Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

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

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

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

 

Altar details hold history.

 

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

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Aspelund: More than a southern Minnesota ghost town June 15, 2016

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A lovely sprawling home in Aspelund.

A lovely, sprawling farm home in Aspelund.

TECHNICALLY, ASPELUND is classified as a ghost town by the Goodhue County Historical Society. There’s no longer a post office in this spot along County 1 Boulevard in west central Goodhue County, apparently the reason for the ghost town tag.

The community's church, Emmanuel Lutheran.

The community’s church, Emmanuel Lutheran.

But my observations, and thus definition, of Aspelund differ. People still live here—on at least two farms—and worship here and attend to local government business in the Wanamingo Town Hall.

The area around Aspelund is beautiful Minnesota countryside with a mix of fields and woods, flatland and hills.

The area around Aspelund is beautiful Minnesota countryside with a mix of fields and woods, flatland and hills.

Aspelund doesn’t appear ghost townish to me. Rural, yes.

Making hay on the outskirts of Aspelund.

Working an alfalfa field on the outskirts of Aspelund.

One of two barns in Aspelund.

One of two barns in Aspelund.

Traffic through Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.

Traffic through Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday afternoon, I observed farmers in fields, a youth group meeting in Emmanuel Lutheran Church, and a biker, motorists and farmers passing through this settlement.

Inside Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

Inside Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Local churches centered the community, especially during the days of early settlement.

Places like Aspelund impress upon me their historical and current value in rural Minnesota. Mostly Norwegians settled here to farm the land, to re-establish their lives in a new land of opportunity. I admire their strength and determination. They endured much—poverty, isolation, disease, homesickness and more. They persevered. Just like their descendants who remain 150-plus years later.

The old Wanamingo Township Hall, built in 1862, stands next to the church.

The old Wanamingo Township Hall, built in 1862, stands next to the church.

Aspelund’s ethnic roots are documented in family names on gravestones, in the records of churches like Emmanuel and nearby Holden Lutheran, and in current voter registration rolls.

The current town hall.

The current town hall.

Even the name of the settlement itself, Aspelund, comes from a town in Norway. Oh, how those early immigrants must have missed their homeland. And how their descendants still appreciate the Mother Land today.

Photographed in Aspelund.

Photographed in Aspelund.

FYI: Check back tomorrow as I take you into the Emmanuel cemetery. Click here to read yesterday’s post about Aspelund Winery and Aspelund Peony Gardens.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rest in peace, Ole, Sophia, Amelie… May 4, 2015

THERE WAS A TIME when I stayed away from cemeteries. Walking among tombstones, atop burial sites, creeped me out.

But I’ve since matured, realized that a cemetery holds history and art, life stories and loss, and serves as a place to grieve, to honor and to remember loved ones.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

My most recent cemetery tour took me to North Grove Church and Cemetery just north of Faribault along Minnesota Highway 3. I’ve passed this site hundreds of times in 30-plus years, never once stopping to investigate.

North Grove Church, closed in 1931.

North Grove Church closed in 1931.

Here I discovered a quaint church, long closed.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

Peering through curtained windows, I glimpsed pews and wished I could get inside the locked building.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

On a quick perusal of grave markers, where the name “Ole” is chiseled in stone many times, I determined that Norwegian immigrants built this house of worship and established this cemetery.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

John Dalby of Faribault, who runs the Dalby Database along with wife, Jan, confirmed the ethnicity of North Grove Church. The Norwegian church was started in 1869 and likely closed in 1931, when First English Lutheran Church in Faribault formed, Dalby says.

Too many babies died.

Too many babies died.

Wander this burial grounds and you begin to understand the losses and grief endured by early Minnesota settlers. Babies dead. Wives and husbands gone too young. Immigrants who left Norway for a new, but not always better, life in America.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Then scroll through obituaries on the Dalby Database, which includes 2.5 million records from cemeteries, birth and death certificates and more, and names morph into people. Ole Christiansen is no longer simply a Norwegian name inscribed on a tombstone, but a man who was born in Alerude Odemark, Norway. Husband of Sophia. Then Caroline.

June's first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June’s first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June Carver-Zillgitt lived in a jailhouse with her husband-sheriff and cooked for inmates.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

Audrey Saufferrer had five grandchildren.

Grocer O.A. Brekke was termed a man of “sterling character.”

Mathilda Lund was a pioneer resident of the North Grove community.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Those buried at North Grove are 326 individuals who lived and loved and labored, although some were dead at birth, or lived too few days or months or years.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields with a woods just a bit beyond as shown here.

I knew none of them. But, after walking among their gravestones, I am reminded that a cemetery holds life stories, if only we pause to read them.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth's water. The pump is located behind the church.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth’s water. The pump is behind the church.

FYI: Click here to access the Dalby Database, a great resource for anyone doing family history research in Minnesota.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there  for watering flowers and plants.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there for watering flowers and plants.

FYI: Janice Uggen Johnson recently published a book, Faith of our Fathers: History of Markers Norwegian Lutheran Church and North Grove Church and Cemetery, Faribault, Rice County, Minnesota (2014). She is an associate member of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. I have not seen or read the book.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association, based at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, is “a private membership organization dedicated to locating, collecting, preserving and interpreting the Norwegian-American experience with accuracy, integrity and liveliness.” It was founded in 1925.

Check back for a close-up look at a memorial in the North Grove Cemetery honoring a young Faribault woman.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating lutefisk, lefse & all things Norwegian at the Old Trondhjem Church May 23, 2012

Tina & Lena, waiting to perform at Historic Trondhjem Church, rural Lonsdale, Minnesota.

DID YOU HEAR about Ole and Lena’s recent home improvement project?

“We carpeted the bathroom,” says Lena. “We loved it so much we ran it (the carpet) all the way to the house.”

Now, I can appreciate a joke like that. I grew up in a farmhouse without a bathroom, meaning my family used an outhouse.

But when it comes to lutefisk, I’m not quite as informed, being 100 percent German and all.

However, Tina, a full-blooded Norwegian, certainly knows her traditional Norwegian foods. “Lutefisk,” she claims, “is the piece of cod that passes all understanding.”

I’ve eaten lutefisk (cod soaked in lye) once and, excuse me all you Norwegian readers, but I agree with Tina’s assessment.

Lena, aka Annette Hustad, chats with audience members before the performance.

Lutefisk, lefse, hotdish and more were the subjects of jokes and songs shared Sunday afternoon by the comedic duo of Tina & Lena during a Syttende Mai Celebration at the Historic Trondhjem Church. As Tina & Lena sang in their version of “This Land Is Your Land,” Trondhjem land would be “east of Lonsdale, southwest of Webster, west of 35.”

Rebuilt in 1899 with parts of the 1878 church, 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, supposedly to brace it against the strong winds. The building is an architectural mix of Greek Revival and Gothic Revival with elements of the Norwegian stave church. Old Trondhjem is opened for special occasions as the congregation built a new church just up the road in 1988.

Driving down the gravel road just south of the Historic Trondhjem Church. The Trondhjem community includes the townships of Wheatland, Webster, Erin and Forest.

And I would add that the 1899 historic wood frame Trondhjem church is anchored atop a windy, very windy, hill just off Minnesota State Highway 19 and along a gravel road that dips and rises like the rolling waves of a stormy sea. I expect the immigrants who arrived here from Trondhjem, Norway, in the 1860s and 1870s experienced stormy seas before settling among the rolling hills and woods so much like the Motherland.

During restoration of the church, a pressed metal cover on the ceiling was removed to reveal original plaster with stenciling. As you can see, the church is bathed in light from the many windows, even on a rainy day.

Beautiful pews and the original pine floor grace the sanctuary.

The quaint Trondhjem store is tucked into a cupboard in a corner of the fellowship hall, which also includes a mini museum of historical items, photos and artifacts from the Trondhjem area.

That Norwegian heritage and the history of this place, this Trondhjem in Minnesota, brought about 120 people together on Norwegian Constitution Day for the annual meeting of The Trondhjem Preservation Society and that entertainment by Tina & Lena, who have been on the road for 28 years, performing in 20 states.

Their motto seems to be this: “It is bad to suppress laughter because otherwise it goes down and spreads to your hips.”

Tina pulls an audience member into the aisle for an impromptu dance.

Tina directs members of the Trondhjem Community Preservation Society/The Hotdish Hallelujah Chorus.

There was no chance in, well, you know where that Tina & Lena could suppress the laughter of the Trondhjem audience. The long-time friends rocked the church with laughter and song and dance, personalizing their performance to the location. They engaged the audience—singling out individuals for attention, pulling two men into the church aisle to dance and even calling upon Preservation Society members to sing in “The Hotdish Hallelujah Chorus.”

Tina & Lena, who in real life are Sue Edwards of Alexandria and Annette Hustad of Glenwood, sang in the church choir while growing up in Canby in southwestern Minnesota. Just knowing they are from my native prairie endears them to me.

But it is their ability to slip into the roles of Norwegian women—lilting accents and all—and tell good, clean jokes appropriate for all and spin stories and sing and dance and interact with others that endears them to so many. These women, with energy and enthusiasm, exude absolute passion for making people laugh.

And what Minnesotan wouldn’t laugh at this Tina & Lena joke: “Oh, we love hotdish. Hotdish is a wonderful Minnesota food that melts into your Jell-O and runs into your buns.” (For you non-Minnesotans out there, “hotdish” is the same as “casserole.”)

The church/preservation society ladies lay out a delectable spread of Norwegian goodies.

Just a few of the treats in the Norwegian buffet. That’s lefse on the right.

No hotdish, Jell-O or buns were served during the fellowship hour following the performance and annual meeting. But scrumptious Norwegian treats—none of which I can identify by name (except lefse) because, remember, I am German—were laid out on tables in the social hall.

Let me tell you, these descendants of Norwegian immigrants have not forgotten the baking traditions of the homeland.

Trondhjem pastor, the Rev. Howard White, had it right when he earlier prayerfully thanked God for the gifts of memory, laughter, tradition, heritage and new beginnings.

Amen and amen.

FYI: To learn more about Old Trondhjem, Historic Trondhjem Church and the Trondhjem Community Preservation Society, click here.

For more info about Tina & Lena, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling