Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What I’m drawn to photograph in rural Minnesota January 7, 2020

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One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.

 

I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.

 

Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.

 

A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.

 

Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.

 

While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.

 

In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.

 

It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.

 

A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

 

I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.

 

In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.

 

On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.

 

A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A photo review of 2019 from Minnesota January 2, 2020

Dancers at an Hispanic Heritage Month event in Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

BACK IN THE YEARS when I worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer, this week marked a time of looking back on the past year’s news stories and photos. I paged through back issues of the newspaper in search of the most significant local events in our coverage area. And then I compiled a year-in-review feature for the front page of the weekly. More often than not, the selected stories were ones of tragedy and heartbreak. Such is the nature of hard news. Please don’t blame the messenger. It is a mistake I still attempt to correct when people complain about the news. Writers do not cause/create the news.

 

The tower of Shumway Hall at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault is beautiful no matter the season. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2019.

 

All of that aside, this year I found myself once again compiling a year-in-review, this time for my monthly photo essay, Through a SoMinn Lens, publishing in the regional lifestyle magazine Southern Minn Scene. When the editorial calendar called for the January/February issue to focus on the past year, I knew immediately that I would ferret out photos from my files to represent each month of 2019.

 

Spring blossoms along the Cannon Lake bike trail, rural Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2019.

 

That proved challenging and time-consuming as my files hold thousands of images. But I whittled down the selection, giving the editor options. The result is a mix of 21 photos with subjects ranging from personal to community celebrations, from art to nature…

 

My granddaughter, Isabelle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

In my photography, I aim not to present instagrammable moments, but to show authenticity, to tell a story. My granddaughter running across a grassy field, her curls flying, her long legs pumping. Waves rippling across a lake and lapping at the hooves of horses. Dancers in colorful costumes showcasing their heritage.

 

These horseback riders led their horses to the lake for a quick drink of water at Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

These images represent my life, my world, my Minnesota. The places and people and experiences that were part of my 2019, that held importance in my life for a moment. Or more.

To view my photo essay, “Reflections on 2019 in images & words,” click here.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay November 25, 2019

Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.

Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.

 

I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.

 

Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.

 

With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.

 

The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.

 

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.

 

A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.

 

Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.

 

Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.

 

Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.

 

Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.

 

Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.

 

I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.

 

Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.

 

Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.

 

Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

 

Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.

As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-see NYC photo blog November 21, 2019

A Minnesota version of the Statue of Liberty at the Holiday Haven motel in Detroit Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

FOR A FEW YEARS NOW, I’ve followed the work of award-winning New York City photographer Keith Goldstein. His credentials are extensive and impressive.

But beyond that lengthy list of accomplishments is my genuine appreciation of his work. He specializes in street portraits and in architectural photography. Goldstein captures some pretty incredible pictures of people going about everyday life in the big city and I often wonder how he does it. But he’s that good, unobtrusively photographing individuals in an urban environment that is also part of each photo story. I often find myself studying a frame, surprised by what I see.

New York City is about so much more than the nearby Statue of Liberty and Wall Street and 9/11. This noted photographer reveals that in his images.

Recently, Goldstein’s photo blog has focused on NYC buildings, truly foreign to my rural flatlander background. I’ve only been to this East Coast city once, decades ago while in college. I remember standing on a street corner then, craning my neck toward the skyscrapers. And nearly being run over by someone pushing a garment rack down the sidewalk. I don’t ever intend to return to NYC. I really don’t much care for big cities.

 

Photographed in June 2014 at a shop in Farmington, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

But, through Goldstein’s photography, I am shown this world so different from mine in rural Minnesota. I see the humanity of NYC, raw and exposed. Sometimes I just want to reach into those portraits and wrap my arms around the people who are hurting. Give hugs. I want to stop and listen and offer a smile and encouragement. In the sea of humanity that defines this place, Goldstein manages to find the individuals, to tell their stories through the lens of his camera.

 

Another Statue of Liberty, this one at Hot Sam’s Foto Park near Lakeville. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2012.

 

I consider his photography a gift. Real. Unfiltered. It’s important that I see the peoples and architecture of New York City because these images broaden my world. Goldstein’s photos stretch my compassion and my understanding of these United States of America. We are, no matter where we live, still just people with emotions and needs and hopes and dreams. And we all hold within us the capacity to connect and to care. Goldstein, in his art—because his work truly is art—offers that. And for that I am grateful.

TO VIEW Keith Goldstein’s blog, Far Earth Below, click here.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thank you, veterans November 11, 2019

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A star marks a veteran’s grave. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I AWAKENED EARLY this morning writing this post in my head, before I fell back into a fitful sleep. Words flowed earlier. Now, though, I’ve forgotten the precise phrasing. But the essence of my thoughts remains. Thank you, veterans.

 

Howard Homeier, a WW II veteran from Kenyon, Minnesota, in his cherished 1950s pick-up truck. When I photographed him in 2009, he’d just participated in a ceremony honoring veterans. He was a member of the Kenyon Color Guard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2009.

 

Thank you for all you sacrificed to serve, to protect our freedom and that of other nations and peoples. Thank you for placing country before self. Thank you for your bravery and fortitude, for your resilience and strength, for your ability to forge on in the most difficult of circumstances.

Thank you for setting aside your personal and family lives, for all those days and nights apart from those you love. That could not have been easy. Separation never is.

Thank you to your families for enduring this separation, for supporting you, for recognizing the importance of your work.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

Those two words—thank you—don’t seem nearly enough. But I write them with sincerity and a depth of understanding founded in the experiences of my Korean War veteran father. I saw the toll war took on him, decades after he left Korea. He fought there in the rugged mountains of that nation, rifle in hand, firing at the enemy, hugging the earth of foxholes, taking out a sniper who killed too many of his brothers. War is hard.

And so thank you seems insufficient. But it is what I offer to you today. From my heart.

 

A veteran salutes during the Memorial Day Program at Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

ADDITIONALLY, I want to share that the above photo I took of a veteran at the 2018 Memorial Day program at Central Park in Faribault, recently won third place in the People category of National Mutual Benefit’s 2019 Photo Contest. National Mutual is a fraternal life insurance society based in Madison, Wisconsin and through which my parents purchased a policy for me as a baby.

I am honored to have this image chosen for recognition and publication. It is just one more way for me to say, “Thank you, veterans.”

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My latest photo essay features the place that sparked my creativity October 25, 2019

Minnesota State Highway 68 near Morgan in my native southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ROOTED IN THE MINNESOTA PRAIRIE. Those words summarize my most recent photo essay published in the regional lifestyle magazine Southern Minn Scene. The four-page Through a SoMinn Lens spread features 23 of my photos, all from the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Some are recent while others are pulled from my extensive files. All were selected to showcase the land that shaped me as a person, a writer and a photographer.

My images and words fit the theme of this month’s issue, “the best of southern Minnesota.” In 2014, my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog was voted the Best Local Blog/Blogger in this annual competition. Bloggers are no longer included in the contest which spans theater to restaurants to breweries and a wide range of businesses, events and people in southeastern Minnesota. I learned a lot paging through the winners’ summaries.

I welcome you to meet the entrepreneurs and others who garnered the winning votes from readers. Please take time also to view my photo essay (beginning on page 46) about the prairie place that roots me.

Click here to read the November issue of Southern Minn Scene.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing Autumn in Southern Minnesota, a photo essay September 23, 2019

 

THE LATEST ISSUE of Southern Minn Scene magazine has published. And it’s appropriately fall-themed with a focus on celebrating autumn and all that entails in my region of Minnesota.

In my second photo essay column for this publication, I pulled images from my files to accompany text that speaks to my personal appreciation of autumn.

I’d encourage you to click here and page through this free lifestyle magazine. You’ll find Through a SoMinn Lens on pages 12-14. Fifteen photos publish in my essay, “Embracing Autumn in Southern Minnesota.”

These images and words reflect my deep connection to the land and to this place I call home. Enjoy.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling