Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Owatonna: The legend of a princess & healing waters November 5, 2020

Note: The following post has been in my “drafts” since May. Time to publish this, as it appropriately themes to healing.


The statue of Princess Owatonna in Mineral Springs Park dates to the early 1930s.


LEGEND GOES THAT PRINCESS OWATONNA experienced restored health by drinking the curing waters of Minnewauan.


Princess Owatonna and her story, a park focal point.


The story of the princess, and a statue of her, center Mineral Springs Park in Owatonna, a place defined by water. Springs. Maple Creek. And a man-made waterfall.


Randy climbs a steep stairway to the top of a wooded hillside.


When we visited in mid May, apple blossoms were budding and blooming.


It was such a lovely May day to be out and about.


On a Friday afternoon in May, Randy and I stopped by the park to take in the art, the legend, the beauty of the water and apple blossoms, and simply nature.


Maple Creek, spanned by several bridges in the park.


Water streams from a pipe along the river bank.


Gracing Mineral Springs Park, a beautiful man-made waterfall constructed in the early 1970s.


During a previous visit, I drank cold spring water from a fountain. But on this day, no water bubbled up. Instead, water streamed from a nearby pipe, flowed in the creek and cascaded down the waterfall.


More history on a monument in Mineral Springs Park.


The park on this weather-perfect afternoon proved busy. But not too busy that we felt uncomfortable or crowed. Everyone respected everyone and social-distanced.


Another view of Maple Creek, which winds through Mineral Springs Park.


In 1875, Owatonna Mineral Springs Company formed with the spring water served for many years on railroad dining cars, according to the City of Owatonna website. One can only imagine the refreshing taste of that water sourced from this place in southern Minnesota, this place where Princess Owatonna, daughter of Chief Wabena, once found healing. So the legend goes…







While walking around Mineral Springs Park, we found these messages on stones and a shell left in the park.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Annie Mary still remembers me on Halloween October 31, 2014

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THAT ANNIE MARY TWENTE is getting a tad forgetful is to be expected. She would, after all, be 134 years old if she had lived past age six.

The little girl from Hanska was buried alive in October 1886 after presumably falling into a coma and thought dead by her parents. But she wasn’t. Dead, that is.

Stories featured in Ghostly Tales of Southwest Minnesota.

Stories featured in Ghostly Tales of Southwest Minnesota include “Annie Mary’s Restless Spirit.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

As this southwestern Minnesota ghost story goes, Annie’s father went a bit mad after exhuming his daughter’s body and finding scratch marks inside her coffin and locks of hair pulled from Annie’s head.

I can only imagine. The very thought of burying one’s child alive would make anyone crazy.

I first learned of Annie Mary more than 30 years ago, when I lived in a community near Hanska. My Aunt Marilyn grew up hearing the story from her mother, Stella, who grew up just across the lake from the Richard Twente farm.

So when I moved to St. James, near Hanska, my aunt reminded me that I now lived in Annie Mary’s backyard. She told me about the fenced cemetery with the lone gravestone and somewhere in her storytelling Marilyn mentioned Annie swinging in a swing knotted to a tree branch. Legends seem to take on a life of their own, meaning it’s often difficult to separate fact from fiction.

A card I received from Annie Mary on a past Halloween.

A card I received from Annie Mary on a past Halloween. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But one fact remains constant. Every year for about the past thirty, I’ve received a Halloween card from the little girl who was buried alive. It’s always signed ANNIE MARY in an awkward childish print of block letters.

Up until this year, Annie also wrote, “I MISS YOU!” That always sent shivers up my spine, even though I don’t believe in ghosts and knew my Aunt Marilyn had penned the message. This year she forgot the “I MISS YOU!” part.

But she made up for the omission by finding a card with a bare branched tree shadowed in the background inside a fence. And when I look closely, I swear I see the face of a little girl and a swing dangling from a branch.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald lives on February 11, 2014

DECADES AGO WHILE TOURING an open iron ore pit on Minnesota’s Iron Range with my parents and perhaps a sibling or two, I met a sailor. Red. His nickname was attributed to his rust-hued hair and beard.

He was a hulk of a young man, crammed into a seat with me on a school bus that bumped down a rugged road into the bowels of the earth.

I honestly do not remember much about Red except that hair and his job laboring on a ship that sailed Lake Superior. We likely talked about the mammoth trucks in the pit. I told him I would be starting college soon and we exchanged addresses.

That fall of 1974, Red sent a few letters, tucked inside official Great Lakes Carriers’ Association envelopes. I can’t recall the content of that correspondence and I soon forgot about Red as I immersed myself in college life.

The Edmund Fitzgerald stretched more than two football fields long. This photo is among many shown in a presentation by diver Jim Christian.

The Edmund Fitzgerald stretched two football fields long. This photo is among many shown in a presentation by diver Jim Christian at the Rice County Historical Society.

Yet, I never really have forgotten him, because of The Edmund Fitzgerald, the iron ore carrier which sank in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, during a fierce storm. I’ve often wondered whether Red may have been on board that ship. Not likely. But the slight possibility exists.

This past Sunday, I thought about Red for the first time in decades when I attended a presentation on The Edmund Fitzgerald at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault. The event coincides with The Merlin Players’ Valentine’s Day opening of the play, Ten November, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

Christina Schweitz, second from left, says is is "an honor" to perform as one of The Three Sisters in The Merlin Players' play, Ten November.

Christina Schweitz, second from left, says it is “an honor” to perform as one of The Three Sisters in The Merlin Players’ play, Ten November. She is flanked by the other “sisters,” Lisa Quimby, left, and Gail Kaderlik.

Inspired by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the theatrical production is filled with humor and compassion and heartwarming tales, according to performer Lisa Quimby. She was among five musicians—three of them female singers—presenting several songs at Sunday’s museum event. The women represent “The Three Sisters,” a trio of waves, each wave larger than the previous and sometimes cited as a contributing factor to the ship’s sinking.

We were shown a half-hour version of this one-hour documentary for sale at the historical society.

We were shown a shortened version of this PBS documentary available for purchase at the historical society.

Diver Jim Christian gestures as he provides information on the iron ore carrier and theories on why it sank.

Diver Jim Christian gestures as he provides information on the iron ore carrier and theories on what caused The Fitz to sink.

Based on information I gleaned Sunday after watching The Edmund Fitzgerald Investigations—a half-hour PBS documentary by Ric Mixter—and a presentation by Minnesotan Jim Christian, who has been diving for 28 years and has explored The Fitz wreckage, I wonder if anyone will ever truly know the precise cause of this tragedy.

Newspaper clippings about The Fitz were passed among audience members while Jim Christian spoke.

Newspaper clippings about The Fitz were passed among audience members while Jim Christian spoke. The ship was built in 1958.

Twenty-nine men aboard The Edmund Fitzgerald lost their lives in the stormy waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. That is a fact.

Some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, like these, filled the cargo holds of The Edmund Fitzgerald as it journeyed across Lake Superior on November 9 and 10, 1975.

Some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, like these, filled the cargo holds of The Edmund Fitzgerald as it journeyed across Lake Superior on November 9 and 10, 1975.

Winds on that fateful day were described as “hurricane” force with a gale warning issued during the time the 729-foot long by 75-foot wide carrier was en route from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, with 26,000 tons of taconite pellets. The ship, loaded with 15 percent more than its originally designed maximum carrying capacity, according to Christian, rode low in the water while storm waves rose to 70 feet. Can you imagine?

Around 7:15 p.m. on November 10, The Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared. The wreckage was later discovered 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, and has been the focus of many dives and investigations since.

The legend lives on, as does that connection many of us have to The Edmund Fitzgerald, whether through song or theatre or diving or letters written decades ago by a sailor named Red.

Another photo from Jim Christian's presentation shows the 729-foot long Edmund Fitzgerald.

Another photo from Jim Christian’s presentation shows the 729-foot long Edmund Fitzgerald.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE THEORIES offered during Sunday’s presentation as contributing to/cause of The Fitz sinking in Lake Superior in the gales of November 1975. Seas then were termed by a skipper as “the worst (he’d experienced) in 44 years on the lake.”

  • Leaking hatch covers caused by failure to tighten each of the 68 clasps on each of the 21 hatch covers.
  • Mesh screens, rather than watertight walls, separated the three cargo holds.
  • An inability to turn the carrier with three “seas” coming at the ship from three directions.
  • “Beat by the lake” during the fierce storm.
  • The Three Sisters theory of wave building upon wave, overtaking the carrier and causing the cargo to shift forward.
  • Flaws in structural design with weakness in the cargo capacity and too much flex in a ship that was ridden “too hard.”
  • Structural failure of the ship, built in 1958 and the largest carrier on Lake Superior for nearly two decades.
  • Pushing the ship too fast, causing The Fitz and its companion traveler, The Arthur M. Anderson (which made it through the storm), to feel the full fury of the storm.
  • Previous damage to the carrier during grounding and collisions with another ship and with lock walls. The keel had been repaired twice and was termed as “loose again” when The Fitz set sail on November 9.
  • Loaded with too much taconite, causing the ship to ride low in Lake Superior.
  • Negligence.

You can choose to believe what you wish. I’d suggest you do your own research.

This fact I know, though: The legend lives on…

The Paradise Center for the Arts marquee advertises the opening of Ten November.

The Paradise Center for the Arts marquee advertises the opening of Ten November.

FYI: To learn more about The Edmund Fitzgerald, click here to read information on the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website.

Performances of Ten November by The Merlin Players are set for 7:30 p.m. February 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22 and for 2 p.m. February 16 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Click here for more information about this play directed by Eric Parrish, a seasoned director and a professor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The ghost of Annie Mary Twente continues to haunt me October 30, 2010

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I LOVE MY EXTENDED family, even when they continue, for decades, to haunt and taunt me.

Now, they will never admit it, but I determined long ago that my Aunt Marilyn, and now her daughter Dawn, are the perpetrators, the instigators, the whatever-you-want-to-call-them, behind a Halloween tradition.

You see, for years I’ve received a Halloween card from the ghost of Annie Mary Twente, a 6-year-old who fell into a coma and was buried alive in Albin Township near Hanska in 1886. Legend goes that Annie’s father had his daughter’s body exhumed and found scratch marks inside the girl’s coffin where she tried to claw her way out.

That tale is enough to scare anyone. For some reason, I once told my aunt that I detested this macabre story. I think that was around the time I lived and worked as a newspaper reporter in St. James, near Hanska. She’s never forgotten.

I have no clue how long Marilyn searches for the perfect Halloween card. But she always manages to come up with an appropriate greeting befitting of Annie Mary. Because of copyright laws, I can’t quote card verses here. But the image on the front of this year’s card (the one from Marilyn) shows two glowing jack-o-lanterns atop a fence in the diminishing light of early evening. As I study the photo, I am reminded of the fence that surrounded Annie’s grave. (Her remains have since been moved to the Alexandria area.) Spooky.

As varied as the cards are each year, I can always be assured that Marilyn/Annie will pen the same message in her childish block print: “I MISS YOU! ANNIE MARY.” Clearly, at six, she never learned cursive.

As if one Halloween card from the little ghost girl isn’t enough, for the first time this year, I received a second greeting. That arrived this morning with a nice little message that Annie Mary is thinking of me. How thoughtful.

For years, I anticipated this unsettling Halloween greeting. But I never expected the haunting to extend beyond October. Last December, though, Annie Mary sent me a Christmas book about mice and a plastic mouse that pooped candy and wished me a “Merry Christmouse!”



Annie Mary sent me this mouse last Christmas.


For gosh sakes, I didn’t need Annie Mary knowing that I hate mice. But, somehow, she learned this invaluable information. Just last week an unexpected package arrived from AM (Annie Mary). Honestly, I was afraid to open the darned thing. So I pushed and prodded, suspected a mouse trap, peeked quickly inside and then threw the envelope at my second-born.

She pulled out two tiny sticky gray rubber mice, a flashing skeleton head pin and CHUCKLES candy. Ha. Ha. Very funny, cousin Dawn, uh, I mean Annie Mary.



I did not welcome this Halloween gift from Annie Mary.


I suppose you’re wondering why I dislike mice so much. Let’s see. Would a mouse cavorting in the silverware drawer or floating in a crockpot spook you? Or how about getting stuck in your in-laws’ bathroom with a mouse in the dead of night when you’re six months pregnant? Yes, all three horrible mouse encounters happened to me.

With enough living (and dead) mice in my life, I certainly don’t need Annie Mary mailing replicas to remind me of all that real-life mouse horror.

Oh, and I haven’t even told you that the ghost child blemished Valentine’s Day last year by sending me not one, but two, valentine cards.



Valentine greetings from Annie Mary. Which is authentic?


So…, I’m wondering if you had relatives like mine, who feign innocence about any and all communications from Annie Mary Twente, what would you do? Would you still claim them as your family members? Or…, would you try somehow to get even?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling