Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A sober reminder along a recreational trail in Faribault February 16, 2017

SOMETIMES A DEVIATION from the planned can lead to the unexpected. That happened last Sunday afternoon after iced-over trails at River Bend Nature Center prompted Randy and me to walk elsewhere. We chose the Northern Link Trail. Occasional ponding of snow melt covered the ice-free pathway in Faribault’s North Alexander Park. This would work; we were both wearing snow boots.

Stepping from the car, I braced into a brisk wind that whipped across the flat and mostly open terrain along the bank of Faribault Lake, a widening of the Cannon River. Full sunlight and the beautiful bold blue of the river and sky fooled me into thinking this would be a comfortable walk. Only when sheltered in the boughs of windbreak evergreens did I feel any warmth. We cut our walk short because of the cold.

 

minnesota-madd-plaque-98

 

But not before we paused to study an unexpected find. Randy noticed a marker cemented into grass bordering the pathway. It and an adjacent tree honor those injured or killed in drunk driving crashes. The 1989 date led me to believe the Minnesota Mothers Against Drunk Driving plaque was connected to Greg Fette of Faribault. Kim Morrow, Greg’s sister, confirmed that, noting that the death of Tina Johnson of Lonsdale also prompted the marker installation and tree planting. Like Greg, Tina died in 1984. She was 18. Greg was just 16. Both were killed as a result of crashes involving drunk drivers.

Greg died not all that far from the marker site at the intersection of Second Avenue and Minnesota State Highway 3. The driver of the vehicle that struck Greg’s car had a blood alcohol content level of 0.19, according to media reports. He got six months in jail under the Huber law, Kim said. Attitudes toward drunk driving were much different in 1984 than they are today.

After their son’s death, Joyce and Dick Fette worked with Tina’s parents, Nancy and Dennis Johnson, to effect change and create awareness regarding drunk driving. The list of their accomplishments is remarkable as is their tenacity. Joyce remains active in the Rice-Scott Chapter MADD Victim Impact Panel that meets six times annually. Nancy helped found Minnesotans for Safe Driving. Both couples have been honored many times for their efforts.

I admire these parents who, in their grief, actively and vocally took a stand against drunk driving. They have made a difference in Minnesota laws and how we view the problem of drunk driving. And in Faribault, along a recreational trail used by runners and bikers and walkers, this simple plaque serves as a visual reminder of the families affected by the bad choices of others. Because two men chose to drink and drive, Greg and Tina died.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poking around Jim’s shop in Lonsdale August 12, 2015

Jim's Antiques and Collectibles located at 108 Main Street North in Lonsdale, Minnesota.

Jim’s Antiques and Collectibles located at 108 Main Street North in Lonsdale, Minnesota.

JIM McKINNON’s BUSINESS CARD notes that he is the proprietor of Jim’s Antiques and Collectibles. I like that word proprietor. It sounds old-fashioned and cordial. Perfect in a small town like Lonsdale.

Love this sign in Jim's shop.

Love this sign in Jim’s shop.

A sign suspended from a length of twine in Jim’s shop advertises “Thrift within a vintage store.” I like that, too.

A snippet view of Jim's place.

Jim’s business is housed in a small space.

With over a dozen vendors’ goods crammed into an aged building, Jim’s shop requires poking around.

Lots of interesting goods stuffed into this space.

Lots of interesting goods stuffed into this space.

Merchandise layers merchandise. It’s that kind of store, where you have to look, and look again, or you may miss something.

An interesting print...

A print in Jim’s shop.

Jim’s shop is worth a visit as are similar shops in Lonsdale just west of Interstate 35 in southern Minnesota. While I enjoy antique malls in larger communities, I especially delight in small town businesses like those run by proprietors.

BONUS PHOTOS of merchandise in Jim’s shop:

 

Jim's Antiques, Mickey Mouse

 

Jim's Antiques, diaper pail

 

Jim's Antiques, bobbleheads

 

Jim's Antiques, duck decoy

 

Jim's Antiques, Tweety Bird and more

 

Jim's Antiques, rocking horse

 

Jim's Antiques, Mother of Pearl merchandise

 

Jim's Antiques, thermos jug

 

FYI: Click here to read another post about a Lonsdale antique shop.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bingo, bordellos and a shopkeeper named Audre August 11, 2015

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Audre's Attic, 102 Main Street, Suite 6, in Lonsdale is in a mishmash of rooms in a building next to the Lonsdale Chamber of Commerce.

Audre’s Attic, 102 Main Street, Suite 6, is in a mishmash of rooms in a building next to the Lonsdale Area Chamber of Commerce. Shop hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursday – Saturday.

I LOVE A SHOPKEEPER who can talk bingo and bordellos and attempt to persuade me to buy a vintage photo of unknown “relatives” all within the span of about a half hour.

An exterior sign marks Audre's shop.

An exterior sign marks Audre’s shop.

She is Audre, not Audrey, Johnson, owner of Audre’s Attic in Lonsdale. And on a recent Thursday evening, because the farmers’ market was open in this small southern Minnesota community, Audre’s shop was open later than normal. She was, though, about to lock the door when I arrived.

Audre Johnson loves to chat it up with customers. She talks with her hands while she talks. And lovely hands they are, too, with those patriotic red, white and blue polished fingernails.

Audre Johnson loves to chat it up with customers. She talks with her hands while she talks. And lovely hands they are, too, with those patriotic red, white and blue polished fingernails.

About her name. At age ten, when she learned to write cursive, Audrey determined, after an aunt misspelled her name, to drop the “y” and become just Audre. It suits this outspoken and friendly business woman with an engaging sense of humor.

The lamp Audre claims would suit a bordello. She's selling it on consignment for a friend.

The lamp Audre claims would suit a bordello. She’s selling it on consignment for a friend.

When I discovered an ornate lamp displayed on a corner table, Audre suggested it belonged in a bordello. I wondered if I’d heard right. I had, after all, only met this curator of antiques, collectibles and more miscellaneous junque.

The lamp really shown once the overhead light was switched off.

The lamp really shown once the overhead light was switched off.

Then she switched off an overhead light and I understood her thinking.

One of my favorite discoveries in Audre's Attic is this 1950s handcrafted bust. It's not for sale. Audre sold a duplicate, but only after a customer wore her down.

One of my favorite discoveries in Audre’s Attic is this vintage handcrafted bust. It’s not for sale. Audre sold a duplicate, but only after a customer wore her down.

She showed me a vintage hand-painted bust draped with a lace collar and a rabbit pull toy and a child’s toy Singer sewing machine and a rope bed and bingo cards.

Underneath the top bingo card is the bingo card photo frame Audre crafted. And below that is a notebook where customers can jot down items they are searching for.

Underneath the stack of bingo cards is the bingo card photo frame Audre crafted. And below that is a notebook where customers can jot down items they are searching for.

About those bingo cards. A friend told her selling gambling related merchandise is illegal. True or not, Audre wasn’t gambling. She cut a bingo card into a frame, inserted a photo and, ta-da, she’s selling a picture frame.

The sales tag on this vintage photo reads, "Need relatives?"

The sales tag on this vintage photo reads, “Need relatives?”

Despite her best efforts, Audre did not persuade me to purchase a framed sepia photo of a handsome couple. I told her I already had enough family.

Audre's office and display space merge in this room.

Audre’s office and display space merge in this room.

And that’s how things flowed, with Audre inserting wit into conversation like we were long-time friends rather than two women who’d just met.

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BONUS PHOTOS of select merchandise in Audre’s Attic:

 

Audre's Attic, hat on yellow head

 

Audre's Attic, jump rope

 

Audre's Attic, dollhouse

 

Audre's Attic, hallway displays

 

Audre's Attic, bowls

 

Audre's Attic, horse

 

Audre's Attic, sign on floor

 

FYI: Check back for photos from Jim’s Antiques and Collectibles, another Lonsdale shop I visited.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A glimpse of small town Lonsdale August 10, 2015

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Hardware stores, like this one in downtown Lonsdale, are important businesses in many small towns.

Hardware stores, like this one in downtown Lonsdale, are important businesses in many small towns.

EVERYBODY KNOWS EVERYBODY,” so claims a Lonsdale resident in a promotional video on the city’s website. That’s believable in this community of 3,800 located just off Interstate 35 in northwestern Rice County.

Jim's Antiques and Collectibles is among several similar shops in the downtown.

Jim’s Antiques and Collectibles is among several similar shops along Main Street.

On a recent Thursday evening, my husband, son and I drove into Lonsdale, circled through the Main Street and back and then parked in front of an antique store. This small town boasts 100 businesses. Not that you’re going to see a major downtown with lots of shops. There are some. But that number also includes the business park.

Sidewalk signage directs shoppers to several downtown businesses.

Sidewalk signage directs shoppers to several downtown businesses.

The city website also cites 11 city parks and two nature preserves in Lonsdale. I expect those get heavy usage not only from long-time locals but also from those who moved here for affordable housing and a short commute to the nearby Twin Cities metro.

A sign in a storefront window identifies a business.

A sign in a storefront window identifies a business.

Yes, Lonsdale is also known as a bedroom community, a major shift from the town’s root population of Czech immigrants living on the west side of town and Irish on the east. That was back in 1903 when the town was founded.

A front window in Jim's Antiques.

A front window in Jim’s Antiques.

Those ethnic roots remain strong today. You needn’t look far to find descendants of those early families like Skluzacek, Kuchinka, Sevcik…

More handcrafted signage.

More handcrafted signage.

And you needn’t look far to determine that Lonsdale remains, at heart, still a small town.

FYI: Join me tomorrow as I take you inside Audre’s Attic in downtown Lonsdale. The following day, I will show you Jim’s Antiques and Collectibles.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling