Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Of rural roads & polka music in Minnesota Czech country October 21, 2021

A farm site near Richter Woods County Park, rural Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

AS WE ROLLED THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE on an October afternoon in rural Minnesota, Randy switched on the radio. To KCHK, a New Prague-based radio station.

Gravel roads, sky and fields stretch before us in the southern Minnesota countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Polka music pulsed through the van in a rhythmic beat. It was an unusual station choice given I listen primarily to contemporary Christian music on KTIS and Randy enjoys talk radio. But, occasionally on his 22-minute drive home from work, Randy tunes in to KCHK to listen to late afternoon featured 50s-70s music.

A farm site tucks behind a hill in LeSueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

In the heart of Czech country, though, the radio station is known for its day-time polka programming.

Occasionally we passed between colorful treelines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
A common Minnesota harvest scene: a farm truck parked in a field. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Love the copper hue of this barn roof on a farm just off State Highway 13 between New Prague and Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

As we drove along back country gravel roads—past farm sites and harvested fields and farmers working in the fields—the rhythm of polkas, of accordions pushed in and pulled out to create music, set a joyful tone. The music fit the scenes unfolding before us.

The music reminded me, too, of wedding dances back home decades ago in southwestern Minnesota. Of couples twirling across a well-worn wooden dance floor. Of booze bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Of extended families gathered in a simple town hall to celebrate a marriage. Of The Bunny Hop and The Butterfly and all those dances that brought people together for an evening of fun.

Just harvested corn flows into a grain truck along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Those memories lingered as polkas played on KCHK. As just-harvested corn flowed into a grain truck. As we passed a mailbox with the name Skluzacek posted thereon. We were deep in the heart of Czech country near New Prague/Lonsdale/Montgomery.

Near Richter Woods County Park west of Montgomery, a farm site overlooks the countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

There is something incredibly comforting about the mix of memory and music and meandering in rural Minnesota. Moments like this impress upon me the need to simply be. To recognize the value in an afternoon drive in the country. No destination. No haste. No agenda.

A farm site hugs a cornfield along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Time to just appreciate. The hard work of the farmer during harvest. The farm sites. Gravel roads.

As we passed this rural property along 60th Street West southeast of New Prague, I photographed this horse sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

And the unexpected sighting of horseshoe art where horses graze.

Oh, the glorious hues of autumn in rural southern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

I treasure the memories shared and made with my husband of nearly 40 years as we followed rural routes, polka music thrumming in the background.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering Richter Woods, rural Montgomery October 19, 2021

Richter Woods County Park and the on-site barn in LeSueur County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

EACH DAY OF SUNSHINE and warmth this late in October in Minnesota presents as a gift. We long-time Minnesotans understand that and celebrate. One less day of winter. One less day of cold and snow when the season of autumn extends. The recent weather has proven simply glorious.

Richter Woods Barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Late last week Randy took two days off work to savor these final days of autumn. And while we didn’t travel far, we delighted in nearby discoveries. We got a late start on Thursday, catching up on some much-needed rest. So we stayed close to home, aiming for western Rice County into LeSueur County.

Trees line both sides of the gravel road leading to Richter Woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Eventually, we landed at Richter Woods County Park 1.5 miles west of Montgomery. I’d heard of the park, but had yet to visit.

The hilly countryside near Trondjhem Church, rural Lonsdale. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We followed the slow-paced route there along mostly back country gravel roads.

An unexpected sighting of two swans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We paused once so I could photograph a pair of swans gliding across a small lake.

An aged barn along a gravel road. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I photographed, too, a weathered barn with fieldstone foundation. I often wonder how long barns will remain a landmark of our rural landscape. I feel an urgency to document their existence before roofs cave, boards rot, and only foundations remain.

A playground sits next to Richter Barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

At 80-acre Richter Woods, a mammoth barn looms, centering the park gathering space. The barn is available to rent for $75/day from April-October. With a spacious loft and main level, the barn offers plenty of room for events like weddings, reunions and much more.

Looking up to the haymow. Trees shadow the barn door. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I couldn’t access the locked barn. But I could envision the interior, especially the haymow with its curved wood frame. Many bridal couples covet rustic settings like this. I wonder whether many have discovered this barn circled by woods in the quiet countryside near Montgomery.

A splash of red/pink flowers bloom on a bush next to the green barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As much as I appreciated the barn, I couldn’t get over the forest green color. I longed to see that barn in red, a historically-accurate hue. I expect others, too, have wondered at the unusual color choice. As a photographer, I find a red barn much more visually-pleasing.

One of two trails we took into Richter Woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
No maps in this mailbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
There are lots of picnic tables on-site, some nice, others not so much. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Before pulling out our picnic lunch to dine near the barn, Randy and I stretched our legs. We followed a leaf-strewn dirt trail into the woods with no map to guide us. The on-site mailbox was without the promised maps.

Maple leaves galore. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Maple leaves, especially, blanket the earth.

Looking up toward the colorful tree canopy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

In a few spots, I looked overhead to a canopy of red and yellow trees set against the deep blue sky of October.

A recently-sawed tree. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We noticed, too, the many rotting and recently-sawed trees, I felt inwardly thankful for an afternoon without strong winds to possibly topple dead trees, loose branches.

Mushrooms on a fallen tree. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mushrooms thrive in decay.

Loving the graceful curve of the barn roof. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, though, I noticed the peace. The quiet. I feel incredibly grateful to have access to natural settings like Richter Woods County Park. And I feel grateful, too, to live in this decidedly rural region of Minnesota within an hour of downtown Minneapolis. I feel grateful for gravel roads to follow. For barns that still stand. For warm and sunny October days that draw me into the countryside, into the woods.

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PLEASE CHECK BACK as I take you on to more backroads in Rice and LeSueur counties.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park October 16, 2021

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On the expanse of grass outside the woods, silver maples shimmer against the blue sky of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A MILE EAST OF FARIBAULT just off Minnesota State Highway 60, the 61-acre Falls Creek County Park offers an escape into the woods. Mostly undiscovered, it’s rare to encounter others while hiking here.

Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I headed to the park, pulling into the vastly over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes. From there, we headed downhill across a grassy expanse, past the picnic shelter and toward an opening in the woods.

A wooden footbridge over Falls Creek allows entrance to narrow dirt trails. There are no maps to guide hikers, so you must rely on visual cues, obscured in October by fallen leaves. But we’ve been here before, always taking the main trail following the creek.

An unusual find in the creek: shoes/boots. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

The creek is always my first stop. I pause on the bridge, typically to watch water rush over and around rocks. But this visit, the shallow water pooled, littered with leaves and a pair of hiking boots—perfectly good hiking boots from the looks of the shoes. I wondered how they landed there, in the water.

In the places where water remains in the creek, leaves float. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, the creek bed was dry, a result of this year’s drought. In areas where water remains, minnows darted. The water is at least clear, a rarity in this agricultural region.

Randy scales a steep hill into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A short distance into the woods, Randy spotted a worn path up a steep hillside. I’d never noticed this during prior visits. Before I could dissuade him, he hoofed his way up, slipping and sliding and grabbing onto trees. When Randy lost his footing, I feared he would tumble and injury himself. As much as I yearned to follow, I recognized my limitations and my desire to keep my bones in-tact.

Berries jolt color into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As he disappeared along the hilltop treeline, I continued along the creek route. But soon my mind went to that niggling place of worry, about the time I reached the point where the path sidles next to the eroded creek bank. One misstep and I could plunge over the edge. Not that it’s that high. But far enough to cause injury.

I backtracked, dug in my backpack for my cellphone (hoping for service), and then called Randy. He answered. “I didn’t come here to walk alone,” I told him, also inquiring about his location. He couldn’t pinpoint that except to say that he would head back. I feel thankful that Randy, unlike me, possesses a good sense of direction.

Remembering the hiking boots/shoes in the creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

“I don’t like being out here alone,” I added, noting that I’d observed two people on the path, too far away for me to clearly see them. Obviously those hiking shoes dumped in the creek prompted the beginning of a mystery plot in my writer’s brain.

Despite that concern, I aimed for the strangers…finding a cordial couple about my age examining mushrooms on a decayed tree. We talked mushrooms and my missing husband and they offered to help find him should need be. Their story of getting lost in these very same woods did nothing to assure me that Randy would find his way back. But he did. At a different point, where an unseen spring ran down the hillside and he did more slipping and sliding, this time in mud.

Randy follows the leaf-laden trail as it edges close to the eroded creek bank. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We reversed course and, together, followed the creek-side path deeper and deeper into the woods…until turning around and retracing our steps. I wished again for a trail map guide.

Near the footbridge, pools of water remain, collecting the fallen leaves of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We veered briefly off the path to another trail leading to the creek. Again, no water. Only rocks on a dry creek bed.

Seemingly abandoned in the shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Then it was back to the main route, a pause on the bridge to again wonder about those hiking boots and then a pause at the shelter to speculate about an abandoned bike, jacket and beverage bottle.

Not a soul remained at Falls Creek Park. At least no one visible to us. Only mysteries—of abandoned and tossed belongings and of unmarked trails leading deep into the woods.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An October afternoon at Dunton Locks County Park October 24, 2019

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A stunning autumn scene sets the backdrop for this dock at Dunton Locks County Park, rural Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

 

OCTOBER MARKS ONE of those months when we Minnesotans feel the need to get outdoors as often as possible, to take in the autumnal hues, the sunny skies, the measured days of light and warmth. Too soon winter arrives and all the glories of October become but a memory.

 

 

 

 

In recent weeks, I’ve added pages to my autumn memories via viewing vistas of landscapes turning from green to the oranges, reds, yellows and browns of the season. Like at Dunton Locks County Park outside Detroit Lakes. It’s a lovely place just a short drive south of this northwestern Minnesota city. Here trees hug shorelines and trails lead through dense woods.

 

 

 

 

On the late Wednesday afternoon of our visit, lots of folks enjoyed the park on a particularly glorious day. A woman fished. A guy gazed toward the water from the bridge spanning the rapids linking Muskrat Lake and Lake Salle. A kindergartner and her mom collected colored leaves. A young family—new baby girl bundled against Mom and second son riding atop Dad’s shoulders while oldest son ran ahead—hiked in this park within a mile of their home.

 

 

 

 

There’s something about being outdoors on a beautiful day that brings us all together to appreciate the simple things in life. A sunny day. Crunch of drying leaves underfoot. The sound and rush of water roaring over rocks. The overwhelming feeling of gratitude for living in a place like Minnesota where we have easy access to public parks, where open space is abundant and where, on an autumn afternoon, folks delight in the beauty of this land.

 

BONUS PHOTO:

 

Rails for a mechanical boat tram run across the grass between two lakes at the park. The tram operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day and transports boats between Muskrat Lake and Lake Salle.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An October drive in the Minnesota countryside October 16, 2018

In search of fall colors in rural southern Minnesota.

 

SATURDAY WAS THE DAY, we decided. The day to meander and view fall colors in the Rice County area following a week of nothing but grey skies. Weather forecasters promised half a day of sunshine before clouds moved in again. Yard work could wait. Randy and I needed to enjoy autumn.

 

Colorful Seventh Street in Faribault nearing the intersection of Second Avenue.

 

So, with optimism, we headed out of Faribault along Seventh Street, a roadway bordered by beautiful fall foliage. The sun shone bright during our late morning exit. I was excited, remembering the beauty of last fall, especially around area lakes.

 

This treeline along Kelly Lake showed us some fall color.

 

But as we drove, we soon realized that our expectations did not match reality. The leaves are not nearly as colorful as last season. At least not on this day. I could choose to be disappointed—and I was for quite awhile—or I could choose to look for beauty beyond splashes of fall colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Place me on a gravel road and I will find something that appeals to me whether a farm site, a field, a cluster of cattle. Just being in the country brings me joy. And peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know some would find this time just driving through the rural landscape to be a waste of hours. But not me. There is a need deep inside me to occasionally reconnect with the land, to simply escape the closeness of gridded city streets. I need to follow gravels roads. I need to see tractors and barns, even artsy rural mailboxes. It’s difficult to explain to someone without rural roots.

 

 

But for me, the land comforts. It rises up like a poem, wrapping my soul in words and images that have shaped—are still shaping—me.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Random bits of autumn from southeastern Minnesota October 11, 2017

I love Hill’s Hardware Hank in Wabasha, especially in autumn decor. A photo similar to this hangs next to the hardware exhibit in the “Our World” play area at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul. Hill’s inspired the exhibit. I am honored to have my photo hanging in the museum.

 

WITH OCTOBER NEARING mid-month and days until winter here in Minnesota dwindling, I feel a sense of urgency to observe and experience every nuance of autumn. That often means ignoring outdoor fall chores for a road trip or a walk in the woods or a stop at the apple orchard.

 

Among the many inviting autumn scenes staged in Wabasha.

 

This past Sunday took Randy and me east toward the Mississippi River town of Wabasha, one of my favorite southeastern Minnesota communities. This city knows how to welcome visitors via two months of celebration, coined SeptOberfest. I’ll share two aspects of Wabasha’s focus on fall in upcoming posts. But for today, here’s a photo peak at those nuances of autumn which so endear me to this season in Minnesota.

 

The beauty of rural Minnesota in autumn along a county road east of Bellechester and heading toward Wabasha.

 

I love the vistas of drying corn and soybean fields sweeping across the land.

 

A farm site viewed from Minnesota State Highway 60 in the Zumbro Falls area.

 

I love the flashes of red farm buildings in a muting landscape.

 

My sister Lanae, a floral designer in Waseca, created this autumn scene in her backyard.

 

I love the fall décor that infuses townscapes and gardens.

 

One of several seasonal boutiques in Wabasha. Barton’s Brickhouse Boutique is located across from the VFW.

 

I love the seasonal boutiques offering handcrafted gifts and the scent of pumpkin and apple crisp.

 

We didn’t find fall colors in Wabasha; we were too early. But we spotted beautiful colors in this treeline at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park on our drive back to Faribault.

 

In our many years of day trips in southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I have found some of the best fall colors in Rice County. This scene was shot from Rice County Road 84/Falk Avenue. The gravel road parallels Rice County Road 20, which is considered the “back road” between Faribault and Northfield. This scene is near the intersection of CR 84 with 154th street.

 

I swapped on my telephoto lens for a closer look at the distant treeline as seen from CR 84. Other places to view wonderful fall colors in Rice County are west of Faribault around the lakes and also in Faribault along residential streets in old neighborhoods, at River Bend Nature Center and from City View Park. I think we have some of the best autumn hues in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I love the hillsides of trees transitioning from green to yellow, orange and red.

 

I shot this image and the four following at River Bend Nature Center late Sunday afternoon.

 

 

I love, too, the individual leaves that wave color in the wind.

 

 

I love drying milkweed pods bursting with seeds.

 

 

There’s so much to love about October, except the prospect of winter edging closer.

 

TELL ME: What do you like most about autumn? Feel free to share details about favorite fall destinations.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Charming Wabasha on a day in October October 13, 2011

Nothing says "small town" like a hardware store, including Hill's Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT Wabasha that keeps drawing me back to this 1830 Mississippi River town?

Small town charm? Yes.

Historic buildings? Yes.

The river and the eagles? Yes.

Now add to that the yummy, chewy, chocolate-covered caramel turtles from The Chocolate Escape, the homemade tomato basil soup at The Olde Triangle (Irish) Pub, the street side festive corn shocks/fall decorations, and the gigantic pumpkins at the Pumpkin Patch under the Minnesota Highway 60 Mississippi River bridge.

Wabasha knows how to woo visitors with its irresistibly charming personality. While I delight in that put-on-its-best-face appearance, I search for the nuances that define this town’s character.

Dogs plopped on the sidewalk. A cat tucked under a stairway. Handwritten signs. Bricks, bikes and books. Tile floors. Friendly barbers. An old clock. Unattended stores. Polite motorists who stop for pedestrians. Benches that invite sitting a spell.

It’s there, all there, in Wabasha. Join me for a photographic stroll through this river town on an October afternoon.

Then, the next time you’re in Wabasha, or any town, take note of the store windows and walkways, the rooflines and the signage, the vibe of the place you are visiting. Seek out the details and enjoy.

Corn shocks, scarecrows and pumpkins add a festive flair to the downtown.

I saw two dogs and a cat hanging out, this one near Heritage Park by the bridge.

The historic skyline of Wabasha.

A storefront display of vintage fans in the window of Passe Electric.

A snapshot aimed toward the upper wall and ceiling of The Bookcliffs at Pembroke Avenue, just off the main drag.

The death of a businessman, announced in the window of his business, Gambles Hardware.

A nutcracker collection displayed in The Chocolate Escape.

More of those lovely old buildings.

An inspiring message posted inside The Bookcliffs.

A bench featuring Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon from the movie "Grumpy Old Men," which was based on the setting of Wabasha, rests under the bridge.

The Pumpkin Patch, an autumn attraction under the bridge in Heritage Park.

My favorite pumpkin carving in the Pumpkin Patch.

Jewels on the River, a jewelry shop in the old city hall next to the bridge.

A scene under the Mississippi River bridge.

Crossing the Mississippi River bridge eastbound from Wabasha into Wisconsin.

IF YOU’RE LOOKING for something to do this weekend, consider coming to Faribault for the Fall Festival & Chili Cook-Off on Saturday, October 15, in our historic downtown. Sample and vote for chilis, served street side at businesses from11 a.m. – 1 p.m. A Kids’ Costume Parade along Central Avenue kicks off the event at 10:30 a.m. followed by pumpkin painting and treasures in the haystack for the kids. Adults will find plenty of shopping options in the downtown. Click here for more information.

You’ll also want to check out the South Central Minnesota Studio ArTour which begins Friday with previews in several studios from 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. The tour of 23 art studios in the Faribault, Northfield and Cannon Falls area, featuring 46 artists, officially begins Saturday and continues on Sunday. Hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Click here for more information.

© Audrey Kletscher Helbling