Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In a Minnesota cemetery: Oh, sweet baby, who were you? June 16, 2016


Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund 169 baby grave marker


I’VE TOURED MANY RURAL CEMETERIES. But never have I seen a grave marker that so saddened me as the one I spotted on the edge of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church Cemetery in Aspelund on Sunday afternoon.


Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund, 172 baby grave & flip flop


Smaller than the length of my size eight flip flop, the simple slab of concrete tilted barely above the earth. Inscribed thereon, in cursive, was a single word—Baby.


Emmanuel Cemetery, Aspelund 170 baby grave marker close-up


Certainly I’ve seen grave markers of many babies. But this one, because of its minimal size and placement under trees along the cemetery boundary and its simplicity of design, caused me to pause. I am a mother and a new grandmother. And I suppose in the humanity of that, thinking of my own love for my daughters, son and granddaughter, I empathized with the grief of such a loss.

A section of the cemetery that lies next to Emmanuel Lutheran Church and next to a field.

A section of the cemetery that lies next to Emmanuel Lutheran Church and a field.

Aged tombstones, which I assume once stood vertically, are now cemented flat into the ground.

Aged tombstones, which I assume once stood vertically, are now cemented flat into the ground.

The names reflect the ethnicity of the immigrant families who settled in the Aspelund area.

The names reflect the ethnicity of the immigrant families who settled in the Aspelund area.

Dates are missing from the in-ground marker of Hans, whom I believe to be an early immigrant.

Dates are missing from the in-ground marker of Hans, whom I believe to be an early immigrant.

A beautiful sheltered gravesite

A beautiful sheltered gravesite for John and Maren.

Love the immigrant names of Johannes and Engeborg. So poetic.

Love the immigrant names of Johannes and Engeborg. So poetic.

As I further explored the cemetery—reading the Scandinavian names, studying tombstones and admiring the meticulously kept grounds—I couldn’t shake the image of that baby’s gravestone. Who was he/she? Who were the parents? Why did he/she die?

Next to this list of rules is a graveyard directory, which we couldn't decipher.

Next to this list of rules is a graveyard directory, which we couldn’t decipher.

Hoping to find answers on a posted cemetery directory, neither my husband or I could figure out how to match names with platted marker locations. So I left, still wondering about this precious baby buried here beneath trees in rural Goodhue County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Calling all lutefisk lovers to Vang Lutheran Church October 6, 2014

Vang Lutheran is set among the farm fields of Goodhue County. The name "Vang" means field. Vang is a region of Norway from which the areas first settlers arrived.

Vang Lutheran is set among the farm fields of Goodhue County. The name “Vang” means field. Vang is a region of Norway from which the area’s first settlers arrived.

JUST DAYS BEFORE THE 34th annual Lutefisk and Norwegian Meatball Supper at Vang Lutheran Church, rural Dennison, the ladies were busy prepping Saturday morning.

A sign inside Vang Lutheran Church advertised its annual Lutefisk & Meatball Supper.

A sign inside Vang Lutheran Church advertises its annual Lutefisk & Meatball Supper.

Plates are stacked on the kitchen counter.

Plates are stacked on the kitchen counter awaiting diners.

Lists have been made with assigned jobs.

Lists have been made with assigned jobs.

Church ladies bring bowls from home.

Church ladies bring bowls from home.

Dishes and bowls stacked. Counters covered in plastic. Floors scrubbed. Lists in place. Folding chairs ready to unfold. Beet preserves and pickles already in the country store, made with produce from the Vang-Dennison Lutheran Church parishes’ Growing Connections Garden. Vinegar stashed in the fridge for coleslaw.

An empty lutefisk bucket from a previous supper.

An empty lutefisk bucket from a previous supper.

The lutefisk hadn’t arrived yet from Mike’s Lutefisk in Glenwood, Minnesota. But this Norwegian Lutheran church is ready for the 1,150 pounds that will feed 1,200 diners on Wednesday, October 8.

Beautiful stained glass windows grace the sanctuary.

Beautiful stained glass windows grace the sanctuary.

Not quite the 5,000 Jesus fed, but a seeming miracle for this congregation of 300 members—with a weekly attendance of 70 – 90—to prepare and serve this ethnic feast.

A view of the sanctuary from the balcony.

A view of the sanctuary from the balcony.

On the menu are lutefisk, Norwegian meatballs and gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberries, coleslaw, rolls, fruit soup, lefse, Norwegian bakings and beverages.

To feed that many requires 1,150 pounds of lutefisk, 550 pounds of meatballs, 200 pounds of butter (presumably for all that lutefisk), 600 pounds of potatoes, 36 gallons of corn, 110 pounds of coleslaw, 20 gallons of cranberry sauce, 20 gallons of fruit soup, 4,500 cups of coffee (Norwegians must drink a lot of coffee), 600 half-pints of milk, 2,600 pieces of lefse, 90 dozen buns and 2,600 Norwegian bakings.


Diners will receive info about Vang and its annual supper.

Diners will receive info about Vang and its annual supper like these informational sheets photographed in a basket.

Mid-day servings are at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. by reservation only. Call the church office at 507-645-6042.

Continuous evening serving runs from 4 – 7:30 p.m.

Cost is $16 for adults; $6 for 10 and under; and free for preschoolers.

The picturesque Vang Lutheran Church was built in 1896.

The picturesque Vang Lutheran Church was built in 1896.

Vang Lutheran Church, 2060 County Road 49, is located at  the corner of Goodhue County Road 49 and 20th Avenue, which is southeast of Dennison or seven miles northwest of Kenyon.

I won’t be there. I don’t like lutefisk. But apparently plenty of people do.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thinking lutefisk season already August 20, 2014

IT’S NOT TOO EARLY to start thinking lutefisk and meatballs.

That is if you eat lutefisk, a Norwegian delicacy of cooked cod that has been soaked in lye.

I know. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I’ve eaten it twice, once when covering a church basement lutefisk dinner as a young newspaper reporter.

The second time I sampled this fish out of respect for my Norwegian aunt whose maiden name is Knudson.

I didn’t like lutefisk either time. Tastes like warm Jell-O. Smothering it with lots of melted butter does help. A bit.

Whether or not I like lutefisk or meatballs matters not, though, because I’m German, not Norwegian. I don’t have to eat the stuff.

Vang Lutheran Church

Vang Lutheran Church. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But for those of you who appreciate lutefisk, mark your calendars for the Wednesday, October 8, annual Vang Lutheran Church Lutefisk and Norwegian Meatball Supper. Vang is located 10 minutes north of Kenyon or east of Nerstrand with a County 49 Boulevard address. That’s in Minnesota, where, of course, many Scandinavians live.

I photographed Vang Lutheran Church across the cornfield west of the Potpourri Mill Log Cabin 10 minutes north of Kenyon.

Vang Lutheran Church sits among the farm fields of southeastern Minnesota, near Kenyon and Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And these Norskes love their lutefisk so much they’re already advertising the October church dinner in August. I spotted this sign and reminder slips with peppermints last weekend at a garage sale in Kenyon:

I spotted this sign at a garage sale in Kenyon.

I spotted this sign at a garage sale in Kenyon.

Have you eaten lutefisk? What’s your review of this Norwegian culinary specialty?

CLICK HERE TO READ a blog post about Vang’s lutefisk dinner written several years ago by a master of divinity student.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Lunch at the Viking Cafe June 15, 2011

The Viking Cafe in Fergus Falls.

“We r eating at the viking café in fergus falls,” I texted.

“Oh boy,” she texted back.

Oh, boy, indeed.

Typically I don’t text while dining because I consider such phone usage rude. But my husband and I had arrived in this western Minnesota community within the hour and I wanted our three kids to know we’d gotten there safely. I figured the Viking message would amuse them.

Only the middle daughter, who lives in Wisconsin, texted back. The second daughter was busy with a wedding and the teenage son opted to ignore the message.

We didn’t explore any other noonish eating options in Fergus Falls. When we drove downtown, I hadn’t even mentioned the Viking to Randy. But my spouse spotted it and pulled into the one available parking space practically in front of the restaurant.

It was only then that I told him I had read about the Viking in Tasty Foods along Minnesota’s Highways. This was meant to be.

Kim Embretson confirmed our decision. I had never met Kim until that moment, when I stepped from the car, saw him strolling toward us and figured he looked like a local.

“Is that a good place to eat?” I inquired after approaching him and learning that he was, indeed, from Fergus Falls.

Kim praised the Norwegian-American restaurant, suggesting we try a daily special such as the meatloaf, hotdish or a pork or beef sandwich and the homemade soup. He got me right then and there. I’m a soup lover. The vegetable soup sometimes includes rutabagas, something typically not found in veggie soup, Kim said.

And when I asked about sites to see and things to do in Fergus, Kim pointed us to the wine and panini bar, The Spot, across the street; to the art fair around the corner; to the Kaddatz Galleries in the next block; to the river walk; and, because I asked, to the kitschy otter statue in Adams Park. He even gave us specific directions to the park and directed us to the metal goose sculpture at the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

Fergus Falls tourism people, Kim rates as a fine, fine spokesman for your community. He gave us more details than I’ve written here. Every town should have someone so enthused about where they live.

As a side note, he also cheered the Roadside Poetry Project, which was the specific reason we traveled to Fergus—to see my winning poem splashed across four billboards.

The well-marked Viking Cafe, established in 1967.

I was getting downright hungry, so we thanked Kim for his suggestions and walked toward the Viking Café, which has been around since 1967. Prior to that, another restaurant was housed in the building beginning in the 1930s or 1940s, depending on your information source.

Enter the Viking and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

The view, once you step into the Viking Cafe. The lunch counter is on the right. A viking ship is suspended from the ceiling. Swords and shields adorn the walls in a viking-themed decor.

Two rows of ramrod straight wooden booths define this long, narrow eatery anchored on one side by an old-fashioned lunch counter. The place even has a candy counter, for gosh sakes, and an oversized bubble gum machine tucked into a corner next to the coat/hat racks.

Napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers sidle up next to ketchup bottles on tables.

Stools line the lunch counter stretching nearly the length of the cafe.

A Norman Rockwell print hangs on the wall by the coat racks and bubble gum machine right inside the cafe entry.

An old-fashioned candy counter at the front of the viking-themed restaurant.

Primary restaurant seating is in these vintage wooden booths.

Waitresses hustle to booths at an almost frantic pace, taking orders and delivering our food in the short time it takes me to circle the room once snapping pictures. Randy has ordered the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of peas with a mini strawberry shortcake for dessert. I’ve selected a bowl of vegetable soup and a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread slices.

I’m typically not a fan of meatloaf, but even I like the meatloaf sampled from Randy’s plate. We agree that his food and my soup, which includes a homemade dumpling, and my sandwich qualify as  simple, good comfort food at reasonable, reasonable prices—$6.40 and $6.95 for our respective plates.

Our food: meatloaf with mashed potatoes and vegetable soup with a beef sandwich.

But it’s the atmosphere, more than the food, which I appreciate about the Viking on this Saturday. From the wooden booths to the well-worn tile floors to the viking décor to the lunch counter, especially the lunch counter stools, this café evokes simpler days. You cannot help but feel better for having eaten here, having experienced this slice of Americana where a cell phone feels so much out of place.

Menus are stacked on a counter below a shelf of viking decor.

Another view of those lunch counter stools, looking from the back of the cafe toward the front.

Looking from the back of the cafe, which is semi dark (for photos), toward the front.

CAFE BONUS: If you need to use the facilities, you will have to walk downstairs to the basement. That’s where I discovered this little gem, at the bottom of the stairs. I think this piece of memorabilia should be moved upstairs, where the dining public can view, maybe even use, it.

A character reading machine which apparently reads your character based on your weight, or something like that.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A family of the faithful at Moland Lutheran Church July 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:12 PM
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Moland Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Steele County, Minnesota.

IF YOU LOOK BEYOND the pews, the altar, and the stained glass windows, if you listen beyond the music and the sermon and the scripture readings, you will find, within a church, a family.

Here’s what I mean. Recently while photographing an old country church in southeastern Minnesota, I began to notice the personal touches that made me feel welcome, like I had stepped inside someone’s home.

Yes, women greeted me at Moland Lutheran Church during the congregation’s annual Strawberry Festival. But no one showed me around. I simply meandered on my own, with my camera, absorbing my surroundings. And that’s what I prefer.

Perhaps because I’m a writer and a photographer, I take note of my environment more than an ordinary person. I am drawn to that which others might simply pass by.

But rather than try to explain all of this to you, I’ll show you the discoveries I made inside and outside this 1884 Norwegian Lutheran church, the discoveries that led me to a family of the faithful.

I photographed a section of a long photo showing Moland church members gathered for the congregation's 50th anniversary celebration in 1930. The image hangs just outside the nave.

The Henry Underdahl family gifted a memorial stained glass window to the Moland Lutheran Church. Such memorials are a common way to honor family members and their legacy of faith.

I discovered this service roll in the narthex listing congregational members called to serve their country. I found this especially touching. Perhaps congregations should revive this public way of honoring those in the military.

Even after family members have departed this life, their memories are as close as the graves that surround Moland Lutheran. I imagine that many of the early members who filled the pews here also worked the land.

FOR MORE INFORMATION and photos of Moland Lutheran Church, please check my previous posts, “They serve the best food in Minnesota church basements” (posted July 1) and “In praise of preserving country churches” (posted July 7).

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In praise of preserving country churches July 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:16 AM
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Moland Lutheran Church, a Norwegian Lutheran church south of Kenyon.

ONLY IN RECENT YEARS have I begun to truly appreciate the old churches that dot the Minnesota landscape, their steeples rising heavenward directing the faithful to worship.

Whenever the opportunity arises these days, I slip inside these reverent rural respites to reflect upon the holiness that resides therein. The more churches I visit, the more I am convinced of the necessity to preserve these houses of worship for future generations.

Not only do I treasure the sacred aspect of their existence—rooted deep in the faith of immigrants who settled this land—but I also value the art and the history woven into the very fabric of these buildings.

Whether in stenciled ceilings, hand-carved pulpits, worn floorboards, hand-hewn pews, religious paintings or stained glass windows, I see care, craftsmanship, devotion to God everywhere.

I am inspired and uplifted simply stepping inside the doors of a country church.

Join me on this tour of the 1884 Moland Lutheran Church south of Kenyon in rural Steele County and see for yourself why old country churches like this are worth appreciating, and preserving.

Looking into the sanctuary of Moland Lutheran Church.

Fine craftsmanship is reflected in the handcrafted pulpit, altar and railing.

Art in the details of the Moland pulpit.

The altar painting was transported to the church by horse-drawn wagon from Faribault in 1893. A. Pederson painted this image of "Christ with outstretched arms" based on Matthew 11: 28 - 30 ("Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest...").

Norwegian words (I think from Matthew 11) are painted on the altar.

Beautiful details on the bottom of Moland's altar remind me of the altar in the church I attended as a child, St. John's Lutheran in Vesta. Sadly that church was not preserved and is today an apartment building.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Check back for additional Moland Lutheran Church photos to be posted on Minnesota Prairie Roots.)


Inside the Old Stone Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota June 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:35 PM
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“DIRECTIONS: At the west end of the Boulevard of Roses, take Goodhue County 12 south for 1.3 miles and go west on Monkey Valley road for one mile.”

“Let’s go,” I tell my husband Saturday evening after reading an open invitation in the local newspaper to attend worship services at the Old Stone Church. Pair the adjectives “old” and “stone” with church and I already have one foot in the door. Add “Monkey Valley Road,” and you’ve really piqued my interest.

So Sunday morning Randy and I are on our way to Kenyon, where we turn right at the west end of the narrow boulevard lined with roses. We follow the published directions, turning right onto Monkey Valley Road, a gravel road that soon leads us to the Old Stone Church.

Once a year a worship service is held at the Old Stone Church, built by Norwegian immigrants near Kenyon.

I am expecting a church defined, as most country churches are, by a steeple. But, instead, I see before me a simple limestone building that could pass for a schoolhouse. Yet, the plain exterior, minus a steeple, seems perfect for this spot embraced by trees and rolling valleys on two sides and by flat open farm fields on the opposite sides.

Welcome to Monkey Valley.

“How did this place get its name?” I ask a group of men clustered outside the Old Stone Church.

They offer two theories. The first story goes that monkeys escaped from a traveling circus and fled into the wooded valley. The second story goes that a threshing crew arrived here and pronounced: “We’re just going to the valley and monkey around.”

Randy and I buy the monkey story, which seems probable given traveling circuses once roamed the countryside.

“I have to go,” I say, abruptly ending this monkey business. I hear the strains of my favorite hymn, Beautiful Savior, drifting through the open doors and windows. I don’t want to miss this and I am anxious to get inside the small country church.

I’ll later learn that Norwegian immigrants built this structure, beginning in 1872, with limestone cut from a nearby quarry. A historical marker dates the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, as 1875. And that steeple I wondered about—apparently the church founders discussed a steeple, but never had the money to erect one.

Eventually, those early members moved out of Monkey Valley and, in 1902, Hauge Lutheran congregation built a new church in Kenyon. For years the Old Stone Church stood abandoned. In 1947 restoration began, a process that continues today.

All of this written and memorized history interests me, but only to a point. I prefer, instead, to wander, to notice the details, to take in my surroundings, to appreciate for myself the beauty that this church holds.

During a service filled with music, the choir and congregation sing in Norwegian, "Ja, vi elsker." The wire rods you see anchored to the walls (running horizontally across the top of the photo) provide structural stability.

Rugged pews and rustic wood floors remind worshipers of bygone years. Copies of The Concordia Hymnal, piled on a pew, date to 1967. The hymn books are stashed in covered plastic containers after the service.

I lean forward and photograph the hands of an elderly woman in quiet meditation. This image, more than any photo I take, captures the essence of the Old Stone Church. For in these folded hands and in the back of the roughly-hewn pew, history and faithfulness meld, encompassing the importance of preserving historic churches.

Sitting near the back of the church, I study these words, thinking in German until I remember I am inside a Norwegian church. After the service, I talk with historian and preservationist Bob Dyrdahl. The scriptural quote comes from John 3:16, he tells me. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." Sure enough, upon closer examination I determine that Bob knows his Norwegian.

I run my fingers across the flowers on the pulpit and imagine the rough hands of a Norwegian immigrant shaping this wood into a beautiful work of art. In the background is the top of the altar, defined by tablets, signifying the 10 Commandments and centered by a cross and a painting of The Last Supper.

In the balcony, historian Bob Dyrdahl shows me this treasure, the dated (October 30, 1894) signature of A. P. Lindgren who painted stars upon the ceiling and edged it with this stenciled border. His work also graces other sections of the sanctuary, along the stairway, for example.

A rear view of the Old Stone Church, a simple structure with three shuttered windows on each side of the building.

A stone's throw from the Old Stone Church, a view of Monkey Valley.


THIS IS JUST A SAMPLING of the photos I shot at the Old Stone Church. Please check back for additional images to be posted this week on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling