Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Topiaries & a trading post in Pillager August 20, 2018

 

PILLAGER TRADING POST and Antiques. There’s something about the name that holds history. History of a place, that place being the small town of Pillager some 10 miles southwest of Brainerd in central Minnesota

 

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The overflow building is interesting with a beautiful stone fireplace.

 

 

 

Antiques pack the overflow building.

 

Randy and I stopped there briefly last September while heading north to Park Rapids for a book release party. With minimal time, we didn’t poke around this town of several hundred. Just checked out the Trading Post and the business’ second building across the street. And a nearby green space.

 

 

 

More merchandise in a side wing of the Trading Post.

 

The open space featured topiaries ringed by homemade wooden benches. An odd contrast of modern natural art to the vintage finds within the antique shop. A city park perhaps? I left town without an answer. Sometimes a bit of mystery adds to the allure of a place like Pillager.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

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Discovering the character of Pequot Lakes at the hardware store August 17, 2018

This sign hangs on the side of the hardware store. You won’t find a fire warden sign in southern Minnesota.

 

WHENEVER I VISIT a small town, I am drawn to the details that give a community character. Like Thurlow Hardware and Rental in Pequot Lakes.

 

The bobber water tower in Pequot Lakes.

 

I visited this central Minnesota town nearly a year ago. This area and parts north are decidedly different from my home region in the southeastern section of the state. To the north, lakes and woods abound and Paul Bunyan lore is prevalent in tourist attractions, business names and more. Pequot Lakes, for example, features a water tower resembling a Bunyan-sized bobber.

 

Inside the hardware store are lots of taxidermied animals hanging above the aisles.

 

A northwoods culture prevails, stamps upon these towns.

 

I always look for signage that reveals more about the place I am visiting.

 

These folks also appreciate their heritage.

 

 

 

 

These details I noticed, along with vintage signage, as I checked out that small town hardware store.

TELL ME: Do you explore small towns? If yes, what draws your interest? Give me a specific example, if you wish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Uniquely Pequot Lakes August 16, 2018

 

PEQUOT LAKES. That central Minnesota town name rolls off my tongue in a poetic way that pleases me. Pequot Lakes.

 

Kids walk home from school in Pequot Lakes on a mid-September afternoon.

 

A short vacation in mid-September 2017 took Randy and me to this community of some 2,000 in the Brainerd Lakes area, a popular summer vacation and weekend destination spot. On the day of our end-of-the-season visit, few people were in Pequot Lakes. I prefer the quiet of an uncrowded location with no hurry, no schedule.

 

 

 

 

 

I knew even before we drove into town that I wanted to photograph the unique bobber-shaped water tower that marks the community as a fishing destination. I’ve previously photographed the tower and the Babe the Blue Ox sculpture in Bobber Park.

 

 

 

 

After finishing that shoot, we poked around town, ducking into Thurlow Hardware and Rental complete with trophy head mounts. While I’m not one who likes suspended dead animal heads, I recognize this as part of the hunting culture. Plus, the trophies make for a memorable visual characterizing Thurlow.

 

 

 

 

We ended our late Thursday afternoon visit with a quick tour through the Jack Pine Center mini mall.

 

Art details on the Babe the Blue Ox sculpture.

 

It was a slow day in Pequot Lakes. Just like some days on the lake, when the bobber floats and the fish don’t bite.

 

FYI: Please check back for more photos from Thurlow Hardware.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Farmington, Part II: Building community through art August 8, 2018

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I’M A MEGA FAN of accessible outdoor public art. Like murals.

 

 

Earlier this year, I came across a lengthy mural on the side of the Farmington Steak House in the heart of this south metro Minnesota downtown. It is the project of many—adults and youth—and funded by many.

 

 

“Reflections and Visions” embraces the idea of community, past, present and future. I like the concept of people coming together to create, to celebrate history and cultures and more in a work of public art.

 

 

 

 

In this age of so much conflict, so much hatred and anger and disagreement, I appreciate the efforts of these artists to focus on the positive, to see that each of us, though different, define community.

 

 

 

 

I am not so naïve as to think any singular mural will solve the issues that divide us. But we must start somewhere. And art seems a good place to begin.

TELL ME: Have you come across a similar outdoor public art installation that builds community and bridges differences? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Farmington, Part I: A quick look at downtown August 7, 2018

 

ON ONE OF THE FIRST warm weekends of spring here in Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Farmington, a south metro community we’ve visited once prior. It was the kind of sunny late April afternoon ideal for meandering with my camera.

 

 

 

 

Farmington, given its nearness to the Twin Cites and population of 22,000-plus, surprises me with its small town feel. At least in the downtown business district. Here primarily professional services businesses and bars and restaurants occupy space along with minimal retail and government services.

 

 

We popped into two gift shops, but otherwise simply walked through the downtown. On this afternoon, steak on the grill—from the Farmington Steak House and the VFW Steak Fry—scented the gusty winds. Had it been any other time of day than mid-afternoon, we would have been tempted to dine at one or the other. We weren’t even hungry for ice cream from Cow Interrupted! Ice Cream Studio. Next visit.

 

 

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

Around the corner and a block away from the ice cream shop, this town’s agricultural roots remain visible in an aged grain elevator and grain bins. In too many communities, such vintage elevators have deteriorated or disappeared. I hope Farmington folks understand the historic and aesthetic value of these structures, real assets to the downtown.

 

 

 

 

Likewise the Lion’s Club street clock that marks a stunning brick building anchoring a corner in the heart of the business district. I love that clock. And the historic building.

 

 

And the mural on the side of the Farmington Steak House.

 

 

 

 

I delighted, too, in the humor of local marketing and the handwritten note posted by the barber. These are the details that give a town character, that personalize a place, that make me want to return.

 

 

HOW ABOUT YOU? What draws your interest in a community if you are viewing it for the first time during a pop-in visit?

CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a closer look at that Steak House mural as I publish a second post that has been in draft for a few months.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering the day a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis August 1, 2018

This photo shows the opening spread of a feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the 35W bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett Ebling before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are Garrett and and his then fiancee, before the collapse.

 

ELEVEN YEARS AGO TODAY, the unthinkable happened in Minnesota. The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed at 6:05 p.m., killing 13 and injuring 145.

At the time I was a freelance writer for the now-defunct Minnesota Moments magazine. Just months after the collapse, I interviewed survivor Garrett Ebling and his then fiancee and a passerby who rushed in to help. I wrote a feature spread that included shared images of Garrett and of the devastation.

 

Garrett Ebling’s book.

 

All these years later, I remain impressed by Garrett’s strength and determination as he recovered from serious injuries. He would go on to pen a book about his experience. Garrett is a former Faribault Daily News editor, the reason I originally connected with him post bridge collapse.

 

This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. I shot this image several years ago at the Minnesota History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Today I remember this catastrophe that profoundly impacted Minnesotans and how we view bridges. I remember, too, those who died while simply traveling across a bridge over the Mississippi River. And I remember those who survived, their lives forever changed.

 

Crossing the “new” 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

August 1, 2007, remains forever a heartbreaking day in the history of our state.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back in Vesta for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion July 31, 2018

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This sign once marked my hometown. It’s gone now, replaced by a different sign. I prefer this vintage familiar one. It has character. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS WE SWEPT THE PARK SHELTER and washed picnic tables in preparation for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion in my hometown of Vesta on Sunday, a woman passed by with a cluster of children. A petite woman in an Asian rice hat and authentic attire from her Vietnamese homeland.

I never saw her face, only heard that she is married to a college professor and lives in a house a ball field away. And sometimes sells egg rolls downtown.

 

The prayer I wrote and read before our noon potluck.

 

The moment imprinted upon me. When I grew up in this rural Minnesota small town in the late 50s, 60s and early 70s, we were all the same race. White. Only our religions separated us—lots of Lutherans and Catholics with some Brethren and Presbyterians thrown in the mix.

 

A snippet of the Kletscher family lineage, my grandfather being Henry.

 

To see diversity all these years later in this prairie town pleases me. Change doesn’t always come easily in a place where generations of families are rooted.

Family brought me back to Vesta, to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and their families. And a few significant others. I appreciate that we still value each other enough to gather every year in the city park located along gravel roads and across from cornfields. This year my siblings and I hosted.

 

Food for the potluck meal spreads across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter during a previous reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Good food and conversation mark the reunion. I always make a point of moving from lawn chair circle to lawn chair circle so I can talk with nearly everyone. Conversations this year ranged from babies to flooding to a cousin getting out of an emotionally abusive marriage. He’s happy now, happier than he’s been in a long time. “Love is blind,” he noted. I encouraged him, told him how glad I am that he is now free.

 

Cards full of information used in the family jeopardy competition.

 

While that conversation ran deep, there were many light-hearted moments. Like those that came during the first-ever Kletscher Family Jeopardy Game which I planned and hosted. Team Sauerkraut (or Sour Kraut) easily defeated Team Hot Dish in a competition that sometimes seemed more like Family Feud than Jeopardy. All in good fun.

In the shade of towering trees on a July afternoon of perfect Minnesota weather, we laughed. We remembered. And we, the descendants of German immigrants, built new memories in a town where diversity once applied only to differences in religion.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling