Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Connecting, celebrating & more at Valley Grove Country Social September 21, 2022

Vehicles line the gravel driveway leading to the hilltop Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, during the September 18 Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A COUNTRY SOCIAL EVOKES an essence of history, of community celebration, of activities that hearken to a bygone era. The Valley Grove Country Social held on Sunday afternoon high atop a hill near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park fits that and beyond. This site, the location of two historic churches and an adjoining cemetery, marks one of my favorite places in rural Rice County for its history, natural beauty and peace.

Inside the stone church, now used for fellowship, folks grab refreshments, converse and view historical information and art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Among the newest additions to the stone church are four tapestries woven by Minneapolis artist Robbie LaFleur and reflective of Valley Grove. This one is titled “Pastor Quammen Skis between Parishes.” He was the longest serving pastor at the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A vintage buggy adds another historic aspect to the Valley Grove Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this September afternoon, I delighted in an event that brings people together to celebrate Norwegian heritage and history, people and place, stories past and present, the arts, and, oh, so much more.

Bouquets and vintage photos edge window sills in the oldest church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An organist and violinist play during a recital in the newer church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Horse-drawn wagon rides onto the prairie drew many passengers throughout the afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Grinding corn as part of the hands-on learning opportunities. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Northfield artist David Allen brought his brushes, watercolors and paper to paint on-site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

From garden and prairie flowers tucked into Mason jars set atop window sills in the 1862 stone church to a recital inside the 1894 church to horse-drawn wagon rides to kids grinding corn to an artist painting, the scope of activities proved broad. There was something for everyone from the youngest to the eldest. Generations mingled, connected. One taught, the other learned.

From cemetery’s edge, the open prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Rope making, a nod to Valley Grove’s agrarian roots, was part of the Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
All ages were drawn to these two goats. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

To observe, to converse, to listen, to feel, to experience all of this imprints upon my soul gratitude for those who know this place, this Valley Grove, is worth preserving and sharing. Although I hold no personal connection here, I feel connected. It is my faith, my love of the land, especially the surrounding prairie and farmland, and the quiet of this remote rural location which cause me to feel comfortably at home, at peace.

One of David Allen’s paintings of Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

If you’ve never visited Valley Grove and live near enough to tour, then do. I’ve been here many times to walk the cemetery and grounds, to hike through the prairie, even once sitting on the front steps of the wooden church for a picnic lunch. The churches are locked when not open for events or special services like a wedding or Christmas Eve worship.

A musician performs with the group Hutenanny under the oak trees in the cemetery.

Still, whether inside or outside the two churches, a sense of the past prevails. Gravestone after gravestone bears the names of Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. Study the markers and stories begin to emerge, whether real or imagined. I can only imagine the joys and sorrows shared here.

Toys of yesteryear were available to try. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Valley Grove is about more than a place where historic churches stand next to a cemetery. It is a gathering spot for those who are celebrating, those who are grieving, those who are remembering and, on this afternoon of a Country Social, a place of connecting with community.

Please check back for more photos from the Valley Grove Country Social. And click here to read my first post from the event, a personal piece about a young man named Bjorn.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Valley Grove: In loving memory of Bjorn September 19, 2022

On the east side of the Valley Grove Cemetery, massive oaks rise next to a restored prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

HE APPROACHED ME inquiring whether I was the official photographer. I was not. But I was photographing the Valley Grove Country Social on Sunday afternoon in rural Nerstrand.

The beautiful historic churches stand next to the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

That unexpected encounter proved powerful, revealing why this hilltop location of two historic churches and a cemetery holds such deep personal meaning for many. From the Norwegian immigrants who built the stone church in 1862, replaced by a wooden church in 1894, to today, this land keeps stories and memories and provides a place to grieve.

The hilltop cemetery provides a sweeping view of the prairie and distant treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

For Brett Norgaard, Valley Grove is the final resting place of his beloved son, Bjorn Erik Norgaard, struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on February 20, 2011, while skiing on frozen Lake Superior. He was only 23. Bjorn’s gravestone, imprinted with a ballad he penned, sits near the site of a massive oak felled in a September 2018 tornado. That tree, in the southwest corner, was a cemetery landmark, the spot where many baptisms occurred.

Memory boxes crafted from a landmark fallen oak at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Mementoes honoring Bjorn Norgaard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A photo of Bjorn rests between two poems he wrote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now, in this chance meeting, I learned of Bjorn’s connection to that tree. His father held it—two boxes crafted from that fallen oak, the larger one holding a passport, an American Birkebeiner pin and other mementos of a dearly loved son.

Brett Norgaard asked me to take this family photo. I was happy to do so after hearing his son’s story. Shortly thereafter, rain began falling so I was unable to photograph Bjorn’s gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But it was Bjorn’s poems that expressed to me the creative spirit of this outdoorsman, environmentalist, cross country skier, Alaska fly fishing guide, 2006 Northfield High School graduate, son, grandson, friend…

This cemetery is rich in history, in stories and in natural beauty and peace. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The second verse of his poem, “Oak Leaves,” seems almost prophetic. He wrote:

New season coming, you must change,

but please remain, not yet time to fade away.

For one day we will cease to be,

will you drop your leaves and cover me?

Today Harold Bonde, 94, will be buried at Valley Grove, not far from Bjorn’s grave, not far from the site of the fallen landmark oak. His burial space was marked off during Sunday’s Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

After Bjorn died, his father found 80 poems in his son’s journals. I understand why he cherishes them. These are the words of a soulful, introspective, nature-centered, sensitive spirit. And although the oak tree no longer stands, unable to drop leaves onto Bjorn’s gravestone, there’s a sense that the tree remains. Strong. Sheltering those who lie beneath the soil and those who walk upon the earth, come here to visit, embrace and remember loved ones. Only days earlier, on September 15, Bjorn would have turned 35.

Many families meandered and conversed in the cemetery on Sunday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this day of a Country Social, Bjorn’s family remembered him, honored him. I saw love in a father’s hands wrapped around oak boxes, in watery eyes and precious stories. Here at Valley Grove, atop a hill edged by prairie, woods and farmland, and centered by two historic churches, humanity comes in moments like this, when a father shares his grief with a stranger. Compassion rises. A connection is made. Comfort comes. A loss is shared.

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Please check back for a follow-up post featuring the Valley Grove Country Social in its entirety.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Featuring fun finds, farm-fresh, fiddling & more May 10, 2022

At last spring’s RCHS Spring Flea Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021)

AFTER AN INCREDIBLY long winter followed by an exceptionally cold, cloudy and wet spring, we Minnesotans are ready to get outdoors. We are ready to celebrate. We are ready to let the sun shine into our lives. And this weekend, opportunities abound locally to get out and enjoy spring in southern Minnesota.

Spotted at the spring 2021 flea market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

Rise and shine early on Saturday, May 14, to hit the Rice County Historical Society Spring Flea Market from 8 am – 2 pm in the parking lot and behind the RCHS museum in Faribault. I’ve attended many times and enjoy meandering among the vendors of antiques, collectibles, crafts and junk. I mean “junk” in a positive light.

Plants available for purchase a year ago, looking toward the vendor site under the fairgrounds car port. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2021)

While there, also check out the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market under the carport at the Rice County Fairgrounds from 10 am – 2 pm. Some 20 area/regional vendors will market spring produce, locally-grown starter plants, cheese, honey, pastries, woolen products, homemade soaps and much more.

Customers place orders at the Local Plate food truck at the May 2021 Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.)

Adding to the farmers’ market draw are local food trucks on site.

A group of mostly Northfield area musicians performed as Hutenanny at a past Valley Grove Country Social. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2010)

On Sunday, May 15, two area historic Norwegian churches celebrate Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day. Both events begin at 2 pm.

Duo churches grace the hilltop at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2018)

At Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, the gathering focuses on the dedication of tapestries woven by Robbie LeFlueur. The Minneapolis weaver was commissioned to create four tapestries—three will be complete by May 15—that illustrate church history, the congregation and the surrounding flora and fauna. She will also give a weaving demo. Hardanger fiddlers from St. Olaf College will provide entertainment. Valley Grove, atop a hillside near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, is a favorite destination of mine given its beautiful and peaceful country setting. I’ve attended numerous celebrations, or simply walked, there and always enjoyed myself. The Syttende Mai event goes until 4 pm.

Completed in the fall of 1899, the second Trondhjem Church sits atop a 100-foot high hill. Listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in Minnesota, this Norwegian church has walls constructed with 24 corners to brace it against the wind. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

In northern Rice County, the Norwegians of Old Trondhjem Church, rural Lonsdale, are hosting Tjarnblom, a Scandinavian folk group as their Syettende Mai celebration begins at 2 pm. There’s a brief meeting of the preservation society followed by coffee (of course), treats (of course) and fellowship (of course). I’ve also attended events at Trondhjem and recommend you join in this Norwegian celebration.

There you go. Four places to go in Rice County that will bring sunshine into your May weekend.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating the history & beauty of Valley Grove on a September afternoon September 18, 2019

A horse-drawn wagon takes visitors through the prairie at Valley Grove with the Big Woods in the distance. When fall colors change, the treeline is spectacular.

 

I CONSIDER IT ONE of the most scenic spots in Rice County. A location that presents a sweeping vista of the countryside from atop a hill adjacent to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Autumn, especially, at Valley Grove offers a visual delight.

 

Folks gather in the restored 1862 stone church for cake, hot dogs, beverages and conversation.

 

On Sunday afternoon, in hot and humid temps that felt anything but autumn-like, I attended the annual Valley Grove Country Social hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society.

 

The beautiful and well-preserved historic churches of Valley Grove as photographed from the cemetery.

 

The group aims to preserve and maintain this place on the National Register of Historic Sites. Here, on this land claimed by early Norwegian immigrants, two churches (built in 1862 and 1894) stand next to a cemetery and next to the prairie.

 

An historic photo and flowers grace a window ledge inside the stone church.

 

These crosses, crafted from Valley Grove burr oaks, were on sale.

 

One of six sets of historic sconces to be installed in the stone church as preservation efforts continue.

 

To visit here is to feel a deep appreciation for the history of this place and those who chose this site to build houses of worship.

 

Hutenanny, a Northfield-based traditional Nordic music group, entertains those attending the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

Making music with Hutenanny.

 

A sing-along inside the wood-frame church.

 

To attend the country social is to experience history—through music,

 

Donna Johnson of the mother-daughter duo Nordic Arts demonstrates the Norwegian art of rosemaling.

 

These sisters try rosemaling using crayons rather than paint.

 

An example of Nordic Arts’ art.

 

art,

Hewing a log next to the wood-frame church.

 

demonstrations, historical talks,

 

Learning how to make a rope.

 

Rope-making up close.

 

Kids especially loved doing laundry the old-fashioned way.

 

hands-on activities and more.

 

The Valley Grove churches.

 

I always feel such a peace at Valley Grove. As if the world of today exists somewhere distant.

 

A simple floral still-life on a windowsill in the wood-frame church.

 

It’s good for the soul to take time on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September to step back in time. Not necessarily to idealize life then—because it was hard. But to gather with others in the countryside far from traffic and distractions and the noise of modern-day life.

 

I noticed these dolls lying on the ground behind the old stone church. So fitting for the day.

 

To appreciate simpler times

 

Such beauty in this floral bouquet adorning a window ledge in the wooden church.

 

and simple beauty.

 

Valley Grove wildflowers at prairie’s edge.

 

To gather under the burr oaks, to walk the prairie, to study tombstones, to sing in the same church where early settlers sang, to watch youngsters craft ropes and walk on stilts. And so much more.

 

Built in 1862.

 

I appreciate the preservationists who understand the personal and historic importance of Valley Grove, of not allowing these churches to fall into disrepair like too many other shuttered country churches. They clearly value the land, the efforts of their forefathers, the importance of this place. Still today.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling