Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Czech film coming to New Prague April 26, 2019

Singin in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

A DOCUMENTARY FOCUSING on 45 years of Czech culture and heritage in my region of southern Minnesota is coming to Czech country next weekend.

 

Source: New Prague Area Community Education Facebook page.

 

The film, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, shows at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, at the New Prague High School Auditorium. General admission tickets for the event offered through New Prague Area Community Education went on sale earlier this week.

For more background on the film co-produced and co-directed by noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom and Daniel Geiger, click here to read my previously published post on the documentary.

Also click here for more info, including ticket info.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads between Faribault and New Prague October 10, 2018

 

A MONTH AGO, before the grey of this too rainy autumn settled upon the southern Minnesota landscape, Randy and I followed the backroads from Faribault to New Prague en route to a brewery. We enjoy craft beers and wanted to check out Giesenbrau Bier Company, billed as a German style bier hall and garten.

I am directionally-challenged when roads are not prairie grid perfect. Randy knows this about me. It’s also a source of frustration when I am unable to read a map. Yes, we still rely on paper maps and atlases. But “just drive” seems more Randy’s philosophy. He’s always confident of eventually reaching our destination.

In no particular hurry to get there on this Sunday afternoon, we took some paved, some gravel, roads, occasionally stopping to observe and, for me, to take photos. At the time I jotted down locations, but have since misplaced my notes. We were somewhere northwest of Faribault, well off the interstate. I prefer this type of travel which allows for a close-up look at life.

 

 

 

 

From a town hall to a grasshopper,

 

 

 

 

 

from a lake to the detail of bordering cattails,

 

 

 

 

from a cornfield to a weathered corn crib to the cobs inside, I notice the overall picture and then the details.

 

 

Along the way we often come across small delights. Scenes that remind us of our rural roots. Scenes that remind us that life does not always need to speed, that afternoons like this are meant to be savored.

 

 

At one point, Randy parked the van along a gravel road so we could watch a couple baling hay. Not with a massive tractor and baler, but with a small tractor and an old-fashioned baler spitting out rectangular bales. Just like we remember from the farm. When the tractor reached the end of the field, the lean farmer leapt off the trailer and headed toward us.

 

 

“You looking for work?” he joked. We told him we’d pass, that we were former farm kids who understood the hard work of baling hay.

 

 

 

 

We continued on toward New Prague then, winding our way to the bier hall, then to a nearby park for a short walk before taking backroads home,

 

 

 

 

past another farmer baling hay and an aged barn with a new metal roof and a sturdy rock foundation.

 

 

I noted then that we should drive these roads again when autumn hues colored the hilly landscape somewhere between New Prague and Faribault. That would be now.

TELL ME: Do you drive backroads? If yes, where and what have you seen?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Photo shopping in New Prague May 2, 2017

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A front window at Vintique in downtown New Prague. The shop specializes in vintage Czech jewelry and in vinyl records.

A front window at Vintique in downtown New Prague. The shop specializes in vintage Czech jewelry and in vinyl records.

 

WHEN I SHOP, it’s sometimes with my camera. I’m shopping for photo ops. Most of the time shopkeepers are OK with me photographing inside their businesses as they recognize the value of media exposure. But occasionally I encounter a resistant merchant. Not that that happened while snapshotting these scenes. I photographed outside the shops, thus no permission was needed in a publicly visible place.

 

It was the mannquin peeking from behind the sign that prompted this photo at Vintique.

It was the mannequin peeking from behind the sign that prompted this photo at Vintique.

 

I just liked what I saw in the windows of the antique and music shops in downtown New Prague.

 

I mean, how fun would it be to play one of these guitars. Yes, I pumped up the color saturation a tad because, well, I just could. Call it artistic license.

In a music store window…

 

I mean, how fun would it be to play one of these guitars? I pumped up the color saturation a tad because, well, I can. Call it artistic license while photo shopping.

TELL ME: Do you notice window displays? What appeals to you in a display?

Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Out & about on a dangerously cold January weekend in southern Minnesota January 18, 2016

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Saturday afternoon in Montgomery, fierce wind whipped this over-sized flag and a light snowfall.

Saturday afternoon in Montgomery, fierce wind whipped this over-sized flag as light snow fell.

BITTERLY COLD. Double digit below zero temperatures. Minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit Sunday and Monday mornings. Dangerous windchills of minus 35 and 45 degrees. Exposed skin that can freeze in 10 minutes or less.

That’s our reality in Minnesota these days as Arctic air settles over our state. It is the topic of conversation. We Minnesotans love to talk about our weather.

Cold enough for you?

Staying warm?

How long is this supposed to last?

With windchills in the minus 20-degree range, Saturday afternoon, these snowmobilers dealt with machine break-down issues in the countryside.

With windchills in the minus 20-degree range Saturday afternoon, these snowmobilers dealt with machine break-down issues in the countryside.

We hole up indoors. Or we embrace the cold. As best we can. On Saturday I observed youth playing hockey outdoors while others skimmed across an adjacent skating rink. I spotted three snowmobilers parked alongside the road after a snowmobile apparently struck a highway sign. I saw vehicles ringing rural bars.

Reduced visibility driving into Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Reduced visibility driving into Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Me? I snugged inside the van with my husband, mini quilt across my lap, as we crisscrossed Rice and nearby counties. We just drove, feeling the need to escape reality for an afternoon. Our meandering took us to downtown Lakeville, where we ducked in and out of several home-grown shops.

Since my last visit to New Prague, an antique shop has opened in this former hardware store. The shop holds a large collection of vinyl records and vintage Czech jewelry.

Since my last visit to New Prague, an antique shop has opened in this former hardware store. The shop holds a large collection of vinyl records and vintage Czech jewelry.

Then we aimed west, stopping at a New Prague antique shop before driving toward Montgomery.

I am always struck by how desolate farm sites appear in winter. This one lies between New Prague and Montgomery.

I am always struck by how desolate farm sites appear in winter. This one lies between New Prague and Montgomery.

Sunshine occasionally sliced rays across the white-washed landscape. It is so cold you can see cold in the sun. It is so cold you can hear cold in the crunch of snow beneath tires and boots. And you can certainly feel it in the sting of cold slapping cheeks.

Traveling Minnesota State Highway 13 toward Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Traveling Minnesota State Highway 13 toward Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Snow swirled through the wind-driven air near Montgomery, veiling the sky.

The building doesn't look like much from the outside. But step inside Montgomery Brewing Company to find an inviting taproom in an historic building.

This historic building doesn’t look like much from the outside. But step inside Montgomery Brewing Company to find an inviting taproom.

In this Czech community, we stopped for a cold one at Montgomery Brewing Company. You would think on a bitterly cold January day like this, few people would venture out for a beer. But the place was hopping with couples popping in for tap beer, conversation and growlers.

Winter does not stop Minnesotans from riding their bikes. This one was spotted in Montgomery.

Winter does not stop Minnesotans from riding their bikes. I spotted this one in Montgomery Saturday afternoon.

Back to the east in my county of Rice, Faribault’s F-Town Brewing Company offered beer samples at the Snow Crush Fat Tire Race at River Bend Nature Center on Saturday. An after-party followed at the brewery. Had the temperature been warmer, I likely would have been at the race shooting photos. But there’s a limit to what I’ll do in sub-zero/hovering around zero temps.

#

FYI: All of these edited images were shot from inside a warm van.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering Minnesota’s oldest Czech church, St. Wenceslaus July 2, 2015

AS A LIFE-LONG LUTHERAN, I’m mostly unfamiliar with patron saints of the Catholic church, even though my husband, now Lutheran, grew up Catholic.

The Church of St. Wenceslaus, New Prague, Minnesota.

The Church of St. Wenceslaus, New Prague, Minnesota.

So when I happened upon the majestic Church of St. Wenceslaus rising above the east end of New Prague’s Main Street, I had to research the saint whose carved image guards the impressive columned front entry.

A close-up of the St. Wenceslaus statue above the main church entry.

A close-up of the St. Wenceslaus statue above the main church entry.

St. Wenceslaus, duke of Bohemia from 921 until his murder in 935, is considered a martyr for the faith and is hailed as the patron of the Bohemian people and the former Czechoslavakia.

A side and rear view of this stunning church.

A side and rear view of this stunning church.

The selection of this saint for the New Prague congregation is fitting for a community with strong Czech roots. Founded in 1856, the Church of St. Wenceslaus is the oldest Czech church in Minnesota. It is now part of the New Prague Area Catholic Community.

This is the old section of St. Wenceslaus Catholic School, located next to the church. An addition was built in 2003. Students from kindergarten through eighth grades attend.

This is the old section of St. Wenceslaus Catholic School, built in 1914 and located next to the church. An addition was built in 2003. Students from kindergarten through eighth grades attend.

The parish also includes a school opened in 1878.

The church features two towers.

The church features two towers.

This duo towered brick church is stunningly beautiful. I paused numerous times while photographing the exterior simply to admire its artful construction. Churches aren’t built like this any more.

Even the side stairs are artful and the entire church well-maintained.

Even the side stairs are artful and the entire church exterior well-maintained.

My single regret was finding the doors locked on a Sunday afternoon. This was not unexpected; most sanctuaries are locked now days. I could only imagine the lovely stained glass windows I would find inside, along with more statues of patron saints and worn pews.

In sunlight (right) and in shade, the exterior tile floor under the columned entry is lovely.

In sunlight (right) and in shade, the exterior tile floor under the columned entry impresses.

Being Lutheran, I am intrigued by aged Catholic churches which are often significantly embellished with ornate details and religious art. This is so unlike most Lutheran churches. I appreciate both, wherein I find solace and peace. And perhaps that is the reason I seek out churches to photograph. Photographing them connects me, in a visual way, to God.

BONUS PHOTOS:

An overview of Mary's Garden, located between church and school.

An overview of Mary’s Garden, located between church and school.

Children surround the statue of Mary in the garden.

Children surround the statue of Mary in the garden.

Children of many ethnicities are part of the Mary statue.

Children of many ethnicities are part of the Mary statue.

More details in the garden statue art.

More details in the garden statue art.

At the foot of the Mary statue, a message, in Czech, says "welcome."

At the foot of the Mary statue, a message in Czech says “welcome.”

Petunias spill from a windowbox at the front of the school.

Petunias spill from a windowbox at the front of the school.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My initial impressions of New Prague’s Main Street July 1, 2015

A stunning sign welcomes visitors to New Prague.

An impressive sign welcomes visitors to New Prague, Minnesota.

DO YOU EVER HOLD expectations of a community that, in reality, are not what you envisioned?

Minnesota Highway 19 runs through the heart of New Prague's business district.

Minnesota Highway 19 runs through the heart of New Prague’s business district.

Such was my impression of New Prague, a southern Minnesota community of about 7,500 rooted in the Czech, Bavarian and Bohemian heritages. I expected a well-kept downtown burgeoning with lovely shops.

Beer bottles sat on windowsills and stoops at several downtown bars on a Sunday afternoon.

Beer bottles sat on windowsills and stoops at several downtown bars on a Sunday afternoon.

Instead, on a Sunday afternoon, I found a Main Street that needs a facelift or, at a minimum, an attentiveness to appearance. Cigarette butts littered on sidewalks and beer bottles perched on window sills and doorsteps outside bars did not give me a positive first impression.

J. T.'s Hideaway, one of several downtown bars.

J. T.’s Hideaway, one of several downtown bars.

Uneven and pitted sections of sidewalk made me wary of tripping. I noted worn steps and many weary looking buildings, with bricks even missing from the facades of some. I wasn’t purposely looking for these things. But they were noticeable enough that I noticed.

The old hardware store, right, has great historic character inside and out.

The old hardware store, right, has great historic character inside and out.

I also noticed many empty storefronts. Peering through the expansive front windows of the former Rynda Hardware, I spotted the loveliest of wood floors in a space that holds great potential for a business.

Looking up at the ornate architecture on the former First National Bank.

Looking up at the ornate architecture on the former First National Bank.

To the right of the old First National Bank is the former Prague theater, now DalekoArts.

To the right of the old First National Bank is the former Prague theater, now DalekoArts.

Another view of the bank and theater buildings along Main Street.

Another view of the bank and theater buildings along Main Street.

That’s a key word here. Potential. Downtown New Prague, with attention to visual presentation and detail, could really shine. The many historic buildings are an asset to this community. Some, like the former First National Bank, now home to an optometrist’s office, have been well cared for and stand as examples of what this downtown could be.

Another building with space to rent.

Another building with space to rent.

It takes money, and a strong desire, to improve the physical appearances of buildings to create a cohesive and inviting downtown. And I realize business owners are likely just getting by and don’t have extra funds.

This tasteful awning adds a punch of color without overwhelming.

This tasteful awning adds a punch of color without overwhelming.

But I see what can be done with a few simple details. Bargain Betty’s Consignment Shop, for example, sports an eye-catching pink, white and black striped awning with pleasing graphic signage that makes me want to shop there, except shops aren’t open in New Prague on Sundays. That’s understandable given these mom-and-pop business owners need a day off, too.

Love this sign for suspended from a downtown wine tasting business.

Love this sign suspended from a downtown wine tasting business.

Prairie Pond's inviting patio, closed on Sunday.

Prairie Pond’s inviting patio, closed on Sunday.

The Prairie Pond building is an example of a beautifully restored structure.

The Prairie Pond building is an example of a beautifully restored structure.

Prairie Pond Vineyard and Winery, in an exceptional restored building, has also created an outdoor patio oasis, complete with water features, between downtown buildings. My husband and I planned to sample wine there on Sunday, but found the place closed for a private party. It’s not typically open on Sundays, a disappointment.

Something as simple as this windowbox adds visual interest to downtown New Prague.

This stunning windowbox punches natural color and life into the downtown.

A mural of the 1906 Bohemian Brass Band adds artsy interest to the side of a building. However, the mural, painted in 1989, could use some freshening.

A mural of the 1906 Bohemian Brass Band adds artsy interest to the side of a building. However, the mural, painted in 1989, could use some freshening.

This weathered covered wagon atop the Prairie Saloon draws attention to the business.

This weathered covered wagon atop the Prairie Saloon draws attention to the business and gives it character.

Green spaces in the heart of a Main Street always please me. So do window boxes and planters brimming with flowers. And art. Downtown New Prague has some, but could use more. Again, it’s the seemingly simplest of details that can make a difference in how a downtown business district appears to visitors, whether they stop or continue driving through town.

I definitely want to visit this ethnic bakery. Businesses like this rooted in the town's heritage are sure to draw customers.

I definitely want to visit this ethnic bakery. Businesses like this rooted in the town’s heritage are sure to draw customers.

I don’t want New Prague folks and business owners to take my comments the wrong way, to be discouraged. Rather, I hope my observations are useful. I’ve often thought communities could benefit from an outsider’s first impressions. I’ll return to New Prague, but next time on a Saturday, when shops are open. I want to experience Main Street from the inside, too, not just the outside.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Doing something with the vacant lot next to the Prairie Saloon (right in photo) would enhance the downtown.

Doing something with the vacant lot next to the Prairie Saloon (right in photo) would enhance the downtown.

The Corner Bar is aptly named.

The Corner Bar is aptly named. Cigarette butts litter the sidewalk here as they did at other bars.

 A close-up look reveals that the Corner Bar offers karaoke by Billy.

A close-up look reveals that the Corner Bar offers karaoke by Billy. This is what I love, local character.

Another view of Main Street.

Another view of Main Street.

A variety of businesses line Main Street.

A variety of businesses line Main Street. If only all of the buildings could be restored to their former appearances, both in exterior and in subdued signage.

New Prague has a definite advantage over many other communities as a major state highway runs right through the downtown business district.

New Prague has a definite advantage over many other communities as a major state highway runs right through the downtown business district.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling