Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Paul & Babe, more than a Minnesota legend October 26, 2017

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I purchased this vintage 1960s mini book, published by BANG Printing of Brainerd, at a used book sale.


IN MINNESOTA, PERHAPS no other legend perpetuates as much as that of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.


Photographed outside a hardware store in Pequot Lakes.


The larger-than-life pair fits the image we present of hardiness and strength, of surviving, and thriving, in a cold and snowy land. Paul cleared woods in one swell swoop of his axe. Babe imprinted our soil with depressions soon filled with water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.


“The Paul Bunyan Family” with Babe the Blue Ox suggested as a Halloween costume on a recent edition of Twin Cities Live.


Dressed in our buffalo plaid flannel shirts—and I’m wearing one right now while typing this post—we embrace our identity as practical people. We don our flannels and our snow boots, fish on frozen lakes, shovel snow and long for summer, although we’re not going to tell you that.


Many northern Minnesota businesses tap into the Paul Bunyan legend as indicated in this sign photographed in Pine River.


We are of stolid, hardworking immigrant stock—of farmers who broke virgin sod, of lumberjacks who felled trees, of families who fled refugee camps and war torn countries, of men and women and children who decided Minnesota offered a place to fulfill our dreams.


Legendary Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidj. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo.


We showcase Paul and Babe as legendary celebrities not because we’re trying to boast—we are mostly a modest bunch—but because we realize the value of these two. The pair reflects us, markets Minnesota, promotes tourism, boosts local economies, especially in the Brainerd Lakes area and to the north in Bemidji. Both communities feature oversized statues of Paul and Babe.


Paul Bunyan and Babe stand next to the iconic Brainerd water tower in this sculpture on a downtown Brainerd street corner.


Throughout the Minnesota northwoods and lakes region, the lumberjack and the ox show up in roadside attractions, in business and state trail names, in art and more. They symbolize the Minnesota spirit of strength and of creativity. We are a place of artists and wordsmiths, of hardworking men and women unafraid of getting our hands dirty, of determined entrepreneurs, of business leaders, of educators, of young people forging their paths into the woods of life…

We are individuals crafting our lives in a land that has, for generations, valued the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox as part of our Minnesota story.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: A teen and his cat May 29, 2015

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Portrait #25: Ian

Portrait 25, Ian and Zephyr


He loves physics and raw asparagus. Or at least Ian did when I met him in 2012. I expect he still does.

A year later I saw Ian again, at his family’s rural acreage south of Worthington. I remember how my friend Gretchen welcomed us with such enthusiasm, noting that she was thrilled to have dinner guests. My husband and I were happy to spend an evening with my blogger friend, her husband and their three children. They are a delight.

Ian and his sisters toured us through the family’s 10-acre wooded and hilly creek-side property while their parents prepared dinner. Dad at the grill, Mom mixing salads. The kids clearly love their oasis in the middle of southwestern Minnesota’s prairie farmland.

These are a talented group of siblings—into theatre and music and more—and just great kids who are friendly and kind and polite.

As the evening ended and we prepared to leave, Gretchen and I simply had to have photos. I commanded a snapshot of myself standing with the sisters in the middle of the gravel road running past this family’s home. That put me with one foot in Minnesota and one foot in Iowa. Yes, they live on the border.

Ian wasn’t game for that shot, but the then 14-year-old did pose with the family cat, Zephyr. The lighting was perfect as was Ian’s pose. There’s something about this image that is sweet and timeless, that speaks to appreciating the moments of life, to simpler times, to the unencumbered spirit of youth. I expect, I mean know, that Ian is growing into a fine young man.


This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: A Minnesota blogger January 9, 2015

Portrait #2:  Audrey, unfashionably dressed Minnesota blogger


Bundled up to ring Salvation Army bells 2013


Baby, it’s cold out there.

I’d intended to run a different portrait today. But when weather intervened, I pulled out this selfie, which isn’t really a selfie. My husband, Randy, took this photo of me on December 7, 2013, after ringing bells, outdoors, for the Salvation Army. The temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit.

I bundled into Randy’s insulated Dickies coveralls, topped those with a heavy fleece-lined sweatshirt, wrapped two scarves around my neck, pulled on a Mrs. Claus hat and snugged into warm mittens and felt-lined snow boots for our two-hour shift. My goals were minimal skin exposure and warmth. Not fashion.

This past week in Minnesota, you would have spotted many folks bundled up, aiming to stay warm. When I shoveled snow on Tuesday and Thursday, I was dressed nearly exactly as you see in this year-old photo.

With temps plunging well below zero, wind creating “feels like” temps in the minus 30s and 40s and blizzard/white-out conditions in portions of our state, practicality and survival trump fashion.


This portrait is part of a new series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling, photo by Randy Helbling


A new series: Minnesota faces January 2, 2015

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DURING MORE THAN FIVE YEARS of blogging, I’ve photographed many a Minnesotan. Young and old. And in between.

From my cousin’s young daughter passing a tray of chocolates at a 50th anniversary party to a woman sitting under an old-fashioned hair dryer at a West Concord beauty salon to our newest immigrants celebrating their heritage at Faribault’s International Festival, I’ve photographed a wide range of subjects.

Some of the images are posed portraits, others snapshot style.

Each photo tells a story— through lines etched into a face, in the tilt of the head, the look in an eye or perhaps the way hands fold. Or a smile. Or not.

Light and setting add to the story. Sometimes the environment tells as much, if not more, than the face.

I’m not a professional portrait photographer. It’s just me and my Canon DSLR. No fancy lighting. No anything except the camera lens between me and my subject.

To photograph these individuals has been an honor. Truly. I delight in showcasing the people, places and events of rural Minnesota, where I’ve lived my entire life.

Beginning today, and every Friday until I run out of images, I will pull a portrait from my files and show you a face. The face of a Minnesotan.

And because I appreciate the timeless beauty of black-and-white photos, those portraits will be void of color.

Words will be sparse. Instead, I want you to focus on the image. The faces that tell the stories.


PORTRAIT #1: Dan, who claims Folgers is the best. 


Dan Tersteeg, Fourth Ave. Christmas dinner 2012



Dan Tersteeg tends the coffee at the annual Community Christmas Dinner at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Faribault. I shot this portrait two years ago in the church basement. But I could have taken it this past December as Dan was in the same spot overseeing the coffee. Dan told me in 2012 that he always uses Folgers because it works best with Faribault’s water. I believe him. Who am I to question the guy in charge of the coffee?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling