Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sisters share their gratitude & thoughts two weeks after a fatal fire December 18, 2013

Bernadette and Hazel with their Minnie Mouses barely showing in this image. Photo courtesy of Mary DeCann Benson.

Bernadette and Hazel with their Minnie Mouses barely showing in this image. Photo courtesy of Mary DeCann Benson.

I FEEL EMOTIONALLY OVERWHELMED by the sisters’ words. For, in the midst of losing Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, in a December 4 fire that destroyed the younger sister’s house near Lucan in rural southwestern Minnesota, they are thanking those who rallied to help.

Admitting that she is still in a “fog,” Bernadette Thooft says her family—including husband, Matt, and five surviving children—is “extremely grateful for the outpouring of love and support we have been shown and continue to be shown. I do not know if this makes sense or not, but we are overwhelmed by grief and pain and then are getting overwhelmed by love and support. In this horrifying time, God’s glory is shining through and we feel blessed by this.”

Heartfelt, faith-filled words written by a mother enduring a tragedy no parent ever wants to face.

Bernadette’s sister and godmother to Hazel Anne, Mary DeCann Benson of Texas, praises the efforts of volunteer emergency response teams from surrounding communities and then shares an especially touching moment: “That you (responders) found Hazel’s favorite pink Minnie Mouse in the ruins of the fire, cleaned it up, and returned it to Bernadette and Matt speak volumes as to how much of yourselves you give to the members of your communities. We will forever be grateful.”

She is appreciative, too, of family friend, Jennifer Christensen Zollner, who “worked around the clock” as a primary organizer and family liaison, and to the residents of neighboring communities for their generous love, support and prayers. Two days after the fire, the family moved into a fully furnished house in Wabasso. Accounts have been established online and at a Lucan bank to help the Thoofts. As of late Tuesday afternoon, 253 donations of just over $17,000 have been made to the Thooft family’s Giveforward fundraiser.

Mary offers a glimpse into the loving home in which Hazel and Isaiah and their five siblings have been raised. That consoles me, to hear that Bernadette and Matt “live their lives and raise their children by four guiding principles: God, family, community, self, in that order.”

“In a world that so often values the tangible,” Mary continues, “they have taught their children that the real beauty and value of life comes not from what you own, but from what you experience and most importantly, those you experience it with.”

Her sister and family dine together every evening, pray before meals and thank God at the close of each day for their daily blessings.

Then I laugh when Mary shares details of the Thoofts’ Sundays, designated as their “Family Day.” After church, Matt prepares pancakes for the kids, “dirtying way too many dishes” and leaving Bernadette to follow behind grumbling that “Dad needs to learn to clean as you go.”

I can visualize that big happy family gathering for pancakes and then later, as Mary notes, doing something special together. Extended family knows not to call on Sundays because their calls will go unanswered and unreturned until Monday.

Isaiah Thooft. Photo source: Stephens Family Funeral Home.

Isaiah Thooft. Photo source: Stephens Funeral Service.

Bernadette also planned special mother-daughter days with Hazel each month. And after the Thoofts adopted Isaiah, they changed his middle name to Matthew, after his new daddy. It is not lost on me that the name Matthew means “gift from God.”

In the thoughtful insights Mary reveals to me, I am consoled knowing that second grader Hazel and preschooler Isaiah knew Jesus and were embraced by a family that loved them deeply.

“Bernadette and Matt are not perfect parents and they would not appreciate me trying to make them out to be anything more than two people struggling to do their best on a daily basis,” Mary says. “They are good people, suffering a loss that most of us can never come close to understanding and they would be the first to say that they hope the rest of us will never have to.”

FYI: To learn how you can assist the Thooft family and Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen, who was seriously injured after being run over by a fire truck on the scene, please click here.

And to read more of Mary DeCann Benson’s thoughts, please click here and scroll down to the comments section, number 9.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Mourning Hazel and Isaiah, siblings who perished in a rural Minnesota house fire December 12, 2013

THE WORDS WRENCH at my heart as I read them. Words of consolation from family and friends attempting to comfort Matt and Bernadette Thooft, who lost two of their children in a house fire on Wednesday, December 4, near Lucan in my native southwestern Minnesota.

Anita Schoniger comments on the Stephens Funeral Service obituary page for the Thooft children: Auntie Nut loves you to the moon and back Miss Hazel Ann and my little Isaiah.

Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, died in the fire.

Beautiful babies…special angels…a happy little boy with a big smile…

A mother who’s lost a child writes: People say time heals all wounds, but honestly in this situation I’ve learned that time doesn’t heal that empty feeling you have in your heart, it just makes each day easier to get out of bed.

Such heartfelt words written by those who knew, or didn’t know, Hazel and Isaiah, their parents and five siblings, Zachary, 11; Augustus, Hazel’s twin; Maxwell and Abigail, both 4; and Beatrice Grace, 2.

On Friday, the lives of Hazel and Isaiah will be remembered and celebrated at funeral services set for 10:30 a.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Wabasso. Visitation is scheduled at the church for 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday and for an hour prior to services Friday.

Hazel Thooft

Hazel Thooft

Reading the obituaries of these two siblings, I smile at the independence of Hazel, who often wore mismatched outfits and several shirts at a time. This St. Anne’s Catholic School second grader liked doing things her own way, embraced art and dancing and singing. She loved school and reading and, it seems to me, simply being among people.

Isaiah Thooft

Isaiah Thooft

Her younger brother Isaiah, likewise, loved people and laughter and possessed a bit of a mischievous streak. You can see that in his wide grin, in the revelation that this Wabasso Public School preschooler liked to play tricks on others. He, too, enjoyed books and several times a week visited the library. A boy after my own heart, appreciating the written word.

Both children, clearly, were outgoing and loved.

I cannot imagine a grief as deep as losing a child.

I take comfort in knowing that the Thooft family possesses a deep faith in God. It is that faith and the support of family, friends and strangers, and of the small communities of southwestern Minnesota, which will carry them through their grief.

Already, the Thoofts have received an outpouring of financial and emotional support via Giveforward accounts set up to assist them. As of early Wednesday evening, 232 donations totaling around $15,000 had been made to the family. First Independent Bank of Lucan and the United Way of Southwest Minnesota are also accepting donations. Click here to learn details about how you can donate.


JUST A NOTE: The Thoofts own two businesses, Matt’s Frame Repair and The Store (which I blogged about in March), in my hometown of Vesta. That is among the reasons this tragedy touches me personally. According to an update posted on The Store Facebook page yesterday morning, the combination thrift and grocery store which Bernadette ran solo will remain closed until further notice.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo credit: Stephens Funeral Service


How you can assist two families in need after a tragic southwestern Minnesota fire December 6, 2013

2:15 P.M. FRIDAY, UPDATE TWO: The two children who died in the house fire Wednesday afternoon near Lucan have been identified by a family friend as Hazel Thooft, 7, and her brother, Isaiah, 4, according to a just-published story in The Minneapolis Star Tribune. (To read that story, click here.) Hazel was a second grader at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Wabasso and Isaiah attended preschool in the Wabasso School District.

The Wabasso Public School District is where I attended school in grades 9-12.

The remainder of this post was written this morning with information on benefit funds also just updated.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an update to my post about a house fire outside of Lucan in Redwood County in rural southwestern Minnesota which claimed the lives of two children Wednesday afternoon and also seriously injured a firefighter from my hometown of Vesta. Click here to read my initial story.

THE BODY OF A SECOND CHILD, as yet unidentified, was recovered late Thursday afternoon from the ruins of the Bernadette and Matt Thooft home, according to numerous news reports. Authorities found the first child’s body late Wednesday. Their names and ages have not yet been released.

Bernadette and Matt and several children escaped the fire.

A Vesta firefighter, Neal Hansen, remains hospitalized with serious leg injuries after he slipped on ice and was run over by a fire truck.

Online fundraising sites have now been established to raise monies for the Thooft and Hansen families.

Giveforward Thooft family - Copy

Via the Giveforward website, you can support the Thoofts either at Thooft Family Fund (click here) with a $25,000 goal or at Lucan Family loss from house fire (click here) with a $30,000 goal. As of this update, $8,030 have been raised.

First Independent Bank of Lucan has established a fund to collect monetary donations for the Thooft family. Checks should be made payable to and sent to the following address: Matt & Bernadette Thooft Benefit, P.O. Box 138, Lucan, MN. 56255. Donations may also be made in person at First Independent Bank locations in Lucan, Marshall (main bank and at Walmart location), Russell, Ruthton, Balaton, Wood Lake, Beardsley and Hanley Falls. Call (888) 747-2214 or email rhillesheim@fibmn.com for more information.

The United Way of Southwest Minnesota, 109 South 5th St., Suite 300, Marshall, MN., 56258, is also helping the Thooft family. The organization is accepting donations of gift cards and of clothing, toiletries and non-perishable food items. Additionally, the family will need furniture. Contact the United Way with information on the furniture you have available. When the family is ready to accept that furniture, volunteers will pick up and deliver the items. Email unitedway@unitedwayswmn.org or call (507) 929-2273.

The American Red Cross assisted the family with immediate needs, too.

Giveforward Hansen family - Copy

Fundraising efforts also continue online at Giveforward for the injured Vesta volunteer firefighter at Neal Hansen Benefit. Click here to help Neal and Tiffany, the parents of a two-year-old son. The campaign, as of this update, has raised $4,530, surpassing its $3,000 goal.

This tragedy has weighed heavy on my heart. I met the Thooft family in March when I stopped at Bernadette’s new business, The Store, a combination thrift shop and grocery store in my hometown of Vesta, population around 320. New businesses do not open all that often in this rural community, so I was excited and blogged about this in my post, “Little General Store on the Prairie”. (Click here to read.) Right next door, Bernadette’s husband runs Matt’s Frame Repair.

I was especially delighted to meet Bernadette, a woman with a big heart. I instantly warmed to her outgoing personality and sense of humor. She affectionately dubbed her seven children “the hoodlums” in the most loving way. Several of the youngest kids were showing off for me and posing for photos while I interviewed Bernadette. Now, to think…

Please, give to either/both of these families if you can and support them in prayer. Also, spread the word via social media.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


One child dies, another missing & a fireman injured in a farmhouse fire near my hometown December 5, 2013

I AM GRIEVING from a distance for two young children who apparently died in a house fire Wednesday afternoon near Lucan in my native southwestern Minnesota. The body of one child was recovered late Wednesday evening and one child remains missing.

The fire engulfed the home of Bernadette and Matt Thooft who escaped along with several of their children.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store.

Bernadette Thooft poses for a photo in March 2013 in her general store.

I met the Thooft family last March in my hometown of Vesta, where Matt runs Matt’s Frame Repair and Bernadette operates a combination grocery and thrift store next door. I featured Bernadette’s new business, The Store, in a “Little General Store on the Prairie” blog post published March 27. (Click here to read.)

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

The Store: Thrift and More. March 2013 Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

It’s not like I really knew the family in any great depth. But in the short time I spent with Bernadette, I learned enough to understand that this former daycare provider possesses a deep love for children. She and Matt had seven, ranging in age (in March) from not quite two to 11. They even built a hang-out space for the kids in a corner of The Store.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

The Thoofts make a faith statement in this sign which points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

Bernadette also possesses a deep faith and concern for others. This caring woman donates 10 percent of The Store proceeds to charity and established “Believe in the Backpack,” a backpack program for children in foster care. The Thoofts were former licensed foster care providers.

At the time of our interview, Bernadette fondly tagged her children “the hoodlums” in that kind and loving way that only a mom can.

It breaks my heart that this mother may have lost two of her children. It should be noted that authorities have not yet released information on the ages or identities of the children who did not escape the fire.

The Thoofts lived in a six-bedroom farmhouse on eight acres just 1.5 miles northeast of Lucan. They were in the process of trying to sell their property, according to information on The Store Facebook page. Plans were to relocate to my hometown of Vesta, seven miles to the north.

Vesta firefighters were among volunteers from eight area small town fire departments battling the blaze in harsh winter weather conditions.

That's Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen to the left behind the table, photographed at the Vesta Fire Department  Pork Chop Feed in March.

That’s Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen standing to the left behind the table, photographed at the Vesta Firemen’s Relief Association Pork Chop Supper in March.

THEREIN LIES THE SECOND PORTION of this tragic story. Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen’s legs were run over by a fire truck after he slipped on ice, according to numerous news sources. He was severely injured and underwent surgery at a Mankato hospital. Initially, he was taken to the Redwood Falls Hospital, but could not be airlifted out because of high winds and snowy conditions at the time, KLGR radio reports.

If you wish to help with expenses for Neal and Tiffany Hansen, both volunteer EMTs for the Vesta First Responders and the parents of a 2-year-old son, please click here and donate through the Hansens’ Giveforward page. By 8 p.m. Thursday, 75 donors had contributed $3,685 to the fund, surpassing the $3,000 goal.

Contributors Ryan and Christie Rudenick commented on the Giveforward page:

Thank you and to all the volunteer firemen, in small, tight knit communities like we have it is even harder to be on call and see horrific things happen to our friends and communities–you and all firemen are heroes!

Volunteer firemen remove the windshield from a junk car.

Vesta volunteer firemen remove the windshield from a junk car during a Jaws of Life demonstration in March of 2013 in my hometown of Vesta.

I ditto the Rudenicks’ “thank you.” With extended family members on two of the volunteer fire departments called to the Lucan farmhouse fire, I have a personal connection to these firefighters. My 29-year-old nephew, Adam, a father and elementary school teacher, responded to the fire with the Walnut Grove Fire Department.

Last winter I met several other Vesta firemen while attending a fire department fundraiser. You can click here to read that post.

Imagine the emotional impact this fatal fire is having on these volunteer firefighters from eight communities.

I expect know that the residents of Vesta and Lucan and surrounding areas will rally to assist the Hansen and Thooft families via prayer, emotional support, financial help and community benefit fundraisers. I’ll update you if a benefit is established for the Thoofts. Nothing beats the neighborly care found within small towns like Vesta, population 320, and Lucan, population 190.

This is not the first time the Thooft family has faced difficulties. In April 2008, the Thoofts’ then 6-year-old son, Zachary, was struck by a school bus after being dropped off at his rural home, according to an article in The Marshall Independent. He recovered from those injuries.

And now this, this deadly fire at their home…

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


If only Jesse James had been a beer farmer September 8, 2011

Another craft beer, James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale, made right here in Minnesota honors the defeat of the James-Younger Gang during an 1876 bank robbery in Northfield.

CRAFT BEER LOVERS, here’s a new beer for you, James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale, a limited-edition beer selling this week during Northfield’s annual Defeat of Jesse James Days. Proceeds from beer sales will benefit the Northfield Historical Society.

Now I’m no beer connoisseur, but my husband and I like to try specialty beers such as James-Younger. He bought a six-pack a few weeks ago at Firehouse Liquor in Dundas. While this rye ale doesn’t suit our homogenized taste buds, I’m certain it will appeal to plenty of other folks.

That all said, if you pick up some James-Younger ale, I want you to turn the bottle on its side and read the small print: “Brewed and bottled for Bank Beer Co. by Brau Brothers Brewing Co. LLC. Lucan, MN

OK, then, about Lucan—it’s a town of 220 residents in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota and about five miles from the farm where I grew up. I think it would be accurate to say that Brau Brothers Brewing has put Lucan on the map with its award-winning beers.

As for the Braus, they are three brothers and a Dad who produce craft beers like Ring Neck Braun Ale, Moo Joos, Hundred Yard Dash and my personal favorite, Strawberry Wheat.

Since I’m not too knowledgeable about beer stuff, I emailed Brau Brothers CEO and brewer Dustin Brau to inquire about the James-Younger ale. His family-owned business brewed the beer and co-packaged it for Bank Beer Company, a contract brewery based in Hendricks. That town of 725 lies even further west, in Lincoln County only miles from the South Dakota border.

Anyway, Dustin credits Jason Markkula at Bank Beer for the idea, recipe, marketing and distribution of the James-Younger ale. Brau Brothers brewed and bottled the beer.

And because Dustin clearly knows beer, I asked him to describe James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale: “Basically, a rye pale ale. Not crazy hoppy, but just enough. The spice from the rye comes through a bit, reminiscent of pepper.”

As for the rye, well, it comes right from the Brau Brothers’ fields. And, if you check the company’s Facebook page, you’ll read that the Braus tag this growing and harvesting of rye as “beer farming.” You just have to appreciate brewers who think that way.


FYI: You won’t find James-Younger 1876 Rye Ale just anywhere. Look for it in limited supplies in the Northfield area during the Defeat of Jesse James Days, which continues through Sunday.


The Lucan Community Band: A photo essay August 6, 2011

The Lucan Community Band performs outside the Vesta Community Hall during V-Esta Daze.

IF I WOULD HAVE BEEN less concerned about sinking my teeth into grilled chicken at my hometown’s community celebration on a recent Friday evening, I’d know more about the Lucan Community Band.

The band performed from 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. under the shade trees outside the Vesta Community Hall, where diners lined up inside for a sumptuous meal of chicken, potato salad, beans and a dinner roll.

I wiggled my way right into the band section for some close-up photos and even inquired, between selections, about the vintage band music, before going indoors for that chicken dinner.

The music book on the left had a 1939 copyright.

Some of the music comes from the Chatfield Brass Band and Music Lending Library in Chatfield, a band member informed me.

The Lucan Community Band is based in Lucan, seven miles south of Vesta along Redwood County Highway 10. Not all of the band members hail from this town of 220, which is also home to Brau Brothers Brewing. (Check out their beer; Strawberry Wheat is my favorite.)

At least one, Tom Schmid, the tuba player who drew my attention with his German style red hat that differed from all the green caps, hails from Springfield. I snuck in a quick question to Tom. He’s been playing the tuba for only about 10 years, but has been playing an instrument since he was in high school in the 1940s. That’s all the information I got before he planted his lips back on that tuba mouthpiece and I headed into the hall to eat.

Tuba player Tom Schmid, also a member of the Minnesota Over 60 Band.

Schmid's hand on the tuba.

Lucan Community Band members play against a back drop of grain bins damaged in a July 1 windstorm in Vesta. Tractors line the street for the antique tractor show.

The band's play list for their one-hour concert at V-Esta Daze.

Green caps are part of the male band members' attire. Musicians' ages range from the young to senior citizens.

IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING about the history of the Lucan Community Band, its members, how often and where the group performs, submit a comment. I’d like to learn more about the band.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling