Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

June bride at the Village of Yesteryear June 26, 2020

A sign marks the Village of Yesteryear, a sprawling collection of historic buildings in Owatonna.

 

WHILE WALKING TOWARD THE HISTORIC CHURCH, I first saw her. The woman dressed in black. With a camera. Although I wondered at her formal attire, I didn’t consider that she might be someone other than a photographer interested in the Village of Yesteryear.

 

The District 14 school moved here in 1963.

 

I took this photo of the old school before the bride and her bridesmaids arrived.

 

From a distance, I photographed the photographer at work.

 

But soon enough, when I saw a bride and her attendants rounding the back of the 1856 District No. 14 schoolhouse, the photographer’s purpose became clear.

 

Trees frame the steeple of the Saco Church.

 

By that time, I’d reached St. Wenceslaus Church of Moravia, a church built in 1891 and moved here, to the grounds of the Steele County Historical Society in Owatonna, in 1962.

 

While I’ve previously been inside this historic church, it was locked on Saturday.

 

I pondered for a moment whether a wedding was planned here, but saw nothing to indicate that. So I took a few photos of the aged church, which was locked, just like all the other buildings in this historic village on this late Saturday afternoon. And while I did that, I kept my eye on the nearby photo session.

For one, I didn’t want to stray into the path of the professional photographer. I’ve been in her shoes and understand the frustration of dealing with wedding guests who get in the way and want to take photos. That presents challenges in time and management and more.

 

I stood to the side and photographed the bride and her attendants.

 

But, as I neared the group of women while en route to the parking lot, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Is it okay if I take your picture? I’m a blogger.” The bride was quick to approve and the photographer invited me to stand next to her. I declined. “I don’t have my mask,” I explained. She didn’t have her face mask either.

 

From the back of the church, the bride and her party are visible from afar.

 

That is the reality of living during a global pandemic. As excited as I was to happen upon this most common of summer scenes—an outdoors bridal photo session—I still remembered COVID-19. Minutes earlier I’d congratulated the bride on her wedding day, specifically commenting on the challenges of marrying in a pandemic.

 

You can see and feel the love in this photo.

 

But, as I framed a few photos, my thoughts shifted back to the moment, to the celebration, to the joy. Here were four beautiful young women, stunning in their sparkly dresses, arms wrapped around one another, luscious bouquets of peonies clutched in their hands, posing for portraits against an historic backdrop.

In that moment I witnessed life. Ordinary and celebratory. Life full and joyous. Life as lovely as a June bride.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Making American Stories during Faribault Car Cruise Night, Part III June 25, 2020

Closing in on downtown, only blocks from Central Avenue, at the end of the car cruise route.

 

AS I WATCHED AND PHOTOGRAPHED the June 19 Faribault Car Cruise Night, I considered not only the stories I would tell with my photos, but the stories of those participating in this monthly summer event.

 

What’s the story behind the TOOTIE license plate on this Ford Fairlane?

 

And where was this young boy riding prior to the cruise?

 

What stories have been written, and shared, in this 1956 Chevy station wagon?

 

What prompted them to join the cruise? What would they see? How would they feel? What memories would they take away from this leisurely Friday evening drive around Faribault area lakes and back into town? Will they, years from now, talk about the summer of 2020 and how, even in the midst of a global pandemic, they went on a car cruise?

 

What’s the story behind this vintage Pontiac owned by Sharon and Tom?

 

The back of that beautiful Pontiac.

 

Life is one long story. With many chapters. And editing along the way. Sometimes by us, sometimes by those who think they can edit our lives or rewrite our stories. They can’t. They are not us. Our stories are ours.

 

Part of Faribault’s “American Stories” campaign.

 

“Making American Stories” is among a handful of marketing slogans selected by local tourism folks to promote Faribault. That theme, along with crafting, experiencing, shaping and preserving American stories, is bannered on signs posted throughout my community. I like this campaign. It’s clear, meaningful, uncomplicated and fitting. It defines community strengths—from history to home-grown businesses to things to do.

 

What’s the story behind “The Rock” shirt?

 

What leads someone to own a vintage car like this Buick Electra?

 

What prompts someone to get all creative and build a rat rod?

 

What’s the full story behind this tattoo?

 

Where did the owners find this vintage Chrysler convertible and what’s its history?

 

And on summer evenings in to early autumn, one of those local once-a-month activities is Faribault Car Cruise Night. It brings together the past and the present. Links vintage vehicles and new. Seniors and kids. Car collectors and, new this year, Harley riders.

 

What’s the story behind the ATV?

 

Wonder what stories this Pontiac GTO convertible could tell?

 

So many American stories in the making during the June 19 Faribault Car Cruise Night.

 

Switched from a Central Avenue-based park-and-look event, this actual driving cruise has added a new dimension in the making of this American story. I wonder about the stories. Those already written. And those being written.

This concludes my three-part photo series on the June 19 Faribault Car Cruise Night.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cruisin’ in red, Part II from Faribault Car Cruise Night June 24, 2020

A 1957 Chevrolet.

 

WHEN I PHOTOGRAPH car shows, I find myself drawn to red vehicles.

 

A hot rod.

 

For one, the color red pops in photos.

 

 

But, I’m also wondering if red cars are more common? Is that why, when I scroll through frames from the June 19 Faribault Car Cruise Night, that I notice lots of red vehicles in my photos.

 

Ford Fairlane.

 

Red cars.

Mid-60s Chevy pick-up truck.

 

Red trucks.

 

 

Even red Harley Davidson motorcycles. Bikes ended the parade.

 

Ford Mustang.

 

When I think of a red vehicle, I think of speed. And being a bit show-offy.

 

 

Mid 1960s Ford Mustang.

 

 

I think of youth. Although that’s not necessarily accurate. How many guys have purchased red cars during the stereotypical mid-life crisis? Maybe you don’t want to answer that question. Red, I suppose, looks good on anyone, no matter their age.

 

Camaro Super Sport.

 

Red seems an attention-grabbing hue. A good color choice for on-the-road visibility.

 

 

Whether a vehicle is fire-engine red or a shade muting more to maroon, the undertones will always catch my eye. There’s just something about red…

 

1962 Chevrolet.

 

TELL ME: Have you ever owned, or do you own, a red vehicle or shade thereof? What’s your color preference in a vehicle? And why?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cruisin’ into summer during COVID-19, Part I June 23, 2020

Heading east on Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street past the courthouse and Fareway Foods, Car Cruise Night participants arrive in the downtown Faribault business district Friday evening, June 19.

 

IN A SUMMER THAT FEELS anything but normal due to COVID-19, I welcome distractions. And a sense of semi-normalcy.

 

A 1957 Chevrolet.

 

For awhile Friday evening, during Faribault Car Cruise Night, I could pretend that we are not in the midst of a global pandemic. The event has been revamped this summer from vehicles parked along Central Avenue to an actual cruise. The June 19 evening cruise started at the Faribault Middle School, leading drivers out of town and around area lakes before heading back to Faribault and finishing on the south end of Central Avenue.

 

I swung my camera lens east and west to take in the cruise coming and going, including this 1969 Chevrolet Camaro.

 

Watching the parade from the back of a pick-up truck parked in a business parking lot.

 

My friends Curt and Leann in their 1959 Ford Galaxie.

 

In deciding where to sit, Randy and I intentionally looked for a spot that would keep us clear of crowds. And we found that in front of the Rice County Government Center. The uncrowded setting also allowed me to roam onto the courthouse lawn to take photos.

 

Pre-cruise, I photographed this traffic westbound along busy Fourth Street.

 

We waited for nearly an hour from the 6 pm start time to see the first car rolling toward us on Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street. But it was a lovely summer evening to sit outdoors, so we didn’t mind the wait. I did worry, though, about shooting into the sun while photographing the parade of vehicles. And that did prove to be somewhat problematic.

 

Waving from a Chervrolet Corvette.

 

 

A group of bikers closed out the cruise line.

 

No matter, I got plenty of photos—images which show a sense of community, of fun, of joy. This cruise felt different. Lots of smiles. Hand waving. Showing off by a few drivers.

 

A 1955 Chevrolet.

 

 

A Ford Falcon.

 

Many seemed grateful simply to be out on a beautiful Minnesota summer evening.

 

So enjoyed this bagpipe player and his addition to Faribault Car Cruise Night.

 

He started playing next to the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial.

 

Then moved nearer the courthouse.

 

Adding to the festivities was the music of a lone bagpiper stationed on the courthouse lawn. He stood for awhile next to the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial in a show of respect. I noticed many an appreciative driver and passenger looking his way. The live music definitely added a new dimension to the cruise and I hope will continue.

 

 

 

 

Mostly, I felt an overwhelming sense of being part of something that was more than a parade of collector, vintage and other vehicles. I felt a sense of togetherness while not together. I felt a spirit of community.

 

 

In a summer when nearly every event that brings people together has been canceled, we had this, this escape. For a short time on a Friday evening in June in Faribault.

 

Please check back for two more posts from the June 18 Faribault Car Cruise Night.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Portrait in a pandemic June 20, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, May 15, 2020.

 

EVERY TIME I AM IN PUBLIC, I am reminded that we are living during a global pandemic. But even before I leave the house, I do a mental check list. Got my mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Hands washed? Check.

I admit, even after several months of this new way of living, pulling two elastic bands over my ears to hold a cloth face mask in place feels unnatural. Uncomfortable. Odd. But it’s necessary to protect others and to reduce my risk.

And then I need to remember to use hand sanitizer. Upon leaving a store. Before I re-enter my vehicle. Back home, no grocery bags set on counters. Hands washed. I’m learning.

A month ago, while attending the May Faribault Car Cruise Night, I took the above portrait of a man walking along Central Avenue in the heart of our downtown. I appreciate the story this image tells. It represents, to me, the portrait of a pandemic.

In my city of some 24,000, there have been 653 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, June 19. That’s a fairly high number for our population, in my opinion. County-wide, we’ve had 743 positives, according to information on the Rice County Public Health Services web page. Our state prison accounts for 26 percent of those cases. We have the sixth highest incidence rate of the virus in Minnesota. Four county residents have died.

This virus knows no boundaries. Rural-ness offers no protection. We are all, by the fact that we are human, part of this pandemic. Part of the story. Part of history. Portraits in a pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Photographic perspective June 8, 2020

I delight in dried grasses dancing in the wind at sunset at River Bend Nature Center.

 

A MONTH AGO, as spring broke in Minnesota, Randy and I headed to one of our favorite local outdoor places—River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

 

Beauty in a single grass stem.

 

As usual, I carried my camera. My camera invites me to see the world in a different and more detailed way. I look through the viewfinder with an artist’s eye and with an intent, creative focus.

 

Randy surveys the prairie below.

 

Directions to the prairie route.

 

An overview of the land.

 

I use photography to create and to document. And in the process, I find joy. If you’re a photographer, you understand that moment when everything—the light, the subject, the composition—comes together. It’s, to be somewhat trite, magical.

 

Greenery dangles from a tree, looking lovely in the evening light.

 

People often comment that I must have a “really good camera.” I don’t. It’s second-hand, an EOS 20D Canon, old by today’s standards. It doesn’t perform especially well in low light. But I love this camera; it’s my second 20D.

 

I love the muted, dreamy tone of this image, the softness in the light of a setting sun as I shot through the field of dried grasses.

 

Today’s smartphone cameras can technically surpass the quality of my aging DSLR. But there’s one thing technology can’t replace. And that’s the photographer’s skill-set, talent, experience and creativity.

 

The moon rises while the sun sets.

 

I understand the basics of photography—of lighting, composition, focus… But even more, I recognize the importance of perspective and storytelling. Of thinking outside the box. Of creating art with my photography.

 

A red-winged blackbird catches my eye.

 

When you see my photos, I want you to feel immersed in a sense of place. In that moment when I stand or squat or kneel to frame an image, I want you there. Or when I set my camera on the ground and aim the lens upward without looking through the viewfinder.

 

A prairie path…

 

I strive to tell stories, to introduce you to people and take you to places and events you may not otherwise see. To show you my little corner of the world and beyond, through my life lens.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of trees at sunset April 14, 2020

 

 

SUNSET. I FIND IT profoundly beautiful. Poetically beautiful.

 

 

Last week while walking a tree-lined trail in Faribault’s North Alexander Park, I stopped to appreciate the sunset through the trees.

 

 

I aimed my camera lens skyward, toward treetops. Branches, like lines drawn in wide chisel and felt tip markers, traced the sky. Sharp against backdrop canvases of blue, pink and orange. Lovely. The literary and visual work of an artist.

 

 

Scenes like this are so ordinary, yet extraordinary. Nature, when viewed in pause mode, seems even more stunning these days.

 

 

When I lift my camera and look through a viewfinder to frame a photo, I see so much. I notice details. Shapes. Colors. Patterns. Light.

 

 

It’s a process similar to writing poetry. I immerse myself in creating something beautiful. Poetry requires sparse, well-chosen words. Photography requires that, too, but in a visual way.

 

 

In this unprecedented time of social distancing, isolation and concern about COVID-19, I feel especially grateful for a quiet place to walk, to appreciate the art of nature and then create my own art via photography.

 

 

April is National Poetry Month. Celebrate by reading a poem, writing a poem or finding a poem in nature, like I did at North Alexander Park on a cold April evening with strong winds gusting from the northwest, sometimes shaking my camera lens.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Wisconsin: Quick, look before the snow melts March 5, 2020

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An iconic Wisconsin farm site photographed from Interstate 90 on February 15.

 

OH, WHAT A DIFFERENCE a few weeks make. I’m talking snow cover here. With temps rising into the 40s, even 50s in some places in Minnesota, and sun shining bright in the afternoons, the snow pack is diminishing.

 

Photographed on February 15 while traveling along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, this tree stand appears like an island in an ocean of snow.

 

I can now see patches of grass in my lawn, curbing along streets and indications that we are getting closer to spring. As a life-long Minnesotan, though, I recognize the potential for lots more snowfall, even into May.

But for now, we’re delighting in days that lean toward spring. Sixty degrees is forecast for this weekend. Imagine how that will facilitate snow melt. And lift spirits.

 

This hillside barn is located near Madison, in an area more urban than rural.

 

That all said, I’m finally getting around to sharing snowscape photos I took in mid-February while traveling along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, eastbound toward Madison. Scenes along that route are becoming familiar to me now given the frequency of trips to visit our second daughter, her husband and our son in the capital city.

 

A pastoral scene along I-90 in southern Wisconsin.

 

Wisconsin, for all the jokes about beer, brats and cheese, and fan fanaticism for the Packers and Badgers, is a lot like Minnesota. Friendly folks. Diverse landscape. Mostly rural with just enough urban. Interesting. I’ve enjoyed exploring Madison from botanical gardens to art museums to a repurposed mill next to my son’s apartment building.

 

In the valley east of La Crosse, the length of this barn along I-90 impresses me.

 

A picturesque farm site sits in the valley.

 

Another long barn.

 

 

With the exception of Rochester, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, the four-hour drive to Madison from Faribault takes us primarily through rural regions. I especially like the area east of La Crosse where high rolling hills border farm fields and farm sites in the valley. Hills and wide sky dwarf the farms, a strong visual that always impresses upon me our smallness in this vast universe.

 

This scene, especially, emphasizes our smallness.

 

Such are my thoughts as we travel. I never tire of looking at these rural scenes, often wishing we had time to follow backroads deep into the hills. We did once, years ago while vacationing, and nearly lost our way such are the twisting paths within those hills.

 

Nearing Madison, a traditional farmhouse and barn define this farm.

 

I digress. I expect if I was to photograph these sames scenes today, they would appear much different with snow no longer defining the landscape. What a difference only a few weeks make…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery revisited, Part I February 26, 2020

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A section of downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, with its many historic buildings.

 

I DOUBT I’VE WRITTEN about any small Minnesota community more than I’ve written about Montgomery. Located within a half hour of my Faribault home, it’s a quick drive away. And Montgomery offers just enough to keep me returning.

 

Signs always draw my eye, including this one. It’s simple, nostalgic…

 

Especially interesting is the downtown with eye-catching signage, aged buildings and home-grown shops.

 

Among the sweet offerings at the long-time, popular Franke’s Bakery.

 

An old-fashioned bakery.

 

Outside the entry to the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center located in Hilltop Hall.

 

A thriving Arts & Heritage Center.

 

Beer to go at Montgomery Brewing.

 

A brewery with outstanding craft beers.

 

The friendly young man I met while photographing downtown. He paused to let me pet Buddy.

 

Friendly people.

 

Everywhere downtown you’ll find signs promoting kolacky.

 

A deep appreciation for the area’s Czech heritage. Combine those and you have a small town that appeals to me.

 

Third-generation Franke’s Bakery is known for its kolacky.

 

I recognize that what interests me may not interest you. But there’s something to be said for small towns with a strong sense of identity and pride in that identity. For Montgomery, it’s the tag, “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The kolacky is a bun-like Czech pastry filled with a fruit or poppyseed filling. Risking the wrath of the Czech, I will tell you that it’s not a favorite of mine. I’d choose a doughnut before a kolacky. But then I am of German descent and was not raised in this area of Minnesota.

 

Stand in the grocery store parking lot and you can see the grain elevator in one direction, the brewery in another and the main street through downtown, too.

 

None of that matters really. What matters is that I like Montgomery. Unleash me with a camera in this town and I get excited about the photo ops, all the ways I can capture the essence of this place. If my creative work is anything, it has always been about defining place.

 

Spotted in the window of a downtown business. These handwritten signs give a place character.

 

I will always feel most comfortable in a rural town like Montgomery. I appreciate a place where I can view a grain elevator, spot handwritten signs on business doors and windows, chat it up with the locals, stop to pet a passerby’s dog and stand in the middle of Main Street to take a photo without worry of traffic.

Now that my photo essay about Montgomery has published in the March issue of Southern Minn Scene magazine, I am free to share more photos from my January day trip to this Le Sueur County community. Enjoy and watch for additional posts highlighting Montgomery as I, once again, define this place in images and words.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery, Through a SoMinn Lens February 24, 2020

A scene outside Franke’s Bakery in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday morning. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

 

SEVERAL WEEKS HAVE PASSED since my last day trip to Montgomery, a small Minnesota town of some 3,000 about a 30-minute drive from my Faribault home.

Randy and I went to Montgomery specifically to view an exhibit of 1900s era photos of Native Americans by noted photographer Edward S. Curtis. The exhibit at the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center closes this Saturday, February 29. You can learn more about that show by clicking here and reading a previous post.

My reason for writing about Montgomery today is to share my latest Through a SoMinn Lens photo essay column, “Day trip to Montgomery, Kolacky Capital of the World,” which just published in the March issue of Southern Minn Scene. To see the current issue of this free lifestyle, arts and entertainment magazine, click here.

As always, I am delighted to showcase a small Minnesota community well worth your visit. As time allows this week (I’m trying to complete other writing projects with deadlines), I will share more Montgomery photos with you. Enjoy!

And if you have any suggestions of small towns (or attractions) in southern Minnesota that I should visit, please pass along your ideas.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling