Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating historic downtown Owatonna March 2, 2022

National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna rates as particularly important architecturally. Designed by Louis Sullivan in the Prairie Architecture School style, it features stained glass windows, gold leaf arches, nouveau baroque art designs and more. This “jewel box of the prairie” was built between 1906-1908. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

STRIPPING IMAGES OF COLOR lends an historic context to several aged buildings I recently photographed near Central Park in downtown Owatonna. It’s easier for me to see the past, to appreciate these long-standing structures through the lens of time when I view them in black-and-white.

Love this corner historic building which houses A Taste of the Big Apple, serving pizza, soup, sandwiches and more, including a Tater Tot Hot Dish special on March 3. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

First, I feel such gratitude that these buildings still stand. A time existed when the thought was that new is better. Out with the old, in with the new. I’m not of that camp and I’m thankful for the shift in attitudes.

Firemen’s Hall, constructed 1906-1907 for $19,643, sits just across the street from Central Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Twelve city blocks in Owatonna’s downtown define the community’s designation as a National Register Historic District. Three of the 75 “contributing buildings” within that district are on the National Register of Historic Places: the National Farmer’s Bank, the Steele County Courthouse and the Firemen’s Hall.

This home-grown bookstore anchors a downtown corner, directly across from Central Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

On a recent visit to Owatonna’s Central Park, I pivoted to observe those key historic buildings and others in a downtown of multiple core business streets.

A sign in Central Park provides information about the community stage. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

The park, with a replica of the 1899 community stage, serves as the “town square,” the physically identifiable point of focus and gatherings. Here folks gather for concerts, the farmers’ market and other events. Music and the undeniable human need to socialize connect the past to the present.

The replica community stage/bandshell. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I feel inspired now, via my recent stop in Central Park, to return to downtown Owatonna and further explore its history and architecture. Sure I’ve been here before, but not in awhile and not with a focused purpose of intentional appreciation for and photographic documentation of this historic district.

Strip away the color and appreciate the stark beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I encourage each of you, wherever you live, to pause. Strip away the color to black-and-white. See the basics, uncolored by time or attitudes or that which detracts. Observe how the past and present connect. Value the “good” in your community. Appreciate the place you call home.

TELL ME: What do you appreciate about your community?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Owatonna’s Central Park on a winter Saturday with summer flashbacks March 1, 2022

A scene from the Owatonna Farmers Market in June 2014. The historic building anchoring a corner across the street is the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna. Architect Louis Sullivan designed the 1906-1908 building in the Prairie School Architecture style. The bank is considered “a Jewel Box of the Prairie.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2014)

THE LAST TIME I STOPPED at Owatonna’s Central Park, this southern Minnesota city’s community gathering spot pulsed with activity. The park hosts a busy Owatonna Farmers Market from May through October.

A scene from Owatonna’s Central Park on February 19. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo February 2022)

But on this cold Saturday in late February when I stopped by, only a few people used the park. A couple walked their dogs. And two women crossed to the center fountain, purses angled across downy winter coats, stocking caps clamped on and shopping bags looped over three gloved hands, take-out coffee clutched in the fourth.

A crane tops the 1909 fountain, refurbished in 2021. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
Imagine this fountain in the warmer months. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
Love the graceful curve of the fountain top crane. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo February 2022)

As the women paused near the centerpiece fountain placed here in 1909, I studied the scene before me, camera ready. Only moments earlier, I finished my packed lunch inside the cozy warmth of the van. Randy and I had planned to eat at nearby Rice Lake State Park. But that all changed when hiking trails proved too icy for safe walking. So here we were in Owatonna, shifting our plans.

This replica of the 1899 community stage centers the park. It was built in 2004, on Owatonna’s 150th anniversary. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I was determined that the cold weather would not keep me from photographing the park. Dressed in a warm hand-me-down parka from my son layered over tee and flannel shirts, long johns under jeans, practical winter boots, hand-knit cap and mitten/gloves, I felt prepared. The combo mitten/gloves were a gift from Randy years ago. They work great for winter photography. I flip back the fleece ends to reveal open fingertips. That allows me to manipulate my camera without exposing my entire hand.

An artsy planter sits on fountain’s edge awaiting spring planting. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Even with all of that, I soon found myself hurrying my creative pace. My fingertips were freezing.

Trees and lights against a bold blue sky by the stage/bandshell. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

But I was determined to document the setting on an afternoon that looked deceptively warm. Bold blue skies. Sunshine. Artsy fountain. Stout community stage. Historic buildings bordering the park. Remnants of snow sculptures.

This snow castle still stands, albeit weathered after a month. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
Beautiful colored ice fills a window of the snow castle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
The back side of the castle features a slide. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I regretted that we missed Owatonna’s Bold & Cold Winter Festival at the end of January. Then those sculptures would have been newly-built, pristine. But now I could only imagine kids slipping down the slide at the deteriorating snow castle.

Plants for sale at the 2014 Owatonna Farmers Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I also imagined how, in a few months, this scene will change. How leaves will unfurl on the birch trees. How the fountain will spill water. How Farmers Market vendors will set up shop. How music will create a joyful rhythm that welcomes spring, then summer. And warmth.

A snapshot scene from the 2014 Owatonna Farmers Market, which covers one-block square Central Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2014)

This I contemplate as I snap frames, fingertips freezing, hurting now in the cold of winter. Back in the van, I hold my fingers close to the blower, seeking heat while the sun shines bright, bold over Central Park.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A historic bank and White Buffalo Calf Woman June 23, 2011

SET ME IN FRONT of an architecturally-stunning historic building and I’m in history heaven.

Just look at the lines, the colors, the window leading, the carvings…of the Old First National Bank of Mankato building, now a Verizon Wireless Center reception hall.

I didn’t step inside the former bank, didn’t even try a door. I was content last Saturday afternoon to view the exterior with its Prairie School style architecture.

“It’s like that bank in Owatonna,” my husband said as we gawked at the building built of brick, Mankato limestone and terra cotta along Civic Center Plaza in downtown Mankato.

He was, of course, referring to Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s “jewel box,” National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, a brick building with terra cotta accents, splendid for its stained glass windows, arches and other architectural details.

The Mankato building features Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stained glass and detailed ornamentation along the roof line.

And now it also showcases a bronze sculpture of White Buffalo Calf Woman by South Dakota artists Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby as part of Mankato’s City Art Walking Sculpture Tour.

 

If you peer at the woman’s face, examine her beaded moccasins and the trim on her buckskin dress and pouch, you’ll notice how the colors mimic those of the historic bank building. Whether this Native American sculpture’s placement was planned or accidental, I don’t know, but it fits seamlessly with the historical vibe of the locale, enhancing the whole art viewing experience.

The city of Mankato, apparently named after a varied translation of the Dakota word Mahkato, meaning “blue earth,” owns a place in Minnesota and national history for the mass hanging of 38 Dakota here on December 26, 1862. Three hundred warriors were accused of killing civilians and soldiers and of other crimes during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict. After a public outcry, President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. Certainly, Mankato is not proud of this moment in history. But efforts have been made to honor the Dakota at monuments in the city.

And now sculptures like White Buffalo Calf Woman also help heal and educate the public about the Native American culture. According to information on the sculpture placard, this prophetess is the only religious icon accepted by all Native American tribes. She “brings a message of healing, hope and peace among the races to all the people.”

More than just art, I also got a history lesson along a Mankato city street on a Saturday afternoon in June.

PLEASE VIEW MY JUNE 20 post for more photos and information about the Walking Sculpture Tour. Additional images will be forthcoming.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling