Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memory in flight January 23, 2020

The fighter jet sculpture located at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

 

SOME MEMORIES REMAIN, decades after the event, forever seared into our minds. But often they stay in the subconscious, surfacing only when triggered by something heard, seen, smelled, tasted, thought.

I hadn’t thought in a long time about the plane. Until I researched the story behind an airplane sculpture at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. I photographed the trio of T-38 Talon Thunderbirds while passing by on Interstate 35 as day broke on a recent Sunday morning.

My mind didn’t shift then to the afternoon decades ago when a fighter jet roared over my childhood farm outside Vesta in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. Rather, my thoughts focused on my mom. We were en route to visit her at a care center in Belview.

But now, weeks later, I sorted through photos taken on that 2.5-hour drive and remembered a summer afternoon in the 1960s. I was outside when the fighter jet flew low and fast over the farmyard, causing me to dive under the B Farmall tractor and the cattle to escape their fence. The sight and sound of that plane terrified me. We seldom saw planes, mostly just the trails of invisible or barely visible slivers of silver jets.

To this day, I don’t know from whence that mystery plane came or why the pilot chose to fly at such a low altitude. I can only speculate that he was on a training mission. And why not conduct that in a sparsely-populated area? Never mind the people or livestock.

That experience resurfaced as I sought out info about the three fighter jets artfully positioned at the Owatonna airport. Initially, they stood outside nearby Heritage Halls Museum, now closed. Museum founder and local businessman and pilot, R.W. “Buzz” Kaplan, led efforts to bring the retired U.S. Air Force jets to the area. Eventually the planes would land permanently at the airport, highly-visible to those traveling along the interstate.

Kaplan, on June 26, 2002, died at this very airport after the plane he was piloting, a replica WW I JN-4D “Jenny” biplane, crashed shortly after take-off. This airport has been the site of several fatal crashes, including one in 2008 which claimed eight lives. I hadn’t thought about that crash either, one of the worst in Minnesota, in a long time.

It’s interesting how the split-second decision to photograph a sculpture of three fighter jets along an interstate can trigger-roll into more than simply an image.

Life is that way. Memories, rising in unexpected moments, connecting to today.

TELL ME: Do you have a long ago memory that sometimes surfaces? I’d like to hear your stories and why that memory remains and others don’t.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What I’m drawn to photograph in rural Minnesota January 7, 2020

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One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.

 

I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.

 

Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.

 

A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.

 

Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.

 

While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.

 

In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.

 

It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.

 

A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

 

I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.

 

In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.

 

On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.

 

A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating winter, Minnesota style with vintage snowmobiles December 10, 2019

Snowmobiles parked along Central Avenue during the Faribo Sno-Go Club Vintage Snowmobile Show.

 

DECADES AGO, MY COUSIN Kevin roared across the field on his snowmobile with me seated behind, the cold rush of wind stinging my cheeks. About the same time period, my oldest brother also offered me a snowmobile ride, then abandoned me in the gravel pit on our farm. Not the nicest thing to do. But brothers, when they are teens, aren’t always kind to sisters.

 

Mrs. Minnesota United States Courtney Maxwell-Shey of St. Peter (and originally from Faribault, she said) poses next to a trail groomer.

 

Those are my limited snowmobile memories. I’ve never felt the urge since to ask for a snowmobile ride, not that I know anyone with a snow-traversing machine. But plenty of Minnesotans still snowmobile, often in groups, traveling along groomed trails and road ditches and across frozen lakes.

 

Chatting and checking out the snowmobiles.

 

I expect there’s a certain exhilaration in defying winter weather by embracing it. There’s a certain exhilaration, too, in racing across the snow, the power of a machine roaring beneath you. With the high-tech clothing on the market today, the experience is certainly much warmer than 40-plus years ago.

 

Warming up around the fire in low 30-degree temps and a brisk wind, next to the food and beverage tent.

 

This past Saturday, the Faribo Sno-Go Club, established in 1967, hosted a Vintage Snowmobile Show as part of Faribault’s Winterfest. Randy and I arrived well into the event to find only a minimal number of machines displayed, a bit of a disappointment. Still, we appreciated the effort. And I appreciated the trip back down memory lane.

 

Christmas ornaments add a dash of holiday flair to a snowmobile trail groomer.

 

TELL ME: Have you ever ridden on a snowmobile? If yes, I’d like to hear your memorable story.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Night at the Museum” brings history to life & memories, too, Part II October 2, 2019

Chatting it up in the Harvest and Heritage Halls.

 

THE ENTHUSIASM OF THE KIDS impressed me. Girls in Laura Ingalls Wilder style calico bonnets and prairie skirts and dresses. Boys in period caps and hats and bib overalls. And then the teens in football jerseys, celebrating locally-grown 1941 Heismann Trophy winner Bruce Smith.

 

A photo cut-out of Bruce Smith next to Pleasant Valley School and next to a grassy area where kids (mostly) tossed footballs.

 

All engaged in Night at the Museum, an event hosted by the Rice County Historical Society last Saturday. They led activities, participated and presented a local living history that reminded me of those who settled and grew this southeastern Minnesota county.

 

Checking out the one-room Pleasant Valley School.

 

One of many vintage books inside Pleasant Valley School.

 

Pleasant Valley School, built in the 1850s, and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in 1869. Both were relocated to the Rice County Historical Society grounds.

 

While it’s easy to romanticize that life, the reality is that life back-in-the-day was labor intensive and often difficult. But also joyful. Just like today, only different in the joys and challenges. Back then students learned from books and used slates and chalk. Lots of rote memorization within the confines of a bare bones one-room country school. Today’s kids use different tools—primarily technology. And hopefully they learn in better ways than simply memorizing and regurgitating.

 

 

As I pounded out words on a manual typewriter in the Heritage and Harvest Halls, I thought how grateful I am for computers. Writing and photography are so much easier with this tool. No more xxxxing out words on paper or buying and processing film. When I spoke with my husband Randy on a crank telephone, I recalled the days without a telephone and how my mom ran to the neighbor’s farm when a fire started in a hay bunk next to the barn. Now I use a cellphone and, yes, also a landline. Watching two men team up on sharpening an axe, I recalled the mean rooster on my childhood farm. When we’d all had enough of his terrorizing us, Dad grabbed the axe.

 

Visitors ride in a wagon pulled by a vintage John Deere tractor during Night at the Museum.

 

 

One of many area business signs now displayed at the museum.

 

When I saw a Surge milking machine, I remembered how hard my dad worked on our family’s crop and dairy farm and all those years I helped with barn chores and watched Dad head out to the field on his John Deere tractor.

 

Behind glass, memorabilia from a local dairy, closed years ago.

 

A storyteller, left, roasts hot dogs with another volunteer.

 

 

These are the places, the times, I remembered as I walked from spot to spot at the Rice County Historical Museum grounds. Night at the Museum provided many opportunities for reflection, for remembering when I was young (er)…

 

Folks gathered around the fire to hear these musicians perform at Night at the Museum.

 

FYI: Please click here to read my first post about this year’s Night at the Museum.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Food stories from Minnesota as I celebrate my birthday September 26, 2019

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Assorted hot dishes, salads, desserts and more fill several tables at the annual Kletscher family reunion held each July at the city park in my hometown of Vesta, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHAT FOODS AND FOOD TRADITIONS do you consider unique to the place you live?

 

Assorted bars. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Ask any Minnesotan and it’s surely not grape salad. Rather, the typical Minnesotan might respond with hot dish, walleye, chicken wild rice soup… Or bars. And we’re not talking the local watering hole here. We’re talking a sweet treat pressed or poured into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan. My favorite are peanut butter oatmeal bars.

 

Chicken Wild Rice Hot Dish with salad and bread served at an eatery in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Whatever your answer, food in many ways defines us. And food is the subject of a research project underway by a young Minnesota woman working on her Master of Fine Arts nonfiction writing degree from the University of New Hampshire. Lindsey phoned last week to ask about my food history, one rooted in my rural upbringing. We talked for an hour. I don’t envy Lindsey’s eventual task of condensing months of research into a succinct paper. But I do look forward to some day reading her findings.

 

My mother-in-law, who passed away in October 1993, often made Seven Layer Jell-O Salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I expect she will include Jell-O, once the queen of Minnesota salads. Make that red Jell-O laced with sliced bananas. It is a signature food of many an extended family gathering from my childhood. Many Baby Boomers from rural Minnesota could probably say the same.

 

A friend gifted me with a copy of the book my mom used to craft birthday cakes.

 

But there’s one story likely unique to me and my five siblings. We grew up on a crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota. With little money, our parents could not afford to give us gifts on our birthdays. The thing is, we didn’t know to expect presents. We were that poor. But Mom found another way to make our birthdays special. Days before our birthday, she would pull out her Animal Cut-Up Cake booklet and allow us to thumb through the pages and choose an animal-shaped birthday cake. Simple two-page spreads showed, for example, how to create a lion from a 9-inch square cake. Mom would follow the instructions in the publication by General Foods Corporation and create the chosen animal cake.

 

The clown cake my mom made for me in one of the few photos I have of myself from my childhood.

 

I cherish those birthday memories. I’m convinced that, had I gotten childhood birthday gifts, I would have forgotten those long ago. But my mom’s homemade birthday cakes, no. Whether a turtle, terrier or teddy bear, those cakes equated love.

 

I can’t take credit for this cake. But my daughters crafted this PEEF cake for their brother the year he turned eight. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

When I became a mother, I followed the tradition of creating homemade birthday cakes—like Garfield the cat, a horse, a snowman—for my three kids. But they, unlike me and my siblings, also received birthday gifts.

 

Me with my mom. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.

 

Today I celebrate my birthday. I don’t expect a cake, because who will bake one for me? I’m the mom. Rather I’ll remember and honor my mom, who is on hospice in a care center 2 ½ hours away. I doubt she remembers today is my birthday. I’m simply thankful if she recognizes me. But maybe, if I prompted her, she would recall all those special birthday cakes she baked for me and my siblings. The tradition was a gift of love from the mom I love. And miss.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memorial Day reflections May 24, 2019

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A veteran salutes during the Memorial Day Program at Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

IN THE BUSYNESS of this holiday weekend, please take time to remember the real reason for Memorial Day. It is about honoring the men and women who died in service to our country.

I direct you to a blog post I wrote for Warner Press and which published earlier this week. Click here.

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

Read about my dad’s war memories in a shoebox and how he kept the faith on the battlefields of Korea. Read, too, about his buddy Ray, who died there.

Pause. Reflect. Honor. That is the essence of Memorial Day. Not the start of summer.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring the artist behind a cultural art phenomenon April 8, 2019

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DAN ROBBINS DIED, my husband texted.

Who’s that? I replied.

 

My Great Grandma Anna painted this paint-by-numbers, one of a pair. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Robbins, it turns out, invented paint-by-numbers pictures. And Randy knows how much I love vintage paint-by-numbers art. Enough that I own several pieces. I am a bit of an art collector, securing my art primarily at garage sales and thrift shops. It’s the only way I can afford artwork.

Back to Robbins. He died a week ago at the age of 93. According to info I sourced online, he worked as a package designer for Detroit-based Palmer Paint Products when he came up with the paint-by-numbers idea. Leonardo da Vinci inspired him. That master Italian painter apparently used numbered backgrounds to teach his students.

 

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-numbers painting several years ago at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

If it worked for da Vinci’s proteges, why not for the masses? I expect that was Robbins’ thinking when he crafted his first landscape paint-by-numbers art, soon expanding to subjects like horses, puppies and kitties.

 

I painted this paint-by-numbers ballerina some 50 years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This painting option evolved into a bit of a cultural phenomenon beginning in the 1950s. I was part of that, painting a pair of ballerinas from a paint-by-numbers kit gifted to me one Christmas in the 1960s. I still have those paintings, which I need to pull out now in honor of Robbins. I rotate my art to keep my home art-gallery interesting. And because I have such a wide collection of mostly original art. I have more paint-by-numbers than shown in this post.

 

The other ballerina in the pair I painted as a child. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I realize not everyone appreciates paint-by-numbers. But I do. There’s something down-to-earth kitschy and appealing to me about an art form that allows anyone to paint art. Talented or not. Just brush inside the lines with the appropriate numbered colors and you’ve got art.

TELL ME: What’s your opinion of paint-by-numbers art? Have you crafted art this way and/or do you own any paint-by-numbers artwork?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling