Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Waiting for the winter storm January 17, 2020

I expect the view from my front window to look like this by this afternoon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

WE ARE ONLY HOURS AWAY here in southeastern Minnesota from a major winter storm expected to drop up to a foot of snow on some parts of our state. In my city of Faribault in Rice County, predictions range from five to nine inches.

No matter how you measure it, it’s still snow that will cause travel problems and which needs to be removed. Oh, joy.

 

This photograph, taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota, shows how the wind drives snow across and onto roadways. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2010.

 

But it’s not just the snow that will create issues. It’s the strong wind accompanying the snow. Winds tomorrow in the southwestern part of the state, my home area, could reach 50 mph. Thus the blizzard warning starting at midnight in that region.

 

While in southwestern Minnesota last weekend, I noticed snow already banking in drifts along drainage ditches, here east of Morgan.

 

I’ve experienced enough winter storms on the prairie to appreciate the seriousness of a blizzard. Reduced visibility creates white-out conditions. Snowdrifts block roads. And those powerful winds plunge the “feels like” temperature into the deadly range when exposed to the elements.

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 19 on the west edge of Redwood Falls, a sign advises motorists to check travel information.

 

Still, winter storm after winter storm, people fail to heed the dangers. In and post storm, the media reports vehicles stranded along roadways (mostly interstates) and motorists rescued. I’ve heard of drivers taking back county roads after GPS directed them there because the interstate was closed. Interstate closure is a pretty clear indication that no one should be on the road.

 

I expect lights on this sign to flash today and tomorrow, closing Minnesota State Highway 19 west of Redwood Falls.

 

Along certain sections of interstate and highways, snow gates are closed to block the roadway when travel becomes difficult, if not impossible. Just last week when traveling through Redwood Falls, I noticed signage indicating Minnesota State Highway 19 is closed when the yellow light on the sign flashes. A second sign advised motorists to check state travel conditions on MN511.org. While I appreciate that Minnesota Department of Transportation tool, I’ve often found it’s not updated enough.

The bottom line is this, though: Common sense should tell us to stay off the roads during a winter storm like the one barreling into Minnesota and elsewhere today. That said, I’ve advised the husband to leave work early for his commute home from Northfield, a 22-minute drive on a typical, non-storm day.

For those of you in the path of the winter storm, stay safe.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay November 25, 2019

Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.

Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.

 

I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.

 

Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.

 

With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.

 

The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.

 

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.

 

A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.

 

Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.

 

Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.

 

Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.

 

Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.

 

Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.

 

I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.

 

Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.

 

Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.

 

Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

 

Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.

As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.

© 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

 

Memories of a long ago challenging Minnesota winter & more March 15, 2019

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I took this photo several years ago on the Minnesota Highway 19 curve just north of Vesta, my southwestern Minnesota hometown. White-out conditions can happen quickly in that wind-swept part of the state. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOME 50 YEARS AGO, getting to school each day during the winter months proved difficult. It was a particularly snowy winter with strong prairie winds drifting snow across and blocking many roadways. I lived a mile from Vesta on a crop and dairy farm. But I lived some 20 miles from the junior high school I attended in Redwood Falls.

In that late 1960s winter to remember, buses stopped driving into the country to pick up students. That pretty much covered everyone from the Vesta area. Nearly all of us lived on farms.

 

A bus I photographed near Morgan, Minnesota, in May 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

If we could get into the cafe in Vesta, we could board a bus that would then travel Minnesota State Highway 19 to our school in Redwood. But getting there took effort and determination. My oldest brother and I climbed onto the John Deere tractor driven by Dad for the ride into town. And just to clarify, that tractor did not have a cab, only a canvas shield of sorts around the seat. And even though girls were banned from wearing pants at school, I slipped a pair of pants on underneath my dress.

I don’t recall additional details of those tractor rides. But I do recall the bus ride to Redwood along a state highway with snowbanks towering well above the bus. Single lanes cut into rock-hard drifts.

And then I recall the reactions of some teachers when all of us Vesta kids arrived two hours late. They were angry and told us so. Really? You try hopping on a tractor in the cold of winter to get to town to catch a bus and then ride another half hour to school. Be thankful we made it to class.

Kids now days certainly don’t face those challenges. And, if they did, they’d be tucked inside a heated tractor cab. More likely a pick-up truck. But Minnesota prairie kids still face canceled rural routes. “Buses on plowed roads only” is not uncommon during the winter in parts of Minnesota. And just yesterday, I read on the KLGR radio website out of Redwood Falls that buses in at least three schools—Lakeview, Echo Charter and, surprisingly, Redwood—would travel on paved roads only.

Muddy gravel roads and flooding can also become a problem as winter transitions toward spring. And right now Minnesota is experiencing plenty of flooding of roadways and streets.

 

The Faribault American Legion and Heritage Place businesses, a block from downtown, are surrounded by flood waters in September 2010. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

And more. In Faribault, the city issued this statement on its Facebook page:

SANDBAGS: The City of Faribault will be providing to city residents sand and bags if, and when, flooding occurs. If sandbags are needed now because of a localized flooding event (like backyard flooding into a door in a walkout basement, for example) contact the Faribault Fire Department at 507-334-8773.

 

A broad view of Wabasso’s Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In the small town of Wabasso (where I attended high school) in my home county of Redwood, the city issued this statement on its Facebook page:

The city of Wabasso recommends turning your sump pump discharge outside. This means either into your yard, the street, or on top of the snow.
The water flowing through the sanitary sewer has been elevated since this afternoon.
When the sewer is overloaded, there is a risk that residents will have sewage back up into their homes.
Please turn your sump pumps to the surface as soon as you are able.

This winter of too much snow and now a too quick snow melt with too much rain is challenging all of us. But eventually conditions will improve. And we can look back and remember the difficult winter of 2019. Like I remember that late 1960s winter of riding the John Deere tractor to catch the school bus.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A tractor so deere featured at historic ag show, Part II September 7, 2017

A snippet of the many vintage tractors displayed at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show in rural Dundas, Minnesota.

 

DRIVING AWAY FROM THE RICE COUNTY Steam & Gas Engines Show, Randy and I reminisced about a long ago popular farming event in our respective rural Minnesota hometown areas. That would be John Deere Days, an annual implement dealership open house. At the ones I attended in Redwood Falls, families enjoyed a free meal of BBQs, baked beans and individual servings of ice cream eaten with mini wooden spoons from plastic cups. Funny how one recalls such details five decades later.

 

There were plenty of John Deere tractors on the grounds.

 

A vintage John Deere combine.

 

I found the vintage hay loader especially interesting.

 

I remember, too, going to the local theater afterward to watch movies about John Deere tractors and other farming equipment. To a farm girl who viewed less than a handful of big screen movies during her entire childhood, these yearly John Deere promo flicks rated as a big deal.

 

Not every tractor emblem at the show has been restored. I like the ones that bear the marks of hard use on the farm.

 

But before the film reel rolled, several lucky attendees won door prizes. Like silver dollars. Randy won a bag of seed corn. His dad, who planted the silage seed corn on his Morrison County farm, was likely more thrilled than his son about that prize.

 

John Deere tractors and related equipment got front row display space.

 

So what prompted our memories of John Deere Days after attending the recent historic ag show in rural Dundas? It was this year’s selection of the John Deere as the honored tractor line. I hold a fondness for The Long Green Line that traces back to my dad’s John Deere. There’s a certain comfort in the auditory memories of putt-putt-putt. Anything that specifically reminds me of my nearly 18 years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm—and that would be John Deeres—yields sweet thoughts.

 

Identifying words on the side of a John Deere tractor at the Dundas show.

 

I really should tour the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

 

My dad owned a later model Ford, unlike these earlier Ford tractors.

 

Unlike my great nephew Landon who, at age four, is loyal solely to John Deere, I am not. My dad also owned Farmalls, Internationals and Fords. He, however, only ever allowed me to drive the B Farmall.

 

A leaping deer has long been John Deere’s iconic symbol.

 

Nothing runs like a Deere. That catchy coined phrase endures still as do the signature green and yellow and leaping deer symbols of this implement company. I appreciate those long-lasting recognizable tags that trace to my rural roots and remind me of my youth on a Minnesota farm.

 

Do you, like me, have sweet memories of a John Deere tractor?

 

TELL ME: Do you have memories of events like John Deere Days? Or do you hold a fondness for a particular tractor line? I’d love to hear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An innovative plan to promote literacy at a rural Minnesota library August 19, 2015

This shows plans for the custom-designed Outdoor Early Literacy Area planned for the Redwood Falls Public Library. The playground equipment will be custom made and themed to agriculture and camping. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

This shows plans for the Outdoor Early Literacy Area planned for the Redwood Falls Public Library. The playground equipment will be custom made and themed to agriculture and camping. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

IN MY HOME COUNTY OF REDWOOD on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, the Redwood Falls Public Library is planning to construct an Outdoor Early Literacy Area themed to agriculture and camping.

The elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, just to the south of my brother's place.

A soybean field and the grain elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, in southern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

I love this idea of combining literacy and outdoor play. And the themes are perfect for this community. Even though kids in Redwood County live in the heart of Minnesota farm country, that doesn’t mean they are familiar with farming. This is just one more way to keep Minnesota’s farm heritage strong, by teaching youngsters the importance of agriculture in a way that’s hands-on creative.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Redwood Falls is also a camping oasis of sorts with Alexander Ramsey Park, known as the “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota.” The park is a surprise of woods, hills, river valley and waterfalls in this county of small towns and cropland. The camping aspect will instill an appreciation of the outdoors and recreation in this place of prairie and sky.

Geared for children up to age seven, the outdoor literary area aims to achieve seven goals, Library Director Teri Smith shares in an email:

  • Encourage a love of literacy in a developmentally appropriate environment.
  • Incorporate a love of reading, print awareness, letter knowledge, sound awareness, vocabulary, and narrative skills and comprehension in joyful play.
  • Cultivate literacy in a relevant way (using known objects and activities relevant to southwestern Minnesota).
  • Encourage families and young children to spend more time at the library.
  • Encourage play in learning.
  • Encourage play in nature.
  • Encourage a love of learning at an early age and throughout a lifetime.
Just another view of the planned literacy area. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

Just another view of the planned literacy area. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

So how, exactly, will that happen? Young families can check out pretend produce, eggs, fishing equipment and even numbered and lettered fish from the library to use outdoors. And, as they play, the kids will learn about healthy living and agriculture and acquire literacy skills. The children’s librarian will model play and interactions in the outdoor space, Smith says. The library also hopes to tap into Reading Corps volunteers.

A place like this is needed, says Smith, because few areas exist in this rural community for young families to gather and enjoy one another’s company while learning valuable literacy and social skills.

Already, the library has raised some two-thirds of the $100,000 needed for the outdoor literacy area. An astounding nearly $51,000 has come in the form of 12 grants (one is a materials donation of fencing) ranging from $250 – $20,000, all sought by Smith. The largest of the grants came from the Otto Bremer Foundation. Two $10,000 grants also were awarded by the Schmidt Foundation and the Minnesota Legacy fund. Smith is awaiting word on several other grants and donations.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.

And, as I would expect in a rural area, local individuals, organizations and businesses have also given their generous financial support to the project.

Smith has also established an online fundraising site at YouCaring. About a month remains to meet that $10,000 fundraising goal.

The popularity of a Minnesota Children’s Museum traveling Storyland exhibit which came to Redwood Falls inspired library staff to consider a permanent outdoor literacy-based play space. If all goes as planned, the custom-designed farming and camping themed play area should be under construction in the spring of 2016.

FYI: If you missed my post yesterday on Sibley Farm inside Mankato’s Sibley Park, click here. It’s another great example of how southern Minnesota is connecting kids to the region’s strong agricultural heritage and base.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Dari (not dairy) King (not queen) August 29, 2014

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GROWING UP IN A POOR farm family with five siblings, it wasn’t all that often we got ice cream treats in town. Maybe Schwans ice cream in a dish or cone from the basement/porch freezer. But not soft-serve at a walk-up/drive-up.

Dari King in Redwood Falls

Occasionally, though, Dad would treat us to a cone at the Dari King in Redwood Falls. This was back in the day when a small cone cost a dime. But even then a dime was a dime was a dime.

Forty years after I left the farm, the independent (non-chain) Dari King still stands, serving ice cream and more to the next generations. How sweet is that?

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling