Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Beer, brats & bare feet January 24, 2014

RIGHT NOW YOU’RE likely wondering about that title, Beer, brats & bare feet. What’s the connection?

The commonalities, my friends, are the letter “b” and Minnesota.

Let me explain.

The other morning a customer stopped by the automotive machine shop which my husband runs in Northfield, Minnesota. Nothing extraordinary about that. Customers filter in and out all day.

Imagine wearing sandals right now outdoors in Minnesota.

Imagine wearing sandals right now outdoors in Minnesota.

But this customer arrived in sandals. On a day when temperatures hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit and the windchill plunged the “feels like” temp even lower. This guy wasn’t wearing socks with his sandals, as you might expect, although he was wrapped in a winter coat.

Naturally, my spouse inquired about the bare feet and sandals. The customer replied (and this is not an exact quote) that he was tapping into his inner hippie.

Alright then.

My husband loves brats and grills them in the winter along with meats that I will eat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

My husband loves brats and grills them year-round along with meats that I will eat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Over at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in rural Gibbon, Minnesota, parishioners are apparently tapping into our state’s Scandinavian and German heritages via a Sven & Ole Book Fair at an All You Can Eat Pancake & Bratwurst Dinner from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday, January 26.

Bars made by Lutherans, but not from St. Peter's Church. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Bars made by Lutherans, but not from St. Peter’s Church. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Also on the menu are applesauce, cheese, cookies and bars. Yes, bars. How Minnesotan is that?

And how Minnesotan that the book fair comes via Sven & Ole’s Books in the nearby noted German city of New Ulm. And, yes, the proprietor’s name truly is Sven and his brother’s middle name is Olaf, Ole for short, according to the bookstore website.

Icy cold beer served up in a Minnesota Vikings mug.

Icy cold beer served up in a Minnesota Vikings mug. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Now about that beer, which I think would be a better accompaniment for brats than pancakes. I like neither brats nor pancakes, although I am 100 percent German. But I do like bars, the kind you eat. And I enjoy an occasional mug of beer.

I learned through a recent column in The Gaylord Hub, a small-town newspaper where I worked as a reporter and photographer right out of college, about the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Beer and Brewing in the Land of Sky Blue Waters” lecture/workshop offering. It is funded through grant monies from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund as part of the Minnesota Historical Society in the Libraries Adult Programming.

August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

A “discussion of brewing history along with beer tasting by Schell’s,” a New Ulm brewery, was recently held at the Gaylord Public Library, for adults 21 and over with valid ID, according to info written by Gaylord’s librarian. Two days later, nearby St. Peter hosted the same beer event at its community center.

So there you have it. Beer, brats and bare feet in Minnesota. Cheers.


© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The Smithsonian in Hanley Falls & Hanley Falls in the Smithsonian (exhibit) September 20, 2012

The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” features snippets from Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Minnesota’s Machinery Museum, Hanley Falls, in rural southwestern Minnesota.

I DOUBT MANY of the 304 residents of Hanley Falls, rural Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, have ever visited the Smithsonian or even traveled to Washington D.C.

But now this internationally-acclaimed museum has come to Hanley Falls via “The Way We Worked,” a Museum on Main Street project developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and adapted from an original exhibition from the National Archives.

Bottom line, if you can’t bring the people to the museum, bring the museum to the people.

Specifically, from now through October 20,  Minnesota’s Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls is hosting the exhibit on where, how, who and why Americans work.

But that’s not all. Hanley Falls is part of “The Way We Worked,” as are several other Minnesota places and people.

Says Museum Director Laurie Johnson: “It is an honor in itself to be hosting a Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit. To be an actual part of the exhibit traveling all over the U.S. is a very big honor.”

Hanley Falls’ place in the exhibit falls in the “Communities at Work” section and features a 1987 aerial view photo of Hanley Falls by Vincent H. Mart sourced from the Minnesota Historical Society. The MHS photographic collection includes 5,697 aerial views from around Minnesota photographed by Mart between 1962-1988.

The 1987 Vincent H. Mart photo showing a portion of Hanley Falls and now part of the Smithsonian traveling exhibit. Photo courtesy of Minnesota’s Machinery Museum.

Mart’s black-and-white shot #5,655 in the MHS archives, and now in the Smithsonian exhibit as image 196, shows the then Hanley Falls Farmers Elevator (now the Farmer’s Co-op Elevator) on the west side of town, plus Bennett Transportation (bus company) and the fourth-generation Oftedahl family farm. As a side note, the elevator celebrated its 100th anniversary this past July on Minnesota’s Machinery Museum grounds with more than 2,000 in attendance.

According to Johnson, the scene in the photograph no longer looks the same. Several of the grain bins were damaged in a wind storm and the main office was  moved and an elevator built to the southwest of the Oftedahl farm. The old elevator remains and is still used by the Farmer’s Co-op.

The exhibit copy which accompanies the Hanley Falls photo reads, in part:

The reminders of a town’s main industry imprint its landscape and identity. Silos dominate the skyline in Hanley Falls, Minnesota as they do in most small, agricultural communities.

And here’s how Johnson summarizes what the Hanley Falls photo tells us about “The Way We Worked:”

Farming is a way of life here and has been for many generations. The exhibit talks about “community” and we are definitely a community that works, worships, (has) neighborhood get-togethers and plays together.

Johnson, who lives on a farm about 10 miles north of Hanley Falls, further explains that the local elevator, banks and gas station provide jobs in town. Some residents work in neighboring towns. Many are retired.

You’ll find plenty of old tractors and farm machinery, along with vintage cars and trucks, in the museum’s outbuildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Already the Smithsonian show is attracting more visitors to Minnesota’s Machinery Museum, defined by Johnson as “an agricultural museum recalling farm life in stories and artifacts from how we farmed with horses to a farm kitchen, bedroom, parlor and general store…preserving our agricultural heritage for generations.”

The entrance to the portion of the museum housed in the former school, a WPA building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The five-building Yellow Medicine County museum complex, which includes the former Hanley Falls School built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, rests on six acres. You’ll find antique tractors, automobiles, gas engines, threshing equipment and other machinery and artifacts in the outbuildings.

A bushel basket, one of the many ag items displayed at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Until October 20, you also can find five multi-sided kiosks featuring photos, videos, flip booklets and other interactive activities as part of the Smithsonian’s “The Way We Worked” exhibit.

Besides Hanley Falls, other Minnesota places/information in the show are a photo of women sorting sweet potatoes; quotes from Earl Bakken, founder of Minneapolis-based Medtronics, maker of the first self-contained pacemaker; a 1974 photo from Danheim Dairy in New Ulm; a SPAM Town banner; mention of the Moorhead Spuds (hometown pride for the town team); and a 1928 photo of St. Paul Gas and Light Company workers at a dance.

Johnson has no idea how the Hanley Falls photo became a part of this national touring exhibit. She discovered the town’s inclusion while vacationing in Tennessee, where she stopped to view the exhibit.

An old Hanley Falls fire truck is among vehicles housed in the outbuildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

After leaving Hanley Falls, the exhibit will travel to five other Minnesota locations, including the Wright County Historical Society in Buffalo (Oct. 27 – Dec. 8); the Winona County Historical Society in Winona (Dec. 15 – Jan. 26); the Steele County Historical Society in Owatonna (Feb. 2 – March 16); the Virginia Area Historical Society in Virginia (March 23 – May 4); and the Depot Preservation Alliance in Baudette (May 11 – June 22).

In Hanley Falls, “The Way We Were” can be viewed between 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday or from 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. The museum season was extended to accommodate the show.

Admission to Minnesota’s Machinery Museum is free, but monetary contributions are accepted via a free will donation box.

Located in southwestern Minnesota, Hanley Falls sits nine miles south of Granite Falls or 20 miles north of Marshall along Highway 23. Go one block west of Highway 23 and then a block north to find the museum.

An old-style farm kitchen on the second floor of the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

“The Way We Worked” is presented in Hanley Falls in collaboration with the Minnesota Humanities Center. Funding, says Johnson, is via the Center; The Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment (Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund); the Smithsonian Institute; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the United States Congress.

Minnesota’s Machinery Museum previously hosted the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street projects “Barn Again” and “Between Fences.”

FYI: To learn more about Minnesota’s Machinery Museum, click here to link to the museum website.

For more info about “The Way We Worked,” click here.

To view additional photos by Vincent H. Mart in the Minnesota Historical Society archives, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Remembering the start of the Civil War April 8, 2011

THE FIRST AND LAST TIME I attended a Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting, I was impressed by the collective knowledge this Faribault-based organization possesses of the Civil War. The session opened with each member sharing a historical snippet about the conflict.

Even guests like me were expected to offer something, anything. I was getting nervous as my turn neared and I couldn’t think of anything intellectually impressive to share. I had come solely because I wanted to see the slave documents that a guest speaker was bringing to the gathering. I didn’t expect this.

But then I remembered my tour of the Minnesota State Capitol months earlier. I could tell them, although I’m sure they knew, that a Howard Pyle painting, The Battle of Nashville, hangs in the Governor’s Reception Room. The artwork, according to the Capitol tour guide, is among the most noted of the Civil War and depicts the bloody conflict at Shy’s Hill, often defined as the war’s decisive battle.

And just to make sure the Roundtable members understood that I wasn’t completely Civil War illiterate, I also told them that the inclusion of white Georgia marble in Capitol construction drew the ire of Civil War veterans. The marble comprises much of the building’s exterior.


Georgia marble graces the exterior of the Minnesota State Capitol.

I doubt my tidbit facts impressed them, but I tried.

If you’re like me, not well-versed on the details of the Civil War, this year—the 150th anniversary of that conflict—offers the perfect opportunity to learn more. The Minnesota Historical Society has a lengthy list of educational activities planned to commemorate the anniversary.

This Saturday, April 9, for example, is “Civil War Flag Day at the Capitol” featuring three recently-conserved Minnesota Civil War flags and one from the Spanish-American War. The 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. event, with a 1 p.m. program, also includes Civil War artifacts, reenactors, children’s activities and more.

I won’t be at the State Capitol on Saturday because I’ll be attending “Recognition of the Fall of Fort Sumter—The Beginning of the Civil War” hosted by the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable and the Rice County Historical Society from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. in Faribault. On April 12, 1861, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War. Saturday’s event will be held at the Guild House of the 1862 historic Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour, 101 NW Sixth Street.


The Guild House is attached to the historic Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour across from Central Park in Faribault.

I expect that some of the items on display at the Guild House will be artifacts—Abraham Lincoln photos and postcards, Civil War uniform buttons—I saw at the 2009 Roundtable meeting. Back then the presenter failed to bring his slave documents. Slave bills will be displayed on Saturday. There’ll also be weapons and money, buckles and bonds, and more.


Civil War uniform buttons and insignias displayed at a 2009 Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting.

This Civil War postcard was among the items a collector brought to a Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting.

An 1840 Philadelphia Derringer, like the pistol used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. A collector brought the pistol to the Roundtable meeting I attended in 2009.

Jan Stevens, an area Civil War enthusiast who creates replica historical clothing will dress in period clothing and greet visitors. Another reenactor will recruit visitors to join the cause.

Civil War music will fill the Guild House. Author Richard G. Krom, great grandson of a Civil War soldier from nearby Morristown, will sign and sell copies of his book, The 1st MN Second to None.

Finally, I’m looking forward to once again examining the recently-restored Rice County Civil War battle flag of Company C, Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. I’ve seen the flag only once before, viewing it at the county historical society under the watchful eye of Director Susan Garwood.

I was disappointed then that Garwood wouldn’t allow me to photograph the flag, even when I promised to turn off the flash on my camera. She wouldn’t be swayed.

But I’ll have my camera with me on Saturday and I’ll try again.

I expect the Civil War artifact collector whom I first met at the 2009 Roundtable meeting will be there too. He, thankfully, allowed me to photograph his historical pieces. But he wouldn’t allow me to publish his name in a blog post I wrote then. He looked me directly in the eye and demanded anonymity to protect his substantial investment. He wasn’t joking when he told me he knew where he could find me.

FYI: This weekend’s activities at the Capitol and in Faribault are free and open to the public. However, donations to the Rice County Historical Society will be accepted at the Faribault event where homemade pie and coffee will be served.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling