Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A look back at the 1918 pandemic in Northfield & similarities to today July 14, 2021

Minnie’s obit, published in the Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.


Minnie Marko died at her home after a brief illness of pneumonia, according to her obituary published in the November 15, 1918, issue of the Northfield News.

The death of the 21-year-old is just one of many topics in a timeline, “1918-1920 Influenza in Northfield, Minnesota.” Three Carleton College students worked with the Northfield Historical Society to create the timeline in 2020.

Headlines in the November 15, 1918, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

It’s an interesting read, showing the striking similarities between the Spanish flu and the COVID-19 pandemics. Thanks to Northfield writer and photographer Margit Johnson for featuring the research in a recent post on her blog, Elevation99. I recommend you read Margit’s post and then follow the link to the timeline.

I did just that, scanning headlines like these:






As I read the headlines and the brief summaries that followed, I considered how quickly information, and misinformation, spreads today. I considered how public health officials then, and now, recognized the seriousness of the virus and took efforts to stop the spread of the virus. The State Board of Public Health forbade public funerals and ordered wearing of gauze masks on streets and in public buildings in November 1918. Sound familiar?

Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

But perhaps the timeline entry that struck me most personally was this item in a list of Ten Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News:

10. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.

Think about that as it relates to COVID-19. Just like in 1918, our choices today affect more than ourselves. Before COVID numbers dropped in our country due to vaccinations, too many people refused to wear masks (and to wear them properly over mouth AND nose). And now people are refusing vaccination for reasons ranging from political to distrust of the vaccine (and thus of science) to believing the virus won’t make them seriously sick or kill them. It can and it does.

History tells us to expect a resurgence of the virus if such me-centered attitudes and behaviors prevail. As in 1918, the message that bears repeating is this: This is not just about us individually. This is about all of us. About caring for one another. About understanding that our choices affect the health, and thus the lives, of others.

People are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19. That’s especially true in states with low vaccination rates. Missouri, for example, has the most aggressive Delta variant outbreak, according to recent media reports. In Minnesota, Crow Wing and Cass Counties (in the heart of lake and cabin country) are experiencing a noticeable increase in COVID cases. All of this concerns health officials. And it should concern us, too, especially those who are not vaccinated, whether by choice or because they are too young for vaccination. This virus can mutate, as it did into the highly-contagious Delta variant, putting people at an even higher risk of serious illness and death.

The grief of those losing loved ones today is no less than the family of Minnie Marko, 21, who died in 1918 in Northfield. Minnie didn’t have the option of a vaccine. We do.


FYI: I’d encourage you to read my June 11 post about a 46-year-old Minot, N.D., man who regretted not getting vaccinated. Rob Tersteeg died of COVID. His dying wish was that his journey with this “vicious virus” would convince others to get vaccinated. He made his wife promise to get their kids vaccinated. His family grieves, just like Minnie’s.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Exploring Wisconsin’s High Cliff State Park & a disappointing discovery October 22, 2013

Entering the park.

Entering the park.

AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON in High Cliff State Park in east central Wisconsin, even with grey skies and the occasional spurt of drizzle, is magnificent.

On a recent Saturday, my daughter who lives in nearby Appleton, husband and I explored this sprawling park near Sherwood along the banks of Wisconsin’s largest inland body of water, Lake Winnebago.

Sky and lake and land meld in this photo taken from atop a tower in High Cliff State Park. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

Sky and lake and land meld in this photo taken from atop a tower in High Cliff State Park. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

But it was not the lake—more on that later—which impressed as much as the view of the valley from high atop the park. To see acres and acres and acres of trees below, buffeted by the lake on one side, transitioning into the golden, russet and reddish hues of the season is something to behold.

Old limestone quarry walls below a hillside of trees.

Old limestone quarry walls below a hillside of trees.

Likewise, limestone walls, remaining from the days when this stone was quarried from this land, provide a neutral backdrop to flaming maples and other trees bursting with color on hillsides.

Kiln ruins.

Kiln ruins.

And then there are the old kilns, once used to create quick lime for use in plaster and cement and for agricultural purposes. I’m thankful mining operations here ceased in 1956. To totally decimate this place of natural beauty would have been a tragedy.

When we discovered what other park visitors were gathering, Randy began harvesting hickory nuts too and stuffing them into his jacket pockets.

When we discovered other park visitors gathering nuts, Randy began squirreling away hickory nuts, too, stuffing them into his jacket pockets.

For this beautiful park proves a lovely spot to picnic on a Saturday—a place where families pluck coveted hickory nuts from the ground to dry and crack and later eat plain or in cakes or cookies.

Here a family prepares to celebrate a wedding, placing burlap runners upon picnic tables covered with white plastic tablecloths inside the park shelter.

The tower...

The tower…

and the view from the tower. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

and the view from the tower. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

Couples and families climb 64 steps to the top of a wooden tower for a spectacular view of the valley. I keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, neck craned, waving to my husband and daughter high above me.

Red Bird, Chief of the Winnebago.

Red Bird, Chief of the Winnebago.

A 20-something man squats on a fence for a photo; only his balance keeps him from tumbling off and over the cliff. Nearby a statue of Red Bird, chief of the Winnebago, stands, sure and solid atop a rock.

Winnebago. It is also the name of the 131,939* acre lake which borders the western edge of High Cliff State Park and runs 28 miles long and eight miles wide near the towns of Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Neenah and Menasha.

Blue-green Lake Winnebago as photographed from the beach at High Cliff State Park.

Blue-green Lake Winnebago as photographed from the beach at High Cliff State Park.

While impressive in size and fierceness—this day churning and roiling and rolling in waves—Lake Winnebago disappoints me.

A close-up of the lake. No photo editing of the blue-green color.

A close-up of the lake. No photo editing done of the water’s hue.

I do not expect to see a lake that is green, as in it appears someone dyed the water green for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Why, I wonder, is a body of water this massive so overgrown apparently with blue-green algae? I am no scientist. But I suspect run-off (of chemicals) from lawns and farm fields into waterways that flow into Lake Winnebago, has created the problem.

Looking from the rock wall toward the marina.

Looking from the rock wall toward the marina.

Honestly, I would never swim in this water, or even dip my toes into this lake. My daughter shares that a friend swam in Lake Winnebago this past summer and broke out in a rash.

Just another view of the lake and the area where boats slip into shore.

Just another view of the lake and the area where boats slip into shore.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are currently studying the lake, hoping to learn more about dangerous toxins produced by the blue-green algae, according to an article published in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel. Drinking water for four area cities, including Appleton, comes from Lake Winnebago. The water is treated, of course, but it still concerns me to think this lake, in this condition, is a source of drinking water.

This lake is a popular fishing spot, too.

After viewing the lake’s poor water quality, I’m thankful these researchers have secured a $750,000 five-year grant from the National Institution of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation to study the lake.

The quality of this lake water scares and saddens me and, truly, detracted from my experience at High Cliff State Park, an otherwise lovely place of exceptional natural beauty.

* NOTE: Various sources cite different sizes for Lake Winnebago. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources lists the lake at 131,939 acres, about the same acreage size of Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.



A colorful collage of leaves on a trail near the kiln ruins.

A colorful collage of leaves on a trail near the kiln ruins.

The only remaining building in

The only remaining building on the former site of Clifton, a town which existed here until the quarries closed. This 1800s building is now a museum and interpretative center, but was not open on the day we were at the park. Efforts are currently underway to save the structure from demolition, according to information on the Friends of High Cliff website. I have no idea why anyone would want to destroy this historic store.

A scenic view shot from near the lake.

A scenic view shot from near the lake.

Autumn in the picnic grounds of High Cliff.

Hickory nuts, in their protective outer shell, litter the picnic grounds.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


U of M study on teen texting and driving targets rural Minnesota February 25, 2013

WE’VE ALL HEARD the warnings about texting and driving. You’ve likely even spotted someone texting and driving. I haven’t.

Interstate 94 sometimes seems to run right into the sky as you drive west.

Interstate 94 in western Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But a brother-in-law, who is a trucker, recently shared a story about watching a young woman lose control of her car along Interstate 94 in western Minnesota while texting. Somehow she managed to keep her car on the road and avoid a crash. My brother-in-law claims the incident happened so fast that the driver never took her eyes off her cell phone.

Stories like that scare me.

Now researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute are undertaking a study of young drivers and texting practices in 18 Minnesota communities, most of them rural and Faribault among them.

I first learned of the study in a news brief published in the Faribault Daily News soliciting 20 newly-licensed 16-year-olds from the Faribault area to participate in the year-long study. Intrigued, I contacted Nichole L. Morris, a research associate in the U of M’s HumanFIRST program in the ITS Institute. She is working on this project, funded by the ITS Institute and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, along with a team of researchers.

My phone, not a smart phone, but with an important message.

My phone, not a smart phone, but with an important message.

The 300 teens selected for the study will be equipped with smartphones to collect and transmit driving data in real-time for their first full year of independent driving. Researchers will collect data until May 2104 with group data reported to MnDOT and then made public in early 2015.

“These results will hopefully shed light on what areas are most problematic for teen drivers, what can be done with our technology to improve the safety of teen drivers and what changes, if any, should be implemented to our teen driver laws to prevent more teen driving fatalities,” Morris says.

Eighty percent of teen fatal crashes occur in rural areas, Morris says, explaining why the project is targeting 18 mostly rural Minnesota communities. Faribault was selected for the study because of its population and low commuting rate. She declined to name the other 17 communities or any hypotheses to avoid adding bias to the study.

But, says Morris, “My hope is that we find some key answers to reduce crash and fatalities for teen drivers in Minnesota and nationwide. This is such an important issue because traffic crashes are the leading cause of fatalities for teens. The rate at which we lose our sons and daughters on the road is unacceptable and it is a charge to all citizens to help to become the solution to this problem.”

The passion Morris, who holds a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology, possesses for this project is palpable. “It is an exciting opportunity for parents and teens to be a part of the solution to end teen traffic fatalities.”

Eighteen communities in rural Minnesota are included in the teen texting and driving study.

The study is targeting rural Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

As of Friday morning, 216 Minnesota teens from the selected communities had been recruited for the study. About 10 more are needed from the Faribault area.

To apply, a teen must be 16 years of age, currently have a driver’s permit, receive provisional licensure between now and April 30, start the study within a month of getting licensed, drive at least 2-4 times a week, have no physical limitations that prevent driving and have parental permission.

Qualifying teens should contact Morris via phone at 612-624-4614 or email at nlmorris@umn.edu

Besides offering teens an opportunity to help find solutions to teen traffic fatalities, the project is also paying a $25 monthly incentive ($300 to be paid at the end of the year-long study) and providing smartphones with free monthly data, text and talk plans for a year.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling