Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Laura fans: Walnut Grove pageant needs financial help after flash flooding July 13, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the pageant site along the banks of Plum Creek taken several years ago..

 

WALNUT GROVE AND LAURA INGALLS WILDER. The two are synonymous. Wilder brought notoriety to this small southwestern Minnesota prairie community with her Little House books. The town embraces the author in its summer-time productions of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. Staged in an outdoor amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek, the pageant brings Wilder’s prairie stories to life. It’s a top-notch show that I’ve seen twice.

 

Plum Creek floods the pageant grounds following torrential rain. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

But now the Wilder Pageant Committee needs financial help to deal with damage caused by early July flash floods that ravaged southwestern Minnesota, including the creek-side performance site. Shows were canceled because of the flood. Volunteers worked hard to clean up the mess so the show could reopen on July 12 with added performances.

 

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are featured on a mural in the heart of Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love that about small towns—the coming together to get a job done. The people of Walnut Grove understand the value of Laura Ingalls Wilder to the local economy. And they are determined that the Big Flood on the Prairie will not stop the show despite damage to sets, costumes, sound and light equipment, and site access roads.

 

Flood clean-up. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

A gofundme page has been set up to help pay for maintenance to aging and flood-damaged facilities. The goal is $30,000. Please consider donating and spread the word.

 

Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

I am a mega fan of Wilder’s descriptive writing. That she lived in a dugout on the banks of Plum Creek in my native Redwood County, on my beloved prairie, endears me even more to this author.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To all the wonderful folks in Walnut Grove and surrounding area, thank you for your tireless efforts to welcome Laura fans from around the world to your community. Even after a devastating flood.

 

Period attire is common among young Laura fans visiting Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

CLICK HERE to reach the gofundme page and learn more.

NOTE: The Ingalls dugout site is temporarily closed due to flooding.

BUT the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove is open.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder at a Chicago museum & I’m in December 18, 2017

Follow U.S. Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, west across the prairie to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and then on to De Smet, South Dakota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MINNESOTA PRAIRIE ROOTS. My blog name honors my roots in Redwood County where Laura Ingalls Wilder, celebrated author of the Little House book series, lived for awhile as a child. Walnut Grove lies just 20 miles distant from my childhood home. It is a place where earth and sky spread wide, where fertile black soil grows tall corn and the wind seldom stops blowing.

 

The American Writers Museum in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Lee Engquist.

 

Some 500 miles to the south and east of Walnut Grove lies Chicago. Windy, yes. But otherwise distinctly different. Nothing prairie-like here in this city. Until you look close, to the new American Writers Museum which opened in the heart of Chicago in May.

 

An overview of a section of the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

I’ve not visited the museum. Yet, I hold a connection to this acclaimed museum now showcasing a temporary exhibit, “Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page.” I grew up with the Little House books read by an elementary school teacher each day after lunch. That was long before the books grew in popularity, long before the TV series, long before Walnut Grove became a destination for Laura fans.

 

My Laura Look-A-Like Contest photo close-up in the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

But my love of Laura’s writing and my native prairie roots are not my only connections to this exhibit which runs through spring 2018. A photo I took several years ago during a Laura Look-Alike Contest in Walnut Grove is included in the exhibit.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in a Walnut Grove city park in July 2013. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Awhile ago, Boston-based Amaze Design contacted me about using the image. The design company manages content development for the museum.

 

This section features noted American authors. Within the museum is info highlighting Minnesota writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Schulz and more. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

An exhibit in the Children’s Literature Room. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

Another exhibit focuses on the writing process. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

From what my friend Laurel, who recently toured the 11,000 square foot literary museum tells me, the place is impressive. Located on the second floor of a building at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, it includes 13 permanent exhibits in six galleries plus temporary exhibits. Laurel spent hours there wandering, reading, observing and participating in interactive aspects of displays. She was surprised to find my Laura Look-Alike photo as part of the American Voices Exhibit.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’m honored to have my work included. I’m proud of my prairie roots, of my rural upbringing in a part of Minnesota made famous by a much-loved American writer.

 

FYI: If you’re wondering how Amaze Design found my photo, look no further than searching the internet. I also have photos included in exhibits at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul and in the World War II Museum in New Orleans. All found my work online, on this blog.

 

Disclaimer: Amaze Design paid for rights to use my Laura Look-A-Like image in the exhibit.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thanks to friends Laurel and Lee Engquist for permission to share their photos.

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Attention, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans: A new must-read book by Marta McDowell September 21, 2017

 

WHEN A PACKAGE LANDED on my front doorstep some 10 days ago, I wondered about its content. I hadn’t ordered anything. But inside I found a newly-released book, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books.

Ah, yes, I had been expecting this. Sort of. But I’d forgotten about the book by bestselling author Marta McDowell that includes three of my photos. More than a year had passed since Marta and I connected.

Now I was holding the results of this New Jersey writer’s intensive research, multi-state visits and hours of writing. It’s an impressive book for the information and the art published therein on the places and plants in the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 

Every summer, the folks of Walnut Grove produce an outdoor pageant based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Many pageant attendees arrive at the show site dressed in period attire and then climb aboard the covered wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I have not yet read the entire book. But I am sharing this new Timber Press release now because Marta will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Avenue, in Minneapolis from 7 – 8 this evening (September 21) to present The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I expect the book to be enthusiastically received here in Minnesota and by Laura fans world-wide.

 

The southwestern Minnesota prairie, in the summer, is a place of remarkable beauty. I shot this image outside Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

I am among those fans with the added bonus of having grown up only three townships north of the Charles and Caroline Ingalls’ North Hero Township home near Walnut Grove in Redwood County, Minnesota. Long before the Little House TV show, long before I realized the popularity of Laura’s book series, I loved her writing. A teacher at Vesta Elementary School read the books aloud to me and my classmates during a post-lunch reading time. That story-time instilled in me a deep love for the written word and a deep connection to The Little House books.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove in 2010.

 

With that background, you can understand my enthusiasm for Marta’s book which focuses on the landscapes and specific plants that surrounded Laura and her family. Laura writes with a strong sense of place, a skill I’ve often considered may trace to her blind sister, Mary. Laura became her sister’s “eyes.”

 

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything. I took this photo at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna during a previous traveling exhibit on Minnesota disasters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Marta writes of specific plants and places in her book, taking the reader from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Missouri and in between—wherever Laura lived. In the section on Walnut Grove, she notes the wild plums, the morning glories and the blue flags (iris) that Laura writes about in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’ve walked that creek and creekbank, seen the Ingalls’ dug-out, wildflowers and plums. I am of this rich black soil, these plants, this land. There’s a comfortable familiarity in reading of this land the Ingalls family eventually left because of a grasshopper infestation and resulting crop failures.

 

My black-eyed susan photo is published in Marta’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To be part of Marta’s book on Laura Ingalls Wilder is an honor. The vintage botanical illustrations, original artwork by Garth Williams, historic photos, maps, ads, current day photos like my three and more make this volume a work of art.

There is much to learn therein, much to appreciate. So for all of you Laura fans out there, take note. You’ll want to add The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books to your collection.

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary copy of this book and was paid for publication of my three photos.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Laura Ingalls Wilder wannabes February 13, 2015

Portrait #7: Laura Look-A-Likes

 

Portrait 7, Laura look-alikes

 

THESE ARE THE FACES of contestants in a July 2013 Laura Look-A-Like Contest in Walnut Grove, Minnesota childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The girls lined up for a photo to be published in the local newspaper. The rest of us, including lots of proud parents and this proud aunt, snapped away. That’s my niece on the left, come here from North Dakota.

Laura fans travel from all over the country, and even the world, to pay homage to Laura and her Little House books. So, just to be clear, these are not all Minnesota faces featured here.

But these girls, some clutching Laura and Charlotte (Laura’s rag doll) dolls, portray the pioneer spirit. They adore Laura and her books. Or perhaps it’s the TV series, Little House on the Prairie, they adore.

They remind me of me. I grew up about 25 miles from Walnut Grove in Vesta, where an elementary teacher read the entire Little House series to her students during an after lunch reading period. This was long before the television show and long before Walnut Grove residents realized the importance of Laura to their community.

February marks an important month for Laura fans. The author was born on February 7, 1867, and died on February 10, 1957.

Perhaps you noticed on February 7 that Google featured Laura and her sister Mary in a prairie scene. Twins Jack and Holman Wang of Canada created that Google banner through the process of needle felting, basically sculpting the sisters from wool. (Click here to learn more.)

Besides the Google gig, Laura is also back in the news with the recent release of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. The South Dakota Historical Society Press clearly underestimated the interest in this book with an initial press run of 15,000. Now in its third printing, the book is currently out of stock and will begin shipping again in March. I’m sure many a Little House fan is waiting for the title.

Laura seems as popular today as she did decades ago, when I imagined myself as a pioneer girl on the prairie.

This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, published every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In which I meet a Wisconsin blacksmith November 13, 2014

DARKNESS AND RED-HOT HEAT and banging of metal against metal…

T-C Latane, 412 Second Street in Pepin, Wisconsin.

T-C Latane, 412 Second Street in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Memories of accompanying my farmer father to the blacksmith shop in my hometown of Vesta flash through my mind as I step into the shop of Tom Latané in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Blacksmith Tom Latane talks about his craft  in the front part of his shop. Behind him are examples of his work.

Blacksmith Tom Latane talks about his craft in the front part of the shop he shares with his wife, Catherine. Behind him are examples of his work. Several artisans sells their wares here.

My husband and I have stopped here on a mid-week October afternoon during a brief get-away. By chance, we have found this life-long blacksmith in his shop where anvils and vises, buckets and axe and tools of the trade crowd the brick-floored space.

Tom splits wood in the area where he blacksmiths.

Tom splits wood in the area where he blacksmiths.

While Tom rapid-splits wood for a forge fire, I scan this grimy room with a good luck horseshoe clamped on brick above a neatly lined shelf of corralled chisels.

Hardware crafted by Tom.

Hardware crafted by Tom.

Tom also works with wood, sometimes combining wood and metal in pieces.

Tom also works with wood, sometimes combining wood and metal in pieces.

Tom created this candleholder.

Tom created this candleholding masterpiece.

Standing here in this time, in this place, with a man practicing the aged craft of blacksmithing seems almost surreal. But Tom has been doing this all his adult life, relocating from Maryland to open his Pepin shop in 1983 with his wife, Catherine, a tinsmith.

Two of Catherine's cookie cutters.

Two of Catherine’s cookie cutters.

She’s a native of Minnesota, just across the river, and an artist, too, who crafts tin cookie cutters by hand. Catherine is known for her commemorative Laura Ingalls Wilder cookie cutters in a community that each year celebrates its most famous native daughter.

An anvil in Tom's shop.

An anvil in Tom’s shop.

Surely blacksmith shops existed in this area during the late 1860s when Charles and Caroline Ingalls lived with their family in a cabin in the Big Woods near Pepin.

Tom looks the part of a craftsman.

Tom looks the part of a craftsman.

History holds this town. And Tom looks every bit the part of a long ago craftsman, untamed white beard and longish hair and period cap and suspenders giving him the appearance of a historic reenactor. But he is authentic, hand-forging locks, hardware, tools and candle fixtures.

Symbols of the trade for blacksmithing and tin cutting.

Symbols of the trade for blacksmithing and tin cutting.

I almost expect Charles Ingalls to walk in the door.

A sign at the shop.

A sign at the shop.

FYI: For more information about T. & C. Latané, as this couple calls their business, click here. The shop at 412 Second Street in Pepin is open from noon – 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, May – December or by chance.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A peek at Pepin, Wisconsin November 12, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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Closed on an early October weekday afternoon...

Closed on an early October weekday afternoon…

A MONTH AGO, on a weekday afternoon, Pepin, Wisconsin, already appeared battened up for the long winter.

The scene outside of an eatery.

The scene outside of an eatery.

Lovely business signage.

Lovely business signage.

A banner advertised a forthcoming film festival.

A banner advertised a forthcoming film festival.

Lawn chairs stacked. Doors locked. Streets mostly vacant.

Pepin's grocery store.

Pepin’s grocery store.

A general sense of abandonment prevailed in the downtown area along Lake Pepin, although the blacksmith shop happened to be open (watch for a story on that) as was the next door grocery.

Street signage indicates lots of places to stop in Pepin.

Street signage indicates lots of places to stop in Pepin.

I expect had it been a summer weekend, more businesses would have been open and the town bustling.

Across the railroad tracks lies Lake Pepin.

Across the railroad tracks lies Lake Pepin.

But, like many lake communities, life slows when the temperature drops and autumn edges toward winter.

Unlike the museum, which closes in October, A Summer Place Bed and Breakfast

Signage advertises A Summer Place Inn.

In this, the birthplace of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, even her museum has closed for the season.

This is reality in the north land, in a river town that relies significantly on warm weather tourism.

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AND NOW FOR TWO PLACES on the edge of Pepin that were open:

The Country Stop.

The Country Stop of Pepin Country Store.

Villa Bellezza winery.

Villa Bellezza winery.

Beautiful potted flowers outside the winery.

Beautiful potted flowers and plants outside the winery.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Walnut Grove mural bridges cultures July 18, 2013

Rochester artist Greg Wimmer was commissioned to paint this mural last summer in downtown Walnut Grove.

Rochester artist Greg Wimmer was commissioned to paint this mural last summer in downtown Walnut Grove.

MY NEPHEW, ADAM KLETSCHER, who lives and teaches in Walnut Grove, told me to check out the new mural downtown when I recently visited this southwestern Minnesota community. So, after leaving the Family Festival during the town’s annual celebration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I stopped to photograph the 20-foot by 78-foot painting on the east side of Bubai Foods along Main Street.

Being a bit rushed, I failed to photograph the front of the building housing a combination Asian and American food market. And I didn’t have time to go inside and ask questions.

Later I connected with Terry Yang, who moved to Walnut Grove in 2001 from St. Paul, opened the Asian portion of Bubai Foods in 2003 and purchased the American foods side in 2005.

Yang is among the estimated 30 percent of Walnut Grove’s 870 residents of Hmong ethnicity. The Hmong first came to this rural area in 2000, Yang says, to settle in a quiet small town with affordable housing (“We don’t have to lock our houses or cars here,” he says) in a landscape similar to their native Laos.

Walnut Grove is now home to retired Hmong and to young people employed mostly at factories in nearby Marshall, Wabasso and Worthington.

The mural in progress. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

The mural in progress. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

It is that infusion of Laotian immigrants that figured in to the design of the community-supported mural painted last summer by Greg Wimmer of Rochester based Wimmer Illustration and Design with assistance from Adrienne Lobl. Mural sponsors included individuals, local businesses and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.

This snippet of the mural shows Laura Ingalls Wilder as a teacher next to a Hmong woman. To the left is the log bridge spanning Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived in a dug out.

This snippet of the mural shows Laura Ingalls Wilder as a teacher standing next to a Hmong woman. To the left is the log bridge spanning Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived in a sod house.

The painting, Yang says, shows the similarities between Laos and Walnut Grove and also melds the new Hmong culture and the pioneer history of this Minnesota community. For example, Laura Ingalls and a Hmong woman stand side by side, one in a simple lace-collared prairie dress, the other in intricate and colorful traditional celebratory Hmong attire reserved for special occasions like weddings and New Year’s celebrations.

Wimmer worked with the Hmong community, integrating many of their suggestions in to the design. A log bridge spanning Plum Creek, part of an original Ingalls family mural here which had faded and was in need of repair, was incorporated in to the new work and represents the bridging of two cultures, according to the artist.

“My personal opinion is that it (the mural) makes a statement about the changes in the community without saying a word,” Wimmer says.

In the foreground a Hmong man plays a bamboo flute near a rice field as his daughter carries a basket. In the background, a pioneer  busts sod with a an ox and a plow.

In the foreground, left, a Hmong man plays a bamboo flute near a rice field as his daughter carries a basket. In the background, a pioneer busts sod with an ox and a plow.

Yang also references the connections between the two cultures via two farming scenes—of a pioneer man plowing a Minnesota field with an ox, similar to the water buffalo that work the land in Laos, and of a Hmong family near a rice field and shown with a basket for carrying harvested crops from farm to village.

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are part of the painting.

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are part of the painting.

One of the draws to Walnut Grove, Yang says, is the land available for Hmong to plant gardens. Laotian natives, like native Walnut Grove area residents, are connected to the land.

Yang has always felt welcome in southwestern Minnesota and appreciates the mural showcasing the changes in his community, which now includes, he says, “so many races.”

Girls in traditional Hmong dress attended the mural dedication last year.

Girls in traditional Hmong dress attended the mural dedication last year. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

FYI: Hmong dancers will be among entertainers at the Family Festival from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. this Saturday, July 20, at the Walnut Grove City Park as part of the festivities celebrating the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Click here to see the festival schedule.

And click here for more information about other events at the annual celebration.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Greg Wimmer painted this mural in nearby Marshall. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

Greg Wimmer painted this mural in nearby Marshall. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

And Wimmer painted this mural in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

And Wimmer painted this mural in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Greg Wimmer.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling