Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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

 

Poetry in Minnesota beyond the classroom, beyond anthologies March 21, 2017

I EXPECT MANY OF YOU dislike poetry. You sat in a high school English class bored to death by the required reading of poems you didn’t understand. Or worse, you had to pen a haiku or a rhyming poem or free verse. And then you had to take a test. You couldn’t wait until the poetry unit was done.

You struggled. You didn’t care. I get it. I felt that way about math. But poetry I’ve always embraced. I am grateful for the educators who taught, and continue to teach, poetry to resistant students.

 

Sidewalk poetry in downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

If you’re one of those non-poetry people, I hope you’ll give this literary art a second chance. Poetry is certainly less rigid and stuffy than years ago. It’s also much more accessible beyond a collection published in a book. Now you’ll find poetry creatively presented in videos such as Minneapolis-based Motionpoems; online in Gyroscope Review, co-founded and co-edited by a Minnesotan; imprinted in sidewalks in cities like Northfield and St. Paul and Mankato; and more.

 

A graphic I created for Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Cardboard walls that once held poetry inside an intellectual box have collapsed and been recycled. The result is poetry that maybe, just maybe, you will find approachable, understandable and enjoyable.

 

My poem, “Bandwagon,” posted in 2014 in Lion’s Park in Mankato as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. The poems are changed annually. Each poem must be 18 lines or less with no more than 40 characters per line. They must also be themed to the area. “Bandwagon” was inspired by a Mankato TV show by that name. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Take the 2017 Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. I’ll join other poets at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the Emy Frentz Arts Guild Gallery in Mankato for a poetry reading and awards reception. I’ll read my poem, “Cornfield Memories,” which won honorable mention. While that’s an honor, the truly exciting aspect of this project is the public accessibility and visibility of poetry.

Michael Torres, a CantoMundo fellow, creative writing teacher and co-host of art workshops for homeless and at-risk youth in the Mankato area, selected 29 poems from about 70 submissions for inclusion in the Poetry Walk & Ride. The poems will be posted on signs along recreational trails in Mankato and North Mankato. This endeavor brings poetry to people in parks, playgrounds and other outdoor spaces in an unassuming way. What a great idea. Poems cover a broad range of topics from experiencing the outdoors to Minnesota to water, says Erin Dorney, writer and project organizer.

 

My poem initially printed in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc based in northern Minnesota, has been crafted into a song by Rochester, Minnesota composer David Kassler. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The next day, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, poetry will also be showcased publicly, this time at a concert. My poem, “The Farmer’s Song,” is among seven being sung by a chamber choir at the Hill Theater at Rochester Community and Technical College. Admission is $7.50. The same concert will be presented for a free-will offering at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Rochester. I’ll attend that Sunday concert and read my poem. A reception follows the Sunday concert.

I appreciate that Rochester composer David Kassler invested considerable time in creating choral settings for selected poems. It’s just one more way to bring poetry to the people of Minnesota in an inviting public way. Please join me and other Minnesotans in celebrating poetry at either or both events.

TELL ME: What’s your attitude toward poetry?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts & scenes along the Highway 14 detour October 5, 2016

TYPICALLY, ROAD CONSTRUCTION frustrates me. Unexpected delays and detours add to travel time and sometimes to distance.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet, nearing the detour.

But I welcome at least one major road project in southern Minnesota—the expansion of U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet in to a four-lane. This stretch rates as one of the most dangerous roadways in rural Minnesota. Traffic volume along the narrow highway is high. Passing is mostly difficult and dangerous.

The improvements are needed to make this a safer highway. If only the expansion would run all the way to New Ulm.

On the detour route.

The detour route took us through Nicollet County farm land,aiming for Courtland.

Traveling to southwestern Minnesota last Saturday, my husband and I steered away from the Highway 14 project by taking Minnesota Highway 99 between St. Peter and Nicollet. Except this time 99 was closed before we reached Nicollet and we were rerouted onto the official Highway 14 detour route.

 

detour-43-red-barn

 

detour-51-john-deere-combine-in-field

 

detour-49-barn-roof

 

detour-50-grain-bins

 

The detour added about 15 minutes to our drive time. But that was OK. I enjoy rural landscapes and passing places like Immanuel Lutheran Church and School, rural Courtland, the home congregation of my maternal ancestors.

 

detour-53-nicollet-county-road-25

 

As we rounded Nicollet County Road 25 near its intersection with Highway 14, a spectacular view of the Minnesota River Valley unfolded before us. Vast blue sky striped with grey clouds butted the distant tree line. I could see for miles and miles and miles. It is not the mountains. But, still, the scene wrote lines of poetry before my prairie native eyes.

TELL ME: What are your thoughts on road construction, detours and/or dangerous roadways?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My favorite small scale Minnesota zoo June 23, 2016

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I grew up on a dairy farmer, thus was excited to see these calves.

I grew up on a dairy farm and am always excited to see calves.

WITH SUMMER OFFICIALLY on the calendar, it’s the perfect time to take the kids or grandkids to the zoo. For many Minnesotans, that most likely would be the Minnesota Zoo or Como Park Zoo.

Just a small section of the Farm, which includes two barns.

Just a small section of the Farm, which includes two barns and a shelter available for rent, right.

But I’ve discovered a much smaller rural-themed zoo in Greater Minnesota that impresses me. And, bonus, no metro traffic or pressing crowds. Welcome to Sibley Farm at Sibley Park in Mankato. I’ve posted previously about this southern Minnesota zoo. But now seems a good time to showcase it again during peak season.

Kids can climb aboard this tractor and another on the adjoining playground.

Kids can climb aboard this tractor and another on the adjoining agriculturally-themed playground.

I last visited Sibley Farm on a cold and windy day in mid-May with minimal time to explore. Even with less than ideal weather, families were there enjoying the baby and other farm animals and the farm-themed playground.

The sheep were snuggling on the spring day I visited Sibley Farm.

The sheep were snuggling on the spring day I visited Sibley Farm.

It is the full-on rural aspect of this zoo which most appeals to me. Most families are so far removed from farm life today that they need this indirect exposure. Even kids who live in the country. Even those who live in Mankato, right in the heart of Minnesota farm land.

A shorn alpaca.

A shorn alpaca.

Sibley Farm provides a place to connect with and learn about farm life. It also preserves Minnesota’s rural heritage. That’s important. My own three grown kids are only a generation removed from the farm. Yet, their knowledge of farming is limited. It’s important to me that they recognize and value the rural heritage that shaped the Kletscher and Helbling families. I expect many farm-raised parents and grandparents feel the same. Sibley Farm is a great place to learn about farming in a fun and interactive way.

Sibley Farm includes a water feature complete with goldfish.

Sibley Farm includes a water feature complete with goldfish.

Tell me, what’s your favorite zoo and why?

FYI: Sibley Farm is located at 900 Mound Avenue, Mankato, within Sibley Park and is open from 6:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. daily mid-spring through early fall. Admission is free.

Besides the farm, Sibley Park offers softball fields, tennis courts, walking trails, lovely gardens, fishing, a winter sliding hill, poetry and more.

Click here to read my previous post about Sibley Farm. And click here to read a story about Sibley Park.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling