Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating May Day, Czech style May 3, 2019

Leaves unfurling in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2018.

 

MAY IN MINNESOTA. Oh, how I love thy greening, they earthy scent, thy springing of new growth into the landscape.

These early days of May carry winds of warmth, clouds of rain and cause for celebration. In the small southern Minnesota Czech community of Montgomery, folks welcome spring on Saturday, May 4, with the annual Czech May Day Celebration.

It begins with the noon raising of a traditional Czech May Pole followed by a ribbon dance around that pole.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music by the Czech Concertina Band adds to the festivities which continue until 5 p.m. at the corner of Vine and First Streets. Other activities include a car roll-in, wagon rides and face painting.

No celebration is complete without food and drink—in Montgomery authentic Czech beer and cuisine. Chicken paprikash with dumplings, pork, dumplings and sauerkraut and jitrnice (sausage) sandwiches. For the non-Czech foodies, a hot dog stand will be open.

 

Kolacky, a Czech pastry. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A bake sale also offers the popular Czech kolacky, poppy seed buchta, zeiniky and bread. And, no, I don’t pretend to know what those are except for kolacky, which I’ve eaten.

So if you want to experience the Czech culture while simultaneously celebrating spring, head on over to Montgomery on Saturday.

 

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

And then, on Sunday, learn even more about the Czech in this region of southern Minnesota by attending the screening of the newly-released documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, at 1:30 p.m. in the New Prague High School auditorium.

 

FYI: Czech May Day attendees are advised to bring their own chairs due to limited seating. And, in the case of inclement weather, listen to KCHK radio for updates.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The connection between a pony, Preparation H & a liquor store June 22, 2016

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I’M NO MARKETING EXPERT. But I did take advertising and public relations classes in college, a requirement of my Mass Communications degree. Yet, degree and media experience aside, I rely primarily on my initial emotional reaction to rate the success or failure of media campaigns.

I find myself most drawn to advertising messages that tug at my heartstrings or offer a bit of unexpected humor. Flashiness and celebrity endorsements don’t impress me. Simplistic and relatable do. Punch out a strong message, boom, and you’ve got me. Word choice matters, as do music and setting in TV commercials and radio spots.

I photographed these little ponies at Sibley Park in Mankato.

I photographed these miniature horses at Sibley Farm in Sibley Park, Mankato, Minnesota.

My husband will tell you I seldom pay attention to television commercials. For good reason. Most aren’t worth my time. But he’ll also tell you there are exceptions. When the Amazon Prime ad featuring a sweet little pony airs, I crank up the volume like I’m listening to a favorite rock band. I love everything about that commercial from the music to the horses to the pure cuteness factor. I am obsessed to the point of wanting to purchase a little pony for my granddaughter. Isabelle is only 11 weeks old. I’m not serious, of course. But if I lived in the country…

From ponies to Preparation H, a new hemorrhoid treatment commercial filmed in the small southern Minnesota community of Kiester also rates as a current favorite. I applaud the marketing genius who connected kiester to Kiester and came up with this humorous, thinking outside the box ad.

Small towns can be a hotbed for unique advertising. For example, I spotted this sign outside Wayside Liquor in Montgomery (Minnesota, not Alabama) on Sunday:

 

Wayside Liquor sign in Montgomery, 14

 

A quick Google search indicates Wayside Liquor staff didn’t create this message. But they clearly knew the humorous words would grab the attention of motorists traveling along busy Minnesota State Highway 13. The sign works in directing attention toward the liquor store. Boom.

How about you? Do you have a favorite TV commercial, radio spot, print ad, sign, billboard? What makes it a winner?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

If you’ve never explored Montgomery, Minnesota, that is January 20, 2016

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A snapshot of downtown Montgomery last Saturday afternoon as strong winds whipped a light snow.

A snapshot of downtown Montgomery last Saturday afternoon as strong winds whipped a light snow.

“WHAT’S IN MONTGOMERY?” friends asked when I mentioned that my husband and I had been there Saturday afternoon.

That would be Montgomery, Minnesota. Not Alabama.

What’s in Montgomery, a small town of nearly 3,000 that lies a half hour to the northwest of my Faribault home? I’m always surprised when people know little about nearby communities.

Vintage signage on historic buildings is part of Montgomery's charm.

Vintage signage on historic buildings is part of Montgomery’s charm.

So I rattled off a lengthy answer: Montgomery Brewing Company, Franke’s Bakery, Hilltop Hall (and the Curtain Call Theatre), Pizzeria 201 (with farm-to-table food), Quilter’s Dream, Bird’s Nest Thrift Store, Herrmann Drug, Card & Gifts, Big Honza’s Museum of Unnatural History, LaNette’s Antiques ‘n Lace, Main Street Barber, the Montgomery Veterans Project and several bars.

Of course, there’s much more to Montgomery and my list may not be totally current. I’ve posted about all of these places in the past.

Simply another view of the business district.

Simply another view of Montgomery’s business district.

If you enjoy exploring small towns like Randy and I do, you will appreciate Montgomery, a community with a deep Czech heritage reflected in its self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World title and its annual summertime Kolacky Days celebration.

I love the look of this town with historic downtown buildings, cozy neighborhoods and a definite rural and patriotic feel. Flags line a section of the main drag. A grain elevator abuts train tracks on the north end, next to the grocery store.

Montgomery, at least when I’ve visited numerous times, is soothingly quiet and inviting. Not touristy. But welcoming in the sort of setting Norman Rockwell might have painted.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Out & about on a dangerously cold January weekend in southern Minnesota January 18, 2016

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Saturday afternoon in Montgomery, fierce wind whipped this over-sized flag and a light snowfall.

Saturday afternoon in Montgomery, fierce wind whipped this over-sized flag as light snow fell.

BITTERLY COLD. Double digit below zero temperatures. Minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit Sunday and Monday mornings. Dangerous windchills of minus 35 and 45 degrees. Exposed skin that can freeze in 10 minutes or less.

That’s our reality in Minnesota these days as Arctic air settles over our state. It is the topic of conversation. We Minnesotans love to talk about our weather.

Cold enough for you?

Staying warm?

How long is this supposed to last?

With windchills in the minus 20-degree range, Saturday afternoon, these snowmobilers dealt with machine break-down issues in the countryside.

With windchills in the minus 20-degree range Saturday afternoon, these snowmobilers dealt with machine break-down issues in the countryside.

We hole up indoors. Or we embrace the cold. As best we can. On Saturday I observed youth playing hockey outdoors while others skimmed across an adjacent skating rink. I spotted three snowmobilers parked alongside the road after a snowmobile apparently struck a highway sign. I saw vehicles ringing rural bars.

Reduced visibility driving into Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Reduced visibility driving into Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Me? I snugged inside the van with my husband, mini quilt across my lap, as we crisscrossed Rice and nearby counties. We just drove, feeling the need to escape reality for an afternoon. Our meandering took us to downtown Lakeville, where we ducked in and out of several home-grown shops.

Since my last visit to New Prague, an antique shop has opened in this former hardware store. The shop holds a large collection of vinyl records and vintage Czech jewelry.

Since my last visit to New Prague, an antique shop has opened in this former hardware store. The shop holds a large collection of vinyl records and vintage Czech jewelry.

Then we aimed west, stopping at a New Prague antique shop before driving toward Montgomery.

I am always struck by how desolate farm sites appear in winter. This one lies between New Prague and Montgomery.

I am always struck by how desolate farm sites appear in winter. This one lies between New Prague and Montgomery.

Sunshine occasionally sliced rays across the white-washed landscape. It is so cold you can see cold in the sun. It is so cold you can hear cold in the crunch of snow beneath tires and boots. And you can certainly feel it in the sting of cold slapping cheeks.

Traveling Minnesota State Highway 13 toward Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Traveling Minnesota State Highway 13 toward Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Snow swirled through the wind-driven air near Montgomery, veiling the sky.

The building doesn't look like much from the outside. But step inside Montgomery Brewing Company to find an inviting taproom in an historic building.

This historic building doesn’t look like much from the outside. But step inside Montgomery Brewing Company to find an inviting taproom.

In this Czech community, we stopped for a cold one at Montgomery Brewing Company. You would think on a bitterly cold January day like this, few people would venture out for a beer. But the place was hopping with couples popping in for tap beer, conversation and growlers.

Winter does not stop Minnesotans from riding their bikes. This one was spotted in Montgomery.

Winter does not stop Minnesotans from riding their bikes. I spotted this one in Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Back to the east in my county of Rice, Faribault’s F-Town Brewing Company offered beer samples at the Snow Crush Fat Tire Race at River Bend Nature Center on Saturday. An after-party followed at the brewery. Had the temperature been warmer, I likely would have been at the race shooting photos. But there’s a limit to what I’ll do in sub-zero/hovering around zero temps.

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FYI: All of these edited images were shot from inside a warm van.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At St. Olaf College: A Minnesota connection to the 1965 Civil Rights Movement May 12, 2015

The name Reeb holds special significance at a Minnesota college.

The name Reeb holds special significance in a memorial at a Minnesota college.

JAMES REEB. You may not recognize his name. Or you may remember an actor portraying the Rev. Reeb in a scene in the movie, Selma. Or heard/read his name in a recent news story.

The memorial honoring the Rev. James Reeb was dedicated in March, on the 50th anniversary of his death.

The memorial honoring the Rev. James Reeb was dedicated in March, on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Today, just outside the entrance to Rolvaag Library on the hilltop campus of St. Olaf College in the southern Minnesota community of Northfield, Reeb is honored with a memorial for his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement.

Words play across a screen in a video next to the memorial.

Words play across a screen in a video next to the memorial.

His involvement cost him his life.

A portrait of Reeb printed on the memorial.

A portrait of Reeb printed on the memorial.

On March 9, 1965, Reeb and two friends were attacked after dining at a Selma restaurant run by local black citizens. The Massachusetts clergyman, an outspoken advocate for civil rights, desegregation and more, died two days later from his injuries.

Reeb, shown to the left in this photo, was among those who marched to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday.

Reeb, shown to the left in this photo, was among those who marched to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. This image is in a video at the St. Olaf memorial.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d called upon clergy to join a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, delivered Reeb’s eulogy.

Reeb’s death served as a catalyst for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to information published on the memorial to this 1950 St. Olaf graduate.

Visitors to the "Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail" exhibit at St. Olaf College let their voices be heard.

Visitors to the recent “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College let their voices be heard.

To view this recently-installed memorial, to read that Reeb possessed “a healing personality, but his convictions are like iron” is to understand that one voice can make a difference. Reeb considered taking a stand for justice more important than remaining in the safety of his home. He left his family in Massachusetts to join the march from Selma to Montgomery. While walking to a planning meeting for that march, Reeb was brutally attacked.

The "Selma to Montgomery" exhibit at the Flaten Art Museum, St. Olaf, recently closed.

The “Selma to Montgomery” exhibit at the Flaten Art Museum, St. Olaf, recently closed.

In Reeb’s eulogy, King noted that, “His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.”

Those are words we would do well to remember today, 50 years after Reeb’s death and the march from Selma to Montgomery.

FYI: Click here to read my post about the recently-closed Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail exhibit at St. Olaf College.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Civil Rights Movement as photographed by Stephen Somerstein April 23, 2015

POWERFUL. HISTORIC. MEMORABLE.

Looking through a window into an exhibit space at Flaten Art Museum.

Looking through a window into the “Selma to Montgomery” exhibit in the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.

That trio of adjectives describes Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail, an exhibit of 45 black-and-white photos documenting the 1965 Civil Rights Movement through the work of photographer Stephen Somerstein.

I was only eight years old in 1965, living in rural southwestern Minnesota, far removed from what was occurring in Alabama.

The faces of the Civil Rights Marches and Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stephen Somerstein.

Faces of the Civil Rights Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, right. This shows a snippet of a photo by Stephen Somerstein.

But the exhibit, showcased at the Flaten Art Museum of St. Olaf College, took me to Alabama in 1965 and into the movement for equality in an up close and personal way.

An overview of a section of the exhibit at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

An overview of a section of the now-closed exhibit at St. Olaf College.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Somerstein’s pictures are worth 45,000 words. My one regret is that I did not visit this exhibit until the day before it closed on April 12 thus failing to inform you, my readers, of the opportunity to see this for yourselves.

This portion of a photo by Stephen Somerstein drew my attention.

This portion of a photo by Stephen Somerstein drew my attention.

As I circled the museum space, I studied many of the photos in detail. These images by Somerstein, a then student at City College of New York and editor of the school newspaper, call for close examination. It is in the details that we begin to fully understand, to see the fear, the hope, the defiance, the anger, the love, the determination.

I found myself drawn to hands and arms—those of an interracial couple, that of a union member gripping a sign, activists carrying American flags, a soldier focusing binoculars, a mother cradling her son:

One of my favorite images

One of my favorite photos by Stephen Somerstein.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section  of a Stephen Somerstein photo.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section of a Stephen Somerstein photo I photographed.

The two things I noticed in this Stephen Somerstein photo: the marcher carrying and American flag and the soldier atop the building scanning the scene with binoculars.

The two things I noticed in this Stephen Somerstein photo: the marchers carrying American flags and the soldier atop the building scanning the scene with binoculars. It’s truly a multi-layered image.

The Teamsters Union

The Teamsters Union Local 239 sent supplies to activists who were marching. This is a selected section of a photo by Stephen Somerstein.

Eyes and words also drew me in:

vote

Bobby Simmons, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wearing zinc oxide to prevent sunburn, wrote VOTE onto his forehead. This is a section of Stephen Somerstein’s portrait of Simmons.

The exhibit featured explanatory information about photos and the movement.

The exhibit featured explanatory information about photos and the movement.

And although I did not participate in the interactive portions of the exhibit created by artist Nancy Musinguzi, I appreciated that visitors could photograph themselves and pen thoughts on working toward justice and equality.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the exhibit and express their thoughts.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the exhibit and express their thoughts.

Opinions expressed in the exhibit polling place.

Opinions expressed in the exhibit polling place.

They could also vote in a People’s Survey. Vote.

A St. Olaf College student staffing the museum makes sure a video is working properly.

A St. Olaf College student staffing the museum makes sure a video is working properly.

The exhibit drew a wide range of interest at St. Olaf College with students in social work, history, art history, gender studies and more viewing the photos, says Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson. The timing of the exhibit—on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, relating to current day issues and release of the movie, Selma—added to the interest.

Another overview of part of the exhibit.

Another overview of part of the exhibit. Photos displayed are by Stephen Somerstein.

Additionally, Becker Nelson notes that the exhibit connects to the 50th anniversary of the death of St. Olaf graduate James Reeb. (More to come on that in a post next week.)

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate.

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate.

This remarkable collection of documentary photos impresses in a deeply personal way. Beyond headlines. Beyond news stories. Beyond the pages of history books. Somerstein’s photos document the humanity of the Civil Rights Movement in the eyes, in the hands, in the stances of individuals. And that connects all of us, no matter our skin color.

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© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Original photos are by Stephen Somerstein. My photos of Somerstein’s images are published here with permission of Flaten Art Museum, St. Olaf College.

Selma to Montgomery was booked through New York-based National Exhibitions & Archives.