Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mourning Week Day, age six May 4, 2021

Week Day. Photo source: Hamilton Funeral Home.

TODAY A FAMILY BURIES their six-year-old daughter and sister on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. My heart breaks. Tears flow. And sorrow roots deep within me.

To see the photo of an adorable girl with a sweet smile and braided pigtails makes this all too real. This COVID-19. This deadly virus which, on April 25, claimed the life of Week Day.

She emigrated with her family from a Thai refugee camp to Marshall, Minnesota, in December 2015. Week was not quite 18 months old. The daughter of Mu Mu and He Lars. And then big sister to Michael.

And when she passed, the first grade student of Ms Hewitt and a classmate and friend at Park Side Elementary School.

My heart breaks for those who knew and loved this little girl. The girl who loved the color pink and singing and dancing and drawing and painting. The little girl with the kind heart, best attitude, bright smile.

Any death from COVID-19 is tragic. But, when a child loses her life, it’s especially difficult to take.

If you wish to show your love and support to the family of Week, please send cards, words of encouragement and donations to:

Hamilton Funeral Home

Family of Week Day

701 Jewett St.

Marshall, MN. 56258

Thank you.

© Copyright 2021 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

 

Briana, more than a statistic April 28, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

SHE DIED ON FRIDAY due to complications from COVID-19. And she was 30. Only 30.

I didn’t know Briana, who graduated from Faribault High School in 2009. But that matters not. Here’s a young life lost to a deadly virus, Briana’s name now on the ever-lengthening list of 7,091 (as of Tuesday) Minnesotans who have died from COVID or complications thereof.

Briana’s obituary, published April 27, 2021 in The Faribault Daily News.

My heart hurts for Briana’s family and friends. Her obituary and the comments therein, describe a vibrant and artsy young woman who enjoyed photography, crafts, sewing and music. She was also tagged as a passionate activist.

Briana’s friend Corrina writes: Briana was the most fieriest, artistic, and admirable person I knew. She inspired me to protest and we walked together through the streets fighting for justice. She made the world a better place.

She made the world a better place. I think we would all like to be remembered in that way.

It’s so important to remember that behind every COVID-19 death statistic is a person. An individual who loved and was loved. Who perhaps, like Briana, marched with fiery passion. Or quietly helped others via kindness, generosity and compassion. Or still had their whole life ahead of them. Like the first grader from Park Side Elementary School in Marshall who died on Sunday due to complications from COVID-19. A child with no underlying health conditions. My heart breaks. My cousin’s daughter teaches at Park Side. Marshall sits in Lyon County, in the southwestern corner of the state, in a region with one of Minnesota’s highest COVID infection rates.

As I watch and read media coverage of the COVID situation in India, my heart also breaks at the overwhelming number of new cases—some 350,000 in a single day—and the resulting deaths. It’s difficult to see film of people suffering, of bodies wrapped in blankets and lying in the streets, of oxygen masks clamped onto faces and hear the pleas for oxygen, medicine, PPE. Pleas, too, for vaccines.

An article published in the April 27 edition of The Faribault Daily News highlights how the virus continues to spread in my region of Minnesota. I see more and more people in public without face masks or half-masking. Tuesday stats from the Minnesota Department of Health list 12 new deaths, including one from my county of Rice. That individual was between the ages of 55-59. That makes 104 COVID-19 deaths now in my county

I feel thankful that the US and other countries are offering help to the people of India in this overwhelming health crisis. Yet, I can’t help but think how people in the US are turning down vaccines, not wearing face masks, living like there’s no pandemic…

Monday evening I watched “The Virus That Shook the World,” a two-part FRONTLINE public television documentary featuring people from around the world in the first year of COVID-19. A doctor. Filmmakers. Dancers. It was heart-wrenching to listen, to watch. But necessary to document. Important to view. I felt my grief building as the film progressed. And then, when a daughter in Iceland shared the story of her mother’s death from COVID, all the grief and pain I’ve felt during the past year-plus erupted. I couldn’t stop crying as I observed this family’s loss and pain. I felt like I was crying the grief of the world. Crying for Briana and her family. Crying for the family of that first grader and the entire community of Marshall. Crying for those in my circle who have lost loved ones (seven thus far) to COVID.

In all this grief and suffering and pain and death, I hold onto hope. Hope that we can overcome. Hope that we can heal. Hope that we can set aside politics and misinformation and me-attitudes to do what is right. To care about others and to act like we care. To understand the importance of health and science in defeating this virus. To cry tears of joy rather than tears of unending grief.

© 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.

#

Poem copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Blog post © Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Damage suggests tornado hit Wood Lake farm July 6, 2011

DAN AND MARILYN SCHMIDT had just arrived for the July Fourth holiday weekend at a west central Minnesota lake when they got the phone call from their daughter, Heather Rokeh. She was calling from Marshall with news that a storm had swept through town. It was late Friday afternoon, July 1.

Dan asked about their farm 20 miles northeast of Marshall. Heather suggested that “it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone check it out.”

And so Heather’s sister, Amy St. Pierre, and Amy’s husband and daughter went to the farm, surveyed the damage, then called the Schmidts. The couple returned that night to inspect their Wood Lake area farm.

Every building had been damaged. Hail pounded holes in the siding on the house, where shingles and an antenna were blown off. The door of the Quonset building had been ripped away with part of the board trim speared into the ground.

Half the roof was blown off the shop, collapsing an interior wall. That wall is now being held up by two chains and a tractor until items inside can be removed and the building demolished.

Another view of the caved-in shop wall.

The exposed interior of the shop.

Trees were down or uprooted. Branches littered the farmyard. On one of the two houses on the farm site, the garage was pulled away from the house, leaving a visible gap.

Here you see light shining through the space where an attached garage was separated from the house during Friday's storm.

“A lot of these things spelled out tornado for us,” says Heather. “The twisting of the trees, things stuck in the ground and the twisted buildings all suggest tornado to us.”

Whether straight-line winds or tornado, Heather remains grateful: “We are so thankful no one was injured.”

This lean-to, connected to a hog barn, was lifted up, twisted and set back down on top of a stock chopper. The hog barn was OK, but the lean-to was deemed unsafe and removed on Saturday.

This photo shows a portion of the lean-to that was lifted and dropped onto the stock chopper pictured here.

This grain dryer was moved and it is now sitting crooked on its foundation. The cement slab foundation was cracked and cement blocks are now sitting at an angle.

IF YOUR FARM, HOME or community was damaged during the July 1 storm in southwestern Minnesota, I’d like to hear from you. Submit a comment summarizing your storm experience, the damage to your property or town, and progress toward recovery. If you have photos to share, like those above from my cousin Heather, let me know and I’ll be in touch.

Also check out my previous posts on storm damage in my hometown of Vesta and in neighboring Belview.

PHOTOS BY HEATHER ROKEH Copyright 2011

Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling