Polka music pulsed through the van in a rhythmic beat. It was an unusual station choice given I listen primarily to contemporary Christian music on KTIS and Randy enjoys talk radio. But, occasionally on his 22-minute drive home from work, Randy tunes in to KCHK to listen to late afternoon featured 50s-70s music.
In the heart of Czech country, though, the radio station is known for its day-time polka programming.
As we drove along back country gravel roads—past farm sites and harvested fields and farmers working in the fields—the rhythm of polkas, of accordions pushed in and pulled out to create music, set a joyful tone. The music fit the scenes unfolding before us.
The music reminded me, too, of wedding dances back home decades ago in southwestern Minnesota. Of couples twirling across a well-worn wooden dance floor. Of booze bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Of extended families gathered in a simple town hall to celebrate a marriage. Of The Bunny Hop and The Butterfly and all those dances that brought people together for an evening of fun.
Those memories lingered as polkas played on KCHK. As just-harvested corn flowed into a grain truck. As we passed a mailbox with the name Skluzacek posted thereon. We were deep in the heart of Czech country near New Prague/Lonsdale/Montgomery.
There is something incredibly comforting about the mix of memory and music and meandering in rural Minnesota. Moments like this impress upon me the need to simply be. To recognize the value in an afternoon drive in the country. No destination. No haste. No agenda.
Time to just appreciate. The hard work of the farmer during harvest. The farm sites. Gravel roads.
And the unexpected sighting of horseshoe art where horses graze.
I treasure the memories shared and made with my husband of nearly 40 years as we followed rural routes, polka music thrumming in the background.
EACH DAY OF SUNSHINE and warmth this late in October in Minnesota presents as a gift. We long-time Minnesotans understand that and celebrate. One less day of winter. One less day of cold and snow when the season of autumn extends. The recent weather has proven simply glorious.
Late last week Randy took two days off work to savor these final days of autumn. And while we didn’t travel far, we delighted in nearby discoveries. We got a late start on Thursday, catching up on some much-needed rest. So we stayed close to home, aiming for western Rice County into LeSueur County.
Eventually, we landed at Richter Woods County Park 1.5 miles west of Montgomery. I’d heard of the park, but had yet to visit.
We followed the slow-paced route there along mostly back country gravel roads.
We paused once so I could photograph a pair of swans gliding across a small lake.
I photographed, too, a weathered barn with fieldstone foundation. I often wonder how long barns will remain a landmark of our rural landscape. I feel an urgency to document their existence before roofs cave, boards rot, and only foundations remain.
At 80-acre Richter Woods, a mammoth barn looms, centering the park gathering space. The barn is available to rent for $75/day from April-October. With a spacious loft and main level, the barn offers plenty of room for events like weddings, reunions and much more.
I couldn’t access the locked barn. But I could envision the interior, especially the haymow with its curved wood frame. Many bridal couples covet rustic settings like this. I wonder whether many have discovered this barn circled by woods in the quiet countryside near Montgomery.
As much as I appreciated the barn, I couldn’t get over the forest green color. I longed to see that barn in red, a historically-accurate hue. I expect others, too, have wondered at the unusual color choice. As a photographer, I find a red barn much more visually-pleasing.
Before pulling out our picnic lunch to dine near the barn, Randy and I stretched our legs. We followed a leaf-strewn dirt trail into the woods with no map to guide us. The on-site mailbox was without the promised maps.
Maple leaves, especially, blanket the earth.
In a few spots, I looked overhead to a canopy of red and yellow trees set against the deep blue sky of October.
We noticed, too, the many rotting and recently-sawed trees, I felt inwardly thankful for an afternoon without strong winds to possibly topple dead trees, loose branches.
Mushrooms thrive in decay.
Mostly, though, I noticed the peace. The quiet. I feel incredibly grateful to have access to natural settings like Richter Woods County Park. And I feel grateful, too, to live in this decidedly rural region of Minnesota within an hour of downtown Minneapolis. I feel grateful for gravel roads to follow. For barns that still stand. For warm and sunny October days that draw me into the countryside, into the woods.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I take you on to more backroads in Rice and LeSueur counties.
FOR THOSE OF YOU who’ve followed my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog for awhile, you understand that I value small towns. They are a favorite destination, an escape of sorts back to my rural prairie roots. To a less-populated place, typically rooted in agriculture.
That said, I recognize that my definition of a “small town” may differ from yours. I view small towns as communities with populations of several thousand or less. I would not, for example, consider my city of Faribault to be small. Others would given its population of around 24,000.
What draws me to small towns, to photograph and write about them, beyond my desire to reconnect with rural places and share my finds?
It’s discovering nuances of character. It’s connecting with people. It’s the architecture and oddities and so much more. Exploring small towns is like taking a basic sentence and enhancing the main subject with adjectives.
Yet, I realize not everyone appreciates language like I do. All too often, small towns are bypassed or driven through—seemingly not a place that would attract visitors. But I am here to tell you they are worth the detour off the interstate, the destination for a day trip, the stopping on Main Street.
Montgomery, Minnesota, for example, is one of my favorite nearby small towns. Why? I love going to Franke’s Bakery, a staple in this community for 100-plus years. The bakery specializes in Czech treats, in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. Across the street from the bakery, a mural tells the history of this town. Aged buildings line the main business district, with home-grown shops and eateries and bars. The adjectives enhancing the main subject.
The Montgomery Arts and Cultural Heritage Center and Montgomery Brewing also draw me to this Le Sueur County community. And the signs and architecture.
The good folks of Montgomery have branded their community, tapping into their heritage and then building on that to create a place that attracts visitors. I think potential exists in every small town to do the same. And it starts with recognizing the strengths, the uniqueness, of a community. I know that requires time, money and effort. But, oh, the possibilities.
I, for one, love small town bakeries, antique shops, thrift stores, art centers and home-grown cafes with meal offerings that are crafted by hand, not pulled from a freezer and heated. I recently saw a sign for Beef Commercials in New Ulm. I haven’t eaten one—roast beef layered between slices of white bread, topped with a dollop of mashed potatoes and smothered in gravy—for years. Had it been meal time and not a pandemic, I may have stopped to indulge in nostalgia.
Now I know every community can’t tap into heritage like New Ulm and Montgomery. But, each place truly possesses potential to attract visitors. In Ellendale, for example, the award-winning Steve’s Meat Market draws meat lovers. I am partial to Lerberg’s Foods and its worn wooden floor, narrow aisles and aged moose head looming over cans of stacked corn.
I delight in such discoveries. Kitsch. Identity. A strong sense of place and pride. I hope that, by sharing my thoughts and photos, you, too, will view small towns through a lens of appreciation.
TELL ME: Have you discovered a small town that you just love. I’d like to hear.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I expand on this post with more photos from some of the communities featured here.
A family views Montgomery’s updated mural by Victor A. Garcia.
PUBLIC ART, WHEN RESEARCHED, well thought out and created by talented hands, enhances any community. Montgomery, Minnesota included.
The new mural, recently installed in Montgomery.
Recently, this town of some 3,000 in Le Sueur County unveiled a new historic-themed mural done by former long-time Montgomery resident and artist Victor A. Garcia, now of Belle Plaine.
A close-up shot of the prior Montgomery mural, photographed around 2013. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
The latest 40-foot long painting replaces a weather-beaten mural Garcia created about 25 years ago.
Montgomery’s main street, circa 1900. Overhead lights shadow across the mural.
A current day view of a section of downtown Montgomery. The mural is to the left, on a side street.
Like the previous scene, the new mural depicts a view of the town’s main street, First Street, around 1900. But this time, both sides of the street are included in the painting.
A “key” of sorts to the mural. And a thank you to supporters.
Kolacky Days honored in the mural.
Garcia also featured “Montgomery Identifiers” to search for in his artwork. Like kolacky. This Czech community is, after all, the self-proclaimed “Kolacky Capital of the World.”
Franke’s Bakery is among businesses incorporated into the mural.
My photo of Franke’s photographed from across the street, by the mural.
Right across the street from the mural sits Franke’s Bakery, a popular local source for this fruit-filled Czech pastry.
The artist’s signature and a “Redbird.”
Cardinals are also painted into the mural, honoring the former school mascot, the Redbirds, before schools merged and the mascot became the Titans.
The local newspaper gets a place on the mural.
A Czech flag and the Green Giant and many more details incorporated into the mural depict the history and heritage of Montgomery.
One of several names I spotted on the mural.
Garcia even added some personal touches in images and words.
One last look at the Montgomery mural on Ash Street.
This mural calls for close study, not just a quick drive-by or look. Next visit to Montgomery, I’ll take more time to study the details I missed. For it is in the details that we learn the intricacies of a community and its history. And grow to understand and appreciate that which defines a place.
A view outside LaNette’s Coffee Shop, 225 First Street South, Montgomery, Minnesota.
FOUR PLASTIC MOLDED CHAIRS in a blue that seems more beachy than rural Minnesota, angle outside LaNette’s Coffee Shop. Two women sit here, sip coffee, engage in conversation on this sunny summer Saturday morning.
A close-up of that kitschy cute cone art.
The occasional vehicle passes by or stops at the stop sign before crossing or turning onto First Street. LaNette’s anchors a corner on the south end of Montgomery’s main business district and is housed in a small brick building marked by smiling waffle cone art that identifies this as more than just a coffee source.
Besides a variety of coffees and bakery treats like muffins, cinnamon rolls and cookies, Owner LaNette also serves up ice cream in homemade waffle cones. I’ve yet to try any of her treats. Next visit.
Pat Preble won first place for “Old Barn” and “Cows in the Field,” both displayed in the front window of the coffee shop.
But this time in town, I’d already eaten my sweet for the day—from Franke’s Bakery just up the street. Instead, I popped into La Nette’s for a closer look at the art displayed in her front window as part of the local “Celebrating Farmers and Agriculture” Exhibit coordinated by the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center. I asked LaNette if I could turn a barn painting by Pat Preble to photograph it. She quickly agreed.
An example of the art in LaNette’s.
I noticed the work of other artists showcased and available for purchase in LaNette’s shop. I love when local businesses support local artists. And writers, as noted by a Hometown Authors section in a wall display.
The inviting interior.
An antique doorstop keeps the front door open.
LaNette’s with mismatched tables and chairs, inviting sitting spaces, art, a few antiques, a pine plank floor and the aforementioned beverages and treats, has a comfortable feel of neighborliness. Of gathering with friends. Of catching up on family and town news. Of enjoying the often slower pace of life found in small town Minnesota. Of contentment.
A neon sign in the front windows signals that the coffee shop is open.
FYI: LaNette’s Coffee Shop is open from 6 am – 3 pm Monday-Saturday. Please check back for one final post from Montgomery tomorrow.
Popular Franke’s Bakery anchors a corner in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.
SMALL TOWN MINNESOTA. What is it about our rural communities that holds my heart? Surely, my upbringing on a crop and dairy farm in the southwestern region of our state influences how I feel about rural places.
Art in downtown business windows showcases the town’s annual Kolacky Days celebration.
Fresh-baked kolacky are always available at Franke’s Bakery.
One of my favorite signs in Montgomery banners the 106-year-old bakery.
I’ve written about and photographed Montgomery many times. Each visit I notice the details that define this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World with its strong Czech heritage. Kolacky are a fruit-filled (sometimes poppyseed, too) Czech pastry, available at the century-plus-old Franke’s Bakery and elsewhere.
A quilt adorns an historic downtown building.
When I walk along First Street, the main street through the downtown business district, I always notice the historic buildings.
And the home-grown businesses, including multiple meat markets.
The Monty Bar is missing its corner signage, which I loved.
The inviting dining space in front of the Rustic Farmer along Montgomery’s main street.
It is this type of signage that reveals much about a town and its people. When I spot the event space, Rustic Farmer on Main, and later sit there at a patio table to enjoy a custard-filled sweet treat from Franke’s, I think on that name. Rustic Farmer. It fits this rural community.
Hilltop Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.
I photographed this puzzle at Herrmann Drug, where it’s available for purchase.
That center houses a small gift shop and heritage displays, including Kolacky Days celebration buttons. Photographer Sarah Dolejs designed a 513-piece jigsaw puzzle featuring a photo of a button collection. The puzzle is available in local businesses and online. Recently, organizers of this year’s virtual Kolacky Days held a “Jigsaw Puzzle Competition from Your Kitchen Table” to see who could assemble the puzzle the fastest. The winning time was 67 minutes by Team Sherman. They beat out Anything but Prune (a reference to prune kolacky) by a mere minute. The Poppyseed Posse (another reference to kolacky) and the Laughing Polka Ladies didn’t even come close to winning.
The town’s water tower is located near the Montgomery National Golf Club.
I love those creative names. They reveal a sense of humor, a sense of pride, a sense of appreciation for heritage and all that defines this town. This Montgomery, Minnesota.
“Stop to Remember,” a pen and watercolor by Cami Vargo, was awarded third place in the show by judges Dale and Gale Looft. The art depicts her Great Grandpa Orville Richter’s 1965 Ford tractor.
THEIR ARTIST STATEMENTS are as compelling as their art.
Cami Vargo’s artist statement about her tractor art.
In a new exhibit, “Celebrating Farmers and Agriculture,” coordinated by the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center, 15 artists share their deep love and appreciation for all things rural. Recently I viewed the 22 pieces of art displayed in the front windows of the arts center and businesses in the heart of this small Minnesota town.
One of two photos by Liz Krocak, this one titled “Apple Harvest Visitors.”
Through the screen window, you can read this artist statement by Liz Krocak.
Bold and beautiful stained glass art by Annette Stavos hangs in a window of Hermann Thrifty White Pharmacy. If the drugstore is open, go inside and view the art to see the sun shining through it. Another stained glass creation by Mona Grimm hangs in a window of Montgomery Chiropractic and was awarded second place in the show.
From cows to a rooster to a farm dog, from tractors to windmills, from barns to country scenes, the art showcases important aspects of rural life.
Constructed from cardboard by Brian Prchal, this is a replica of a modified 4020 John Deere.
Brian Prchal shares the stories behind his two art pieces.
And the stories that accompany that art are often deeply personal. Rooted in the land.
The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center (right side of building), 206 First Street North on the north end of downtown.
In the ag display, 4-H buttons.
County fairs are an important part of rural life.
Before beginning my tour, I stopped first at the arts and heritage center to pick up a map and to view an exhibit of local ag-related memorabilia showing the importance of agriculture in this community.
The grain elevator complex in Montgomery.
Just down the hill from the arts center, grain elevators loom, a strong visual of ag’s local economic value. On the opposite end of town, the canning company processes sweetcorn. And on every border of town, homes or businesses adjoin farm fields.
Future Farmers of America, based at the local high school.
Recognizing 4-H in Le Sueur County.
Lots of signs downtown celebrate kolacky, a Czech pastry sold at Franke’s Bakery and Mackenthune’s Fine Foods.
Montgomery centers on agriculture and its Czech heritage as the self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. So it seems particularly fitting that the arts center would focus its new exhibit on farmers and agriculture. The project was funded with a Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council grant and donations from the Bob and Mary Jo Loftus Foundation and Compeer Financial.
“The Nuts & Bolts of Farming” fits this tractor art crafted by Tyler Fromm.
Area artists clearly enjoyed the challenge of creating ag-themed art. I saw that in tractor art drawn, formed from string and nails, cut and crafted from cardboard, welded from nuts and bolts.
Pat Preble won first place for “Old Barn” and “Cows in the Field.” She incorporated a “Star of Heaven” quilt block into her barn art in honor of her mom, a quilter.
Stained glass. Batik. Wood. Photos. Quilts. So many different tools and styles and ways of creating art add to the interest.
This artist statement made me laugh out loud. Because of glare, I was unable to photograph Anna’s cow art.
The art honors pioneer women who pieced quilts, an uncle, farm wives… Liz Krocak writes in her artist’s statement, “Behind every good farmer is his wife, rolling her eyes.” Yes, humor even infuses some of the artist statements.
Glare made it really challenging to photograph Carol Ehrhardt’s entire cattle and windmill art. But I decided I like this image showing only the top of the windmill and the reflection of an aged building. Ehrhardt was awarded third place in the show.
Annette Stavos, who grew up on a hobby farm, honors her uncle. “My uncle was the real farmer and we helped him pick rocks and bale hay.”
A close-up of Susan Hayes batik art titled “Summer Fields.”
Susan Hayes, a city girl who married a farmer, writes. “…I’ve had first hand experience with agriculture and life on a small farm. It’s not easy getting up before 5 am to milk the cows or baling hay in 100 degree weather. She created a beautiful batik piece, “Summer Fields.”
A farm in the Montgomery area.
Anna Prchal expresses her love of rural life in these words: “The fresh air, hard work ethic and never having a dull moment there are the things I love most about the farm.”
The countryside near Montgomery.
For Kimmie Loranger, who once traveled with the carnival, worked as a nanny and waitress, and who was at one time homeless, living in rural Montgomery and now creating art “is the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life.”
Tyler Fromm drew this picture of his “beloved farm dog, Buddy.” Oak siding from the corn crib on his family’s century old farm frames the art.
These are the stories that make this exhibit especially meaningful, especially touching, especially impressionable. This isn’t just another art show, but rather an expression of emotions with a rural perspective. Written. And showcased in art.
FYI: You can view this exhibit any time during the day as the art is visible from outdoors in front windows. Note that glare and reflections sometimes make seeing the art a challenge. The Arts & Heritage Center, however, is open limited hours from 2-5 pm Thursday and Friday and from 9 am to noon Saturdays. The exhibit runs until the end of November. Maps to the art locations are available from several downtown Montgomery businesses in addition to the arts center. Be sure to vote for your favorite for the People’s Choice Award. This blog post represents only a sampling of art in the exhibit.
Please check back next week for additional posts from my visit to Montgomery.
Fire destroyed an historic building at 104 South First Street in downtown Montgomery during the early morning hours of July 29.
ANY TIME AN HISTORIC BUILDING falls, I feel a certain sadness. You can’t replace a structure built half a century, maybe even 100 years, ago. Stories and memories remain. But there’s something lost when a building crumbles, collapses, comes down, for whatever reason.
The long-time barbershop, a local gem, did not catch fire.
Recently, the small town of Montgomery—self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World—lost one (possibly two) historic buildings in an early morning July 29 fire. The fire started on the second floor of a vacant building previously declared hazardous and slated for demolition in mid-August. The blaze then spread to an adjoining building which houses a plumbing and air conditioning business and an apartment. Main Street Barber, located in a diminutive building next door, was spared.
The fire site.
Just days after the fire, the smell of smoke still lingered. Barricades and a fence blocked access to the pile of rubble. As I photographed the scene, I considered the depth of loss to this Le Sueur County community. Locals with the Montgomery Historical Society have been inventorying and documenting the downtown in an effort to get historic district designation, helpful in attracting visitors. This was a snag in that process.
One of many historic buildings in Montgomery. Several are already on the National Register of Historic Places.
I recognize the importance of that historic district designation. According to the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, a historic district is “a geographically defined area with a concentration of historic buildings, structures, site, spaces and objects unified by past events, physical development or design.”
A snapshot section of Montgomery’s downtown.
No one needs to sell me on the historic beauty and connections in downtown Montgomery. The aged buildings are one of the reasons I love this small town. Every time I visit, I walk through the main business area downtown, photographing buildings and signs and whatever else draws my eye.
In the window of a downtown business, art promoting Montgomery’s Kolacky Days, held virtually this year. Kolacky is a Czech pastry.
But buildings do not define a place. People do. And I have always found the people of Montgomery to be incredibly welcoming. I appreciate their friendliness, their community spirit, their cohesive respect for their Czech heritage, their efforts to build Montgomery, even when buildings fall.
The historic Security National Bank building backdrops this banner in historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2019.
TRAVEL. When you read that word, what flashes through your mind? Travel abroad? Destinations within your region or state? A cross-country road trip? Whatever your answer, travel is a big industry on levels from local to national to international.
This week those involved in Minnesota tourism gathered in Alexandria to share ideas, to connect, to celebrate. Tourism, after all, ranks as a $16 billion industry here, according to the Explore Minnesota website.
Faribault tourism’s newest billboard along Interstate 35 north of town promotes attractions in my Minnesota community. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited photo April 2019.
To my friends at the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, congratulations on winning the Destination Marketing Award for best “Branding and Integrated Marketing Campaign.” The branding of Faribault as “Making American Stories” is catchy and timeless. As I see it, this theme engages not only our past, but also the present and future. I’ve witnessed our local tourism team working hard to get the word out about Faribault, to draw people and businesses here. For a day. For a life-time. I especially love the new banners around town that define areas like the historic district, the mill district and more.
This vintage wagon promotes tourism and the Minne-Roadtrip that includes the communities of Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
More kudos go to the Faribault tourism folks, and also to those in Owatonna and Northfield, for their tri-city marketing of “Minne-Roadtrip.” The group won the Destination Marketing Award in the “Special Project” category for their work in marketing the three neighboring cities as a destination. I especially appreciate their joint efforts to promote regional tourism. Often we can achieve more through cooperation than alone.
Signage in downtown Montgomery promoting Kolacky Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.
Finally, my congratulations to the Montgomery Area Community Club for earning the Destination Marketing Award in “Niche Targeting.” You all know how much I love Montgomery as evidenced by my many posts about this town of some 3,000 in Le Sueur County. The Community Club focused on growing and promoting Kolacky Days, an annual summer celebration honoring the town’s Czech heritage. Montgomery is located in what is commonly known as Minnesota Czech Country.
A close-up of the banner posted outside Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Wherever you live—whether on the vast plains of the Dakotas or in the heart of a city dense with skyscrapers or in an historic community like mine—I hope you appreciate the place you call home. I value Faribault for its historic downtown, its natural beauty, its arts scene, its diversity…and for the friendships I’ve formed here, in this place where I write American stories.
A section of downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, with its many historic buildings.
I DOUBT I’VE WRITTEN about any small Minnesota community more than I’ve written about Montgomery. Located within a half hour of my Faribault home, it’s a quick drive away. And Montgomery offers just enough to keep me returning.
Signs always draw my eye, including this one. It’s simple, nostalgic…
Especially interesting is the downtown with eye-catching signage, aged buildings and home-grown shops.
Among the sweet offerings at the long-time, popular Franke’s Bakery.
A deep appreciation for the area’s Czech heritage. Combine those and you have a small town that appeals to me.
Third-generation Franke’s Bakery is known for its kolacky.
I recognize that what interests me may not interest you. But there’s something to be said for small towns with a strong sense of identity and pride in that identity. For Montgomery, it’s the tag, “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The kolacky is a bun-like Czech pastry filled with a fruit or poppyseed filling. Risking the wrath of the Czech, I will tell you that it’s not a favorite of mine. I’d choose a doughnut before a kolacky. But then I am of German descent and was not raised in this area of Minnesota.
Stand in the grocery store parking lot and you can see the grain elevator in one direction, the brewery in another and the main street through downtown, too.
None of that matters really. What matters is that I like Montgomery. Unleash me with a camera in this town and I get excited about the photo ops, all the ways I can capture the essence of this place. If my creative work is anything, it has always been about defining place.
Spotted in the window of a downtown business. These handwritten signs give a place character.
I will always feel most comfortable in a rural town like Montgomery. I appreciate a place where I can view a grain elevator, spot handwritten signs on business doors and windows, chat it up with the locals, stop to pet a passerby’s dog and stand in the middle of Main Street to take a photo without worry of traffic.