Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

September at River Bend September 11, 2019

 

FIELDS OF GOLDENROD brighten the landscape—edging roadways, filling fields, erupting seemingly everywhere as summer slips ever closer to autumn in Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

A walk through River Bend Nature Center reveals hues of brown, orange, red and yellow. In leaves changing color. In fading flowers.

 

 

In mature milkweeds and drying prairie grasses.

 

 

In butterflies galore.

 

 

Days carry a visual impression of autumn. But also a feel of autumn. There’s a sense of urgency, of the need to be outdoors as much as possible.

 

 

Autumn marks my favorite of Minnesota’s seasons. So I carry my camera through Faribault’s sprawling nature center to take it all in.

 

 

 

 

The places marked by man with words of adoration.

 

 

The trails that trail through the woods.

 

 

 

 

And always the path cut through the prairie, where I imagine settlers of long ago crossing Minnesota Territory in covered wagons or slicing plow blades through sod or simply journeying westward into dreams.

 

 

These are my thoughts within this land set aside to preserve today for the dreamers of tomorrow.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Stone windmill symbolizes strength of Minnesota immigrants August 29, 2019

Walking toward Seppman Mill, located just outside a fenced area holding bison at Mnneopa State Park, rural Mankato, Minnesota.

 

IN THE PRAIRIE PART of Minneopa State Park where the bison roam, an historic stone windmill stands tall on the prairie’s edge. Minus the blades.

 

Interpretive signs detail the mill’s history.

 

 

The granary was rebuilt in 1970 to its original size.

 

The Seppman Mill symbolizes the strength and grit of the early immigrants, among them Louis Seppman. Seeing a need for a local flour mill, this stone mason started crafting the mill in 1862 from local stone hand-carried or transported in wheelbarrows to the site, according to the book, Minnesota: A State Guide.

 

 

The task of constructing the windmill patterned after those in Seppman’s native Germany took two years. Eruption of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict in the region in 1862 delayed construction. Once operational, the mill could grind 150 bushels of wheat into flour on a day of favorable winds.

 

 

While the wind powered the arms of the 32-foot high windmill, it also proved the mill’s ultimate demise. In 1873, lightning struck and knocked off two of the arms and sails. Seven years later, tornadic winds ripped off the replacement arms. And, finally, in 1890, a third storm damaged the mill beyond repair.

 

A prairie restoration is underway here at Minneopa as noted in this sign posted near the windmill.

 

I can only imagine the frustration of Seppman and others who tried, tried and tried again to keep the mill operating. Three strikes and you’re out seems applicable.

 

Coneflowers, with their deep roots, thrive among the prairie grasses.

 

But then I consider all they did to even get the mill built. Those early settlers truly exemplify hard work and determination. How many of us would carry all those stones up an inclined roadway and then seemingly puzzle-piece the stones together? It’s remarkable really.

 

Black-eyed susans.

 

I’m thankful this windmill has been mostly restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It is a visual tribute to the early settlers of Minnesota, a reminder of the value these immigrants brought to this land, to this state, to this prairie place they called home. Then. And still today.

 

A sign along the prairie’s edge near the mill informs about bison in Minnesota.

 

Here, where the bison once roamed.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mingling with the bison in Minnesota August 28, 2019

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With more than 300 acres to roam, the bison conveniently clustered around a watering hole next to the road through the prairie during our visit to Minneopa State Park.

 

OH, GIVE ME A HOME, where the buffalo roam…

 

This pair was so close to our van that I could almost have reached out and touched the calf.

 

Whenever I think of buffalo, those lyrics pop into my head. My classmates and I sang the words during informal music time at Vesta Elementary School some 50-plus years ago.

 

Interpretive signage about the bison is positioned overlooking the prairie.

 

An overview of the Minneopa prairie, home to a herd of bison.

 

A map shows native prairie remaining in Minnesota, land needed by bison for grazing.

 

Or, whenever I think of buffalo, I remember childhood visits to the small zoo at Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls. There a tall wire fence separated us from these massive animals I associate with Native American buffalo hunts on the prairie.

 

 

Or, more accurately, bison hunts. These powerful animals are technically bison, not buffalo.

 

 

Today you can see them in Minnesota at the Minnesota Zoo, Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and now at Minneopa State Park outside Mankato.

 

A gravel road slicing through the Minneopa prairie allows visitors to get a close-up view of the bison herd.

 

 

 

On a recent weekday afternoon, we drove to Mankato into bison territory. Literally. Vehicles turn onto a gravel road that winds through the Minneopa prairie, home to about 20 bison. Having grown up on a dairy and beef farm (with several mean bulls), I respect animals that outsize me, especially those with horns.

 

 

 

Vehicles park to watch the bison and a passenger steps out to photograph the dangerous animals.

 

I didn’t even question the validity of signage warning visitors to stay inside their vehicles because bison are dangerous. I watched in disbelief as a woman stood outside a car taking photos with the bison herd within stone’s throw. What on earth was she thinking? Only moments earlier a sheriff’s car passed by and I wished the deputy had seen, and ticketed, her.

 

 

We had a bit of a scare ourselves when a bison walking nearby suddenly bolted toward our van, but veered away at the last second. I envisioned horns impaling the metal.

 

 

These animals command respect. They are massive, powerful and beautiful, a part of our state’s history.

 

 

To share space with them upon the prairie is not only an experience, but an honor.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My prairie place of peace in Faribault July 8, 2019

 

I’VE FOUND MY PARK in Faribault. The place of wildflowers and waving grasses, of songbirds and waterfowl, of gravel trails that curve around bodies of water.

 

 

Faribault Energy Park reminds me of southwestern Minnesota, the prairie place of my roots. Located on the city’s northwest side and visible from Interstate 35, this Minnesota Municipal Power Agency park invites visitors to walk paths in an ever-changing natural landscape.

 

 

Even with the steady drone of I-35 traffic in the background, birdsong breaks through the noise. The memorable voice of the red-winged blackbird, especially, sounds a sensory delight.

 

 

I’ve visited the park mostly in the evening, when the golden light of sunset falls upon ponds, angles through grasses and flowers, and slices between tree branches.

 

 

Daisies, milkweed, clover, Iris and other flowers familiar but not identifiable to me by name populate the landscape in clusters of white, clumps of purple, flashes of yellow. Focusing my camera causes me to slow down, to notice blossoms I might otherwise miss while following the winding dirt paths.

 

 

But visitors can’t miss the wind turbine towering above the park next to a hillside block of solar panels. Informational signage explains how wind energy converts into electricity. Faribault Energy Park, though, is a dual fuel (natural gas and fuel oil) facility, not primairly wind-powered, and runs during periods of high demand for electricity.

 

 

This park serves also to educate, welcoming students to tour the plant each May, to view the control room, the steam turbine and then to walk those wetland area trails. Tours are also available by appointment.

 

 

For folks like me simply seeking a place to escape into and photograph nature, Faribault Energy Park wetlands park offers a respite of natural beauty. Some also come here to fish, although I’ve yet to see an angler pull in a catch.

 

 

But I’ve observed geese and ducks claim this property and swim these ponds. I’ve glimpsed, too, an otter gliding through the water.

 

 

And I’ve rested in the gazebo.

 

 

 

In the chaos and busyness of life, reinforced here by the sights and sounds of adjacent I-35 traffic, I still find peace in this place reminiscent of my native southwestern Minnesota prairie.

 

 

FYI: Faribault Energy Park is located at 4100 Park Avenue. The wetlands park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reconnecting to southwestern Minnesota, root place of my creativity May 22, 2018

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

THERE IS NO PLACE, none, that I’d rather be this time of year than in rural southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my heart, of my memories, of everything that shaped me into the person, the writer and photographer that I am today.

 

 

This place of wide skies and dark rich soil in some of Minnesota’s best farm land claims me still, decades after I left. I left not because I disliked this place, but for education and opportunity. Like so many of my generation.

 

In a reminder of decades past, a vintage tractor works the land on the edge of Delhi.

 

When I return to visit family here, I feel an ache of absence, that longing for a return to the familiar.

 

 

I realize those who’ve never lived on the prairie often fail to recognize its value, its beauty, its power in inspiring creativity. To many, even my own children, southwestern Minnesota seems the middle of nowhere. But to me, this land has always inspired. And it’s somewhere. Home.

 

 

Between Echo and Delhi.

 

A long familiar landmark tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

When you’ve lived in a place so stark, in a place that exposes you to the elements, where life evolves around the land, you learn to appreciate the details. Like the endless wind. The spaciousness of land and sky. The scent of tilled soil. Rows of corn erupting green from the earth. A lone tree along a highway.

 

 

 

 

Acre after acre after acre across this land, I take in the rural scenes of farmers working fields, rushing to get crops in during a particularly late planting season.

 

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

I notice vehicles kicking dust along gravel roads,

 

Parked near the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

small town grain elevators,

 

 

a school bus splashing color into the landscape. I see it all in this place, this middle of somewhere.

 

A rural-themed license plate on a vehicle driving past Echo on a recent weekday morning. I confirmed with writer and photographer Ruth Klossner that this was her vehicle. She was on her way to interview a source for a magazine article. Ruth collects cow items of all sorts and opens the doors of her Bernadotte home for visitors to view the massive collection.

 

This is my joy, to each spring return to my Minnesota prairie roots, to reconnect to the land, to embrace the birth source of my creativity.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter poetry from the Minnesota prairie March 5, 2018

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IN THE FADING OF THE DAY, as clouds shove grey across the southwestern Minnesota prairie, a Dodge pick-up jolts color into the March landscape.

The sight pleases me visually, unleashes poetic thoughts of horizontal prairie lines. My eyes trace the truck traveling along a gravel township road against backdrop tree lines. Even the rich black soil runs horizontal across fields of melting snow.

In this scene, I see the immensity of the prairie. Land stretching. Sky stretching. Far. High. Endless.

The red pick-up provides a point upon which to focus my eyes, in which to ground myself. Still, I feel a certain smallness, a vulnerability. Even in this land where I once belonged, where my roots run deep.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder at a Chicago museum & I’m in December 18, 2017

Follow U.S. Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, west across the prairie to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and then on to De Smet, South Dakota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MINNESOTA PRAIRIE ROOTS. My blog name honors my roots in Redwood County where Laura Ingalls Wilder, celebrated author of the Little House book series, lived for awhile as a child. Walnut Grove lies just 20 miles distant from my childhood home. It is a place where earth and sky spread wide, where fertile black soil grows tall corn and the wind seldom stops blowing.

 

The American Writers Museum in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Lee Engquist.

 

Some 500 miles to the south and east of Walnut Grove lies Chicago. Windy, yes. But otherwise distinctly different. Nothing prairie-like here in this city. Until you look close, to the new American Writers Museum which opened in the heart of Chicago in May.

 

An overview of a section of the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

I’ve not visited the museum. Yet, I hold a connection to this acclaimed museum now showcasing a temporary exhibit, “Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page.” I grew up with the Little House books read by an elementary school teacher each day after lunch. That was long before the books grew in popularity, long before the TV series, long before Walnut Grove became a destination for Laura fans.

 

My Laura Look-A-Like Contest photo close-up in the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

But my love of Laura’s writing and my native prairie roots are not my only connections to this exhibit which runs through spring 2018. A photo I took several years ago during a Laura Look-Alike Contest in Walnut Grove is included in the exhibit.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in a Walnut Grove city park in July 2013. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Awhile ago, Boston-based Amaze Design contacted me about using the image. The design company manages content development for the museum.

 

This section features noted American authors. Within the museum is info highlighting Minnesota writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Schulz and more. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

An exhibit in the Children’s Literature Room. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

Another exhibit focuses on the writing process. Photo courtesy of Laurel Engquist.

 

From what my friend Laurel, who recently toured the 11,000 square foot literary museum tells me, the place is impressive. Located on the second floor of a building at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, it includes 13 permanent exhibits in six galleries plus temporary exhibits. Laurel spent hours there wandering, reading, observing and participating in interactive aspects of displays. She was surprised to find my Laura Look-Alike photo as part of the American Voices Exhibit.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’m honored to have my work included. I’m proud of my prairie roots, of my rural upbringing in a part of Minnesota made famous by a much-loved American writer.

 

FYI: If you’re wondering how Amaze Design found my photo, look no further than searching the internet. I also have photos included in exhibits at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul and in the World War II Museum in New Orleans. All found my work online, on this blog.

 

Disclaimer: Amaze Design paid for rights to use my Laura Look-A-Like image in the exhibit.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thanks to friends Laurel and Lee Engquist for permission to share their photos.

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