Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Night at the Museum” brings history to life & memories, too, Part II October 2, 2019

Chatting it up in the Harvest and Heritage Halls.

 

THE ENTHUSIASM OF THE KIDS impressed me. Girls in Laura Ingalls Wilder style calico bonnets and prairie skirts and dresses. Boys in period caps and hats and bib overalls. And then the teens in football jerseys, celebrating locally-grown 1941 Heismann Trophy winner Bruce Smith.

 

A photo cut-out of Bruce Smith next to Pleasant Valley School and next to a grassy area where kids (mostly) tossed footballs.

 

All engaged in Night at the Museum, an event hosted by the Rice County Historical Society last Saturday. They led activities, participated and presented a local living history that reminded me of those who settled and grew this southeastern Minnesota county.

 

Checking out the one-room Pleasant Valley School.

 

One of many vintage books inside Pleasant Valley School.

 

Pleasant Valley School, built in the 1850s, and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in 1869. Both were relocated to the Rice County Historical Society grounds.

 

While it’s easy to romanticize that life, the reality is that life back-in-the-day was labor intensive and often difficult. But also joyful. Just like today, only different in the joys and challenges. Back then students learned from books and used slates and chalk. Lots of rote memorization within the confines of a bare bones one-room country school. Today’s kids use different tools—primarily technology. And hopefully they learn in better ways than simply memorizing and regurgitating.

 

 

As I pounded out words on a manual typewriter in the Heritage and Harvest Halls, I thought how grateful I am for computers. Writing and photography are so much easier with this tool. No more xxxxing out words on paper or buying and processing film. When I spoke with my husband Randy on a crank telephone, I recalled the days without a telephone and how my mom ran to the neighbor’s farm when a fire started in a hay bunk next to the barn. Now I use a cellphone and, yes, also a landline. Watching two men team up on sharpening an axe, I recalled the mean rooster on my childhood farm. When we’d all had enough of his terrorizing us, Dad grabbed the axe.

 

Visitors ride in a wagon pulled by a vintage John Deere tractor during Night at the Museum.

 

 

One of many area business signs now displayed at the museum.

 

When I saw a Surge milking machine, I remembered how hard my dad worked on our family’s crop and dairy farm and all those years I helped with barn chores and watched Dad head out to the field on his John Deere tractor.

 

Behind glass, memorabilia from a local dairy, closed years ago.

 

A storyteller, left, roasts hot dogs with another volunteer.

 

 

These are the places, the times, I remembered as I walked from spot to spot at the Rice County Historical Museum grounds. Night at the Museum provided many opportunities for reflection, for remembering when I was young (er)…

 

Folks gathered around the fire to hear these musicians perform at Night at the Museum.

 

FYI: Please click here to read my first post about this year’s Night at the Museum.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with history during “Night at the Museum,” Part I October 1, 2019

This volunteer informed visitors about the history of an 1856 log cabin, once located near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

WHEN HISTORY BECOMES AUTHENTIC, I get interested. Not to say I dismiss museum exhibits packed with information, artifacts and such. But I engage most with the past when that past comes alive.

 

The festive setting outside the late 1850s Pleasant Valley School welcomed visitors to A Night at the Museum.

 

That happened Saturday during the Rice County Historical Society’s annual Night at the Museum. Volunteers dressed in period costume took visitors like me back in time—

 

Gathering outside Pleasant Valley School before “class.”

 

Inside the school entry, a place to wash.

 

 

 

Propped against the wall at the front of the classroom.

 

As the early evening sun slants through the windows, class begins.

 

into a one-room country school,

 

Next to the school, Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in 1869 and moved here in 1959 from Cannon City, Minnesota.

 

Waiting for “worshipers” to enter the church.

 

 

Beautiful vintage altar cloth authentic to the church.

 

 

An 1800s hymnbook.

 

an aged Episcopal church,

 

Outside the 1856 log cabin, visitors could walk on stilts and mow lawn.

 

 

Inside the log cabin, a young visitor learns about pioneer era beds.

 

an 1856 log cabin…

I found myself watching, listening, experiencing the history of Rice County, Minnesota. I didn’t grow up here so this place doesn’t hold the same significance it would for life-long residents rooted here for generations. But I’ve lived in Faribault long enough to care about the history of this county and the people who shaped it.

 

Inside the Harvest and Heritage Halls, many local business signs are now displayed. I remember these businesses, some of which closed in recent years. I love signage for its art and its history.

 

And I’ve lived long enough to now see items like local business signs, typewriters, telephones, a Surge milking machine and more in museum exhibits.

I am grateful for efforts to preserve these parts of our past and to showcase history during interactive events like Night at the Museum. To witness history in this way connects me personally to the past of this place I’ve called home since 1982.

FYI: Check back for Part II from this living history event.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Owatonna: Toys exhibit highlights 50 years of child’s play April 5, 2019

Turtle power displayed.

 

CAN YOU NAME all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I bet my daughters can. These fictional teenage cartoon characters are named after Italian artists of the Renaissance. And they were vastly popular when my girls were growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s.

 

 

Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael. The turtles are among toys featured in a “Toys & Play, 1970 to Today” exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. This museum ranks as one of my favorite regional history centers. Why? Because of the home-grown changing exhibits, the traveling exhibits and the adjoining Village of Yesteryear. Staff and volunteers clearly work hard to create engaging exhibits with a local connection.

 

 

 

Go ahead, play.

 

Kids are welcome to play with some of the exhibit toys, including these farm-themed wood cut-outs.

 

From videos to interactive activities to creative displays and more, visitors experience history. I am so thankful for this shift from “look and don’t touch” to hands-on that now imprints most history centers. History, to be remembered, must be experienced through the senses. I find myself bored at museums that revolve around simply walking past glass-encased historical artifacts. I need engagement to pull me in.

 

All three of my kids, including the son, owned one Cabbage Patch doll.

 

Front and center in the exhibit, fabric drapes over a cardboard box to create a fort.

 

 

Without kids in tow, though, I mostly observed this exhibit, flashing back to sweet memories of my daughters cradling their Cabbage Patch dolls, clasping tiny Polly Pockets in their little hands, sliding Viewmaster reels into place, creating art with a Lite-Brite, building forts from blankets draped over card tables and much more.

 

In a mock-up child’s bedroom, visitors are invited to play Nintendo.

 

Our family played lots of board games. Those are part of the Owatonna exhibit, but are a don’t touch part of the exhibit.

 

A table full of pogs, ready for playing.

 

I limited their screen time. They played together. Indoors and outdoors. And they used their imaginations.

 

 

 

I was happy to see a tractor displayed in a case full of toys.

 

The exhibit extends beyond a collection of popular toys. It also addresses the value of play as a learning tool, consumerism, issues related to technologically-based toys… There’s much to contemplate as I consider how toys have changed in the decades since I was a kid galloping around the farmyard on my stick horse crafted from a sock and an old broom handle.

 

 

But one thing remains unchanged—that is a kid’s desire for whatever is the hottest, newest toy. I remember flipping through the pages of the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog, aka the Wish Book, to tag the toys I knew I’d never get. A pogo stick sticks in my memory. I could dream all I wanted while repeatedly turning those pages. But in reality my parents had only minimal money and not enough to buy those coveted toys.

 

Through the museum window I saw this playground, such a fitting visual for the info posted inside the mock child’s bedroom.

 

Looking back now, I am thankful for that lack of material possessions as a child. Instead, the vast outdoors of rural Minnesota provided all I needed for imaginative play with my siblings. There were no battery operated toys, which I refuse to buy even today for my grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

Parenting children today, I think, proves more challenging than that of previous generations, even of raising my own kids. Screen time robs too many kids of creative play, of family time, of spending time outdoors. I realize it’s a much different world. And I can lament all I want about the changes. But that does no good. The bottom line is that we can make choices for our children. We decide whether to cave to whining. We decide which toys to buy. We decide on screen time. We decide on the importance of outdoor play. We have the ability to encourage healthy, engaging and creative play.

 

My girls’ My Little Ponies came from garage sales, as did many of their toys.

 

PLEASE SHARE your thoughts on toys, on child’s play, on your favorite childhood toy, on parental choices, whatever you feel inclined to say about kids and toys and, yes, parents, too.

 

FYI: The Steele County Historical Society museum is open Tuesdays – Saturdays. The toy exhibit remains open into the fall. Call to confirm dates.

RELATED: Click here to read about the reasons behind the closing of Creative Kidstuff, a group of home-grown toy stores in the Twin Cities.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring Red Wing, Part II: Red Wing Shoes August 27, 2018

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MY HUSBAND IS A HARDWORKING automotive machinist, on his feet all day resurfacing heads, turning brake rotors, rebuilding engines and more. His work is always in demand because so few do what he does and he’s good at what he does. Really good.

 

Step inside the Red Wing Shoe Store

Step inside the Red Wing Shoe Store in downtown Red Wing and this gigantic 20-foot long by 16-foot high, 2,300 pound replica Red Wing work boot grabs your attention. It’s in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records.

 

He needs sturdy work boots that offer comfort and support and protection from grease, oil and dirt. Sometimes he’s worn Red Wing boots, sometimes boots from Mason Shoes across the border in Wisconsin.

 

Night-time outside the Red Wing Shoe Store.

Darkness descends outside the Red Wing Shoe Store.

 

On a 2014 visit to Red Wing, the Red Wing Shoe Store and its on-site second floor museum were on our must-stop list. Randy was having problems with a pair of Red Wing boots not fitting properly. He’d tried to get the issue resolved at our local Red Wing shoe provider. But still, the problem persisted. Go straight to the source, he decided.

 

Randy stepped onto a machine which determined pressure points on this feet and projected the results onto a screen.

Randy stepped onto a machine which determined pressure points on his feet and projected the results onto a screen.

 

The search began for the right boots.

The search began for the right boots.

 

Randy received great one-on-one attentive customer service.

Randy received great one-on-one attentive customer service.

 

That was the right decision. While Randy’s feet were measured and checked for pressure points and he tried on numerous boots, I meandered. Through the outlet store, through the museum. Eventually Randy found boots and the old ones were determined defective, just as he thought all along. We spent a lot of time at the store, but left satisfied customers.

 

The iconic Red Wing shoe logo.

The iconic Red Wing Shoes logo.

 

Since 1905, when Red Wing Shoes was founded in this Mississippi River town in eastern Minnesota, this shoe company has been crafting shoes for hardworking people like my husband. Footwear in the company’s Heritage Collection is made just as it was originally, handcrafted from premium leather.

 

A museum map

A museum map shows Red Wing’s global market.

 

But, I discovered, not all Red Wing shoes are made in Minnesota. Those new boots Randy got, well, they are made in China, says so on the label inside the tongue. To be honest, we both felt a bit betrayed, thinking he’d gotten American-made boots. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.

 

Rows of boots line a wall leading to the second floor museum.

Rows of boots line a wall leading to the second floor museum.

 

Even given that discovery, my husband remains loyal to the Red Wing brand. He likes his new boots, which I convinced him not to wear to work. He looks really good in his 435 Men’s 6-inch boots. They’re much sexier than sloppy tennis shoes. That left him without work boots. So he ordered a pair from across the border.

 

Even Hollywood chooses Red Wing shoes, according to this info in the museum.

Even Hollywood chooses Red Wing shoes, according to this info in the museum.

 

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. So much for customer loyalty. His new boots from Wisconsin aren’t fitting all that well. Maybe he should have gone Red Wing again, stuck to the iconic workhorse boots which sometimes, and sometimes not, are made in a Minnesota river town.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Red Wing boot sculptures can be seen in downtown Red Wing.

Red Wing boot sculptures can be seen in downtown Red Wing.

 

A letter is posted in the museum from a long ago customer.

A letter is posted in the museum from a long ago customer attesting to the quality of the shoes.

 

I slipped into a Red Wing boot in the dress-up section of the museum.

I slipped into a Red Wing boot in the kids’ dress-up section of the museum. Kids are encouraged to try on an outfit and Red Wing shoes.

 

envelopne

In 1912, The Red Wing Shoe Company began using the “Chief” logo to promote a new line of “Chief” products. Inspiration for the “Chief” graphic came from an employee’s childhood photo collection. The logo was used until 1928, when it was replaced with the red wing logo design.

 

In the gift shop, I spotted this beautiful Red Wing Pottery bowl.

In the gift shop, I spotted this beautiful Red Wing Pottery bowl.

 

A lovely old door in the shoe store.

A lovely old door in the shoe store.

 

FYI: Click here to read the first in my series of stories from Red Wing.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder at a Chicago museum & I’m in December 18, 2017

Follow U.S. Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, west across the prairie to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and then on to De Smet, South Dakota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MINNESOTA PRAIRIE ROOTS. My blog name honors my roots in Redwood County where Laura Ingalls Wilder, celebrated author of the Little House book series, lived for awhile as a child. Walnut Grove lies just 20 miles distant from my childhood home. It is a place where earth and sky spread wide, where fertile black soil grows tall corn and the wind seldom stops blowing.

 

The American Writers Museum in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Lee Engquist.

 

Some 500 miles to the south and east of Walnut Grove lies Chicago. Windy, yes. But otherwise distinctly different. Nothing prairie-like here in this city. Until you look close, to the new American Writers Museum which opened in the heart of Chicago in May.

 

An overview of a section of the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

I’ve not visited the museum. Yet, I hold a connection to this acclaimed museum now showcasing a temporary exhibit, “Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page.” I grew up with the Little House books read by an elementary school teacher each day after lunch. That was long before the books grew in popularity, long before the TV series, long before Walnut Grove became a destination for Laura fans.

 

My Laura Look-A-Like Contest photo close-up in the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

But my love of Laura’s writing and my native prairie roots are not my only connections to this exhibit which runs through spring 2018. A photo I took several years ago during a Laura Look-Alike Contest in Walnut Grove is included in the exhibit.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in a Walnut Grove city park in July 2013. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Awhile ago, Boston-based Amaze Design contacted me about using the image. The design company manages content development for the museum.

 

This section features noted American authors. Within the museum is info highlighting Minnesota writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Schulz and more. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

An exhibit in the Children’s Literature Room. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

Another exhibit focuses on the writing process. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

From what my friend Laurel, who recently toured the 11,000 square foot literary museum tells me, the place is impressive. Located on the second floor of a building at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, it includes 13 permanent exhibits in six galleries plus temporary exhibits. Laurel spent hours there wandering, reading, observing and participating in interactive aspects of displays. She was surprised to find my Laura Look-Alike photo as part of the American Voices Exhibit.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’m honored to have my work included. I’m proud of my prairie roots, of my rural upbringing in a part of Minnesota made famous by a much-loved American writer.

 

FYI: If you’re wondering how Amaze Design found my photo, look no further than searching the internet. I also have photos included in exhibits at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul and in the World War II Museum in New Orleans. All found my work online, on this blog.

 

Disclaimer: Amaze Design paid for rights to use my Laura Look-A-Like image in the exhibit.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thanks to friends Laurel and Lee Engquist for permission to share their photos.

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This ain’t no museum July 11, 2017

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SMALL TOWNS PRESENT a visual smorgasbord of signage that often humors, delights and entertains me. While day tripping to southeastern Minnesota communities last week, I spotted numerous such signs, including this one on the front display window of Thrifty Chix in Elysian:

 

 

I confess that I’ve often been guilty of museum type viewing in shops, especially antique shops. I enjoy perusing vintage and antique merchandise that I remember with fondness from years past. Seldom do I purchase anything, primarily because of cost but also because I don’t really “need” whatever I want.

This particular sign caused me to pause and consider and, then, to laugh out loud. Humor, when used well, works for me. How about you?

TELL ME about any particularly humorous signs you’ve discovered.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My appreciation for small town hardware stores January 13, 2017

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

IF YOU GREW UP in rural Minnesota like I did, you likely hold fond memories of the local hardware store.

Two hardware stores once served my hometown of Vesta, a farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. While I remember Joe Engel’s Hardware store as the place to buy rolls of perforated caps for my cap gun, my father shopped there, or a few doors down at Marquardt’s Hardware, for all his hardware needs. Like bulk nails and screws stashed in cubbies, the merchandise weighed and parceled into brown paper bags.

I remember, too, the worn wood floors, the narrow aisles, the old fashioned screen doors that banged shut.

To this day, I find myself drawn to the hardware stores that still exist in many small towns. They represent a connection to my past, to simpler days, to outstanding customer service, to a Main Street necessity. So I photograph them, usually the exteriors.

Nothing says "small town" like a hardware store, including this Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha.

Nothing says “small town” like a hardware store, including Hill’s Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

One of my hardware store images—that of Hill’s Hardware Hank in Wabasha—will soon become part of a renovated “Our World” gallery at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul. The photo will grace signage for a mini town that includes a hardware store. Hill’s inspired the facade of the replica hardware store in which children can play. The updated exhibit opens this spring.

I am honored to have my photo displayed at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. I hope it inspires others to appreciate the value of hardware stores in rural Minnesota. They are as important today as they were when I was growing up in the 1960s. In Owatonna, Arrow Ace Hardware plans to relocate into a new and much larger space by next Christmas, more than doubling its size to some 11,000 square feet. That’s encouraging. There’s still great value in local hardware stores.

TELL ME: Do you shop in hardware stores? If yes, why? Are they still of value in today’s marketplace?  Or what are your hardware store memories? Let’s talk hardware stores.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling