Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Lyon County: Prairie-rooted poetry at the museum September 20, 2022

The sprawling Lyon County Historical Society Museum in the heart of downtown Marshall, across from the post office. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

RECENTLY I TRAVELED back to my native southwestern Minnesota, destination Marshall, 18 miles west of my hometown of Vesta. Specifically, I targeted the Lyon County Historical Society Museum to view the award-winning “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Two of my poems, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” and “Hope of a Farmer,” are featured therein.

Me, photographed next to the panel featuring my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” My one regret is that my mom (pictured in two smaller photo insets) never saw this exhibit in person. She died in January. (Photo by Randy Helbling, September 2022)
To the far left is the panel featuring my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” In the center is my poem, “Hope of a Farmer.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
My poem, “Hope of a Farmer.” That is not my dad in the photo. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The exhibit, which won a 2021 Minnesota History Award from the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums, opened in January of the same year. Finally, I got to Marshall last week. Up until my visit, I was unaware that two, not just one, of my poems are included. When I read the title “Hope of a Farmer,” I thought to myself, I wrote a poem with that title. And then, as I read, I realized this was my poem.

The second floor exhibit celebrates Lyon County in the award-winning exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now I’m doubly honored that my rural-themed poetry inspired by my farmer father and farm wife mother were chosen to be part of this outstanding exhibit focusing on the people, places, businesses, communities, activities, events, history and arts of Lyon County.

A clothes pin bag hangs in an exhibit space near my “Ode” poem, quite fitting. Visitors can turn a dial to generate “wind” blowing dish towels on a clothesline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Excerpt from “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (click here to read the entire poem):

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,

but to the beat of farm life—

laundry tangled on the clothesline,

charred burgers jazzed with ketchup,

finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

This panel honors literary and visual artists of the region. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As I read the “Imagining the Prairie” informational panel, my gratitude to the LCHS staff, volunteers and Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis (lead contractor for the exhibit) grew. I appreciate that an entire panel focuses on the arts: The Lyon County landscape…has inspired painters and poets and artists of all kinds. I’ve long thought that as I see the prairie influence in my writing and photography. Farms, vast prairies, wide skies and tumbling rivers define the landscape of southwestern Minnesota.

Corn rows emerge in a field near Delhi in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Excerpt from my “Hope of a Farmer” poem (click here to read the entire poem):

I see my father’s work laid out before him—

first seeds dropped into rich black soil,

next, corn rows carefully cultivated,

then fervent prayers for timely rain.

A fitting quote from Bill Holm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A quote from poet, essayist and musician Bill Holm of nearby Minneota, summarizes well the lens through which we prairie natives view the world and the creative process. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light…

A grain complex and the Oasis Bar & Grill in Milroy, near Marshall. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Holm, who died in 2009, was among southwestern Minnesota’s best-known writers, having penned poetry and multiple books such as his popular The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth and Boxelder Bug Variations. His boxelder bug book inspired his hometown to host an annual Boxelder Bug Days, still going strong.

Poetry by Leo Dangel in the ag-focused part of the exhibit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

To see my poems featured alongside the work of gifted writers like Holm and equally-talented poet Leo Dangel in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was humbling. Dangel, who died in 2016, wrote six collections of poetry. The prairie and rural influence on his work show in the featured poems, “A Farmer Prays,” “A Clear Day,” and “Tornado.”

My poem honoring my mom… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Both men taught English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, reaffirming their devotion to this rural region and to the craft of writing. The exhibit includes a section on the university, which opened in 1967 within 10 years of my leaving the area to attend college in Mankato. I sometimes wonder how my writing would have evolved had I stayed and studied on the prairie.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County, which is right next to Lyon County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

When I returned to Marshall for the first time in 40 years, nothing about the town seemed familiar. Time has a way of changing a place. But when I reached the top floor of the county museum, saw my poems and began to peruse the “home” exhibit, I felt like I was back home. Back home on the prairie, among cornfields and farm sites and grain elevators and all those small towns that dot the landscape. Back home under a wide prairie sky with land stretching beyond my vision. Back home where I understand the people. Back home in the place that influenced my writing as only the prairie can for someone rooted here.

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Please check back for more posts featuring the Lyon County Museum and the area.

The ode honoring my mother initially published in South Dakota State University’s 2017 literary journal, Oakwood.

And the poem about my father was chosen as a “Work of Merit” at the 2014 Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lyon County exhibit receives state history award April 30, 2021

My poem with accompanying photos in the Lyon County exhibit. Photo courtesy of the LCHS.

ONLY A FEW DAYS AGO, I wrote about the inclusion of my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit at a county museum in Marshall.

Now the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums (MALHM) has named the Lyon County Historical Society (LCHS) a recipient of a 2021 Minnesota History Award for that exhibit. That honor is a credit to LCHS Executive Director Jennifer Andries, staff, board, volunteers and, yes, also locals who contributed stories, artifacts and more in the crafting of this exhibit.

A portion of the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit focuses on 4-H and more. Photo courtesy of the LCHS.

Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis also deserves recognition as lead contractor for the project. I was first contacted by Museology in January 2020 about inclusion of my rural-themed poem in this exhibit focusing on Lyon County and also reflective of the surrounding area in southwestern Minnesota. I feel incredibly honored to be part of an award-winning exhibit that connects people to the history of this rural region.

MALHM awards were also given to historical societies in Anoka, Carver and St. Louis counties and to the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault (RCHS), earned the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award for 30-plus years of service to organizations across Minnesota, including the RCHS, Northfield Historical Society and the MALHM. The award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions and demonstrated leadership to Minnesota’s history community on a broad scale.

The state-wide Alliance serves some 500-plus local history groups throughout Minnesota with a basic mission “of connecting people to nearby history.” It also provides peer-to-peer support and aims “to raise the quality of work in the local history field in Minnesota.”

Mrs. Morris takes a break from making applesauce during A Night at the Museum at the Rice County Historical Society. This is an example of local living history. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

A time existed when I didn’t appreciate history or history centers like I do now. My shift in appreciating history came when museum exhibits changed. When they became more personal and interactive. When an artifact was not just something encased in glass, but an object with meaning, purpose, depth. When living history became a standard. When stories became part of the story.

I photographed this abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta (my hometown) on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in 2012. The house is no longer there. But it looks similar to the one in which I lived during the first 10-plus years of my life. This is the landscape of my upbringing and the place which shaped me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

That brings me back to my “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” After I posted on Tuesday about the poem’s inclusion in the Lyon County exhibit, my cousin Diane emailed a 1958 photo of my parents. And while I’m not sharing that image here, I will tell you that I was overjoyed to see a different side of my parents other than as, well, simply parents. They were young and clearly blissfully, joyfully in love. Diane also shared that her parents and mine would often attend dances together, leaving the kids with Grandma. As one of the oldest, Diane helped look after the babies, including me. I’d never heard that story or seen that black-and-white snapshot. To receive both now—with my dad long gone and my mom in failing health—was a gift. Such a gift.

I hope my poem, inspired by my mom, yet representative of all the hardworking farm women of the 1950s and 1960s, is also a gift to those who read it. I hope those who read my words, who view the accompanying photos, will reflect and feel gratitude for these strong rural women.

I shall forever feel grateful to my mom and to the rural region which shaped me and continues to inspire me today in my writing and photography.

FYI: If you didn’t see my back story on “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” please click here to read that initial post. The post includes my poem and more info about the new Lyon County exhibit.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring farm women via my poetry in a Minnesota museum April 27, 2021

My poem (to the left of the woman in the dress), my mom’s high school graduation photo and a four-generation family photo of me, my mom, eldest daughter and granddaughter are included in a museum exhibit in southwestern Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

AS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH ends this week, I want to share exciting news about a rural-themed poem I wrote. The poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” originally published in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood, in 2017. Today that poem is part of a museum exhibit in Marshall, Minnesota, 60 miles to the northeast of Brookings, South Dakota.

My poem first published in South Dakota State’s Oakwood literary magazine.

I feel humbled and honored to have my poem, inspired by memories of my hardworking farm wife mother, in the Lyon County Historical Society Museum’s newest semi-permanent exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” The exhibit opened in January. Its purpose, according to Executive Director Jennifer Andries, is “to share stories, artifacts, and photographs from Lyon County after World War II and to inspire residents and visitors to share their memories and experiences of growing up and living in Lyon County and the region.”

4-H and more are featured in this section of “Making Lyon County Home.” Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I grew up in this prime agricultural region, some 20 miles to the west on a dairy and crop farm near Vesta in Redwood County. I knew Marshall well back then as a shopping destination. A place to buy clothes, shoes and other essentials. But even more, I understood rural life decades ago because I lived it. I witnessed, too, how my mom worked hard to raise six children on our family farm. Before marriage, she attended Mankato Commercial College and then returned to her home area to work an office job in Marshall. Like most women of the 1950s, once she married, she stopped working off the farm.

These family photos complement my poem. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

My poem honors her in a poetic snapshot timeline of life beginning shortly before she married my farmer father. Saturday evening dances. Then rocking babies. Everyday life on the farm. Challenges. And finally, the final verse of Mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

Whenever I write poetry, especially about life in rural Minnesota, I find myself deep within memory. Visualizing, tasting, smelling, hearing, even feeling. Although I took some creative license in penning “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (I don’t know that Mom ever drank whiskey or danced at the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall), it is primarily true. She met my dad at a dance in southwestern Minnesota. She washed laundry in a Maytag, baked bread every week, made the best peanut butter oatmeal bars…

An overview of the exhibit space featuring my poem and family photos. Photo courtesy of Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I expect many who lived in this rural region in the 1950s-1970s can relate. Says LCHS Director Andries of my poem: “It is a good fit for the exhibit and fits with the agriculture section and the role of farm wives and mothers. The poem itself goes beyond just the agriculture area. I feel many people can resonate with the poem with the sense of being carefree while we are young but at some point we all have responsibilities but that doesn’t mean we lose our carefree spirit.”

Exactly.

Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Church, former managing director of Minneapolis-based Museology Museum Services, lead contractor for the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Church first contacted me more than a year ago about using my poem. He said then that the poem “offers a nice snapshot of the era and setting we’re trying to evoke in several places within the exhibit and will fit well with our story.”

A 1950s era kitchen, left, is part of the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I appreciate stories rooted in a strong sense of place. The new exhibit features themes of natural landscape, agriculture, education, industry and community. For example, the devastating and deadly June 13, 1968, F5 tornado in Tracy centers a display with information and oral histories. How well I remember that disaster. The 1980s farm crisis focuses another section. A late 1950s era kitchen fits the beginning time period of my poem.

Although I have yet to view the exhibit, I hope to do so this summer. And even more, I want my mom to know how she, and other farm women of the era, are honored via my poem. I want them to see themselves in my words, to understand the depth to which I value them. My mom, through her selflessness, her hard work, her kindness, her love, her faith, helped shape me. Today, as Mom lives out her final days in hospice, her memory and cognition diminished, I feel a deep sense of loss, of grief. But I hold onto the memories of a mother who read nursery rhymes, gardened, and, before I was born, enjoyed carefree Saturday evenings out with friends. Dancing. Laughing, Delighting in life.

FYI: The Lyon County Historical Society Museum, 301 West Lyon Street, Marshall, is open from 11 am – 4 pm Monday – Friday and from noon – 4 pm Saturdays. The “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was partially funded by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant. The exhibit is semi-permanent, meaning artifacts and stories can be rotated to fit within the themes.

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,

you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—

a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,

Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,

Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.

Interludes passed between births

until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world

in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.

Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,

sing-song nursery rhymes,

sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.

Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread

and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,

but to the beat of farm life—

laundry tangled on the clothesline,

charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,

finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,

hard work in a sun-baked garden,

sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,

endurance in endless summer days of canning,

goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now

as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.

in the final set of your life, in a place far removed

from Blue Moon Ballroom memories

and the young woman you once were.

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Poem copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Blog post © Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling