Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A look back at an unfathomable act of domestic violence in rural Minnesota & more March 24, 2018

WHAT CAUSED A MINNESOTA farmer to kill his entire family—his wife and four young children—with an ax in a horrific act of domestic violence?

We likely will never know the truth behind the murders-suicide which happened on March 24, 1917, in rural Redwood County, my home county in the fertile farmland of southwestern Minnesota.

 

 

Up until the release of a book of historical fiction, Sundown at Sunrise by former Minnesota state legislator Marty Seifert in late 2016, I’d never heard of this crime. I recently read the book published by Beaver’s Pond Press. Therein I found familiar names, including the maiden surname of my maternal grandmother and other known names from Redwood County.

 

The murder occurred in Section 16 of Three Lakes Township in the area noted by the pointing hand. This is a photo of a Digitized State of Minnesota Plat Book map from 1916. I found this through the Minnesota History Center, Gale Family Library, Borchert Map Library. The author grew up in the northeastern corner of Sundown Township.

 

Seifert grew up in Sundown Township within miles of the murders. In a farmhouse in Section 16 of Three Lakes Township north of Clements, William Kleeman, 31, raised an ax and killed his wife, Maud, and their children ranging in age from six weeks to five years. He then hung himself. Many times I’ve passed that former farm place at the intersection of Minnesota State Highway 68 and Redwood County Road 1 west of Morgan and near the site of Farm Fest. I had no idea of the violence that occurred there.

But the author grew up hearing the story of the Kleeman ax murders. That and his interest in history—he’s a former history teacher—prompted Seifert to research and pen this book rooted in fact.

 

From the Minneapolis Morning Tribune dated March 27, 1917. This is a photo of the article found in the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.

 

I decided to check out for myself newspaper accounts of the murders. That led me to the Minnesota Digitized Newspaper Hub and sensationalized layered headlines followed by detailed stories. I expect Seifert used the same sources, and more, to research for his book. But he goes beyond those stories to suggest the real reason behind the crime discovered by a young teacher (her name is fictionalized in the book) who boarded with the Kleemans. I won’t share more. You need to read the book.

 

The story about the murders published in the New Ulm Review on March 28, 1917.

 

In reading Sundown at Sunrise, I noted specific red flags pointing to future domestic violence and an awareness of that potential. A hired hand, for example, tells Maud’s father upon her engagement to William Kleeman that, “I think Miss Petrie done deserve better.” Henry Petrie agrees.

The author also describes William Kleeman “from a young age parlaying his handsome looks and confident demeanor as ways to manipulate his mother.” That manipulative charm threads throughout the story. I appreciate that the author understands the characteristics of an abuser and writes that into this work of fiction based on fact.

And then, after the murders, the hired hand sees the Kleemans’ marriage certificate nailed above the bed where Maud and her baby lie in pools of blood. Frank Schottenbauer notes that “he’d rather look at a bloody corpse than view the license William Kleeman had used to violate Maud Petrie.”

The author many times works the appearance of garter snakes and William Kleeman’s aversion to religion into the storyline, alluding to evil.

 

The Pine Island Record printed this story on March 29, 1917.

 

You can surmise what you will from this book of historical fiction. But nothing changes the fact that Maud died at the hands of her husband and Gladys, Lois, Gordon and Rosadell died at the hands of their father in an unfathomable act of domestic violence in Redwood County, Minnesota.

Today I honor the memories of that young mother and her beloved children. They deserved to live full lives on the prairie, to love and to be loved.

 

A plat of Three Lakes Township from a 1963 Atlas of Redwood County Minnesota shows the section (16) in which the crime occurred. You’ll find some of the surnames here included in Sundown at Sunrise.

 

FYI: The ax used in the murders is stored in the archives of the Redwood County Historical Society in Redwood Falls. For years, it was kept as evidence by the sheriff’s department before its donation to the county museum.

 

 

 

TODAY, AS YOUNG PEOPLE and others gather in Washington, DC, and around the world (including right here in Minnesota) for the “March For Our Lives” anti-gun-violence rally, I honor those I knew (via personal connections) who have been murdered in acts of domestic violence. Not just by gun violence, although several were shot.

Violence, whether in our schools, our homes, on the street, needs to stop. We need to take a stand, to act when we can, to say, “Enough is enough.” We need to care, to speak up, to listen, to educate ourselves, to push for change. I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I have witnessed and experienced the pain and grief of those who have lost loved ones through acts of violence. If you haven’t, consider yourself fortunate.

I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to comfort a friend whose father was murdered. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to comfort parents whose daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to write about the murder of a beloved community member by her ex-husband at our local tourism office.

I’ve watched a SWAT team sweep through my neighborhood searching for a knife used in a murder within blocks of my home. I’ve talked to police many years ago about a drive by shooting involving big city gang members. A gang member purchased a car from us, failed to change the title, used the car in a shooting and then stashed the gun in the trunk. Investigators started with us, owners of the car.

Yes, I’ve been touched many times by violence. Gun and other.

Enough is enough. To those young people and others who are speaking up today, thank you for using your voice to effect change.

 

 

 

IMPORTANT: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call or text (if that option is available in your area) 911. If you are leaving (or thinking of leaving) your abuser, please seek help and have a safety plan in place. Talk to someone you trust like a family member, friend, c0-worker, clergy, advocate…  Immediate help is available. Reach out to a local women’s shelter or advocacy center for professional help. You are not alone. You deserve to live a life free of any type of abuse whether physical, mental, emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual or technological.

Please know that you are in greatest danger when you are about to leave, are leaving or have left your abuser. Abuse is about power, control and manipulation. When abusers lose that control, they often become violent. Be safe and know that you are loved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Quoted passages are copyright of Marty Seifert and used here for review purposes only.

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Reflecting on the US – Dakota Conflict of 1862 & my changed approach to history January 20, 2018

This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle which ended the US -Dakota Conflict of 1862. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

TUCKED INSIDE A CARDBOARD BOX among teenage journals, clippings of news stories I wrote, old greeting cards, my last childhood doll and more rest pages of history. History I gathered from books, summarized and typed on a manual typewriter into a document titled “The Sioux Uprising of 1862.” I wrote that term paper in ninth grade, or maybe as a sophomore. All these decades later, specifics elude me.

 

The Rice County Historical Society in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

But my interest in this Conflict, centered in my home area of southwestern Minnesota, remains steadfast. Thursday evening the Uprising, more appropriately tagged today as The US – Dakota Conflict/War of 1862, focused a presentation by Tim Madigan at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault. A history major, Madigan taught social studies back in the 1970s in Morton, near the epicenter of the Conflict. He is also a former Faribault city administrator.

 

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.  The quote reflects the many broken treaties between the Dakota and the U.S. government. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

To a rapt audience of nearly 50 mostly history buffs, Madigan outlined basics of the war from its root causes—in delayed annuity payments, withholding of food and resulting starvation among the Dakota people—to information on battles and more. I hadn’t forgotten those basics. But considering them now as an adult rather than as a high school student completing an assignment opened new perspectives. Madigan made it clear that history, as written, includes not only facts, but also myths, lies and more depending on the source. His talk seemed appropriately titled “The Fog of War: Perceptions and Realities, US – Dakota Conflict 1862.”

 

The Loyal Indian Monument at Birch Coulee Monument near Morton honors Native Americans and features strong words like humanity, patriotism, fidelity and courage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers who were killed in the area during the US – Dakota Conflict. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Going into the presentation, I thought I knew almost everything about the Conflict. But I didn’t. Or perhaps I’d forgotten details like 500 – 700 people of European descent killed in the war along with 100 Dakota warriors and an unknown number of Native civilians. Refugees displaced as a result of the war numbered 20,000. As I listened, I thought of my own maternal ancestors who fled their Courtland area farm for safety in St. Peter some 30 miles distant.

 

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault and a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But it was the Rice County connection to the war which I found most interesting. My interest always centered on what happened in my native Redwood County and neighboring Brown County versus my home of the last 35 years in Faribault. I was unaware that town founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault (who was part Dakota and part French), for example, was at the Battle of Birch Coulee, an intense battle waged near Morton. I can only imagine the personal conflicts Faribault sometimes felt as a person of mixed blood in the war between the Dakota people and white settlers and soldiers.

 

Trader Andrew Myrick refused to grant the Dakota credit, remarking, “Let them eat grass.” After an attack on the Lower Sioux Agency, Myrick was found dead, his mouth stuffed with grass. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Madigan also noted the challenges Dakota leader Little Crow experienced in a war he didn’t initially support. I expect Little Crow felt extreme pressure as he tried to negotiate with government agencies while his people starved.

 

Above the photos and info is this quote by Bishop Henry Whipple to President Buchanan in August 1860: “In my visits to them (the Dakota), my heart had been pained to see the utter helplessness of these poor souls, fast passing away, caused in great part by the curse which our people have pressed to their lips.” This was part of a 2012 display at the Northfield Historical Society on the Rice County aspect of the US – Dakota Conflict of 1862. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

And then there was Bishop Henry Whipple, a well-known figure in my county of Rice and Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop. He played a key role in the US – Dakota Conflict. Madigan tagged him as “the disappearing hero,” noting Whipple’s strong advocacy for Indian missions; his support of efforts to educate the Dakota and convert them to Christianity and agrarian ways; his backing of fair treaties between Native peoples and the U.S. government; and, most important, his role in convincing President Abraham Lincoln to reduce the number of Dakota executed in a mass hanging in Mankato following the war. Of the 303 men sentenced to death, 38 were hung.

 

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

 

Whipple centered much of the audience discussion following Madigan’s talk. In the context of today’s world, Whipple’s approach to changing the Dakota way of life, rather than respecting their culture, seems outdated. Yet, change appeared inevitable in a time period when settlers moved West into Dakota hunting territory to establish homesteads and to farm, several people noted. I couldn’t help but think those expectations of change and adaptation remain strong today toward our immigrant populations.

The Faribault faith leader’s peaceful approach and genuine kindness toward the Dakota was, as you would expect, not embraced by all. There were, noted Rice County Historical Society Executive Director Susan Garwood, assassination attempts on Whipple’s life. This proved news to me.

 

Dakota beadwork displayed at the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

Following the war, about 80 Native Americans moved to the Faribault area under the protection of Whipple. Some even helped construct The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour, Whipple’s church and the oldest cathedral in Minnesota. Built between 1862 – 1869, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a place of community care with the Community Cathedral Cafe, many support groups, public concerts and more based there.

 

The historic Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As a related addendum, Director Garwood shared that several Dakota and African Americans attended Faribault’s long ago Seabury Divinity School directed by Whipple. The presence of those non-white seminarians caused concern among some, as you might imagine.

 

A scene in downtown Faribault during a 2015 Car Cruise Night shows my community’s diversity, which includes Somali immigrants. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Much has changed, yet much hasn’t. In my community of Faribault, where Whipple worked nearly 160 years ago to embrace and express love to all peoples, conflict remains between many long-time locals and our newest immigrants. The same goes for acceptance between Caucasians and Native Americans in my native Redwood County. To deny its existence would be fooling ourselves. We have, in many ways, become more accepting of each other. But we still have far to go.

While I took away new information from Madigan’s talk, I left with more. I realized how much my approach to history has changed since high school, since I researched and wrote about “The Sioux Uprising of 1862.” My perspective shifted to actually thinking about issues rather than simply regurgitating historical facts/myths/lies. And that is a good thing.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Artistry along Minnesota State Highway 68 January 9, 2018

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STATE HIGHWAY 68 slices diagonally across rich Minnesota farmland southeast of Morgan.

 

 

I often travel this section of roadway until it intersects with Brown County Road 29 when I return to my roots in Redwood County. The angle of the highway in a place where roads typically run in a straight gridded pattern confuses my sense of direction. I must use the sun as my compass. Or remind my mind that highway 68 does not run true north or south, east or west.

Other than the directional issue, I delight in this roadway for the visuals. My photographer’s eye appreciates the power poles that stretch along the highway. Wires loop between poles reinforcing the horizontal lay of this land. There’s just something about the repeating line of poles and wire that artistically pleases me.

 

 

And then there are the sunsets which, in this exposed plain, prove spectacular, even in layers of clouds. Everything—trees, barns, fields—seems insignificant beneath a fiery sun suspended above the land, my native land.

NOTE: These photos were taken several weeks ago.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Attention, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans: A new must-read book by Marta McDowell September 21, 2017

 

WHEN A PACKAGE LANDED on my front doorstep some 10 days ago, I wondered about its content. I hadn’t ordered anything. But inside I found a newly-released book, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books.

Ah, yes, I had been expecting this. Sort of. But I’d forgotten about the book by bestselling author Marta McDowell that includes three of my photos. More than a year had passed since Marta and I connected.

Now I was holding the results of this New Jersey writer’s intensive research, multi-state visits and hours of writing. It’s an impressive book for the information and the art published therein on the places and plants in the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 

Every summer, the folks of Walnut Grove produce an outdoor pageant based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Many pageant attendees arrive at the show site dressed in period attire and then climb aboard the covered wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I have not yet read the entire book. But I am sharing this new Timber Press release now because Marta will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Avenue, in Minneapolis from 7 – 8 this evening (September 21) to present The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I expect the book to be enthusiastically received here in Minnesota and by Laura fans world-wide.

 

The southwestern Minnesota prairie, in the summer, is a place of remarkable beauty. I shot this image outside Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

I am among those fans with the added bonus of having grown up only three townships north of the Charles and Caroline Ingalls’ North Hero Township home near Walnut Grove in Redwood County, Minnesota. Long before the Little House TV show, long before I realized the popularity of Laura’s book series, I loved her writing. A teacher at Vesta Elementary School read the books aloud to me and my classmates during a post-lunch reading time. That story-time instilled in me a deep love for the written word and a deep connection to The Little House books.

 

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 in 2010.

 

With that background, you can understand my enthusiasm for Marta’s book which focuses on the landscapes and specific plants that surrounded Laura and her family. Laura writes with a strong sense of place, a skill I’ve often considered may trace to her blind sister, Mary. Laura became her sister’s “eyes.”

 

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything. I took this photo at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna during a previous traveling exhibit on Minnesota disasters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Marta writes of specific plants and places in her book, taking the reader from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Missouri and in between—wherever Laura lived. In the section on Walnut Grove, she notes the wild plums, the morning glories and the blue flags (iris) that Laura writes about in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’ve walked that creek and creekbank, seen the Ingalls’ dug-out, wildflowers and plums. I am of this rich black soil, these plants, this land. There’s a comfortable familiarity in reading of this land the Ingalls family eventually left because of a grasshopper infestation and resulting crop failures.

 

My black-eyed susan photo is published in Marta’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To be part of Marta’s book on Laura Ingalls Wilder is an honor. The vintage botanical illustrations, original artwork by Garth Williams, historic photos, maps, ads, current day photos like my three and more make this volume a work of art.

There is much to learn therein, much to appreciate. So for all of you Laura fans out there, take note. You’ll want to add The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books to your collection.

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary copy of this book and was paid for publication of my three photos.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Two Minnesota towns July 27, 2017

Fields and sky envelope a farm building just west of Wabasso in my native Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I GREW UP ON THE PRAIRIE, a place of earth and sky and wind. Land and sky stretch into forever there, broken only by farm sites and the grain elevators and water towers that define small towns.

 

Along Minnesota Highway 19, this sign once marked my hometown. That sign has since been replaced. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County once bustled with businesses—a lumberyard, feed mill, hardware stores, grocers, cafes, a blacksmith… Now the one-block center of town is mostly empty, vacant lots replacing wood-frame buildings that once housed local shops. Time, economics and abandonment rotted the structures into decay and eventual collapse or demolition.

 

One of the few businesses remaining downtown, the Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? The back story of my prairie hometown, where buildings were built mostly of wood rather than brick or stone, led me to a deep respect and appreciation for communities that have retained buildings of yesteryear. Cities like Cannon Falls, founded in 1854. By comparison, Vesta was founded in 1900.

 

The rear of an historic stone building in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Cannon Falls still has a thriving downtown landmarked by 29 properties in a Commercial Historic District. It’s population of around 4,000 and location between Rochester and the metro contrast sharply with Vesta’s population of 300 in the much more rural southwestern corner of Minnesota.

 

This sign marks the aged former Firemen’s Hall, now the Cannon Falls Museum, pictured below. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

The Cannon Falls Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Drive through Cannon Falls neighborhoods and you will see history still standing. In Vesta, history comes in photos and memories. It’s sad really. But that is reality.

 

The Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal congregation founded in Cannon Falls in 1866. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Because I grew up without solid stone buildings in a place that unsettles many for its breadth of sky and land, I am drawn to stone structures. They portray a strength and permanency that defies time and change. Yet I expect both masons and carpenters shared the same dreams of a better life, of prosperity and success.

 

Another lovely stone building photographed behind downtown Cannon Falls buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

That’s the underlying truth. Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something. The land remains—the same earth upon which early settlers planted their boots and stood with hope in their hearts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing the writing & art of the Northern Great Plains at SDSU April 19, 2017

“The Prairie is My Garden,” a painting by South Dakota artist Harvey Dunn, showcases the prairie I so love. Here I’ve photographed most of a print which I purchased at a yard sale. I bought the art because I liked it and only learned afterward of its value and prominence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ONE OF MY FAVORITE PRINTS, “The Prairie is my Garden,” is rooted in South Dakota. The artist, Harvey Dunn, was born in a claim shanty near Manchester, west of Brookings.

I’ve been to Brookings. Once. While in college, I accompanied a roommate to her hometown where her dad owned the John Deere dealership. I don’t remember a lot about that visit except the fancy house in which my roommate’s family lived and our attendance at the annual Hobo Day Parade. That tradition of South Dakota State University, which peaks in a Jackrabbits football game, is going on its 105th year.

As you’ve likely surmised, Brookings is rural oriented, the university known for its ag focused majors. Students, for example, make ice cream and cheese from milk produced at the SDSU Dairy Research and Training Facility. This is a hands-on college that draws many a rural raised student.

 

The promo for Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

This university, where students work with farm animals and where the prairie paintings of a noted Plains artist are housed in the South Dakota Art Museum, seems the ideal setting for Oakwood, a literary journal. Featuring the work of SDSU students, staff and alumni and also of greater Brookings artists/writers and others in the Northern Great Plains region, the magazine releases this Thursday. According to the Oakwood website, the journal embraces a regional identity.

I am happy to be part of that identity with the inclusion of my poem, “Ode to my Farm Wife Mother,” inspired by my mom. She raised me and five other children on a dairy and crop farm about 1 ½ hours northeast of Brookings in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

A gravel road just north of Lamberton in Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most of the poetry I write is based on prairie life. I write with a strong sense of place. The endless open space and wide skies of the prairie lend themselves to creativity. Within the stark setting of rural southwestern Minnesota, I noticed details—the strength of the people, the blackness of the earth, the immensity of the setting sun, the sharpness of a winter wind, the quiet of stillness. I can trace my poetry, my photos, everything I create, to that rural upbringing. I am honored to have my latest poem selected for inclusion in Oakwood 2017 as a writer from the Northern Great Plains.

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FYI: A public reception will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at the SDSU Briggs Library & Special Collections for writers and artists whose work is included in Oakwood 2017. Readings and talks will be featured. Because I live nearly four hours away, I can’t be there. When I can share my poem with you, I’ll do so.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My award-winning water story publishes April 8, 2017

 

 

“Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective” has published in southern Minnesota based River Valley Woman’s April issue. My story won the nonfiction category in the “We Are Water” writing contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative with the support of The League of Women Voters and River Valley Woman. That honor includes a $250 prize.

I don’t have a hard copy yet, but I viewed the story online. And so can you by clicking here and advancing to page 50 of the April issue. The piece is lengthy per submission guidelines requiring 5 – 12 pages of copy.

No matter how many times I’ve been published, I still thrill in seeing my words out there for others to read and perhaps appreciate. You can find print copies of the magazine in many locations like Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm, Redwood Falls and surrounding smaller communities. Click here for a complete list.

In reading my story, you will learn of my growing up years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, the place that shaped me into the person, writer and photographer I’ve become. Farm life as I remember it from the 1960s – 1970s no longer exists. So this story, while written for a competition, was also written for me and my family. There’s an importance in reclaiming memories through written words, in telling the stories that define a place, in sharing my roots with you, my readers.

FYI: Click here to read my first blog post about winning this writing competition.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling