Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An unlikely solution to the Minnesota government shutdown July 5, 2011

MY EXTENDED FAMILY likes to have fun, so we plotted this weekend to overthrow the Minnesota state government. Not to worry. We are all talk and no action.

But we definitely have ideas about who could run the state given the current legislature and governor can’t seem to handle the task of agreeing on a budget. That would be us. (Yes, the general feeling was a definite frustration with the current state government shutdown.)

Therefore, in a discussion that spiraled into hilarity, we overthrew the governor and put all of our people in place, most of us choosing to head up a state department based on our interests and experiences.

We also agreed that one of our first subversive, defiant acts would be to clamber onto the golden horses atop the state Capitol.

The golden horses and chariot atop the Minnesota State Capitol.

I’m heading up communications, a job I’m uncertain I can handle because I’ve been instructed to deliver only a positive spin on every bit of state government news.

The educators in the family were appointed to the Department of Education, the daycare provider to the Department of Health and Human Services. My eldest brother, by age default, became the new governor.

The outdoor-loving summer parks worker now manages the Department of Natural Resources. He’s always wanted to hunt alligators, so he’s bringing alligators to Minnesota.

Then the newly-appointed finance director, a family member pursuing an accounting degree, suggested that rather than return the alligators to Florida in the winter, we move them into the sewer system. We readily embraced that idea.

We didn’t debate the cost of an alligator hunting license.

But there may have been an unspoken agreement to lock current Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and the legislators in a room with a contingent of angry, jaw-snapping alligators Minnesotans.

DISCLAIMER: The above story represents my version of the family political discussion and may not be representative of all family members. However, I am the Director of Communications here at Minnesota Prairie Roots. Therefore I am free to spin this story however I wish.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A Civil War enthusiast’s day at the Minnesota State Capitol May 20, 2011

Brandon Peeters poses in his Union uniform at the Minnesota State Capitol.

WITH TELEVISION CAMERAS around him, Brandon Peeters of Owatonna led the Pledge of Allegiance during a Civil War Sesquicentennial Day program at the Minnesota State Capitol on Wednesday.

It was a proud moment for his mom, Cindy Hokanson. “We had a great day at the Capitol,” Cindy says. “Brandon was so honored to meet so many people.”

And I expect they were equally pleased to meet this engaging seventh grader who enthuses about the Civil War, his history passion. He channels his interest in to teaching others about the war, participating in re-enactment and roundtable groups, visiting battlefields, learning and more. He’s also applied to serve on the Governor’s Civil War Commemoration Task Force.

That’s all pretty impressive stuff.

You certainly have to admire an individual with such passion, especially when he’s only 13.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and Brandon Peeters.

Those gathered at the Capitol posed for a group photo. Brandon is in the second row.

Three Civil War cannons given to the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment were on display at the Capitol.

© Text Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Cindy Hokanson

 

All things Civil War at the Minnesota Capitol May 17, 2011

IN NOVEMBER OF 2009, I met Brandon Peeters. He’s an extraordinary kid. Tomorrow he’ll be at the Minnesota State Capitol, leading the Pledge of Allegiance as our state celebrates Civil War Sesquicentennial Day.

That’s quite an honor for this seventh grader from Owatonna who has a passion for the Civil War. He teaches Owatonna students and others about the war, has visited many Civil War battlefields and belongs to the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment re-enactment group and the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable.

Brandon Peeters, front center, marches with Civil War re-enactors.

When Brandon discovered while working on a third grade family history project that his great-great-great grandfather, Valentine Katzung, served with the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment from 1861-1864, fought at Gettysburg and was shot in the left heel, he was hooked on history.

“Brandon is so excited and very honored to be included in the program,” says his mom, Cindy Hokanson. “Needless to say, Brandon’s passion for the Civil War has only gotten stronger. He actually has applied to be one of the nine citizen members of the Governor’s Civil War Commemoration Task Force.” He’ll learn in June whether he has been selected to serve on that board.

Civil War buffs aplenty will gather at the Capitol on Wednesday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Events begin at 10 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. with a noon program in the rotunda that will include speakers (Governor Mark Dayton, former Governor Al Quie and others) during dedication of the 2011-2012 Minnesota Legislative Manual, aka the “Blue Book.” This year’s edition is packed with Minnesota-related Civil War history and trivia.

Several members of the Faribault-based Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable will participate in a Civil War Information Fair in the Capitol basement Great Hall. “We will have Civil War memorabilia, books, brochures and a Civil War band poster,” says CVCWR member Dan Peterson of Faribault. “It should be fun sharing with the public, other roundtables and some re-enactors.”

Several roundtables, authors, historical organizations and others will present educational materials and information to attendees. Some will dress as Civil War re-enactors.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul H. Anderson will dress in period costume during a presentation in court chambers. Civil War Capitol tours are also available at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Three Civil War cannons given to the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment in 1862 by Major-General A. H. Sanford, the American Ambassador to Belgium, are sure to be a hit with Capitol visitors on Wednesday.

It is the first time in decades that the trio of cannons—kept at Camp Ripley, the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley and in Montevideo—will be showcased in one location, according to information from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office. Two will be displayed in the rotunda and the third on the upper mall in front of the Capitol.

I’m certain tomorrow’s event will pack the Capitol with Minnesotans interested in the Civil War. Having attended one Cannon Valley Roundtable meeting and a recent Civil War event in Faribault, I know the passion people possess for this time in our nation’s history. I have yet to meet a young person more interested in the Civil War than Brandon Peeters. If anyone deserves to serve on the Governor’s Civil War Commemoration Task Force, it would be this self-proclaimed history freak.

If you’re at the Capitol tomorrow, look for Brandon. I expect he’ll be in his Civil War costume and sporting a smile a mile wide.

© Capitol photo copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Brandon Peeters photo courtesy of Cindy Hokanson

 

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

 

Balancing security, freedom and accessibility at the Capitol January 12, 2011

 

I photographed the Minnesota State Capitol during a fall 2009 tour.

TWICE IN MY LIFE, I’ve toured the Minnesota State Capitol.

The first time was back in the 1960s, when my sixth grade classmates and I traveled some 130 miles from Vesta Elementary School on a field trip to St. Paul.

Then, more than four decades later in the fall of 2009, my husband, teenage son and I toured the Capitol while on a day-trip.

 

Italian marble columns embrace the Capitol's grand stairway.

While the grandeur of the building with its marble columns and staircases, opulent furnishings, ornate carvings and impressionable art certainly awed me, I was most struck by an assertion from our tour guide.

“This is the people’s place. You own this building,” he told us repeatedly. And, yes, that’s a direct quote. I was taking notes because I later wrote a magazine feature story about my Capitol visit.

 

The lavish Governor's Reception Room at the Capitol.

I remember thinking then, and writing later, how I would love to welcome guests into the lavish Governor’s Reception Room with dark wood, leather chairs, extensive carvings, heavy drapes, a fireplace and historic paintings.

I also remember feeling surprised that our tour group could just walk into the reception room. At the time, I also wondered which door would lead me to the governor.

Now, today, in the aftermath of the wounding of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others and the shooting deaths of six in last Saturday’s attack, I am rethinking our fall 2009 visit to the Minnesota State Capitol.

Because the legislature was not in session when we were there, the building felt almost abandoned to me. I don’t recall seeing hardly anyone, let alone a security presence, anywhere. And security cameras? If they were there, I didn’t notice them, not that I was looking.

Honestly, I was a bit of a lagger during our fast-paced tour. I dawdled and lollygagged to snap photos. I expect our guide noticed my lingering with only five tourists in our group. But he never said anything and I probably could have slipped inside somewhere I shouldn’t have been if I really wanted to do so.

I felt then like I could have wandered anywhere and that surprised me.

Today, in the wake of the Arizona shootings, security issues are once again, as you know, the focus of concern at places like the Capitol complex. But the dilemma lies, as you also know, in balancing security needs with public accessibility.

Here’s a paragraph lifted from that magazine feature I wrote about my Capitol visit:

“Remember, it’s we the people,” our guide impresses upon us as we sit in the House chamber gallery. After a half hour of listening to him, I am beginning to feel like I own this place, like my voice could make a difference. He speaks of approachable lawmakers, who are open to constituents and who mentor pages. As we stand in a back stairwell, he tells of lobbyists and lawmakers who mingle here during the legislative session.

 

A view of the Minnesota House of Representatives chamber from the gallery.

Looking from the gallery onto the Senate floor.

I wonder now if those legislators and lobbyists will mingle so easily in that back stairway.

Will those of us who tour the Capitol still feel as comfortable as we did before the Arizona shooting?

Will the Capitol guides still tell visitors: “This is the people’s place. You own this building.”

If you read these words inscribed in the Capitol, will you take them to heart?

“The true grandeur of nations is in those qualities which constitute the true greatness of the individual. Labor to keep alive in your heart that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Will you wonder about the weight of these words written above the doorway and viewable from the Minnesota Supreme Court bench?

“Where law ends tyranny begins.”

Conscience and tyranny and law.

The Arizona shootings do not qualify as tyranny, but the violence fits the definition of tyrannical—harsh, severe, unjust, cruel.

How do we weigh it all? Security, freedom and accessibility.

I have no answers.

 

Words from The Declaration of Independence inspire on the House ceiling.

The Star of the North centers the floor of the Capitol rotunda in the "people's place."

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling