Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A look back at the 1918 pandemic in Northfield & similarities to today July 14, 2021

Minnie’s obit, published in the Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

FIRST DEATH BY INFLUENZA

Minnie Marko died at her home after a brief illness of pneumonia, according to her obituary published in the November 15, 1918, issue of the Northfield News.

The death of the 21-year-old is just one of many topics in a timeline, “1918-1920 Influenza in Northfield, Minnesota.” Three Carleton College students worked with the Northfield Historical Society to create the timeline in 2020.

Headlines in the November 15, 1918, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

It’s an interesting read, showing the striking similarities between the Spanish flu and the COVID-19 pandemics. Thanks to Northfield writer and photographer Margit Johnson for featuring the research in a recent post on her blog, Elevation99. I recommend you read Margit’s post and then follow the link to the timeline.

I did just that, scanning headlines like these:

IT’S UP TO YOU TO FIGHT THE FLU (10/25/1918)

FOUR STUDENTS AT ST. OLAF DIE DUE TO INFLUENZA (11/21/1918)

NO CHRISTMAS CHURCH SERVICE IN NORTHFIELD (12/22/1918)

COLLEGES RETURN, WITH RESTRICTIONS (1/1919)

BELOVED CARLETON PROFESSOR FRED B. HILL DIES OF INFLUENZA (1/29/1919)

As I read the headlines and the brief summaries that followed, I considered how quickly information, and misinformation, spreads today. I considered how public health officials then, and now, recognized the seriousness of the virus and took efforts to stop the spread of the virus. The State Board of Public Health forbade public funerals and ordered wearing of gauze masks on streets and in public buildings in November 1918. Sound familiar?

Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

But perhaps the timeline entry that struck me most personally was this item in a list of Ten Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News:

10. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.

Think about that as it relates to COVID-19. Just like in 1918, our choices today affect more than ourselves. Before COVID numbers dropped in our country due to vaccinations, too many people refused to wear masks (and to wear them properly over mouth AND nose). And now people are refusing vaccination for reasons ranging from political to distrust of the vaccine (and thus of science) to believing the virus won’t make them seriously sick or kill them. It can and it does.

History tells us to expect a resurgence of the virus if such me-centered attitudes and behaviors prevail. As in 1918, the message that bears repeating is this: This is not just about us individually. This is about all of us. About caring for one another. About understanding that our choices affect the health, and thus the lives, of others.

People are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19. That’s especially true in states with low vaccination rates. Missouri, for example, has the most aggressive Delta variant outbreak, according to recent media reports. In Minnesota, Crow Wing and Cass Counties (in the heart of lake and cabin country) are experiencing a noticeable increase in COVID cases. All of this concerns health officials. And it should concern us, too, especially those who are not vaccinated, whether by choice or because they are too young for vaccination. This virus can mutate, as it did into the highly-contagious Delta variant, putting people at an even higher risk of serious illness and death.

The grief of those losing loved ones today is no less than the family of Minnie Marko, 21, who died in 1918 in Northfield. Minnie didn’t have the option of a vaccine. We do.

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FYI: I’d encourage you to read my June 11 post about a 46-year-old Minot, N.D., man who regretted not getting vaccinated. Rob Tersteeg died of COVID. His dying wish was that his journey with this “vicious virus” would convince others to get vaccinated. He made his wife promise to get their kids vaccinated. His family grieves, just like Minnie’s.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Expressing gratitude in Northfield May 28, 2021

Thankful for… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

GRATITUDE IS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE. Feeling grateful takes effort. If you disagree, that’s OK. Maybe gratitude comes naturally for you. But, for most of us, I don’t think that’s true.

Rocco, The Gratitude Tree, just outside the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

That’s why I appreciate projects like The Gratitude Tree. Outside the Northfield Public Library, colorful tags sway in the wind on the branches of a small tree. The Gratitude Tree. And on those slips of paper, people have answered the question, “What are you grateful for?”

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I paused to read the responses, which seemed mostly focused on thankfulness for family, friends and others. That doesn’t surprise me, especially after this past year of separation due to COVID-19. Most of us crave human connection. We’ve missed our families, friends, co-workers…

A plastic container at the base of the tree holds tags and a Sharpie for writing notes of gratitude. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

It’s important to acknowledge that. To say it. To write it. To embrace this feeling of longing to be with people.

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I’m grateful we’re at a point in the pandemic where those of us who are vaccinated can reclaim our lives. It feels good. Really good. I can hug my second daughter now. I can feel comfortable being out in public among other vaccinated individuals. I feel grateful for that.

The Gratitude Tree, outside the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

And I feel grateful for The Gratitude Tree, an ongoing project of Nika Hirsch of This Life Rocks. Nika is a young girl from Northfield who deals with social anxiety and selective mutism. Despite those challenges, or maybe because of, she chooses to connect with her community in positive ways. She’s previously hosted The Gratitude Tree and also The Giving Tree (a collection point for winter gear). She also paints stones with uplifting messages.

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

We can all learn from Nika, a role model for community service and positivity. She inspires. She uplifts. She causes us to pause and think. To focus on the good in life. To see the reasons to smile, to feel happy, to give thanks.

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

TELL ME: What are you grateful for?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Welcome to the river in Northfield April 26, 2021

The historic Ames Mill hugs the Cannon River at the dam in downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

THE RIVER RUNS THROUGH. Behind businesses, over the dam by the aged mill, under bridges…

Bridging the Cannon by Bridge Square.

In Northfield, the Cannon River always draws me. There’s something about water. About the power of a river, the mesmerizing movement, the rise and fall thereof, the sense of peace which flows through me when I view water. Or watch fire. Or hear wind.

Posted on the railing by the dam, a reminder that we’re still in a pandemic.

On a recent Sunday, Randy and I headed toward the Riverwalk in the heart of historic downtown Northfield. We passed, and paused, at Bridge Square, the community’s gathering place. Every town should have a spot like this for folks to meet, to center causes, to converse or to simply sit.

We stopped to watch the Cannon spill over the Ames Mill Dam next to the 1865 Malt-O-Meal (now Post Consumer Brands) mill that still produces hot cereal, the scent often wafting over the city.

A flowering tree bursts color into Bridge Square near the river.
Spring in art, at the local tourism office.

I delighted in a blossoming tree and the spring-themed art painted on the front window of the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. Seemingly small things like this add an artsy vibe to Northfield. Details matter. Art matters. Nature matters.

The narrow walkway by the Contented Cow (a British style pub) leads to Division Street from the Riverwalk.

When we reached the riverside back of the Contented Cow, I noticed for the first time the Holstein painted retaining walls and tables. Why had I not previously seen this? It appears to have been here for awhile.

The back of an aged building photographed from the Riverwalk.

I find backs of buildings bare bones interesting, like nouns without adjectives.

Words on the Riverwalk stairway.

That’s the thing about slowing down. Noticing. Sometimes we fail to walk at a pace that allows us to see, truly see, the world around us. The backs of buildings. The flow of the river. To take it all in, starry-eyed at the beauty which surrounds us.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Ten minutes in downtown Northfield January 19, 2021

I love walking along the Cannon River in the heart of downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

PHOTOGRAPHING MINNESOTA COMMUNITIES remains a focal point of my photography. I love to document people, places and events with my camera.

This image seems so iconic Americana, hearkening back in time to places like fictional Mayberry. This barbershop is across the street from Bridge Square in Northfield.
I don’t know the symbolism of this graphic art, photographed above a doorway.
Northfield always does a great job with window displays, including this holiday-themed one.

My photos present visual stories. I suppose you could say I am both the writer and the editor. I choose what to photograph and how. I decide, in the moment, whether to show you a detailed up-close subject or whether to cover a broader area. Both are important in storytelling. I also decide the perspective from which I will photograph. Down low. Eye level. Or some other angle.

I found this add-on structure to a kitchen ware retail shop and upper level deck charming. This is on the back of the building.

During a recent visit to Northfield, one of my favorite Minnesota communities about a 20-minute drive away, I had exactly 10 minutes to photograph before our food order was ready for pick up on the other side of town. I asked Randy to act as time-keeper. When I’m photographing, I lose all track of time, so engaged am I in the creative process.

Bundled up to walk the dog at Bridge Square on a cold winter afternoon in Northfield.

We parked near Bridge Square, the heart of downtown Northfield and a community gathering spot. On this late January afternoon with the temp not quite 20 degrees and with COVID-19 reducing the number of visitors to this typically busy downtown, I observed only a few people out and about. Often finding a place to park proves challenging. Not so on this Saturday.

The historic Ames Mill sits on the banks of the Cannon River across the river from Bridge Square.

We walked toward Bridge Square, adjacent to the Cannon River. Turning the corner off Division Street, the wind sliced cold across my face. I knew that exposing my fingers to snap the shutter button of my camera would be numbing. My mittens, which open to finger-less gloves, help. I’d highly recommend these if you work a camera in a cold weather environment like Minnesota.

The backs of buildings can prove as interesting as the fronts. My eyes were drawn to the sign and to the brick buildings.

For the next 10 minutes, while Randy walked ahead of me—I always lag when I’m photographing—I concentrated on the half-block square area around me. The signs. The buildings. A woman and her dog. The river.

Northfield residents, businesses and students at its two colleges often express their viewpoints in publicly-posted signs and art.

In this short segment of time, I composed a short story, or at least the beginning of one. With these minimal images, I show you history, nature, voices. A glimpse in to the heart and soul of Northfield. This brings me joy, this ability to follow my passion, to share with you these visual stories through my photography.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2021 January 18, 2021

The faces of the Civil Rights Marches and Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left. This is a snippet of a photo by Stephen Somerstein featured in a 2015 exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail,” at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

PEACE. Today we celebrate a man who embodied peace, whose ideals still resonate 53 years after his assassination.

Today we honor Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in America.

Watching a video featuring King in the St. Olaf College exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

He inspired. He uplifted. He encouraged. He used words, like those spoken in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to affect change. “I have a dream…my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This common phrase of the Black Lives Matter Movement was chalked onto the sidewalk at Bridge Square in Northfield, MN., along with names of individuals who died and chalk portraits of some. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Change came in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Change came in shifting attitudes and edging toward equality. Yet, we still have a long ways to go. Peaceful protests during the past year, especially, underscore the social injustice issues that still exist in our society. So do the many Black Lives Matter signs I’ve photographed in recent months.

It’s refreshing to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In my own southern Minnesota community, I’ve observed, listened to, read of the challenges our Somali immigrant families face. In language barriers. In educational disparity. In housing. In prejudice. Many organizations, like the Faribault Diversity Coalition, local churches, schools, St. Vincent de Paul, government agencies and more, are reaching out, helping, supporting. For that I feel grateful.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the St. Olaf exhibit and express their thoughts, like this young woman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

But we also need to step up individually—speaking up, for example, when we hear derogatory remarks about our new neighbors or anyone of color. I admit to not always voicing my objections, although I often do.

I regret not speaking to a young man who, for months, flew a Confederate flag (along with an American flag) on the back of his pick-up truck. I worried how he would react if I approached him. Thankfully, he eventually removed this blatant public symbol of hatred/racism. I was relieved. Still, the root issues remain. And, as troubling as this Confederate flag was to me, I can only imagine how disconcerting, threatening and offensive this felt to anyone of color in my community.

One of two retro trays I purchased at Vintage Treasures in St. Charles, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo November 2015.

Yes, much still remains to be accomplished. But we have made progress. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr set us on the course nearly 70 years ago as did others in the Civil Rights Movement. A peaceful course. As one coming of age in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, I gravitated to the word peace. It was everywhere, especially in the peace symbol. Many decades later, I still hold that word close to my heart. Peace. Just give peace a chance.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

In the words of King: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Photographed just recently in the window of a business in downtown Northfield, across the street from Bridge Square.

And more inspiring words from this Nobel Peace Prize winner and Civil Rights Movement leader: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

FYI: The Faribault Diversity Coalition celebrates its 7th annual Martin Luther King Day Breakfast with a virtual event from 9 – 10 am today. Click here for details. In neighboring Northfield, the Human Rights Commission will hold a virtual event themed to “In This Together” at 7 pm. Click here for info.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

COVID-19, a photo review from Minnesota Prairie Roots December 30, 2020

COVID-19 RANKS AS THE STORY of 2020, including here on Minnesota Prairie Roots. Since early March, I’ve photographed hundreds of scenes that relate to the pandemic. I’ve scrolled through my many COVID-themed posts to showcase a selection of images that summarize the pandemic’s effects on our lives.

I took this photo of my mom in early March, before care centers closed to visitors. This is inside her room.

For me, the most personal image is also a universal one. In early March, I visited my mom, who is in hospice in a southwestern Minnesota nursing home. I didn’t know it then, but this would mark my last in-person visit with her in 2020. The last time I would hug her, kiss her cheeks. For our seniors living in long-term care centers, 2020 brought isolation, separation from family and, for too many, death. The empty chair in this photo symbolizes the absence of family.

A look at the toilet paper aisle at Aldi in Faribault in March.

March also brought shortages. Of toilet paper. Of hand sanitizer. Of Lysol wipes. Of Tylenol. I stocked up on a few supplies. Just enough to get us by if we got sick and couldn’t get out.

Our family connects via Zoom.

Separation brought a new appreciation for technology with our family connecting via Zoom from the north metro to Madison, Wisconsin, to Faribault.

From the front page of the Faribault Daily News.

The deadly reality of COVID-19 hit home when the Rev. Craig Breimhorst of Faribault died in April, the first of now 52 Rice County residents to lose their lives to the virus. My heart hurts for all those who are grieving, some of whom I know.

Photographed on April 19, 2020, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

Signs remind us daily of COVID, including messages bannered on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee as theaters, restaurants, libraries, museums and more closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

Stay off the playground in North Alexander Park. Playgrounds later reopened.

Even playgrounds became inaccessible as communities roped and fenced off equipment (including at North Alexander Park in Faribault) to stop the spread of COVID. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the virus, with surface spread not the primary form of transmission.

Photographed on May 15, 2020, in downtown Faribault. A powerful image.

In May, while watching a car cruise in downtown Faribault, I photographed a local walking along the sidewalk wearing a face mask. This is my “favorite” COVID photo. Simple. Yet powerful. Face masks, by mid-summer, became the norm. Yet, some still refuse to wear them, or wear them improperly, an ongoing source of frustration for me. Minnesota has a face mask mandate for a reason—to stop the spread of COVID and to keep us safe. Just wear a mask. And over your nose, please.

The Rev. Adam Manian leads worship services from a hay rack at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota, on Sunday, May 3, 2020.

The pandemic changed how many of us worship. Randy and I have not attended church services since early March. When our kids learned we had been to Sunday morning services, they advised (told) us not to continue attending in-person. Our eldest remarked that she and her friends were struggling to convince their Baby Boomer parents of COVID’s seriousness. It didn’t take us long to determine just how serious this virus; we’ve attended church online ever since. In my hometown church, the pastor took to preaching from a hay rack. St. John’s now worships in-house.

Banners honor the Northfield High School graduates of 2020.

High school and college graduation ceremonies also pivoted, mostly to virtual celebrations. In Northfield, Minnesota, the community honored grads with banners posted downtown. Some families still hosted receptions. We opted out, not wanting to risk our health.

A couple circles themselves with rope to keep others at a distance during an outdoor concert.

Our sole social activity this summer was attending outdoor concerts in Faribault’s Central Park nearly every Thursday evening. It’s a long-time community tradition. We felt safe there with concert-goers distancing throughout the sprawling park. Some wore masks, like the couple in this photo, with a rope defining social distancing lines.

One family’s humorous take on COVID-19 during the Faribault Pet Parade.

The annual Faribault Pet Parade in August also went on, but as a drive-through only. No masses of kids and pets walking in the streets. Randy and I watched, all by ourselves in our lawnchairs positioned along Fourth Street, and I spotted one vehicle with a COVID message.

Photographed on August 29 in the Ace Hardware store parking lot, Faribault, Minnesota.

For many, the cancellation of county fairs, and then the Minnesota State Fair in August, dashed any hopes that summer could retain any normalcy. Food stands, like this one at Ace Hardware in Faribault, popped up in parking lots and elsewhere.

An impromptu concert in Bridge Square during DDJD.

In Northfield, the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration scaled back. Randy and I walked through Bridge Square, where I photographed a solo guitar player strumming. It was a lovely September day, minus the overcrowding typical of DJJD.

I photographed this sign on a business in Crosby. So Minnesotan.

September took us to the central Minnesota lakes region for a short stay at a family member’s guest lake cabin. While en route, we stopped in Crosby, where I photographed this distinctly Minnesotan masking sign.

I photographed this from the passenger seat of our van as we drove through Rochester in November.

In November, when the COVID situation in Minnesota went to really bad, I photographed a hard-hitting electronic message above US Highway 14 in Rochester, home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Concerns about hospital bed shortages not only concerned Minnesota, but the entire US. And this was about more than just COVID.

This message puts COVID in perspective.

One of my final COVID photos of 2020 was taken at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, posted there by the Rev. Greg Ciesluk, also a friend. His message puts the virus in perspective. As we transition into 2021 with vaccines rolling out, I feel hopeful. Truly hopeful.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Nika & the giving tree December 28, 2020

A welcoming message banners the Division Street entrance to the Northfield Public Library.

RECENTLY, I NEEDED to replenish my stash of library books. That meant a trip to the Northfield Public Library 20 minutes away. The Faribault library remains closed to in-person visits due to COVID-19. I’m the type of reader who needs to browse shelves, hold a book and read its summary before deciding whether to check it out.

Plus, Northfield, COVID or not, always rates as a delightful community to visit.

“Rocky the Giving Tree” against the backdrop of the Northfield library.

As soon as Randy and I pulled up to the Northfield library, I noticed a small tree draped with winter scarves near the base of the library hill. But first things first. Books.

I found four, one of which I started and finished that very day. Yes, sometimes books are that good.

Inside the library, a portion of a poem by Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. This seems to fit well The Giving Tree.

Once I’d gathered those books and snapped two photos inside the library, I focused my attention on the tree. The Gratitude Tree, now renamed The Giving Tree. Previously I photographed gratitude notes here, among the branches.

The library tree is serving as a host site for The Giving Tree and similar projects.
Empty clothespins indicate scarves already taken from a tree once sporting many more items of winter wear.
A tag on each item explains the project.

But this time, hand-knit scarves hung among the branches, each with a note attached indicating these are part of the 100 Kind Deeds Day Project. Need a scarf or other winter wear (I spotted a single hat)? Take one.

Handknit with love…and draped in The Giving Tree.
In the background sits the historic Archer House, severely damaged in a recent fire and its future unknown.
The scarves are almost like an art story.

As I photographed the collection, I wondered about the backstory. After researching online, I discovered this is the endeavor of 10-year-old Nika Hirsch of Northfield, founder of This Life Rocks. Annually for the past four years, Nika has invited the Northfield community to accomplish 100 kind acts in 24 hours. This year she dropped toys off at a hospital, picked up trash in a park and gathered donations for The Giving Tree.

Just across the street from The Giving Tree/library are the lovely historic buildings of downtown Northfield.

But there’s more. Remember that name, This Life Rocks? Well, this all started a few years back after Nika was diagnosed with selective mutism, a disorder often linked to social anxiety resulting in difficulty speaking with most people. With therapy, hard work, the love and support of her family and others, and a project—painting encouraging messages on rocks to leave in public places—Nika has accomplished much. The rock painting allowed her to communicate in a non-verbal way.

The beautiful Northfield Public Library serves as host site and backdrop for The Giving Tree.

Watching videos of Nika, I am amazed at how much she’s overcome, how confident and strong in the face of challenges. Nika truly inspires. She makes this world a much better place with her hands-on care, with her positive attitude, with her motto to live life with enthusiasm. And with her kindness.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Left behind November 23, 2020

I found this kindness rock lying on the ground in Nisswa Lake Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I LOVE FINDING KINDNESS STONES. I appreciate the effort an artist or wordsmith takes to craft a message, add some art and then drop the stone in a public place. Each time I discover these sweet surprises, I feel uplifted. And I wonder about the individual inspired to show such kindness.

On a recent weekend, while out and about, I didn’t discover any inspirational stones. Rather I found several items left behind, the first at Medford Straight River Park. An abandoned purple scooter leaned against a picnic table in the shelterhouse near the playground with no kid in sight. As Randy and I ate our picnic lunch, a Grandma showed up with her 5-year-old granddaughter to reclaim the well-used scooter, forgotten the previous evening. How small town, I thought.

The next day, while picnicking again, this time at Mill Park in Dundas, I noted black-frame glasses stuck in the crack of a picnic table. What is it about picnic tables and stuff left behind? Now, if I’d left my glasses behind, I would struggle to see, such is the state of my vision. Randy checked and confirmed the lost glasses were cheaters. Whew.

From Mill Park, we crossed the Cannon River pedestrian bridge to Memorial Park by the ball field.

There, by the playground, sat two perfectly fine lawn chairs. Opened, as if someone had recently occupied the two spots. But there were no adults, no kids, anywhere, except a couple picnicking by the ball diamond, bikes parked nearby. Obviously not their chairs.

Next, we drove to Northfield, parked downtown and walked around. While crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon River, I discovered a mini skull atop dirt in an otherwise empty flower box hanging on the bridge. The skull looked pretty darned real to me. But then I remembered that just days earlier it was Halloween and I figured that was the reason someone left a skull behind.

TELL ME: Have you ever found something particularly interesting left in a public place? I’d like to hear about your odd discoveries.

© 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Northfield: When fire damages an historic river inn November 17, 2020

In the center of this photo, you can see the burned back section of the Archer House, west side. Photo take on Sunday afternoon, November 15.

I STOOD NEXT TO THE RIVER, camera aimed across the dark waters of the Cannon River to the historic building on the east bank. To the building with the gaping hole on the top floor. I struggled to hold my zoom lens still in the fierce wind of the bitterly cold Sunday afternoon. Viewing the devastating scene before me, I felt a deep sense of loss. No image I framed can fully capture the depths of loss for this southeastern Minnesota community. Material. Financial. Historic. Emotional.

The section of the sprawling building where the fire began in a smoker, then raced up walls from the lower level restaurant.

Last Thursday, November 12, at around 3:30 pm, fire broke out in a restaurant’s meat smoker inside the historic Archer House in downtown Northfield and quickly spread. The 1877 sprawling inn anchors the historic downtown on the north end. It’s perhaps the most recognizable of this community’s landmarks and much-loved.

Sunday afternoon, barricades blocked access to the burned Archer House River Inn and tenant businesses.

Today, the future of the aged building, which housed three restaurants—including Smoqe House, where the fire began, the 40-room inn and a gift shop—remains uncertain.

The welcoming front entry to the historic Archer House River Inn.

But of one thing I’m certain, if this historic river inn can be saved, it will be.

This is a beautifully-detailed building.

When I photographed the fire, water and smoke-damaged structure days after the fire, many others were doing the same. After viewing the inn from the west side of the Cannon, I moved to the east side, along Division Street, to get a full front view. This “landmark for hospitality and elegance” built in the French Second Empire Style stood tall and stately still, yet marred now by shattered windows, missing roof, fallen brick, and other debris.

From atop the library hill, I photographed the Archer House.

First I photographed from across the street, atop the hill by the Northfield Public Library, stepping across a dormant flowerbed next to a wrought iron railing. Later I descended to street level to also include the street barriers and yellow tape that keep onlookers away from the scene.

The Archer House sits across Division Street from the Northfield Public Library.

No matter the photographic perspective, the view looked the same. Devastating.

The highest window with the construction year noted, 1877 (part of the number is missing).

But as the good people of Northfield do—just as they did in 1876 to defeat the James-Younger Gang during a raid at the First National Bank—they’ve rallied. The Northfield Downtown Development Corporation has established an Archer House Relief Fund to assist and provide economic relief for the river inn and its tenants. The goal is $25,000. If you are able and inclined to contribute, please do so by clicking here.

The Archer House truly anchors downtown Northfield.

I don’t need to tell you these are challenging days in general. But then, to throw a fire into the mix of difficult times, well, it can all feel overwhelming.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The choice is ours November 10, 2020

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The historic Ames Mill sits along the banks of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield. Malt-O-Meal hot cereals are made in the mill. You can often smell the scent of cereal wafting through this southern Minnesota community.

THE CITY OF NORTHFIELD, about a 20-minute drive northeast of my Faribault home, has long-rated as one of my favorite Minnesota communities. For many reasons.

Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon River in downtown Northfield.

It’s situated along the banks of the Cannon River, making for a picturesque setting.

Standing along a river walk, I photographed the pedestrian bridge in downtown Northfield.
I spotted this art on the hood of a car parked along Division Street near Bridge Square.
From the river walk, nearly under the pedestrian bridge, I photographed the Cannon River and distant buildings.

Homegrown businesses fill the historic downtown, which edges the river. Here you’ll still find an independent bookstore plus antique shops, boutiques, restaurants, an arts center, the public library and much more.

Bridge Square, Northfield’s downtown community gathering spot often chalked with messages.

And, in the heart of Northfield’s business district you’ll also find a community gathering spot. Bridge Square. Here you can buy popcorn from a vintage wagon in the summer, take the kids or grandkids to visit Santa during the holiday season. You can rest here on a bench and engage in conversation. Watch the river flow by or the water fall over the fountain sculpture or the nearby dam.

This motor vehicle bridge lies next to the Ames Mill, across the river from Bridge Square.

But Bridge Square is so much more than a Norman Rockwell-like place to meet, gather and relax. It’s also a spot where opinions are expressed. Students from St. Olaf and Carleton, two noted private liberal arts colleges based in Northfield, use this space to gather and voice their concerns. And, even though I may not always agree with their views, I appreciate that they share them. To see young people concerned enough about an issue to publicly express their thoughts gives me hope.

Among the many messages, peace vs division.

For the first time in a long time, I feel hope. Out of all the chalked messages I read on Sunday while at Bridge Square, I found one that really spoke to me. Peace vs division. Oh, how we need that. Peace. Not division.

A message printed on a step leading to the river walk. You’ll also find poems imprinted into sidewalks in downtown Northfield.

That stop at Northfield’s town square, with so many issues printed in chalk on cement, could easily have overwhelmed me. I could have despaired at all the problems that need fixing. But rather, I choose to see this as an acknowledgment of concerns. Of the possibilities. Of the solutions. Of choices which can bring peace rather than division.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling