Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How a winter drive refocuses thoughts & inspires creativity March 7, 2019

An abandoned building near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

IT IS THE ABSENCE of color. White. Pervasive now in the Minnesota landscape, as one would expect in March.

The whiteness of the southern Minnesota countryside overwhelms vision. Snow layers the land, rooftops, roadways, seemingly every surface. It takes effort to focus on something, anything, beyond the white.

 

 

A much-needed Sunday afternoon drive through rural Rice County provided an opportunity to shift my thinking away from this interminable winter of too much brutal cold and too much snow. Yet, my thoughts never really drifted away from winter. How could they when wind swept snow across the roadway, sometimes finger-drifting drifts?

How could my thoughts wander to spring when everywhere I saw winter?

How could I escape winter when I observed ditches filled with snow to road level?

This drive wasn’t accomplishing what I’d hoped—a temporary alleviation of cabin fever. Who was I fooling? Only a vacation to a warmer climate or a weekend get-away to a hotel could deliver that. Neither will happen.

 

East of Northfield, Minnesota.

 

Realizing that, I tried harder to embrace the winter scenery. My camera allows me to reshape my thinking, to view the world through a different lens. To see beyond the colorless to the color. A red barn.

 

 

A flash of yellow in a road sign.

 

Blue sky backdrops a farm site near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

A blue sky.

 

Mailboxes protrude from banked snow in Dundas, Minnesota.

 

With camera in hand, I began to notice the details—to see art-wrapped mailboxes embedded in a snow bank,

 

Snowmobiling near Nerstrand.

 

a snowmobiler powering through winter,

 

 

power poles penciling horizontal lines over blank fields.

And when I saw all of that, the poetry of winter overwrote the absence of light, of all that white.

 

Note: All images have been edited with an artsy editing tool.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches September 18, 2018

I propped my camera on the grass and tilted it up to snap this photo of the 1894 Valley Grove church, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.

 

A view of a section of the Valley Grove cemetery through a partially open window in the wood-frame church.

 

But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.

 

Duo churches grace the hilltop, the clapboard church replacing the original stone church for worship.

 

Inside the 1894 church with Doug Ohman’s equipment set up for his talk about country churches.

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

Imagine how many preachers preached from this pulpit. Ohman ended his talk with a short “sermon” advising us to view people and situations from the inside rather than the outside. He used a visual–that of a stained glass window appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside.

 

Altar details hold history.

 

We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.

 

Vintage photos and artifacts were propped on windows in the stone church.

 

As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

A woman demonstrated the art of making krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, available for sampling.

 

Old buggies on the grounds added to the sense of history.

 

A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.

 

Valley Grove is an oft-photographed site with photos and artwork of the churches gracing notecards for sale at the country social.

 

This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…

 

 

He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.

 

A snippet of the musical group Hutenanny, which performed under a sprawling oak.

 

Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.

 

As I watched draft horses pull a wagon through the prairie, I imagined immigrant families traversing the prairie also.

 

I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.

 

Efforts have been onging since 2007 to restore the 1862 limestone church.

 

Inside the plain stone church, a rebuilt chandelier adds elegance.

 

The Valley Grove Preservation Society has worked hard to restore both churches. Valley Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

 

It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.

 

Every celebration calls for cake, including this cake served inside the stone church at the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.

 

© Copyright 2018 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

 

In rural Nerstrand: Of sheep & cheesemaking July 26, 2016

 

Approaching Shepherd's Way Farms, rural Nerstrand.

Approaching Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand.

I WAS SMITTEN, simply smitten by the two-day-old lambs at Shepherd’s Way Farms. I wanted to snatch one of the babies from an outdoor pen, tuck it under my arm and scamper to the van.

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 111 white lamb

 

Lucky for the owners of Shepherd’s Way, I am not the rustling type. And lucky for Shepherd’s Way that a hawk, eagle or other predator did not discover these unexpected pasture-born lambs—born out of the regular lambing season.

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 151 penned lambs

 

The lambs, penned under the shade of sprawling oaks, proved a popular attraction during a recent 2106 Eat Local Farm Tour at Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read’s dairy sheep farm near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 143 Burr Oak cheese

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 173 sheep in pasture

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 145 Big Woods Blue Cheese

 

Here sheep graze pastureland, fueling up to produce milk for award-winning handcrafted artisan cheeses. Farm tour visitors sampled those cheeses which range from creamy Shepherd’s Hope to the denser, firmer Burr Oak to a blue cheese appropriately named Big Woods Blue. I found the cheeses especially flavorful and the softer cheeses exquisitely creamy, traits attributed to the higher fat content of sheep’s milk.

Farm co-owner and cheesemaker Jodi Ohlsen Read talks about Shepherd's Way Farms.

Farm co-owner and cheesemaker Jodi Ohlsen Read talks about Shepherd’s Way Farms.

The tour group heads toward the barn.

The tour group heads toward the barn.

Looking through a window, visitors get a look at the area where the sheep are secured and fed during milking.

Looking through a window, visitors see the area where the sheep are secured and fed during milking.

Again, through a window, visitors view aging cheese wheels.

Through an interior window, visitors can view the cheese.

Jodi led visitors on a tour past the milking barn and cheesemaking and aging rooms. As we followed her along a hallway separating us from the operational area, we learned about cheesemaking from start to finish. She’s the cheesemaker. Oversized windows allowed for viewing. Here, some 240 sheep are milked in a process that takes about four hours from set-up to milking to clean-up. Jodi noted that if you don’t like to clean, then sheep dairy farming/cheesemaking is not for you.

Jodi answers questions once the barn tour is finished.

Jodi answers questions following the barn tour.

It is clear from Jodi’s tour that she loves this rural way of life, this place where she’s raised four sons. Although grown, those young men still occasionally help, this day at the tour and also with marketing the family’s cheeses. Shepherd’s Way cheese sells primarily in the Twin Cities—at farmers’ markets and select grocery stores—but also as distant as Chicago and the East Coast. The farm also has a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Promotional art showcased inside the on-site store.

Promotional art showcased inside the on-site store.

Classes, tastings and tours are also offered at the farm by the well-spoken and knowledgeable cheesemaker who comes from a pre-dairy professional background in writing and editing.

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 127 sheep by barn

 

Listening to Jodi affirms the farm’s mission statement published on its website:

At Shepherd’s Way Farms, we believe there is a way to live that combines hard work, creativity, respect for the land and animals, and a focus on family and friends. We believe the small family-based farm still has a place in our society. Everything we do, everything we make, is in pursuit of this goal.

Shepherd's Way Farms, 150 bottle feeding lamb

 

I left Shepherd’s Way understanding this family’s passion, appreciative of their hard work and savory cheeses, and still wishing I could snatch a lamb.

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

Shepherd's Way Farms, 106 silos & barn

This 1940s former dairy barn and the attached lower building have been converted in to a milking parlor, a cheese production room and a cheese aging room.

This is a beautiful old barn. I especially like the character of the entry.

This is a beautiful old barn. I especially like the character of the entry.

Incredible aged oaks tower near the old barn.

Incredible aged oaks tower near the old barn.

There's a second barn on the property, this one moved several miles from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

There’s a second barn on the property, this one moved several miles from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The 120-foot long barn replaces the lamb nursery destroyed in a 2005 arson fire.

This farm cat hides in a wooden box outside the farm shop/tasting room.

This farm cat hides in a wooden box outside the farm shop/tasting room.

Outside the tasting room/store.

Outside the tasting room/store.

FYI: Click here to read my previous post about Simple Harvest Organic Farm, another Nerstrand area farm I visited during the 2016 Eat Local Farm Tour.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When March springs into May-like weather in Minnesota March 13, 2016

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Visiting early Saturday afternoon in downtown Wanamingo.

Visiting early Saturday afternoon in downtown Wanamingo.

I NEEDED A DAY TRIP. A day to explore small town and rural Minnesota. A day to pull my Canon DSLR out of winter hibernation. A day to document life in this place I call home.

My husband, Randy, crosses the bridge across Shingle Creek in Wanamingo.

My husband, Randy, crosses the bridge across Shingle Creek in Wanamingo.

So my husband and I headed east on Saturday, through Kenyon and then on to Wanamingo for lunch, a tour of a church, a stop in Riverside Park and a short walk through the woods along Shingle Creek.

Water rushing over limestone. Sun shining. The smell of creosote on a bridge deck. Blue sky striped with thin white clouds.

Lovely.

Walking the puppy in downtown Wanamingo.

Walking the puppy in downtown Wanamingo.

Walking with the baby and the dog in Northfield.

Walking with the baby and the dog in Northfield.

And everywhere, people. Walking. Alone. In pairs. With babies and dogs.

Going fishing in the North Fork of the Zumbro River, Wanamingo.

Going fishing in the North Fork of the Zumbro River, Wanamingo.

Fishing.

Biking along Goodhue County Road 30 past Riverside Park in Wanamingo.

Biking along Goodhue County Road 30 past Riverside Park in Wanamingo.

Or biking.

This bike was parked outside the elementary school in Wanamingo on Saturday.

This bike was parked outside the elementary school in Wanamingo on Saturday.

From Faribault to Wanamingo to Nerstrand to Northfield and back home.

Two bikers stopped at Nerstrand Meats.

Two bikers stopped at Nerstrand Meats.

In the throngs of people outdoors, I saw spring. Glorious spring, here unseasonably early with temps nearing 70 degrees. Saturday was the sort of day that we Minnesotans think impossible in mid March.

Rollerblading near St. Olaf College in Northfield late Saturday afternoon.

Rollerblading near St. Olaf College in Northfield late Saturday afternoon.

It was a day for lying in a hammock stretched between trees on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield. Or walking hand-in-hand. Or for rollerblading back to campus.

Motorcycles were out everywhere, including this biker on Division Street in downtown Northfield late Saturday afternoon.

Motorcycles were out everywhere, including this biker on Division Street in downtown Northfield late Saturday afternoon.

It was a day for riding motorcycle. It was a day to do anything that took you outdoors.

A spring-like scene in Nerstrand.

A scene more like May than March in Nerstrand.

It was perfect.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The yellow barn January 7, 2015

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INITIALLY, THE HUE caused me consternation. Who paints a barn yellow? Red, or perhaps grey or white, should define agrarian buildings.

Near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

Near Nerstrand, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But the more I study this photo, the more the color appeals to me. Creamy pale yellow, the shade of butter, seems fitting for a building which sheltered, maybe still does, cows and perhaps a myriad of other farm animals.

The hue, too, accents the foundation of locally-quarried limestone. There’s something about a stone barn foundation that portrays strength and history and hard work. Just imagine the time and effort invested and muscles used.

Duo silos flank the barn like soldiers in steely grey uniforms, always at the ready.

This scene pleases me. Every barn, no matter its color, deserves to stand, guarded against the assaults of time and weather and so-called progress.

Of that I am certain.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thinking lutefisk season already August 20, 2014

IT’S NOT TOO EARLY to start thinking lutefisk and meatballs.

That is if you eat lutefisk, a Norwegian delicacy of cooked cod that has been soaked in lye.

I know. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I’ve eaten it twice, once when covering a church basement lutefisk dinner as a young newspaper reporter.

The second time I sampled this fish out of respect for my Norwegian aunt whose maiden name is Knudson.

I didn’t like lutefisk either time. Tastes like warm Jell-O. Smothering it with lots of melted butter does help. A bit.

Whether or not I like lutefisk or meatballs matters not, though, because I’m German, not Norwegian. I don’t have to eat the stuff.

Vang Lutheran Church

Vang Lutheran Church. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But for those of you who appreciate lutefisk, mark your calendars for the Wednesday, October 8, annual Vang Lutheran Church Lutefisk and Norwegian Meatball Supper. Vang is located 10 minutes north of Kenyon or east of Nerstrand with a County 49 Boulevard address. That’s in Minnesota, where, of course, many Scandinavians live.

I photographed Vang Lutheran Church across the cornfield west of the Potpourri Mill Log Cabin 10 minutes north of Kenyon.

Vang Lutheran Church sits among the farm fields of southeastern Minnesota, near Kenyon and Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And these Norskes love their lutefisk so much they’re already advertising the October church dinner in August. I spotted this sign and reminder slips with peppermints last weekend at a garage sale in Kenyon:

I spotted this sign at a garage sale in Kenyon.

I spotted this sign at a garage sale in Kenyon.

Have you eaten lutefisk? What’s your review of this Norwegian culinary specialty?

CLICK HERE TO READ a blog post about Vang’s lutefisk dinner written several years ago by a master of divinity student.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling