Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Tax March in Hudson, Wisconsin April 15, 2017

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WALKING FROM A CITY PARKING lot late this morning toward Hudson, Wisconsin’s main street, I heard the chant of voices. While I didn’t understand them—I have a hearing loss—the message was clear in the signs protesters carried. They wanted President Donald Trump to release his tax returns.



Whether you agree or disagree with their stand matters not to me. What matters most to me is that we live in a country where we are free to march with signs along a city street on a Saturday morning to express our opinions in a peaceful way.



This group was respectful and orderly. They joined demonstrators from across the country today in demanding that Trump release his tax information.





Their message actually surprised me given I knew nothing of the planned nationwide Tax March. I expected the demonstrators’ signs to be in protest of recent military action. Perhaps that is coming…

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


And the Pulitzer Prize goes to… an editor in rural Iowa April 13, 2017

Art Cullen is in the center of this photo on The Storm Lake Times website. That’s his brother to the right, his son to the left.


HE BEAT OUT WRITERS from the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post.

He is Art Cullen, 59-year-old editor of The Storm Lake Times. On Monday he won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”


A farm site just across the Minnesota-Iowa border on the west side of Interstate 35. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


That’s right. Rural Iowa. The state that welcomes visitors to “Fields of Opportunities.” The land of corn and beans and hogs. I like Iowa, just an hour south of my Minnesota home. It reminds me of my native rural southwestern Minnesota with fields, farm sites, small towns and wide open spaces.

That a writer from a northwestern Iowa community of around 10,000, from a newspaper with a circulation of 3,000, won the Pulitzer Prize delights me. You don’t need to be big city famous or work for some well-known newspaper to be recognized and honored. You just need to do outstanding work. It’s not easy being a journalist in a small town. I remember. I worked as a reporter, photographer and more at Minnesota weeklies and dailies decades ago.

To take a strong stand on the editorial page like Cullen did against corporate ag takes guts. And a deep understanding that the editorial page is the heart of the newspaper. As a journalism student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in the late 1970s, I heard repeatedly that message of editorial importance. It ranked right up there with the basics of reporting—who, what, when, where, why and how.


Small farming communities define Iowa. This is downtown Garner, just across the Minnesota/Iowa border. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Cullen clearly understands community journalism and the accompanying responsibilities of a strong editorial voice no matter the risks. And there are risks—financial and otherwise. Express an unpopular opinion and you risk raising the ire of advertisers, subscribers and others. Read a sampling of Cullen’s editorials, and you begin to understand why he won the Pulitzer Prize. Here’s a man determined to consider the facts and then offer his common sense opinion.

I doubt Cullen’s new-found fame as a Pulitzer Prize winner will change how he approaches his job at The Storm Lake Times, a newspaper he co-owns with his brother and where his wife and son also work. I expect he will continue to work with the enthusiasm of a man passionate about community journalism. I appreciate that family-run newspapers like his still exist in an age when too many towns/cities have lost their hometown papers to newspaper chains. When that local ownership is lost, quality and quantity of local coverage usually diminishes.

The Storm Lake Times remains undeniably local. Alongside a photo and headline announcing the Pulitzer Prize are stories about a cat sanctuary, a second grader finding a four-leaf clover and a popular area fishing spot. It doesn’t get much more down-to-earth rural, more “this is still life in Iowa even when you win the Pulitzer Prize” than that.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Symbolism from the banks of the North Branch of the Zumbro River December 1, 2016



THE NORTH BRANCH of the Zumbro River ripples Hamm’s beer Land of Sky Blue Waters blue toward Pine Island Trailhead Park.




Through bare branched trees, sunlight flashes diamonds across the water’s surface.




Light and darkness. Darkness and light. Intertwined, like good and evil.




Farther down, as the river bends, I stand on the trail head bridge appreciating water so clear I can see the sandy, pebbly bottom. Sand sculpted by water. A bird’s footprint. Clarity. If only life was so simple, so clear, so still. Free of that which pollutes.




I turn my attention momentarily away from the water to lines that shadow across the bridge deck. Lines like bars run the length of the pathway. So symbolic. Bars. They hold people in. They keep people safe. Yet they don’t when the system fails.




I peer through the bars that stop me from tumbling into the shallow water far below. Falling, falling, falling.




Between the bars, I see my mini shadow and that of my husband. Shadows so near the water’s edge I fear they may fall in.




The snake of the Zumbro slithers by, curving away until I can no longer see what lies beyond the bend. Beyond today.


Note: I took these photos in October.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Voting for a scarecrow November 1, 2016




WITCH (sic) ONE SHOULD I choose?




Is this one It? Looks like a shady character hiding behind that signature hair style.




This scarecrow stands out in the field. Just look at that perfect, practiced smile and that perfectly pressed plaid.




The artistry here is certainly something to crow about.




I’m struggling to wrap my head around the choices.




Is this unique scarecrow raking in the votes? If only there were exit polls.




I like this scarecrow entourage. But those signs bother me. BEWARE. Of what? And No crows. What’s wrong with crows? Yeah, I know they’re not robins…




On the surface, I thought, how clever to post a campaign sign. But then I reread the words. Turning Green with Envy Needs Money popped out at me. You can’t sway my vote with sympathy, excess advertising, confusing rhetoric or via deflection.




I hope the candidates will accept the outcome, respecting the democratic process that veils our votes in secrecy. No rigged polls here.




There are so many choices. But really, these are just scarecrows. I shouldn’t take this election so seriously. There’s a more important election on November 8.


FYI: These scarecrows are part of a Scarecrow Contest at the 100 Ladies and Gentlemen Craft Sale. That sale, located at 45986 Highway 56 just off Minnesota Highway 60 in Kenyon, continues from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. November 3 -6 and November 10 -13. All items are handcrafted.

Disclaimer: There’s nothing political about the craft sale. It’s just that–a craft sale.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling




When you can no longer afford health insurance… October 26, 2016

I live on one of Faribault's busiest residential streets, also a main route for the ambulance which is based near my home.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I penned a post expressing my outrage at the ever-rising cost of health insurance.

I expected those costs to stabilize. I was wrong. So here I am, writing and agonizing again about insurance rates that are through the roof nearly unaffordable for my husband and me.

Beginning on January 1, our monthly premiums will total $1,746, of which we will pay $1,310. Add in $3,700 deductibles for each of us and you can see the financial ridiculousness of this plan. Before we can benefit from this health insurance offered through Randy’s employer, we will spend thousands and thousands of dollars. Like $14,176 for me and $8,944 for Randy since his employer pays half ($437/month) of his premium.

We are not wealthy. Nor are we poor. We are lower middle income. I am self-employed. Randy has worked the same job for more than 30 years. His benefits are minimal.

This year we both turned sixty, bumping us up on January 1, 2017, into a newer and higher premium bracket. Lucky us.

In 2016, our health insurance premiums were $723/month each for policies with a $3,500 per person deductible. In the new year, we will pay $225 more a month (nearly a 21 percent increase) with $3,700 deductibles.

This cannot continue. The cost of health insurance premiums threatens our financial stability. Paying $15,720 a year in premiums is crazy and unaffordable. We are careful with our money. Thankfully, years ago we paid off the mortgage on our modest home. We don’t take big vacations. We seldom dine out. We don’t own new vehicles. We limit our spending. But we have to eat and pay other basic cost of living bills.

Something has to give. I wish I had the answer. Of one thing I am certain. I am sick and tired of health insurance costs that have skyrocketed. It’s to the point where we can’t afford to get sick or to seek medical treatment. We can’t save money for retirement. The cost of health insurance and healthcare is my greatest financial worry.

I know many others are in the same predicament. The Minnesota legislature intends to call a special session addressing the crisis, specifically for those buying individual plans. Up until a year ago, I had an individual plan, too. What am I missing here? I was advised that we cannot apply for coverage through the state run marketplace, MNsure, (thus qualifying for a subsidy) because we have insurance available through an (my husband’s) employer.

TELL ME: How about you? Are you in the same situation as us? Do you have a solution to this crisis?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Road trip stories: A brief tour of beautiful Baldwinsville, a New York river town September 21, 2016

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Near Syracuse in central upstate New York.

Near Syracuse in central upstate New York.

FOLLOWING A SPRING-TIME 3,029-mile road trip from Minnesota to Massachusetts and back, I hold a deep appreciation for warm and welcoming hotel employees. Especially those who direct you to local restaurants.

On the list of dining options, Suds Factory River Grill.

On the list of dining options, Suds Factory River Grill.

Also on the list, Sammy Malone's Pub.

Also on the list, Sammy Malone’s Pub.

A desk clerk at the Comfort Inn Fairgrounds in Syracuse, New York, handed me a three-page print-out of seven homegrown eateries in neighboring Baldwinsville, complete with addresses, websites, phone numbers and directions, after I inquired about “a good place to eat.” Now that’s what I call outstanding customer service.

A walking path along the Seneca river in the heart of downtown Baldwinsville.

A walking path along the Seneca river in the heart of downtown Baldwinsville.

When my husband and I landed at the Comfort Inn in central upstate New York, I was exhausted. The second leg of our journey began that morning 516 miles to the southwest in Angola, Indiana. Except for 1 ½ hours lost in Buffalo, New York, while unsuccessfully searching for Niagra Falls, we’d driven strong and steady along the Interstate. We were in need of food and a place to stretch our legs before turning in for the night.

Welcome to Baldwinsville.

Welcome to Baldwinsville.

The village of Baldwinsville, population around 7,300, proved the ideal setting to unwind. Located on the Seneca River, it’s a lovely town that reminds me of Northfield, Minnesota, marketed as “A Classic American River Town.” Baldwinsville fits that definition, too, but uses the tag “Lock Into an Experience.” That plays off the Erie Canal’s Lock 24 located in Baldwinsville, I learned after our visit.

An example of the historic architecture downtown. Lovely.

An example of the historic architecture downtown. Lovely.

Historic buildings fill the downtown. Restaurants border the river. Nature and commerce mesh in an inviting way.

Fishing the Seneca River on a Friday evening late May.

Fishing the Seneca River on a Friday evening.

In the waning light of a lovely late May Friday evening, Randy and I followed the river, dodging both geese and their droppings. We crossed a bridge to check out the restaurant options and to simply walk. The area teemed with people. Dining. Walking. Fishing. Baldwinsville has a this-is-the-place-to-be vibe.

Pedestrians, including me, covered our ears as a fire truck screamed through downtown.

Pedestrians, including me, covered our ears as a fire truck screamed through downtown.

In their busyness, though, folks paused when a fire truck rumbled through town, siren piercing the evening ambiance and shaking the bridge upon which I walked.

Strong brick buildings like this grace the downtown.

Strong brick buildings grace the downtown.


This mural at Muddy Waters Kitchen and Bar plays on the New Orleans BBQ and soul food served there.

This mural at Muddy Waters Kitchen and Bar plays on the New Orleans BBQ and soul food served there.

Had I not been so hungry and weary, I would have checked out the church shown here.

Had I not been so hungry and weary, I would have checked out the church shown here.

Another mural at Muddy Waters.

Another mural at Muddy Waters.

I admired the aged brick buildings with arched windows, the steepled church half a block away, the murals at Muddy Waters Kitchen and Bar. I wished I had more time to explore Baldwinsville.

The B'Ville Diner was packed with customers waiting to be seated.

The B’Ville Diner was packed with customers waiting to be seated.

Eventually we ended up at B’Ville Diner, an old-fashioned 1950s style diner that’s been around since 1934. Recommended by hotel staff, the eatery, at least for us, proved more about the experience than the food. We needed an affordable meal. B’Ville offered that in a nostalgic diner car setting.

Definitely a 50s vibe in the diner.

Definitely a 50s vibe in the diner.

Randy had a little fun with the waitress, asking for a Beef Commercial—beef between two slices of white bread topped with mashed potatoes and gravy—rather than the Beef Pot Roast sandwich listed on the menu. She looked at him with zero recognition. He explained that in Minnesota, we call this a Beef Commercial. He was disappointed in the dish—clearly not homemade gravy or potatoes. My cheesy chicken sandwich laced with green peppers tasted fine.

The liquor store is across the street from the diner.

The liquor store is across the street from the diner. And, no, we didn’t stop there.

Refueled and refreshed, we headed back toward the Comfort Inn to settle in for the night before beginning the final five-hour leg of our journey east the next morning.

FYI: Periodically, I will feature more posts from my cross country Minnesota to Boston and back road trip in mid-May. Click here to read my earlier posts from Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


About that McDonald’s muskie billboard… September 16, 2016

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McDonald's muskie billboard in Minnesota


WHEN I SPOTTED this billboard about six weeks ago in the north metro, I wondered about the muskie part of the message. I still do. Other than catching muskie in the summer and preferring a smoothie in the heat of summer, I don’t see much connection between the two in this McDonald’s ad.

I wondered if I was missing something. So I googled the topic to find a column by Pioneer Press Outdoors Editor Dave Orrick titled “Some people really do hate muskies. There, I said it.” He then laid out the polarizing story of muskie stocking in some Minnesota lakes. It should be noted that his opinion piece is not tied to the McDonald’s ad. It just happened to rank third in my Google search.

After reading Orrick’s column, I offer two suggestions to McDonald’s: Don’t erect an identical billboard in Cass or Crow Wing counties. Or choose a different, less controversial, fish.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling