Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In appreciation of the Sunday afternoon drive: Snapshots from Main Street Waterville September 26, 2016

A recent street scene from small town Waterville, Minnesota.

A man and his dog in a recent street scene from small town Waterville, Minnesota.

SOME MIGHT LAUGH. Others may consider it an activity for old fogies. But I don’t care. I appreciate the Sunday afternoon drive. We all should.

I grew up with the occasional Sunday afternoon drive as a rare diversion from southwestern Minnesota farm life. My siblings and I would pile into the Chevy, Dad behind the wheel, Mom in the front passenger seat. My farmer father would steer the car along rugged township gravel roads, tires kicking a trail of dust. His drive had purpose, focus—to look at the crops.

Today I still study farm fields. But not with the same assessing eye as my dad. My livelihood doesn’t depend on yields from the land.

Still, those semi-leisurely drives taught me something important. They taught me the value of looking and truly seeing, of noticing the details. And they taught me the value of going for a drive.

In the past several years, since we became empty nesters, my husband and I have taken to Sunday (or Saturday) afternoon drives like moths to porch lights. We choose a general direction we want to travel and just go.

A snippet of Waterville's Main Street, including Ron's Hardware, jam-packed with merchandise.

A snippet of Waterville’s Main Street, including Ron’s Hardware Hank, jam-packed with merchandise. You have to see this place to believe it.

A Labor Day drive took us west to the small towns of Elysian and Waterville. We’ve explored both before. But, still there were new details awaiting discovery. I like nothing better than to park the van along the Main Street of a rural community and then walk, camera in hand, documenting the nuances that define a place.

Waterville is the self-proclaimed Bullhead Capitol of the World and celebrates Bullhead Days every June.

Waterville is the self-proclaimed Bullhead Capital of the World and celebrates Bullhead Days every June.

On this day, it was Waterville.

Bullheads Bar & Grill, one of several bars in Waterville.

This low-slung building along Main Street houses Bullhead’s Bar & Grill, one of several bars in Waterville. The name pays tribute to the bullhead, a fish abundant in area lakes.

The food sounds enticing and the prices really reasonable.

The food sounds enticing and the prices reasonable. If I hadn’t just eaten a Sticky Burger (burger with peanut butter and bacon) at Tucker’s Tavern in Elysian…

I appreciate vintage signage like this spotted on a downtown building.

I appreciate vintage signage like this spotted on a downtown building.

Madden's Orchard occupies this corner building next to a community park.

Madden’s Orchard occupies this corner building next to a community park.

And next to the mini park sits this mini building, which is for sale. I peered inside to see a popcorn machine, making this a former popcorn stand.

And next to the mini park sits this mini building, which is for sale. I peered inside to see a popcorn machine, making this a former popcorn stand. What possibilities could you see for this building besides reopening a popcorn stand?

Signage always catches my eyes, especially the vintage signs I often find in small towns.

Signage always catches my eyes, especially the vintage signs I often find in small towns.

Some lovely aged buildings occupy downtown Waterville. This one, left, houses a law office.

Many aged buildings occupy downtown Waterville. This one, left, houses a law office.

I love this simple, bold graphic marking The Cafe.

I love this simple, bold graphic marking The Cafe.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop anchors the corner building next to JC Ryan's Art Gallery. The coffee shop, which I blogged about four years ago, is available for lease. It's named after the

Singing Hills Coffee Shop anchors the corner building next to JC Ryan’s Art Gallery. The coffee shop, which I blogged about four years ago, is available for lease. It’s an inviting shop named after the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, a recreational trail that runs through town from Faribault to Mankato. Waterville is a popular southeastern Minnesota lakeside resort community.

I had a maple bacon sundae when I visited the coffee shop in September 2016. It was closed when I was there this year and, I believe, is closed for the season.

I had a maple bacon sundae when I visited the coffee shop in September 2014. It was closed when I was there this year and, I believe, is closed for the season.

Just walking the dog...

Just walking the dog in downtown Waterville…

You can learn a lot about a small town simply by reading the posters, signs and notices on storefront windows and doors.

You can learn a lot about a small town simply by reading the posters, signs and notices on storefront windows and doors.

TELL ME: Do you take Sunday afternoon drives? If so, why? If not, why not?

FYI: Check back for more photos from Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Part V from Wanamingo: Landmarks & oddities March 28, 2016

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Some of the airport luggage carts still remaining in Wanamingo.

Some of the airport luggage carts still remaining in Wanamingo.

MOST SMALL TOWNS possess oddities and landmarks unique to the community. Wanamingo in Goodhue County is no exception.

A few years back, I spotted row upon row of airport luggage carts parked outdoors in a lot on the north edge of town. It was the oddest sight. Only a small cluster of carts remains now. They’re still a mystery to me.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 47 elementary school

 

I am also intrigued by the massive pipes winding along the roofline of Kenyon-Wanamingo Elementary School. Typically, these heating (I presume) pipes run underground. Why are these atop the roof?

 

Small town Wanamingo, 44 butcher shop sign

 

At Wanamingo Meats and Catering, a hot pink sign and hot pink shutters draw attention to this downtown business owned by two sisters. That explains the pink. Butcher shops aren’t typically owned by women. Customers sing the praises of this business on its Facebook page.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 38 Ringo's sign above bar

 

Downtown, I noticed a bar and grill with a seeming identity crisis. A sign high on the building identifies the business as Ringo’s Bar & Grill. But an over-the-door sign banners J B’s Tavern.

I would love to get inside this aged house, to know its story.

I would love to get inside this aged house, to know its story.

On the north end of Main Street, I photographed a hulking old house with a widow’s walk. Surely there’s a story here. I expect the original owner may have been someone of great importance in Wanamingo.

That this portion of the old creamery was saved and posted on a highly-visible corner impresses me.

That this portion of the old creamery was saved and posted on a highly-visible corner along Minnesota State Highway 57 impresses me.

Finally, on the corner of Riverside Park, angles signage for Minneola Creamery. A quick google search tells me the creamery, organized in December 1893, was one of the most successful in Minnesota. In 1908, according to information in History of Goodhue County, Minnesota by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, the creamery manufactured 550,00 pounds of butter selling for $125,000. Oh, the things I learn because I notice and photograph. And because I delight in touring small town Minnesota.

WHAT ODDITIES OR LANDMARKS would I find in your town/city? Let’s hear.

FYI: Check back tomorrow as I conclude my “from Wanamingo” series. To read the first four posts in this series, check last week’s archives.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from Wanamingo, a classic small town in Minnesota March 21, 2016

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Driving into downtown Wanamingo along Minnesota State Highway 57 on a Saturday afternoon.

Driving into downtown Wanamingo along Minnesota State Highway 57 on a recent Saturday afternoon.

ON THE CITY WEBSITE, Wanamingo is described as a classic small Midwestern town in Southeastern Minnesota. That seems accurate.

What then is a classic small Midwestern town?

Visiting early Saturday afternoon in downtown Wanamingo.

Visiting early on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Wanamingo.

It is a place where, on a Saturday afternoon in March, two guys lean on the back of a pick-up truck and converse outside a bar and grill.

Posted at a local park. I edited the phone number from the photo.

Posted at a local park. I edited the phone number from the photo.

It’s a place where a notice in the park information center requests help in finding Belle, a missing Siamese cat.

Walking the puppy downtown. Wanamingo still has an old style water tower.

Walking the puppy downtown. Wanamingo still has an old style water tower.

It’s a place where a friendly young couple walks their curly-haired puppy, allows a visitor to pet him and then wishes the out-of-towner a good afternoon.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 37 parts service

 

Small town Wanamingo, 40 insurance building

 

Small town Wanamingo, 36 grain bins

 

It’s a place with solid brick buildings in a downtown occupied by businesses like a meat market, a bar, a cafe, a garage, law and insurance offices, and grain bins banking the north end of Main Street.

 

I love the classic corner angled gas station.

I love the classic corner angled gas station.

Wanamingo has that small town rural feel, that sense of life moving at a slower pace. Traffic is minimal downtown, even though Minnesota State Highway 57 doubles as Main Street. And, yes, the main street is named Main Street.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 46 bike in yard

 

In this classic small Midwestern town, kids drop bikes in yards.

 

Beautiful Trinity Lutheran Church. I'll take you on a tour of the church in an upcoming post.

I’ll take you inside Trinity Lutheran Church in an upcoming post.

A life-long resident tinkers with a light post outside Trinity Lutheran, a stalwart brick corner church that holds the histories of so many local families. Births, marriages, deaths.

Wanamingo, platted in 1904, is not Utopia. No place is. But it is a community of about 1,100 that seems, from outward appearances, to care, to want to look its best, to be the kind of place folks want to visit or call home. It is a classic small Midwestern town.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for the second post in my “from Wanamingo” series. I’ll take you inside the Area 57 Coffee Cafe.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Utica, not New York, but Minnesota February 23, 2016

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A farm site just minutes east of Utica.

A farm site just minutes east of Utica in southeastern Minnesota.

YOU NEVER KNOW what oddities will surprise you in a small town, which is precisely why I delight in exploring rural communities.

Utica, a town of about 300 located along U.S. Highway 14 between Rochester and Winona, definitely presented some attractions worth photographing this past September. I use the word “attractions” loosely. What I find interesting may go unnoticed by others.

I'm always happy to see a grain elevator that has been maintained and is appreciated.

I’m always happy to see a grain elevator that has been maintained and is appreciated. These are small town treasures.

It was the red and grey grain elevator jutting above Utica that drew my husband and me off the highway and into this community as a freight train roared through town.

Utica may not have a website, but it has this sign to tell you a bit about the town.

Utica may not have a website, but it has this sign to tell you a bit about the town.

From there we swung onto Main Street and noted that Utica was founded in 1858, if the signage on Utica Storage is accurate. We laughed at the “ELV. PRETTY HIGH” notation.

The law.

The law…

...up close.

…up close.

And, if not for Randy, I would have missed the 10 Commandments posted on the front of the building.

The "can't miss it" house.

The “can’t miss it” house.

Then, in a residential area, a Victorian house painted in lavender hues presided on a corner. I wondered for a second if it might be a tea house, but saw no such signage. Apparently the owner just really likes this hue given the outbuildings are also painted lavender.

This reminded me of my Aunt Marilyn, whose house is not lavender, but who loves the color. And I once worked with legendary Northfield News editor Maggie Lee, who wore only lavender.

Utica is definitely a farming community.

Utica is definitely a farming community.

Utica’s final attractions were two tractors—a wonderfully restored John Deere and a rusting Farmall—staged for sale outside a shed.

Now, if we’d taken the fast route home via Interstate 90, we would have missed all of this. Utica would remain just a sign along the interstate. I would know nothing of its character, its individuality, its colors.

© Copyright 2015 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

 

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

 

In Elysian: A memorable small town Minnesota summer celebration July 9, 2015

Vintage vehicles lined several blocks of Elysian's Main Street for the 21st annual Car, Motorcycle and Tractor Show on Sunday, July 5.

Vintage vehicles line several blocks of Elysian’s Main Street for the 21st annual Car, Motorcycle and Tractor Show on Sunday, July 5.

FOLKS IN SMALL TOWNS have a way of working together to create community events that are truly remarkable. It’s that sense of ownership, that strong connection to place, the importance of tradition and the love of community and family which, I think, prompt locals to continue year after year with time-honored celebrations like Elysian’s July Fourth weekend gathering.

Another view of the car show.

Another view of the car show.

Sunday afternoon we drove through this southeastern Minnesota lakeside town on our return to Faribault from southwestern Minnesota. I noticed the Car Show sign along Minnesota Highway 60 and people gathered. So we stopped. While the husband perused the vintage cars, the son and I watched the Kids’ Pedal Tractor Pull and checked out the Trail of History.

As we were leaving, Miss Elysian royalty were handing out Car Show trophies.

As we were leaving, Miss Elysian royalty were handing out Car Show trophies.

The holiday weekend celebration was winding down when we arrived. So we missed a lot. Yet, there was enough to see that I’m enticed to return next summer. Events actually began June 26 with royalty coronations and end this Saturday with two triathlons.

Farmers Friends 4-H Club advertised its root beer floats on a vintage chalkboard along the Trail of History, which the club sponsored.

Farme’rs Friends 4-H Club advertised its root beer floats on a vintage chalkboard along the Trail of History. When we ordered the floats, a woman scooped vanilla ice cream into red solo cups and handed us cans of root beer to make our own floats. How small town is that?

As we lounged with root beer floats on grass in the shade of trees lining the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, I considered how fortunate I was to enjoy small town Minnesota on a stunning summer afternoon with two guys I love.

Sawing wood the old-fashioned way next to the Farmer's Friends 4-H Club tent.

Sawing wood the old-fashioned way next to the Farmer’s Friends 4-H Club tent.

Love this grassroots sign.

Love this grassroots sign posted in front of the food tent.

Old-fashioned games like a pop ring toss were available to play.

Old-fashioned games like a pop ring toss were available to play.

On the Trail of History, the Horner explained how items are crafted from horns/bones.

On the Trail of History, “the Horner” explained how items are crafted from horns/bones.

Another historian shared how plants can be used as natural remedies.

Another historian shared how plants can be used as natural remedies.

A fitting July Fourth weekend sign posted outside a Trail of History tent.

A fitting July Fourth weekend sign posted outside a Trail of History tent.

I absolutely love this aged building along Elysian's Main Street. These two cars were in the car show.

An aged garage along Elysian’s Main Street serves as the backdrop for cars in the Car Show.

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WHAT ABOUT YOU? Is there a community event you attend or volunteer with each year? What makes for a successful community celebration?

FYI: Click here to see my previous post about the Kids’ Pedal Tractor Pull in Elysian.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling