Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From southwestern Minnesota, where corn is king July 9, 2019

 

Farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see under an expansive sky in southwestern Minnesota.

 

TRAVEL MY NATIVE RURAL southwestern Minnesota as I did several days ago, and you will see vast fields of corn stretching across the landscape. Here you will find some of Minnesota’s richest and most fertile soil. Here corn and soybeans dominate.

 

A flooded field photographed on July 3 just east of Belview in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

In a particularly challenging growing season of late spring planting followed now by too much rain, farmers hope still for a bountiful harvest. Even as they view fields resembling lakes. But to be a farmer is to hold optimism.

 

A tractor and digger parked in a field along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Everything in these small communities centers on a farming economy. In years of good yields, businesses benefit. In years of low yields and low prices, small towns suffer. It is the cyclical nature of farm life in rural America.

 

An abandoned farmhouse sits atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

There’s much to appreciate about this rural region that roots me and grew me into a writer and photographer. Folks value the land and embrace a strong sense of community and of place.

 

Promotional billboards along U.S. Highway 14 and State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

In Sleepy Eye to the west of New Ulm, for example, the community celebrates Buttered Corn Days in August. This small town is home to a Del Monte Food’s corn and pea processing plant. We’re talking sweet corn here, not field corn.

 

Vending sweet corn in downtown Sleepy Eye on July 3.

 

Sweet corn season has just begun in Minnesota with roadside vendors pulling into parking lots and alongside roadways to sell fresh sweet corn from the backs of pick-up trucks. Farm to table at its most basic.

 

In a public visiting space at Parkview Home…

 

In the small town of Belview even farther to the west in my home county of Redwood, a single stalk of DeKalb field corn stands in a five-gallon bucket inside Parkview Home where my mom lives. I laughed when I saw the corn stalk with the notation of planted on May 13. Back in the day, corn growth was measured by “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Corn, in a typical year, now far surpasses that height by July 4. Not this year.

 

Silos and grain elevators are the highest architectural points on the prairie.

 

I can only imagine how many conversations that single corn stalk prompted at Parkview where most residents grew up on and/or operated farms. It’s details like this which define the rural character of a place and its people.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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So thankful to celebrate my mom’s birthday May 29, 2014

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THIS TIME IT was my turn to bake the cake, using the same recipe she used all those decades of baking birthday cakes for her six children.

While she crafted animal-shaped cakes for me, my three brothers and two sisters, I opted for the simple, pouring the batter for Crazy Cake into a 9 x 13-inch pan. Later, after the homemade chocolate cake cooled, I topped it with homemade chocolate frosting and a rainbow of sprinkles.

Saturday afternoon my husband and I carried the treat and two jugs of lemonade into Parkview Home in Belview to celebrate my Mom’s birthday.

Not wanting to set off the nursing home sprinkler system, Randy lit nine candles rather than 82.

My mom celebrates her birthday with family at Parkview Home in Belview, Minnesota.

My mom celebrates her birthday with family at Parkview Home in Belview, Minnesota.

And while a small group of us sang “Happy birthday” and Mom blew out her candles, I considered the blessings of having her with us another year. Here she sat, albeit in a nursing home, but much healthier and in less pain than a month prior. She is walking again (slowly and with a walker), rising from chairs without assistance, making the best of this unexpected change in her life.

But one thing remains constant. Mom continues, as she always has, to show us all that she is one strong woman. She handles whatever comes her way with grace. She sees the best in everyone and possesses the kindest of hearts.

Me with my mom in her Parkview Home room.

Me with my mom in her Parkview Home room.

When a Parkview staff member asked if I was Arlene’s daughter and told me I look like my mother, I accepted that as the highest of compliments. I can only hope that I also emulate Mom’s goodness, kindness, faith, strength and gentleness of spirit.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering on Memorial Day May 26, 2014

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Poppies on bulletin board

 

…that mark our place and in the sky, the larks still bravely singing fly, scarce heard amid the guns below…—  John McCrae, May 1915

Perhaps you will hear that poem read today.

Or perhaps you will remember, like me, that “honoring the war dead” poem recited decades ago on the stage in a small town community hall.

Or perhaps you will spot the opening lines of that poem on a bulletin board, like I did on Sunday at Parkview Home in Belview. My mother, a member of a nearby Legion Auxiliary and now living at this Minnesota nursing home, pointed out the mini poster she helped created.

She was proud. Not of what she had done. But that those who have served were being remembered on this, Memorial Day.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bringing the magic of prom to a Minnesota nursing home May 6, 2014

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TIS PROM SEASON in Minnesota, that annual rite of spring which throws teenage girls into a spin over finding just the right dress, getting a fabulous up-do, planning photo sessions and doing whatever to create the perfect evening.

That’s all delightful, to live in a fairytale world.

But what a group of girls in rural southwestern Minnesota did on the day of their high school prom impresses me more than all the magical glitz and glam.

They took the time last weekend to share prom with the residents of a small town nursing home.

This my mother, who recently moved into Parkview Home in Belview, shared with me during our weekly Sunday evening phone conversation.

If those teens could have eavesdropped on our exchange, they would know just how happy they made my mom by stopping at their workplace before prom to show off their Cinderella selves.

Mom didn’t comment specifically on the dresses, although she did on the “fancy hair.”

And, she noted, some of the girls brought their dates, who, she laughed, looked a bit bored and “were probably wondering when they could leave.”

I don’t doubt her observation. Physically Mom is limited in her abilities. But mentally she is still, as they say, sharp as a tack.

This isn’t about my mother, though, who also profusely praised those prom-goers as kind and thoughtful.

Rather, this is about these young women and, yes, their dates, too. I am impressed by their care, kindness and generosity of spirit. They could have gone on their way, without a thought of stopping at Parkview. But they did. And for that, this daughter is grateful.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Take time to stop and appreciate small towns August 11, 2011

In tiny Belview, you'll find the 1901 Odeon Hall. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Queen Anne style building features a barrel-vault ceiling. Still in use today for wedding receptions and community events, etc., Odeon Hall once also featured vaudeville shows, motion pictures, concerts and more.

I WANT TO THROW a challenge out there. The next time you’re driving through/near small-town Minnesota, or small-town wherever, stop. Pull off the highway and drive along Main Street. Park your vehicle. Get out. Walk. Look. See.

Notice the buildings, the architecture, the signage, the history. Consider what centers the town: the café, the post office, the grain elevator, the churches, the school—if there is a school.

Families, retirees and even single people choose to live, to work, to worship together, to celebrate, to mourn, to live their lives here. This is their home, not just some town in the middle of nowhere that you must pass through to get from destination A to destination B.

I have, in recent years, begun to appreciate the small towns and rural areas of Minnesota more than ever. I grew up on a dairy and crop farm in southwestern Minnesota, which is about as rural as you can get. But I haven’t always valued that upbringing like I should.

As I’ve gotten into the art of photography, I’ve begun to view these towns with a fresh perspective. I notice what, in the past, I’ve overlooked or taken for granted because of my rural roots.

Let me show you some photos I took recently in and near Belview, a community of 375 located four miles north of State Highway 19 in northwestern Redwood County. Belview lies about 10 miles from my hometown of Vesta, another one of those small towns that motorists zip by without a second thought. I bet you didn’t know that Vesta is the home of the nation’s first electric cooperative. I thought so.

That’s the thing about small towns. If you stop and walk and look and see, and I emphasize the word, see, you will discover more than just a place to drive through when getting from point A to point B. You will discover the heart and soul of community.

Move in close to view the details, like the front of Odeon Hall. I attended a cousin's wedding dance here decades ago. Imagine the celebrations inside this historic building.

Most small towns, like Belview, are fortunate to still have a place where you can get your hair cut and styled. I appreciate the simple lines of this brick building located along Main Street.

I discovered this poster in the window of a Main Street building advertising a local band, HickTown Mafia. The band plays "country with a kick, rock with an attitude," according to the group's website.

I found this abandoned former gas station (I think) on a downtown corner. This charming building practically shouts for someone to reopen it as a bakery, coffee shop, antique store or some other such venue. Perhaps the two local wineries/vineyards and other area vendors could market their products here.

The Parkview Home, a Belview nursing home, was once home to my maternal grandfather and to other extended aging family members. I've been here often to visit relatives and, during high school, to sing Christmas carols with the Luther League. The building was damaged in a July 1 tornado (note the blue tarp on the roof) and residents have been temporarily displaced.

Northwest of Belview, you'll find picturesque Rock Dell Lutheran Church. My Uncle Merlin and Aunt Iylene Kletscher were married here in November 1964, the last time I was inside the church.

A side view of Rock Dell.

Near Rock Dell you'll find Swedes Forest Township Hall in the middle of corn and soybean fields.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Belview, click here and here. Also read my previous post about Rainbow Antiques, Crafts and Junque in Belview by clicking here.

TAKE MY CHALLENGE and report back to me on the treasures you discover in a small town or rural area.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An update from storm-damaged Belview July 13, 2011

Entering Belview from Sacred Heart at 9 a.m. on July 2, the morning after the tornado. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after an EF-1 tornado ravaged the small town of Belview in southwestern Minnesota, I emailed City Clerk/Treasurer Lori Ryer for an update.

I know she’s busy dealing with issues in the aftermath of the July 1 storm, so I asked only for a brief summary, with a specific request for information about Parkview Home. The nursing home, according to Ryer, received major roof damage that resulted in flooding of the building. Initially, 25 residents were evacuated and taken to care centers in nearby Wabasso, Olivia and Redwood Falls.

Since then, Parkview has closed for repairs, residents have been discharged and admitted to new nursing homes, and staff has been laid off.

When the nursing home will reopen remains uncertain as assessments are still being made. But Ryer anticipates, after talking to staff on Tuesday, that Parkview will be closed for at least several months.

This photo shows Parkview Home and mini golf in the park. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

Parkwood Apartments, which is attached to the nursing home, was not damaged, but was without power from Friday afternoon, July 1, until the following Monday evening. Some apartment residents left to stay with family members briefly, but everyone has now returned, Ryer says.

Bridgewood Assisted Living was not damaged, but was without power also.

Damage along South Main Street in Belview. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

Throughout the rest of this community of 375 residents, many home and business owners are still awaiting insurance adjusters. Many homes received minor damage, several moderate, and a few major, damage from results of the 95 – 105 mph tornadic winds, Ryer says.

Many garages and sheds were destroyed and quite a number of cars totaled due to trees falling on them, the city clerk continues.

Tom Johnson's SUV was totaled when a tree fell onto it during the Belview tornado. Photo courtesy of Tom and DeLores Johnson.

The Belview school building received major damage, resulting in relocation of the Belview Learning Center summer program. Ryer hopes that program will be up and running in the Belview school building before the new school year begins.

Despite the destruction in her community, Ryer manages to remain positive: “With all that being said, I still marvel at the fact that we had no injuries during the storm or in the days of clean-up afterwards.”

LIKE RYER, I, TOO, marvel that no one was injured or killed by this storm which swept across Minnesota into Wisconsin July 1. My hometown of Vesta, just down the road from Belview, was hit by a series of downbursts with wind speeds of 90 – 100 mph.

I have many family members living in areas affected by the storms. Damage was minimal to their properties, but most lost trees. A cousin living near Wood Lake, however, saw substantial damage to the family’s farm. My home church, St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta, had half the roof ripped off.

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vesta with the roof half missing. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

In a few weeks I’m returning to my hometown for the annual Kletscher family reunion. I’m trying to prepare myself for what I’ll see—my little prairie town with fewer trees, the church where I was married now temporarily closed. I always look forward to worshiping there with my mom when I return home.

I expect it will be the trees, though, that I will miss the most. A friend recently told me that the small towns of southwestern Minnesota are like oasises in a land mostly devoid of trees, except for the trees in those towns and the groves that shelter farm sites. He is right.

The communities of Belview and Vesta lost many trees in the July 1 storms. This photo is along a Belview street north of the city park. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

But those of us who grew up on this land, and those who live there, appreciate the wide open spaces, the big sky, the fields of corn and beans and those small towns.

Prairie people are strong, caring, determined folks who come together in time of need. I’ve seen that over and over again in the stories I’ve heard and the comments I’ve received on my blog posts while covering the recent storm damage.

To the residents of Belview and Vesta, Tyler and Ruthton, and all the farm places in between, I know you’ll make it through these challenging days. Your roots reach deep into the prairie and no storm can rip away what you have—each other.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Belview pulls together after destructive storm July 6, 2011

THREE MONTHS AGO Merlin and Iylene Kletscher closed on the purchase of a foreclosed house along Main Street in Belview. They plan to sell their lake home near New London and move back to Iylene’s hometown, also within 10 miles of Merlin’s hometown of Vesta.

My aunt and uncle want to be closer to family and friends and back in a small town like Belview with a population of 375.

They chose the Main Street fixer-upper, among other reasons, for all the beautiful trees on the property.

Today most of those trees are gone, toppled in a storm that swept through Belview and a wide-spread area of southwestern Minnesota late Friday afternoon. The storm ripped off roofs, took down power lines and trees, smashed grain bins and elevators and more as fierce winds roared across the flat prairie.

Merlin and Iylene Kletscher's home on the left, surrounded by downed trees.

Now Merlin and Iylene, like so many others in this area of Minnesota, are dealing with insurance companies and contractors as they clean up and repair their homes and businesses.

“The new chimney we had installed is leaning,” my uncle says. “The new shingles are missing ridge caps. We have broken windows and torn screens, etc.” The couple had just installed new windows in their home and made other major improvements.

Despite all of that damage to a house he and Iylene have worked so hard to restore, my uncle doesn’t seem at all discouraged. Rather, he praises Belview’s reaction to the storm: “Belview is amazing in that the people just pull together…I can’t say enough good things about the fire department and city employees and council. While we were there, trucks, tractors, 4-wheelers, payloaders, backhoes and pickups went by our house about one every 30 seconds pulling trees, debris or branches to the MPCA-approved burn site on the northeast edge of town.”

It seems the city was prepared for a natural disaster such as Friday’s storm. Log onto the city website and you’ll find a “CONSUMER ALERT: SUMMER STORM SEASON” posted by City Clerk Lori Ryer on May 24 encouraging residents to prepare for summer storms.

Entering Belview from Sacred Heart at 9 a.m. on July 2.

The city of Belview's water department building.

The ferocity of Friday’s storm is impressive. “Our neighbor across the street in Belview said that during the height of the storm, he couldn’t see his mother’s house right next door!” Merlin shares. “Chad Krinke (next door neighbor and relative) said two inches of rain fell in 20 minutes—he called us about a half hour after it hit, giving a report on our house damage. The city was blocked off, so no one could get in unless they had specific ties to someone in the city.”

Trees blocked the street north of the Belview City Park.

Jerry Hagen's house, across the street from Merlin and Iylene's home in a July 2 photo.

Residents of Parkview Home, next to the city park, were evacuated Friday night. This photo shows the nursing home and mini golf in the park. The rubber roof of the nursing home was peeled off during the storm.

Storm damage at the home of the Rev. Daniel Faugstad family.

Damage along South Main Street.

Another tree toppled onto a house.

More residential storm damage in Belview.

Merlin also reports that a farmer just west of nearby Vesta (my hometown) recorded a high wind speed of 110 mph on his wind velocity meter during the storm. I have not yet confirmed that information. Vesta was also hard hit by the storm. Click here to read that story and view photos of the damage.

The damaged bins and elevator at Meadowland Farmers Elevator in Vesta.

Neighboring Belview and Vesta are only two of the many, many small towns in southwestern Minnesota hit by Friday’s storms. I expect that hundreds of farm places were also ravaged. For the most part, the disaster has not been covered by metro media and that bothers me—a lot.

IF YOU LIVE in southwestern Minnesota and were impacted by the storm, please submit a comment telling me about your personal experiences (where were you/did you seek shelter/what was the storm like, etc.), damage to your property or town, and recovery progress. I am also looking for photos to publish, so contact me via a comment and I will follow-up by emailing you.

PHOTOS COURTESY of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling