Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Railway Bar & Grill, next to the tracks in Sleepy Eye March 5, 2021

Twin grain elevators mark the skyline of Sleepy Eye. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, Randy and I rolled into Sleepy Eye, a small ag-based community along U.S. Highway 14 in Brown County in southwestern Minnesota. I lived and worked there briefly as a newspaper reporter decades ago. So I’m familiar with the town, although much has changed. In recent years, we’ve stopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for stained glass. Randy occasionally creates and repairs stained glass art.

But on this stop, we’d just come from neighboring Redwood County, where we saw my mom in the nursing home. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our last in-person visit before COVID-19 closed care center doors to visitors and changed everything.

By the time we reached Sleepy Eye well past the noon hour, I was hungry. It’s a running joke in our family that I need to eat on time or I get crabby. It’s the truth, not a joke.

A side view of the Railway Bar & Grill. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Across the street from the bar and grill, train tracks and grain bins. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Those beautiful vintage grain elevators… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

We ended up at The Railway Bar & Grill, appropriately named given its location near the train tracks. Next to the grain elevator. I don’t recall what I ordered other than a sandwich. Nothing memorable, but sustenance.

The condiment holder on our table. These always reveal insights into local tastes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

In a pandemic year that’s been especially difficult for bars and restaurants, The Railway apparently struggled. The business—complete with bar, two dining areas, private conference room, an outdoor patio, 12 tappers and more—is now for sale. For $165,000.

A sign posted inside The Railway Bar & Grill shows community involvement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

I’m not familiar with dining options in Sleepy Eye. But I know one thing about small towns—cafes and bars and grills are community gathering places. Spots to meet with family and friends. After a ball game. On a Saturday night. To shoot the breeze. To celebrate. To get out of the house on a cold winter evening. To BS over a beer or two. From all indications, The Railway filled that need in Sleepy Eye.

Small houses cram together in the neighborhood by the grain elevators and The Railway Bar & Grill. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

When Randy and I finished our sandwiches on that early March Saturday afternoon in 2020, I stepped outside to photograph the neighborhood while he paid the bill. I focused my lens on three houses crammed together.

The grain elevators, next to the train tracks in Sleepy Eye, dwarf neighboring buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

And then I aimed toward the towering grain elevators next to the bar & grill. Vintage elevators always draw my eye for their architectural interest (as cathedrals of the prairie), historical importance and connection to my farming past. Silo style grain storage units will never hold the same appeal as these rectangular grey elevators soaring high above small towns. Too many of these have vanished, including in my hometown of Vesta where a local farmer moved the elevators onto his farm.

A strong message adds to the visual appeal of the Sleepy Eye grain elevators. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

On this Saturday, I delighted in reconnecting with my rural roots outside The Railway. In my memory, I heard the rumble of a train, saw grain trucks lining up at the elevator, smelled the earthy scent of harvest…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, how sweet this dessert from Basilleo’s December 3, 2020

A popular pizza (and more) restaurant in downtown Faribault, Minnesota.

IT WAS A NICE GESTURE of gratitude. The free wedge of apple dessert pizza boxed in Styrofoam with a note of thanks handwritten in marker atop the cover.

This thankfulness for our patronage expressed by Basilleo’s 2.0, a Faribault pizzeria, impressed me. These are tough times to be in the restaurant and bar business. But yet Tom and Connie, co-owners of this homegrown eatery, took the extra time and effort to connect with customers in a personal way.

Basilleo’s has a long history in my community, tracing back to 1960 when brothers Basil and Leo Burger opened the pizza place. They combined their first names to come up with the catchy business name. Basilleo’s has long been a favorite local source of homemade thin crust pizza. Spicy Italian sausage remains our family’s top choice.

Randy and I last dined at Basilleo’s with friends on a Sunday evening in early March, the day before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz closed bars and restaurants due to COVID-19. We didn’t know then that this would mark our last time eating inside a restaurant in 2020. Yes, the governor later re-opened bars and restaurants, but with limited capacity. We opted out of in-person dining, choosing to occasionally do take-out. Like last Saturday evening, when Randy picked up our ready-to-go Italian sausage pizza at Basilleo’s along with a complementary slice of apple or cherry dessert pizza.

Now, as COVID rages out of control in Minnesota, bars and restaurants are once again closed to in-house drinking, dining and socializing. I think it a wise, and necessary, move from a public health perspective. Now it’s up to those who typically frequent bars and restaurants to continue supporting them via carry-out orders. Complaining that these businesses are closed during a pandemic helps no one. Rather, spending money at these businesses will help them, hopefully, survive.

When Tom and Connie conveyed their gratitude through a simple handwritten message and a free slice of dessert, they made an impression. Their small act of kindness shows they value their customers. And, in these days of COVID-19, I welcome such thoughtfulness.

© Copyright 2020 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