Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

 

Walnut Grove offers a kid-friendly festival at annual “Little House” celebration July 17, 2013

Pioneer prairie attire is the dress code of the day for all ages.

Pioneer prairie attire is the dress code of the day for all ages.

THE FAMILY FESTIVAL in Walnut Grove is exactly what you would expect—an event filled with family-friendly activities during the community’s annual celebration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Arts and crafts. Book signings. Pony rides. Laura and Nellie Look-A-Like Contests. Entertainment.

Showing Mom her art.

Showing Mom her art.

Tagging along with my 9-year-old niece, who traveled to southwestern Minnesota with her parents from Grand Forks, North Dakota, for the weekend event, I delighted in all this small town offers to families via the festival. Lots of busy and happy kids here. I’ve forgotten, though, just how quickly elementary aged youth can dart from one activity to the next.

My niece keeps a tight grip on her Laura doll while sifting through corn.

My niece keeps a tight grip on her Laura doll while sifting through corn.

And Beth did just that, with me there to hold her camera and Gatorade, but, thankfully, not her Laura doll, while I also juggled my 35 mm Canon DSLR camera and an over-sized bag. It’s not easy taking photos with your hands full and a mobile niece to watch. I shot at least a few frames one-handed.

Kids, including my niece, right, dig for objects in a tub of corn.

Kids, including my niece, right, dig for objects in a tub of corn.

I managed while observing Beth sift through tubs of corn and soybeans to find hidden objects and then weave among craft stands that held her interest, but not for long. She fingered merchandise at one booth then zoomed to another.

Creating seed art.

Creating seed art.

Earlier she’d created seed art, a craft I remember from my elementary school art days, days in which my teacher read the entire Little House book series to me and my classmates through the course of a school year. I attended school in Vesta, only 25 miles north of Walnut Grove, practically in the backyard of Plum Creek. To this day, the Little House books, and Wilder’s descriptive writing of the prairie landscape (she was the “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary) in the Minnesota-set volumes, remain among my favorite books. I once even penned a poem, “Prairie Sisters,” about my connection to the Little House books and the Ingalls sisters. (See poem at the end of this post.)

Most of the kids' activities are centered in the park shelter.

Most of the kids’ activities are centered in the park shelter.

But back to that Family Festival in Walnut Grove. Before my arrival, my niece punched a horse design onto leather at one of the many activity stations centered in and near a shelter at the city park. This festival is definitely a hands-on experience any kid, and parent, can appreciate.

The pony ride.

The pony ride.

I hoped Beth would ride a pony at the pony ride, but she didn’t follow my hint while under my supervision, opting instead to participate in the Laura Look-A-Like Contest. (You can read about that competition by clicking here.) And that was OK.

All of you parents and grandparents out there with children who are Little House fans, you have two more weekends to wend your way to Walnut Grove for a variety of activities, including the Family Festival from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Saturday, July 20 and 27, in the one-block square city park.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Leather art.

Leather art.

Craft demonstrations, like spinning, are part of the festivities.

Craft demonstrations, like spinning, are part of the festivities.

Tools and materials for crafting beautiful wooden spoons.

Tools and materials for crafting beautiful wooden spoons.

FYI: Click here to learn more about Little House themed events in Walnut Grove during the next two weekends.

AND HERE’S MY PROMISED POEM, published in 2000 in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota:

Prairie Sisters

Laura and Mary splashed their way into my heart
as my fourth grade teacher waded into Plum Creek.
I felt the words sliding across my bare feet,
sticking to me like bloodsuckers between toes.

Prairie sisters, Laura and Mary, and me,
children of the wind and sky, we three.
The words swept me away from the brick walls
of school and of desks in orderly rows.

Across the rich, black soil, heavy with a farmer’s dream,
to Walnut Grove, twenty-five miles south and west,
I joined my prairie sisters on the banks of Plum Creek,
at home with the sweet scent of dark earth.

Together we turned the pages of our lives,
each day a new chapter, a new adventure.
Nellie Oleson, grasshoppers by the millions,
fire wheels and blinding, closed-in blizzards.

Years apart, yet years so close.
Prairie sisters, Laura and Mary, and me.
Rooted to a land that reaches into the soul,
bound forever by words in a book.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder with a Laura Look-A-Like contest & more in Walnut Grove July 16, 2013

The prairie attire of girls entered in the Laura Look-A-Like Contest in Walnut Grove.

The prairie attire of girls entered in the Laura Look-A-Like Contest in Walnut Grove.

CALICO SKIRTS SKIM bare legs. Bonnets brush braids. Charlotte rag dolls tuck into crooks of arms and lunch pails dangle from clenched hands.

Each contestant was asked where she had traveled from, whether she'd visited other "Laura" sites and whether she'd attended the "Wilder Pageant" before drawing a question from a lunch pail.

Each contestant is asked where she traveled from, whether she’s visited other “Laura” sites and whether she’s attended the “Wilder Pageant.” Then each drew a Little House-related question from a lunch pail.

And Laura look-a-likes step up to the microphone during the Laura Look-A-Like Contest Saturday afternoon in Walnut Grove, the southwestern Minnesota childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I am in the city park with my husband and mother to meet my brother-in-law, sister-in-law and their 9-year-old daughter who have driven from North Dakota for this weekend celebration of all things Little House.

My niece's entry number. No, there were not 57 contestants. This is just the identifying number tag she was handed after I paid a $5 entry free and she registered.

My niece’s entry number. No, there were not 57 contestants. This is just the identifying number tag she was handed after I paid a $5 entry free and she registered.

At the last minute, my niece decides to enter the Laura competition and she scrambles to complete an entry form while the other girls are already answering questions about themselves and the Little House books.

My niece considers her randomly drawn question: What's another name for a leech? She got a little help with the answer.

My niece considers her randomly drawn question: What’s another name for a leech? She gets a little help with the answer.

Soon Beth joins the other Lauras on the grass, eventually taking her place in line to move up to the mic. I can sense her nervousness. She momentarily forgets that she lives near Grand Forks and that she’s seen the Wilder Pageant, an outdoor production featuring snippets from the Little House books, the previous evening. She hesitates again after pulling her question—What’s another name for leeches?—from a lunch bucket. (Bloodsuckers would be the answer.)

Pure Laura with bonnets, braids and prairie dresses.

Laura contestants with bonnets, braids and prairie dresses.

I am incredibly proud of Beth for joining the fun. And fun it is to see all of these 8 to 12-year-olds who have journeyed to the prairie from all parts of the country because they appreciate the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Four of the finalists in the Laura Look-A-Like contest. the fifth finalist was found shortly after I took this photo.

Four of the finalists in the Laura Look-A-Like contest. The fifth finalist was found shortly after I took this photo.

Beth doesn’t win the contest and, because of another commitment, we must leave before the top five finalists begin presenting a skit.

The Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park.

The Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park.

But my niece gathers with the other Lauras next to a brick building as the official photographer, along with a contingent of adoring parents, grandparents and at least one proud aunt, photograph the Laura look-a-likes.

If the contestants were chosen solely on which most resembled my image of Laura, it would have been this contestant.

If the contestants were chosen solely on which most resembled my image of Laura, it would have been this girl. She possesses that “look” which seems most like the Laura I imagine from the books.

FYI: Walnut Grove’s annual July celebration of all things Little House continues two more weekends, July 19-20 and July 26-27. The Laura-Nellie Look-A-Like Contest is part of the Family Festival, set again for 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Saturdays, July 20 and 27, in the city park. The Look-A-Like Contest starts at 3 p.m. with prizes based on overall appearance and knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nellie Oleson, Laura’s nemesis.

The Family Festival features an abundance of activities for kids, plus music, re-enactments, arts and crafts, demonstrations of old-time activities, author visits, pony rides and more. I’d highly recommend attending. I’ll show you additional fest images tomorrow.

Other attractions in Walnut Grove include the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, several shops and a mural.

About a mile north of town, visitors can see the site of the Ingalls’ family dug-out along the banks of Plum Creek.

But the highlight for most is the Wilder Pageant, performed Friday and Saturday evenings, beginning at 9 p.m., in an outdoor amphitheater just outside of town. I’ve seen this locally-produced show, which features a horse-pulled covered wagon, a prairie fire and more, several times. It’s outstanding. Four more performances are set for July 19, 20, 26 and 27. I’d recommend reservations. If you are traveling from afar, be aware that you likely will have to travel some distance to find a hotel room. Walnut Grove does not have a hotel and the nearest one in Lamberton is likely already booked. There’s camping at Plum Creek Park, a Redwood County park near the pageant site. But this fills quickly, especially on pageant weekends. Reservations are recommended.

Click here to read more details about the Little House celebration in Walnut Grove.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Far fewer girls competed in the Nellie Oleson Look-A-Like contest. Clearly, few want to role play the mean Nellie. But look how these girls played the haughty role to the hilt.

Far fewer girls competed in the Nellie Oleson Look-A-Like contest. Clearly, few want to role play the mean Nellie. But look how these girls played the haughty Nellie to the hilt as a group photo was taken.

Take two of the Nellie Look-A-Likes.

Take two of the Nellie look-a-likes.

What grandpas won't do for their granddaughters.

What grandpa won’t do for his granddaughter.

Lots of families watched the Laura and Nellie contests and spent hours at the kid-oriented Family Festival in the park.

Lots of families watched the Laura and Nellie contests and spent hours at the kid-oriented Family Festival in the park.

Too young for the Look-A-Like contest, but still outfitted in prairie girl clothing.

Too young for the Look-A-Like Contest, but still outfitted in prairie girl clothing.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling