Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Just another reason to appreciate Northfield, Minnesota August 6, 2019

On a corner along Division Street in historic downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

 

WE ARRIVED IN NORTHFIELD to find the city abuzz. Or rather abuzz and resounding with the sound of music.

Randy swung the van into the first open parking spot, surprisingly just off Division Street and a short walk from Bridge Square, headquarters for the Vintage Band Festival. On this lovely August early evening, we headed toward the sound of music, rounded the corner by the post office and observed an audience packing the square and spilling onto the closed street. At that moment I wished for lawn chairs. These obvious seasoned fest attendees brought theirs. Without chairs, we settled onto the curb just a door down from the former First National Bank (now the Northfield Historical Society), site of the famous Jesse James-Cole Younger Gang bank raid. We listened to a few songs before deciding we couldn’t sit like this any longer. Maybe if we were younger…

 

Territorial Brass performs in Armory Square’s green space.

 

From there we aimed toward our destination, Reunion, a new restaurant in town. But first, we decided to check out another concert, this one in the Armory Square green space. Here, Arizona’s official historical brass band performed territorial period music. Territorial Brass band members, dressed in period attire, replicate the music of vintage brass bands in Arizona and New Mexico. And bonus, a vocal soloist, “Violet,” sang along with the instrumentalists. What a delight to hear the band, among some 40 performing during 100 concerts over the four-day Vintage Band Festival.

 

Soloist and band spokesperson, “Violet,” walked through the crowd while singing.

 

After listening for awhile, we left to dine at the new eatery. But, once inside Reunion, we learned the wait would be 45 minutes. I was disappointed, too hungry to wait. Had we known this, we would have reserved a dining spot earlier and awaited the text that our table was ready. Live and learn.

 

Among those listening to Territorial Brass.

 

Anyway, no matter, we appreciated the vintage music that added another reason to stop in Northfield on a beautiful Minnesota summer evening.

TELL ME: Have you ever attended Northfield’s Vintage Band Festival or a similar vintage band festival?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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“Sweet Land” coming to Faribault & I’m in September 18, 2017

I KICKED BACK in the recliner attempting to read while my eyelids fluttered in fatigue. Randy relaxed nearby on the sofa, eyes focused on the Faribault Daily News. He started to say something, then stopped. “Never mind,” he said. Now that grabbed my attention. But I didn’t press. I figured if he wanted to tell me whatever, he eventually would.

 

 

 

The next morning Randy flipped open the paper and pointed to a display ad for the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault. Targeting his finger on the October 12 performance of “Sweet Land, the musical,” he asked me to order tickets. This, he said, would be my birthday gift, albeit late and on his birthday. Mystery solved.

 

Ann Michels in the lead role alongside Robert Berdahl. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.

 

I am delighted with this birthday gift to a musical I had hoped to see on stage at the History Theatre in St. Paul. But we never got there and now the performance starring Faribault native Anne Michels as German immigrant Inge Altenberg is coming to my community, to the campus of a noted college prep school just across the viaduct from my home.

The Faribault performance is among seven on a summer and fall travel tour of “Sweet Land” to towns in greater Minnesota. Other upcoming shows are in Detroit Lakes, Grand Rapids, Red Wing and Worthington.

 

A promo for the film from the Sweet Land website.

 

My excitement for this musical traces to my deep love of the award-winning independent film, Sweet Land, based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.” The movie, filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, tells the story of a mail-order bride and the challenges she faces as a German immigrant. The topic is especially relevant today.

Yet Sweet Land is much more. It’s a story that also focuses on the love between two people in a place where the land weaves a strong presence into the storyline.

To have this opportunity to see Sweet Land locally rather than travel into the metro is a gift, birthday or not.

 

FYI: Click here for more information about the History Theatre’s tour of “Sweet Land, the musical.” Click here for specific info about the Faribault show.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Historic “Wrapped in Love and Glory” honors women of the mill & more in Faribault December 12, 2016

The scene outside the Paradise Center for the Arts during intermission of "Wrapped in Love and Glory."

The scene outside the Paradise Center for the Arts during intermission of “Wrapped in Love and Glory.” I snapped this cell phone photo of Central Avenue while standing under the theater marquee.

SNUGGED INSIDE FARIBAULT’S historic Paradise Center for the Arts on a cold and snowy Saturday evening, I awaited the world premiere of “Wrapped in Love and Glory” penned by native son and playwright Michael Lambert.

A promotional poster hangs outside the Paradise.

A promotional poster hangs behind glass outside the Paradise.

My expectations—in performance and in the storyline—ran high. It takes a confident writer to pen a play that focuses on local history. And it takes an equally confident cast to perform it before a hometown crowd. Lambert and The Merlin Players did Faribault proud in presenting the stories of local women who wove blankets for American troops at the historic Faribault Woolen Mill during WW II. The mill, still in existence today, continues to weave blankets for the military.

Before the play opened, I took this cell phone image of the set showing Woolen Mill blankets suspended with the video screen to the left.

Before the play opened, I took this cell phone image of the set showing Woolen Mill blankets suspended with the video screen to the left. Lighting was insufficient to truly reflect the simplistic beauty of the display.

Against a backdrop of mill blankets from Lambert’s personal collection, narrators, actresses and singers took the stage of this intimate theatre for the two-hour production. This playwright mixed music of the era, like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Blue Skies,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and 23 other songs in to the narrative. The music, performed primarily by a trio of women in Andrews Sisters style—think synchronized hand motions, swaying and tipping microphones on stands—with the loveliest of voices, ranged from sweet crooning to rhythmic.

Music and dialogue complemented each other as did video clips of actors (soldiers) reading letters written to the women back home. Authentic letters that Lambert gathered from within the Faribault community. Letters with endearments like darling, sweetheart, dearest.

Video stills also featured newspaper headlines, photos and more, adding to the historic context.

Some of the cast members of "Wrapped in Love & Glory" pose inside the Faribault Woolen Mill. Photo by Edward Brown.

Some of the cast members of “Wrapped in Love & Glory” pose inside the Faribault Woolen Mill. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

Lambert wove a lot of history in to “Wrapped in Love and Glory.” History of WW II. And then local history. Of the Faribault Woolen Mill, which contracted with the U.S. government to supply 250,000 drab olive Army blankets and sleeping bags for troops. Of the Cannon River, along which the mill sits. Of WW II pilot and WASP Betty Wall (Elizabeth Strohfus) presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. Of Heisman Trophy winner Bruce Smith. Of German prisoners-of-war working at the Faribault Canning Company. All flowed in the storyline, along with familiar names like Klemer and Caron.

It was a story that made me consider the dedication of the hardworking women who wove those blankets for American soldiers serving in the cold mountains of Italy, storming the beach at Normandy, or training in places like Chicago. The women who exchanged letters with those soldiers. The women who relied on each other and their inner strength during a time of war and of separation. The women who kept America running.

On Saturday morning, before snow began falling, I took this photo of the historic Paradise Center for the Arts.

On Saturday morning, before snow began falling, I took this photo of the historic Paradise Center for the Arts.

FYI: Additional performances of “Wrapped in Love and Glory” are set for 7:30 p.m. December 15, 16 and 17 and at 2 p.m. December 18 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, in historic downtown Faribault. Call (507) 332-7372 for ticket information. Or click here.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling