Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Little school on the prairie July 8, 2013

The former Little Prairie School District 15 country schoolhouse near Dundas in rural Rice County Minnesota.

AS THE STORY GOES, and I’ve no reason to believe it’s been embellished, the teacher kept the students inside for recess one afternoon because of coyotes roaming the school grounds.

True story from the one-room Chimney Butte School, rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in the early 1960s.

Scrape the mud from your shoes on the metal scraper, left, before stepping inside the Little Prairie school.

This tale, which I suppose does not make it a tale if it’s the truth, flits through my mind every time I step inside a country school, like that at Little Prairie. My husband, one of the Chimney Butte students sheltered from the ranging coyotes, and I came across the 1885 Little Prairie School District 15 country school as we traveled the back roads between Faribault and Dundas.

We’ve previously driven Rice County roads 8 and 77 through the heart of Little Prairie. But I’d only noticed then the historic Little Prairie United Methodist Church and not the old schoolhouse kitty-corner across the tar road.

As I always do, I tried the schoolhouse doors, hoping to get inside, knowing they would be locked. So I cupped my hands around my eyes to reduce the glare and peeked inside the windows, then lifted my camera and shot a few photos.

I’ve never seen or ridden a merry-go-round like this one in the Little Prairie school yard. It gently swayed up and down as we circled.

And then, as we spun on the merry-go-round, we noticed the car parked by the church and the man sitting on a bench outside with his back to us. We contemplated that he might be the pastor, a man with a key. Randy even went so far as to suggest that he likely was waiting between appointments to counsel couples engaged to be married.

A blackboard, with pertinent historical info about the school.

Eventually the man spotted us, crossed the road and we were in. Pastor Gordon, as he introduced himself, wasn’t leaving us outside for the coyotes, not that we saw any lurking in the vicinity. And, yes, he said, he was between pre-marriage counseling sessions.

Like us, Pastor Gordon Deuel did not grow up in Rice County. Like me, he’s from southwestern Minnesota, except farther west than me, from the prairie town of Hendricks on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. He feels at home here, where he’s pastored Little Prairie for seven years.

I tell you this because he cannot recite the detailed history of the Little Prairie School as a local would. But he possesses, like Randy and me, a deep appreciation for the preservation and history of old buildings such as country schoolhouses and churches.

A back and side view of the school, surrounded mostly by cornfields.

Just that morning his congregation had planned to gather in the school yard for a worship service and community potluck picnic. But the heavy dew moved the event into the church. The school is opened several times a year for public touring and occasionally for solo stops like ours or group tours by former students.

Looking to the front and one side of the school.

We came away from our chat with a realization that the people of Little Prairie care deeply for their little country schoolhouse. Although owned by the church, the school is really a community project embraced by those who live around Little Prairie and/or attend the Methodist church and also by members of the local Full-O-Pep 4-H Club, Pastor Gordon informs us. They form the informal “Schoolhouse Committee” which maintains the building and property.

Pastor Gordon remembers how several terminally ill individuals from the Northfield and Faribault areas wanted to give back to the community. So, for a small fee, they were hired to paint the exterior of the school.

Many old books were lined precisely on a table behind the teacher’s desk.

Such care for country schools is shown likewise at the 1881 District 20 Millersburg School to the north and west near Millersburg. There members of the Christdala Preservation Association have converted the one-room country school into a museum. Randy and I discovered it two years ago, during the annual association meeting and worship service at Christdala Evangelical Swedish Lutheran Church just down Rice County Road 1.

Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman, in his Minnesota Byways series book Schoolhouses of Minnesota, features “120 color photographs that illuminate the simple, often abandoned, sometimes refurbished, and nearly vanishing Minnesota pioneer and early schoolhouses.”

That’s Little Prairie School on the cover of Doug Ohman’s book.

Gracing the cover of that volume—Little Prairie School District #15.

The school entry, with a place to hang coats, right, and a sink to wash up, left.

Another view of that same entry with the water fountain to the left of the sink.

The school treasurer’s bookkeeping register from 1929.

If only I’d had time to peruse all the wonderful old books inside this school.

Looking toward the back of the school.

An old shed, I think the outhouse; I did not peer inside.

FYI: These images were shot last summer when my husband and I stopped at the school while on a Sunday afternoon drive.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More photos from “A Day on the Farm,” Rice County, Minnesota June 24, 2013

BECAUSE I APPRECIATE  family dairy farms and because I am grateful to Ron and Diane Wegner and their daughters, Brianna and Kaylee, for opening their farm to area residents, here are more photos from “A Day on the Farm.” The Wegners hosted this event on Saturday in rural Rice County, Minnesota. Click here to see additional photos from my first post.

The beautiful old barn on the Wegners' property.

The beautiful old barn on the Wegners’ third-generation family farm.

The Wegners milk 50 registered Holsteins.

The Wegners milk 50 registered Holsteins.

A barn door...

This scene inside the barn caught my farm girl eye.

Fence leaning and wagon towing.

Fence leaning and wagon towing.

Twins Kelly and Emily, almost two, visit the farm with their dad.

Twins Kelly and Emily, almost two, visit the farm with their dad.

Rice County Dairy Maid Kelsey Kuball applied temporary tattoos.

Rice County Dairy Maid Kelsey Kuball applies a temporary tattoo to a young visitor’s arm.

A farm cat that was just a wee skittish with about 600 strangers visiting the farm.

A farm cat that was just a wee skittish with about 600 strangers wandering around the farm.

Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner waits for kids to arrive for a photo with the calf.

Rice County Dairy Princess Kaylee Wegner waits for kids to arrive for a photo shoot with the calf.

A trio of silos next to the Wegners' barn.

A trio of silos next to the Wegners’ barn.

My favorite outbuilding, to the left.

My favorite outbuilding, to the left.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Webster, Minnesota, on a Sunday morning in September October 3, 2012

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Reflections in the window of the Webster Post Office.

IN WEBSTER, MINNESOTA, on a Sunday morning, the rooster crowed…

 the black cat prowled…

and the John Deere combine roared through town.

And we were an hour late for worship services at St. John’s Lutheran Church (due to an incorrect time published in an area newspaper).

Because we missed church and had an hour before serving of the annual fall harvest dinner at St. John’s, my husband and I had more than enough time to explore this unincorporated village in northern Rice County some 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities.

BRO Machine Company housed in an old creamery.

It takes all of about a few minutes to drive around Webster, unless you park, get out and search for photo ops to define the essence of this rural community. Only then do you notice the nuances that give Webster its character.

Like any small town, it’s worth your time to stop and appreciate, to notice the bikes dropped by kids on lawns, the toy trucks abandoned outside front doors, the aging buildings, the well-kept yards with beautiful flower gardens, and the rolling countryside around Webster. All of this makes you (or at least me) want to pull up roots and move to this peaceful place.

But since that’s not practical…I took photos a few weeks ago…in September.

A beautifully-landscaped yard in Webster.

A front yard in Webster.

I was particularly charmed by the friendly MN Valley Co-op Supply sign on the side of the building.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for one more post with images of Webster, which is only a few blocks long and wide.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New exhibit highlights Rice County in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 September 2, 2012

IT IS EASY TO FORGET SOMETIMES, because I grew up in the region of Minnesota where the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was centered, that residents of the county in which I now live also played an integral role in the conflict.

Specifically, Rice County residents Bishop Henry Whipple and Alexander Faribault, after whom my community of Faribault is named, are key persons often noted in historical information written about the war.

I am always surprised that relatively few people from outside of southwestern and central Minnesota know so little about the bloody, six-week war between the Dakota and the white settlers and soldiers given it is a major, defining event in Minnesota history.

An overview of 1862, Through Rice County’s Eyes, which opened August 22 in Northfield.

However, awareness has grown considerably this year on the 150th anniversary of the war, including right here in Rice County. The Northfield Historical Society, partnering with the Rice County Historical Society, is currently showcasing an exhibit, 1862, Through Rice County’s Eyes.

I recently checked out the Northfield exhibit, which features mostly memorable quotes, volumes of summarized information and copies of photos. It’s a lot of reading.

But if you’re interested in educating yourself, it’s worth the time and concentration needed to absorb the information presented in this exhibit. And I’ll admit to occasionally skimming the postings because I am more of a visual, multi media, show-and-tell kind of history learner. I also had a pretty good background of knowledge going into the exhibit.

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault trading with 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.

I knew, for example, that fur trader Alexander Faribault was one-quarter Dakota and married to Mary Elizabeth Graham, whose mother was a family member of a Dakota chief. I knew, too, that Faribault was involved in the negotiating and translating of land treaties between the government and the Dakota before the war and that he benefited financially.

I was aware that Alexander Faribault sheltered the Dakota.

Above the photos and info is this quote by Bishop Henry Whipple to President Buchanan in August 1860: “In my visits to them, 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.”

But I had forgotten that Bishop Henry Whipple, a long-time advocate for the rights of the Dakota and known to them as “Straight Tongue,” worked to find a safe refuge for them in the city of Faribault.

Alexander Faribault opened his land to the Dakota. Information in the exhibit states:

This land was the only safe-haven of its kind in a state now prejudiced in fear and anger against anyone with Dakota blood.

According to info in the exhibit, Alexander Faribault, whom you recall was one-fourth Dakota, also experienced prejudice against him. By 1869, this once successful fur trader, flour mill owner and politician had to sell his land and assets, including the land occupied by the Dakota.

Equally interesting is the quote, below, attributed to Mary Whipple. Even though her husband, the bishop, worked tirelessly to help the Dakota, fear still existed in his home community.

A quote from a letter written by Mary Whipple to her sister during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Perhaps the most interesting fact I learned relates to that of Lt. Rollin Olin, a decade-long resident of Northfield. He was second in command of the Third Minnesota Regiment at the Battle of Wood Lake—the final battle of the war—and a member of a five-man military tribunal which tried the Dakota following the war. He signed more than 300 death sentences for nearly 400 Dakota charged with murder, rape and/or robbery.

For me, that raises the obvious question: How could someone who fought against the Dakota judge them without bias? All members of the tribunal, in fact, had fought the Dakota. The answer, of course, is that Lt. Olin and the other four could not.

Likewise, the Northfield Historical Society is wisely careful to indicate that its new, temporary exhibit may not please everyone or include everything on the topic of Rice County’s connection to the war. On the NHS website, you’ll read this disclaimer:

As varied as these and other local perspectives may be, any exploration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 suffers from the inevitable limitations facing every historical examination—limitations such as scope and biases, past and present, which impact the telling and perception of the stories and data. In presenting the exhibit 1862, Through Rice County’s Eyes this fall, NHS endeavors to draw visitors into thoughtful interest and discussion of this momentous event and its aftermath by sharing local connections. Come and critically examine this exhibit.

The exterior of the Northfield Historical Society, 408 Division Street, Northfield.

FYI: To learn more about 1862—Through Rice County’s Eyes, click here to the NHS website.

To learn more about the Minnesota counties, county by county, involved in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inside the colorful Big Woods of Minnesota October 5, 2011

EVERY TIME I HEAR the words “Big Woods,” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, Little House in the Big Woods, pop into my mind. It’s a natural reflex given my deep love for the Little House books. Think grade school teacher reading the series to her students after lunch and me growing up about 20 miles from Walnut Grove, Wilder’s brief childhood home on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

That all said, Laura was born in 1867 in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin some seven miles from Pepin.

I visited the Ingalls’ home site many years ago with my family, when my girls were elementary age and we were deep into reading the Little House series. The Big Woods and cabin are long gone, replaced now by open prairie and a replica cabin.

Yet, only a short drive east of my Faribault home, I can experience the Big Woods at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I have no idea if these woods are anything like those in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. But I like to think they are.

An informational sign along a trail in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

Check out the history section of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and you’ll find this information about the Nerstrand woods:

“When the first settlers arrived in 1854, they discovered an island of woods in the vast oak savanna prairie which now makes up Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees shade the land.”

I spent half my time in the Big Woods looking, and aiming, my camera skyward.

The park boasts a lovely picnic grounds sheltered by trees like this one.

A close-up look at oak leaves changing color.

This time of year those trees flame in fiery hues, making Nerstrand a popular destination for viewing fall colors in Minnesota.

Sunday afternoon, following a fall color drive to the Sogn Valley area in northwestern Goodhue County, my husband and I stopped briefly at this state park just west of Nerstrand. We managed to find a space in a parking lot packed to overflowing in this park teeming with visitors.

If you’re seeking a quiet, people-free escape, you won’t find it here on a weekend.

But you will find a perfect fall experience complete with the earthy scent of decaying leaves; brilliant reds and yellows painted on the cobalt palette of sky; drifts of leaves to plow through; the crisp crunch of leaves beneath feet; a spirit of friendliness among visitors hiking into the Big Woods; a respite from the busyness of life; and an opportunity to savor the fleeting days of autumn in Minnesota.

Everywhere trees provided a colorful canopy of color.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into the Big Woods.

Along the path, a bursting milkweed pod.

Follow this gravel road west of the park entrance for three miles to Caron Park.

BEYOND THE STATE PARK, there’s more to see at places probably known mostly to the locals:

Follow the gravel road (Rice County Road 88) west of the state park three miles to Caron Park, a 60-acre county park that is a remnant of the Big Woods. You’ll find 1.5 miles of hiking trails here, a lovely waterfall and few people. Late Sunday afternoon we saw a single truck parked in the parking lot.

Nerstrand Meats & Catering, a family-owned business since 1890.

To the east of the park lies the small town of Nerstrand, worth a stop to check out Nerstrand Meats (open 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays), the International Peace Garden at the local charter school, Nerstrand Elementary, and Main Street small-town Minnesota. (Watch for a future post on interesting signage in Nerstrand. Click here to read a previous post about the Peace Garden.)

A snippet of Nerstrand Elementary School and its International Peace Garden.

North of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, along Rice County Road 30, sit the historic and picturesque 1862 and 1894 Valley Grove churches surrounded by 50 acres of rolling prairie grasses and trees. From high atop this hillside location, you’ll get a spectacular view of the fall colors. You can also hike a prairie path here. (Click here to read a previous post I wrote about Valley Grove’s annual fall country social.)

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

To assure that you don’t miss out on these color viewing opportunities, I’d highly recommend hopping in your vehicle sooner than later. Leaves are changing and falling as I write and we all know these splendid days won’t last forever in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering 9/11 in Faribault, Minnesota September 11, 2011

WE CAME. We listened. We prayed. We remembered.

This afternoon my husband and I were among perhaps 100 individuals who gathered outside the county courthouse at the Rice County Veterans Memorial in Faribault to remember September 11, 2001.

A view of the crowd in front of the Rice County Courthouse and veterans memorial.

WW II veteran George DeLay, among those in attendance, waits on the courthouse steps for the program to begin.

As traffic whizzed by on busy Fourth Street, aging veterans stood or sat, their heads bowed in quiet contemplation.

Representatives of local law enforcement and emergency personnel stood attentively.

Six-year-old Dakota, son of Faribault American Legion Post 43 Commander and Desert Storm veteran Kirk Mansfield, perched on his mother Paula’s lap on the courthouse steps clutching an American flag. Too young to have lived through this day, he is learning about 9/11 from his parents, from ceremonies like those held today.

We are all still learning, experiencing and understanding how that attack on our nation 10 years ago has affected us, changed our thinking, our perspectives on life.

“Freedom is our greatest asset and our greatest export,” former Sheriff Richard Cook, who has been active in expanding the veterans’ memorial, said. “Freedom will live and flourish.”

Veteran and chaplain Roger Schuenke led the crowd in prayer: “May the faith of our fathers guide, protect and sustain our people.”

But it was the names read by Kirk Mansfield and American Legion Auxiliary representative Louise Flom that most impacted me, that caused me to pause, to settle onto the lawn of the courthouse with my camera in my lap and to listen, just listen, instead of photographing the scene.

For nearly 10 minutes the pair read the names of 94 Minnesotans who have been killed in action since 9/11:

Chester W. Hosford of Hastings, Corey J. Goodnature of Clarks Grove, Brent W. Koch of Morton, Randy W. Pickering of Bovey, Edward J. Herrgott of Shakopee, Andrew J. Kemple of Cambridge…

Familiar names, like Jesse M. Lhotka of Alexandria (originally from Appleton), David F. Day of  Saint Louis Park (originally from Morris) and Jason G. Timmerman of Cottonwood/Tracy—all National Guard members killed on February 21, 2005, in Iraq, and whose families I interviewed several years ago for a feature published in Minnesota Moments magazine.

I remembered how speaking with Lhotka’s widow had been one of the most emotionally-challenging interviews I’d ever done in my journalism career.

This I thought as Commander Mansfield and Flom read for nearly 10 minutes. Ninety-four men whose families grieve.

This is how I remembered 9/11 today, by honoring those who have given their lives for freedom.

Veterans' names are engraved in pavers edging the Rice County Veterans Memorial, the site of today's ceremony.

Some of the 20-plus veterans who stood in a line flanking the memorial.

Jim Kiekeknapp, who served in Vietnam, played taps.

Dakota with him mom, Paula, watched from the courthouse steps.

WW II veterans Bill Korff and past commander of the local Legion came in his wheelchair.

A veteran's salute.

AND THEN ON THE WAY HOME from the courthouse, I stopped at the Faribault Fire Department to photograph the memorial there honoring the New York City firefighters who died in the Twin towers.

A memorial at the Faribault Fire Department, where a short service was also held this morning.

The Faribault firefighters pay special tribute to the fallen New York firefighters on their memorial sign.

TO BACKTRACK EVEN FURTHER in my day, when my husband and I were at a local nursing home leading a morning church service, I insisted that the eight of us gathered there sing “America, the Beautiful.”

I found verse 3 especially fitting for this day when we as Americans pause in our lives to remember September 11, 2001:

“O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness

And every gain divine!”

Six-year-old Dakota and others in attendance perused the veterans' pavers after the ceremony.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rain, rain and more rain in Faribault July 15, 2011

I shot this photo from my living room window late this afternoon of flooded Willow Street.

AROUND 4 P.M., the sky turned black as night here in Faribault. And then the rain let loose. Rain pouring forth so fast that if I was Noah’s wife, I would have urged him to hurry up and finish building that ark.

For some 10 minutes or so, a boat would have been the preferred mode of transportation along the street past my house. The storm sewer couldn’t keep up with the rainwater rolling down the hill onto Willow Street, a main route through town.

Some drivers diverted to the opposite traffic lane to dodge the deepest water. Others splashed through without even slowing down. And yet others paused, tentatively tire-tip-toeing into the water.

Some drivers were cautious, others not so much, as they drove on flooded Willow Street.

Motorists drove through flooded Willow Street without too much concern.

Soon the onslaught of water swept across the roadway into a neighbor’s driveway, down the side of the garage and into the backyard. Next door, rain also surged onto the driveway, then channeled south down the sidewalk to another neighbor’s newly-blacktopped driveway.

The rain flowed across the street into the neighbor's driveway (left), along the garage and into the backyard.

The next two neighbors to have water from the flooded street surge onto their properties.

On my side of the street, at the near bottom of the hill, the curb contained the deluge of water.

It’s been quite a day here—rain, rain and more rain. Open the windows, close the windows. Open. Close. Check the skies. Listen to the weather report. Hang clothes on the clothesline and two minutes later pull them off after spotting heavy, threatening clouds moving in.

Then I checked the National Weather Service website to learn Rice County, my county, is now under a flash flood warning. Yes, it’s been quite a day with rain, rain and more rain.

WHAT’S THE WEATHER like in your area? Submit a comment and tell me.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling