Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts from southern Minnesota on Indigenous Peoples’ Day October 10, 2022

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. Broken promises led to the 1862 war. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

TODAY, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY, I think of the US-Dakota War of 1862. When as a high school student I studied that war, I felt an immediate connection to the event which occurred in my home county and neighboring counties in southwestern Minnesota. My interest sparked because this happened in my backyard. Today I have a much better understanding of the 1862 conflict among the native Dakota peoples, the settlers and the government. My learned “white” perspective has shifted, my viewpoint has broadened. That has come through listening, reading, educating myself.

A public art installation at Northfield’s 2022 Earth Day celebration. Northfield has a Land Acknowledgement Agreement. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

I see the same shift in attitudes throughout our nation, state and communities today. Land acknowledgment agreements are being written. There’s an awareness that indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of the land, including in my home county of Redwood and my home of the past 40 years, Rice County.

I recently learned that the Wahpekute, part of the Dakota Nation, placed their dead on scaffolding on land just up the hill from my Faribault home. Land that is now a city park. After a year, the bones of the deceased were moved a few blocks away to a permanent burial grounds. That cemetery is not marked as such. Up until a presentation by Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society, I was unaware that Peace Park was a sacred place, not simply a triangle of land with a WW II memorial along busy streets. Efforts are underway in Faribault to landmark such places of importance, to honor the Dakota.

A must-read novel based on fact.

It starts at a grassroots level, this unraveling of the truth, this recognition, this acknowledgment. I’ve toured museum exhibits, read books, attended presentations and more to assure that I am informed. I highly-recommend reading the award-winning book, The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. (Click here to read my review.)

I value that awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ food, culture, history and more is growing. In Minneapolis, diners can enjoy North American traditional indigenous food at award-winning Owamni by The Sioux Chef, for example.

Back in my home county, the Lower Sioux Indian Community is working hard to assure its culture remains strong through ongoing traditional events and teaching of the Dakota language.

A bison herd has been reintroduced to the prairie at Minneopa State Park near Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

I still have much to learn about the Indigenous Peoples of Minnesota. That I admit. Perhaps much of it is really unlearning. Today I pause to honor those who called this place, this southern Minnesota, home first, back when prairie grasses stretched high, bison roamed and the land was respected.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rural Dundas show prompts tractor memories September 4, 2022

John Deere tractors parked near the log cabin at the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

GROWING UP ON A CROP and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota, tractors are part of my history. I am familiar with the putt-putt-putt of an aged John Deere, the maneuverable size of a B Farmall, the necessity of a dependable tractor.

Rumely Oil Pull tractors were sold between 1910-1930. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The tractor is the workhorse of the farm. That remains as true today as it did 50 years ago when I still lived in rural Redwood County.

The Massey-Harris is the featured tractor at this year’s show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

So when I attended the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show in rural Dundas on Friday, I began reminiscing. I expect many others did the same while meandering among the rows of vintage tractors or watching the daily high noon parade. This event is heavy on the tractors, threshing machines and farm equipment in general. And that holds appeal for those of us rooted in farms.

Guiding a vintage Allis Chalmers along the parade route on Friday. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I am old enough to remember tractors without cabs, air conditioning, GPS or other technology. Instead, my dad’s tractors were shaded from the hot summer sun by an umbrella, protected from the winter cold by canvas and guided solely by the skill of hands on the steering wheel.

John Deere tractors like the one I rode in winter to catch the bus to school. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

My most memorable tractor story is that of Dad driving my brother Doug and me the mile into Vesta on the open cab John Deere in the dead of winter so we could get to school. We were both in junior high then, attending school in the county seat some 20 miles to the east. It was a particularly snowy and brutal winter, so awful that buses couldn’t venture onto rural roads to pick up students. If we could get into town, we could catch the bus at the local cafe. From there, the bus took a state highway to the school in Redwood Falls.

Not a B Farmall, but an IH tractor none-the-less. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Dad wasn’t partial to any tractor brand. He owned John Deere, International Harvester and Ford tractors. The B Farmall remains my favorite as I drove that small scale IH tractor in the farmyard, pulling the flatbed trailer up to the feed bunk to unload hay for the cows.

I found this toy John Deere tractor for sale from vendor Shippy’s Toys. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

John Deere likewise will always hold a special spot in my heart. I remember once a year attending John Deere Days at the farm implement dealership in Redwood Falls. That included a free meal followed by a John Deere promotional movie at the local theater. To eat ice cream from a plastic cup with a little wooden “spoon” and to see a movie on a screen were treats, not to mention the door prizes. Like silver dollars. And bags of seed corn.

Aged threshing machines, well before my time, on exhibit. There are threshing demonstrations during the show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Aging has a way of making us view the past through a nostalgic lens. Yet the reality of life on the farm in the 1960s and 1970s is one of hard work and challenges. Uncontrollable factors—weather, prices and more—have always made farming a gamble. Yet, for those of us who grew up on the land, there’s an undeniable sense of hardiness within us, even decades removed from the farm.

Allis Chalmers tractors are among those displayed in the field of tractors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

When I attend an event like the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show, I reconnect to my past. Remembering. Appreciating. Thankful for the land and hard work that shaped me personally and professionally. I expect that’s true for many who walk the show grounds at this rural-rooted annual event in southern Minnesota.

A 1921 Titan International. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

FYI: The Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show continues today (Sunday, September 4) with gates opening at 7 am and closing at 5:30 pm on the grounds south of Dundas along Minnesota State Highway 3. For more information, visit the club website and/or read my first post on this year’s event. This show is about much more than tractors and other farm equipment.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections from Redwood & Rice counties on NATIVE LIVES MATTER May 2, 2022

Part of a temporary public art installation at Northfield’s Earth Day Celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

IN THE GEOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND of my childhood, I knew of the “Indian Reservations” to the northwest near Granite Falls and then to the east near Morton. My hometown of Vesta sits between the two, no longer referred to as “reservations” but as the Upper Sioux Indian Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

A Dakota man and Alexander Faribault are depicted trading furs in this sculpture at Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Ivan Whillock created the sculpture which graces the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain in my community of Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

Today I live 120 miles to the east in Faribault, next to Wapacuta Park. Rice County is the homeland of the Wahpekute (not Wapacuta), a tribal band of the Dakota.

The Earth Day art carried two messages: NATIVE LIVES MATTER and CLIMATE JUSTICE. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

A temporary public art installation at the recent Earth Day Celebration in neighboring Northfield prompted me to reflect on Indigenous people in southern Minnesota. Growing up in Redwood County, my knowledge of area Native Americans focused primarily on “The Sioux Uprising.” History teachers then used that term, rather than the current-day “US-Dakota War of 1862,” which should tell you a thing or ten about how biased that perspective back in the 1970s. How thankful I am that my awareness and understanding have grown and that attitudes are shifting to better reflect all sides of history.

The message grows, blossoms in the Earth Day art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

The NATIVE LIVES MATTER message bannering the art installation at Northfield’s Earth Day event reinforces a Land Acknowledgment Statement adopted by the City of Northfield in November 2020. That reads as follows:

We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and other Bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who have stewarded the land throughout the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.

NATIVE LIVES MATTER fits the spirit of the Land Acknowledgment Statement. Those three words caused me to pause, to think, to consider what I’d been taught all those decades ago and how my thinking has shifted as I’ve aged, opened my mind and learned.

Dakota beadwork displayed and photographed at the Rice County Historical Society Museum, Faribault, in 2010. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

The Rice County Historical Society, which exhibits a collection of Native American artifacts in its Faribault museum, shares a statement similar to the City of Northfield’s on its website:

We acknowledge that the land that is now Rice County, MN, was their (Dakota) homeland and for many tribal members today, it is still their home.

In all of this, I feel a sense of gratitude regarding increasing public recognition of the land history and contributions of Indigenous People in Minnesota. In my home area of Redwood County, nearly 1,000 individuals from the Mdewakanton Band of Dakota call the Lower Sioux Indian Community home. To the east in Yellow Medicine County near Granite Falls, nearly 500 individuals from the Dakota Oyate call the Upper Sioux Indian Community home.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

I hope educators in my home area are today teaching students about the local Dakota and even bringing elders into classrooms. I graduated, after all, from Wabasso High School, the name Wabasso coming from a Native word meaning “white rabbit.” I would then go on to attend college in Mankato, site of the largest mass execution in the US with 38 Dakota killed in a public hanging on December 26, 1862.

I would be remiss if I did not share that, during the US-Dakota Conflict of 1862, family members on my mom’s side fled their rural Courtland farm for safety in St. Peter. They later put in a claim to the US government for crop loss.

Details on a sign outside the Cathedral of our Merciful Savior in Faribault. Bishop Henry Whipple, who served here, advocated for the rights of Native Americans and had a strong friendship with them. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

Now, 160 years after that event in my ancestors’ history, I continue growing my knowledge, widening my understanding of Minnesota history and of the Indigenous people who first called this land home.

A graphic of Minnesota is painted on the back of the art installation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

FYI: Please click here to read previous posts I’ve written on the US-Dakota War (also called Conflict) of 1862.

Also, I suggest you read an article on the Minnesota Public Radio website about efforts to change the Minnesota State flag. The flag depicts, among other details, a Native American in the background riding off into the sunset while a settler focuses the foreground, hands on a plow, rifle nearby. I agree that change is needed. But, as too often happens, the issue has become politically-charged.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back to southwestern Minnesota, the place of my roots July 13, 2021

A well-kept farm site west of New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

THE JULY FOURTH WEEKEND took me back home, home being my native southwestern Minnesota. There my extended family gathered at my middle brother’s rural acreage near Lamberton for the first time since December 2019. To see so many family members—not all attended—felt wonderful.

Heading west toward Redwood County, we passed this chopper and wagons in Brown County. Minnesota Prairie Root photo.

Being back in that rural area of our state, in a familiar landscape, felt comforting. No matter where I’ve lived as an adult, Redwood County remains home. The place of my roots. The land and sky and wind imprinted upon me like ink on the pages of a book. Words that thread through my writing even today.

One of several deer spotted as we drove west. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Perhaps my perspective seems too nostalgic. And if it does, I offer no apologies. I value the place which shaped me as a person and as a writer and photographer.

A farm site along US Highway 14 west of Owatonna as we begin our 2.5-hour drive west. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Near Mankato, a truck pulls a farm wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Skirting Mankato on US Highway 14, the land dips into the Minnesota River Valley, then rises, opening to flat farm land. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

The familiar scenes which appear before me en route from Faribault to southwestern Minnesota welcome me back. The red barns. The vast fields of corn and soybeans. The expansive sky. Even the tractors and farm wagons and pick-up trucks.

Entering Morgan, where grain elevators edge the main route through town. This is in eastern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

All are part of the rural-ness. My rural-ness. The grain elevators and gravel roads and power lines stretching seemingly to infinity.

So many beautiful red barns along the route west. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I could write chapters about the gravel roads I biked as a teen—how the gravel crunched beneath tires, how wild roses flourished in ditches, how vehicles kicked up dust. I could write chapters about barns—how I labored inside ours, feeding cows and calves, and pitching manure. I could write chapters about the ice and snow storms that left our farm without electricity, once for an entire week in the depth of winter.

Love the old ACO silo on this farm site west of New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

A trip back to southwestern Minnesota prompts such memories. I remember. I relive. But, most of all, I recognize just how thankful I am to have been raised in this rural region. On the land. In the shadows of silos and grain elevators. Just a softball pitch away from the barn. Within scent of cows, steers and calves. As close to the earth as bare feet or the end of a hoe hacking cockle burrs in a soybean field.

Co-ops like this one in Morgan are part of my rural history. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As rural scenes unfold, my memories, too, unfurl. Memories of hard work and challenges balanced by carefree afternoons and prairie sunsets and all the beauty this place holds for me. Still today, some 40-plus decades after I left this land.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than Bridge 4667 in the Minnesota River Valley April 12, 2021

AS DAD GUIDED HIS CHEVY Impala along Highway 19 into the Minnesota River Valley near Morton with our family sandwiched inside, I felt a sense of exhilaration. The change in landscape—from flat prairie farm fields to hills and valley—excited me. It was like driving into another world, albeit only 20 some miles east of our farm place.

We were headed to The Cities, as we called, and I still term, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our destination—my aunt and uncle’s house along Bryant Avenue South in Minneapolis. Once or twice a year, our family of eight, plus Grandpa, packed into one vehicle for the several hours long drive.

It wasn’t often we traveled. Dad milked cows, so one of his brothers had to do the chores for a day. On the morning of departure, we arose early, our nervous energy palpable. Soon we were on our way, stopping to pick up Grandpa in Redwood Falls, then aiming east toward the Minnesota River Valley.

The Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667). MnDOT image from the KLGR radio website.

Sweeping into the valley, all of us kids were on high alert, waiting for the moment when the Chevy would cross The Troll Bridge over an overflow channel of the Minnesota River.

This is what I pictured lurking beneath the bridge near Morton. This illustration comes from Three Billy Goats Gruff. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

When the tires hit the bridge deck, we started pounding on the roof of the car. To scare away the trolls.

One of my favorite childhood books, gifted to me by a blog reader. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

I have no idea how this tradition started. But I suspect it was an effort by our parents to keep us from getting bored and fighting as siblings are wont to do when sitting too close together for too long. Well, this temporary distraction worked. And the memory of that roof pounding tactic to scare off trolls has stuck with me more than half a century later. To this day, I associate aged truss bridges with those rare family trips to Minneapolis. This also connects to one of my favorite childhood storybooks, Three Billy Goats Gruff. In that tale, three goats attempt to cross a bridge under which a troll lurks.

Such are the prompts and content of memories.

Historical details on a sign posted high above the bridge deck of the historic Waterford Bridge over the Cannon River in Dakota County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Because of that, I reacted with dismay when I read on the website of Redwood Falls-based KLGR radio that The Troll Bridge, formally known as Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667) is being removed this fall. Apparently the 1927 historic bridge, which was bypassed in a 1994 road improvement project and then closed in 2010 to all traffic, has deteriorated to “in poor condition overall” status. This saddens me. When we lose a bridge that was among the largest constructed in the state during a Minnesota Highway Department bridge construction program in the late 1920s, we lose an important part of architectural, local, and sometimes personal, history.

Weeds, wildflowers and other plant growth surround the abandoned Waterford Bridge of similar construction to the Sulphur Lake Bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Cost of removing the 169-foot long bridge with a 117-foot riveted Camelback through-truss main span is estimated at $980,000. I recognize the Minnesota Department of Transportation did its homework in reaching this decision. But still…I wish this bridge could be saved.

The historic Waterford Bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Some historic Minnesota bridges have been saved—more than 40 in the past 20 years, according to MnDOT. Others are on a list for rehabilitation. Like the Waterford Bridge I visited and photographed last summer near Northfield in Dakota County. Other bridges have been relocated with one currently listed as an “available bridge”.

The aged bridge in Honner Township in Redwood County will soon join the list of “lost bridges” documented by MnDOT. It may be Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667) to officials in St. Paul. But to me, this will always be The Troll Bridge. The bridge of family memories.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering & honoring my hardworking dad this Labor Day September 7, 2020

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980. He died in 2003.

 

MY DAD WORKED HARD. Really hard. He was a farmer, beginning back in the day when farming was incredibly labor intensive. Pitching manure. Throwing hay bales. Milking cows by hand. Cultivating corn. He worked from the rising of the sun to beyond sunset. Hours and hours in the barn. Long days in the field. Few, if any, days off.

 

The milkhouse, attached to the barn on the farm where I grew up just outside of Vesta, MN. I spent a lot of time in these two buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It was a life he knew from childhood, as the son of a southwestern Minnesota farmer. Dad quit school after eighth grade to work on his family’s farm in the 1940s. And when he grew into adulthood, he served on the frontlines during the Korean War, then returned to farm just down the road from the home place. There he worked his own land, milked cows and raised (along with my mom) his family of six children.

 

Some of the acreage my dad farmed in Redwood County, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Like my father, I grew up with a strong work ethic rooted in the land. Walking bean fields to pull unwanted weeds. Picking rock. Throwing hay bales into feed bunks for the Holsteins. Carrying buckets of milk replacer to thirsty calves. Climbing up the silo and forking smelly silage down the chute. The work never ended. And the next day we repeated the process.

 

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But it was, in many ways, a good life. Time together. Time outdoors. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and stretch, just like the corn stretching toward the sky.

 

Growing up on our crop and dairy farm, my eldest brother, Doug, photographed the cows and recorded details about them. My middle brother treasures this compilation of information from our farm. And so do I. Memories… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Working on the farm made me strong and resilient and fostered a sense of independence. I have always been a self-starter, preferring to work on my own. I trace that to the spirit of independence I observed in my farmer dad, who stood up for what he believed. I remember him dumping milk down the drain as the National Farmers Organization aimed to get better prices. I possess a streak of that feistiness, especially when it comes to those who are bullied/oppressed/looked down upon. I do what I can, with the talents I have, to make a positive difference. To uplift and encourage. And to really listen rather than talk.

I always told my dad I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He didn’t encourage that thought. None of my five siblings farm, although two work in ag-related businesses. It’s a credit to my parents that each of us pursued diverse careers as a partsman (and part owner) at an implement dealership, as a writer and photographer, a florist, CEO of an ethanol plant, teacher and lawyer. That’s a wide range of occupations among siblings. Our parents did not tell us what to do, and for that I shall always be grateful.

 

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

 

We were not a perfect family. Still aren’t. There were, and are, struggles. Financial and other. We were poor as in outhouse poor and no gifts for birthdays poor and wearing hand-me-downs poor and only rice for dinner poor. And only two vacations my entire childhood—one at age four to Duluth and one to the Black Hills at around age 12. Yet, I never felt like we were missing anything. We had enough. Food. Shelter. Clothes. And hardworking parents—for my mom worked equally as hard as my dad—who loved and provided for us.

My parents may not have hugged us or told us they loved us. But they showed their love by their care, their provision, their raising us in the faith. Their efforts, from parenting to farming, were a labor of love. And I shall always feel gratitude for that.

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CLICK HERE TO READ my post, “Many Reasons to Feel Blessed this Labor Day,” published last week on the Warner Press blog.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.

 

BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

 

It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.

 

This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.

 

Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.

 

Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.

 

Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.

 

Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.

 

A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.

 

Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.

 

I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.

 

But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.

 

Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.

 

Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From southwestern Minnesota, where corn is king July 9, 2019

 

Farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see under an expansive sky in southwestern Minnesota.

 

TRAVEL MY NATIVE RURAL southwestern Minnesota as I did several days ago, and you will see vast fields of corn stretching across the landscape. Here you will find some of Minnesota’s richest and most fertile soil. Here corn and soybeans dominate.

 

A flooded field photographed on July 3 just east of Belview in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

In a particularly challenging growing season of late spring planting followed now by too much rain, farmers hope still for a bountiful harvest. Even as they view fields resembling lakes. But to be a farmer is to hold optimism.

 

A tractor and digger parked in a field along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Everything in these small communities centers on a farming economy. In years of good yields, businesses benefit. In years of low yields and low prices, small towns suffer. It is the cyclical nature of farm life in rural America.

 

An abandoned farmhouse sits atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

There’s much to appreciate about this rural region that roots me and grew me into a writer and photographer. Folks value the land and embrace a strong sense of community and of place.

 

Promotional billboards along U.S. Highway 14 and State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

In Sleepy Eye to the west of New Ulm, for example, the community celebrates Buttered Corn Days in August. This small town is home to a Del Monte Food’s corn and pea processing plant. We’re talking sweet corn here, not field corn.

 

Vending sweet corn in downtown Sleepy Eye on July 3.

 

Sweet corn season has just begun in Minnesota with roadside vendors pulling into parking lots and alongside roadways to sell fresh sweet corn from the backs of pick-up trucks. Farm to table at its most basic.

 

In a public visiting space at Parkview Home…

 

In the small town of Belview even farther to the west in my home county of Redwood, a single stalk of DeKalb field corn stands in a five-gallon bucket inside Parkview Home where my mom lives. I laughed when I saw the corn stalk with the notation of planted on May 13. Back in the day, corn growth was measured by “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Corn, in a typical year, now far surpasses that height by July 4. Not this year.

 

Silos and grain elevators are the highest architectural points on the prairie.

 

I can only imagine how many conversations that single corn stalk prompted at Parkview where most residents grew up on and/or operated farms. It’s details like this which define the rural character of a place and its people.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road: A look at Redwood County flooding & snow pack March 24, 2019

Westbound just outside of Redwood Falls along Minnesota State Highway 19 late Saturday morning.

 

SNOW LAYERS farm fields.

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Massive snow piles still mark farm sites, this one along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

A scene along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner appears more winter-like than spring.

 

In the shade of yards and groves and northern hillsides, snow banks remain, reminders of a long Minnesota winter not yet over.

 

In many spots along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner, snow pushed off the highway (some up to 100 feet from the roadway) remains.

 

Snow shoved from a once-drifted Minnesota State Highway 19 appears like wind-sculpted waves frozen in place just west of Redwood Falls.

 

A sign on the west edge of Redwood Falls along Minnesota State Highway 19 advises motorists to check the Minnesota Department of Transportation website for road closures.

 

In Redwood, the Redwood River appears mostly iced-over.

 

Flooding along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Delhi corner.

 

But outside of town, snow melt floods fields, settles in low-lying areas. Frozen tile and frozen ground allow no outlet for all that water. Farm sites seem temporary lakeside properties.

 

A drainage ditch near the intersection of Brown County Road 29 and Minnesota State Highway 67 southeast of Morgan.

 

Ditches brim with water.

 

East of Courtland along U.S. Highway 14, fields are mostly bare of snow.

 

Between Morgan and Gilfillan, snow cover and flooding increase.

 

Southeast of Redwood Falls.

 

A survey of the countryside while driving from Faribault to Belview and back Saturday presents a perspective on the flooding and potential flooding in southern Minnesota. Not until Randy and I drove northwest out of Morgan did we begin to really notice the difference. Our observations of significant remaining snow pack and already ponding water visually confirms the reason for a flood warning in my native Redwood County.

 

Flooded farm field near Delhi.

 

Just east of Belview.

 

East of Delhi, a closure on the Scenic Byway road.

 

There’s a lot of snow yet to melt, especially west of Redwood Falls. That water must go somewhere since it can’t soak into the frozen soil. And that somewhere is likely into the Redwood River, which feeds into the Minnesota River, which feeds into the Mississippi River. What happens in rural southwestern Minnesota will eventually affect the Twin Cities metro.

 

Near Delhi.

 

Temps and precipitation will factor into the flooding equation, too, as winter transitions into spring. I will tell you that Redwood County, on Saturday, seemed still stuck in the final days of winter.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling