THE JULY FOURTH WEEKEND took me back home, home being my native southwestern Minnesota. There my extended family gathered at my middle brother’s rural acreage near Lamberton for the first time since December 2019. To see so many family members—not all attended—felt wonderful.
Being back in that rural area of our state, in a familiar landscape, felt comforting. No matter where I’ve lived as an adult, Redwood County remains home. The place of my roots. The land and sky and wind imprinted upon me like ink on the pages of a book. Words that thread through my writing even today.
Perhaps my perspective seems too nostalgic. And if it does, I offer no apologies. I value the place which shaped me as a person and as a writer and photographer.
The familiar scenes which appear before me en route from Faribault to southwestern Minnesota welcome me back. The red barns. The vast fields of corn and soybeans. The expansive sky. Even the tractors and farm wagons and pick-up trucks.
All are part of the rural-ness. My rural-ness. The grain elevators and gravel roads and power lines stretching seemingly to infinity.
I could write chapters about the gravel roads I biked as a teen—how the gravel crunched beneath tires, how wild roses flourished in ditches, how vehicles kicked up dust. I could write chapters about barns—how I labored inside ours, feeding cows and calves, and pitching manure. I could write chapters about the ice and snow storms that left our farm without electricity, once for an entire week in the depth of winter.
A trip back to southwestern Minnesota prompts such memories. I remember. I relive. But, most of all, I recognize just how thankful I am to have been raised in this rural region. On the land. In the shadows of silos and grain elevators. Just a softball pitch away from the barn. Within scent of cows, steers and calves. As close to the earth as bare feet or the end of a hoe hacking cockle burrs in a soybean field.
As rural scenes unfold, my memories, too, unfurl. Memories of hard work and challenges balanced by carefree afternoons and prairie sunsets and all the beauty this place holds for me. Still today, some 40-plus decades after I left this land.
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.
BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.
Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.
It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.
A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.
This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.
Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.
Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.
Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.
Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.
A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.
Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.
I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.
But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.
Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.
Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.
Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.
IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.
Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.
I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.
Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.
Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.
With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.
The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.
The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.
A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.
Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.
Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.
Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.
Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.
Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.
I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.
Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.
Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.
Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.
Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.
Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.
As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.
STATE HIGHWAY 68 slices diagonally across rich Minnesota farmland southeast of Morgan.
I often travel this section of roadway until it intersects with Brown County Road 29 when I return to my roots in Redwood County. The angle of the highway in a place where roads typically run in a straight gridded pattern confuses my sense of direction. I must use the sun as my compass. Or remind my mind that highway 68 does not run true north or south, east or west.
Other than the directional issue, I delight in this roadway for the visuals. My photographer’s eye appreciates the power poles that stretch along the highway. Wires loop between poles reinforcing the horizontal lay of this land. There’s just something about the repeating line of poles and wire that artistically pleases me.
And then there are the sunsets which, in this exposed plain, prove spectacular, even in layers of clouds. Everything—trees, barns, fields—seems insignificant beneath a fiery sun suspended above the land, my native land.
I shot this rural farmsite/sunset scene while traveling along Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.
OFTENTIMES IT TAKES LEAVING a place to appreciate it.
A farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Redwood County near my hometown of Vesta.
There are days when I miss my native southwestern Minnesota prairie with an ache that lingers. I long for wide open space and forever skies,
The grain elevator in Morgan in eastern Redwood County.
for farm fields and familiar grain elevators,
This gravel road connects to Minnesota State Highway 19 between Vesta and Redwood Falls.
for gridded gravel roads
A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.
and flaming sunsets. And quiet.
Sure, I could drive into the country here in southeastern Minnesota and see similar sites. But it’s not the same. This is not my native home, the place that shaped me. Although decades removed, I shall always call the prairie my home.
Minnesota State Highway 67, one of the roadways leading “home.”
With family still living in southwestern Minnesota, I return there occasionally. And that, for now, is enough. I drink in the scenery like gulping a glass of cold well water tasting of iron and earth. I am refreshed, renewed, restored.
This lone tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner has been here as long as I can remember.
I need to view the prairie, to walk the soil, to reclaim my roots. I need to see the sunsets, to breathe in the scent of freshly-mown alfalfa, to watch corn swaying in the breeze, to observe snow drifting across rural roadways, to feel the bitter cold bite of a prairie wind.
A farmer guides his John Deere tractor along Minnesota State Highway 67 near Morgan.
There are those who dismiss this region as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s not. It’s a place of community, of good hardworking people, of Saturday night BINGO and Sunday morning worship services. It’s lines at the grain elevator and fans packing bleachers at a high school basketball game. It’s acres of corn and soybeans in the season of growth and tilled black fields in the time between. This place is somewhere to those who live here. And to those of us who were raised here.
Every trip back along Minnesota State Highway 67, I am drawn to photograph the electrical lines that stretch seemingly into forever.
For me, this land, this prairie, shall always be home.
Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land early Saturday evening.
HARVEST. That word holds the seasons of a farmer’s hope.
A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.
From spring planting to summer growth to autumn ripening, a farmer focuses on the outcome—a yield that brims with golden corn and soybeans.
Harvest equipment sits in a cornfield west of St. Peter.
Through months of looking toward the skies, of weathering too much or too little rainfall, of watching heat shimmer waves across fields, of tending and waiting, a farmer anticipates this season of harvest.
Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.
On a day trip Saturday from the southeastern to the southwestern side of Minnesota—through Rice, Le Sueur, Blue Earth, Nicollet, Brown and Redwood counties and back—I observed the harvest. Minimal on the eastern side, which has been flooded with too much recent rainfall, but in full swing in the counties of Brown and Redwood.
Combining beans near New Ulm.
Farmers worked the land, dust enveloping combines.
A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.
North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.
Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.
Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.
Grain trucks idled in fields and barreled down county roads toward local elevators
Grain bins near Waterville.
or homestead grain bins.
Driving into Courtland.
This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.
Harvest started west of St. Peter.
The landscape crawled with tractors and combines and trucks, farmers at the wheels, guiding the crops toward harvest.
A harvested field against a farm site backdrop of white.
And I observed it all. No longer an intimate part of this process as I once was so many decades ago on my Redwood County childhood farm, I am still connected to this season by the memories that trace deep within me.
Minnesota State Highway 68 near Morgan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.
WITHIN SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA, I occasionally travel sections of roadway that stretch visually into forever. One is the diagonal of State Highways 67 and 68 running from Evan through Morgan to Redwood Falls. It’s a distance of about 20 miles. But it seems much farther.
After years of following a section of that route back to my native Redwood County, I’ve realized that the flatness of the land along a road as straight as a ruler lengthens the distance in my mind.
Few farm places snug the highway. Trees stand only in groves sheltering farm sites. As far as I can see down the asphalt ribbon—and it’s a long ways—utility poles guard road ditches in precise vertical lines.
And because this roadway angles across the land rather than runs straight north or south, I feel geographically unbalanced. Any sense of direction is lost.
That all said, I delight in photographing forever roads like this which draw the viewer right into the scene. It’s as if I am writing poetry with my camera.
TELL ME, WHAT SECTION of roadway evokes this same reaction in you?