Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Improvements to part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway April 21, 2022

U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF YOU’RE A FAN of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series, you will recognize these town names: Walnut Grove. Sleepy Eye. Mankato. In the TV version, the Charles and Caroline Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove, but also traveled to Sleepy Eye and Mankato. In her books, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t write about journeying to either town from Walnut Grove. Hollywood added its creative perspective, including a setting that is not exactly accurate in its depiction of the prairie. I know this area well. My hometown of Vesta lies 20 miles north of Walnut Grove on the mostly flat prairie of big sky and wide open spaces.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato in March 2013, before that section of two-lane expanded to four-lane. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2013)

The trip back to Redwood County from my Faribault home takes me along U.S. Highway 14, also known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. That road passes through Mankato and Sleepy Eye and many other communities into the heart of rural Minnesota, along a particularly dangerous stretch of roadway. Highway 14 has/had a reputation for above average deadly crashes. That’s no surprise given the narrow lanes carrying heavy traffic volumes.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane. It’s at this point where the current four-lane expansion begins to New Ulm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2016)

But that is all changing. Several days ago, government officials and others gathered for a ceremonial event to kick off a two-year road construction project that will replace 12 miles of two-lane roadway between Nicollet and New Ulm with a four-lane road. It’s about time. This is the last stretch of two-lane converting to four-lane from Rochester to New Ulm.

Westbound on Highway 14 heading to Nicollet from Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

I don’t get back to southwestern Minnesota all that often anymore, just for the occasional funeral or family gathering. But I’m thankful that come October 2023, the drive between Nicollet and New Ulm will be easier, safer, faster. Just like it is now between Mankato and Nicollet.

Once west of New Ulm, Highway 14 will remain the same. Narrow. Well-traveled. Not particularly safe. But for today, I’m grateful for the improvements to 12 miles of a route the Ingalls family didn’t follow, but which many fans of “Little House on the Prairie” travel today en route to Walnut Grove.

© Copyright 2022 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

 

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

 

Bins, bars & beer December 4, 2013

THE LAST TIME I WAS in Cobden, I told my husband, I was photographing a burning building.

That was decades ago, when I worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. Thirty-plus years later, I can’t recall what burned, but I think a bar.

Apparently little has changed in Cobden since I raced, with camera and notebook, to this community of 36 residents just off U.S. Highway 14 between Sleepy Eye and Springfield. As I remember, I borrowed a pen (because mine ran out of ink and why didn’t I have a spare?) from a firefighter. Interesting how a detail like that sticks with me.

Downtown Cobden with Tubby's to the left and Ridin' High to the right and the grain bins a few blocks away.

Downtown Cobden with Tubby’s to the left and Ridin’ High to the right and the grain bins a few blocks away.

Today, two bars and grain bins define this community in southwestern Minnesota, which boasts some of our state’s best farmland.

A few months ago while en route to Lamberton, my husband turned our van north off the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway to circle through Cobden, past the grain bins and then between the two bars—Minnesota Tubby’s Bar & Grill and Ridin’ High Saloon—which comprise the downtown.

Tubby's, in the old bank building.

Tubby’s, in the old bank building.

There was no time to stop and explore, only a quick roll down of the van window to shoot the building exteriors under grey and drizzly skies. I wished we had time to park and peek inside Tubby’s, housed in the stately 1915 corner brick State Bank building. I wished I could yank away the sheets of brown metal siding that cover the windows. I wished I could see the old bank interior.

Bikers get a hearty welcome at Ridin' High Saloon.

Bikers get a hearty welcome at Ridin’ High Saloon.

Across the street, Ridin’ High Saloon, from the looks of the exterior signage, caters to bikers.

The Saloon connects to the Back Porch.

The Saloon connects to the Back Porch, right.

The outdoor Back Porch hang-out.

The outdoor Back Porch hang-out.

The machine shed style open air Back Porch gives that rough-and-tumble beer drinking impression, a great place to hang out with friends on a warm summer evening.

A close-up of Tubby's signage.

A close-up of Tubby’s signage.

Maybe next stop in Cobden will be the charm with no fire to cover, no schedule to keep. Just time for a beer.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling