Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Autumn on a rural Minnesota acreage, a photo essay October 4, 2018

A restored windmill towers above a refurbished mini barn (soon to be art studio) on my brother and sister-in-law’s rural Redwood County acreage.

 

OF SIX FARM-RAISED SIBLINGS, only two live in the country. Neither farmers. But two work in the ag industry, one as the CEO of an ethanol company, the other as part owner in an implement dealership.

 

 

My middle brother remains in our home county of Redwood and welcomes us back for extended family gatherings, most recently our annual autumn tradition of making horseradish—157 jars this year. The tradition honors our deceased farmer father. He dug and processed horseradish roots for many years. Now we do the same but with easier methods than using an old meat grinder powered by a drill. Like Dad, we give away the condiment.

 

Sunflowers ripen and dry under the prairie sky.

 

Our annual gathering in rural Lamberton isn’t about the horseradish as much as it is about family.

 

I’ve always delighted in milkweed pods bursting with seeds.

 

 

 

While I enjoy our time together, I usually slip away to meander, to take in the rural setting, to photograph. I need that peacefulness amid all the chattering and joking and loudness of a group with some strong personalities.

 

How lovely the broom corn rising and swaying in the prairie wind.

 

My artsy sister-in-law creates vignettes like this that change with the seasons.

 

A sunflower, heavy with seed, bows to the earth.

 

I need quiet. And I need to take in the shifting of the seasons, the artful autumn displays, the aged buildings, all the visual reminders of a rural life I still miss decades removed from the country.

 

A gazing ball in a flower garden reflects sky, land and dried black-eyed susan seed heads.

 

I am grateful for the opportunity to escape to this acreage, to reclaim the serenity of rural Minnesota.

 

An old shed recently moved onto the acreage, to be rebuilt or salvaged for the wood.

 

I realize nostalgia tinges my view of country life. Much has changed since I left the farm nearly 45 years ago. But not the love I hold for the land, for the quiet and grace and muted tones of harvest time.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When torrential rains cause major flooding in my home region of southwestern Minnesota July 4, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, my friends. I hope this finds you celebrating your freedom in a fun way.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta earlier this spring. That’s my home farm in the distance. I expect the flooding is much worse now. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In my home region of southwestern Minnesota, where I was supposed to be yesterday and today with extended family, residents are cleaning up after heavy rainfall flooded the region. Flash flooding resulted in water in basements (and higher), road wash-outs and closures, mudslides, swamped farm fields, overflowing rivers and more. That includes in my home county of Redwood. And the communities of Wabasso (where I graduated from high school) and Vesta (my hometown).

After a flurry of texts between me and my five siblings and lots of online searching yesterday, Randy and I decided not to risk the trip into the flooded region. Although I second-guessed our decision multiple times, it was the right one. This morning floodwaters flowed across a section of US highway 14 east of Lamberton, our route to and from my middle brother’s rural acreage just north of that small town. Likewise I expect the rising Cottonwood River has flooded a county road within a mile of our destination.

Some roads have collapsed in Redwood and Renville counties. I don’t trust the structural integrity of any road covered with water. The Redwood County Sheriff’s Department issued this statement on Facebook early yesterday morning:

We have had numerous (reports) of water covering the roadways. Please DO NOT drive on any roadway that has water running over it. MN DOT and Redwood County highway departments are doing the best they can do get these roads blocked off to warn motorists.

 

A combine similar to this was moved from a Tracy dealership onto Highway 14. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

One of the most creative road blocks happened in Tracy where crews parked a massive John Deere combine across Highway 14 to keep traffic off the flooded roadway.

 

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In Wabasso, which got 11 inches of rain within 12 hours, a resident noted on social media that the white rabbit was safe from floodwaters. He was referencing an over-sized rabbit sculpture along State Highway 68. Wabasso means “white rabbit” and is the local school mascot.

It’s good to find humor in a difficult situation, in an area where residents endured another round of rain this Fourth of July morning.

To those who live in my native southwestern Minnesota (and that includes many family and friends), I am sorry you are experiencing this major flooding. Please be safe.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road to southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay December 19, 2017

A former country school near Essig along U.S. Highway 14.

 

TWICE A YEAR, my husband and I head west from our Faribault home to my native southwestern Minnesota for gatherings with my extended family. We travel solely with destination in mind, not deviating to meander through small towns and explore. We get on Interstate 35 in Faribault, exit onto U.S. Highway 14 in Owatonna and then follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway all the way to our destination 2.25 hours away in Lamberton. That would be in Redwood County, just 10 miles east of Walnut Grove.

Near Janesville, this billboard sparkles in the morning light.

Everything along this route is familiar to me from the curves in the highway to the billboards to the farm sites and my favorite barns west of Springfield. While sometimes the drive can seem like forever, especially when wind whips snow to create iffy driving conditions, mostly I enjoy the rural route.

At the beginning of our trip, I photographed this farm site west of Owatonna. The farther west we drove, the greyer the skies became.

Enjoy this photo essay along U.S. Highway 14, aiming west toward the prairie into some of our state’s richest farmland as we headed back for the holidays last Saturday.

Red barns splash color into the rural landscape, here near Janesville.

 

An ethanol plant near Janesville breaks the monotony of farm fields.

 

Highway 14 takes us through New Ulm. I spotted this catchy and festive billboard on the west end of town.

 

You know you’re in the heart of farmland when you see a cash corn price posted on a sign, this one at Christensen Farms near Sleepy Eye.

 

This reindeer statue stands along the east edge of Sleepy Eye. It’s there year-round.

 

Weathered by wind and weather, this barn sits west of Sleepy Eye.

 

A row of vintage trucks are parked atop a hill on the east edge of Springfield.

 

One of my favorite barns on a farm site west of Springfield.

 

We reach our destination in Lamberton where grain elevators mark this rural community.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rural roadside surveillance May 18, 2016

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Roadside stand, 93 side view

 

ALONG U.S. HIGHWAY 14 at its intersection with the road to Wanda, just east of Lamberton, I spotted a roadside stand advertising rhubarb and asparagus. I had rhubarb back home in my refrigerator. But I didn’t have asparagus and I love that spring-time vegetable.

So Randy pulled our van off the highway, turning onto a farm driveway next to a green trailer. I asked if he had $3. He did. I had only larger bills. I grabbed the money and my camera, bracing myself against a fierce prairie wind to snap a few photos.

 

Roadside stand, 95 close-up of coolers

 

Then I headed for the trailer. I lifted the lid on a red cooler, noting the instructions to “Please close tightly.” I did after finding that cooler empty. Then I opened a blue cooler with the same results. Empty. No asparagus for me.

 

Roadside stand, 97 camera

 

Discouraged, I took a few more photos and headed back to the van. Randy was already backing up, which I found odd. “Is that a wildlife camera?” he asked, indicating a camera inside a wooden box mounted to the trailer. Could be.

 

Roadside stand, 94 trailer next to driveway

 

I slammed the van door, handed the money back to Randy and buckled up as he resumed backing toward the highway. About that time, a white vehicle started heading down the driveway. “We’re being watched,” I observed, which should have been obvious to me given the camera and sign noting “Protected by security system.”

Soon the vehicle curved back onto the farm site.

 

Roadside stand, 96 close-up of sign

 

I left not only without the asparagus I craved, but also a bit disillusioned. I’d like to think unattended roadside stands don’t need security systems or chains or locks. But who am I kidding? Apparently myself.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of flowers September 8, 2015

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Phlox

Phlox grow along a fence in my backyard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

THE SWEET PERFUME of purple phlox drifts through the open window, scenting my office with summer. I glance outside, where the phlox sway in a wisp of an afternoon breeze above clusters of snowball hydrangea.

 

Flowers, field of yellow flowers

 

My flower gardens are a rangy mess of overgrown plants. Tangle of leaves and flowers and stems. Nothing neat about them. I like it that way.

 

Flowers, poppy close-up

 

Flower gardens have always been a part of who I am. Not that I am a master gardener. But I have always been an appreciator and grower of flowers, a love learned early on when every visit to my maternal great grandmother’s or paternal grandma’s houses started, in the summer, with a tour of the gardens. Flower and vegetable.

 

Flowers, garden tours sign

 

To this day, when I arrive at the home of a family member or a friend who gardens, I self-start a tour. I admire the blooms, dip my head toward scented petals, appreciate the sweeps of color, delight in the beauty that unfolds before me.

 

Flowers, orange flowers

 

I shall always love flowers. They are memories, art which springs from the earth, bold bursts of color in a subdued landscape and the gift I give myself.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Flowers, hosta flowers

 

Flowers, hibiscus

 

Flowers, buds

 

Flowers, daisies

 

Flowers, John Deere planters

 

FYI: All of the flowers and plants, except the phlox, were photographed at my brother Brian and sister-in-law Vicki’s rural Lamberton, Minnesota, acreage in mid-summer.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rooted in the land, still August 4, 2015

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The elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, just to the south of my brother's place.

Grain elevators, like this one in Lamberton to the south of my brother’s place, define rural small town Minnesota skylines.

THERE ARE DAYS, even now after forty years away from the farm, that I yearn to permanently return, to plant my feet upon the land, to follow a gravel road, to breathe in deeply the scent of freshly-mown alfalfa, to step into the blackness of a summer night under a sky pinpointed with an infinity of stars. On land that is mine. It will never happen.

Clover on the edge of a field.

Clover on the edge of a field.

But I am fortunate that my middle brother and his wife live on my native prairie on a rural acreage that they share. It has become the extended family gathering spot, the site that reconnects me to southwestern Minnesota, my childhood home.

Brian and Vicki recently added an outhouse (used for storage) to their property. This reminds me of the first 11 years of my life, living in a house without a bathroom and using a two-holer outhouse.

Brian and Vicki recently added an outhouse (used for storage) to their property. This reminds me of the first 11 years of my life, living in a house without a bathroom and using a two-holer outhouse.

Each time I visit Brian and Vicki’s home 120 miles distant from Faribault, I wander their land with my camera, photographing rural scenes, capturing memories with my lens.

Monarch attracting milkweed grows next to a soybean field.

Monarch attracting milkweed grows along the fence line next to a soybean field.

Scents of clover and of milkweed.

The John Deere tractor roared by my brother's place much of the afternoon

The John Deere tractor roared by my brother’s place much of the afternoon as the farmer baled hay.

Roar of a tractor.

The gravel road that runs past my middle brother's rural acreage just north of Lamberton, Minnesota.

The gravel road that runs past my middle brother’s rural acreage just north of Lamberton.

Crunching of gravel beneath feet.

The sun begins to set.

The sun begins to set.

The undeniable serenity that descends with daylight’s impending departure.

There's something about a leaning fence post that is authentically rural.

There’s something about a leaning fence post that is authentically rural.

Fence posts leaning, sun setting, crops growing. Absence of noise.

Wheat in the field just across the fence line.

Wheat in the field just across the fence line.

This is enough to hold me, to remind me of my roots, to imprint the poetry of the land upon my soul.

BONUS PHOTOS:

A rural home for the birds.

A rural home for the birds.

There's something poetic about an old wooden fence post.

There’s something poetic about an old wooden fence post at dusk.

Beautiful brohm grass. As a child, my siblings and I would play make-believe in the tall grass on our farm.

Beautiful brohm grass. As children, my siblings and I would play make-believe in the tall grass on our farm near Vesta.

Even the sight of this aged insulator sparks memories.

Even the sight of this aged insulator sparks memories.

A birdhouse, perfect in its simplicity.

A birdhouse, perfect in its simplicity.

Growing up on our crop and dairy farm, my eldest brother, Doug, photographed the cows and recorded details about them. My middle brother treasures this compilation of information from our farm. And so do I. Memories...

Growing up on our crop and dairy farm, my eldest brother, Doug, photographed the cows and recorded details about them. My middle brother treasures this compilation of information from our farm. And so do I. Memories… Brian showed this to us on our last visit and I considered it important enough to photograph. It is a piece of rural, and family, history.

FYI: All of these photos were taken on the July Fourth weekend.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A fabulous Fourth with family on the Minnesota prairie July 7, 2015

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The extended Kletscher family poses for a photo on the Fourth of July. Seven are missing.

The extended Kletscher family poses for a photo on the Fourth of July. Eight are missing.

FAMILY AND THE FOURTH. For years now, and no one remembers for how long, my extended family has gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July. Early on, we met at Flandrau State Park in New Ulm, a half-way point. But now we all travel to my middle brother and his wife’s southwestern Minnesota acreage for the holiday. Some of us stay overnight given the distance to rural Lamberton.

Teaching the next generation how to grill brats.

Teaching the next generation to grill brats.

It’s a day that focuses on fun, food and family.

Opposing teams step up to play Family Feud.

Opposing players step up to play Family Feud with the only non-family member in attendance hosting the game. Her hand is substituting as a bell.

We talk and laugh and compete and tease, building memories or reliving them. There’s something about the bond of family that roots deep into the soil. And, no matter the seasons that pass, family love remains—strong, resilient, enduring.

My son and his grandma.

My son and his grandma.

The view from the patio is this newly-completed waterfall and pond. Beautiful.

The view from the patio is this newly-completed waterfall and pond. Beautiful.

Lawnchairs were lined up to watch...

Family members lined up in lawn chairs to watch croquet.

My eldest daughter takes her turn during one of many games of croquet.

My eldest daughter takes her turn during one of many games of croquet.

Lots of beverages were consumed, including Shiner Bock beer.

Lots of beverages were consumed, including Shiner Bock beer.

The youngest ones rough-housed with the high school student.

The youngest ones rough-house with the high school student.

Little hands and feet got dirty. But no one cared.

Little hands and feet got dirty. But no one cared.

Eighty years spanned those in attendance with my 83-year-old Mom as the eldest. Here she is with my youngest brother, right, and my oldest brother behind.

Eighty years spanned those in attendance with my 83-year-old Mom as the eldest. Here she is with my youngest brother, right, and my oldest brother behind.

At the end of a long day, my three-year-old great nephew grips his grandpa's hand.

At the end of a long day, my three-year-old great nephew grips his grandpa’s hand.

The hit "toy" of the day were the vintage trikes belonging to my sister-in-law.

The hit “toys” of the day were my sister-in-law’s childhood tricycles.

My great nephew barrels his way between the lawnchairs on his way to an imaginary fire.

My great nephew barrels his way between lawn chairs.

We dined on brats, burgers, BBQed ribs and an assortment of delicious foods at supper time.

We dined on brats, burgers, BBQed ribs and an assortment of delicious foods at supper time.

Awards were handed out in the evening. The specifics of those honors shall remain within the family.

Awards were handed out in the evening. The specifics of those honors shall remain within the family.

When darkness fell, out came the sparklers.

When darkness fell, out came the sparklers and glo sticks.

It was a beautiful prairie evening for sparklers.

It was a perfect prairie evening for sparklers on the Fourth.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The yellow house February 23, 2015

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You can't miss this bright yellow house along a Redwood County road just off U.S. Highway 14 in Lamberton.

You can’t miss this bright yellow house along a Redwood County road just off U.S. Highway 14 in Lamberton.

WHEN I SEE A HOUSE painted a jolting hue like this bright yellow house in Lamberton, I have questions.

Why?

Is this the homeowner’s favorite color?

How have people reacted to this color choice?

What do you think of houses painted in unexpected, bold colors? Have you ever chosen an unconventional traffic-stopping color for your home? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Let’s brainstorm business ideas for an historic building in Lamberton February 18, 2015

IT’S BEEN AWHILE since I’ve thought of the historic 1892 former bank building in downtown Lamberton in my native southwestern Minnesota.

A side shot of the former bakery. Just imagine the possibilities for this spacious building. Let's hear your ideas.

A side shot of the former bakery. Just imagine the possibilities for this spacious building. Let’s hear your ideas. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The 3,250 square foot massive corner brick structure stands empty after a young couple was unable to secure financing to open Seven Sisters Coffee in the summer of 2013. The pair planned to transform the main floor into a community gathering space.

The Van Engens had planned to use the original lunch counter in their coffee shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from October 2012.

Plans were to reuse the original lunch counter in the coffee shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from October 2012.

They intended to serve food in the front section, which last housed long-time Sanger’s Bakery. The back room would serve as a venue for musical performances and the arts and as an event rental space. It seemed like a good idea.

But none of that came to fruition with the failed financing.

The yellow sign in the front window advertises the property for sale through Scenic City Realty.

The yellow sign in the front window advertises the property for sale through Scenic City Realty. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So the building went on the market thereafter, priced at $37,000.

The property remains for sale today, but at a much lower price. It’s now listed at $17,000 by Mike Kaufenberg at Scenic City Realty in Redwood Falls. That drop in price might just be enough to lure a buyer.

The Van Engens began working on this back space last fall in an area intended for entertainment and an artists' haven.

The back room features exposed brick and a wood floor. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I don’t know the current condition of the building given its ongoing vacancy. But I still see the potential here. This place possesses character and history. It’s located in a small town along a major regional highway, U.S. Highway 14, also known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. Wilder’s childhood home of Walnut Grove lies only 11 miles to the west. Walnut Grove draws a lot of tourists, especially during the summer.

Now, back to the reason this property popped into my mind. Have you heard about Hoodstarter.com? Me either, until recently.

Seven young visionaries created this online avenue to identify and gather ideas for vacant storefront properties in the Twin Cities metro area. Folks can then vote on the top suggestions and help fund pitched proposals. It seems like a great idea. I think we’ve all passed vacant storefronts and wished for whatever to fill the spaces in our hoods (neighborhoods/communities).

The former Sanger's Bakery in Lamberton, a Minnesota farming community.

The former Sanger’s Bakery in Lamberton, a Minnesota farming community. The Sanger’s Bakery lettering is no longer on the front window. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Today I’m giving you the opportunity to share your ideas for the old bank building in downtown Lamberton. What do you envision for this property?

And if you contact Mike Kaufenberg at Scenic City Realty, tell him I sent you. Especially if you buy the property.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Higher than your knees July 11, 2014

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Into the cornfield and up close.

Into the cornfield and up close.

I CAN ALMOST FEEL the corn leaves slicing across my arms, hear the leaves whispering in the wind, see the stalks growing higher and higher, racing toward the prairie sky on a July afternoon.

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota.

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota.

These are the memories I hold within my cells—the imprint of corn rows stretching into forever. My father’s work laid out before him across the acres. First, seeds dropped into the rich black soil. Next, corn rows cultivated. And then, in autumn, the combine chomping across fields. Golden kernels spilling into wagons. Trips to the grain elevator.

I see all of that in the corn growing in my native southwestern Minnesota.

Through the wildflowers...

Through the wildflowers…

On July 4, my husband and I waded through tall ditch grass and wildflowers to check out a cornfield near Lamberton. Back in the day, corn growth was measured against the expected “knee high by the Fourth of July” standard.

Not quite reaching my husband's shoulders.

Not quite reaching my husband’s shoulders even though the corn appears head high from this angle.

Unless a farmer has to replant or gets his crop in late, his corn is more like shoulder high by the Fourth in today’s agricultural world.

Corn grows in a field next to one of my favorite barns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Corn grows in a field next to one of my favorite barns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

This year, though, with late planting and many fields drowned out by too much rain, corn growth appears behind the norm.

Across the fence and across the cornfield, my brother's neighbor's place.

Across the fence and across the cornfield, my brother’s neighbor’s place.

But one thing remains constant, no matter the weather, no matter the year. Farmers hang on to harvest hope.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling