Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.

 

BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

 

It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.

 

This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.

 

Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.

 

Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.

 

Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.

 

Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.

 

A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.

 

Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.

 

I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.

 

But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.

 

Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.

 

Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay November 25, 2019

Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.

Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.

 

I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.

 

Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.

 

With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.

 

The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.

 

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.

 

A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.

 

Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.

 

Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.

 

Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.

 

Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.

 

Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.

 

I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.

 

Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.

 

Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.

 

Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

 

Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.

As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road to southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay December 19, 2017

A former country school near Essig along U.S. Highway 14.

 

TWICE A YEAR, my husband and I head west from our Faribault home to my native southwestern Minnesota for gatherings with my extended family. We travel solely with destination in mind, not deviating to meander through small towns and explore. We get on Interstate 35 in Faribault, exit onto U.S. Highway 14 in Owatonna and then follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway all the way to our destination 2.25 hours away in Lamberton. That would be in Redwood County, just 10 miles east of Walnut Grove.

Near Janesville, this billboard sparkles in the morning light.

Everything along this route is familiar to me from the curves in the highway to the billboards to the farm sites and my favorite barns west of Springfield. While sometimes the drive can seem like forever, especially when wind whips snow to create iffy driving conditions, mostly I enjoy the rural route.

At the beginning of our trip, I photographed this farm site west of Owatonna. The farther west we drove, the greyer the skies became.

Enjoy this photo essay along U.S. Highway 14, aiming west toward the prairie into some of our state’s richest farmland as we headed back for the holidays last Saturday.

Red barns splash color into the rural landscape, here near Janesville.

 

An ethanol plant near Janesville breaks the monotony of farm fields.

 

Highway 14 takes us through New Ulm. I spotted this catchy and festive billboard on the west end of town.

 

You know you’re in the heart of farmland when you see a cash corn price posted on a sign, this one at Christensen Farms near Sleepy Eye.

 

This reindeer statue stands along the east edge of Sleepy Eye. It’s there year-round.

 

Weathered by wind and weather, this barn sits west of Sleepy Eye.

 

A row of vintage trucks are parked atop a hill on the east edge of Springfield.

 

One of my favorite barns on a farm site west of Springfield.

 

We reach our destination in Lamberton where grain elevators mark this rural community.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A quick stop in the Minnesota German city of New Ulm August 3, 2017

Domeier’s German Store, snugged into a residential neighborhood for decades, is a must-see German import shop in New Ulm.

 

NESTLED IN THE MINNESOTA RIVER Valley, New Ulm has long been one of my favorite Minnesota communities. I love not only the sweep and rise of the valley and hills, but also the vibe of this definitively German city.

 

Nutcrackers peer out a window at Domeier’s.

 

My maternal family roots run deep in this region. Drop the surname Bode at the Guten Tag Haus in downtown New Ulm and a look of familiarity flashes across a clerk’s face. She knows the name. My ancestors settled just to the east in the farmland surrounding nearby Courtland.

Last weekend en route to a wedding in southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I scheduled time in New Ulm to peruse a thrift store and two German gift shops. I was looking for ethnic items for an upcoming Helbling family reunion. We’re having an Oktoberfest theme to celebrate my in-laws’ heritage. The mini German flags I needed as accents for bouquets of flowers in steins were elusive given the community’s recent Bavarian Blast. I found one at a price I was willing to pay. I need six.

 

The thrift shop Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck is perfect given the Helblings settled (and still mostly live) in that region of North Dakota. I found the last remaining 99-cent cotton German flag at the Guten Tag Haus.

 

Still, we scored, among other items, two bier mugs at the MVAC Thrift Store, German chocolate mice at Domeier’s German Store and that coveted German flag at the Guten Tag Haus, some at Crazy Days bargain prices. Success.

 

A snippet view of German Park.

 

This monument in German Park honors those who suffered in the US-Dakota War of 1862 which was centered in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Nearby a whimsical sculpture reminds visitors to keep the park clean.

 

In between shopping, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch and a respite at the beautiful German Park a block from New Ulm’s main drag. Here a fountain centers lovely gardens and pieces of art.

Whenever I’m in New Ulm, I feel comfortably at home. Sure, my ancestral roots are in this region. But it’s more than that. This southwestern Minnesota community works hard to preserve and present its German heritage in a welcoming way. I love that about New Ulm.

 

FYI: Click here to read a 2015 photo rich post I published on beautiful German Park.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Autumn, Southern Minnesota’s season of harvest & hope October 4, 2016

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Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land.

Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land early Saturday evening.

HARVEST. That word holds the seasons of a farmer’s hope.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

From spring planting to summer growth to autumn ripening, a farmer focuses on the outcome—a yield that brims with golden corn and soybeans.

Harvesting between St. Peter and Nicollet.

Harvest equipment sits in a cornfield west of St. Peter.

Through months of looking toward the skies, of weathering too much or too little rainfall, of watching heat shimmer waves across fields, of tending and waiting, a farmer anticipates this season of harvest.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

On a day trip Saturday from the southeastern to the southwestern side of Minnesota—through Rice, Le Sueur, Blue Earth, Nicollet, Brown and Redwood counties and back—I observed the harvest. Minimal on the eastern side, which has been flooded with too much recent rainfall, but in full swing in the counties of Brown and Redwood.

Combing beans near New Ulm.

Combining beans near New Ulm.

Farmers worked the land, dust enveloping combines.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Grain trucks idled in fields and barreled down county roads toward local elevators

Near Courtland.

Near Courtland.

Grain bins near Waterville.

Grain bins near Waterville.

or homestead grain bins.

Driving into Courtland.

Driving into Courtland.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

The landscape crawled with tractors and combines and trucks, farmers at the wheels, guiding the crops toward harvest.

White among fields of golden crops.

A harvested field against a farm site backdrop of white.

And I observed it all. No longer an intimate part of this process as I once was so many decades ago on my Redwood County childhood farm, I am still connected to this season by the memories that trace deep within me.

West of New Ulm, grain wagons sit in a field.

West of New Ulm.

Harvest still holds me in hope.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A message for Santa & all of us December 22, 2015

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Dear Santa message in New Ulm, 95

 

WHEN I SPOTTED THIS MESSAGE to Santa while traveling through New Ulm on Saturday en route to a family Christmas gathering, I laughed. What a humorous way to draw attention to a real estate company, I thought.

But then I thought some more about that message after reading a magazine article titled “5 times when you should hold your tongue.” The writer of the piece in Real Simple advised that diplomacy, tact and a lot of silence can go a long way. In other words, think before you speak or write.  That’s great advice.

You may think it’s your sister’s fault when, in reality, it isn’t. Perception is not always truth.

I’m a big proponent of listening. I truly believe if we all chose to listen, rather than jump to conclusions, many disagreements would never happen. But in the heat of the moment, when we feel we’ve been wronged, we fail to hear anyone’s voice but our own. That is the precise time when we need to clamp our lips, lift fingertips from keyboards and cell phones and consider that, yes, there’s another side to this story. Once hurtful words are written or spoken, they cannot be taken back.

The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family. But such gatherings can also prove stressful. Travel, too much alcohol, lack of sleep, changes in routine, strong personalities, perceived grievances and more can fuel disagreements. It’s all too easy to lash out with angry words. Don’t. Just don’t.

I tend to fade into the background at family gatherings. I’m quiet and reserved. I listen more than I speak. I prefer to talk one-on-one with family members rather than wedge my voice into a conversation dominated by strong personalities in a roomful of people.

It’s important to remember that only in silence can you listen.

Would Santa rather read “It was my sister’s fault!” or “I’m sorry I was mean to my sister?”

Thoughts?

Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling