves. And let me tell you, there are a lot of bars in downtown La Crosse.

The Pearl, a quaint shop serving homemade ice cream.

The Pearl, a quaint shop serving homemade ice cream.

CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a look at another downtown eatery and an ice cream shop.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A sweeping valley view from Grandad Bluff in La Crosse October 20, 2015

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Grandad's Bluff, 89 valley view 1

 

LATE FRIDAY AFTERNOON and the sun lights and shadows La Crosse. High above this Wisconsin city just across the Mississippi River from Minnesota, I am aiming my camera toward the valley below. With a bit of trepidation. Even though I am securely fenced atop the nearly 600-foot high Grandad Bluff, I am still unnerved by the height.

 

Grandad's Bluff, 94 railing on overlook

 

Yet, after awhile, I grow comfortable enough to edge to the railing and fire off shots of the scene below. Houses and colleges. Gridded streets. Water and sky and backdrop of bluffs. Trees, oh, the trees. With a view like this, it is not surprising that some 100,000 visitors come to Grandad Bluff annually.

 

Grandad's Bluff, 91 valley view 2

 

Despite the cold and fierce wind, admirers of autumn, like me, have driven to this bluff  park to appreciate the valley view. It is not an ideal time of day to shoot photos here, looking to the west in the late afternoon. But I manage.

 

Grandad's Bluff, 90 lookout point

 

Year after year after year, autumn still grabs my heart unlike any other season in the Midwest. Memories of riding in the family car along the gravel roads of the Minnesota River Valley from near Granite Falls east to Morton each fall remain a vivid visual from decades ago. But not until my daughters aimed east for college, one to the Mississippi River town of Winona and the other to La Crosse, did I discover the rugged river valley beauty of this region. This pocket corner of southeastern Minnesota and into Wisconsin is now a favorite to tour as the leaves change color. Anywhere along and near U.S. Highway 61 really.

 

Grandad's Bluff, 93 valley view 3

 

Oftentimes I reflect on how fortunate I am to live in a state like Minnesota with such a diverse terrain of prairie and rolling hills, river bluffs, woods and lakes and rivers. So much packed into our state and neighboring Wisconsin.

 

Grandad's Bluff, 87 red-haired girl

 

In this final month before winter grips the land, I savor scenes like that which unfolded before me Friday afternoon high atop Grandad Bluff. Soon enough trees will stand naked in the valley. Waterways will ice over. And images of this October day will remain in a computer photo file labeled La Crosse, and in the memory bank of my mind.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Grandad's Bluff, valley view 4

 

Grandad's Bluff, 86 standing atop post to take photo

 

This sculpture, installed in September, honors La Crosse resident Ellen Hixon. Sh saved this bluff from developers.

This sculpture, installed in September, honors La Crosse resident Ellen Hixon. She saved this bluff from developers. The bluff area became a park in 1912.

FYI: Check back for more stories from La Crosse.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bluff ice art March 31, 2014

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PERHAPS I AM too easily impressed.

But I have not visited the ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Bayfield County, Wisconsin.

Ice formations by La Crosse 1

Thus the ice formations gracing the Mississippi River bluffs along Interstate 90 on the Minnesota side near La Crosse, Wisconsin, impress me.

Ice formations by La Crosse 2

There is no stopping along I-90 to view or photograph this natural ice art up close. Rather, I rely on the rapid fire of my camera to capture the scene for later study.

Ice formations by La Crosse 3

Every time I see this water frozen in the icebox of winter, I marvel at its beauty.

I remember, too, how once upon a time I snapped icicles from the milkhouse roofline to engage in sword fight battles with my siblings.

Ice formations by La Crosse 4

The flip side of my mind views the ice formations as powdered sugar icing dripping down the sides of a homemade chocolate birthday cake baked by my mother.

That’s the thing about art—man-made or natural. It’s always open to interpretation.

FYI: These photos were taken 10 days ago. Since then, the weather has warmed to around 60 degrees in southern Minnesota, meaning these formations are likely disappearing.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling