Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mankato’s emerging massive mural represents diversity & more November 18, 2019

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THE ARTWORK CAUGHT ME by surprise as I looked across the Minnesota River toward the grain towers dominating the riverside skyline in Old Town Mankato.

 

One of many sculptures in Mankato and North Mankato that change yearly as part of the city’s sculpture walk.

 

Yet, the presence of an evolving mural in this arts-centric southern Minnesota city didn’t surprise me. Mankato is a community rich in public art from poetry to sculptures. It is one of the qualities which draws me back to this place where I graduated from college in 1978 with a degree in mass communications and a minor in English.

 

My poem, River Stories, attached to a railing along the Minnesota River Trail. In the background are the Ardent Mills silos and the bridge from which I photographed the in-progress mural.

 

This time I arrived in town to view my latest poem selected as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Spotting the in-progress mural on the 135-foot high Ardent Mills grain silos was a bonus find. I snapped a few quick frames while crossing the Minnesota River bridge and then while heading onto U.S. Highway 169. Only too late did I notice public viewing areas along the roadway.

 

 

Upon my arrival home, I researched the $250,000 project by Australian artist Guido van Helten. Although specifics of the mural design are elusive, the art will represent diversity and more. I saw that in the image of a young Dakota boy already painted onto the towering canvas. This region holds a rich Native Peoples heritage, making the art particularly powerful.

 

“Forgive Everyone Everything” themes this art in Reconciliation Park. Names of the 38 Dakota who were hung at this site in 1862 are inscribed thereon along with a prayer and a poem.

 

Having grown up some 80 miles to the west, in a region between the Upper and Lower Sioux Indian Communities, I’m aware of the strong Dakota history and also of The U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. Within blocks of the Ardent Mills silos, Reconciliation Park honors 38 Dakota tried and hung by the U.S. government following that war. The healing continues.

 

 

This latest public art represents so much—history, culture, diversity and a coming together of peoples. And today, more than ever, we need that sense of community, of understanding that no matter our backgrounds or the color of our skin or our history, we are simply people who need one another.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Public poetry in Mankato & I’m in, again November 15, 2019

That’s my poem, viewed through the opening in the flood wall in downtown Mankato, Minnesota.

 

ALONG A BUSY STREET in the heart of downtown Mankato near Reconciliation Park, across a duo set of train tracks and then through an opening in a flood wall mural, you’ll find a work of literary art. Mine. A poem, River Stories.

 

Me, next to my posted poem, River Stories. Photo by Randy Helbling

 

 

Photographed from the opening in the flood wall, the mural showcases the Minnesota River, to the right.

 

My poem was recently selected for inclusion in the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride, a public art project that now boasts 41 poems posted on signs throughout Greater Mankato. This, my fifth poem picked in recent years for the project, will be displayed for the next two years at the site along the Minnesota River Trail hugging the river. I am honored to share my poetry in such an accessible way via this ongoing effort of the Southern Minnesota Poets Society.

 

 

To hear River Stories, call 507-403-4038 and enter 406 when prompted. (That’s not me reading.)

 

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The U.S. government tried and hung 38 Dakota here following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The location of my poem near this park seems fitting as part of the city’s river stories.

 

The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride is a competitive process which challenges Minnesota poets to pen poems of no more than 18 lines with a limit of 40 characters per line. River Stories is short at only nine lines. Just like crafting copy for children’s books, creating poetry is among the most challenging of writing disciplines. Every word must prove its worth. Poetry has made me a stronger and better writer.

 

The Minnesota River, which runs through Mankato, inspired River Stories.

 

In writing poetry, I often reflect on my past and on a strong sense of place. Rural. My previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride poems include Cornfield Memories, Off to Mankato “to get an education”, The Thrill of Vertical and Bandwagon.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Stone windmill symbolizes strength of Minnesota immigrants August 29, 2019

Walking toward Seppman Mill, located just outside a fenced area holding bison at Mnneopa State Park, rural Mankato, Minnesota.

 

IN THE PRAIRIE PART of Minneopa State Park where the bison roam, an historic stone windmill stands tall on the prairie’s edge. Minus the blades.

 

Interpretive signs detail the mill’s history.

 

 

The granary was rebuilt in 1970 to its original size.

 

The Seppman Mill symbolizes the strength and grit of the early immigrants, among them Louis Seppman. Seeing a need for a local flour mill, this stone mason started crafting the mill in 1862 from local stone hand-carried or transported in wheelbarrows to the site, according to the book, Minnesota: A State Guide.

 

 

The task of constructing the windmill patterned after those in Seppman’s native Germany took two years. Eruption of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict in the region in 1862 delayed construction. Once operational, the mill could grind 150 bushels of wheat into flour on a day of favorable winds.

 

 

While the wind powered the arms of the 32-foot high windmill, it also proved the mill’s ultimate demise. In 1873, lightning struck and knocked off two of the arms and sails. Seven years later, tornadic winds ripped off the replacement arms. And, finally, in 1890, a third storm damaged the mill beyond repair.

 

A prairie restoration is underway here at Minneopa as noted in this sign posted near the windmill.

 

I can only imagine the frustration of Seppman and others who tried, tried and tried again to keep the mill operating. Three strikes and you’re out seems applicable.

 

Coneflowers, with their deep roots, thrive among the prairie grasses.

 

But then I consider all they did to even get the mill built. Those early settlers truly exemplify hard work and determination. How many of us would carry all those stones up an inclined roadway and then seemingly puzzle-piece the stones together? It’s remarkable really.

 

Black-eyed susans.

 

I’m thankful this windmill has been mostly restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It is a visual tribute to the early settlers of Minnesota, a reminder of the value these immigrants brought to this land, to this state, to this prairie place they called home. Then. And still today.

 

A sign along the prairie’s edge near the mill informs about bison in Minnesota.

 

Here, where the bison once roamed.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mingling with the bison in Minnesota August 28, 2019

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With more than 300 acres to roam, the bison conveniently clustered around a watering hole next to the road through the prairie during our visit to Minneopa State Park.

 

OH, GIVE ME A HOME, where the buffalo roam…

 

This pair was so close to our van that I could almost have reached out and touched the calf.

 

Whenever I think of buffalo, those lyrics pop into my head. My classmates and I sang the words during informal music time at Vesta Elementary School some 50-plus years ago.

 

Interpretive signage about the bison is positioned overlooking the prairie.

 

An overview of the Minneopa prairie, home to a herd of bison.

 

A map shows native prairie remaining in Minnesota, land needed by bison for grazing.

 

Or, whenever I think of buffalo, I remember childhood visits to the small zoo at Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls. There a tall wire fence separated us from these massive animals I associate with Native American buffalo hunts on the prairie.

 

 

Or, more accurately, bison hunts. These powerful animals are technically bison, not buffalo.

 

 

Today you can see them in Minnesota at the Minnesota Zoo, Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and now at Minneopa State Park outside Mankato.

 

A gravel road slicing through the Minneopa prairie allows visitors to get a close-up view of the bison herd.

 

 

 

On a recent weekday afternoon, we drove to Mankato into bison territory. Literally. Vehicles turn onto a gravel road that winds through the Minneopa prairie, home to about 20 bison. Having grown up on a dairy and beef farm (with several mean bulls), I respect animals that outsize me, especially those with horns.

 

 

 

Vehicles park to watch the bison and a passenger steps out to photograph the dangerous animals.

 

I didn’t even question the validity of signage warning visitors to stay inside their vehicles because bison are dangerous. I watched in disbelief as a woman stood outside a car taking photos with the bison herd within stone’s throw. What on earth was she thinking? Only moments earlier a sheriff’s car passed by and I wished the deputy had seen, and ticketed, her.

 

 

We had a bit of a scare ourselves when a bison walking nearby suddenly bolted toward our van, but veered away at the last second. I envisioned horns impaling the metal.

 

 

These animals command respect. They are massive, powerful and beautiful, a part of our state’s history.

 

 

To share space with them upon the prairie is not only an experience, but an honor.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bringing poetry to the people in Mankato & I’m in January 19, 2018

 

NEARLY SIX MONTHS have passed since I stopped at Spring Lake Park in North Mankato to view my poem posted there as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride.

 

The post just to the front left of the car holds a sign with my poem printed thereon.

 

 

Looking back across the lake toward the willows and my nearby poetry sign.

 

Located at the edge of a parking lot next to a trail and within a stone’s throw of drooping weeping willows, my award-winning poem about detasseling corn contrasts with the tranquil setting of lake and lawn separated by bullrushes flagged by cattails.

 

The Sibley Farm playground inside Sibley Park features these cornstalk climbing apparatus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The poem may have been more appropriately placed next to cornstalk climbing apparatus at the Sibley Farm playground in Mankato’s Sibley Park.

 

A beautiful setting for poetry.

 

 

 

Still, I am grateful for this opportunity to get my poetry out there in a public place. This placement of selected poems along recreational trails and in parks in Mankato and North Mankato brings poetry to people in an approachable and everyday way. That is the beauty of this project—the accessibility, the exposure in outdoor spaces, the flawless weaving of words into the landscape.

 

Inside a southern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My poem, as with much of my writing, reflects a strong sense of place. In Cornfield Memories, I take the reader into a southwestern Minnesota cornfield to experience detasseling corn, a job I worked several summers as a teenager. It’s hard work yanking tassels from corn stalks in the dew of the morning and then in the scorching sun of a July afternoon. All for $1.25/ hour back in the day.

 

My poem, Bandwagon, previously posted at Lion’s Park in Mankato as part of a previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

My poem shares rural history, a story, an experience. Just as my past poems—The Thrill of Vertical, Off to Mankato to “get an education” and Bandwagon—selected as part of previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride contests did.

 

 

I value public art projects like the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Not only as a poet, but as an appreciator of the literary arts. Poetry doesn’t need to be stuffy and mysterious. And this project proves that.

I’D LIKE TO HEAR your thoughts on bringing poetry to the public in creative ways like this. Have you seen a similar project? Would you stop to read poems posted in public spots?

NOTE: All photos were taken in early September, within weeks of the 2017 Poetry Walk & Ride poems being posted.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

West of Mankato August 23, 2017

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

 

WHEN I TELL FELLOW MINNESOTANS I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, specifically near the small town of Vesta, I typically get a blank stare. So, when “Vesta” doesn’t register with them, I mention Marshall to the west and Redwood Falls to the east of my hometown. Both are county seats and fair-sized communities, in my opinion.

 

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling to southwestern Minnesota.

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling through southern Minnesota toward the prairie.

 

Even after dropping those two names, I still often get that quizzical look. It’s as if they have no idea there’s anything west of Mankato.

 

This barn along U.S. Highway 14 west of Sleepy Eye always catches my eye.

Gotta love this barn between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.

 

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

 

 

But there is. Lots. Land and sky and small towns and oddities and grain elevators, and corn and soybean fields stretching into forever. There are pitch-black skies perfect for star-gazing and sunsets so bold I sometimes wonder why I ever left this land.

 

There are so many well-kept barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

There are so many beautiful old barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

I understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I simply want others to see that this corner of Minnesota, just like the lakes and woods to the north and the rolling hills and rivers to the south and the Twin Cities metro, is lovely and quirky and interesting in a peaceful prairie way.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

U.S. Highway 14 passes through many small towns, like Sleepy Eye where these guys were shopping for a car.

Shopping for cars in Sleepy Eye, one of many small towns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

 

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

 

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

 

FYI: All of these photos are from my files and were taken along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Lamberton. That would be west of Mankato.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling