Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Kenyon: An historic train depot up close June 11, 2020

These tracks run past The Depot Bar & Grill (in the background) in my community of Faribault, Minnesota. I can hear these trains from my home. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOMETIMES IN THE EVENING, when the traffic lessens on my busy street, I hear the train, horn blasting, wheels rumbling from the tracks just blocks away.

 

Railroad art created by John Cartwright. The Shoreview artist was selling copies of his ink drawings during the 2012 Railroad Swap Meet in Randolph, Minnesota. Visit his website at ArtRail.com for more information. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

There was a time, decades ago, when railroads connected communities, carrying passengers and freight, grain, coal… Bringing mail and goods like lumber and much more. But those days are long gone, those versatile trains all but a memory for many rural Minnesota communities.

Sure, trains still run, but along main routes and without the diverse economic importance of decades past.

 

The Depot Bar & Grill, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

With the railroad’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also came the abandonment of train depots. Many of those hubs of commerce were torn down or left to decay. But some remain. In Faribault, a former depot houses The Depot Bar & Grill, among my favorite local dining spots. Another historic depot serves as a business center.

 

The old train depot, repurposed as a shelter/gathering spot, sits in Depot Park, Kenyon.

 

And in the nearby small town of Kenyon, the once busy Chicago Great Western Railroad depot serves as a gathering spot at Depot Park. You can rent the building—with amenities of refrigerator, stove, sink, restroom, 29 chairs and eight tables—for $30 weekdays or for $40 on a Saturday or Sunday.

 

A back and side view of the Kenyon Depot.

 

On a recent day trip to Aspelund Peony Gardens & Winery, Randy and I stopped first at Kenyon’s Depot Park for a picnic lunch. It’s a lovely spot, centered by that depot, a playground and a swimming pool.

 

The history of the Kenyon Depot is summarized in an on-site sign.

 

The sign is posted prominently on the depot.

 

The bottom portion of that informational sign.

 

After finishing my turkey sandwich, grapes and strawberries, I grabbed my camera and walked over for a closer look at the old depot, built around 1885. I peered inside the windows, studied the roof-line, read the signage. The railroad once held an important place in Kenyon and the surrounding area by providing freight and passenger service. Immigrants arrived here by train. Farmers shipped milk, awaited the arrival of seed and tools and farm implements. And mail.

 

Identifying signage on the front of the Kenyon Depot.

 

Posted next to the old depot.

 

This side of the depot faces the park space.

 

When rail service shut down here in the late 1960s or early 70s (I read conflicting information online), a local house mover bought the depot. And in 1974, he, upon approval of the city, moved the depot to the park.

 

A vintage light.

 

I noticed these letters/numbers on a corner of the depot. Anyone know what they signify?

 

Tape on window trim.

 

But there’s one more interesting piece of history about this building, a story shared in a 2012 letter to The Kenyon Leader written by former Mayor John L. Cole. According to Cole, the Kenyon High School Class of 1975 was tasked with painting the depot after “getting into trouble” during a class trip to Grandview Lodge in Brainerd. Now he doesn’t explain what that “trouble” may have been. But Cole thanks the class, emphasizing that something good came out of the bad.

 

This drinking fountain next to the depot has been around for awhile.

 

As a 1974 high school graduate (from a school nowhere near Kenyon), I can only guess. We were on the tail end of the Vietnam War, a bit vocal and determined and rebellious. My class got into trouble for choosing “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” as our class song. Not exactly fitting for a high school graduation ceremony. I expect had we gone on a trip like the teens from Kenyon, we, too, would have gotten into trouble.

 

This street lamp, I’m guessing vintage, stands near the depot.

 

I digress. But history has a way of connecting us. Through stories. Through places. Like depots that hold the history of a community and its people.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The power of a train August 6, 2017

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TEN FEET AWAY, the train roared down the tracks next to The Depot Bar & Grill in Faribault. I could feel its immense power as the cars zipped by in a blur, rails rising and falling.

 

 

For a moment I considered my vulnerability with only a wrought iron fence and a slip of stones separating me from this mammoth machine.

 

 

Despite my flash of fear, I thrilled in the rush of sitting so near a train as I waited for my brisket sandwich and fries on the outdoor patio. I grabbed my beer, took another swig and felt the rhythm of the fast-moving cars.

 

 

What is it about trains that holds such fascination? The power certainly impresses. But I think it’s the history, too, associated with trains that appeals to us. Travel by rail opened this country to further settlement.

 

 

My paternal great grandfather, Rudolph, rode the train to Henderson, Minnesota, in 1890, four years after he arrived by steamship in Baltimore. And four years after that, he moved farther west and bought a farm from the Great Western Railroad just outside my hometown of Vesta.

 

 

I expect most of you could tell similar stories of your ancestors and their travel by rail. Trains link us to our past, to those who came before us to this land, this America.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At the railroad swap meet in Randolph April 5, 2012

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Vendors packed a gym at the Randolph School with their railroad merchandise.

IF I WAS INTO TRAINS or railroading, I could have spent hours filing through the collections of railroad-related merchandise offered at the Randolph Railroad Days Swap Meet on Saturday.

But after awhile, admittedly because I know little about this railroading hobby, the goods started to blend together. So I had to pick and choose and focus on the details to keep myself from becoming lost in the sheer volume of the offerings.

That said, join me on this select tour of the swap meet in a gym at the Randolph School. I was more than a bit distracted by the school’s icon, the rocket, displayed everywhere, even on the gym floor. I’m wondering “why Rockets?” other than the obvious connection to the “R” in Randolph. But that’s another topic because, you know, I did photograph those Rockets.

Railroad date nails drew my attention. The numbers represent the years.

Pocket-size calendars, which I choose to call "railroad art."

And then there's railroad art like this created by John Cartwright. The Shoreview artist was selling prints of his ink drawings. Visit his website at ArtRail.com for more information.

Toy/model trains galore were available for purchase.

Condition doesn't matter to this swap meet buyer.

I found this attractive belt buckle among an assortment of buckles.

Yes, this hobby could get expensive. The details in train set-ups impressed me.

This replica toy depot caught my eye because it reminded me of the metal dollhouse I had as a child. Oh, how I wish my mom had kept the vintage dollhouse and not given it to my cousins.

Just the cheerful, vivid colors alone are enough to make you smile.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thank you to railroad artist John Cartwright for allowing me to photograph his beautiful ink drawing prints. You can learn more about this award-winning artist by clicking here.

 

All aboard for the Randolph model train show April 2, 2012

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Railroad enthusiasts displayed their trains in the Randolph School gym Saturday. One participant told me he enjoys the social aspect of these gatherings. Last year he went to train shows on 16 weekends.

I WAS DEFINITELY out of my element on Saturday poking through two gyms packed with all things railroad at the annual Randolph Railroad Days.

You might even say I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of railroad-related merchandise vendors were selling and by the train set-ups hobbyists were displaying. I tried to meander on my own, unnoticed, no easy task when you’re sporting a DSLR camera and occasionally crawling on the floor. People tend to notice.

“Just pretend I’m not here,” I told at least one teen (or pre-teen), who scooted out of my viewfinder range when he spotted me aiming the lens his direction.

I managed to snap this photo after telling this trio to ignore me and my camera.

As for the younger elementary-aged boys, I found keeping up with them as they darted from one train model to the next an impossible pursuit.

The middle-aged men seemed mostly interested in engaging me in conversation about the details of model railroading. I decided beforehand that I wasn’t taking notes and that my attendance at this event would be more about my observations and about having fun and not about learning the intricacies of this hobby.

Like engineers, most participants tend their trains. However, I witnessed a small fire, at an unattended table, when a wire shorted. I did not respond quickly enough to either extinguish the flames or take a photo.

As you can see by the blurred train, these trains speed around the tracks.

I judged this "banana train" display as the most creative with mountains and waterfalls in a tropical South American setting. I wanted to hop on board. The waterfalls are on the other side of the mountains.

The overseers—two elderly gentleman perched on bleachers and viewing the action below—were content to let the younger ones set up and run the show, they told me when I climbed to get a different perspective. (They tagged themselves “the overseers.”)

Here’s what I concluded: No matter your age, there’s something magical and mesmerizing about watching toy trains travel a track.

Two-year-old Eli, confined to his stroller, points to trains circling a track.

Eli was pointing to this train set-up being photographed by another railroad enthusiast with his cell phone.

The details in the train displays impressed me. One engineer asked if I saw a cat sitting on a fence outside a barn. I couldn't find it. Then he pointed to a cat so tiny I wished I had a magnifying glass.

Railroad enthusiast Jim from Northfield demonstrated the sounds, etc., that he can control on his train with the simple push of a button. Amazing.

These matching signs made me chuckle.

WHAT PULLS YOUNG and old alike to thrill in model trains?

Check back for photos from the Randolph Railroad Days swap meet.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling