Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Of rural roads & polka music in Minnesota Czech country October 21, 2021

A farm site near Richter Woods County Park, rural Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

AS WE ROLLED THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE on an October afternoon in rural Minnesota, Randy switched on the radio. To KCHK, a New Prague-based radio station.

Gravel roads, sky and fields stretch before us in the southern Minnesota countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

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.

A farm site tucks behind a hill in LeSueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

In the heart of Czech country, though, the radio station is known for its day-time polka programming.

Occasionally we passed between colorful treelines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
A common Minnesota harvest scene: a farm truck parked in a field. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Love the copper hue of this barn roof on a farm just off State Highway 13 between New Prague and Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

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.

Just harvested corn flows into a grain truck along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

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.

Near Richter Woods County Park west of Montgomery, a farm site overlooks the countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

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.

A farm site hugs a cornfield along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Time to just appreciate. The hard work of the farmer during harvest. The farm sites. Gravel roads.

As we passed this rural property along 60th Street West southeast of New Prague, I photographed this horse sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

And the unexpected sighting of horseshoe art where horses graze.

Oh, the glorious hues of autumn in rural southern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

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.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Getting cultured in Faribault: From opera to Somali song to booyah September 7, 2021

A promo for Mixed Precipitation’s on-the-road performance. Graphic source: Mixed Precipitation.

IN ONE WEEK’S SPAN, I heard opera for the first time and then seven days later listened to an internationally-known Somali singer perform. Both right here in Faribault. In Central Park.

What a delight to experience these performing arts locally, to be exposed to something new to me.

And at 6 pm Friday, September 10, I’ll be back in Central Park, enjoying “Arla Mae’s Booyah Wagon,” a play presented by Minneapolis-based Sod House Theater.

If I’m sounding a bit giddy, it’s because I am. I love the arts and feel grateful for our local Paradise Center for the Arts. Yet, I often yearn to see more. But I don’t want to go into the metro. And, truth-be-told, there’s always cost to consider. Even in attending local arts events. I expect others in Faribault face the same barriers.

So I feel such gratitude for our long-running free summer Concerts in the Park series. And I feel thankful, too, for sponsoring groups like the City of Faribault Parks & Recreation Department and the Paradise Center for the Arts and the local businesses and residents who helped fund the special events I attended recently.

When Mixed Precipitation brought its The Pickup Truck Opera, Volume 1: The Odyssey to Faribault on August 26, I wondered how I would respond. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I needn’t have concerned myself as the adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey proved lively and entertaining with dancing and over-sized puppets and toe-stomping music. Plus opera. And it was performed on the grass, in front of the historic bandshell from the bed of a blue pickup truck. I felt like I was in a small village of yesteryear being entertained by a traveling troupe.

Dalmar Yare. Photo source: Faribault Parks & Rec Facebook page.

The feel was completely different on September 2, when I set up my lawn chair in Central Park to hear and watch Dalmar Yare, a Somali entertainer from Minnesota and with family ties to Faribault. He describes his music as a blend of traditional Somali styles with hints of western influence.

I quickly found myself swinging my crossed left leg to the tempo of the upbeat music. I didn’t understand what Yare sang in a language foreign to me. But I understood the joy I felt, the joy I saw. Throughout the park, local Somali children, teens and adults gathered to listen. Many danced, especially the kids. It seemed part concert, part celebration, part reunion. Simply joyful.

While I listened, I observed the crowd. I noted the open affection of Somali youth for one another. Young men draped arms over shoulders as did teen girls. Preschool girls in their flowing dresses and hijabs ran hand-in-hand across the park. I noticed, too, a stunningly beautiful 20-something layered in a golden dress and matching hijab, fashionable mini purse dangling from her shoulder. The vibrant colors and patterns of dresses and hijabs swirled like a kaleidoscope. An ever-changing gallery of art.

Dressed in my casual attire of jeans, a tee and a zipped sweatshirt with the hoodie occasionally pulled up to provide warmth and protect me from the rain, I felt under-dressed and conscious of my white-ness. And that’s OK; I needed to feel this. I only wish more long-time Faribault residents would have attended.

Photo source: Sod House Theater

Now this week I’ll learn about booyah, a rich and flavorful stew that is supposedly an Upper Midwest tradition, although I’ve never eaten it. Booyah will theme the Sod House Theater musical comedy about Arla Mae, a rural Minnesotan claiming to operate the state’s first food truck out of which she serves her famous booyah. The play aims to spotlight buying and eating fresh local food. Thus the involvement of James Beard Award-winning chef Ann Kim in creating a special booyah recipe for the production. So what goes into this stew, which is traditionally cooked outdoors in large kettles over a wood fire? You name it: a mix of meats and an assortment of vegetables—onion, potatoes, rutabagas, cabbage, carrots, celery, peppers…

I envision a collage of shapes and colors. Art in a kettle. Art that is new to me. Served to me. Right here in Faribault. In Central Park.

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NOTE: “Arla Mae’s Booyah Wagon” will also be performed in neighboring communities on these dates and at these locations:

Keepsake Cidery, rural Dundas, 6 pm on Thursday, September 23

Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm, rural Waseca, 6 pm on Friday, October 1

Northfield Central Park, Northfield, 6 pm on Thursday, October 7

© Text Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating Faribault’s diversity at international fest July 10 July 8, 2021

Flags representing the many countries from which Faribault residents came are displayed at a past International Festival Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

DECADES AGO, in high school and then in college, I studied the German language. I grew fluent in the native tongue of my forefathers. I felt a sense of accomplishment as my skills advanced. I decided I would major in German in college, until I determined journalism would be a better path. I’ve never regretted that decision because I love words, no matter the language.

My second daughter, though, pursued a foreign language major, earning her college degree in Spanish (much more practical than German) and then becoming a Spanish medical interpreter. Until the pandemic ended that career.

Friends, Nimo Abdi, a sophomore at Faribault High School, left, and Nasteho Farah, a senior when I photographed them in 2012 at the International Festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I share this to lay the foundation for my personal appreciation of other cultures. I’ve never traveled internationally and not all that much domestically, so I welcome the opportunity to experience other countries and cultures locally. From 10 am – 4 pm this Saturday, July 10, diverse cultures focus the 16th annual International Festival Faribault in Central Park.

Pupusas served at the 2011 International Festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Cambodian art at the 2015 fest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Attendees marked a world map with their countries of origin during a previous festival. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The fest is promoted as “a global bazaar-style event featuring food, music, dance, presentations and goods from around the world.” I’ve attended several times, although not recently, and always enjoyed this Neighbor Meeting Neighbor celebration. Many of those participating in the fest are local residents, shopkeepers and vendors.

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Faribault truly is an ethnically diverse community with a size-able immigrant population and with long-time residents rooted in many countries. Founding father Alexander Faribault, for example, was of French-Canadian and Dakota heritage. Our newest residents come from places like war torn Somalia.

A recently-completed mural in downtown Faribault, LOVE FOR ALL, celebrates our city’s diversity. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2021.

While we’ve struggled in the past to accept one another, I feel like things are settling, that we are beginning to celebrate our differences and recognize the value of those differences.

Downtown Faribault during a Car Cruise Night in 2015 reflects our diversity. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Newcomers to Faribault are here to stay. They live, work and play here. Attend school. Own businesses. And that’s reason to celebrate. We are a stronger community because of our diversity.

Cambodian dancers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.
A young girl’s henna stained foot, photographed at the 2011 fest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
A little girl stands on the opposite side of the group of children waiting to swing at the pinata. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I encourage locals and people from out of town to attend Saturday’s International Festival Faribault. International dancers, music, a flag ceremony, arts and crafts, kids’ activities (including the popular pinata breaking), henna and food from around the world will be among the offerings. Perhaps someone will represent the German heritage by serving sauerkraut and brats or pumping out polkas on an accordion…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An American treasure: North Morristown on the Fourth of July July 5, 2021

The Pie Stand at North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

WHEN RANDY AND I ARRIVED at the North Morristown Fourth of July celebration late Sunday afternoon, we headed directly to the Pie Stand. I hoped the homemade pies wouldn’t be sold out. They weren’t.

Tasty homemade strawberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Although the selection was limited by this time in the day-long event, we still found tasty pies. I chose fresh strawberry while Randy opted for rhubarb, both parceled in generous portions.

The crowd had thinned by Monroe Crossing’s 4 pm concert. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

While we forked our pies, the ever-popular bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, performed to an appreciative audience on the nearby Main Stage. The crowd settled onto bleachers, folding chairs inside the gazebo and onto plank benches, and also spilled onto the grassy area in lawn chairs and on blankets.

Inside the shed housing games and vintage kiddie rides. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Several musical groups performed throughout a day packed with family-friendly events: A parade, patriotic program, BINGO, kiddie rides and games, and so much more.

Proceeds go to this small Christian school in the country. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Once we finished our pie, we roamed the festival grounds, a grassy space shaded by towering trees (including aged oaks) and next to farm sites and fields. Across the street sits Trinity Lutheran Church and School, the school benefiting from funds raised at this long-running July Fourth celebration.

This shed houses the games and rides, which are unchanged. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I love everything about this event. The timeless quality. The step back in time. The connecting with friends (and for many, with family). The music. The food.

Old Glory flies in the middle of the festival grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

To be in North Morristown on the Fourth of July is to experience a sense of community, to feel comforted by the sameness of this celebration, to understand that this is about more than Independence Day. This is about rural America and how family and community and tradition are valued and cherished here.

The homemade kiddie train crafted from barrels. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
I loved watching the kids ride the barrel train. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As I watched the engineer of the barrel train steer his lawn tractor, I thought, what wonderful memories these kids will have of riding that homemade train. The same goes for the other kiddie rides and carnival games which remain unchanged. I need to bring my grandchildren here to experience this.

The next generation vends tees. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Try to hit a vintage “doll” in this game. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
The fish pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Generations of families run the rides and booths, stitching stories into their family histories. The kids will always remember going to North Morristown on the Fourth—to pluck a yellow rubber duck from a pond, to throw a ball toward a hoop or toward spinning “dolls,” to drop a line into the fish pond…all for some prize that is more treasure than trinket on July 4.

Food is served from vintage stands. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

North Morristown on the Fourth truly rates as an American treasure.

Will Bauermeister performs as a hot and humid day eases toward evening. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Although Randy and I did not grow up here, we have lived in neighboring Faribault for 40 years and know a lot of people. So we saw many there—Mel, Carl, Leroy, Shirley, Virgil, Jane, Jen, Mike…and a college friend, Annette, whom I haven’t seen in decades. We made new friends, too, Kevin and Brenda from Elysian and another couple from Monticello. That’s the thing about this celebration. Sit at a picnic table and you’ll find yourself engaging in conversation with strangers.

The burger stand. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

After we completed our tour of the festival grounds and enjoyed the music by Monroe Crossing, Randy and I ordered sandwiches. I got barbecued pork. He chose a burger. The food, served from vintage stands, is always, always delicious. And, yes, we ate our dessert before our main meal because we weren’t willing to risk the pie running out.

We passed by this picturesque farm building on the drive home. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Several hours after arriving in the less-busy, less-crowded late afternoon, we left, taking the scenic route home along gravel roads winding past farm sites. I felt so appreciative of this rural setting, of North Morristown on the Fourth of July and of the people who make this event happen. What an exceptional example of a holiday celebration which, at its core, remains unchanged and rooted in community and family.

FYI: Please check back for a second post with more photos from North Morristown on July Fourth.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grassroots Americana on July Fourth in North Morristown, Minnesota July 2, 2021

Kids’ activities are to the left, food and beverage stands to the right and the entertainment stage straight ahead at the North Morristown July 4 festival grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

NORTH MORRISTOWN OFFERS a July Fourth celebration unlike any other in Minnesota. It’s grassroots Americana, billed as the longest-running Independence Day celebration in the state. Since 1892 (with the exception of 2020 due to COVID-19), folks have gathered on a plot of land across from Trinity Lutheran Church and School in western Rice County for this rural-rooted community event.

Craig, whom I know from Faribault Car Cruise Nights, showed up (with his wife Kathy) dressed as Uncle Sam. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I’ve attended many times (click here to view past blog posts), even though I hold no familial connection to this place. Yet, I always feel welcome. I’ve lived in nearby Faribault for 39 years and know a lot of people in the area. The Fourth of July in North Morristown is, at its core, about reconnecting with family and friends. Or, if you’re new to the event, meeting new people and experiencing an old-fashioned, down-to-earth Independence Day celebration.

One of several vintage carnival rides at North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

While some activities, such as a Remote Control Demolition Derby and Bean Bag Competition, have been added to the event, most activities are long-standing. A Patriotic Program, 10 AM parade complete with Candy House, silent auction, BINGO, Medallion Hunt, games, vintage kiddie rides and more endure. There’s something incredibly comforting and charming about keeping things the same.

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the North Morristown Fourth of July celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

From the Pie Stand to the Hamburger Stand, the food offerings are basic and delicious. I’d advise purchasing a slice of pie early on given the popularity of the pies. Vintage buildings house the food stands where volunteers prepare and serve food and beverages. Onion rings, pork sandwiches, ice cream, cold beer…

The popular bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, performs on the Fourth of July in North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The music also draws many, especially the popular Monroe Crossing, set to play at 1:30 PM and 4 PM on July 4 at the Main Stage. Believe me, it’s worth coming just to hear this bluegrass band. Other musical performers include Potluck String Band, Red Dirt Road and more.

Fireworks cap the day of celebration.

Among the homemade pie offerings at the Pie Stand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Words really cannot fully describe North Morristown on the Fourth of July. It’s something you have to experience. I’d encourage you to attend. Bring your lawn chairs or blankets (seating is limited for the concerts), your money, and a joyful attitude. Then celebrate America’s birthday in the middle of the countryside—among soybean and corn fields—with people who love this land and each other.

FYI: Click here for more detailed information about the July Fourth celebration in North Morristown.

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TO YOU, MY DEAR READERS: Have a safe and wonderful Independence Day celebration whether you are at home or traveling, among lots of people or simply with family. Or even just relaxing alone. Please take time on July Fourth to reflect on the blessings of living in a free country. I, for one, feel grateful.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In New Ulm: George’s Ballroom, when the music stops April 19, 2021

The boarded entrance to the long-closed George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic oom-pah-pah of the polka, see the couples twirling across the scuffed wooden dance floor, smell the scent of whiskey poured from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.

George’s, on the corner of Center and German Streets, also housed a bar and, at one time, a bowling alley. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Across Minnesota, ballrooms once centered Saturday evenings with wedding receptions, concerts and parties celebrating milestones. The Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall. The Gibbon Ballroom, site of Polka Days, in Gibbon. The Pla-Mor Ballroom in Rochester. George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. And many others.

The historic marquee marks George’s Ballroom. What a beautiful piece of art. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Now most of these entertainment venues are shuttered. Abandoned. Or gone. The places of memories shared in stories. The places of memories photographed. A bride tossing her bouquet. A couple wrapped in each other’s arms. A trio wildly whirling in The Chicken Dance. My parents met at a dance in a southwestern Minnesota ballroom in the early 1950s. So many Minnesotans hold ballroom memories.

The bar entrance is here, the ballroom entry to the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Last summer while in New Ulm, I photographed the exterior of George’s Ballroom, an art deco style brick structure built in 1947 by George Neuwirth. The facility, which could hold up to 3,000 guests, once served as this community’s celebration and concert hub. Lawrence Welk, Glen Miller, The Six Fat Dutchmen and other big name bands played here.

George’s closed in 1991, reopened for awhile under new ownership and then shuttered again—permanently—in the early 2000s. Property taxes went unpaid. Options expired.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the former dance hall faces likely demolition, according to media reports. Cost to restore the ballroom is estimated at $5 million. Cost to demolish it, $1 million. That’s a lot of money. But when you’re dealing with mold from water damage, asbestos and other health and safety issues, costs climb quickly.

Here you can see some of the damage, underneath that BAR sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

All of this saddens me. I love historic buildings. They’re often well-built and hold important historic, community and personal importance. But I am also a realist who recognizes that not everything can be saved.

The marquee first caught my photographic interest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I do hope, though, that the George’s marquee and signage—which drew me to photograph the building in the heart of downtown New Ulm—will be saved. It sounds like that’s the plan. I hope the historic art can be incorporated into an outdoor public space rather than tucked inside, mostly unseen and under appreciated. People need easy access to George’s memorabilia. To photograph. To reminisce. To remember the Saturday nights of Big Bands and polkas and partying with family and friends. With a little creative thinking, George’s can continue to draw locals and others, adding another attraction to a community that excels as a destination city.

TELL ME: What would you do with George’s Ballroom and/or the marquee and signage? I’d love to hear your creative ideas and/or your memories of George’s or other ballrooms.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small towns, through the lenses of nostalgia & possibilities March 17, 2021

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My uncle’s gas station with the fuel delivery truck parked by The Old Log Cabin. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000. The Miland station and the restaurant across Highway 19 in Vesta no longer exist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

GROWING UP IN SMALL TOWN Minnesota in the 60s and 70s, I saw local businesses thriving. There were two hardware stores, two grocery stores, a lumberyard, feed mill, grain elevator, bank, restaurants, corner bar, barbershop, several service stations, post office and more in my hometown of Vesta, population 365. But today, the one-block Main Street stands mostly empty, pocked by vacant lots from long-ago torn down buildings. A few businesses remain. The elementary school closed decades ago.

Downtown Belview, Minnesota, photographed last Saturday, March 13, 2021.

In Belview seven miles to the north and east, the story repeats. I recall driving to Belview with my grandma in the early 1970s to shop for fabric so I could sew dresses for her. That dry goods store is long gone. Belview has, like most rural communities, experienced the closure of many businesses as locals headed to regional shopping hubs to shop at Big Box stores and also embraced online shopping.

An historic anchor building in downtown Redwood Falls. Sward Kemp Snyder Drug recently moved out of downtown to the new hospital and clinic on the east edge of Redwood.

Likewise, Redwood Falls, to the east of Belview along Minnesota State Highway 19, has changed considerably. That Redwood County seat and the Lyon County seat of Marshall were our family’s go-to larger towns to shop for clothes, shoes and other necessities when I was growing up on the prairie. Last Saturday when Randy and I stopped in downtown Redwood, I found the streets nearly empty and few businesses open. Nothing like the bustling downtown I remember.

Vintage Vinyl, a newly-opened business in the heart of Redwood Falls.

I can sit here and write about this with nostalgia and sadness, wishing these rural communities remained self-sufficient. But wishes are not reality. And wishing does not change things. Action does.

An overview of Vintage Vinyl, packed with albums plus gaming and trading cards, books, video games, DVDs and VHSs, figurines and more. The tables provide a place for folks to play checkers, etc., and/or just hang out.
Vinyl galore…in all musical genres.
Randy files through vinyl selections.

While in Redwood Falls, I met a young man, Nate Rohlik, who recently opened Vintage Vinyl, Toys & Games. He’s passionate about improving his community, about providing a place for young people to gather, about growing opportunities.

Looking for a poster? You’ll find them in Nate’s shop.
I spotted this Buddy Holly album leaning against the wall on the floor.
In the basement, an array of merchandise.

He’s friendly, outgoing, welcoming. Everything you want in a shopkeeper. But Nate also carries a sense of responsibility, it seems. He recently-returned to his home area after a stint with the military that took him around the world. He could have settled elsewhere. But he chose to return to his roots. (He graduated from nearby Wabasso High School, my alma mater, in 2004.) That says something.

Endless musical options…

We didn’t chat all that long. But my brief conversation with Nate gives me hope. Hope that his positive attitude, his efforts—including purchasing two arcade games—and his drive will ignite a fire of possibilities.

PLEASE CHECK BACK to read my thoughts on small towns and what draws me to them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A time to mourn, on a frigid February day in Minnesota February 12, 2021

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THERE IS A TIME for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…

Thursday was a day to mourn as the Helbling family celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for my father-in-law, Tom Helbling. He died on February 5 at the age of 90.

St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.

Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.

The casket spray, which incorporated a tractor photo and a toy tractor.

Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.

We sat in the front pew to the left. Above the altar, in the blue ceiling, are the heavenly angels that drew my focus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.

Pipes on the St. Michael’s organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.

As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.

We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.

The crucifix carried to the cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.

This art rises above St. Michael’s Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.

And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Get in the holiday spirit with “Christmas in Faribault 2020” concert this evening December 19, 2020

Courtesy promo art

REMINDER: Only hours from now, my southern Minnesota community’s first-ever virtual community holiday concert, “Christmas in Faribault 2020,” debuts at 7 pm. If you missed my post about this event earlier this week, click here for the backstory.

I’m excited to view/hear this concert featuring a wide range of talented local musicians. Like the Benson Family Singers, Fourth Avenue Four Barbershop Quartet, Gail Kaderlik, Cindy Glende, Alberto Arriaza and many others.

You can tune in to see (or hear) the concert on Faribault Community Public Television (Spectrum/ Charter 181 or Consolidated 10), KDHL (AM 920) radio, or YouTube. The YouTube option will remain open to watch anytime.

Me, ringing bells for the Salvation Army in a previous December. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

The purpose of the concert, according to lead organizer the Rev. Greg Ciesluk of Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, is to lift our spirits and to help those in need. “Concert goers” are encouraged to donate to the Salvation Army via:

1) Giving at Salvation Army red kettles.

2) Mailing checks to: Salvation Army of Rice County, 617 3rd Ave. N.W., Faribault, MN. 55021

3) Giving online via the Salvation Army North, Faribault and donate.

Enjoy, dear readers. I am honored to be part of this event via holiday photos I’ve taken in Faribault and which are incorporated into the concert. Thank you to all who contributed to this event. It takes a team to make this happen. What a wonderful community of caring people who have come together to uplift us.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Virtual Faribault Christmas concert aims to uplift, help others December 16, 2020

Carolers perform at the Shattuck-St. Mary’s Christmas Walk in 2016. The community event, like so many other holiday activities, did not happen this year in Faribault due to COVID-19. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

AS I WRITE, CHRISTMAS MUSIC plays in the background on Twin Cities Christian radio station KTIS, inspiring me, uplifting me, encouraging me with faith-based songs.

In a typical year, I would sing Advent and Christmas hymns with my faith family in church. But now, during COVID-19, I’m watching services online. I feel grateful for this technology. But it’s not the same. I miss the in-person connection, the simply being there.

Inside the sanctuary of Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2019.

Greg Ciesluk, pastor of Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, was experiencing a similar feeling of loss. A self-proclaimed “music person” actively involved in the Faribault community, he considered how he could restore some Christmas joy. Cancellation of the Faribault High School choir’s annual performance—an 81-year tradition—at the local Rotary Club’s Christmas meal prompted Ciesluk to think creatively. (He’s a Rotary member.) The result: An hour-long virtual Christmas concert featuring local musicians.

A horse-drawn wagon gives rides in historic downtown Faribault during a past holiday celebration. Events like this didn’t happen this year. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

“Christmas in Faribault 2020” (type that into your search engine) debuts on YouTube at 7 pm Saturday, December 19. The concert can also be viewed on Faribault Community Television.

In Decembers past, Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church has hosted a community Christmas dinner. At a previous dinner, guests were invited to take poinsettias home, like this woman I photographed several years ago at the church. Because of the pandemic, this dinner was canceled. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Ciesluk promises a wonderful, uplifting experience in a “joyful, soulful and invigorating” concert.

From well-known local musicians like Doug Madow and Dr. Michael Hildebrandt to Beau Chant to a children’s group from Christ Lutheran Church and many more, including performances by Ciesluk, the virtual concert features pre-recorded songs submitted to Fox Video Productions for production.

Volunteers at Fourth Avenue UMC serve food at a past Christmas dinner. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But a desire to uplift the community in this Christmas of canceled concerts isn’t the sole goal behind those putting together this virtual musical event. Organizers are encouraging viewers to donate to the Salvation Army as “a way to show God’s compassion and concern for those in need,” says Ciesluk. All donations stay in Rice County.

Ringing bells for the Salvation Army. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Give directly at red kettle donation sites in the county; via checks mailed to the Salvation Army of Rice County, 617 3rd Ave. N.W., Faribault, MN. 55021; or through an online link that will be included in the video. The concert will feature a spot from the Salvation Army. Sheriff Troy Dunn, who heads the county’s Salvation Army outreach, is serving as emcee.

Me, ringing bells for the Salvation Army in the past. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

Randy and I have, for many years, rung bells for the Salvation Army. It’s been a joyful, humbling experience. But this holiday season, because of COVID-19, we decided given our high risk age status, not to volunteer. Yet, I am helping in another way. Ciesluk asked if he could incorporate holiday/Christmas photos I’ve taken around Faribault through the years into “Christmas in Faribault 2020.” I agreed. Like him and his team of organizers and musicians, I am happy to help bring joy to others during an especially challenging year.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling