Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Let peace & love guide us August 26, 2020

 

It’s truly timely. The message posted in windows spanning the front of an historic building in Dundas.

 

 

VOTE FOR OUR PLANET EARTH

VOTE FOR OUR DEMOCRACY

VOTE DEAR ONES VOTE

 

 

And then in the windows to the right side of the front door:

LET THE SPIRIT OF PEACE

AND THE POWER OF EVERLASTING LOVE

BE YOUR GUIDE

—JOHN ROBERT LEWIS

 

 

And then above the door:

BLACK LIVES MATTER

I spotted these powerful words while in this small southeastern Minnesota community on Saturday for a history cruise. And I felt compelled to stop and photograph the scene, to share this with you before continuing on to the tour.

As someone who grew up after and near the end of turbulent times—the Civil Rights movement (with its racial injustices) and the Vietnam War and an increasing awareness of environmental issues—I get it. The teenage me embraced the peace symbol, wrapped my wrist in a POW bracelet, wore Earth shoes. That was decades ago. Yet, it seems sometimes that little has changed.

 

 

And so those words resonate with me in their familiarity. I appreciate the gentleness of the selected words, yet the power behind them. Urging people to vote by calling them “dear ones” feels intensely personal and loving. Now, more than ever, we must exercise our right to vote. Men and women have died for our freedom, ensuring our democracy and the right to vote. Others have marched for the right to vote, including long-time Georgia Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, who died in July from cancer.

The quote from Lewis that peace and love should prevail is something we can all aspire to in this deeply divided nation in need of healing. I appreciate the positive message. The words uplift, rather than press down. They enlighten rather than oppress. They encourage rather than attack.

 

 

And, yes, black lives do matter. As does every life. I recognize the frustration, the anger, the desire for change. I don’t condone the violence, the looting, the destruction, which detract from the cause. Let peace and everlasting love be our guide.

John Lewis marched for voting rights for blacks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and suffered a skull fracture at the hands of police. He organized voter registration drives and participated in lunch counter sit-ins. And here we are, so many decades later, with root cause issues unresolved, people still struggling, hurting, protesting.

 

 

If only we remember how “dear” we are to one another, how the words we choose, the actions we take, matter, affect others. Let peace and the power of everlasting love be our guide.

 

 

FYI: The building where these messages are posted was built of locally-quarried limestone in 1866 as the Ault General Store and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the only remaining structure from Dundas’ original commercial district, which ran along Second Street. When the railroad came to town, businesses moved to the west side of the Cannon River near the new train station. That included the Ault Store.

The local newspaper, the Dundas News, was housed here from 1876-1979 as was the town’s first library on the second floor. Today the old store is in a residential neighborhood and a residence. But it still retains that feel of community, of centering knowledge and of expressing opinion.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From milling flour to drinking whiskey in Rice County, history tour Part II August 25, 2020

At the ruins of an historic flour mill in Dundas, a kiosk provides historical info, including this map of flour mills in the area.

 

RICE COUNTY IS RICH IN HISTORY, especially in historic buildings. I value that about this region of Minnesota. I appreciate that many aged structures remain, well cared for and treasured. I appreciate, too, those who share their knowledge of the past.

I grew up 120 miles west of here, on the prairie. Given the difference in landscape and settlement time and other factors, the history of southwestern Minnesota differs considerably from southeastern Minnesota. I am still learning about Rice County, the place I’ve called home for 38 years.

 

Vintage vehicles were among those on the history cruise, here at Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church near Millersburg.

 

On Saturday I expanded my understanding of this area by attending the first ever “Cruising Rice County History” tour, an event that took attendees through the county to seven historic sites. In yesterday’s post, I covered three of those places—Prairieville Church, Nerstrand City Hall and Valley Grove Churches.

 

The Archibald Mill ruins are fenced to keep people from wandering onto the historic site.

 

Today we head west to the small town of Dundas, just outside of Northfield, and then even farther west to the even smaller settlement of Millersburg. Pre-tour, I was familiar with each point of interest on the cruise. But I still picked up tidbits of information either new to me or forgotten over the years.

 

A few walls remain of the once flourishing flour mill on the west side of the Cannon River in Dundas.

 

Kiosk info details flour milling history here.

 

Tour participants check in at the flour mill ruins, where they could learn more about Rice County flour mills from local historian Jeff Jarvis, Susan Garwood (director of the RCHS) or read printed info.

 

In Dundas, the ruins of a long-gone flour mill, destroyed by fire, focused the third stop. I learned of the mills the Archibald brothers, from Canada, built here around the 1860s along the banks of the Cannon River. Their flour was world-renowned and their flour patent eventually sold to what is now General Mills. It’s quite a history in a region once known for its flour mills. If only one remained…

 

The history cruise took us throughout rural Rice County. This farm field lies along Rice County Road 1 on the way to Millersburg from Dundas.

 

Before heading to the next stop, Randy and I picnicked at Memorial Park in Dundas. That left us a bit crunched for time as we aimed out of town along Rice County Road 1 past farm sites and farm fields to the Millersburg District #20 School House Museum. We’ve been here before, toured the museum.

 

The former Millersburg School now houses a museum operated by the Christdala Preservation & Cemetery Association. Exhibits include school and church items, tools and info related to the James-Younger bank robbery.

 

While we couldn’t go inside the schoolhouse, we could peek our heads in the door.

 

Appropriately, a bell sat on the check in station at the schoolhouse.

 

An historic marker outside the schoolhouse. You can also see the swings, remaining from the playground, to the right in this photo.

 

The back side of the historical marker outside the schoolhouse.

 

As the story goes, the Younger gang stopped for whiskey at the Millersburg store in September 1876 at the current location of Boonies.

 

But this visit I picked up some info not necessarily related to the 1881 school, but to the 1876 robbery of the First National Bank in nearby Northfield. Here, four members of the James-Younger Gang stopped for whiskey at the then Millersburg Store (today Boonies Bar & Grill across from the schoolhouse), stayed at the Cushman Hotel just down the road and the next day met up with fellow outlaws in Dundas.

 

Christdala’s defining steeple. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places. Randy and I recently picnicked on the front steps of Christdala.

 

I was delighted to find the doors open to Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church.

 

And on their way back from robbing the bank, the gang followed the same route, taking us to the next stop on our tour, Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church. I’ve also visited here many times, including just a few weeks ago. Swedish immigrants built this church in 1878 high atop a hill, spurred by the death of friend and neighbor Nicolaus Gustafson. He was an innocent bystander killed in a shoot out during the Northfield bank raid. Because the Swedish community had no cemetery, Gustafson was buried in Northfield.

 

Simple stained glass windows inside Christdala in colors of the Swedish flag.

 

Today you’ll find Gustafsons buried in the Christdala graveyard along with many others whose surnames end in “son.” This long-closed church was open during the history tour. Although I’ve previously been inside, I wasn’t about to miss another opportunity to step inside this small Swedish church, complete with Swedish flags and stained glass windows in the Swedish colors of blue and yellow.

 

One of the many displays inside the Rice County Historical Society Museum, this one honoring Native Americans who lived in the county.

 

The RCHS recently acquired metal art sculptures from Lockerby Sheet Metal, a long-time Faribault sheet metal fabrication company no longer in business. Those pieces are being restored. This knight currently stands in the museum entry.

 

On the historical society grounds are these two historic buildings: the Pleasant Valley School District #22 schoolhouse (educating children in Bridgewater Township in the late 1850s) and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, built in Cannon City in 1869 and later moved here.

 

With time pressing to get back to (event sponsor) the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault, Randy and I didn’t linger for long. We needed to turn in our poker run cards and look around the museum and grounds before everything ended. While Randy handed in our losing poker hand, I breezed through the museum exhibits and took a few photos inside and out.

 

Many of these historic places still exist thanks to preservation groups and history enthusiasts.

 

And I considered what a lovely day it had been. Out and about, enjoying and appreciating local history, thanks to the hard work and efforts of those who value Rice County history enough to preserve and share it.

 

Please check back for a follow-up post on an historic building I discovered in Dundas, and not on the tour, but with a powerful and timely message posted.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Cruising Rice County History,” Part I August 24, 2020

This shows a portion of a guide, designed by Jeff Jarvis of West Cedar Studio, for “Cruising Rice County History.”

 

WE CONSIDERED WHETHER WE SHOULD take the tour, expecting that we’d likely visited all of the historic places featured in “Cruising Rice County History,” the first ever cruise of historical sites in our county. But, in the end, because Saturday was beautiful weather-wise and COVID-19 has left us with few leisure options, Randy and I opted to attend the event sponsored by the Rice County Historical Society.

 

First on the tour, Prairieville United Methodist Church, founded in 1870; existing church built in 1902; and congregation dissolved in 2019.

 

Vintage tractors added interest to the stop at the Prairieville country church.

 

A cornfield snugs right up to the Prairieville Cemetery behind the church.

 

We joined 84 other vehicles on the tour, which took us east of Faribault, then north and west and, finally circling back to the RCHS in Faribault. Only one of the seven featured spots—Prairieville United Methodist Church and Cemetery—was a new to us point of interest, although we’re certainly familiar with the country church along Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

First stop: The Rice County Historical Society to pay our $20/vehicle tour fee and pick up our map and other info.

 

Many volunteers worked the event, including this guy who welcomed tour participants at the historical museum.

 

Before heading out of town, the tour took us through historic downtown Faribault, where I thought we were going to see a display of historic brewery items at a local bank. But apparently we are supposed to view this on our own sometime. Anyway, I photographed this banner outside the State Bank of Faribault.

 

Yet, at each stop, from two country churches to flour mill ruins to an old schoolhouse and an historic town hall, we learned new information, both from site hosts and from educational hand-outs.

 

The Nerstrand City Hall (tall brick building)l, built in 1908, is on the National Register of Historic Places. After three wooden buildings were destroyed by a major fire in 1904, the city required all future buildings in the business district to be made of brick or stone and with firewalls between.

 

Nerstrand City Hall, up close.

 

A plaque marks the Nerstrand City Hall as an historic structure.

 

Peering in the windows of the locked city hall.

 

On the back of Nerstrand City Hall, bars cover a window, a reminder that a jail was once housed here.

 

We were disappointed we couldn’t get inside some of the historic buildings, but expect safety concerns factored into closed doors. Participants in the Saturday event were asked to mask up and social distance. And they did. So we felt comfortable.

 

One of the two historic churches at Valley Grove, near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Randy and I have been to this site many times, thus didn’t linger here. It’s one of our favorite spots in rural Rice County. So peaceful and beautiful atop a hill. The woodframe church pictured here and a stone church directly across from it were built by Norwegian immigrants.

 

Two couples, including friends of ours (left), visit outside Nerstrand City Hall. This alley runs between the hall and the fire department.

 

We also chatted from a distance with friends, either hosting site stops or on the tour. What a joy to see familiar faces after months of minimal social interaction. Even if their smiles were hidden behind masks.

 

Driving toward Nerstrand.

 

Driving through rural Rice County, we saw lush fields of towering corn and acres of soybeans among farm sites.

 

The route followed only paved roads, with plenty of gravel roads to see alongside.

 

I also enjoyed the rural route given my love of the country. There’s something freeing about traveling along paved back roads bordered by acres of cropland, intersected by gravel roads, punctuated by farm sites.

 

Young and old attended the “Cruising Rice County History” tour. This photo was taken at Valley Grove.

 

Thank you for joining my photo tour of “Cruising Rice County History,” Part I. Check back for Part II tomorrow.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Lonsdale: Reading, ‘Riting & ‘Rithmetic August 21, 2020

My first view of the 3-R Landmark School, Lonsdale, Minnesota.

 

MANY TIMES I’VE BEEN TO LONSDALE, a small, but growing, community in far northeastern Rice County only a 30-minute drive from the metro. I’ve even stopped to shop at antique and thrift shops there. And, decades ago, Randy and I attended a wedding at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

 

 

But during all those visits, I’d never seen the 3-R Landmark School, once home to Independent School District #76 Lonsdale Public School. Until recently.

 

A view from the back of the school shows the bell tower cupola, chimney (is there a fireplace inside?) and the top of the second story fire escape.

 

A side and back view of 3-R Landmark School.

 

The bottom of the fire escape, left.

 

As is our habit on random Sunday afternoon drives, Randy and I set out from Faribault to explore the countryside and small towns. This day our route led us to Lonsdale, and eventually a turn onto Third Avenue Southwest. And there, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, sits a stately two-story structure complete with bell tower cupola and bell in place.

 

 

You can only imagine my excitement at this discovery given my fondness for historic buildings. This 1908 school, designed and built by Patrick Sullivan and on the National Register of Historic Places, is a gem. From the exterior, the building with long, lean windows appears well cared for.

 

 

I peered through the windowed front door, not seeing much except the sign advertising OLD SCHOOL HOUSE TOURS (No Food or Drink Please!). I wished I could get inside. But this visit I had to settle for an exterior tour and only imagine the Reading,’Riting and ’Rithmetic that happened inside this center of education.

 

Once the center of education in Lonsdale.

 

From those three “Rs” comes the name, 3-R Landmark School. I like that creative tag tracing back to the basics of education—reading, writing and arithmetic.

 

Near the schoolhouse, a water source.

 

I found little information online about this school, which one source says was abandoned in 1946, the other 1948. The City of Lonsdale acquired the school property in 1963 after the Lonsdale school district consolidated to become Montgomery-Lonsdale Independent School District #394.

 

On the grounds are two vintage lamp posts.

 

Lamp post details.

 

Additional information reveals that a grassroots nonprofit formed in the late 1970s to restore the old schoolhouse. That group apparently dissolved in the mid 1980s following the school’s re dedication in 1986. Today this historic schoolhouse houses a museum and is open occasionally for community events.

 

Trees frame 3-R Landmark School, which sits on a one-acre grassy site. Plenty of outdoor play space for kids back in the day.

 

Perhaps once COVID-19 ends, the museum will reopen and I can walk through the front door into a classroom of yesteryear.

 

RELATED: The Steele County History Center in Owatonna is currently offering an exhibit, Country Schools: The Beating Heart of Rural Community. I toured that exhibit in June and will post on it at some point.

This Saturday, August 22, from 10 am – 2:30 pm, the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault is hosting Cruising Rice County History, a tour that will take participants on a self-drive to seven historic sites in the county. Cost is $20 per vehicle. Maps will be handed out at the historical society in Faribault on Saturday morning.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Stone windmill symbolizes strength of Minnesota immigrants August 29, 2019

Walking toward Seppman Mill, located just outside a fenced area holding bison at Mnneopa State Park, rural Mankato, Minnesota.

 

IN THE PRAIRIE PART of Minneopa State Park where the bison roam, an historic stone windmill stands tall on the prairie’s edge. Minus the blades.

 

Interpretive signs detail the mill’s history.

 

 

The granary was rebuilt in 1970 to its original size.

 

The Seppman Mill symbolizes the strength and grit of the early immigrants, among them Louis Seppman. Seeing a need for a local flour mill, this stone mason started crafting the mill in 1862 from local stone hand-carried or transported in wheelbarrows to the site, according to the book, Minnesota: A State Guide.

 

 

The task of constructing the windmill patterned after those in Seppman’s native Germany took two years. Eruption of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict in the region in 1862 delayed construction. Once operational, the mill could grind 150 bushels of wheat into flour on a day of favorable winds.

 

 

While the wind powered the arms of the 32-foot high windmill, it also proved the mill’s ultimate demise. In 1873, lightning struck and knocked off two of the arms and sails. Seven years later, tornadic winds ripped off the replacement arms. And, finally, in 1890, a third storm damaged the mill beyond repair.

 

A prairie restoration is underway here at Minneopa as noted in this sign posted near the windmill.

 

I can only imagine the frustration of Seppman and others who tried, tried and tried again to keep the mill operating. Three strikes and you’re out seems applicable.

 

Coneflowers, with their deep roots, thrive among the prairie grasses.

 

But then I consider all they did to even get the mill built. Those early settlers truly exemplify hard work and determination. How many of us would carry all those stones up an inclined roadway and then seemingly puzzle-piece the stones together? It’s remarkable really.

 

Black-eyed susans.

 

I’m thankful this windmill has been mostly restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It is a visual tribute to the early settlers of Minnesota, a reminder of the value these immigrants brought to this land, to this state, to this prairie place they called home. Then. And still today.

 

A sign along the prairie’s edge near the mill informs about bison in Minnesota.

 

Here, where the bison once roamed.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When a prairie native sees Mille Lacs Lake for the first time November 28, 2017

Near shore, a seagull wings across Mille Lacs Lake, water and sky melding in vastness.

 

AT MY REQUEST, Randy and I took an indirect route from Faribault to Brainerd on a mid-September Up North vacation. I wanted to see Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s second largest inland lake covering some 200 square miles. It just didn’t seem right that, as a life-long Minnesotan, I’d never viewed this expansive body of water.

As a native of the landlocked prairie, my youthful exposure to Minnesota’s lakes included occasional fishing for bullheads, swimming in Cottonwood Lake once a year and a trip at age four to Duluth along the shores of Lake Superior. When you grow up on a dairy farm, there are few vacations; mine during childhood totaled two.

 

Tethered along Mille Lacs.

 

Without the typical Minnesota background of going up to the lake on weekends, of boating and swimming and fishing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I was eager to see Mille Lacs. I’ve heard so much about the lake, especially in recent years given the controversial restrictions on walleye fishing.

 

My first view of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

Our route took us along US Highway 169 along Mille Lacs and into Garrison.

 

I focused on a nearby shoreline until I mentally adjusted to the size of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

My first glimpse of Mille Lacs from U.S. Highway 169 presented no surprises. It was as I expected—a visual vastness of blue. As our van rounded into Garrison, the view opened and I anchored my eyes to the nearby shoreline. Until I adjust, I find the initial infinity of such large lakes a bit unsettling.

 

The concourse provides a lovely view of Mille Lacs. But there’s seagull poop everywhere.

 

Soon we pulled off Highway 169 and into the Garrison Concourse, a roadside scenic overlook built between 1936- 1939 by the then Minnesota Department of Highways and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On the National Register of Historic Places, this space features a rock retaining wall that, while impressive, was also unappealing for all the dried seagull poop streaking the wall, benches, sidewalk and pavement. I had no desire to sit here, linger and enjoy the view.

 

 

So I focused my attention on the 15-foot fiberglass walleye statue, built in 1980 for a local parade, and now a kitschy roadside attraction for a town that claims to be the Walleye Capital of the World (along with Baudette and several out-of-state locations).

 

 

 

 

An oversized walleye couldn’t just land here on its own. A sign posted on the statue base, next to the one that warns to PLEASE KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE THANK YOU, credits legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan for the trophy catch. You gotta appreciate a good story.

 

 

Randy and I did the typical tourist thing and posed for selfies next to the mega walleye.

 

 

If not for my observant husband, I would have missed another attraction—a small stone marker honoring William A. Tauer, a local hotel owner who drowned while trying to save boaters during a June 10, 1927, storm on Mille Lacs Lake. Engraving credits THE PEOPLE OF MORGAN, MINN for the memorial marker. That drew my interest. Morgan sits some 175 miles away to the southwest in my home county of Redwood. Later online research revealed little more. I expect William grew up in Morgan, where the Tauer surname is still common. I’d like to know more.

 

 

All in all, the overwhelming size of Mille Lacs impressed me. But not enough that I need to return. My disappointment came in the sense of—there’s the lake, now what? Perhaps further exploration beyond just this area by Garrison would change my perspective. Or, as others suggested, a return in the winter to see the thousands of fish houses on the frozen lake would impress me.

 

 

I have no desire to board a boat in a body of water this large. Randy has done so and I’ve heard his seasick stories. Nor do I desire to fish here in the winter when the ice cracks and anglers have been stranded on ice floes.

 

 

 

Still, I enjoyed the view and the iconic walleye. I can now say, “I’ve been to Mille Lacs.” But I can’t say, “I’ve patronized the Blue Goose.” The iconic restaurant and bar, my husband noted and lamented, is gone.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Two Minnesota towns July 27, 2017

Fields and sky envelope a farm building just west of Wabasso in my native Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I GREW UP ON THE PRAIRIE, a place of earth and sky and wind. Land and sky stretch into forever there, broken only by farm sites and the grain elevators and water towers that define small towns.

 

Along Minnesota Highway 19, this sign once marked my hometown. That sign has since been replaced. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County once bustled with businesses—a lumberyard, feed mill, hardware stores, grocers, cafes, a blacksmith… Now the one-block center of town is mostly empty, vacant lots replacing wood-frame buildings that once housed local shops. Time, economics and abandonment rotted the structures into decay and eventual collapse or demolition.

 

One of the few businesses remaining downtown, the Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? The back story of my prairie hometown, where buildings were built mostly of wood rather than brick or stone, led me to a deep respect and appreciation for communities that have retained buildings of yesteryear. Cities like Cannon Falls, founded in 1854. By comparison, Vesta was founded in 1900.

 

The rear of an historic stone building in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Cannon Falls still has a thriving downtown landmarked by 29 properties in a Commercial Historic District. It’s population of around 4,000 and location between Rochester and the metro contrast sharply with Vesta’s population of 300 in the much more rural southwestern corner of Minnesota.

 

This sign marks the aged former Firemen’s Hall, now the Cannon Falls Museum, pictured below. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

The Cannon Falls Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Drive through Cannon Falls neighborhoods and you will see history still standing. In Vesta, history comes in photos and memories. It’s sad really. But that is reality.

 

The Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal congregation founded in Cannon Falls in 1866. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Because I grew up without solid stone buildings in a place that unsettles many for its breadth of sky and land, I am drawn to stone structures. They portray a strength and permanency that defies time and change. Yet I expect both masons and carpenters shared the same dreams of a better life, of prosperity and success.

 

Another lovely stone building photographed behind downtown Cannon Falls buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

That’s the underlying truth. Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something. The land remains—the same earth upon which early settlers planted their boots and stood with hope in their hearts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Noticing details at Faribault’s historic woolen mill February 23, 2017

The Faribault Woolen Mill sits on the bank of the Cannon River.

The Faribault Woolen Mill sits on the bank of the Cannon River. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SNUGGED ALONG THE BANKS of the Cannon River in Faribault, the 150-year-old Faribault Woolen Mill stands as a noted local landmark and a nationally-recognized producer and purveyor of high quality wool blankets and more.

Faribault Woolen Mill blankets/throws are artfully hung on a simple pipe.

Faribault Woolen Mill blankets/throws are artfully hung on a simple pipe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In recent years, with the acquisition of the briefly-closed mill by successful and marketing savvy Minnesota businessmen, the mill has experienced growth and significant national exposure. Many times I’ve picked up a magazine to see the mill’s products featured.

In the upper left corner of the mill, the sign unnoticed by me until several days ago.

In the upper left corner of the mill, the sign unnoticed by me until several days ago.

What I’d not noticed until recently was a faded sign along the back side of the historic mill, the side visible from North Alexander Park. My view of the mill complex is typically the public side motorists see while driving by on Second Avenue.

The back of the mill as photographed from the North Link Trail. The mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. Several years ago the city of Faribault received a $300,000 Minnesota Historical Cultural Heritage grant for rehab of the smokestack.

The back of the mill as photographed from the North Link Trail. The mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. Several years ago the city of Faribault received a $300,000 Minnesota Historical Cultural Heritage grant for rehab of the smokestack.

But this time I was walking, following the North Link Trail that runs through the park and is part of a city-wide recreational trails system. I paused to appreciate the inky blue waters of the Cannon on a brilliantly sunny afternoon when my gaze drifted to the mill. There I focused on white sign advertising BLANKETS. Faded, indiscernible lettering hovered over that key word.

A replica of an original sign is now in the Woolen Mill's historic display area.

A replica of an original sign is now in the Woolen Mill’s historic display area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I wondered how, in my 35 years living in the area, I failed to notice the vintage signage. Sometimes familiarity of place creates a lack of visual awareness. We become so accustomed to our usual surroundings that we fail to truly see. And to appreciate.

TELL ME: Have you ever felt the same upon discovering something (what?) in your community that’s been there forever but you didn’t see?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Road trip stories: Impressions of Barcelona, New York, not Spain August 12, 2016

Barcelona is located along Lake Erie just off Interstate 90 near the New York/Pennsylvania border.

Barcelona is located along Lake Erie just off Interstate 90 near the New York/Pennsylvania border.

MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF BARCELONA, a hamlet located within the town of Westfield, New York, was not a good one.

I had to pee. Bad. The van also needed gas. So it was a good time to pull off Interstate 90 in the southwestern corner of New York. I practically flew out the van at the Citgo station, only to stop abruptly at the front door. A sign banned anyone but customers from the restrooms. My facial muscles involuntarily scowled. Welcome to Barcelona.

When my travel weary mind finally clicked that, yes, I was a paying customer, I walked inside. I didn’t know I was being watched. But the clerk advised that, yes, she had seen my reaction. And, yes, I could use the bathroom.

Cones blocking a freshly-poured concrete sidewalk blocked me from getting too close to the Portland Harbor Lighthouse and keeper's house.

Cones rimming sidewalk construction blocked me from getting too close to the 40-foot high Portland Harbor Lighthouse and keeper’s house.

Once I got over that, I noticed the beautiful old lighthouse across the street. (I’m speculating that many lighthouse lovers travel here and then need to use the service station restrooms.) Being a landlocked southern Minnesotan, I find lighthouses a bit of a novelty. However, there would be no getting inside this 1829 lighthouse constructed of native fieldstone. Decommissioned in 1860, the Portland Harbor lighthouse and accompanying keeper’s house became private property.

I moved closer to the lighthouse keeper's house, until I realized this was private property.

Another angle, from the side, of the lighthouse keeper’s house.

Upon researching this National Register of Historic Places landmark later, I learned that the lighthouse was the first public building in the U.S. illuminated by natural gas.

Boats parked near the lake.

Boats parked near the lake.

I wasn’t about to leave Barcelona, though, without at least seeing Lake Erie. If it was Lake Erie. At that point, well into our second day of a long road trip from Minnesota to Massachusetts, I wasn’t even sure what state we were in. And my Great Lakes geography is lacking. I know the locations of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The other Greats, not so much.

It was a lovely day to be on the beach of Lake Erie.

It was a lovely day to be on the beach of Lake Erie.

Just blocks from the gas station, my husband and I found a public access to Lake Erie. I am always impressed by the immensity of the Great Lakes, how sky and water blend into an infinity of blue, how distinct horizontal lines divide land and water and sky, how such a vast body of water can appear calm one day, threatening the next.

My husband obliged my request for a photo of me on the shores of Lake Erie.

My husband obliged my request for a photo of me on the shores of Lake Erie.

I scooped my hand into the cold water, plucked silken smooth stones from the beach, posed for a photo to prove I’d been here, in Barcelona.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Murals & a myth at an historic mercantile in Weaver February 18, 2016

The historic former Weaver Mercantile Buiilding, once home to Noble Studio & Gallery.

The historic former Weaver Mercantile Building, once home to Noble Studio & Gallery.

AGED BUILDINGS, like one in Weaver just off U.S. Highway 61 in southeastern Minnesota, intrigue me. Initially, the architecture and photographic opportunities draw me in. But then I start thinking about the history and the stories.

Carl and Marie Noble opened Noble Studio & Gallery here in 1955.

Carl and Marie Noble opened Noble Studio & Galleries here in 1955.

As luck would have it, a local was jogging down the street toward the former Weaver Mercantile when I happened upon the historic building during an early September get-away. She tipped me off that the building last housed an art gallery. Signage confirmed that. The current owner, she added, lives on the second floor.

Historic designation came six years after Carl Noble's death.

Historic designation came six years after Carl Noble’s death.

The young woman also expressed her dream of someday transforming the place into a winery. She and her husband, she said, make wine from black caps growing wild on the hillside behind their Weaver home. Then she continued on her run through this unincorporated village of some 50 residents and I continued my exterior photographic exploration of this building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the 1978 nomination for historic designation, the building is a “well-preserved example of commercial architecture in the Mississippi River Valley.” Hardware, groceries and dry goods were once sold in the first floor of Weaver Mercantile while furniture was sold on the upper floor. Additionally, the building housed the Weaver Post Office for many years.

A mural on the east side of the building denotes this as an artist's haven. Cannot you decipher the first word for me?

A mural on the east side of the building denotes this as an artist’s haven. Can you decipher the first word in the top portion, left?

Wanting to know more, I continued my internet search. In 1955, artist Carl E. Noble claimed this place as Noble Studio & Galleries (his home, studio and gallery). He died in 1972. An obituary for his widow, Marie Noble, who died 11 years ago, yielded the most information.

More signage toward the back of the building.

More signage toward the back of the building promotes Noble’s art.

Carl was, by the few accounts I found, an artist for the Federal Art Project of the Work Projects Administration in 1938. His name is listed among photos of FAP art in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

Another view of Carl and Marie Noble's studio and galleries.

Another view of Carl and Marie Noble’s studio and galleries.

A muralist, cartoonist, illustrator and portrait artist, Carl Noble reportedly studied under Norman Rockwell (according to his wife Marie’s obit). I’ve been unable to verify that via a second source. However, the Nobles lived for awhile in Boston; Rockwell made his home in Stockbridge, MA.

The building was constructed in 1875 and opened as Weaver Mercantile.

The building was constructed in 1875 and opened as Weaver Mercantile.

I discovered that Carl painted six oil on canvas murals for Fire House, Southside Hose Co. No. 2 in Hempstead, New York, in 1938. The artwork depicts the history of local firefighting. Other than that, I’ve been unable to find other information of his WPA art or work at Noble Studio & Galleries. The former gallery itself, though, apparently showcases Carl’s murals on interior walls. If only I could have gotten inside to see and photograph his artwork.

One can only imagine the fun times here as guests enjoyed Marie's hospitality.

One can only imagine the fun times here as guests enjoyed Marie’s hospitality.

After her husband’s death in 1972, Marie opened a Bed & Breakfast in their home with a party area in the basement. That would explain the faded Mardi Gras Lounge sign above a back entry.

An overview of the Mardi Gras entry at the back of the building.

An overview of the Mardi Gras entry at the back of the building.

Marie reportedly regaled guests with stories, including that Jesse James robbed the Mercantile on his way to robbing the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Not believing everything I read, I contacted Mark Lee Gardner, noted historian, writer and musician on the western experience. He penned a book, Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape. He confirmed what I suspected. The story of the Weaver robbery is just that, a story.

Here’s Gardner’s response to my inquiry:

I’m afraid the story of Jesse robbing the building in Weaver, Minnesota, isn’t true. The Northfield Raid, as well as the known movements of the James-Younger gang, was heavily reported in the Minnesota newspapers at the time, and if they had been connected with a robbery in Weaver, it should appear in those papers. I never came across any mention of Weaver in my research. The other problem is that the gang didn’t go through Weaver on its way to Northfield. They are documented as having come from the west and south of Northfield.

…There are lots of Jesse James stories out there, and most of them are from someone’s imagination.

My first view of the former Weaver Mercantile and Noble Studio & Galleries.

My first view of the former Weaver Mercantile and Noble Studio & Galleries.

Still, none of this diminishes my appreciation for the Italianate style building in Weaver and my interest in the artists (Marie’s obit notes that she created many lovely paintings) who once lived and created therein.

The village of Weaver is located along U.S. Highway 61 north of Winona in Wabasha County.

The village of Weaver is located along U.S. Highway 61 north of Winona in Wabasha County.

IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING MORE about Carl and Marie Noble, their gallery and art or about the history of the building, I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling