Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Racing woodticks in Cuyuna August 3, 2021

The Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I GET GIDDY UPON discovering something totally odd and quirky or whatever word fits a place like the Woodtick Inn, host to the annual Woodtick Races in Cuyuna.

Cuyuna City Hall. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

During a recent cabin stay in the Brainerd lakes region, Randy and I routed through Cuyuna on our way to Crosby some four miles to the south. We often follow the road less traveled because doing so can lead to fascinating finds.

Woodtick Races scoreboards posted on the side of the Woodtick Inn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

And for us on this day, it was the woodtick-dubbed bar and grill and, of all things, Woodtick Races. The Inn hosts the races annually on the second Saturday of June.

An artist’s rendition of a woodtick hangs on the bar’s exterior. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But let’s back up a minute. What, exactly, is a woodtick? It’s a parasitic arachnid. Yup, a nasty bug that will latch into your skin and suck your blood. Many varieties of woodticks exist. But those raced in Cuyuna are the common American Dog Tick. And, yes, these ticks will find a host in a dog.

The sign which first caught my eye when entering Cuyuna. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Many years have passed since a woodtick determined I would be a good feeding source. But, as a child, I often found ticks stuck to my skin after playing outdoors. And, yes, they can spread diseases. And, no, I don’t like them. Not one bit.

The Woodtick Inn also welcomes anglers in this big fishing region. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But I can embrace Woodtick Races. What a novel event that puts Cuyuna, a former iron ore mining town in Crow Wing County, on the map. Or at least on our map. Cuyuna, a community of about 350, sits on the Cuyuna Iron Range. While the local mine closed long ago, going from boom to bust between 1907-1925, the mine lakes left behind now draw vacationers into the region.

There’s plenty of outdoor space for racing woodticks. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

And I expect the annual Woodtick Races also draw plenty of participants and curious observers. This year, the 42nd annual event, the top three cash prizes ranged from $224-$560. That’s a good chunk of change for a race with a $5 entry fee and an additional $1 if you buy a “caught” tick rather than bring your own.

Lots of original signage identifies the Woodtick Inn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I wondered aloud how event organizers gather woodticks for the races. “Send a kid into the woods,” Randy joked.

Meat raffles are a draw at the Woodtick Inn also. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

However those ticks are gathered, the rules call for racers to place their woodticks in the middle of a circle on a table. Whichever tick reaches the outside of the circle first wins. And, yes, referees oversee the races.

In 2021, Gopher Tackle, based in Cuyuna for 40 years, was sold and relocated to Milford, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Some day I hope to witness these races at the Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna. And I need to further explore the spread-out town named after surveyor Cuyler Adams and his Saint Bernard, Una. The Cuyuna I saw is vastly different from a boom town that once housed a hospital, high school, theater, hotels, saloons, grocery stores and much more. A town once teeming with iron ore miners and their families. And today, woodticks.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Janesville: The death of Frankenstein June 18, 2021

Frankenstein in Janesville, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

FOR THE GOOD FOLKS of Janesville, the fiery “death” of Frankenstein last Saturday morning equates the loss of a community icon.

The 20-foot tall fiberglass and steel interpretation of Mary Shelley’s monster loomed on a downtown street corner in this southern Minnesota town of some 2,500. Until the early morning hours of June 12, when a 35-year-old man who lives nearby allegedly torched Frankenstein. He’s been charged with felony arson and damage to property. Only the skeleton remains of the sculpture valued at an estimated $14,000.

A side view of Frankenstein photographed in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

Janesville’s Frankenstein, originally a Vulcan displayed at the 1988 St. Paul Winter Carnival, was reinvented as a Halloween attraction in the metro before a local businessman purchased him from an auction in 2012. I photographed Frankenstein in 2016, finding him an oddity in this small Waseca County town.

But “odd” isn’t new to Janesville. For decades, “The Doll in the Window” was Janesville’s noted attraction. The mannequin, positioned inside an attic window and visible from well-traveled U.S. Highway 14 (which now bypasses the town), was the stuff of creepy legends. The man who displayed the doll died long ago and, from what I found online, a lot of unknowns remain.

Whether Frankenstein is resurrected remains to be seen. For now, folks are honoring him with flowers and other mementos placed at the base of his skeleton, drawing attention once again to this rural Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2021 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


Only in Minnesota, North Dakota & Wisconsin February 10, 2018

Ice fishing on Union Lake in rural Rice County, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.


LIFE CAN BE STRANGER than fiction. As a life-long Minnesotan, I know that to be true.


Vang Lutheran Church advertises its annual Lutefisk & Meatball Supper. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


For example, here in Minnesota, we drive onto frozen lakes to drill holes in the ice and then angle for fish. We also organize polar plunges in which we dive into frigid lakes in the winter to raise monies for charities. And we eat cod soaked in lye at annual church dinners. Some of us. Not me, although I’ve tried lutefisk twice.


Downtown Fargo, North Dakota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Our neighbors to the east and west can tell similar strange stories. The most recent comes from the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. On Thursday around lunch-time, a cow escaped from The Little International Livestock Show and roamed the campus for a short time before it was wrangled.


This photo, taken in southwestern Minnesota, illustrates the size of the cow which escaped at NDSU on Thursday. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.


The NDSU Saddle & Sirloin Club sponsors the show, the largest student-led event on campus with 300 collegiates involved. That likely explains the calm reaction of students in the short video clip I watched of the escape. Students didn’t panic. They continued walking to classes or wherever they were headed. Many of them come from rural areas to this school with numerous ag majors. No reason to get excited about a bulky, wandering bovine.


Packers fans houses in Wautoma? Or simply a gold house and a green house? Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


Then we have Wisconsin, which never ceases to surprise me, especially with its Packers fanaticism. I’ve seen brat buns and popcorn colored green and gold. And in Wautoma, two neighboring houses are painted in Packers colors. At least they were several years ago.


My daughter, Miranda, snapped this scene through the back car window while in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Miranda Boyd.


But then along came a February 4 report from my daughter, who lives in eastern Wisconsin and who was in Madison for the weekend. She snapped a photo of a guy riding a motorcycle, or maybe it’s a scooter, as snow fell on a 10-degree day. How crazy is that?

TELL ME: What stranger than fiction story can you share from your community or state?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Wisconsin biker photo courtesy of Miranda Boyd



Oddities at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show, Part III September 8, 2017

Rows and rows of vintage tractors are a main attraction at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show.


WHEN I’M OUT and about with my camera whether at an event or simply exploring a small town or other setting, I often seek out the off-the-wall, the unusual, the humorous. The Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show in rural Dundas offers all three. I appreciate the creativity and humor displayed there. In these troubling and difficult times, we need diversions. We need laughter.

So I targeted seven scenes that grabbed my photographic attention in the categories of odd, funny, weird and, most certainly, creative. Take a look.



At the flea market, I noticed a fake bloody hand positioned next to vintage saws. Randy suggested we buy the appendage to gift to my sister at her annual Halloween-themed autumn soup party. The hand, the vendor said, was not for sale. His sister staged it next to the saws as a marketing gimmick. I’d like to meet his sister and introduce her to mine.





Then there’s Mike, who brought his 1930 Model A to the show. Typically one expects shiny restored cars showcased by proud owners. The Northfield man’s vintage Ford, though, is riddled with bullet holes. On purpose. After paying $800 for the car, Mike was advised that the decrepit Ford was not worth the $30K he would spend to properly refurbish it. Not to be discouraged, Mike and a friend shot up the Model A then created a story about Jesse James III killing two bank tellers while robbing a southern Missouri bank in 1932. The car was his get-away vehicle. Now the bullet-riddled Ford and the accompanying legend garner more interest than if Mike had spent all that money restoring his car.



Parked next to the Model A was yet another original—a customized Ford Courier pick-up transformed into a double-headed car by the crafty Andy’s Auto Body of Webster. That turned a few heads, including mine. And made me laugh.



Not everyone was laughing at the toy John Deere tractor George Pinc placed inside a jar atop his Farmall tractor. He got a less than courteous comment from a show attendee. George didn’t care. He’s not a loyal-to-one-brand type of guy. But he assuredly is a man with a sense of humor.



I don’t know the story behind the horns clamped to the top of another tractor. But the add-on caused me to smile.



And then, as I walked between rows of tractors, I noticed a boy (I think Mike’s son) on a banana seat bike towing a cooler. Again, I just had to smile at the ingenuity. Got a problem? Solve it.



Finally, there’s the water bottle. By itself, tucked in the crook of a tree, it means nothing. But there’s a story. I watched a guy stretch and place the bottle in the vee. Before he entered a porta potty. How smart is that? Got a problem? Solve it.

Sometimes in life you have to think and act beyond the expected and laugh. Just laugh.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Westward, ho: A surprising discovery at the Cannon Mall March 16, 2017


I’VE SHOPPED MANY ANTIQUE stores and malls. But this is a first: an 1840 Conestoga wagon for sale. Not to be confused with a covered wagon, this heavy-duty wagon hails from the Conestoga River region of Pennsylvania.


Beautiful lighting marks Thora Mae’s inside the Cannon Mall.


Inside the Cannon Mall, which houses about a half-dozen businesses.


Storefront windows to Thora Mae’s Timeless Treasures, 31284 64th Avenue Path, Cannon Falls.


If not for my husband noticing a fabric Antiques sign fluttering in the breeze along the highway, we would have missed this rare find inside the Cannon Mall in Cannon Falls. We didn’t even know the mall existed and we’ve visited this southeastern Minnesota community numerous times.


Vintage and other signage directs shoppers to Thora Mae’s.


Thora Mae’s has lots of vintage signage, most of it rural, for sale.


Another sign at Thora Mae’s…


But there is was, hidden from our view and housing a hardware store, Chinese restaurant, dollar store, an occasional shop and Thora Mae’s Timeless Treasures. This is one antique shop worth your visit. It’s bright, well-organized and filled with an abundance of yesteryear merchandise.



Given our late arrival shortly before closing on a Saturday afternoon, Randy and I had minimal time to poke around. And I spent some of that precious shopping time focused on the Conestoga wagon. Signage reveals the wagon traveled four times along the Oregon Trail and was used on the set of the TV western “Wagon Train.” That series ran from 1957 – 1965.



Dr. Joseph Link Jr. donated the wagon to the Hamilton County Park District in, I believe, the Cincinnati area in 1975. I couldn’t access online info to learn more during a quick search.


There’s even a western theme in a portion of this Thora Mae’s window display.


Now, if you’re my Baby Boomer age, you grew up watching and re-enacting westerns and appreciate anything that jolts those childhood memories. Right now I’m thinking straw cowboy hats, cap guns, stick horses and a red wagon, aka an improvised covered wagon.



For $6,000, I could have the real deal, the real experience and a genuine piece of early American history.



TELL ME: What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever seen for sale at an antique shop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part V from Wanamingo: Landmarks & oddities March 28, 2016

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Some of the airport luggage carts still remaining in Wanamingo.

Some of the airport luggage carts still remaining in Wanamingo.

MOST SMALL TOWNS possess oddities and landmarks unique to the community. Wanamingo in Goodhue County is no exception.

A few years back, I spotted row upon row of airport luggage carts parked outdoors in a lot on the north edge of town. It was the oddest sight. Only a small cluster of carts remains now. They’re still a mystery to me.


Small town Wanamingo, 47 elementary school


I am also intrigued by the massive pipes winding along the roofline of Kenyon-Wanamingo Elementary School. Typically, these heating (I presume) pipes run underground. Why are these atop the roof?


Small town Wanamingo, 44 butcher shop sign


At Wanamingo Meats and Catering, a hot pink sign and hot pink shutters draw attention to this downtown business owned by two sisters. That explains the pink. Butcher shops aren’t typically owned by women. Customers sing the praises of this business on its Facebook page.


Small town Wanamingo, 38 Ringo's sign above bar


Downtown, I noticed a bar and grill with a seeming identity crisis. A sign high on the building identifies the business as Ringo’s Bar & Grill. But an over-the-door sign banners J B’s Tavern.

I would love to get inside this aged house, to know its story.

I would love to get inside this aged house, to know its story.

On the north end of Main Street, I photographed a hulking old house with a widow’s walk. Surely there’s a story here. I expect the original owner may have been someone of great importance in Wanamingo.

That this portion of the old creamery was saved and posted on a highly-visible corner impresses me.

That this portion of the old creamery was saved and posted on a highly-visible corner along Minnesota State Highway 57 impresses me.

Finally, on the corner of Riverside Park, angles signage for Minneola Creamery. A quick google search tells me the creamery, organized in December 1893, was one of the most successful in Minnesota. In 1908, according to information in History of Goodhue County, Minnesota by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, the creamery manufactured 550,00 pounds of butter selling for $125,000. Oh, the things I learn because I notice and photograph. And because I delight in touring small town Minnesota.

WHAT ODDITIES OR LANDMARKS would I find in your town/city? Let’s hear.

FYI: Check back tomorrow as I conclude my “from Wanamingo” series. To read the first four posts in this series, check last week’s archives.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Utica, not New York, but Minnesota February 23, 2016

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A farm site just minutes east of Utica.

A farm site just minutes east of Utica in southeastern Minnesota.

YOU NEVER KNOW what oddities will surprise you in a small town, which is precisely why I delight in exploring rural communities.

Utica, a town of about 300 located along U.S. Highway 14 between Rochester and Winona, definitely presented some attractions worth photographing this past September. I use the word “attractions” loosely. What I find interesting may go unnoticed by others.

I'm always happy to see a grain elevator that has been maintained and is appreciated.

I’m always happy to see a grain elevator that has been maintained and is appreciated. These are small town treasures.

It was the red and grey grain elevator jutting above Utica that drew my husband and me off the highway and into this community as a freight train roared through town.

Utica may not have a website, but it has this sign to tell you a bit about the town.

Utica may not have a website, but it has this sign to tell you a bit about the town.

From there we swung onto Main Street and noted that Utica was founded in 1858, if the signage on Utica Storage is accurate. We laughed at the “ELV. PRETTY HIGH” notation.

The law.

The law…

...up close.

…up close.

And, if not for Randy, I would have missed the 10 Commandments posted on the front of the building.

The "can't miss it" house.

The “can’t miss it” house.

Then, in a residential area, a Victorian house painted in lavender hues presided on a corner. I wondered for a second if it might be a tea house, but saw no such signage. Apparently the owner just really likes this hue given the outbuildings are also painted lavender.

This reminded me of my Aunt Marilyn, whose house is not lavender, but who loves the color. And I once worked with legendary Northfield News editor Maggie Lee, who wore only lavender.

Utica is definitely a farming community.

Utica is definitely a farming community.

Utica’s final attractions were two tractors—a wonderfully restored John Deere and a rusting Farmall—staged for sale outside a shed.

Now, if we’d taken the fast route home via Interstate 90, we would have missed all of this. Utica would remain just a sign along the interstate. I would know nothing of its character, its individuality, its colors.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Oddities & art at a rural Minnesota flea market September 3, 2013

WHENEVER I SHOP a flea market with my camera, I challenge myself to find and photograph items that rate as unique, odd, artistic. I consider shapes and fonts, weirdness and, really, anything unusual that catches my eye.

Sunday afternoon browsing the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show Flea Market in rural Dundas provided plenty of subject matter.

Here are my top picks for flea market art and oddities, starting with the weirdest, a trio of doll heads in a colander:

Kind of creepy if you ask me.

Kind of creepy if you ask me.

The same vendor, Lou of Mantiques LLC (gotta appreciate that creative name), also offered another odd item, a child’s coffin, for sale. It drew my interest in that unsettled sort of way when you’re curious enough to ask but are uncertain you want to hear the story.

A child's coffin.

A child’s coffin.

According to Lou, who speaks with a thick accent even after 18 years away from Boston, during the diphtheria epidemic parents built coffins in advance, storing the boxes in barns in anticipation of their children’s deaths. Sad. Just plain sad. The coffin Lou was selling has never, obviously, been used but was passed down through the generations. Not in his family; some other. I can’t imagine anyone buying this coffin, but…

Michniewicz Sales presents "Quality Lawn Ornaments" made in the USA.

Michniewicz Sales presents “Quality Lawn Ornaments” made in the USA, in living color.

To balance the melancholy of that story, let me show you a sampling of Bob Michniewicz’ kitschy lawn ornaments. I first met Bob a year ago at the same flea market, photographed and blogged about him (click here to read that post). He was happy to see me again as, apparently, the publicity I gave him last September resulted in the sale of 10 cow lawn ornaments. Bob extended an open invitation to photograph his art anytime I please.

Tool and/or art, you decide.

Tools and/or art, you decide.

Now not all vendors are likely aware that they’ve created art. Or perhaps the art unfolds in the eyes of the beholder. While most flea market shoppers would see open end wrenches, dies, a brush and a turnbuckle hook when viewing these tools, I see something more—a collage.

Historic art.

Historic art.

Ditto for community celebration and homecoming buttons. These are mini pieces of historic art. Mini, however, would not describe the Albert Lea Tigers’ “Stomp the Packers” (as in Austin, not Green Bay) homecoming button. That button is the size of a dessert plate. Wowza.

A vendor's "trailer."

A vendor’s “trailer.”

Finally, my camera lens landed on a vintage Winnebago camper because, yes, sometimes even a camper converted into a flea market merchandise hauler can be a work of art in angled lines and graphics.

There you have it. My top picks from this year’s flea market.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A mail order tractor and other oddities at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show September 7, 2010

“STEP RIGHT UP! See the phenomenon that is attracting world-wide attention among pickle lovers—a gigantic bottled pickle.”

Yes, folks, if you had attended the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines, Inc., Show this past weekend in rural Dundas (like me), you would have discovered oddities and attractions worthy of a stop-and-look second look.

First off, we have…

…a peculiar overgrown pickle (or a cucumber) preserved in a slim-neck bottle and for sale at the flea market. Puzzled by this specimen, I asked another gawker, “How did that get inside the bottle?” He figures a small still-on-the-vine cucumber was inserted into the bottle and allowed to grow. Duh.

Next, we have…

…the black John Deere tractor. Again, I am puzzled. Why is this John Deere General Purpose Model B tractor painted black instead of yellow and green? Why is “MICHAEL” imprinted on the tractor? Is Michael the owner? And if so, can he answer my question?

For you toy collectors, we have…

…the amazingly expensive toy cow. Priced at $175, the rather forlorn-looking animal wasn’t flying off the shelf. Then Mankato collector/seller Steven M. Ulmen clued me in that the overpriced price was purely a joke. He would, he said, sell the miniature cow for a buck, or maybe even give it away to a kid. Steve also has a serious side. This former probation officer is an author. I left without a cow, but with two of his books, Blood on the Prairie: A Novel of the Sioux Uprising and his recently-published Bad Moon Arising.

Next, folks, we have a walk-through parts store on wheels…

…J. J’s Tractor Parts of Jackson stashes bins full of parts inside a semi trailer and travels to shows like the one in Dundas. The guy I talked to, who may or may not have been J.J., has been a traveling partsman since 1968. Three years ago he acquired the user-friendly semi trailer. I wanted to suggest, however, that he add a ladder to his inventory.

For all you hunters out there, impress your buddies without going on that big hunt by purchasing this flea market find…

…an antelope (I think) head. Need I say more?

Wait, sportsmen (and women), there’s more…

…try out this Ski Whiz from Massey Ferguson. This dual-seat snowmobile features a dual clutch steering system. No promises are made regarding speed.

And for those of you who prefer to order products from the comfort of your home, we offer…

…this 1949 Wards tractor found on page 250 of the Montgomery Wards catalog. Mail order brides, mail order tractors…

Finally, we advise you to read and follow this warning…

…on the back of a horse-drawn wagon: CAUTION POWERED BY OATS DON’T STEP IN EXHAUST.

So there, folks, you have it, just some of the many oddities I discovered at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show.

CHECK BACK for future blog posts about the Dundas event.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling