Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Forget shopping in North Dakota on a Sunday morning November 25, 2012

A sign along a city street welcomes us to Fargo, North Dakota, from Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River.

LET’S PRETEND FOR A MOMENT that you are me. You’ve traveled nearly 300 miles from southeastern Minnesota to Fargo, North Dakota, with your husband to visit your son at North Dakota State University in mid-October.

Your son needs basic supplies like laundry detergent and deodorizing powder to sprinkle into his smelly athletic shoes. He also needs long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, socks and a warm scarf to wrap around his neck. Winter, after all, is waiting on flat and windy Fargo’s doorstep.

Being the nice parent that you are, you offer to take your boy shopping. And even though your son detests shopping, he agrees. He is no dummy. He would rather spend Mom and Dad’s money than his own.

So you plan a shopping trip to Target in West Fargo for 10 a.m. Sunday because that will allow the teen to sleep in. Afterward you’ll grab lunch around 11 a.m., then proceed to J.C. Penney (you checked online and Penneys does not open until noon) and leave town by 1 p.m. That is the plan. You have 300 miles to drive yet today.

But the entire plan is tossed out the window when you arrive at Target around 10:30 a.m. Sunday to find the doors locked. This big box retailer does not open until noon.

You suggest heading to Walmart. Your son gets on his smart phone, which he’s recently purchased quite successfully without your assistance or money, thank you. The three of you are soon winding your way around West Fargo, aiming for the discount retailer many love to hate.

Pulling into the parking lot, you notice that the place appears mostly deserted of cars and certainly of customers. As you draw nearer to the front doors, you spot signs stationed at the entrances:

The sign posted in front of the West Fargo Walmart on a Sunday morning.

OK, then.

Now what? Change of plans. Again.

Time to proceed with Plan C, which would be to check if Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River, has a Target. It does. So you aim west for the border, driving five-plus miles, burning up gas because you don’t have time to wait for North Dakota’s stores to open.

You arrive at the Minnesota Target to find the parking lot packed with vehicles bearing mostly North Dakota license plates.

If only you had known about the Sunday morning shopping ban in NoDak, you would have planned differently and squeezed in a Saturday evening shopping outing. You would not be a now unhappy and grumpy Fargo visitor.

But you’ve heard/read nothing of this Blue Law (which you can read about in detail by clicking here)…

How are you supposed to know this stuff? You live in southeastern Minnesota.

And why is such a seemingly antiquated law still on the books?

FYI: I DID NOT REALIZE until I later spoke with a friend, a Minnesotan who grew up in North Dakota and whose son lives and works in Fargo, that the Blue Law not all that long ago prohibited retailers from any Sunday sales. So I suppose I should consider it progress that North Dakota retailers can now open their doors at noon on Sunday.

Secondly, this same friend told me that North Dakota has a five percent sales tax on clothing, of which I was unaware. The trip back across the river to the Target store in Moorhead thus saved us some tax dollars. However, according to information I found online, some North Dakota legislators want to repeal that tax. You can read about those efforts by some Fargo Democrats by clicking here.

Finally, can anyone explain the origin of the Blue Law in North Dakota? I expect it dates back to Sunday as a day of rest, as the Lord’s Day. I respect that and hope that most would choose worship over shopping. Yet, times have changed and church services are held on Saturdays too and, well, you know…

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


At the Hjemkomst Center: A cultural melting pot of gifts November 19, 2012

The interior of the Hjemkomst, a replica Viking ship.

IMAGINE PACKING YOUR ENTIRE LIFE into a steamer trunk and sailing across a vast ocean into the unknown and a future that holds both fear and promise.

I cannot fathom this as I am neither an adventurer nor lover of water transportation. Nor would I desire to leave the familiarity of the only home I’d ever known, or loved ones behind.

To be an early immigrant to this country had to be difficult.

My ancestry is 100 percent German.

My own forefathers, both maternal and paternal, arrived here from Germany, making their way west to eventually settle in Minnesota.

A Swedish ( I think) gift shop doll.

Minnesota. Home to Swedes and Germans, Norwegians and Finns and Irish and Poles and Italians and…a whole melting pot of people in those early days of settlement. Today we might add Sudanese, Somali and Hispanic to the mix.

A gift shop doll labeled Solveig. Norwegian, I think.

So where am I going with this pondering?

In the center of the Hjemkomst Center, the mast area of the Hjemkomst ship dominates the roofline.

A visit to the Hjemkomst Center on the western border of Minnesota in the city of Moorhead, snugged against the Red River of the North, prompted all this thought about immigration. The center is, among other things, home to the Hjemkomst, a replica Viking ship constructed in northwestern Minnesota and then sailed from Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, across the Atlantic Ocean to Norway in 1982. (Click here to read my post about the Hjemkomst.)

A Scandinavian painting on a plate in the gift shop.

It was the Hjemkomst Center Heritage Gift Shop which truly directed my thoughts toward immigration and celebrating the cultural diversity of our country. Here, in this store, you can purchase merchandise which connects to ethnicity.

A Viking helmet on display.

And because I have never traveled across the ocean, not any farther west than the eastern border of Wyoming, but as far east as New York with the Statue of Liberty within my view, shops like this allow me to experience snippets of other countries and cultures.

Hands down, I found this to be the most stunning piece of handcrafted art for sale in the Heritage Center Gift Shop. Bosnian immigrant Dzenan Becic carved this incredible cedar chest and other pieces sold in the gift shop. I tried to find more info online about this artist, but could not. His father, Izudin, is also a carver. These artists live either in Fargo or Moorhead.

I know. This museum gift shop does not hold the same meaning to those of you who are seasoned world travelers. But for me, a child of the land-locked prairie, such places hold a certain allure. I suppose it’s like reading a book. I can travel afar without actually ever boarding the ship.

More Becic carving in a wall shelf.

Just a cute little Viking I spotted for sale in the gift shop. May I call a Viking “cute?”


Even though, geographically, you’re in Moorhead, Minnesota, and not Fargo, North Dakota, when you’re at the Hjemkomst Center, you may still be interested in purchasing this Fargo native t-shirt.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Musings of a Baby Boomer upon touring a museum exhibit in Moorhead November 15, 2012

I’M WONDERING IF the rest of you baby boomers out there feel as I do, that youthful years have vanished, poof, just like that.

I need only look in the mirror to see the patches of ever spreading gray (time for a dye, again), the lines and creases and sagging skin to realize that Age has crept into my life to the point that I no longer can deny her presence.

Age has also shoved me into the corner of those who are overwhelmed by technology. It’s like the boxing gloves never come off as I resist, rather than embrace, technological changes. No Facebook or Twitter for me. No PayPal or paying bills online. And what is a smart phone and an iPad?

I am not joking, people. I need to enroll in a Technology 101 course or persuade the 18-year-old son, who is pursuing a degree in computer engineering, to tutor me.

Interestingly enough, this musing relates to a recent tour of  The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County exhibit, “The BOOM 1945-1960 in Clay County,” at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

While I was only a few years old at the end of that boom period, much of what I saw in that exhibit, including the outhouse, looked pretty darned familiar:

These books are shelved in a mock boom era one-room schoolhouse display. I own that exact Dick and Jane book.  I love Dick, Jane, Sally, Tim, Spot and Puff. They taught me to read. Oh, I mean my teacher taught me to read via that book series.

Fun with Dick and Jane book. Check.

So familiar to me, desks just like I sat in through my years at Vesta Elementary School. The blackboard, though, is not correct. Ours was black, not green.

Rows of school desks. Check.

I remember the floral print plastic curtains which once hung in the tiny wood-frame house where I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Today I collect vintage tablecloths like the one draping the table here. And, yes, I use them. Come to dinner at my house and you’ll find one gracing the table. I love retro.

A floral print curtain and floral print tablecloth. Check.

Tucked behind the close-up of the vintage plate, you’ll spy eyeglasses. I’ve worn prescription eyeglasses since age four, including the cat eye style and dark brown framed ones.

Dark-framed eyeglasses and vintage tableware. Check.

Popular Baby Boomer toys, ones my children, born between 1986 and 1994, also played with. Some toys truly are timeless, although I expect the View-Master isn’t. I played with Mr. Potato Head in the background, but he was not a favorite.

An Etch a Sketch, View-Master reels and Tinker Toys, all among my favorite childhood toys. Check, check and check.

There was not a piece of technology in sight save the old grainy black-and-white television.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


One man’s dream: Build it and it shall sail, the story of the Hjemkomst November 14, 2012

The Hjemkomst.

I REMEMBER BEING ONE of the skeptics.

Build a ship in the middle of nowhere, haul it to Lake Superior in Duluth and then eventually sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Norway.

Who thinks that is possible?

A plaque honoring ship builder and captain Robert Asp, located in the Hjemkomst Center, Moorhead, Minnesota. The steps, left, lead visitors to a deck for viewing of the open ship interior.

Robert Asp.

Thirty years ago the Hjemkomst, a ship built by this Moorhead, Minnesota, junior high school counselor, with the help of family and friends, accomplished that 4,700-mile feat, proving the skeptics wrong.

The photo on right, by Tim Hatlestad, shows the Hjemkomst sailing into the harbor of Bergen, Norway.

By then, Asp had died, passing away in December 1980 at the age of 57 from leukemia. But his family pursued his dream, launching the ship on May 11, 1982, for the journey back to the Asp family Motherland on the Hjemkomst, which translates from Norwegian into English as “homecoming.”

Looking up to the mast and sails.

Hearing the Hjemkomst story many years ago is one thing. Seeing Asp’s ship permanently docked in the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead is another. Only by viewing the ship and learning its story in detail can you truly appreciate the determination of a man to fulfill a dream.

A small section of the museum exhibit on the Hjemkomst.

And details you will find in the museum exhibit, these among the highlights I pulled from the wealth of information revealed during a recent visit to the Hjemkomst Center:

  • In the summer of 1971, Bob Asp and his brother Bjarne talked about their Viking heritage over coffee and joked about building a Viking ship to sail to Norway.
  • Bob began searching in the Alvarado area, 18 miles north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and six miles east of Oslo, Minnesota, in the spring of 1972 for oak trees with which to build the Hjemkomst. Eventually 100 oaks would be used in the ship construction.
  • In November 1973, Bob leased a former potato warehouse in Hawley, 22 miles east of Moorhead, in which to construct his replica of the Viking ship Gokstad. Archeologists discovered the Gokstad in 1880 in Gokstad, Norway. Bob based the Hjemkomst on that ship.
  • The purpose of his ship, according to Bob, was “to further the Norwegian image and heritage.”
  • In 1976, Bob was offered $25,000 by a man who wanted to hire a crew to finish building the Hjemkomst for a tall ship parade in New York City. Bob declined the offer.
  • The ship’s keel was laid in 1974 and, after six years of construction, the vessel was christened in 1980 at the “Hawley Shipyard.”
  • In August 1980, the Hjemkomst was lowered into Lake Superior in the Duluth harbor.
  • On May 11, 1982, a 13-member crew began the voyage across Lake Superior with 12 continuing on to Bergen, Norway. The trip would take 72 days, covering 4,700 miles.
  • The ship was eventually returned via freighter to the U.S. and today is permanently at home in the Hjemkomst Center near the banks of the Red River of the North.

As impressed as I was by viewing the actual Hjemkomst and by reading the detailed time-line of its construction, launch and voyage, I was even more impressed by the fortitude of Bob Asp.

A dream come true “button” attached to the side of the Viking ship replica.

He dared to dream.

Here’s a quote from the museum: “Constructed in a sea of grain, a prairie with no ocean in sight, this Viking ship was built board-by-board with determination and sailed to Norway.”

He dared to continue on, even in the face of skeptics and illness (he was diagnosed with leukemia in July 1974).

A plexi board upon which museum visitors can post their dreams.

He dared to believe in himself. Therein lies a legacy of inspiration that teaches all of us the value of holding on to dreams.

A sign of support from the grain elevator in Hawley, where the ship was built.

A quote from Rose Asp, Bob Asp’s wife.

The interior of the Hjemkomst as seen from a second floor viewing deck.

A sign on the ship honors the Asp brothers for their military service.

This dragon head was attached to a canoe, dubbed Hjemkomst Jr., and shown in parades to promote the ship project.

Some of the gear and equipment from the Hjemkomst.

Moorhead, Minnesota, Asp’s home and now the Hjemkomst’s permanent home.

In the center of the Hjemkomst Center, the mast area of the Hjemkomst ship dominates the roofline.

FYI: The Hjemkomst Center is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesdays and from noon – 5 p.m. Sundays. It is closed some holidays. There is free admission from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. every third Tuesday. Admission prices vary. Click here to link to a $1 off admission coupon and for other coupon savings in Fargo/Moorhead.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Touring Hopperstad Stave in Moorhead November 13, 2012

A replica of Hopperstad Stave, a church built in 1140 in Vik, Norway. This replica was constructed in 1998 in Moorhead, Minnesota from cedar, redwood and pine. This is a rear view of the Minnesota stave.

OUR YOUNG TOUR GUIDE spewed information so fast that I could not have written down details about the Hopperstad Stave had I tried.

And, I simply must say this, but I was distracted by the political sticker stuck on her coat, quite inappropriate, I thought, to display while leading a public tour at a public facility only days before the November election. But I did not want to create a scene, so I kept my lips pressed together.

She had already rankled me earlier by informing my husband and me that we likely would not be able to tour the Norwegian church at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead because the museum was short-staffed. On a Saturday. We had just driven nearly 300 miles. Do not tell me this after I have paid my admittance fee.

Forgive me for venting. But I needed to confess before taking you inside the replica Norwegian church built in 1998 by Guy Paulson, a retired researcher from North Dakota State University. I do not want such negative thoughts rattling around in my head while showing you God’s house.

A side view of the stave and the Celtic cross which stands near it. The stone cross replicates one located in the church yard of Loen Nordfjord, Norway. The cross represents the period in which Celtic missionaries came from the British Isles to convert Vikings to Christianity.

Yes, apparently the situation changed so that the young woman could leave her admission station to take a group of visitors, including my husband and me, inside the stave. Hallelujah.

Norwegian themed mugs for sale in the Hjemkomst Center gift shop.

I am not Norwegian. I know nothing of Norwegian architecture, have eaten lutefisk only twice, will consume lefse if offered and certainly do not say, “Uff da.”

But I want to assure you that I now am aware of how to pronounce stave. The word does not rhyme with “gave.” The “e” is silent, the “a” short.

I can also tell you that, from the exterior, the Hopperstad Stave resembles a Viking ship.

The roofline which mixes crosses, the symbol of Christianity, and dragons, once a symbol of pagans.  Obviously, the crosses are not visible at this angle.

Carved dragons and crosses mark peaks of the multi-layer roofed church which looms dark and foreboding.

Most of us stepped up and walked through that narrow front door. Others chose to walk around to a handicapped accessible and wider side door.

Stepping, and I do mean stepping, through the narrow doorway, I found the interior nearly equally as dark as the exterior. Missing are the eye level windows I’m accustomed to in the older Lutheran churches here in Minnesota.

An overview of the church shows the small chapel and altar on the left where more intimate religious ceremonies, such as baptisms, could take place. The main altar sits in the background and near center in this image.

Missing also are the pews. Worshipers would stand through services. And those with leprosy or other illnesses (think back to the 1100s) would wait outside the sanctuary, peering through a tiny opening cut into a side wall.

Detailed carvings and paintings define the chapel area.

Other details escape me except that Guy Paulson, who built and donated the stave to the city of Moorhead, carved the intricate designs inside and outside the church. The craftsmanship of his work is exquisite.

Really, sometimes remembering the visual details, rather than the rapid-fire of information overload, is the best way to take a tour.

Amen and amen.

Looking up at the beautiful construction.

Another painting inside the chapel area.

There are no ground level windows, only above. This is looking toward the back of the church, above the narrow entry door.

Two exterior hallways buffet the building. In the original church in Norway, those with diseases like leprosy would wait here as they were not allowed inside for worship.

A close-up shot detailing construction.

Dragon carvings are everywhere, inside and out, this one at the edge of the roof.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling