Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When a prairie native sees Mille Lacs Lake for the first time November 28, 2017

Near shore, a seagull wings across Mille Lacs Lake, water and sky melding in vastness.

 

AT MY REQUEST, Randy and I took an indirect route from Faribault to Brainerd on a mid-September Up North vacation. I wanted to see Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s second largest inland lake covering some 200 square miles. It just didn’t seem right that, as a life-long Minnesotan, I’d never viewed this expansive body of water.

As a native of the landlocked prairie, my youthful exposure to Minnesota’s lakes included occasional fishing for bullheads, swimming in Cottonwood Lake once a year and a trip at age four to Duluth along the shores of Lake Superior. When you grow up on a dairy farm, there are few vacations; mine during childhood totaled two.

 

Tethered along Mille Lacs.

 

Without the typical Minnesota background of going up to the lake on weekends, of boating and swimming and fishing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I was eager to see Mille Lacs. I’ve heard so much about the lake, especially in recent years given the controversial restrictions on walleye fishing.

 

My first view of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

Our route took us along US Highway 169 along Mille Lacs and into Garrison.

 

I focused on a nearby shoreline until I mentally adjusted to the size of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

My first glimpse of Mille Lacs from U.S. Highway 169 presented no surprises. It was as I expected—a visual vastness of blue. As our van rounded into Garrison, the view opened and I anchored my eyes to the nearby shoreline. Until I adjust, I find the initial infinity of such large lakes a bit unsettling.

 

The concourse provides a lovely view of Mille Lacs. But there’s seagull poop everywhere.

 

Soon we pulled off Highway 169 and into the Garrison Concourse, a roadside scenic overlook built between 1936- 1939 by the then Minnesota Department of Highways and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On the National Register of Historic Places, this space features a rock retaining wall that, while impressive, was also unappealing for all the dried seagull poop streaking the wall, benches, sidewalk and pavement. I had no desire to sit here, linger and enjoy the view.

 

 

So I focused my attention on the 15-foot fiberglass walleye statue, built in 1980 for a local parade, and now a kitschy roadside attraction for a town that claims to be the Walleye Capital of the World (along with Baudette and several out-of-state locations).

 

 

 

 

An oversized walleye couldn’t just land here on its own. A sign posted on the statue base, next to the one that warns to PLEASE KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE THANK YOU, credits legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan for the trophy catch. You gotta appreciate a good story.

 

 

Randy and I did the typical tourist thing and posed for selfies next to the mega walleye.

 

 

If not for my observant husband, I would have missed another attraction—a small stone marker honoring William A. Tauer, a local hotel owner who drowned while trying to save boaters during a June 10, 1927, storm on Mille Lacs Lake. Engraving credits THE PEOPLE OF MORGAN, MINN for the memorial marker. That drew my interest. Morgan sits some 175 miles away to the southwest in my home county of Redwood. Later online research revealed little more. I expect William grew up in Morgan, where the Tauer surname is still common. I’d like to know more.

 

 

All in all, the overwhelming size of Mille Lacs impressed me. But not enough that I need to return. My disappointment came in the sense of—there’s the lake, now what? Perhaps further exploration beyond just this area by Garrison would change my perspective. Or, as others suggested, a return in the winter to see the thousands of fish houses on the frozen lake would impress me.

 

 

I have no desire to board a boat in a body of water this large. Randy has done so and I’ve heard his seasick stories. Nor do I desire to fish here in the winter when the ice cracks and anglers have been stranded on ice floes.

 

 

 

Still, I enjoyed the view and the iconic walleye. I can now say, “I’ve been to Mille Lacs.” But I can’t say, “I’ve patronized the Blue Goose.” The iconic restaurant and bar, my husband noted and lamented, is gone.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Up North in Nisswa November 9, 2017

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Babe the Blue Ox of Paul Bunyan Legend stand on the corner by the tourism office along Nisswa’s Main Street.

 

ON THE THURSDAY I toured Nisswa in mid-September, the turtle race track stood empty, Babe the Blue Ox stood tall and this northern Minnesota community buzzed with visitors.

 

 

Set in the heart of lake country, this town of some 2,000 draws folks from nearby cabins, resorts and hotels to meander through the many shops that line several blocks of a route once followed by Native Americans traveling northward through these parts from southern Minnesota.

 

Babe the Blue Ox bears the history of Nisswa’s name on its flank.

 

The name Nisswa comes from the Ojibwe word nessawae meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Nisswa sits in the middle of three lakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this day, I didn’t learn much about local history. But I did learn that these northerners rate as a friendly bunch. In business after business, shopkeepers greeted Randy and me with friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. With the exception of signs prohibiting photos of merchandise (much of it original art) prevalent throughout Nisswa, I felt more than welcome.

 

 

A shopkeeper at The Fun Sisters Up North Boutique even convinced me to try on leggings and an appropriate bum-covering top. Inside my mind, I protested. But she was just so darned nice that I agreed. I’ll admit that I looked better than I thought in leggings. But I still felt like I was playing dress-up in fashionable attire totally foreign to me. She didn’t make the sale. But the clerk sold me on the genuine friendliness of Nisswa.

 

Signature northwoods birch logs propped outside a business.

 

I dropped my money in several other businesses, picking up Minnesota-themed gifts for friends and my granddaughter.

 

 

 

Vintage Native American art outside a shop tips visitors off to this region’s history.

 

 

The legend of Paul Bunyan, here interpreted in a woodcarving, runs strong in the Minnesota northwoods.

 

Nisswa presents a definitively northwoods feel with more than one Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan and plenty of buffalo plaid and loon art. Randy and I spent hours here ducking in and out of shops. And that says a lot for the attraction of Nisswa to someone like me who generally dislikes shopping. The original arts and crafts and merchandise with a Minnesota bent kept me interested.

 

 

 

Painted turtles mark businesses.

 

Although we didn’t patronize a Nisswa eatery, there are plenty of options for meals, treats and brew.

 

Had we arrived in Nisswa at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday weeks earlier, we would also have witnessed the weekly summertime turtle races. Reminders of that tourist draw are evident in the turtle race track and in turtles painted onto sidewalks in front of businesses. I applaud communities like this that hatch and then latch onto an idea that identifies and sets them apart from other towns. For Nisswa, it’s turtle races and friendly folks in quaint northwoods shops.

TELL ME: Have you been to Nisswa? What is your impression of this small Minnesota town?

Please check back for a closer look at the iconic Babe the Blue Ox statue along Main Street.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Paul & Babe, more than a Minnesota legend October 26, 2017

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I purchased this vintage 1960s mini book, published by BANG Printing of Brainerd, at a used book sale.

 

IN MINNESOTA, PERHAPS no other legend perpetuates as much as that of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

 

Photographed outside a hardware store in Pequot Lakes.

 

The larger-than-life pair fits the image we present of hardiness and strength, of surviving, and thriving, in a cold and snowy land. Paul cleared woods in one swell swoop of his axe. Babe imprinted our soil with depressions soon filled with water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

 

“The Paul Bunyan Family” with Babe the Blue Ox suggested as a Halloween costume on a recent edition of Twin Cities Live.

 

Dressed in our buffalo plaid flannel shirts—and I’m wearing one right now while typing this post—we embrace our identity as practical people. We don our flannels and our snow boots, fish on frozen lakes, shovel snow and long for summer, although we’re not going to tell you that.

 

Many northern Minnesota businesses tap into the Paul Bunyan legend as indicated in this sign photographed in Pine River.

 

We are of stolid, hardworking immigrant stock—of farmers who broke virgin sod, of lumberjacks who felled trees, of families who fled refugee camps and war torn countries, of men and women and children who decided Minnesota offered a place to fulfill our dreams.

 

Legendary Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidj. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo.

 

We showcase Paul and Babe as legendary celebrities not because we’re trying to boast—we are mostly a modest bunch—but because we realize the value of these two. The pair reflects us, markets Minnesota, promotes tourism, boosts local economies, especially in the Brainerd Lakes area and to the north in Bemidji. Both communities feature oversized statues of Paul and Babe.

 

Paul Bunyan and Babe stand next to the iconic Brainerd water tower in this sculpture on a downtown Brainerd street corner.

 

Throughout the Minnesota northwoods and lakes region, the lumberjack and the ox show up in roadside attractions, in business and state trail names, in art and more. They symbolize the Minnesota spirit of strength and of creativity. We are a place of artists and wordsmiths, of hardworking men and women unafraid of getting our hands dirty, of determined entrepreneurs, of business leaders, of educators, of young people forging their paths into the woods of life…

We are individuals crafting our lives in a land that has, for generations, valued the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox as part of our Minnesota story.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II from Hackensack: My observations of this northwoods Minnesota town October 10, 2017

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Lucette Diana Kensack, Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart.

 

IN THE HEART OF NORTHWOODS MINNESOTA, in the land of legends and lake cabins, sits a village of some 300 folks. Hackensack. Twice I’ve been here, twice photographing Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette, who resides along the shores of Birch Lake, and once picnicking along that same lake.

 

 

I’ve never explored this town much except with my camera. But simple observations through a viewfinder can reveal a lot about a place. In Hackensack, I see a hardy northwoods character, a laid-back attitude and a welcoming spirit.

 

The lovely log cabin library right next to Lucette is run by volunteers.

 

Nearby stands Paul Bunyan in chainsaw art.

 

I would love to sample food from the seasonal Butts & Buns BBQ.

 

That rugged character shows in log cabin style construction from lake homes to food truck and in the chainsaw carved wood sculptures around town.

 

 

This seems like my kind of kicked back place where I’d feel comfortably at home in buffalo plaid flannel and jeans. Kids biking along a narrow street with tackle box, fishing poles, bait and net in hand confirm my assessment of a town that appears Mayberry timeless.

 

 

 

Lucette is a tourist attraction.

 

 

Yet, there’s a definite awareness of tourism, of welcoming the temporary residents who arrive here in the spring to open their lake cabins for weekend get-aways, summer vacations and final autumn visits.

 

Hackensack hosts numerous arts-related events including the Northwoods Art & Books Festival and an annual Chainsaw Event.

 

My quick visual perusal of Hackensack certainly doesn’t tell the entire story. But it gives a glimpse of a place appreciated by those who live here. And appreciated, too, by the people who come here to experience the legends, the arts, the food, the sense of place that is so northwoods Minnesota.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Hackensack, or live or vacation here, how would you describe this community? What should I know about Hackensack?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Only in Minnesota: Babe the Blue Ox tops the news following a severe storm August 4, 2016

NOT EVEN THE STRENGTH of an ox could match the power of Mother Nature during severe thunderstorms that rolled through the Brainerd Lakes area of Central Minnesota Thursday morning.

At Paul Bunyan Land along State Highway 18 east of Brainerd, strong winds toppled a 6,000-pound iconic Babe the Blue Ox statue. The 18-foot tall by 24-foot wide ox is “a little dinged up, but in true Paul Bunyan fashion, back up on his feet in no time,” according to an entry on the attraction’s Facebook page.

See for yourself:

Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Photo by Adam Rademacher & courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Photo by Adam Rademacher & courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Reeds Backhoe Service worked to upright Babe. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Reeds Backhoe Service worked to upright Babe. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Babe suffered a few dings, including to his flank. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Babe suffered a few injuries, including to his rear flank. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Babe's horn was also damaged. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunayn Land.

Babe’s horn was also damaged. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunayn Land.

Babe, back on his feet. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

Babe, back on his feet. Photo by Adam Rademacher and courtesy of Paul Bunyan Land.

If you’re from Minnesota or you’ve ever vacationed in the Brainerd Lakes area, you understand the importance of Babe the Blue Ox. He, along with his owner, lumberjack Paul Bunyan, are the stuff of Northwoods legend. Since the early 1950s, statues of the pair welcomed visitors to the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center near Baxter. Parents slipped their children’s names to the ticket taker and soon Paul was personally greeting Johnny or Jane from Wherever. Such is the stuff of summer childhood memories in Minnesota.

In 2003, the long-time tourist attraction closed and Paul and Babe moved to their new home next to This Old Farm Pioneer Village east of Brainerd. This morning, Babe proved his resiliency in adversity. Paul Bunyan Land opened at 10 a.m. Thursday, right on schedule.

BONUS STORY & IMAGE:

Paul Bunyan book cover

 

Several months ago I purchased Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, a slim book (more like a pamphlet) at a used book sale in Faribault. Published by Bang Printing of Brainerd, likely in the 1960s, this book was written by Daphne Hogstrom and illustrated by Art Seiden. I acquired it for the art more than the story. I value such period graphics, especially this publication about a Minnesota legend.

According to the author, Babe the Blue Ox is as wide as the Mississippi River, stands 11 pine trees tall, does the work of 60 men and can pull rivers.

Legend goes and this writer writes, that Paul pulled Babe from a snowdrift in the year of the blue snow, thus the hue of this much beloved ox.

FYI: Click here to view the full gallery of storm damage images. All photos are courtesy of the Rademacher family and available for the public to use, according to the Paul Bunyan Land FB page. Note that Thursday’s storm caused severe damage throughout the Brainerd Lakes area with trees and power lines down. Damage reports are still coming in. This storm, and specifically the toppling of Babe the Blue Ox, is leading Minnesota news stories today.

© Story copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Is it true about “no flannel” in Boston? January 22, 2014

UNTIL MY SON PREPARED for a flight to Boston last spring to visit three colleges, I’d never heard of Tufts University.

My son in a Tufts University sweatshirt. Edited Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

My son in a Tufts University sweatshirt. Edited Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

He had to spell out the name for me, T-U-F-T-S.

That was my introduction to the private research university he now attends after transferring from North Dakota State University. The move to Tufts’ Medford, Massachusetts, campus was the right one for him. He’s challenged in his studies and happy living in a metro area far from the wind-whipped plains of Fargo. I don’t necessarily think he would be where he is today, though, without that year at NDSU.

But back to Tufts, which has a current student population of nearly 11,000 with 5,255 of them undergrads.

Last Thursday I was watching NBC’s Parenthood. The TV show focuses on the lives of the Braverman family, including college student Drew. Drew’s girlfriend, Amy, is currently staying with him in his Berkeley dorm room. I missed the season 4 finale in which Amy revealed she’d gotten into Tufts.

In Thursday’s episode, Amy shared that the girls at Tufts are snobby and everyone is smart and she simply cannot return there because she doesn’t fit in.

Awhile ago, I asked my son if he ever felt out of place at Tufts. I mean, this is a college where lamb is served in the dining center and there’s a sailing team. Not exactly a part of his lower middle class upbringing.

A man of few words, he said that depends on who he is with and that even then he doesn’t let his lack of family wealth bother him. Unlike Amy on Parenthood, I’ve never heard him call anyone at Tufts “snobby.”

Financial aid at Tufts is based on need, the sole reason my son can afford to attend this distinguished university. Annual attendance cost far surpasses our yearly family income. Tufts has set a goal of “ensuring that no highly qualified applicants are turned away because their need exceeds the university’s resources,” according to information on the Giving to Tufts portion of the university’s website. Our family is grateful to Tufts for embracing that philosophy of admitting students “not based on ability to pay, but on ability, pure and simple.”

That all said, when the son was home in Minnesota for holiday break, we went clothes shopping. I swear he grew an inch or more in the three months since I’d seen him.

About one thing he was adamant: “They don’t wear flannel shirts in Boston.” This from a 19-year-old who, only after entering college, began caring about attire. Not to say he dressed poorly. But fashion simply never mattered much to him.

Now he’s back at Tufts with these new clothes: four sweaters, three pairs of jeans, grey pants, and a winter scarf (in Tufts colors).

Legendary Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo.

Legendary Paul Bunyan (dressed in his flannel lumberjack shirt) and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo.

Surprisingly, though, he took his flannel back to Boston, too. He likely can wear the shirts, unnoticed, under his new sweaters.

Had he left his flannel shirts behind in Minnesota, I would have swiped them. I take no shame in dressing like Paul Bunyan.

FYI: Click here to reach Tufts’ Facebook page and the latest on the university’s mention in the Doonesbury comic strip.

Click here to reach Wikipedia’s “Tufts University in popular culture.”

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Paul Bunyan land: Hackensack hosts art and book fest August 16, 2013

Every Tuesday during the summer months, Hackensack hosts a kids' fishing contest.

Every Tuesday during the summer months, Hackensack hosts a kids’ fishing contest on Birch Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

IT’S A SWEET SMALL TOWN snugged in Minnesota’s northwoods north of Brainerd, half way to Bemidji.

This would be lumberjack Paul Bunyan.

This would be lumberjack Paul Bunyan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

You’ll find statues of legendary Paul Bunyan here…

Paul Bunyan's sweetheart, Lucette, stands next to the library along Birch Lake.

Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette, stands next to the library along Birch Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

and of his bride, Lucette. She stands near Birch Lake, next to an old log cabin that houses a library run by volunteers.

Several summers ago I photographed this log cabin library in Hackensack.

The Hackensack library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

It’s no wonder Hackensack, home to not quite 300 permanent and who knows how many seasonal residents, will host its 18th annual Northwoods Art & Book Festival from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. this Saturday, August 17.

I’ll be there. Sort of.

I’ve submitted two poems to the Sixth Annual Poetry Display/Recognition, as I’ve done for several years.

Fest-goers can peruse the poems inside the Union Congregational Church and vote for their favorites for the six Popular Choice awards. The poetry committee will also select six Works of Merit. Poets will read their poems beginning at 1:30 p.m. with award winners announced afterward. Local newspapers will publish the winning poems.

A collection of works by eight Minnesota writers.

A collection of works by eight Minnesota writers.

But there’s more. Twenty-plus Minnesota authors and poets will sign and sell their books throughout the day. Sweet. Any event that promotes Minnesota writers and artists gets my support. Among the literary offerings is Bards of a Feather Write Together—A Collection. It features the poetry, fiction and memoirs, some previously published, of eight Minnesota writers, all members of the writing group Bards of a Feather. I am currently reading this debut anthology and thoroughly enjoying the variety of voices and content therein.

Visual artists will also be part of the Hackensack fest, selling their original artwork. Original and created by the artist. No resale items. Splendid.

No Minnesota festival is complete without food, which you’ll find in the food court.

I wish I could join this celebration of Minnesota writers and artists. But distance and previous commitments won’t allow me to be there. My poems will have to do. For this year.

FYI: For more information, click here to reach the Northwoods Arts Council website. The council is the festival sponsor.

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary copy of Bards of a Feather Write Together for review purposes.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling