Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Pequot Lakes: In the heart of Paul Bunyan land July 28, 2021

Babe the Blue Ox, public art and photo op in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

ONLY RECENTLY HAVE I begun to explore the central Minnesota lakes region and small towns therein. Thanks to the generosity of a sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who are sharing their guest lake cabin with extended family, going Up North to the cabin is now a reality rather than a life-long dream. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful to experience what, for many Minnesotans, is a multi-generational part of their summers.

Kettles of baked beans, lifted from an underground pit, await serving during Pequot Lakes’ recent Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

On our last trip North, Randy and I attended Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. We’ve previously explored that small town by popping into shops, including the unique Thurlow Hardware. Pequot landmarks itself with a bobber-shaped water tower. That would be the bobber from Paul Bunyan’s fishing pole.

A friendly Paul Bunyan mingles with the crowd during Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This is Paul Bunyan land. The place of lumberjack lore. So different from my home in southeastern Minnesota. Paul and his side kick, Babe the Blue Ox, are universally appealing, creating a strong tourism branding identity for this region.

In Trailside Park, bobber sculpture and the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office draw visitors. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The Paul Bunyan Trail from Brainerd to Bemidji runs through the heart of Pequot Lakes in Trailside Park.

Paul Bunyan art promoting the scenic byway, spotted at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, a 54-mile route along county roads in scenic northern Crow Wing County and a portion of Cass County, also passes through Pequot Lakes.

The bobber sculpture proved popular with visitors during Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

To visit this region is to appreciate and embrace the stories and character of Northwoods strong Paul Bunyan. And his sweetheart Lucette Diana Kensack (seen in Hackensack, a bit farther to the north).

Kettles of beans bake in a covered pit. Each is named. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I appreciate how hard the good folks of this area work to brand this region and to create events that entertain and also provide visitors with unique experiences. Bean Hole Days, for example, rates as unlike anything I’ve ever attended. I loved everything about it from the people to the phenomenal homemade beans baked underground in Paul Bunyan-sized kettles.

The bobber brands Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

In about 10 more days, on Saturday, August 7, Pequot Lakes hosts another celebration—a Chokecherry Festival. Chokecherries are a tiny stone fruit often used in making jellies and jams. Pequot Lakes calls itself the Chokecherry Capital of Minnesota. I’m quite familiar with these berries, having picked more pails full than I care to remember while growing up on a southwestern Minnesota farm.

I expect vending of tees at the Chokecherry Festival, just like at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

That aside, it doesn’t appear the Pequot Lakes celebration includes any chokecherry harvesting. But it does feature a Pit Spitting Contest and a Chokecherry Culinary Contest with four categories. Jams/jellies/preserves, pastries, wine and originality.

Festival food offered by the Pequot Lakes/Breezy Point Lions Club. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And just like at Bean Hole Days, the 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. event in Trailside Park includes an Arts-Crafts Fair, food vendors, kids’ activities and more.

Dogs are welcome. I photographed this one in the arms of a Arts/Crafts Fair vendor at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I encourage you to take in small town celebrations like those offered in Pequot Lakes and neighboring communities in Paul Bunyan land. To do so is to experience the Northwoods culture, at least the side that draws tourists to town.

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This marks the third, and final, in a series of posts on Pequot Lakes.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A flavor of the Minnesota northwoods at Bean Hole Days July 26, 2021

The Bean Hole crew guides a kettle of beans from an underground cooking pit at Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

LONG LINES FORMED an hour before the event in makeshift narrow aisles crafted from stakes and ribbon. Folks waited not for Paul Bunyan, although he was there, working the crowd. And not for Elvis, although he performed. Rather, they waited for a serving of baked beans.

Thousands line up for a bowl of baked beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
My bowl of baked beans. The beans are fee with donations accepted. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Lifting the kettles from the pit requires machinery and manpower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This scene unfolded on Wednesday, July 14, during Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes, a small town in the central Minnesota lakes region. Randy and I, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin south of nearby Crosslake, attended for the first time. And it was quite the experience. I mean that in a truly positive way. While I don’t like waiting, waiting for a generous serving of bacon-laced navy beans baked in a wood-fired pit proved well worth my time. I’ve never tasted better homemade baked beans.

The bean crew waits near the pit where the beans bake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The process of crafting these beans is impressive. I missed the prep and lowering of massive cast iron kettles into the ground Tuesday. But in chatting with a bean crew member on Wednesday, I learned that the 350 pounds of navy beans were soaked and partially cooked with propane before lowering the cauldrons into the pit of wood coals for overnight baking. And yes, it takes a knowledgeable team and machinery for this operation.

Almost ready to serve beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

My bean crew source wasn’t sharing details about ingredients, with the exception of 126 pounds of bacon mixed into the beans. The special “sauce,” which definitely tastes of molasses, is a guarded secret. And that’s all right. It adds to the mystery, the intrigue.

Lining up for beans under the direction of a volunteer. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

From my observations, volunteers have this bean-baking down to a science. And they should. Bean Hole Days began in 1938 as a way for local businessmen to thank farmers for their business. Today, the focus seems more on drawing vacationers into town—to the local shops and restaurants. While waiting in line for 45 minutes, I chatted with couples from Baxter and the Twin Cities.

We arrived early with plenty of time to check out the arts and crafts. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Bean Hole Days royalty. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
An old-fashioned barrel train weaves through the festival grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This event at Trailside Park is about much more than beans. It also features an arts and craft fair, a small kiddie carnival, food vendors and crowning of Bean Hole royalty. And this year free COVID-19 vaccinations.

These friendly vendors sold art (Shea J. Maze) and naturally-dyed goods (Diaspora Textiles). Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I enjoyed chatting with vendors, mingling, watching. And photographing.

Paul Bunyan greets Bean Hole Days attendees. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Bean Hole Days, because of its location in Pequot Lakes among lakes and pines in cabin country, reflects the Minnesota northwoods and all that entails. Fishing. The town water tower is shaped like a bobber. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Paul shook hands, posed for photos and generally welcomed guests. Babe and bobber sculptures provided photo ops.

The kettles of beans are given Scandinavian names. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Even the kettles of beans, sponsored by area businesses, feature names connecting to the region’s heritage. Lena. Sven. Ole. And more.

Elvis entertains the waiting crowd. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
This mug allows you to go in the fast/first serving line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Buy a mug and enter the fast lane. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

As I waited in line for beans, I danced to the music of Elvis performing live. That garnered a compliment from a volunteer guiding guests to the right serving kettles. Those who purchased a 2021 Bean Hole Days mug advanced through the FAST PASS FOR GAS line. I appreciated the humor. While Randy and I didn’t buy mugs, we left a donation.

Volunteers ladle generous portions of baked beans. Some people brought their mugs from past years. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And we left full of beans and appreciative of all the people who put together this unique small town Minnesota northwoods experience.

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Please check back for more photos from Bean Hole Days as I couldn’t possibly fit everything into a single post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on Minnesota Nice (Enough) October 19, 2020

Stickers span generations. Here my granddaughter, then two, looks at her Poppy stickers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2018.

WHEN MY GIRLS, now in their early 30s, were growing up, sticker books were all the rage. They filled mini books with stickers. Peel stickers from sheets of glossy paper and adhere them to blank pages. Horses. Kitties. And much more. Cute and bold Lisa Frank designs mostly in a vivid rainbow of hues, strong on pinks and purples.

Park and other stickers grace the window of a 1959 Edsel Village Wagon at a Faribault Car Cruise Night, proving that even adults value stickers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

My daughters loved paging through their sticker books. Stickers still hold universal appeal. For all ages. (The stickers of my era were lick-and-stick to scenes printed on pages of a sticker book.)

That segues to Minnesota Nice Enough, a Nisswa-based company that crafts weatherproof vinyl stickers that are not your kids’ mass-produced outsourced stickers. These are promoted as “made by real people who care about quality, art, beer, bicycles & dogs.” Now that appeals to me.

Babe the Blue Ox sculpture in Nisswa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

I first learned about this company during a September visit to Nisswa, a small tourist town located in Minnesota’s central lakes region. Randy and I were in the area, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin. One day, we ventured into nearby Nisswa to check out the many shops that define this town. Those businesses include Zaiser’s Gift Shop, billing itself as “serving the Nisswa lakes area since 1947 with the most kick-ass products this side of the Milky Way!”

Small grassroots shops line downtown Nisswa.

Already I like this business. Humor and creativity rate high with me. And Biff Ulm, MN Nice Enough creative head who also owns the family retail boutique, obviously possesses both. One need only scroll through the sticker offerings (also sold on etsy) to confirm that. (The business also sells mugs.)

Paul Bunyan, carved into a totem pole at the Totem Pole shop in Nisswa.

Many stickers feature a decidedly northwoods Minnesota theme with buffalo plaid, Paul Bunyan, moose, pines, loons, canoes… Others highlight Minnesotans’ idiosyncrasies like calling pop “pop,” not soda. And calling hotdish “hotdish,” not casserole. And, as promised, beer gets some love in several stickers, including Minnesota and Wisconsin-shaped beer mugs. Yes, Wisconsin also gets lots of love from Minnesota Nice Enough. And, yes, you can purchase a Minnesota Nice Enough sticker, too.

The sticker that initially grabbed my attention.

But it was the oversized ALL WELCOME sticker in the front window of Zaiser’s that first grabbed my attention and led me to learn more about Minnesota Nice Enough (which also features products for adult, not kids’, eyes). That spotlight sticker proclaims that all are welcome. All cultures, beliefs, colors, sizes, ages and identities. And at a time when our nation is so divided, so filled with animosity toward one another, I appreciate this message. It gives me hope, uplifts and encourages me. Thank you, Minnesota Nice Enough.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Up North at the Lake Cabin, Part I July 15, 2020

A view of Horseshoe Lake on a weather-perfect July day in Minnesota.

 

FOR MANY MINNESOTANS, summers at an Up North family lake cabin span generations. Not so for me.

 

The guest cabin sits just around the corner from this, the main year-round house. Both are northwoods Minnesota style.

 

But now, into my sixties, I am finally enjoying that quintessential summer experience thanks to the generosity of extended family who recently purchased lake property with a roomy guest cabin. They intentionally chose a place they could share with family. And I am grateful.

 

Isaac loved splashing in the lake. The water was clear, vastly different from the murky lakes of southern Minnesota.

 

For five days last week into this, Randy and I were joined by our eldest daughter and her family and our son at the cabin near Cross Lake in central Minnesota. To have that family time together in such an incredibly beautiful natural setting was a gift. A joy. A much-needed respite from reality.

 

The neighbors’ dock, a visual of relaxation.

 

Randy and I never left the lake place together until we left. No trips into town, mostly because of COVID-19 concerns. But Randy did surprise us with an unexpected Monday morning run to Valeri Ann’s Family Foods in Ossipee for her heavenly homemade caramel rolls. He got the last two.

 

We saw loons every single day of our stay.

 

Relaxing in the hammock strung lakeside in the pine trees.

 

Randy and Isabelle watch as the sun set reflects on the treeline across the lake.

 

We found plenty to do at the lake cabin. Time in and on the water. Time watching eagles and loons. Time fishing. Time dining lakeside. Time in the hammock. Time around the campfire. Time with the grandkids, ages four and 18 months.

 

A beached kayak awaits its passenger.

 

Our son, back in Minnesota for our family vacation, paddles into the lake.

 

The grandkids (and adults) loved the inflatable floaties.

 

There is nothing quite like immersing one’s self in the northwoods lake experience.

 

Grandpa and grandson lakeside.

 

I will always treasure hearing Isaac giggle at the fish wiggling on the end of Grandpa’s fishing line. I will always delight in watching Isabelle wiggle to her made-up “I Got the Wiggles” song on the lakeside deck. I will always cherish memories of walking outside at night with Randy and Izzy to show our granddaughter the stars. I will always remember seeing my eldest glide across the water on a paddleboard, her daughter sitting on the front.

 

One of the adult resident eagles in a lakeside treetop.

 

I will remember, too, walks down the long evergreen-lined driveway, the many minutes standing at the fork in the drive, neck craned to watch the resident eagles.

 

Grandpa and grandchildren follow the pine-edged driveway.

 

So many memories. So much happiness. So much peace.

 

Kid-sized chairs used by the grandkids.

 

And, for my grandchildren, the beginning of summers Up North at the lake cabin.

 

Please check back for more posts in this “Up North at the Cabin” series.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

All about community in Emmaville, a nostalgic place in Minnesota’s northwoods February 19, 2014

I’VE NEVER VISITED Emmaville, Minnesota, population four two.

And up until last week, I’d never even heard of this unincorporated settlement, a remnant of an early 1900s logging town located 12 miles north of Park Rapids along Hubbard County Road 4 deep in Paul Bunyan country.

The Emmaville was dark and empty when the Sprys purchased it in 2010. They did a lot of cleaning and renovating before reopening the cafe and convenience store in January 2011.

The Emmaville Store stood dark and empty when Mike and Melinda Spry purchased it in 2010. They cleaned and renovated the combination cafe, bar and convenience store before reopening the business in January 2011. The vintage motel and gas signage dates back to the 1950s or 1960s.

But thanks to the folksy writing of Mike Spry, co-owner of the Emmaville Store along with wife, Melinda, since 2010, I’m now endeared to this place.

In his blog, “Rediscovering Emmaville—The adventure continues,” Spry shares his love for Emmaville in a way that only one intimately familiar with a people and place can.

Snowmobilers frequently stop in Emmaville.

Snowmobilers frequently stop in Emmaville.

Spry begins his recent “The Emmaville Shuffle” post:

You know it’s winter when you witness the Emmaville Shuffle. The dancers walk up to the counter in our store and start patting themselves. They grab their butts, pause briefly to think, and then start unzipping their outer wear. They stretch and grope inside their suits, and sometimes undo more zippers and straps before their hands dive back in. We sometimes feel the need to avert our eyes.

You might think we’re running some kind of backwoods burlesque show here, but all we’re really talking about is snowmobilers trying to find their money. We call it the Emmaville Shuffle.

From those opening paragraphs (you can read the rest by clicking here), I was hooked on this blog, which focuses on “creating and sustaining community.”

Mike and Mel Spry, Emmaville's only residents, decided not to mess with a successful marketing tool

Mike and Mel Spry, shown here, “decided not to mess with a successful marketing tool” created by a previous owner although the population today is only two.  “The Biggest Little Town in the World,” advertising the population as four, dates back to the 1980s. At that time the store’s owner, his wife and two kids lived in Emmaville.

I needed to know more about these business owners, this settlement’s only permanent “residents” although Mike says those living in the surrounding woods and along area lakes also call Emmaville home.

The couple, now in their early 50s, grew up in nearby Detroit Lakes. Mike hunted and fished in the Emmaville area as a boy. Both attended Bemidji State University. Eventually, they would leave the region, only to return after Mike sold his shares in an environmental consulting and engineering firm.

Mike, in an email exchange with me, can’t pinpoint precisely why he and his wife decided to purchase and reopen the vacated Emmaville Store. The business venture also includes a cafe, bar, cabin, four-unit motel, a 10-site campground and seasonal storage units. But he calls the endeavor a labor of love.

“We love being a part of a rural community where people look out for each other and support each other,” Mike says. “In our previous life we traveled and moved around a lot, so we really long to be part of a community.”

Dining

Hanging out in Emmaville.

And that they are, as noted in a May 2013 blog post titled “Clayton is back!” Mike writes of seasonal resident Clayton, a 91-year-old who claims “the second bar stool from the right, where he can hear the TV good” and who serves as official Ambassador, Welcoming Committee, Handyman, Tour Guide and Historian:

You’ll be happy to know that Clayton is back in Emmaville, having arrived safe and sound last Thursday. However, upon seeing him in the flesh, Mary and Mel became concerned. To them, he seemed just too skinny. Clayton explained he had exercised all winter to work off all the weight he gained at Emmaville last year. So the ladies have rolled up their sleeves and are bound and determined to plump him up.

Three squares a day, plus all the pie and ice cream he can eat ought to do it.

With offerings like fresh-baked cinnamon and caramel rolls, banana bread, bars and other sweets, I expect Clayton regained weight in no time. The cafe does most of its business during breakfast and lunch, Mike says. The Emmaville Store website promotes a “famous” Sunday Brunch and Buffet from mid-May to early September and suggests trying the French toast made from cranberry-wild rice bread.

Friday evenings you’ll find, among other selections, an All-You-Can-Eat Taco Bar. And on Saturdays, it’s “Burgers in the Bar” night.

A vintage photo shows the Emmaville Store shortly after it opened in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

A photo from the late 1930s or early 1940s shows the Emmaville Store shortly after it opened.

Nostalgia, as much as gas and food, likely draws customers off the county road to Emmaville. Itasca State Park lies only 20 miles away and the recreational Heartland Trail and North Country Scenic Trail are even closer. Emmaville also sits along state-funded snowmobile trails connecting Itasca with Bemidji, Park Rapids and Walker.

Tourists, hunters, anglers, seasonal residents, bikers, snowmobilers and more all find their way here.

Dining at the Emmaville Store cafe.

Dining at the Emmaville Store cafe.

No matter who walks in the door, whether local or visitor, Mike says, “We try to be warm and welcoming to everyone. We want them to feel like family. It’s a place where they can step back in time and remember when they used to come up north when they were kids. It’s also a place for locals to gather for coffee, meetings and celebrations.”

Business can be slow sometimes, though, including in March and April. Yet the Sprys have managed to make enough money to pay the bills. The challenge has been finding time to get away. “It’s a lot like owning a dairy farm,” Mike says. “You can’t leave it easily.”

As Mike says, the Emmaville Store is a labor of love for him and Mel. His down-to-earth heartfelt writing about the people and happenings in Emmaville proves that.

Mike emailed this bonus photo from Emmaville of the 1907 schoolhouse, labeled by previous owner Cal Jensen as the University of Emmaville.

Mike emailed this bonus photo from Emmaville of the 1907 schoolhouse, labeled by previous owner Cal Jensen as the University of Emmaville. Jensen was a colorful character, Mike says, who posted several witty signs to attract tourists. The Sprys have refurbished that signage like “The More People I Meet, the More I Like My Dog.” Today the old schoolhouse is owned and used by two brothers as a hunting cabin.

FYI: Want to read more of Mike’s musings from Emmaville? Click here to reach his “Rediscovering Emmaville” blog. And click here to reach the Emmaville Store website.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos courtesy of Mike Spry