Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A fair alternative September 4, 2020

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Photographed on August 29 in the Ace Hardware store parking lot, Faribault, Minnesota.

 

MINNESOTANS LOVE THEIR FAIRS. County and then state. And right about now, crowds would be converging on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights for the final days of the Great Minnesota Get Together.

But not me; I haven’t attended in nearly 40 years. And not anyone at the fair this year due to COVID-19 and the resulting cancellation of this big food/entertainment party.

While the fair features everything from crop art (gone virtual this year) to farm animals, from carnival rides to marketplaces, from politicians (especially this election year) to princesses, the food seems the draw. Anything on-a-stick. And a lot not on a stick.

To satisfy the hungry masses missing fair food, the State Fair this year offered a drive-through Food Parade at the fairgrounds for $20/vehicle plus whatever the cost for the foods ordered from 16 participating vendors. Tickets quickly sold out for the food frenzy event that continues through Labor Day weekend.

While people are waiting in their vehicles for turkey legs, mini donuts, egg rolls on-a-stick, sno cones, walleye cakes, funnel cakes, Sweet Martha’s cookies and much more, I’m content to avoid the congestion.

I know faithful fair food devotees will tell you it’s not the same…but I spotted this food stand in the parking lot of the local Ace Hardware Store on Saturday morning. Cheese curds and pronto pups vended right here in Faribault. No need to travel to the Cities or pay $20 or wait in line at the fairgrounds.

I already hear the protests. “But it’s not the fair!” And that would be accurate. No crowds pressing in. No feeling of togetherness. No endless food choices. Just a taste of the fair, right in my backyard. In hardware store and other parking lots around Minnesota. Streetside. On fairgrounds in Rice and Steele counties during special food events earlier this summer. And even in some restaurants. It may not be the same experience as the State Fair, but, hey, it’s something. Which is better than nothing during a global pandemic.

FYI: To find pop-up fair food stands in Minnesota, visit the Fair Food Finder Facebook page by clicking here.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I’m a princess, but not of the Milky Way August 15, 2020

Past Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

“I LOVE YOU, my Little Princess.”

Oh, how sweet those loving words from my Aunt Dorothy, who has always called me her “Little Princess.” And still does. In every phone conversation between Minnesota and New Jersey, she ends our call with those endearing words.

It’s not that I’m much of a princess. Far from it. At least not in the sense of how most of us visualize royalty. I’m a tee and jeans woman. No glitz, no glam, no nail polish. And, in recent years, I’ve allowed my hair to go naturally and beautifully grey. Because, you know, I’m tired of putting chemicals on my head and I earned every grey strand…so I’m owning it.

 

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up. I spent a lot of hours through my childhood working in this barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But there was a time, back in my teen years, when I wanted to be a real princess. As in the Redwood County dairy princess. So I competed for that title, recognizing from the minute I stepped into the room of competitors, that I had no chance. I may have been a hands-on, working-in-the-barn daughter of a dairy farmer, but I didn’t possess the confidence, poise or other skills to represent Minnesota’s dairy industry.

 

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A past exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna featured photos of previous royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The judges chose a competent young woman, whose name I don’t recall, to rein as the Redwood County dairy ambassador along with other county princesses from throughout the state. Dairy princesses have been a Minnesota tradition for 67 years, highlighted in crowning of Princess Kay of the Milky Way around the time of our State Fair. Wednesday evening, Olmsted County Dairy Princess Brenna Connelly of Byron was crowned in a private ceremony among 10 masked and social distancing candidates.

 

A Princess Kay of the Milky Way butter carving in the Minnesota History Center’s MN150 exhibit and photographed several years ago at the Steele County History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Post coronation in a typical year, the new state princess and nine other candidates sit in a special refrigerated and rotating cooler in the dairy building at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to get their heads carved in blocks of butter while fair visitors crowd around and watch. But this year, because of COVID-19, there is no fair. But the butter sculpting tradition continues, with notable changes.

Each county princess, starting with the new 67th Princess Kay of the Milky Way, will sit alone in the 40-degree butter sculpting booth with Litchfield artist Gerry Kulzer as he sculpts their likenesses from 90-pound blocks of Dinner Bell Creamery butter. They will be masked and social distancing. And when it comes to getting the princesses’ noses and mouths just right, each young woman will move outside the cooler and onto a ladder and remove her mask.

 

I’ve only attended the Minnesota State Fair a few times in my life, the last time decades ago. Many people love the fair. But I don’t because of the crowds. This mug came from my father-in-law’s collection of mugs.

 

Crowds won’t watch from inside the dairy building. Rather, updates are posted thrice daily on the Princess Kay Facebook page, starting at 10:30 am and continuing through August 22. The sculpting, which takes from six to eight hours, begins at 8:30 am and ends at 5 pm with several breaks. You can only imagine the challenges of sitting in 40 degrees for a prolonged period of time. We may be hardy Minnesotans to whom that temp feels balmy come mid-winter. But in August, not so much.

Once the butter sculpting is done, the princesses take their blocks of butters back to their respective homes and then do what they wish with them. The new princess is sharing hers with family and friends first and then with a food shelf. In past years, I’ve read stories about princess butter heads buttering corn at community sweetcorn feeds. But this year I don’t expect that to happen. Or at least it shouldn’t.

 

Inside the Ron and Diane Wegner dairy barn during a dairy day several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

That I was never chosen as a county dairy princess nearly 50 years ago was the right decision. I feel no disappointment because, I’ve always been a princess…in the eyes of my beloved Aunt Dorothy.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About those elephant ears September 4, 2018

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MY THREE ADULT CHILDREN MAY SEE each other only once a year. But their love for one another remains. Strong. Unaltered by time and distance. Bound by shared memories.

 

At the Minnesota State Fair. Photo by Miranda.

 

Take the photo my second daughter, Miranda, texted from the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday afternoon to her brother in Boston. The photo of concession stands is meaningless to most. But not to our family.

You see, back when Caleb was much younger and took words literally, he could not understand the serving of elephant ears at the fair. He considered those poor elephants with the missing ears and how awful the thought…until his dad and sisters explained. (I was smart enough to stay home and avoid the masses of fair-goers.) These elephant ears, they clarified, are sugar and cinnamon loaded pastries that, well, resemble elephant ears.

This fair story remains entrenched in our family’s collective memory. So I was not surprised that Miranda, back in Minnesota for the long weekend to visit and attend the State Fair with her sister, photographed the elephant ears concession stand. (I was smart enough to babysit my granddaughter and avoid the masses of fair-goers).

Caleb took his sister’s teasing in stride, now all these years later laughing with the rest of us at the elephant ears story. It is these types of family memories that bring joy. I have five siblings and, believe me, not all resurrected memories bring joy, especially when versions vary and some stories are best left untold.

This story is not one of those hurtful remembrances, but rather one that connects us and takes us back to a time when we were a family of five living under the same roof. We were not separated by nearly 1,500 miles or several hundred miles or 50 miles. I miss those days of togetherness. I know that life goes on. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my kids. I do. Every day.

So when my second daughter drove to Minnesota this weekend to visit her sister and niece for the first time in more than a year, I was over-the-moon happy. The sisters needed this time together. And I love that they thought of their brother while at the State Fair. They thought of me, too, returning with a bag of sugar-laden mini donuts. They remembered just how much I love that fair treat, a memory pulled from their childhood of attending the Rice County Fair.

This is the stuff of family love. Elephant ears and mini donuts. Sweet memories that endure time and distance.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fair thoughts September 2, 2016

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Isabelle's first official Minnesota State Fair photo, taken here with her daddy (my son-in-law), Marc. Photo by Amber.

Isabelle’s first official Minnesota State Fair photo, taken here with her daddy (my son-in-law), Marc. Photo by Amber.

LAST WEEK MY NEARLY five-month-old granddaughter attended her first Minnesota State Fair with her parents. The proof is in the image of Isabelle snugged in her daddy’s arms and posing next to a Gopher sculpture. She seems oblivious. Some day Izzy will care about the Great Minnesota Together. Just like her parents. But not like her grandma. I haven’t been to the State Fair since my college days.

 

Food vendor wagon

 

The nearest I came to a fair this summer was during a walk around my granddaughter’s neighborhood in a north metro ring suburb. About a month ago as her grandpa and I wheeled Izzy in her stroller, we happened upon a shuttered food vendor wagon parked in a driveway next to a boat.

This vendor pedals a range of fair foods. But not my favorite, mini doughnuts. I love the sweetness of that warm, sugary treat. Mini doughnuts link to childhood memories of small town carnivals and the county fair back in my native Redwood County. That rural rooted fair appealed to me. The oppressive crowds of the Minnesota State Fair do not.

TELL ME: Do you attend a county or state fair each summer? What is your favorite fair food? What do you most enjoy about the fair?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota faces: Vesta resident and promoter August 28, 2015

Portrait #37: My former neighbor, Dorothy

Dorothy. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Dorothy. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

HER NAME IS DOROTHY. She was my next farm to the north neighbor when I was growing up near Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Her eldest daughter, Mary Lee, and I were classmates from grade school through high school.

Dorothy was different than the others moms. She worked in town. At the bank. Back then in the 1960s and early 1970s, few women worked off the farm in rural Minnesota. So they were a bit of an oddity, at least through my girlhood eyes. Today Dorothy’s off-the-farm job would be the norm.

As I recall, my former neighbor was always active in the community. In 2012, when Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library, donated a library to my hometown of Vesta, Dorothy was key in finding a spot for it outside the Vesta Cafe. That’s when she posed for this photo as a representative of the Vesta Commercial Club.

She’s holding a book, Minnesota State Fair, An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky, donated to the LFL by Coffee House Press. It’s a fitting photo to publish now. The Minnesota State Fair opened yesterday and runs through Labor Day.

You won’t find me there elbowing my way into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ historic log building or lining up for a glass of $2 milk or watching an artist carve a dairy princess portrait in a butter block or sailing down a large slide or meandering around Machinery Hill. I suppose it’s almost traitorous to admit this, but I have not attended the Minnesota State Fair in nearly 40 years. I simply have no desire to fight the crowds.

But for those of you who wouldn’t miss the Great Minnesota Get Together, tell me why you go to the fair and what you must-see/must-do/must-eat there. In other words, what draws you to the fair?

Minnesota Faces is featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A geography quiz & an award-winning tech program September 2, 2011

OK, readers, it’s time for a little geography quiz.

Where are these towns located?

  • Bellingham
  • Nassau
  • Madison
  • Marietta
  • Dawson
  • Boyd

If you know/guessed, or cheated and googled, you likely would have answered as follows:

  • Bellingham,Washington
  • Nassau in The Bahamas
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Marietta, Georgia or Marietta, Ohio
  • Dawson, Georgia
  • Boyd, Texas

However I would award you extra credit and move you to the head of the class if you gave these answers:

  • Bellingham, Minnesota
  • Nassau, Minnesota
  • Madison, Minnesota
  • Marietta, Minnesota
  • Dawson, Minnesota
  • Boyd, Minnesota

See, you can learn a lot by going online and reading information on sites like Minnesota Prairie Roots.

But not everyone has easy access to computers, or the technical skills to use one, especially in rural areas like those six small Minnesota towns in the list above.

The folks in Lac qui Parle County understand that. And they’ve done something about the problem by bringing computers to the people via a mobile computer lab, LqP Computer Commuter.

The LqP Computer Commuter (Photo from online Minnesota Community Pride Showcase application)

How’s that for an innovative idea, selected as one of 30 Minnesota Community Pride Showcase winners that will be recognized on Saturday at the Minnesota State Fair?

Back in Lac qui Parle County, the computer commuter (a converted small handicapped accessible commuter bus) hit the road last summer and now travels three days a week, parking for four hours in each town—Bellingham on Monday morning, then to Nassau in the afternoon; to Madison and Marietta on Tuesday; and to Dawson and Boyd on Friday.

According to information submitted in the Minnesota Community Pride Showcase application, the mobile program has been well-received and continues to grow. You can read details about LqP Computer Commuter by clicking here.

The Lac qui Parle Economic Development Authority website, where you'll find basic info about the LqP Computer Commuter.

Aiming to increase digital literacy in a county with less than 8,000 residents, many of them over age 60, the mobile computer lab provides the public with free access to seven laptops and a lab coordinator and trainer.

Twelve local partners from the public and private sector support the project.

To the team who brainstormed and hatched this idea and to those who back the program, I applaud you. You are meeting a need in rural Minnesota.

I understand. I grew up in southwestern Minnesota and am aware how isolation, lack of funding, and more, often mean fewer opportunities.

When I was a child living on a farm outside of Vesta, I wanted nothing more than a library in town. Decades later my hometown of around 300 still doesn’t have a library, but at least the Plum Creek Bookmobile rolls onto Main Street once a month.

I expect residents and business people in Lac qui Parle County are thrilled to see the LqP Computer Commuter roll onto their Main Streets once a week.

I hope this idea catches on in other areas of rural Minnesota, and through-out the country. Rural residents should have as much access to technology, and the skills to use that technology, as those of us who live in more heavily-populated areas.

FYI: To read the list of winners in the Minnesota Community Pride Showcase, click here. The 30 winners will be recognized on Saturday at the Minnesota State Fair, where they also have an exhibit space. The fair has also awarded $500 to each winner.

Three programs in my county of residence, Rice County, are among those to be honored for their community efforts: Faribault Summer Youth Programs, Rice County Olympic Day and Northfield LINK Center.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hotdish, but not on a stick August 26, 2011

TYPICALLY MY POSTS focus on a single subject. But not today. I’m serving hotdish. And since the Minnesota State Fair opened Thursday, pretend it’s hotdish on a stick, which actually can be purchased, with cream of mushroom dipping sauce, from vendors Ole and Lena’s. Ja, sure, ya betcha.

This year you’ll also find, for the first time at the Great Minnesota Get Together, chocolate covered jalapeno peppers.

Now, you might think Minnesotans would hesitate to try jalapeno anything given our primarily Scandinavian and German taste buds. But I can tell you that two summers ago I found Dennis Gare pushing chocolate covered jalapenos at the Faribault Farmers’ Market and they were selling like lefse at a Norwegian dinner.

Dennis Gare's chocolate covered jalapenos, which I photographed two years ago.

At the time, Dennis told me the jalapenos were creating quite a buzz among customers and vendors. He’s one of those savvy marketing types who create atypical foods—like pickled eggs and horseradish—that will attract customers and increase sales.

I checked in with Dennis last Saturday and jokingly asked if he was the vendor peddling the chocolate covered jalapeno peppers at the State Fair. Nope. That would be Andre’s Watermelon. But he was a little worried about the fieriness of the over-sized jalapenos on a stick.

If you attend the State Fair and try a chocolate covered jalapeno pepper, submit a comment. I’d like to report back to Dennis down at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. Click here to read my July 20, 2009, post about Dennis’ jalapenos.

SINCE I’M ON THE SUBJECT of the State Fair, I need to give a shout-out to the new Princess Kay of the Milky Way, 18-year-old Mary Zahurones from Pierz, a community of about 1,300 north of St. Cloud in Morrison County and along Minnesota Highway 25, a main route to the Brainerd Lakes area.

The new princess had her head carved in a 90-pound block of butter at the fair yesterday.

Anyway, I know a little about the princess’ hometown of Pierz. My husband graduated from Pierz Healy High School in, well, let’s just say a long, long, long time ago. The new princess graduated from my spouse’s alma mater several months ago, and you’ll find her princess photo proudly showcased on the District 484 website home page.

Two other interesting tidbits about Pierz: The town was originally called Rich Prairie, but was renamed after a Catholic priest, Father Francis Xavier Pierz. He is recognized as “The Father of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud,” having settled in central Minnesota in 1852 as a missionary to Native Americans and having attracted many German Catholic immigrants to the area. You’ll find a statue of the good Father in a Pierz park, moved there last year from the St. Cloud Hospital.

Secondly, if you like bologna, and I don’t, but apparently central Minnesotans do, you can check out Bologna Days every Wednesday at the Red Rooster Bar & Grill in Genola (just south of Pierz) or every Thursday at Patrick’s Bar & Grill in Pierz. Really. This information is listed in the F.A.Q.’s section of the city website and, no bologna, I have seen a Bologna Days sign with my very own eyes.

Magnetic Catholic: St. Francis of Assisi

AS LONG AS WE’RE TALKING Catholic here, even though I’m Lutheran, I simply must point you to the “Magnetic Catholic” paper (well, not really paper) dolls which I first learned about from a Michigan writer on her blog, House Unseen. Click here to read that post and then click here to see the Magnetic Catholic Etsy shop.

I swear—oops, probably shouldn’t be swearing—you’ll have your socks charmed right off you by the likes of the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Francis of Assisi and the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

ONE MORE THING, totally unrelated to Catholics, dairy princesses, or anything on a stick.

But, apparently the latest trend among hip, young Minneapolitans is to carry iced coffee or similar drinks around in a (Mason/Ball/Kerr) pint canning jar.

I learned this from my eldest, who drove down to Faribault Thursday evening so her personal mechanic/Dad could check her car. After we gathered home-grown tomatoes, flowers and a few other niceties for her to take back home to south Minneapolis, she asked if I had any canning jars.

A hip canning jar.

I know my daughter well enough to realize she didn’t need them for canning. Heck, I don’t even can.

So we traipsed down to the basement and poked around until we found two pint jars, rings and lids. She was one happy Uptowner.

SO THERE, I HOPE YOU enjoyed your serving of hotdish. Mighty tasty, huh?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling