Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Beyond the Big Woods on Nerstrand’s Main Street July 28, 2016

Driving westbound into Nerstrand, Minnesota.

Driving westbound into Nerstrand, Minnesota.

WITH A POPULATION of only 253, you might expect Nerstrand to be a quiet small town with, as some could surmise, not a lot going for it. But that would be an inaccurate assessment.

A farm site just east of Nerstrand.

A farm site just east of Nerstrand.

Just north of Nerstand, country gravel roads run through the hilly terrain.

North of Nerstand, country gravel roads run through hilly terrain.

I photographed this truck in a field drive west of Nerstrand.

I photographed this parked truck just outside of Nerstrand to the west.

This farming community in eastern Rice County is known for many things including the local ag equipment dealer, Isaacson Implement; the highly-touted Nerstrand Elementary School; nearby Nerstrand Big Woods State Park; and Nerstrand Meats and Catering.

Nerstrand Meats.

Nerstrand Meats is a popular stop in this small southeastern Minnesota community.

This sign marks the meat market.

This sign marks the meat market.

In business for 125 years...

In business for 125 years…

On a recent Saturday, while on the 2016 Eat Local Farm Tour, my husband and I stopped in Nerstrand to purchase meat at the family-owned meat market open since 1890. While Randy ducked into the shop, I snapped a few exterior photos before joining him in the small storefront space that smells of smoked meats, the market’s specialty.

A small section of the fresh meat counter.

A small section of the fresh meat counter.

Randy chose smoked chops, Nerstrand weiners and a half pound of dried beef. He’s the big meat eater in our house. I could live on fruits and vegetables.

Notices in a storefront window half a block from the meat market. So typical of a small town.

Notices in a storefront window half a block from the meat market. So typical of a small town.

While the clerk packaged his purchases, I headed out the door to see the rest of this several-block downtown. That tour didn’t take long.

Another view of Nerstrand Meats.

Another view of Nerstrand Meats. How convenient and necessary the ice machine.

Yet, I left this small town knowing Nerstrand is a destination for many—whether in need of farm equipment, in need of an education, in need of a get-away or in need of fresh smoked meats.

The fire hall and city hall sit next to Nerstrand Meats.

The fire hall and city hall sit next to Nerstrand Meats.

TELL ME: What small town have you discovered that offers unexpected reasons to visit?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Sign junkie October 14, 2011

A note on the door at Medallion Case.

YOU MIGHT NOT APPRECIATE business signage like me. Heck, you may not even pay much attention to signs unless, of course, you are looking for a specific place. Then you would notice.

But I notice signs because I consider them to be works of art, reflections of personalities and history, trademarks of small-town life, and sources of entertainment.

I’m not talking about the mass-produced, generic signage that marks a chain store. Rather, I mean those handcrafted and/or custom signs (and notes) you’ll find on small-town Main Street or along rural roadways.

Recently, signage in Nerstrand, a village of 233 residents in eastern Rice County near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, attracted my interest.

And because most of you aren’t going to drive to Nerstrand to see these signs, you can just view them here.

Then, once you’ve perused my discoveries, I challenge you to go out into your own communities and search for sign art.

WARNING: If you accept this assignment, you may become a sign junkie just like me.

No confusion about the meat market business located here along Main Street Nerstrand.

Additional signage on the Nerstrand Meats building highlights the products available.

Another business sign along Nerstrand's Main Street.

This sign on the corner of a Main Street business in Nerstrand directs motorists to Grace Lutheran Church.

Just so you believe me, here's Grace, under the water tower.

BONUS: I’ve tossed in two signs from rural Dennison also.

This sign at the end of the driveway at 2290 Goodhue County 49 Blvd will direct you to Potpourri Mill Log Cabin near Dennison. That's Vang Lutheran Church in the background.

Once you drive up to the log cabin, you'll see this season appropriate sign outside the front door. Inside you'll find the Harvest Thyme Craft Show, which runs weekends through October 16.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Inside the colorful Big Woods of Minnesota October 5, 2011

EVERY TIME I HEAR the words “Big Woods,” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, Little House in the Big Woods, pop into my mind. It’s a natural reflex given my deep love for the Little House books. Think grade school teacher reading the series to her students after lunch and me growing up about 20 miles from Walnut Grove, Wilder’s brief childhood home on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

That all said, Laura was born in 1867 in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin some seven miles from Pepin.

I visited the Ingalls’ home site many years ago with my family, when my girls were elementary age and we were deep into reading the Little House series. The Big Woods and cabin are long gone, replaced now by open prairie and a replica cabin.

Yet, only a short drive east of my Faribault home, I can experience the Big Woods at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I have no idea if these woods are anything like those in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. But I like to think they are.

An informational sign along a trail in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

Check out the history section of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and you’ll find this information about the Nerstrand woods:

“When the first settlers arrived in 1854, they discovered an island of woods in the vast oak savanna prairie which now makes up Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees shade the land.”

I spent half my time in the Big Woods looking, and aiming, my camera skyward.

The park boasts a lovely picnic grounds sheltered by trees like this one.

A close-up look at oak leaves changing color.

This time of year those trees flame in fiery hues, making Nerstrand a popular destination for viewing fall colors in Minnesota.

Sunday afternoon, following a fall color drive to the Sogn Valley area in northwestern Goodhue County, my husband and I stopped briefly at this state park just west of Nerstrand. We managed to find a space in a parking lot packed to overflowing in this park teeming with visitors.

If you’re seeking a quiet, people-free escape, you won’t find it here on a weekend.

But you will find a perfect fall experience complete with the earthy scent of decaying leaves; brilliant reds and yellows painted on the cobalt palette of sky; drifts of leaves to plow through; the crisp crunch of leaves beneath feet; a spirit of friendliness among visitors hiking into the Big Woods; a respite from the busyness of life; and an opportunity to savor the fleeting days of autumn in Minnesota.

Everywhere trees provided a colorful canopy of color.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into the Big Woods.

Along the path, a bursting milkweed pod.

Follow this gravel road west of the park entrance for three miles to Caron Park.

BEYOND THE STATE PARK, there’s more to see at places probably known mostly to the locals:

Follow the gravel road (Rice County Road 88) west of the state park three miles to Caron Park, a 60-acre county park that is a remnant of the Big Woods. You’ll find 1.5 miles of hiking trails here, a lovely waterfall and few people. Late Sunday afternoon we saw a single truck parked in the parking lot.

Nerstrand Meats & Catering, a family-owned business since 1890.

To the east of the park lies the small town of Nerstrand, worth a stop to check out Nerstrand Meats (open 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays), the International Peace Garden at the local charter school, Nerstrand Elementary, and Main Street small-town Minnesota. (Watch for a future post on interesting signage in Nerstrand. Click here to read a previous post about the Peace Garden.)

A snippet of Nerstrand Elementary School and its International Peace Garden.

North of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, along Rice County Road 30, sit the historic and picturesque 1862 and 1894 Valley Grove churches surrounded by 50 acres of rolling prairie grasses and trees. From high atop this hillside location, you’ll get a spectacular view of the fall colors. You can also hike a prairie path here. (Click here to read a previous post I wrote about Valley Grove’s annual fall country social.)

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

To assure that you don’t miss out on these color viewing opportunities, I’d highly recommend hopping in your vehicle sooner than later. Leaves are changing and falling as I write and we all know these splendid days won’t last forever in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling