Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Autumn on a rural Minnesota acreage, a photo essay October 4, 2018

A restored windmill towers above a refurbished mini barn (soon to be art studio) on my brother and sister-in-law’s rural Redwood County acreage.

 

OF SIX FARM-RAISED SIBLINGS, only two live in the country. Neither farmers. But two work in the ag industry, one as the CEO of an ethanol company, the other as part owner in an implement dealership.

 

 

My middle brother remains in our home county of Redwood and welcomes us back for extended family gatherings, most recently our annual autumn tradition of making horseradish—157 jars this year. The tradition honors our deceased farmer father. He dug and processed horseradish roots for many years. Now we do the same but with easier methods than using an old meat grinder powered by a drill. Like Dad, we give away the condiment.

 

Sunflowers ripen and dry under the prairie sky.

 

Our annual gathering in rural Lamberton isn’t about the horseradish as much as it is about family.

 

I’ve always delighted in milkweed pods bursting with seeds.

 

 

 

While I enjoy our time together, I usually slip away to meander, to take in the rural setting, to photograph. I need that peacefulness amid all the chattering and joking and loudness of a group with some strong personalities.

 

How lovely the broom corn rising and swaying in the prairie wind.

 

My artsy sister-in-law creates vignettes like this that change with the seasons.

 

A sunflower, heavy with seed, bows to the earth.

 

I need quiet. And I need to take in the shifting of the seasons, the artful autumn displays, the aged buildings, all the visual reminders of a rural life I still miss decades removed from the country.

 

A gazing ball in a flower garden reflects sky, land and dried black-eyed susan seed heads.

 

I am grateful for the opportunity to escape to this acreage, to reclaim the serenity of rural Minnesota.

 

An old shed recently moved onto the acreage, to be rebuilt or salvaged for the wood.

 

I realize nostalgia tinges my view of country life. Much has changed since I left the farm nearly 45 years ago. But not the love I hold for the land, for the quiet and grace and muted tones of harvest time.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The season of harvest in southwestern Minnesota October 2, 2018

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THE FARMER IN THE HOODED sweatshirt and jeans motions from atop the combine to the trucker across the field. He’s ready to unload just picked corn into the grain truck late on a Sunday morning near Sleepy Eye.

 

 

Scenes like this repeat throughout southern Minnesota as the fall harvest is underway. I embrace this season as much for the memories as for the sights, sounds and smells.

 

 

 

 

The farm-raised girl in me emerges, vicariously experiencing the harvest through a camera lens.

 

 

 

 

I feel this intense desire to return to the land every autumn. And last weekend an annual horseradish making party with extended family took me back to my home county of Redwood. Along the route there and back, I documented the harvest. It is the closest I come now to being part of the process of bringing in the corn and soybeans.

 

 

 

 

I miss the closeness to the earth that comes with growing up on a farm. Sure things have changed a lot in the nearly 45 years since I left rural Redwood County. But the imprint of harvest remains, still strong. You can take the girl from the land. But you can’t take the land from the girl.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Laura fans: Walnut Grove pageant needs financial help after flash flooding July 13, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the pageant site along the banks of Plum Creek taken several years ago..

 

WALNUT GROVE AND LAURA INGALLS WILDER. The two are synonymous. Wilder brought notoriety to this small southwestern Minnesota prairie community with her Little House books. The town embraces the author in its summer-time productions of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. Staged in an outdoor amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek, the pageant brings Wilder’s prairie stories to life. It’s a top-notch show that I’ve seen twice.

 

Plum Creek floods the pageant grounds following torrential rain. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

But now the Wilder Pageant Committee needs financial help to deal with damage caused by early July flash floods that ravaged southwestern Minnesota, including the creek-side performance site. Shows were canceled because of the flood. Volunteers worked hard to clean up the mess so the show could reopen on July 12 with added performances.

 

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are featured on a mural in the heart of Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love that about small towns—the coming together to get a job done. The people of Walnut Grove understand the value of Laura Ingalls Wilder to the local economy. And they are determined that the Big Flood on the Prairie will not stop the show despite damage to sets, costumes, sound and light equipment, and site access roads.

 

Flood clean-up. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

A gofundme page has been set up to help pay for maintenance to aging and flood-damaged facilities. The goal is $30,000. Please consider donating and spread the word.

 

Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

I am a mega fan of Wilder’s descriptive writing. That she lived in a dugout on the banks of Plum Creek in my native Redwood County, on my beloved prairie, endears me even more to this author.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To all the wonderful folks in Walnut Grove and surrounding area, thank you for your tireless efforts to welcome Laura fans from around the world to your community. Even after a devastating flood.

 

Period attire is common among young Laura fans visiting Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

CLICK HERE to reach the gofundme page and learn more.

NOTE: The Ingalls dugout site is temporarily closed due to flooding.

BUT the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove is open.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back in Redwood County after July flash floods July 9, 2018

Just six weeks ago, spring planting was underway in this same area of rural Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2018.

 

DURING MY LAST TRIP to southwestern Minnesota in mid May, farmers worked the land. Tilling. Planting crops. Rushing to get seeds into the soil after a late spring start.

Now, some six weeks later, acres and acres of that same cropland lie under water, corn and soybean fields flooded by torrential rains. Flash floods that turned farm land into lakes early last week.

On our route west of Redwood Falls then north to Belview then later east of Belview along county roads back to Redwood, Randy and I observed lots of standing water. Massive lakes where crops should now thrive. It was disheartening to see the efforts and hopes of so many farmers gone. Flash, just like that. Weather is always the gamble of farming. I would never have the mental fortitude to farm. I admire those who do.

As we drove, I noted the wash of debris along shoulders, evidence that floodwaters overtook the county road. We drove a narrow ribbon of asphalt, water edging both sides of the roadway. Orange cones and orange flags flagged danger. An orange snow fence blocked a gravel road.

I understood that, days after the flash flood, we had not seen the worst of this devastating storm. But it was enough for me to gauge the significant loss to the farmers of my native Redwood County.

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NOTE: My apologies for the lack of flood images. But I am under strict orders from my ortho surgeon not to use my left hand as I recover from surgery on my broken left wrist. “Use it,” he said, “and you will be back in the OR.” I’ll listen, thank you.

© copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When torrential rains cause major flooding in my home region of southwestern Minnesota July 4, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, my friends. I hope this finds you celebrating your freedom in a fun way.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta earlier this spring. That’s my home farm in the distance. I expect the flooding is much worse now. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In my home region of southwestern Minnesota, where I was supposed to be yesterday and today with extended family, residents are cleaning up after heavy rainfall flooded the region. Flash flooding resulted in water in basements (and higher), road wash-outs and closures, mudslides, swamped farm fields, overflowing rivers and more. That includes in my home county of Redwood. And the communities of Wabasso (where I graduated from high school) and Vesta (my hometown).

After a flurry of texts between me and my five siblings and lots of online searching yesterday, Randy and I decided not to risk the trip into the flooded region. Although I second-guessed our decision multiple times, it was the right one. This morning floodwaters flowed across a section of US highway 14 east of Lamberton, our route to and from my middle brother’s rural acreage just north of that small town. Likewise I expect the rising Cottonwood River has flooded a county road within a mile of our destination.

Some roads have collapsed in Redwood and Renville counties. I don’t trust the structural integrity of any road covered with water. The Redwood County Sheriff’s Department issued this statement on Facebook early yesterday morning:

We have had numerous (reports) of water covering the roadways. Please DO NOT drive on any roadway that has water running over it. MN DOT and Redwood County highway departments are doing the best they can do get these roads blocked off to warn motorists.

 

A combine similar to this was moved from a Tracy dealership onto Highway 14. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

One of the most creative road blocks happened in Tracy where crews parked a massive John Deere combine across Highway 14 to keep traffic off the flooded roadway.

 

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In Wabasso, which got 11 inches of rain within 12 hours, a resident noted on social media that the white rabbit was safe from floodwaters. He was referencing an over-sized rabbit sculpture along State Highway 68. Wabasso means “white rabbit” and is the local school mascot.

It’s good to find humor in a difficult situation, in an area where residents endured another round of rain this Fourth of July morning.

To those who live in my native southwestern Minnesota (and that includes many family and friends), I am sorry you are experiencing this major flooding. Please be safe.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A mother’s gift to her writer daughter May 11, 2018

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The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my oldest brother.

 

I SOMETIMES WONDER how my mom did it? How did she raise six kids and manage a household without the modern conveniences of today? No microwave. No bathroom or telephone or TV or automatic washing machine (for many years). An endless list of “no” whatever.

She planted a massive garden, canned and froze fruits and vegetables. Baked bread and assorted sweets from scratch. Mended clothes. She could do most anything.

 

Mom’s journals stacked in a tote.

 

And she wrote. Daily. Mom documented the happenings of farm life in southwestern Minnesota, even before she became a wife and a mother. I have those journals now, stacked inside a plastic tote. Musty-smelling spiral bound stenographer notebooks filled with her words. History inked in her beautiful signature flowing cursive.

They are my most treasured tangible part of her, a collection of information that is not personal, yet is. She writes not of feelings, but of weather and work, going to church and town and to relatives’ homes. She writes, too, of illness and new babies and skinned knees. While I’ve only read bits and pieces of assorted journals, I know that eventually I will read every word. Her single-paragraph daily entries of three to six lines or so document rural life. From her perspective as a wife and mother.

She became a mother in mid-July of 1955, two months shy of celebrating her first wedding anniversary. She writes:

Got to the hospital at 1:15 a.m. & baby was born at 3:20 a.m. He weighed 8 lb. Has a lot of hair. Folks visited me.

On her first Mother’s Day—months before my birth—Mom visited her parents, noting that her mother had gone to the Heart Hospital two days prior. Seven months later her mother died of a heart attack. I was only months old. I will always hold a certain sadness in my grandma’s early untimely death, knowing her only through the memories of others who spoke of a woman with the kindest of hearts. Just like my mom.

Through all the challenges of life, Mom has maintained a positive and cheerful attitude. She’s kind and compassionate and uncomplaining. That has been part of her gift to us, her six children, born between 1955 and 1967. Three girls. Three boys.

 

My mom and I at our extended family Christmas gathering in late December 2017.

 

Eight days before my birth, Mom put up 32 jars of grape jelly and 18 ½ quarts of tomato juice with her sister Dorothy. “Sure was tired,” she wrote. If I was about to give birth, I’d feel tired, too. But she never complained.

On my birthday, Mom writes:

Woke up at 3:00 a.m. Got to hospital at 4:20 & baby was born at 4:56 a.m. She weighed 8 lb. 12 oz.

Talk about cutting it close. But then the hospital was a 20-mile drive and my parents had to find someone to watch my oldest brother. Dorothy stayed on for several days after my birth to help with washing, ironing, cleaning and other tasks while Mom recovered and adjusted to having two kids under two.

 

My mom saved everything, including this Mother’s Day card I made for her in elementary school. I cut a flower from a seed catalog to create the front of this card.

 

And so the years passed with more babies birthed. I wondered if Mom had any special memories of Mother’s Day. I paged through several journals from the 1960s to find entries about Mother’s Day programs at Vesta Elementary School. She noted the gifts we three oldest kids gave her—tomato plants, a hammered dish and on May 8, 1964, a writing pad. From me.

 

I took this photo nearly two years ago of my mom holding my granddaughter’s hand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

Now more than ever, as age steals my mom’s memory and she no longer keeps a journal, I appreciate her writing. Her words reveal a hardworking woman who valued her family and faith and farm life. That Mom took the time to write shows her deep appreciation, too, for the written word. She passed that along to me. I am grateful. But most of all I am grateful for a mom who loved me and my siblings with such depth. She was, and remains even in her advancing octogenarian years, an example of kindness and compassion and goodness that I strive to emulate. She is my mother. And I love her.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring flooding in my home county of Redwood April 30, 2018

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Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan.

 

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, traveling back to my hometown of Vesta, I noted snow sculpted in some road ditches. This late in April, the scene was unexpected. But then a blizzard raged across southern Minnesota only weeks earlier. And that road ditch snow, hard-packed by prairie winds, had yet to melt in the then 60-degree temps.

 

Nearing Vesta (left in photo) along Minnesota State Highway 19, I saw more and more flooding of farm fields.

 

A view of the flooding from Highway 19 just northwest of Vesta.

 

And just across the highway, more flooding.

 

Beyond the snow, though, I noticed water setting in farm fields. The late significant snowfalls and plugged culverts and tiles likely contributed to the collection of snow melt water in many low-lying areas. It would be awhile, I surmised, before farmers would be working this land.

 

 

The deep blue of those temporary ponds appeals to the poet in me. I see lines of poetry in splashes of blue across an otherwise drab landscape stubbled by remnants of last year’s harvest.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta. That’s my home farm in the distance. There have been times when the river flooded across the roadway.

 

A temporary lake of floodwaters borders my hometown of Vesta.

 

Flooded farmland along the Redwood River on the edge of Vesta.

 

On the south edge of Vesta, within view of the Redwood River, a lake formed as the river overflowed its banks and flooded surrounding farm land. The town itself was in no danger with a hill—rare as they are on the prairie—bordering that end of town.

 

Water spreads easily across the almost tabletop flat landscape, here just north of Vesta.

 

There’s something about floodwaters that draws my appreciation, causes me to stand and just look at the river and recognize its power.

 

These grain bins sit a gravel road and short stretch of land away from the floodwaters of the Redwood River in Vesta.

 

I realize that soon (maybe even as I write) this flooding will be another memory as farmers ready for planting and, in several months, the harvest.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling