Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The value of no child left inside August 21, 2018

I appreciate the message on this license plate, photographed last fall in Nisswa, Minnesota. For every National Wildlife Federation license plate purchased in Montana, $20 goes toward programming that encourages kids in that state to get outside and play.

 

GROWING UP IN RURAL SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent most of my time outdoors. There was nothing to keep me inside. No TV for a long time. No electronic games. No anything. Except books. And the few toys we had.

 

I love this scene of two boys who dumped their bikes at the edge of a pond to look for life in the water. I photographed this scene in October 2016 at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

 

The outdoors offered so much more. A grove in which to carve paths. Trees for a treehouse. A spacious farmyard for a game of softball. Tall grass for a journey West via imaginary covered wagons. Gravel drive and gravel roads for biking. Snow mountains and drifts to sled and slide and travel across. Vast expanses of grass upon which to lie and gaze at animal-shaped clouds.

Outside of play, the outdoors presented a place to work—to pull weeds from soybean rows and tassels from seed corn, to pick rocks from fields, to haul hay and buckets of milk replacer, to wheel grain and do all those chores necessary on a farm.

The house was mostly a place to sleep and eat and, on Saturday evenings, wash away the grime in the galvanized bath tub hauled from porch to kitchen.

It all sounds so nostalgic. So wonderful. And it was in many ways. But life was also admittedly hard in the kind of way that day-in-day-out, the physical labor circled in a never-ending cycle. We had little in material possessions. I suppose you could say our family lived in poverty, although I had no recognition of that at the time.

 

Boys at the turtle pond, River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

 

We were rich, though, in our love of the outdoors, of the land. I wanted to be outside. I am thankful for having grown up in a place and time when I could roam outdoors without fear and in free play.

 

It’s important to take time and notice nature. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

 

Most kids today are missing that unstructured free time outdoors to just be kids, to stretch their imaginations. Sometimes I wonder if kids are even capable any more of playing on their own, without adults planning an activity, a game, a sport, for them. It’s a different world. If I was a kid today and lived as I did then, I would be considered free-range and my parents probably would be the object of concern and likely under fierce attack on social media.

 

Minnesota Praiire Roots file photo, October 2016.

 

Despite the changes in society, it’s still important for kids to get outdoors–away from electronics and scheduled activities–to simply play. To use their imaginations. To be in nature. To appreciate the warmth of the sun, the waft of the wind, the scent of flowers, the smell of earth, the feel of dirt between their fingers, the taste of a sun-ripened tomato, the birdsong of morning…

THOUGHTS?

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

https://www.nwf.org/Northern-Rockies-and-Pacific-Region/Northern-Rockies

 

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Looking for farm work June 29, 2018

A southwestern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

BEAN WALKERS and detasslers. I haven’t thought about those two farm jobs in a long time. Because I’d rather forget those summer jobs that found me laboring as a pre-teen and teen in the fields of southern Minnesota. Intense heat and humidity made those hours in corn and soybean fields nearly intolerable. But it was a way to earn money in rural Minnesota back in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

 

And still today apparently. I was surprised to read a recent ad placed in a south central Minnesota shopper by crews looking for work pulling weeds in soybean fields, detasseling corn and picking rocks. Yes, I picked rocks from farm fields, too.

 

Bins peek above a cornfield between Faribault and Dundas. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Hire on to any of those jobs and you will understand hard physical labor. I realize conditions have improved since I yanked tassels, hoed cockle-burrs and heaved rocks from fields. But still, that farm work isn’t easy.

Tell me, have you ever worked any of those three farm jobs? Or tell me about a summer job you worked as a teen. What did it teach you?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Father’s Day love in memories & greeting cards June 15, 2018

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A greeting card from my sister and me to our dad, circa early 1960s.

 

AFTER MY DAD DIED 15 years ago, Father’s Day lost significant meaning to me personally. I had no dad to give a card to or to call.

 

The message inside the duck card, signed by our mom for her daughters.

 

I love giving and receiving greeting cards. But I’ve observed that fewer people send cards these days, choosing instead to text, email, call or simply ignore important personal days of loved ones. I noticed that with my birthday last fall. Birthday cards, especially from family, once stuffed my mailbox. No more.

 

The verse inside this card reads: “For being all that a Father could be/ Loving, gentle and good;/ For your patience and generosity/ In caring for your brood;/ For the happy glow of family love/ That other folks can see–/ Darling, for all of these and more/…A million thanks from me!” My mom signed the card, “Love, Arlene.”

 

Greeting cards, past and present, still hold a place of importance for me. I especially treasure the cards my mom saved through the decades. I have some of those, among them a handful of Father’s Day cards given to my dad.

 

Three of the four of us were old enough to sign this Father’s Day card to our dad. Two more siblings would be born after this.

 

I selected a few to share here because they hold a certain sweetness in messages, graphics and signatures. They are all vintage early 1960s.

 

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980.

 

While I don’t have my dad anymore, I still have those greeting cards. And I hold memories of my farmer father who loved me and my five siblings deeply and taught us the value of faith, family and hard work. He wasn’t perfect—no one is. But he was a good man, an honest man, a man of the earth. And if I could, I’d send him a card today telling him how much I appreciated him and loved him.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

7:04 PM, June 13, 1968, Tracy, Minnesota June 13, 2018

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ELLEN HANEY. Mildred Harnden, Barbara Holbrook. Ellen Morgan. Fred Pilatus. Paul Swanson. Walter Swanson. Nancy Viahos. Otelia Werner.

They ranged in age from two to 84. The same age as my granddaughter and just a few years younger than my mom.

On this evening 50 years ago, the nine died in an F-5 tornado that ravaged the rural farming community of Tracy in my native southwestern Minnesota.

At 7:04 p.m. today, church bells will ring in Tracy, marking the precise time the twister, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, roared into town killing those nine residents, injuring 125 and desecrating the landscape.

 

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.

 

All these decades later, the visual memories of that devastation still flash before my eyes in twisted, broken trees and piles of jumbled lumber, once homes. I was an impressionable almost 12-year-old when my dad drove our family 25 miles southwest from our farm to Tracy just days after the storm. You don’t forget a scene like that—such utter and chaotic destruction that a place no longer resembles a town. For that reason I’ve always feared and respected tornadoes.

I’ve written many times about the Tracy tornado. I’d encourage you to read those posts by clicking here.

 

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

 

Tracy residents, current and former, remain committed to honoring the memories of those who died in the June 13, 1968, tornado. Last weekend the town held events to commemorate the 50th anniversary. That included tolling of the Lutheran church bell and the release of nine black balloons. A noted Twin Cities meteorologist and storm chaser came to town as did Scott Thoma, hometown boy who authored a book, Out of the Blue, about the tornado. Locals shared tornado stories in words and in photos posted on a memory wall. A Tornado Tree Memorial has long been in place. Selected 2018-2019 Tracy area high school graduates will receive scholarships given in the names of those who died. Monies from the sale of “Never Forget” t-shirts are funding those financial gifts.

Never Forget. Those two words have themed this 50th anniversary remembrance.

 

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

 

Down in Nashville, Tracy native and award-winning songwriter Dennis Morgan, penned, performed and recorded a song, “The Ballad of the Tracy Tornado, 50 Years Later.” Morgan was just 15 and cleaning a calf pen when he and his family spotted the twister from their farm west of town. They raced to get their father from a field where he was cultivating corn before sheltering in a neighbor’s basement. Morgan sent 300 copies of his ballad CD to his hometown with all sale proceeds designated for the Tracy Fire Department and Ambulance Service.

 

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retained by Eric Lantz.

 

While researching this post, I also noted an iconic, award-winning tornado photo on the City of Tracy website. The image was taken by then 16-year-old Eric Lantz for the Walnut Grove Tribune. Today that photo takes me back to this small town on the prairie as, at 7:04 pm 50 years later, I schedule this post to publish. I shall never forget…

 

© Text copyright of Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Images copyrighted as noted.

 

Aunt Elaine May 16, 2018

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That’s Elaine in the middle, between two of my other aunts. I took this photo at the 2014 Kletscher Family Reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

EVERY CHRISTMAS I COULD COUNT on a handwritten letter from my Aunt Elaine updating me on the latest news in her ever-growing family. At last count, 47 great grandchildren. But those missives will come no more. My godmother died Monday afternoon at the age of 95.

Now I have only memories of the second oldest daughter of my grandparents, of the woman who outlived her husband, two children and seven siblings (two of them infants). She was strong. Tough. Stubborn. Determined. Whatever word you want to use, my aunt held her own in life. Her love of family, her faith and her get-up-and-go defined her. Elaine still lived in her own home and as most recently as several weeks ago delivered food to her sister-in-law after the passing of Elaine’s brother Harold.

I grew up in a close-knit extended family that gathered often to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We all lived near each other, either in Redwood or Yellow Medicine counties on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. I especially liked going to Aunt Elaine and Uncle Glenn’s house because then I could see Joyce, a favorite cousin born months after me. I also loved their house, a big old farmhouse of fine craftsmanship on a farm with a creaking windmill.

 

Homemade dill pickles (similar to the ones Elaine made) sold at the September 2015 Faribault Farmers’ Market and published here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Beyond that, I selfishly couldn’t wait for the lunch Aunt Elaine would serve at the end of an evening of visiting. She made the best dill pickles. There was talk that well water made all the difference. Maybe. Maybe not. But I believe it was the hands that nurtured and picked those cucumbers and dill and then crafted them into dill pickles that made them legendary within our extended family.

 

 

Elaine was also known for her chocolate mayonnaise cake. I found the recipe (under her oldest daughter’s name) for that moist cake in the Peace Lutheran Centennial Cookbook, 1896 – 1996, Echo, Minnesota. Elaine served as a co-chair of the Cookbook Committee. I’m not surprised. She was always doing something for her church, community, family and others in general, including work as a practical nurse at the start of WW II. It’s part of our family legacy—this care and compassion and service.

 

Not the same cake Elaine made, but similar. Used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Days before her death, Elaine sampled that chocolate cake one last time after a granddaughter baked the cake and brought it, still warm, to her dying grandmother at the hospital. Elaine ate a few bites and then reminded her family of just how much she loved sweets. I love that story. I love that story because it makes me laugh. In laughter I am reminded that death, though it brings sadness, also brings laughter in the memories. I will always hold sweet memories of my dear aunt, my dear godmother. She was a strong woman of faith, loving her family, her community and the prairie place she called home. And now she has reached her final home: heaven. That, too, gives me joy in the presence of grief.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

To have and to hold, 36 years later May 15, 2018

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Audrey and Randy, May 15, 1982

 

I FLIP THROUGH THE PAGES of the photo album looking at the faces. Young. Smiling. Happy.

Thirty-six years have passed since those formal portraits were taken on my wedding day. It seems so long ago, 1982. We were just 25 then, Randy and I. But as anyone who’s now in their sixties knows, time has a way of flying. It’s not just a saying. It’s the truth.

 

A selfie of Randy and me taken in September 2017 at the walleye statue along Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Tomorrow soon becomes yesterday and all of a sudden you aren’t that newlywed on the cusp of life but rather that married nearly four decades couple entering the golden years of life.

I would be lying if I said married life is fairy tale perfect. Maybe in the fantasy world of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But not in real life. We’ve faced many challenges from health to personal and family issues to injuries and accidents and deaths of loved ones. We’ve managed tight budgets and long hours of hard work and even survived many home improvement projects. And we’ve come through on the other side stronger, more appreciative of each other and maybe even better people for having endured difficulties.

Recently, Randy informed me he’s a legend. I laughed, said I would need to treat him with a higher respect. He’d been dubbed a “legend” by a customer referred to my automotive machinist husband as an expert in his field. He is. Randy is really really smart about all things automotive. And with something like 40 years of experience, he rates as a legend. I don’t know what his customers will do when he retires in a few years. I don’t care, frankly.

A favorite photo of my husband holding our then 10-day-old granddaughter, Isabelle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

Life isn’t all about work. It’s about finding time for each other and those you love. And those we love has now expanded to include our two-year-old granddaughter. I love watching my husband in his relatively new role as Grandpa to Isabelle. There’s such sweetness and tenderness in the moments they share whether reading a book or crawling around on the floor pulling Brio trains.

Thirty-six years ago I didn’t see beyond the front of the church and the face of my groom on our wedding day. I saw only the man I loved. And still love, all these decades later.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Jell-O memories May 10, 2018

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A WEEK BEFORE MOTHER’S DAY, my sister-in-law showed up with a bowl of Jell-O at her granddaughter’s third birthday party. But this wasn’t just any Jell-O. This was Seven Layer Jell-O Salad, multi layers of gelatin in a fancy glass bowl.

Years have passed since I ate Jell-O. It was a staple of extended family gatherings during my growing up years in rural Minnesota. Every “little lunch” served at midnight included red banana-filled Jell-O. In addition to summer sausage sandwiches, homemade dill pickles and pans and pans of bars.

 

Peach Jell-O. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Sometime through the years, I stopped liking Jell-O. Especially if celery, carrots or marshmallows were added to enhance the basic recipe. I came to associate Jell-O with illness. And in recent years, prep for a colonoscopy (although not red or purple Jell-O).

Still, I admit that I ate a lot of Jell-O as a kid. And I liked it. I was willing to dip my spoon into the bowl of memories and eat a serving of Seven Layer Jell-O Salad prepared by my sister-in-law. She spent a lot of time making those seven layers and I could show some appreciation for her efforts.

But another reason existed for my decision to eat the Jell-O salad, which really is more dessert than salad given its sweetness. Seven Layer Jell-O Salad was a specialty of my mother-in-law, who died in 1993 at the age of 59. I think everyone in the family would agree that Betty wasn’t a particularly good cook. But she made the best homemade caramel rolls, chicken and cottage cheese pie (if you like cottage cheese pie, and I don’t). She also had perfected Seven Layer Jell-O Salad.

 

My in-laws, Tom and Betty. From the family photo archives of 25-plus years ago.

It’s interesting how food triggers memories. I suppose because so many memories are made over food. On this Sunday in April, I remembered my dear mother-in-law who died just months before my son was born. She wanted a grandson after a long string of granddaughters. If only she’d lived to see her oldest son’s son.

I’m certain, if Betty was living, that she’d still be making Seven Layer Jell-O Salad for family gatherings. It was one of her signature dishes. As in days past, I’d admire the jewel-colored layers, not because the salad is particularly delicious. But because it is layered in family memories.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling