Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Snapshots of Le Center April 5, 2018

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Parked along an alley in downtown Le Center, Minnesota.

 

WHEN THE WEATHER WARMS (it will happen soon in Minnesota, right?), I’ll have my camera out more. Documenting. Photographing. Showing you the places I visit, the discoveries made.

 

The original section of the Le Sueur County Courthouse was built in 1897 of brick and Kasota stone at a cost of $55,000. It was designed by Chicago architect Louis M. Curry of Mayo & Curry in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style. Additions have been made to the building and remodeling done.

 

Those include small towns like Le Center. It’s the county seat of Le Sueur County and about a 45-minute drive northwest of Faribault. It’s one of those communities you’d likely not drive to unless you had business or family there or were passing by en route to somewhere like St. Peter.

 

I love this row of well-kept old buildings in the heart of Le Center.

 

On a recent Saturday afternoon of road tripping, Randy and I stopped in Le Center. We parked downtown, popped into the thrift store minutes before closing, walked 1 ½ blocks along sidewalks and then looped back through an alley to the van.

 

 

I snapped a few photos. These images offer a glimpse of this community.

 

A front window in Mexican Delights, a downtown restaurant.

 

Diverse.

 

 

Patriotic.

 

Spotted inside a Le Center thrift store.

 

Trusting.

 

 

Lovely in aged buildings.

 

Assorted trucks and other vehicles were parked in a vacant lot and along an alley behind Main Street businesses.

 

You can tell a lot about a town in first impressions. I need to revisit Le Center, though, to uncover more of its personality. Small towns are each individual, as individual as the folks who call these communities home.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Evan, like so many small southwestern Minnesota towns, is fading into the prairie March 19, 2018

Downtown Evan today anchored by a former bank building.

 

LIKE SO MANY OTHER SMALL TOWNS on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, Evan once boasted a long list of businesses—creamery, bank, two general stores, hardware store, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, stock dealer, garage, implement dealer, three elevators, restaurant, utility company, library and two churches.

 

Evan, incorporated in 1904, is named after Eva Hanson, married to Nels. He platted the railroad station known as Hanson Station several years earlier.

 

So claims the historical marker fronting the village hall in this Brown County community of around 80 residents.

 

Fading signage identifies this as the former lumberyard.

 

Today only remnants of those original businesses remain.

 

I believe the brick building may be the former creamery.

 

On a recent drive through Evan, I noted the decline.

 

This vintage sign hangs outside Tubby’s II Bar & Grill. A sign in the window noted the bar is closed for the winter.

 

Faded signs.

 

 

Boarded windows.

 

This vintage hay loader rested among other junk.

 

Clustered junk.

 

 

I’ve never seen anything like this graveyard of campers and trailers.

 

Abandoned campers and trailers and trucks. It made me sad, just sad, to see the abandonment.

 

The old grain elevators still stand on the edge of town along the highway.

 

But none of this surprises me. It’s our fault really. We are a much more mobile society, a society much different than back-in-the-day or even 20 years ago. At one time, places like Evan thrived as area farmers and locals kept their business local. Today regional shopping centers pull in customers from all those small towns.

 

The train still runs, not through Evan, but through neighboring Sleepy Eye.

 

The railroad left.

 

Without jobs, with our farmer fathers still farming, many from my generation of Baby Boomers left Minnesota’s small towns. We couldn’t bank on a future in our rural hometowns.

 

 

Attitudes changed. Kids from my generation left for college and bigger cities and better opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with that desire to see the world, to become something other than our parents. But in doing so we added to the demise of many a small town. I am hard-pressed to think of many classmates who stayed in my hometown of Vesta 45 minutes from Evan to the north and west. Vesta, too, is a shell of the community it was when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Grain bins on opposite ends of town mark this as a farming community still today.

 

 

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Evan’s decline except an overall understanding of why once thriving towns now are mere ghosts of their pasts. Certainly Evan’s remote rural location factors into the mix. Located along Minnesota State Highway 68, Evan is easy to bypass on the shortcut route between Sleepy Eye and Morgan.

 

The only person or moving vehicle I saw in Evan during my short stop there.

 

Yet, Evan is home for some. I saw newer homes there. Not new as in recent, but newer than old. I saw a lovely church and that well-kept village hall. And grain bins. And the fading letters on the lumberyard, a visual reminder that at one time a demand for building supplies existed in a farming community that once prospered.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Old Glory at the elevator in Castle Rock May 6, 2013

Farmers Mill and Elevator, Inc., Castle Rock, family-owned for 70 years by third generation.

Farmers Mill and Elevator, Inc., Castle Rock, family-owned for 70 years by third generation.

SMALL TOWN GRAIN elevators, like barns, beckon me to photograph them, for I fear that these skyscrapers of the prairie, as some have called them, will someday vanish.

Recently, on a pass through Castle Rock, an unincorporated village located about six miles north of Northfield in Dakota County, I spotted Farmers Mill and Elevator, Inc.

The grey of the elevator complex matched the grey skies in a landscape late in welcoming spring.

Despite that seasonal indifference over which we possess no control, I noticed the prevailing spirit of rural patriotism in an American flag stretching her stars and stripes in the brisk April afternoon wind.

Grey be gone. Red, white and blue flourishes, at least atop the grain elevator in Castle Rock.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Zip code 56046 July 26, 2011

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE traveling Interstate 35 south of Owatonna, instead of whipping by the Hope exit at 70 mph, pull off the freeway and check out this unincorporated community of 120 residents, probably best-known outside of Steele County for Hope Creamery butter.

Unless my husband and I missed the signage, we never saw a sign marking the creamery and simply guessed that the butter-making operation is housed in an old brick creamery on the edge of town next to a farm.

But we discovered several other places of interest after parking our car along the one main road that cuts through Hope. Yes, you need to park your vehicle, get out and walk, rather than simply driving through town thinking, “There’s nothing here.”

You would be wrong, oh, so wrong.

First point of interest: 56046. That would be the Hope Post Office. With a street front facade resembling the general stores of yesteryear or perhaps a building from a western movie set, this old-style structure charms.

The Hope Post Office sits along Main Street. The elevator complex in the background is just across the train tracks.

Take in the details: the red and blue bench, the double front doors, the rock out front, the welcoming porch...

Even the lettering on the front window has old-style charm.

Maybe it doesn’t take much to impress me, but I appreciate buildings with character. I quickly determined that the post office serves as Hope’s community hub. I pulled open the screen door and stepped inside a closet of an entry, the door to the post office to my left, the door to a gift shop to my right. Smack in front of me, I found business cards and signs, church festival notices and other information tacked onto a bulletin board. A clutch of rubber-banded newspapers lay on the floor in front of the post office door.

The community bulletin board inside the post office entry.

A clutch of bundled newspapers outside the locked interior post office door.

From inside the post office entry, a view across the street of the bank and an antique store.

Since I was there on a Sunday afternoon, I had to settle for standing outside, peering through the large, cracked and taped front windows to view the customer service area that is smaller than most bathrooms. But it serves the purpose and I’m sure Hope folks are happy to still have their post office.

I always figure once a community loses its school, its post office and its bank, well then, you may as well close up the town. So far, Hope has only lost its school.

Today the U.S. Postal Service releases a list of 3,600-plus post offices under consideration for possible closure in a cost-cutting effort. I hope Hope is not among them.

Post office hours are listed on a cracked and taped front window.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE posts out of Hope and other area communities I recently visited while on a Sunday afternoon drive. It’s my philosophy that most of us are missing out on the treasures of small-town U.S.A. because we fail to get off the freeways, park our vehicles on Main Street and explore. Either that or we’re “too busy” to slow down and notice the details worth noticing in our small towns.

If anyone knows about the history of the Hope Post Office, submit a comment. I would like to learn more about this building.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A historic bank and White Buffalo Calf Woman June 23, 2011

SET ME IN FRONT of an architecturally-stunning historic building and I’m in history heaven.

Just look at the lines, the colors, the window leading, the carvings…of the Old First National Bank of Mankato building, now a Verizon Wireless Center reception hall.

I didn’t step inside the former bank, didn’t even try a door. I was content last Saturday afternoon to view the exterior with its Prairie School style architecture.

“It’s like that bank in Owatonna,” my husband said as we gawked at the building built of brick, Mankato limestone and terra cotta along Civic Center Plaza in downtown Mankato.

He was, of course, referring to Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s “jewel box,” National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, a brick building with terra cotta accents, splendid for its stained glass windows, arches and other architectural details.

The Mankato building features Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stained glass and detailed ornamentation along the roof line.

And now it also showcases a bronze sculpture of White Buffalo Calf Woman by South Dakota artists Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby as part of Mankato’s City Art Walking Sculpture Tour.

 

If you peer at the woman’s face, examine her beaded moccasins and the trim on her buckskin dress and pouch, you’ll notice how the colors mimic those of the historic bank building. Whether this Native American sculpture’s placement was planned or accidental, I don’t know, but it fits seamlessly with the historical vibe of the locale, enhancing the whole art viewing experience.

The city of Mankato, apparently named after a varied translation of the Dakota word Mahkato, meaning “blue earth,” owns a place in Minnesota and national history for the mass hanging of 38 Dakota here on December 26, 1862. Three hundred warriors were accused of killing civilians and soldiers and of other crimes during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict. After a public outcry, President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. Certainly, Mankato is not proud of this moment in history. But efforts have been made to honor the Dakota at monuments in the city.

And now sculptures like White Buffalo Calf Woman also help heal and educate the public about the Native American culture. According to information on the sculpture placard, this prophetess is the only religious icon accepted by all Native American tribes. She “brings a message of healing, hope and peace among the races to all the people.”

More than just art, I also got a history lesson along a Mankato city street on a Saturday afternoon in June.

PLEASE VIEW MY JUNE 20 post for more photos and information about the Walking Sculpture Tour. Additional images will be forthcoming.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dancing the Irish jig at St. Patrick March 17, 2011

I’M NOT IRISH, not one cell of me. But I am the niece of an Irishman from Northern Ireland who married in to our German family. Does that count for anything on St. Patrick’s Day?

Despite the fact that I’m not Irish and I don’t celebrate St. Paddy’s day, in the spirit of the day, I’m posting these images of a lovely old building I discovered in 2009 while photographing a veterans’ memorial in Shieldsville for a magazine feature story.

Shieldsville is a tiny community along Minnesota Highway 21 west of Faribault. But it’s more than just a pause in the road. This town lays claim as Minnesota’s first organized Irish settlement, dating back to 1855.

If not for my fondness for meandering, I never would have discovered this quaint circa 1910 parish hall belonging to, ta-da, the Church of St. Patrick.

 

The old parish hall at the Church of St. Patrick, Shieldsville, is now used primarily for storage.

‘Tonight the parishioners of St. Patrick, and others who wish to be Irish, will gather across the street from the old parish hall in the new parish hall. There they’ll dance an Irish jig. They’ll feast on mulligan stew and Irish soda bread. And they’ll drink green beer in a toast to their ancestors.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

Sign above the parish hall door.

 

The front entry to St. Patrick's Parish Hall, photographed in 2009.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A sweet treasure in downtown Lamberton March 9, 2011

DRIVE INTO ANY SMALL TOWN, U.S.A., and you’ll likely discover a treasure that the locals take for granted.

For instance, in Lamberton, Minnesota, I recently spotted a vintage sign on a beautiful brick building along the town’s main drag. I didn’t have much time to investigate as the guys in the car were anxious to keep moving. But we stopped long enough for me to snap a few photos and peer through the front window and door of Sanger’s Bakery.

 

This sign, suspended from Sanger's Bakery, first drew me to the building.

Inside, time stood still. An old 7-UP clock hung on the wall behind empty glass bakery cases fronted by one vintage stool (that I could see). Boxes of candy sat on the counter. I almost expected the baker aka ice cream and candy seller to walk into view, open the door and let me inside.

That, of course, was wishful thinking.

The bakery is closed, although men gather here in the morning for coffee, I’m told. You won’t find doughnuts or cinnamon rolls or loaves of freshly-baked bread, just coffee and conversation at the coffee klatsch.

Now, if I had discretionary cash, I’d buy this place, spiff it up a bit, but not too much to ruin its charming character, and reopen the combination bakery, ice cream parlor and candy store.

I could see the possibilities in that weathered sign, in the stunning brick building and in that single, empty stool.

 

The bakery's front window.

The bakery sits on a corner. I took this building side view through the closed window of the car, after we had driven around the block.

An up-close shot of the lettering on the bakery I wish was still open.

IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING about Sanger’s Bakery or have memories of patronizing this business, please submit a comment. I’d like to learn more about this former bakery which I consider a small-town treasure.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling