Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Belview: A taste of small town Minnesota November 13, 2019

Looking to the south in downtown Belview.

 

TOO MUCH TIME HAS PASSED since I’ve explored small towns with my camera. Things happens and we get diverted by more important matters that require our full attention. So life goes. But life is settling somewhat now and I have time to pause and take in the nuances of places, which I love to document.

This past weekend Randy and I traveled 2.5 hours west to my native Redwood County to visit my mom in a senior living center. But before we pulled into Parkview, we swung through the heart of Belview, population around 350. It’s a small farming community on the southwestern Minnesota Prairie.

 

The sandwich board caught my attention as we drove by.

 

Belview did not disappoint. I spotted a sandwich board outside the Belview Bar & Grill that required a stop and a few quick photos. The sign was, oh, so Minnesotan with a menu listing that included Tater Tot Hotdish. We joke about our hotdishes here in Minnesota. That would be casseroles to those of you who live elsewhere. Hotdish ingredients here lean to hamburger, pasta/rice/tater tots and a creamy soup (mushroom/chicken/celery) to bind everything together. Spices? Salt and pepper.

 

The sign also promoted the University of Minnesota Gophers football game at 11 that morning. The Gophers went on to defeat Penn State.

 

At some point in Minnesota culinary lore, Tater Tot Hotdish became our signature hotdish. I don’t know that it still holds such high esteem. I much prefer Minnesotan Amy Thielen’s more savory and complicated Classic Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish.

 

While I’ve not eaten at the Belview Bar & Grill, I will always choose a home-grown eatery over a chain.

 

But others, I expect, still embrace the basics of that solid and comforting tater tot-topped hotdish. Belview Bar & Grill advertised the dish, along with chili and beef stew, as hunters’ specials. That would be deer hunting. I saw a few orange-attired hunters in Belview, including two who stopped at the senior care center to drop off lunch for an employee.

These are the small town stories I love. Stories that I discover simply by observing, by listening, by gathering photos that document everyday life.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The power of a train August 6, 2017

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TEN FEET AWAY, the train roared down the tracks next to The Depot Bar & Grill in Faribault. I could feel its immense power as the cars zipped by in a blur, rails rising and falling.

 

 

For a moment I considered my vulnerability with only a wrought iron fence and a slip of stones separating me from this mammoth machine.

 

 

Despite my flash of fear, I thrilled in the rush of sitting so near a train as I waited for my brisket sandwich and fries on the outdoor patio. I grabbed my beer, took another swig and felt the rhythm of the fast-moving cars.

 

 

What is it about trains that holds such fascination? The power certainly impresses. But I think it’s the history, too, associated with trains that appeals to us. Travel by rail opened this country to further settlement.

 

 

My paternal great grandfather, Rudolph, rode the train to Henderson, Minnesota, in 1890, four years after he arrived by steamship in Baltimore. And four years after that, he moved farther west and bought a farm from the Great Western Railroad just outside my hometown of Vesta.

 

 

I expect most of you could tell similar stories of your ancestors and their travel by rail. Trains link us to our past, to those who came before us to this land, this America.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Tell me, how can a burger be angry? April 29, 2016

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The Angriest Whopper sign in Owatonna

 

WHEN I SAW THIS SIGN advertising the new Angriest WHOPPER® near the Burger King in Owatonna, the journalist in me questioned how a burger can be angry. A burger is not a living breathing thing with feelings. Therefore it cannot be angry.

But whatever sells…right?

Knowing absolutely nothing about this burger given I rarely eat burgers and frequent fast food places maybe twice a year, I googled “angriest whopper.”

It is apparently the hot sauce, baked into the red bun and also layered on the burger along with jalapenos, that generates that word choice of “angriest.”

This follow-up to the Angry Whopper will be offered for a limited time only. Will I run out and try one? Not unless someone offers to buy this spicy burger for me.

Tell me, have you tried either of these Whoppers? And what do you think of the adjectives “angry” and “angriest” used to describe burgers?

#

ON A RELATED NOTE, Burger Kings across the country, including one in Coon Rapids, have been the victims of a hoax that had employees busting the fast food franchise’s windows. A caller claiming to be from the fire department advised employees to smash the windows to prevent an explosion due to a gas leak and build-up. Burger King employees did just that.

I bet there’s been plenty of anger at the affected Burger Kings.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Quintessential Wisconsin April 4, 2014

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Cabin Bar and Grill, Coloma

The Cabin Bar & Grill in Coloma, Wisconsin.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Irish for an hour in historic Wabasha March 17, 2014

Holy water on the bar of The Olde Triangle Pub in downtown Wabasha, Minnesota.

Holy water on the bar of The Olde Triangle Pub in downtown Wabasha, Minnesota.

I POSSESS NOT AN OUNCE of Irish blood and I am not Catholic.

T-shirts on the pub ceiling.

T-shirts on the pub ceiling.

But green is my favorite color.

The Irish national flag flies outside the pub.

The Irish national flag flies outside the pub.

My Uncle Robin hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He married into a family of Germans.

The Olde Triangle's hearty Irish stew.

The Olde Triangle’s hearty Irish stew.

I like potatoes. And Irish stew.

The pub's fish and chips.

The pub’s fish and chips.

My husband likes fish and chips. And beer. Me, too, but not whiskey.

I have no idea what "the year of Kathleens" means. Anyone care to enlighten me?

I have no idea what “the year of Kathleens” means. Anyone care to enlighten me?

My name, Audrey, of course, is not Irish. But I know a lot of Kathys and a few Kathleens.

Performing at The Olde Triangle Pub Sunday afternoon.

Performing at The Olde Triangle Pub Sunday afternoon.

I can’t dance an Irish jig nor name an Irish tune. However, I enjoy music in an Irish pub.

The pub's Triquetra, Celtic (Trinity) knot, symbolizes the three parts of a good life: friendship, food and drink.

The pub’s Triquetra, Celtic (Trinity) knot, symbolizes three parts of a good life: friendship, food and drink.

And I’ll return to The Olde Triangle Pub. Sunday marked my second time dining here on a visit to Wabasha. I love this cozy, and I do mean cozy, spot in the heart of this historic Mississippi River town.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, Irish or not!

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dairyland, an old-fashioned drive-in in Fergus Falls June 13, 2013

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I’VE SEEN THIS PLACE BEFORE. I just know I have. On my vintage Candy Land board game. Or in a fairy tale perhaps.

The seasonal Dairyland Drive In opened in 1955.

The seasonal Dairyland Drive In opened in 1955. Although I did not ask, I believe the area to the left is the original drive-in, now used for storage and patio dining.

But I haven’t really. Not until this glorious spring evening have I laid eyes on the Dairyland Drive In in Fergus Falls. Now, here I am, photographing this longtime fast food place in the photographer’s golden hour, thrilling in the pop of red against pink-tinged sky, the flash of headlights signaling the end of a Thursday in this west central Minnesota community.

As close as I got to going inside the drive in. I should have gone inside anyway, just to photograph the interior. Photographer's regrets...

This is as close as I got to going inside the drive in. I should have gone inside anyway, just to photograph the interior. Photographer’s regrets…

If I had even a smidgen of space in my tummy for an ice cream treat, I’d be waiting in line at Dairyland for a hot fudge sundae. But my husband and I have just finished a filling meal of sandwiches and fries at Mabel Murphy’s, across Interstate 94, before touring the town. We are not one bit hungry. Too bad.

A vintage menu is propped outside the restaurant.

A vintage menu is propped outside the restaurant.

So on this visit to Fergus Falls, I must content myself with photographing that sweet gingerbread style building which houses Dairyland, established here in 1955 and now in its 58th year of business.

Pat Connelly

Pat Connelly

Soon co-owner Pat Connelly notices me and walks across the street. He first worked at Dairyland at age fourteen, when he started with slicing onions. He and his wife, Jean, bought the place in 1997 from his brother, Chuck, who bought the business in 1982 from Bert Skogmo.

Up until 2001, Dairyland still had car hops. Now it’s drive-through or dining inside or on the patio.

Just another view of Dairyland, with the parking lot to the right.

Just another view of Dairyland, with the parking lot to the right.

The eatery is still known for its homemade onion rings and for broasted chicken, Pat tells me.

Sandwiches are named after locals and those who worked here. Like the K.C. Ham & Cheese after Kelly Chandler. Or the Borstad Burger.

Pat seems especially proud of all the local teens he’s employed—500-plus through the years. When an elementary-aged girl walks by Dairyland, he greets her, tells me she will be coming with Mrs. Johnson’s class on an end-of-the-year class outing for treats. That’s tradition for most Fergus Falls students.

I can’t help but wonder at the memories they’ll cherish of Dairyland… and pass along someday to the next generation.

HAVE YOU EATEN at Dairyland Drive In in Fergus Falls? If so, let’s hear your thoughts. If not, tell us about a similar old-fashioned drive-in you’d recommend. Note that my husband and I were in Fergus Falls in mid May, when these photos were taken and I met Pat Connelly.

© Copyright 2103 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cheers to the Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton, Wisconsin January 18, 2013

I DIDN’T REALLY WANT pizza for lunch. But our daughter insisted that this place—the Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton, Wisconsin—served the best pizza. Or so she’d heard.

Turns out that evaluation was spot-on correct.

I’m no food connoisseur. But when a pizza can match, even surpass, the savory goodness of the thin crust pizzas from Basilleo’s, a 45-year pizza restaurant in my community of Faribault, Minnesota, I’m sold.

The Stone Cellar did not disappoint and, in fact, left my husband, Appleton resident daughter and me raving over the spicy New Orleans pizza topped with andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp, red onion, red peppers and Cajun spices.

The beer part of the business is on the right, the restaurant part through the door on the left.

The beer part of the business is on the right, the restaurant part through the door on the left.

We complemented our lunch time pizza with glasses of seasonal pumpkin spice and Stonetoberfest beer brewed on the premises in the Stone Arch Brew House. This is the site of Wisconsin’s oldest continually running brewpub established in 1858 by German immigrant Anton Fischer.

I’m no beer connoisseur either. But I’m always up to trying specialty craft beers. While I wasn’t crazy about the taste of pumpkin in beer, it seemed the perfect choice for an October lunch, early October being the time my husband and I were in Appleton visiting our daughter.

Had I been aware of Stone Arch’s Houdini Honey Wheat beer, made with pure Wisconsin honey, I may have sampled that instead. The beer is named after magician Harry Houdini, who wrongly claimed Appleton as his birthplace. Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, and, in his early youth, lived for four years with his family in Appleton. (Click here to read my earlier post about the Houdini exhibit at The History Museum at the Castle.)

The exterior of the Between the Locks Mall, where the Stone Cellar Brewpub and Stone Arch are located along with other businesses.

The exterior of the Between the Locks Mall, where the Stone Cellar Brewpub and Stone Arch Brew House are located along with other businesses.

Beer and pizza aside, I love the location of the Stone Cellar Brewpub along the Fox River canal system (which that first brewer, Anton Fischer, helped construct) and the old stone building itself.

Go through the doorway on the left and follow the steps down into the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

Go through the doorway on the left and follow the steps down into the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

To reach the restaurant, you descend into the deep darkness of what is appropriately termed the “Stone Cellar.” I prefer windows and natural light while dining. But this closed-in space with thick stone walls presents the right comfortable feel for a brew pub with a long-standing history in the Fox River region.

A bonus to this whole dining experience comes with the restaurant’s efforts to offer locally-grown, seasonal, gluten-free and (sometimes) organic foods, aiming to offer healthier menu choices. You’ll find much more than pizza here, including the usual salads, burgers and sandwich offerings for lunch and a more extensive dinner menu.

There you go. If you’re ever in Appleton, I’d recommend dining at the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

Walk through these colorful front doors...

Walk through these colorful and detailed front doors…

...into the entry of the Between the Locks Mall.

…into the entry of the Between the Locks Mall.

FYI: To learn more about the Stone Cellar Brewpub, 1004 S. Olde Oneida St., Appleton, Wisconsin, click here. 

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

One last chance to dine at The Historic Highland Cafe in southeastern Minnesota November 16, 2012

YOU SHOULD ALL know by now, if you’ve followed Minnesota Prairie Roots for any amount of time, that I’ll dine at a home-grown restaurant any day over a chain. I appreciate uniqueness and creativity and all those good qualities that typically define independent ownership.

In two days one of those delightful, mostly undiscovered by the general population, rural eateries closes.

The unassuming front of The Historic Highland Store & Cafe.

And that saddens me because I only found The Historic Highland Store & Cafe in October and ate there with my husband for the first, and last, time. (You can read all about that experience, and why this cafe is closing, by clicking here.)

On Sunday, November 18, owner Vicki Starks Hudson and crew will open for the final time in the historic 1894 wood-frame building along Fillmore County Road 10 southeast of Lanesboro in unincorporated Highland. It’s about an 80-mile drive for me, so I won’t be heading back for another meal. Not that I don’t want to do so.

The special of the day will be a roast beef dinner featuring real mashed potatoes, gravy and carrots and a side organic spring mix salad. How enticingly Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house comforting does that sound? And you’ll get all of that home-cooked goodness for only $8.99. Be sure to thank long-time faithful cook Sharyn Taylor, Vicki’s mom.

The breakfast my husband ordered when we dined here in October included two organic eggs, multigrain toast, hashbrowns and kielbasa. I photographed his plate after he broke the egg yolks.

You can also order soup and sandwiches or breakfast all day, hours being from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.

A sunny front corner of the restaurant showcasing the vintage tables and chairs.

Not only is the food wholesome and homemade and delicious, but the atmosphere—with its original worn wood floor, wood-plank walls, lunch counter and hodge-podge of 1940s/1950s Formica and chrome tables and vinyl chairs—sets the scene for a relaxed and homey dining experience. Pure retro.

The absolutely fabulous lunch counter.

Now, if you dine there on Sunday and the place charms the bobby socks right off your feet and you are looking for an investment or a business to run, the building is for sale. Or it will be, in the spring after Vicki’s husband finishes some exterior updating.

On a Monday afternoon in October, the Highland Cafe was a popular dining spot.

But before then, you can also do a little shopping in this building which originally housed a general store. Vicki and her family had originally planned on opening a consignment shop upstairs. But they didn’t and now have some merchandise—mostly women’s clothing and home items—to sell.

Sale hours will be from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Black Friday, November 23; 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 25; and 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Monday, November 26.

The Historic Highland Store & Cafe is closed on Saturdays as the building serves as the ministry site for the Seventh Day Adventist Highland Chapel.

FYI: Click here to reach The Historic Highland Store & Cafe website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bottled apple pie and Amish butter in Tomah November 2, 2011

UP UNTIL SUNDAY, Tomah, Wisconsin, meant little to me except as the half-way point between my home 2 ½ hours away in southeastern Minnesota and my daughter Miranda’s home 2 ½ hours away in eastern Wisconsin.

Located near the intersection of Interstates 90 and 94, this town of around 10,000 has been the ideal place to stop and stretch before jumping onto two-lane, wood-edged Wisconsin State Highway 21 which runs through umpteen mostly tiny towns all the way to Oshkosh. Not that I have an issue with small towns and woods and such. But if you want to make time and avoid deer, this highway is not the one to take.

Sorry, I got sidetracked there for a minute thinking of the long stretches of woods without a home in sight, miles and miles without cell phone service, cranberry bogs hugging the roadway, dead muskrats and dead deer.

Oh, and one other tidbit you should know about Highway 21. Amish travel this narrow and busy state highway. In their buggies. Day or night. And especially on Sundays.

But back to Tomah, which, by the way, also happens to have a fabulous cheese shop, Humbird Cheese, conveniently positioned right off I-94 at its intersection with Highway 21.

Humbird Cheese, a popular tourist stop at Tomah, Wisconsin.

On Sunday, I wasn’t looking for a cheese shop, but rather a place where my husband and I could meet our daughter and her friend Gerardo for lunch and a car swap. That’s how we ended up at Burnstad’s European Restaurant, Village and Pub. I found information about this shopping and eating complex online and determined it would be the ideal place to connect. If one or the other of us had to wait, we’d have something to do.

Burnstad’s, as it turns out, offers plenty of time-killing shopping options. I was most happy to see Amish products sold here as I am fascinated by the Amish. Not that I bought anything Amish, like a log of Amish butter or cheese or chocolate candy or egg noodles or preserves.

Amish Country Roll Butter from ALCAM Creamery Co. and sold at Burnstad's.

But…I could have…if my husband hadn’t dropped money on a bottle of semi-sweet cranberry wine from Three Lakes Winery; Travis Hasse’s Original Apple Pie Liqueur produced by Drink Pie Company in Temperance, Michigan, but originating from the Missouri Tavern near Madison (and which we may serve to our Thanksgiving dinner guests if there’s any left by then); and blueberry craisins, which I thought were dried blueberries (they’re not; they’re dried cranberries with grape and blueberry juice concentrate). Lesson learned here—read ingredient lists and know the definition of “craisin.”

Wisconsin cranberry wine displayed in, of all things, a high-heeled shoe. Huh?

"People are looking at you," my husband said when I asked him to hold this bottle of Apple Pie Liqueur so I could photograph it. I replied: "I don't care. I'll never see them again."

All that aside, Burnstad’s rates as one impressive place. Impresssive to me primarily because of the atmosphere—including a cobblestone pathway meandering past the restaurant and pub and gift shops—and cleanliness. Honestly, in the European market/grocery store, the spotless, shiny floor reflected like a lake surface on a calm and sunny summer afternoon. I’ve never seen such a clean floor in a grocery store, or maybe anywhere.

I didn't photograph the floor of the grocery store, because shoppers really would have stared at me. But I did photograph this sign, which so impressed me with its support of Wisconsin farmers.

Then there’s the pie. Oh, the pie. Typically my family doesn’t order dessert in a restaurant. But the pie in the rotating display case proved too tempting, especially when I inquired and learned that the pies are made fresh daily. So Miranda and Gerardo each selected a piece—Door County cherry and rhubarb/raspberry—which the four of us promptly devoured. We were celebrating Gerardo’s October 29 birthday and Miranda’s soon-to-be birthday. If you like pie, Burnstad’s pie is the pie to try. I wonder if it’s made by the Amish?

Speaking of which, right outside the gift shop entrance you’ll see an Amish buggy. I wanted Miranda and Gerardo to pose for a photo. My daughter was having none of that. Since I’m the one semi-possessed by all things Amish, she insisted I climb into the buggy for a photo op. I refused to wedge myself inside the close confines of that buggy. So instead, I stood next to it and smiled a tourist smile like any good Minnesotan would.

I put on my tourist face for this Amish buggy photo. Just down Highway 21 you'll see authentic Amish buggies.

Packers fans will find Packers fans for sale in Burnstad's gift shop, in the Packers section.

A particularly amusing sign I spotted in the gift shop and suitable for either a Minnesotan or a Wisconsinite.

SORRY FOR FAILING to photograph exterior and interior shots of Burnstad’s. I was just too excited about seeing my daughter for the first time in three months that I didn’t get carried away with photo-taking like I typically do.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I’ll skip the sushi April 18, 2011

WHAT FOOD IMAGES pop into your mind when I say “Japanese restaurant?”

Rice? Vegetables? Sushi?

That’s the extent of my Japanese culinary knowledge.

But that will change with the opening of a Japanese restaurant in my mid-sized Minnesota town. I noticed a sign last week in an empty strip mall space along State Highway 60 in Faribault advertising this new restaurant.

A Japanese restaurant is opening in the strip mall in the 600 block of Fourth Street/Highway 60 in Faribault.

Although I don’t eat out all that often and once tried homemade sushi, promptly spitting out the wrapped raw fish and rice, I appreciate another dining option in my community.

We have plenty of fast food and pizza places and restaurants that serve traditional American fare.

We have several Mexican restaurants (like Gran Plaza Mexican Grill and El Tequilla Family Mexican Restaurant) and a Mexican bakery.

Baked goods at a Mexican bakery (once at the center of controversy because of its exterior paint color) in downtown Faribault. The bakery has changed ownership since I took this photo.

Faribault also has three Chinese restaurants, a Somali eatery and a recently-opened Thai restaurant (that I have yet to patronize, but about which I’ve heard rave reviews).

The Southern China Cafe is among four restaurants in town serving Chinese food.

Banadir, a Somali restaurant, is located in historic downtown Faribault.

Now we’ll soon have Japanese cuisine to throw into the cultural mix.

To those of you who live in larger metropolitan areas, the opening of a Japanese restaurant may not seem like a big deal. But in outstate Minnesota, where our dining choices are more limited and where getting the locals to try something new, like God forbid sushi, this ethnic restaurant opening is worth noting.

I have no idea whether the new Japanese restaurant will serve sushi. But I expect it will.

I hope Faribault area residents are daring enough to step outside of their safe pizza, burgers and fries, steak, batter-fried walleye, enchilada, lutefisk comfort zones to try Japanese food. Count me in the door to sample Japanese food, just not the raw fish sushi.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling