Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts following an attack at a Central Minnesota mall September 20, 2016

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A vehicle travels along Interstate 90 near La Crosse in the rain Friday morning. Fog shrouds the bluffs in grey.

A vehicle travels along Interstate 90 near La Crosse, on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River, in the rain Friday morning. Fog veils the river bluffs.

WHEN FOG DESCENDS, shrouding the landscape in a veil of grey, the value of light magnifies.

Our eyes search for light.

We look for ways to banish the grey, to illuminate our world. We want desperately to find the light and to hold it high.

Events of the past weeks have shaded our skies grey here in Minnesota—first with the discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains and now the stabbings of 10 individuals at Crossroads Center in St. Cloud in what appears to be a possible act of lone wolf terrorism.

That both of these major crimes happened some five miles apart in Central Minnesota is pure coincidence. But it is not lost on me that the kidnapping of 11-year-old Jacob nearly 27 years ago and the mall attack on Saturday evening are in the backyard of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon.

I like to think that Lake Wobegon—the region in which some of my in-laws live—is a pastoral setting of grazing cows, church spires and old-timers playing cards at the Chatterbox Cafe. It is and it isn’t. In today’s world, no place, not even Central Minnesota, is safe.

Even so, we Minnesotans are a strong, determined and resilient lot. We will, through the greyness of these days, search for the light of goodness and of hope. Of that I am certain.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The enduring smiley face May 18, 2013

Freeport water tower

I DON’T CARE how many times I’ve seen this water tower smiling down at me along Interstate 94 in Freeport. I still react with a smile each time I spot it.

In a community which is reportedly the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, this water tower epitomizes “Have a good day” in a singular visual.

And that, my friends, makes me happy.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discovering gnomes, a vintage cookbook & more at a used book sale May 5, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:19 AM
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AS I DREW OPEN the interior glass door into the Faribo West Mall, the offending odor of a hundred musty, damp basements stung my nostrils, mixing with the distinct aroma of Chinese food.

The moldy smell pulled me like an invisible string, past the Great China Buffet and the pet supply store, toward a vacant storefront, recent home to a variety store and years before that, a bookstore.

I stepped inside the former retail space into a temporary bookstore packed with thousands of books lining tables and shelves. I aimed straight for the Minnesota-authored titles while my husband veered toward the cookbooks.

Books I selected from the “Minnesota table,” albeit Prairie Perpendicular (one of my all-time favorite fiction books) is set in a small North Dakota farming community and written by a North Dakotan.

For 45 minutes we perused the selections, me picking How to Talk Minnesotan, A Visitor’s Guide by Howard Mohr, In Search of Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor and Prairie Perpendicular by Marston Moore (a North Dakota writer) from the Minnesota table.

I wasn’t searching for anything specific, only that which might interest me or others. The Minnesota language book will go to the oldest daughter’s boyfriend whom I will meet in a few weeks. He’s a California native, still living there, and likely could use a few tips about hotdish and bars. I’ll earmark page 16 for him in Lesson 3, “Eating In in Minnesota.”

If he wants to borrow Keillor’s book, I suppose I could lend it to him. But then again I don’t want to leave him with the impression that Minnesotans are, well, a bit off-kilter. I mean, if you didn’t know anything about ice fishing, what would you think of a photo of St. Joseph Rod & Gun Club members sitting on overturned buckets and playing cards while fishing on a frozen lake? Yeah, perhaps I best keep that Lake Wobegon book tucked away.

A snippet from the cover of Gnomes written by Wil Huygen and illustrated by Rien Poortvliet.

After discovering those gems, I moved on to the garden books and then the poetry and art and children’s titles. Somewhere in between I found a book about gnomes, complete with humorous stories and art that I just know my gnome-loving floral designer sister will appreciate.

But it was my husband who uncovered the find of the evening, a 1967 Minnesota Valley Cook Book. The 55-page supplement to The New Ulm Journal offers an interesting and amusing glimpse into the past in ads and recipes.

The cover of the 1967 Minnesota Valley Cook Book printed on news print. The cover photo of Mrs. Reuben Mammenga of New Ulm (sorry, no first name given) was taken by Ron Grieser. Mrs. Mammenga won the $5 prize in the pies category for her Chocolate Angel Pie.

I will share more about this 45-year-old southwestern Minnesota cookbook in an upcoming post. Just to pique your interest, did you know that (in 1967) “one of America’s largest department stores is just 11 inches high?” Can you guess which one?

Have you heard of Sauerkraut Cake and Tomato Surprise Cake?

Yes, the entertainment value in this old cookbook rates five stars. So does the Faribault chapter of the American Association of University Women’s annual book sale. Proceeds from the sale go to the AAUW Educational Foundation, local scholarships and community programs.

As I see it, everyone benefits through this book recycling process. Several months ago my 18-year-old son asked, “Mom, when’s that book sale?” He and a friend were at the sale when doors opened Thursday. He came home with a dozen science fiction (including one of his favorites, Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky) and fantasy books and a thermodynamics college textbook. Total cost: $12.

The sale continues from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday; noon – 5 p.m. Sunday; and from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. May 7-9, next to JC Penney. Hurry in for the best selection. Expect to pay @ $1 per book with newer and mint condition books priced higher.


P.S. Please do not think all of the books at this sale smell musty. They don’t. I try to discreetly do a “sniff test” before purchasing.

HAVE YOU EVER shopped a used book sale? What gems did you find? Share your experiences in a comment on this post.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Farewell to the Swany White Flour Mill of Freeport December 28, 2011

Freeport promotes itself as "The city with a smile!" That's the smiling water tower to the right and the Swany White Flour Mill to the left in front of the church steeple in this June 2011 image. Freeport is among the communities after which Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon is fashioned.

CROSSING THE OVERPASS into Freeport last June, I snapped a quick landscape photo with the town’s charming water tower smiling at travelers along Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.

I should have focused, though, on the old-fashioned grain elevator-style flour mill to the left in my framed image.

Late Tuesday afternoon this historic icon, the Swany White Four Mill, built in 1897 and owned by the Thelen family since 1903, burned. Minnesota has lost an important part of her history, a still-functioning mill of yesteryear that specialized in producing commercial grade and organic flour and was known for its famous Swany White Buttercake Pancake and Waffle Mix.

That I never realized the importance of this towering, aged building on that June afternoon saddens me for I am typically drawn to small-town elevators. But when my husband and I swung into Freeport late on that Saturday afternoon 6 ½ months ago, we were more interested in finding Charlie’s Café, a popular dining spot in this town of 450. We were hungry. Charlie’s was packed, so we left town without eating there, but not until I snapped photos of the café and Sacred Heart Church and School.

Popular Charlie's Cafe is noted for its tasty homemade food including caramel rolls, meringue pies and hot beef commercials. To the right is the Pioneer Inn, after which Garrison Keillor modeled The Sidetrack Tap in his fictional Lake Wobegon. Keillor and his family lived near Freeport in the early 1970s.

Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, described by Garrison Keillor as "a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof."

Sacred Heart School in Freeport, a lovely old building that caught my eye.

I totally missed out on the Swany White Flour Mill, simply because I was unaware of its important existence.

Eleven years ago, though, the historic mill, Charlie’s and other central Minnesota scenes were photographed by National Geographic photographer Richard Olsenius, illustrating a story, “In Search of Lake Wobegon,” by Garrison Keillor, expanded in 2001 as a book. A sister-in-law gave me her copy of the December 2000 National Geographic recently, knowing how much I would appreciate Keillor’s writing and the black-and-white images by Olsenius. I do.

Keillor rented a farmhouse south of Freeport some 40 years ago. He and his family weren’t exactly embraced by the community during the three years they lived there. Keillor writes about his experiences in the magazine piece, where he reveals that his fictional Lake Wobegon is based on life in central Minnesota, including Freeport.

I wonder if Keillor is reflecting on those years in Freeport as news of the Swany White Flour Mill’s demise reaches him. A eulogy or a tribute to this historic mill would seem fitting for Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcasting from Honolulu, Hawaii, on New Year’s Eve, far from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It hasn’t exactly been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.


An auction at the Clear Lake Farmer’s Elevator December 23, 2010


I shot this image while waiting for a train by the Clear Lake Farmer's Elevator.

HEY, DO YOU ENJOY attending auctions? Ever heard of a consignment hay auction? I hadn’t either, until Saturday morning when my family drove through Clear Lake en route to St. Cloud.

We were waiting for a train to pass through town when I noticed pick-up trucks parked near the Clear Lake Farmer’s Elevator and some guys loitering next to a stack of hay. My husband quickly spied the hay auction sign to his left.

I quickly pulled out my camera because I recognized this small-town occurrence as something worth photographing, but which likely never has been photographed.

The whole scene had a Garrison Keillor quality about it, almost like we’d driven up to the Lake Wobegon Farmer’s Elevator.

It was something about the starkness and grayness of the setting, the way the men stood, the rural feel of the whole place that drew me in and kept me clicking the camera shutter.


A snow pile blocked my view of the hay auction until we inched forward.

On the third Saturday of each month, October - April, the Clear Lake Farmer's Elevator holds a consignment hay auction beginning at 10:30 a.m. The elevator is just off U.S. Highway 10 in Clear Lake southeast of St. Cloud.

When I saw the photos, I was pleased as punch with the results. Capturing snippets of small-town Minnesota life like this reconnects me to my rural roots and, in some small way, preserves an important part of our agricultural history.


Small square grass bales sold for $2.25 - $3.20 bale at Saturday's auction, according to online auction results.

Round grass mix bales sold for $39 each. "We still have people asking for straw and bags of ear corn to feed birds, etc.," the online auction info reads.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling