Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Memories of a long ago challenging Minnesota winter & more March 15, 2019

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I took this photo several years ago on the Minnesota Highway 19 curve just north of Vesta, my southwestern Minnesota hometown. White-out conditions can happen quickly in that wind-swept part of the state. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOME 50 YEARS AGO, getting to school each day during the winter months proved difficult. It was a particularly snowy winter with strong prairie winds drifting snow across and blocking many roadways. I lived a mile from Vesta on a crop and dairy farm. But I lived some 20 miles from the junior high school I attended in Redwood Falls.

In that late 1960s winter to remember, buses stopped driving into the country to pick up students. That pretty much covered everyone from the Vesta area. Nearly all of us lived on farms.

 

A bus I photographed near Morgan, Minnesota, in May 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

If we could get into the cafe in Vesta, we could board a bus that would then travel Minnesota State Highway 19 to our school in Redwood. But getting there took effort and determination. My oldest brother and I climbed onto the John Deere tractor driven by Dad for the ride into town. And just to clarify, that tractor did not have a cab, only a canvas shield of sorts around the seat. And even though girls were banned from wearing pants at school, I slipped a pair of pants on underneath my dress.

I don’t recall additional details of those tractor rides. But I do recall the bus ride to Redwood along a state highway with snowbanks towering well above the bus. Single lanes cut into rock-hard drifts.

And then I recall the reactions of some teachers when all of us Vesta kids arrived two hours late. They were angry and told us so. Really? You try hopping on a tractor in the cold of winter to get to town to catch a bus and then ride another half hour to school. Be thankful we made it to class.

Kids now days certainly don’t face those challenges. And, if they did, they’d be tucked inside a heated tractor cab. More likely a pick-up truck. But Minnesota prairie kids still face canceled rural routes. “Buses on plowed roads only” is not uncommon during the winter in parts of Minnesota. And just yesterday, I read on the KLGR radio website out of Redwood Falls that buses in at least three schools—Lakeview, Echo Charter and, surprisingly, Redwood—would travel on paved roads only.

Muddy gravel roads and flooding can also become a problem as winter transitions toward spring. And right now Minnesota is experiencing plenty of flooding of roadways and streets.

 

The Faribault American Legion and Heritage Place businesses, a block from downtown, are surrounded by flood waters in September 2010. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

And more. In Faribault, the city issued this statement on its Facebook page:

SANDBAGS: The City of Faribault will be providing to city residents sand and bags if, and when, flooding occurs. If sandbags are needed now because of a localized flooding event (like backyard flooding into a door in a walkout basement, for example) contact the Faribault Fire Department at 507-334-8773.

 

A broad view of Wabasso’s Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In the small town of Wabasso (where I attended high school) in my home county of Redwood, the city issued this statement on its Facebook page:

The city of Wabasso recommends turning your sump pump discharge outside. This means either into your yard, the street, or on top of the snow.
The water flowing through the sanitary sewer has been elevated since this afternoon.
When the sewer is overloaded, there is a risk that residents will have sewage back up into their homes.
Please turn your sump pumps to the surface as soon as you are able.

This winter of too much snow and now a too quick snow melt with too much rain is challenging all of us. But eventually conditions will improve. And we can look back and remember the difficult winter of 2019. Like I remember that late 1960s winter of riding the John Deere tractor to catch the school bus.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Heartfelt February 11, 2019

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IT’S A SIMPLE FABRIC HEART. Puffed with stuffing. Hand-stitched with red thread. The words I Love You printed with red paint.

I could have trashed the heart years after the son crafted it for me in elementary school. But there are some things you keep. Things that remind you of the sweet love of a child, of a heartfelt gift lovingly made for a mother.

This heart reminds me that love threads through our lives—in memories, in moments, in the art of living.

Remember that on Valentine’s Day and always. You are loved.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

February family birthdays February 8, 2019

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One of my all-time favorite photos of my son at age 5. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FEBRUARY 9 AND 10 HOLD importance for me. They are the dates two of my three children, now all adults, were born. The daughter arrived first, a second daughter 21 months later in November and then the son on February 9, the day before his oldest sister’s eighth birthday.

Yes, I was a busy mom. There never seemed to be time for myself or enough time in a day. Something always needed doing. Someone always needed help or attention. I’m not complaining, just telling it like it was.

I miss those days. I miss my kids. But I did my job, as best I could, raising them to be independent adults. The daughter is married, a busy mother of two, including a newborn. I love watching her with her daughter and son. She’s attentive, loving, caring and just a really good mom.

 

My eldest daughter at three months old. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Sometimes when I look at my granddaughter, I glimpse Amber at the same age. There’s a certain way Izzy will act or a profile I’ll catch or a look I’ll see that makes me think for a moment that I’m watching my eldest daughter. What a gift to experience that timeless moment.

With my son, who lives way too far away from Minnesota in Boston, I remember most the moment he arrived home from school. Nearly daily Caleb asked for a hug. He didn’t need to ask. I would have given him one. But to hear his sweet request, oh, what joy that brought this mama. I miss his hugs. Whenever he’s back for a visit, I grab all the hugs I can to hold emotionally close in his absence.

There will be lots of hugs in the next few days as Caleb flies in for a short visit, totally unexpected. It will be the first time since 2012 that we’ve been together on his birthday. I’m excited.

Because of distance and/or busyness of life, I seldom celebrate my kids’ birthdays with them. It just is not possible. But that doesn’t change how I feel about their birthdays. Their births opened my heart to a love that is intuitive and deep and unconditional—a mother’s love.

Happy birthday, Amber and Caleb! I love you both always. And I look forward to celebrating with both of you this weekend. My mama’s heart is happy.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling