Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My first stay at an Up North Minnesota lake cabin September 22, 2017

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THROUGH THE PLEATED SHADES, lightning flashed like a strobe light outside the cabin. Soon thunder rumbled, not loud and crashing, but slow and ramping in volume. I willed myself to shut out the light, the sound, to fall asleep here in this place nestled in jackpines along the shore of a lengthy lake four hours from my southeastern Minnesota home.

 

Downtown Park Rapids features two rows of parallel parking down the middle of the street and diagonal parking curbside on both sides.

 

Randy and I arrived in a flush of rain after an afternoon in Park Rapids, a resort town abundant in shops and quirky in its center of the street parking. Already I loved this place, despite the grey skies and near constant rain.

Yet, this was not my vision of our first-ever stay at a Minnesota northwoods cabin. But when you can’t control the weather, you can either choose disappointment or embrace the situation. And I was determined to make the best of our visit with friends Jackie and Rick.

 

Jackie, right, took this selfie of the two of us. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

When Jackie invited us to their cabin, I accepted with the enthusiasm of someone who has always wanted to experience this quintessential Minnesota activity of “going Up North to the cabin.” Our friends made us feel as comfortable as if we were family and long-time friends. We are neither. I met Jackie several years ago after connecting with her via blogging. She and Rick live some 40 miles from us in Rochester. Jackie is a nurse by profession and a blogger with strong photography skills.

 

Randy and I, left, with Jackie and Rick. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

We joke that we could be sisters given our shared interests in photography, barns, cemeteries, country churches, small towns, gravel roads and much more. We are women of faith, mothers of three, grandmothers and wives who are grateful for loving and supportive husbands of 35 years. We each birthed sons who weighed nearly 11 pounds. Jackie beat me by two ounces.

Mostly, though, we have that natural connection of conversing with ease, of laughing and enjoying each others’ company in a developing friendship. Previously, the four of us had gotten together briefly several times. This weekend at the cabin would forge our evolving friendship.

 

With Rick at the wheel, we head across the lake. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

Given the weather, we mostly sheltered inside the cabin peering through spacious windows toward the grey lake and rainy skies. We laughed and talked with barely a lull in the conversation. When the weather broke for a bit Saturday morning, I suggested a boat ride. I surprised all of them. I had to overcome a general uncomfortableness on water to board a boat.

 

As the boat picks up speed, waves trail behind.

 

I appreciate that Jackie and Rick honored my request that we not venture too far from shore. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to ask Rick to increase the boat speed. The distractions of my camera and Rick’s history tour of the lake along with Jackie’s encouragement made for a pleasant ride. There’s something to be said for friends who are supportive and loving.

 

Watching Randy relax and unwind from work gave me much joy. We needed this vacation.

 

That evening, after dining on grilled steak, we clustered around the dining room table for a game of Outburst. Boys against girls. We laughed and talked and laughed some more between munching on caramel corn from Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks in Park Rapids. Before 11, we were off to bed and I slept well without rumbling thunderstorms.

 

Only a few boats were on the lake Saturday morning.

 

As wonderful as the cabin experience was, I had hoped to spot a loon. Sunday morning while looking across the lake, I noticed a black floating shape with the seeming distinctive curve of a loon. Jackie handed me binoculars while she fetched her glasses. Through the lenses, we confirmed a loon sighting. It would have to do—this lone loon in the distance. I was thrilled.

 

A grouping of loons. Photo by Jackie Hemmer.

 

That evening, hours after our mid-morning departure, Jackie texted a photo of seven loons with this message: Saw about 15 loons on the lake tonight just beautiful!

 

 

Just beautiful. That summarizes, too, our weekend stay with friends who blessed us with a delightful time at their Up North cabin.

 

FYI: Click here to read Jackie’s blog, “Who Will Make Me Laugh.”

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos by Jackie Hemmer are also copyrighted and used with her permission as noted.

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A determination to rediscover the joys of winter in Minnesota January 20, 2017

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

I pose with my mom and four siblings atop a hard-as-rock snowdrift blocking our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. Location: rural Vesta, Redwood County, Minnesota.

BACK IN MY LIFE-ON-THE-FARM days, I loved winter. Every bucket of snow pushed from the farmyard with the loader of the John Deere tractor created a mountain. Soon a whole range rimmed the yard. There my siblings and I roamed, our imaginations taking us to the wilds of Alaska.

I am trying to reclaim that enthusiasm for winter—for carving caves into snowbanks, for sledding down hills, for building snow forts, for tossing snowballs. Not that I plan to engage in any of those activities. But I need to rediscover that winter can be fun. And my go-to place for that now is Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center.

 

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From 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. this Saturday, January 21, River Bend celebrates its annual WinterFest with kicksledding, snowshoeing, games, nature crafts, animal shows and more.

 

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I’m uncertain whether I will make that event. But I embraced the winter season by hiking the trails of River Bend in the balmy 30-degree warmth of a recent January afternoon. You can read about that by visiting the Faribault Tourism website “Stories” section. Click here. Enjoy.

TELL ME: How do you embrace winter? For those of you living in warm weather climates, go ahead, laugh, or share a story.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Next time pull off in Pine Island June 17, 2015

Approaching Pine Island on Highway 52 southbound.

Approaching Pine Island on U.S. Highway 52 southbound.

TRAFFIC ZOOMS BY on U.S. Highway 52 around Pine Island, hurried motorists rushing to Rochester or St. Paul or places in between.

On the left, a street sign directs motorists to U.S. Highway 52. On the right, the antique store that was closed the afternoon of my visit to Pine Island.

On the left, a street sign directs motorists to U.S. Highway 52. On the right, the antique store that was closed the afternoon of my visit to Pine Island.

I’ve been one of those travelers all too many times while en route to and from Wisconsin. Never pulling off to explore Pine Island. But always wondering what this small town holds and thinking I really ought to stop at the highway side Pine Cheese Mart.

It’s too late now to visit the Cheese Mart. The long-time business folded last year after an exit into Pine Island was closed due to traffic safety issues. That closure made navigating to the Mart cumbersome, resulting in a business downturn. So I missed out on the cheese.

A view of Pine Island's Main Street while driving into the downtown.

A view of Pine Island’s Main Street while driving into the downtown.

Early this spring, my husband and I took a day trip to Pine Island. We hopped in the van with our Minnesota atlas and road map and headed east, stopping first in West Concord.

My favorite scene of the day by the old butter factory.

My favorite scene of the day by the old butter factory where, yes, butter was once made.

I should have done my homework. After the fact, I learned that Pine Island was once considered “The Cheese Capital of the World” That would have been in the opening decades of the 20th Century when some 40 cheese factories existed in the area. In 1911, Pine Island cheesemakers crafted a 6,000-pound block of cheese for the Minnesota State Fair, earning that cheese capital title for the town.

Today the small cheese factories are gone with only the large Land O’ Lakes cooperative producing cheese. But the community honors its cheesy past with an annual July Cheese Festival.

Look closely at this downtown mural and you will see a hunk of cheese, a visual tribute to this community's rich cheese past.

Look closely at this downtown mural and you will see a hunk of cheese, a visual tribute to this community’s rich cheese past.

Perhaps I missed it. But I didn’t notice anything visually significant tipping me off to Pine Island’s rich cheese history other than a mouse and a block of cheese painted onto a downtown mural and a lovely brick building labeled BUTTER-FACTORY.

This old butter factory now holds bicycles available to ride on area trails.

This old butter factory now holds bicycles available to ride on area trails.

I should have done my research. The old Butter Factory today houses bikes and bike helmets available to borrow at no cost from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on weekends to cyclists using the nearly 13-mile Douglas State Trail from Pine Island to Rochester and Pine Island’s Paths to the Past trails: Historical Trivia Trail, Young People’s Path and Homes & Heritage Trail. Check ahead as this usage is seasonal.

So I missed a few things this visit. But I didn’t miss the remarkable historic architecture that defines the downtown business district:

Downtown buildings feature stunning architectural detail.

Downtown historic buildings feature stunning architectural detail.

A broad view of downtown historical buildings with grand architecture.

A broad view of downtown historical buildings with grand architecture.

A stairway appears like a work of art on the side of an aged building.

A stairway appears like a work of art on the side of an aged building. I stood in an alley and aimed my camera up.

More historic buildings, including one that houses the post office.

More historic buildings, including one that houses the post office.

The top of City Hall.

The top of City Hall.

And some of the beautiful old homes close to downtown:

I snapped a quick shot of this lovely house while driving by.

I snapped a quick shot of this lovely house with a wrap-around porch while driving by.

Another sweet house near downtown.

Another sweet house near downtown.

I was disappointed, though, to find the one antique/furniture refinishing store, Green’s Stripping & Antiques, closed when I was there.

Likewise, I really wanted to get inside the Olde Pine Theater:

The theatre that I wished I could have seen.

The theatre that I wished I could have seen.

Maybe next time.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Many small towns still have thriving hardware stores like this Hardware Hank.

Many small towns still have thriving hardware stores like this Hardware Hank.

Parked outside Hardware Hank.

Outside Hardware Hank.

I even noticed a below street level barbershop.

I even noticed a below street level barbershop.

I spotted the spring scene in a flower box outside a downtown business.

I spotted this early spring scene in a flower box outside a downtown business.

Murals grace the sides of two brick buildings sandwiching a vacant lot that is now a downtown mini park.

Murals grace the sides of two brick buildings sandwiching a vacant lot that is now a downtown mini park.

Driving out of town, I shot this image of Pine Island's mobile home court across the cornfield.

Driving out of town, I shot this image of Pine Island’s mobile home court across the then stubbled cornfield.

IF YOU KNOW Pine Island, what other things did I miss on my first visit to this Minnesota community of 3,300 residents?

How did Pine Island get its name? According to the Minnesota Historical Society “Minnesota Place Names,” an early settler named the town Pine Island in 1855 for the large, lone white pine on a small island in the Zumbro River. The island was once thick with pines and was once a winter shelter to the Dakota.

Check back to read about the Rainbow Cafe, where we ate lunch.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small town Iowa: Where kids still fly kites May 19, 2015

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One of two kites spotted upon arriving at Forest City.

One of two kites spotted while approaching Forest City.

APPROACHING FOREST CITY, Iowa, from the south Saturday, bursts of color broke through the grey of morning fog. Kites. Two. I suspected they were to attract customers to a business. But I was wrong, as I would soon learn from Monte Topp.

Steam engine enthusiasts await instruction during Steam Engineer School at Heritage Park in Forest City, Iowa.

Steam engine enthusiasts gather during Steam Engineer School at Heritage Park.

My husband and I met Monte when we pulled off the highway into Heritage Park of North Iowa, a 91-acre site dedicated to the preservation of America’s rural heritage. On this Saturday, the park was hosting Kite Day and a Steam School to teach the basics of steam engine operations, mechanics and safety.

Because of the weather, only a few people flew kites Saturday morning.

Because of the weather, only a few people flew kites Saturday morning.

Directly across the chain link fence from the main grounds, dedicated enthusiasts gathered to fly kites. It was, said Monte, Forest City’s annual Kite Day. But with drizzle and fog making for less than ideal flying conditions, participation was minimal. We saw only three kites launched.

As we toured the grounds, this frog kite began to ascend.

As we toured the grounds, this frog kite began to ascend.

But still, I was not disappointed. I was impressed. Impressed that Forest City and other north Iowa communities (according to Monte) set aside a day and a place to safely fly kites. On this Saturday it was Forest City’s turn to host. The municipal airport even closed for the event, Monte noted.

The vivid colors of this kite were a welcome visual jolt in the grey sky.

The vivid colors of this kite were a welcome visual jolt in the grey sky.

In this day when lives are ultra focused on technology and team sports, I find it comforting that the simple solo act of flying a kite holds such value in northern Iowa. There’s something about flying a kite that connects you to the sky in a way that’s powerful and poetic and freeing. Powerful wind tugging at string gripped in hand. Kite dancing. And then the soaring, oh, the joyfulness when everything comes together and a kite rides the wind.

Kids and kites.

Kite Day is all about kids and kites.

It’s lovely. Simply lovely in a way that roots you to the land, yet frees you to dream, to believe, to reach. I hope these north Iowa kids realize just how fortunate they are to live in communities that understand the value of kite flying enough to host Kite Day.

FYI: Clear Lake, Iowa, to the southeast of Forest City hosts a Color the Wind Kite Festival each February. Held on frozen Clear Lake, the event features about 50 kites, including stunt kites.

Check back tomorrow for a tour of Heritage Park in Forest City.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Vote to rebuild parks in four flooded Minnesota communities June 9, 2011

An aerial view of Hammond during the flash flood of September 2010. Photo courtesy of Michael Mann & Tina Marlowe.

FOR SOME TIME NOW, I’ve been committed to helping the folks of Hammond in southeastern Minnesota recover from a devastating September 2010 flood.

I’ve assisted in the best way I can—not physically—but with words and photos on this blog. We all possess talents and mine are not hanging sheetrock or swinging a hammer. I write. There is power in words.

Last October I brought you a series of stories and photos from Hammond and neighboring Zumbro Falls, where I interviewed several individuals and shot many photos showing the damage caused by the flooded Zumbro River. The women I spoke to shared heartbreaking stories. Yet, they remained strong. That impressed me.

I spoke to Tracy Yennie in Zumbro Falls several weeks after the flood damaged her home.

A gutted, flood-ravaged home in Zumbro Falls.

The exposed side of the restaurant/grocery, where a portion of a building once stood in Hammond. The building lies in a heap in the street.

I saw gutted homes and businesses, a child’s toy lying in a pile of discarded appliances. Truly, I could not fathom the personal loss of possessions and home.

In March I published a series of stories about Tina Marlowe and her family, who lost so much to the floodwaters in Hammond. Hers was one story of many that you will never hear. Some residents have decided not to return. Others await possible buy-outs or funding to repair their homes.

But beyond the individual losses, these towns have suffered as communities. They’ve lost gathering spots and places for their children to play. Parks need rebuilding. To do this, these communities need money.

Marlowe, who was recently elected to the Hammond City Council, has started the Hammond Park Flood Recovery Project and is accepting donations of monies, materials and labor to rebuild the recreational areas in her river hamlet.

Send donations to: City of Hammond Park Flood Recovery Project, 320 East Center Street, Hammond, MN. 55991. Click here to learn more about this effort.

 

Hammond's riverside park was all but destroyed by the flood. Marks on the shelter roof show how high the water rose. A baseball field next to the shelter, with a fence around it, is covered by receding floodwaters. Jenny Hoffman took this photo on September 25, 2010.

The bridge connecting east and west Hammond during the flood, which also overtook the town's park. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

AND NOW A 16-YEAR-OLD Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School student, Amy Schultz, has stepped up, leading the push to secure a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh Project grant that will repair flood-damaged parks in Zumbro Falls, Hammond, Pine Island and Owatonna.

Schultz tried for a grant earlier this year, focusing solely on Zumbro Falls and Hammond. Now she’s expanded her area, hoping that the inclusion of Pine Island and Owatonna will mean more votes. The top 10 projects, those with the most votes, get the $50,000.

Simple? Yes. Just vote by:

Voting continues through June. When I checked the ranking for this project on Wednesday morning, Schultz’s idea stood at number 27. Let’s blast that number into the top 10.

This high schooler is determined. Just read this information I found online, in news releases she sent to cities, Chambers of Commerce and elsewhere: “The local parks are part of the fabric that joins these picturesque river towns together. It is where families and friends come to play and visitors come to sit by the riverside all summer long. So many memories have been made here over the years and we need to restore them for current and future generations.”

Convincing words from a young woman who wants to make a difference in four Minnesota communities still recovering from the September 2010 flash floods.

Vote today and every day until the end of June for the “Rebuild Parks in Owatonna, Zumbro Falls, Pine Island and Hammond MN” project.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Help rebuild the parks in flood ravaged Hammond, Minnesota April 28, 2011

An aerial view of Hammond during the flash flood of September 2010. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

SEVEN MONTHS AFTER the raging Zumbro River ravaged the small southeastern Minnesota community of Hammond in a flash flood, residents are still struggling to recover.

That recovery reaches beyond the rebuilding of homes and lives.

Hammond needs more, like help rebuilding its parks.

Hammond resident Tina Marlowe, who was the subject of a series of blog posts I published in March, was recently elected to the Hammond City Council. She’s making it her mission to rehabilitate the East End Park and Ball Field, the basketball court and the Children’s Park.

But Tina can’t do this alone. She’s counting on the generosity of others to donate monies, materials and manpower (womanpower) to the Hammond Park Flood Recovery Project.

First, though, consider what’s been lost. The merry-go-round in the Children’s Park was swept down river to Jarret and was substantially damaged. The ground cover in the park is gone. Picnic tables, grills, fire rings, garbage cans and more were washed away. FEMA will replace some items, but not all.

Hammond's riverside park was all but destroyed by the flood. Marks on the shelter roof show how high the water rose. A baseball field next to the shelter, with a fence around it, is covered by receding floodwaters. Jenny Hoffman took this photo at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 25, 2010.

The bridge connecting east and west Hammond is barely visible during the flood, which also overtook the town's parks. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

Tina wants to not only rebuild Hammond’s parks, but she wants to improve them, make them more family-friendly, with updated equipment.

Here are some of her ideas: “I would love to put a Pirate Ship System down at the East End. This is a popular camping and gathering area and I thought it would be very symbolic for the kids.

I would also like to put in an outdoor fitness area up at the Children’s Park. These are becoming a very popular alternative to the gym and would serve the community well when you consider our location. What a great financial alternative for families in this area. We would include equipment for adults and the children so the entire family can come down to the park and get some great exercise outdoors—and what better scenery!”

Tina’s vision is a multi-step process that she says could take years to achieve. She has set goals and is determined to help her town of about 230 residents (pre-flood).

Right now she’s asking for cash donations and donations and/or reasonable offers of used playground equipment (like that offered on public surplus from churches and schools), ground cover (sand, wood chips or chipped rubber) and green-treated lumber for dug-outs.

Can you help? If you can, submit a comment with your contact information (which I won’t publish) and I’ll take it from there.

Or, you can call Tina directly at 507-753-2166.

Cash donations should be sent to:

City of Hammond

320 East Center Street

Hammond, MN. 55991

Along with your cash donation, please submit a letter stating that the funds are for the Hammond Park Flood Recovery Project. Include a return address so appropriate charitable giving tax information can be sent to you.

If you are a teacher or the leader of a children’s/youth group, or just a parent, perhaps you can take this project on and rally your kids to help the kids of Hammond.

If you own or work for a company that can provide playground equipment or other materials, considering donating to the cause.

If you are a carpenter capable of building a pirate ship, offer to build one.

If you’re a Boy Scout, student or other young (or older) person looking for a project, you can probably assist in some way. Ask. Offer to help.

I am convinced that Tina’s visions for Hammond’s parks, for her community, can become a reality. Likewise, I believe that all of this can happen within a much shorter time frame than Tina thinks. Let’s aim for this summer.

You can make that happen, for the children of Hammond.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling