Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Before winter settles in…savor these autumn days October 21, 2022

My next door neighbor’s maple tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

IN THE FLEETING DAYS of autumn here in Minnesota, there’s an urgency to get things done before winter. Hurry and rake the leaves. Tune up the snowblower. Wash the windows. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Almost like seeing summer, autumn and winter in the trees viewed from my backyard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

But in the haste of all that preparation, there’s also a need to slow down and delight in autumn. Simply stepping outside my home to view the backyard maple and neighbors’ trees fills my soul. I love the contrast of orange, red, yellow against the bold October sky. Sometimes when I look skyward, I see a mix of seasons from green leaves, to autumnal leaves to bare branches.

Sunshine filters through a branch on my backyard maple tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Every single day calls for pausing to appreciate the beautiful natural world of October in southern Minnesota. I know this won’t last and I need to savor these scenes.

The countryside near Nerstrand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Last Saturday morning, instead of pursuing yard work, Randy and I headed on one more drive through the countryside to view the diminishing fall colors. Leaf raking, although started, could wait. As we followed back county paved roads and township gravel roads through open farmland and through woods, I felt embraced and connected to the local landscape and scenes unfolding before me.

Farmer Trail twists through woods of primarily maple. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Sunshine dappled through trees.

To the north across cornfields and treelines, a cloud deck revealed the weather ahead. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

To the north, a cloud deck drew a nearly straight horizontal line across the sky, a hint of the cold weather to come. And it blew in later that day with a raw wind and a drop in temps.

Still some color along Crystal Lake at Cannon City. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Colors were well past their peak in Rice County. Still the occasional oak or maple dropped red or russet into muted tree clusters.

A grain truck holds the corn harvest. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Harvested and unharvested fields of corn and soybeans spread before us. Grain trucks, some brimming with the yield, anchored fields. Former farm kids that we are, we discussed the crops. Always have, always will. It’s something we learned early on, me from Sunday afternoon drives with my parents and siblings to view the crops and during dinner table discussions.

A stately, well-kept barn along Coe Trail northwest of Cannon City. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

We passed farm sites, one with a well-kept signature red barn. There’s something about a barn…

A farm site in the colors of November. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Another farm place was all grey. Grey bin. Grey machine shed. Grey silo. Grey outbuilding. Grey garage. Weathered grey barn.

Driving through autumn on a rural Rice County road last Saturday. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Soon the weather will shift to the grey of November, the month when winter creeps in. Already we’ve felt the bite of unseasonably cold October days that are giving way, this weekend, to unseasonable warmth. These mark bonus days. Days to drive the countryside, visit an orchard, take a hike…days for anything but raking leaves, washing windows or tuning the snowblower.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts from southern Minnesota on Indigenous Peoples’ Day October 10, 2022

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. Broken promises led to the 1862 war. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

TODAY, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY, I think of the US-Dakota War of 1862. When as a high school student I studied that war, I felt an immediate connection to the event which occurred in my home county and neighboring counties in southwestern Minnesota. My interest sparked because this happened in my backyard. Today I have a much better understanding of the 1862 conflict among the native Dakota peoples, the settlers and the government. My learned “white” perspective has shifted, my viewpoint has broadened. That has come through listening, reading, educating myself.

A public art installation at Northfield’s 2022 Earth Day celebration. Northfield has a Land Acknowledgement Agreement. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

I see the same shift in attitudes throughout our nation, state and communities today. Land acknowledgment agreements are being written. There’s an awareness that indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of the land, including in my home county of Redwood and my home of the past 40 years, Rice County.

I recently learned that the Wahpekute, part of the Dakota Nation, placed their dead on scaffolding on land just up the hill from my Faribault home. Land that is now a city park. After a year, the bones of the deceased were moved a few blocks away to a permanent burial grounds. That cemetery is not marked as such. Up until a presentation by Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society, I was unaware that Peace Park was a sacred place, not simply a triangle of land with a WW II memorial along busy streets. Efforts are underway in Faribault to landmark such places of importance, to honor the Dakota.

A must-read novel based on fact.

It starts at a grassroots level, this unraveling of the truth, this recognition, this acknowledgment. I’ve toured museum exhibits, read books, attended presentations and more to assure that I am informed. I highly-recommend reading the award-winning book, The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. (Click here to read my review.)

I value that awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ food, culture, history and more is growing. In Minneapolis, diners can enjoy North American traditional indigenous food at award-winning Owamni by The Sioux Chef, for example.

Back in my home county, the Lower Sioux Indian Community is working hard to assure its culture remains strong through ongoing traditional events and teaching of the Dakota language.

A bison herd has been reintroduced to the prairie at Minneopa State Park near Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

I still have much to learn about the Indigenous Peoples of Minnesota. That I admit. Perhaps much of it is really unlearning. Today I pause to honor those who called this place, this southern Minnesota, home first, back when prairie grasses stretched high, bison roamed and the land was respected.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A country drive to see fall colors northwest of Faribault October 6, 2022

A view of the colorful foliage along Seventh Street in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

ON THE THIRD CONSECUTIVE DAY of viewing fall colors in southern Minnesota, Randy and I headed northwest of Faribault to area lakes. But even before we got out of town, we drove along two city streets—Second Avenue by Bethlehem Academy north to Seventh Street and then Seventh Street—which are particularly beautiful in autumn. There’s no need to leave Faribault to see stunning trees of orange, red and yellow mixed with brown and green.

A sweeping view of Kelly Lake and the colorful treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Yet, there’s something about a colorful lakeshore treeline against the October sky that is particularly lovely. Thus I suggest a country drive. Perhaps my favorite area autumn color viewing spot is at the public boat landing on Kelly Lake. We return there each fall and Randy joked that I could just use the same photos taken last year. I didn’t.

Belview Trail just outside Faribault winds past farm sites. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Hay bales line a hillside along CR 64. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)
A well-kept barn near Roberds Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

We edged Roberds Lake after trailing a winding gravel road past farm sites. Country drives are, by definition, about immersing ourselves in the country. Appreciating ripening corn and soybean fields, stately barns, ginormous round hay bales staged in a field… And then hugging the side of the road upon meeting a massive combine.

Sun and clouds mix over colorful woods near Roberds Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Mostly, I take in the landscape, this October day set against moody clouds on blue sky. Clouds create interest, depth, interesting patterns to backdrop fields and trees.

Shoreline and lake merge to create a “painting” of Kelly Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

I see curves and lines and the way everything flows, first with my eyes, then through the viewfinder of my aged Canon EOS 20-D camera. Water flows into trees, trees into sky. It all comes together to create this scene, this autumn.

A view of Lake Mazaska through the shoreline grasses. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

At the west-side boat landing in Shieldsville, Randy noted the low water level of Lake Mazaska. It would be impossible to launch a boat here. I photographed the lake through a stand of grass, perhaps bulrushes. A peeling, aged sign a block away landmarked Bulrush Bay.

Brilliant sumac by Kelly Lake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Individual leaves and stems of grass don’t go unnoticed. The singleness merges into the whole. This whole of autumn in Rice County.

A picturesque creek along County Road 64/Irwin Trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

We lunched at McCullough County Park on Shields Lake, swatting bees and beetles, before continuing our drive along County Road 64/Irwin Trail. An especially picturesque creek cutting through the land called for a stop, a photo.

One of many winding gravel roads we followed through the countryside, around lakes… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

And then onward we drove, up and down and all around on gravel roads, the van kicking dust.

Among the many wooded hillside ablaze in color. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Traveling at a slower pace allows for taking in the unfolding landscape. Cornfield nudging a clump of colored trees. So much to see if only we look.

The historic Czech church and surrounding cemetery in Shieldsville Township. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

And then a stop, an opportunity to stretch our legs and explore Trebon Cemetery surrounding an historic Czech church, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, established in 1886. We discovered this sacred place at the intersection of County Road 63/Kanabec Avenue and County Road 37/160th Street West several years ago. Like last visit, I wished I could get inside the church, but had to settle for peering through windows. The view of the countryside from the cemetery grounds is stunning.

This smiley face is a local landmark along Roberds Lake Boulevard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Aiming back toward Faribault, we passed the smiley face painted on the side of a building at the intersection of Roberds Lake Boulevard and County Road 37/West 185th Street. It’s been there forever, a rural landmark that makes me smile every time I see that happiness icon.

I appreciate homemade signage, including this well-worn sign by Lake Mazaska. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Several hours in the rural Rice County countryside filled my spirit with happiness. Autumn has a way of weaving joy into my life with her color, her last hurrah before winter arrives. So I say, get out there. Take a country drive. Slow down. Pause. Delight in these October days.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into eastern Rice County to view fall colors October 4, 2022

A stunning treeline along Cannon City Boulevard just outside Faribault city limits. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

ANOTHER DAY OF SUNSHINE and unseasonably warm temps here in southern Minnesota prompted Randy and me to once again hit the road in search of fall colors. This time we headed into eastern Rice County, following backroads in the Cannon City and Nerstrand areas with a lengthy stop at Valley Grove Churches.

The historic Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, photographed from the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Immersed in the Valley Grove prairie, I viewed the Big Woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

A spectacular view from the Valley Grove Cemetery right next to the churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

At those historic hilltop churches, we followed prairie trails until we reached the highest point. There we stood, impressed by the distant Big Woods treeline colored in the hues of autumn. Valley Grove is one of our favorite spots in any season, but especially when the leaves are morphing color.

Driving through Nerstrand Big Woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Our drive also took us on the road slicing through Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. We didn’t stop, simply enjoyed driving under a canopy of trees evolving in color. They have not yet reached their prime.

Driving through the woods on Farmer Trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

As always, Farmer Trail (off Falk Avenue) drew us in. This secluded road twists and turns among the maples and seems a well-kept secret. Thick woods edge the gravel road on both sides. I feel sheltered here, as if I’ve briefly entered some magical place.

The rolling hills around Valley Grove are especially colorful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

This time of year in southern Minnesota truly feels magical given the remarkable beauty found in trees shifting from green to yellows, reds, oranges and browns.

The view from City View Park is breath-taking. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

My community of Faribault is ablaze and still erupting with color. City View Park on the east side overlooks the city, offering a vista view. The Shattuck-St. Mary’s clock tower always focuses my eye when taking in the city below and beyond.

Crossing the viaduct from Faribault’s east side, fall colors splash into the city landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Even traveling down the viaduct into downtown impresses in the autumn. There’s so much to see locally in autumn colors whether along a city street, an area lake, a back country road.

Deep in eastern Rice County, a gravel road curves near Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

If there’s anything I want to impress, it’s that all of this—this autumn color spreading across the landscape—is right here in Faribault, in Rice County, in our backyard. I don’t know if everyone realizes that. I also want to impress that the days of autumn are fleeting. A cold front is moving in along with wind. Now is the time to get out there and view the fall colors, at least locally.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Parts of Rice, Le Sueur & Nicollet counties in all their autumn splendor October 3, 2022

The beginning of our day trip took us west out of Faribault along back county roads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

AUTUMN POPPED COLOR—brilliant oranges, reds, yellows—into the landscape on an October day as beautiful as they come here in southern Minnesota.

Harvesting beans along Le Sueur County Road 12. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Throughout Rice, Le Sueur and Nicollet counties, leaves are rapidly changing, splashing hillsides, groves, shorelines and other stands of trees in spectacular seasonal hues.

Photographed at the public boat landing on Horseshoe Lake just off Rice County Road 14 by Camp Omega. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Randy and I headed on a fall color drive Monday morning, referencing the DNR Fall Color Finder guide promising plenty of colorful leaves to the west. Hours of traveling mostly county roads (including gravel) through the southern Minnesota countryside on our day-long drive provided incredible leaf viewing.

The distant shoreline of Horseshoe Lake blazes fiery colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Retracing our exact route through Rice and Le Sueur counties and a small section of Nicollet County would be nearly impossible. But we started out by heading west on Rice County Road 12, eventually following CR 14 to Horseshoe Lake by Camp Omega. The public boat landing there was our first stop to view a lakeside treeline ablaze in fiery hues.

Crops ripen against a farm site backdrop in Le Sueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

It wasn’t just the trees that drew my eye. I love, too, the acres of corn and soybeans drying under the autumn sun. The muted gold of corn leaves adds to the sense of seasons shifting.

A grain truck holds the harvest along Le Sueur County Road 12. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Harvest is well underway with combines and grain trucks in fields. I appreciate the rural landscape any time of year, but especially now as farmers bring in the crops.

Cattle in a pasture along CR 101 on the way to the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

From fields to farm sites (especially barns) to roadside vegetable stands to cattle in pastures, I found myself reconnecting with my agrarian roots, my prairie roots, while on this day trip.

A memorable message marks the entrance to the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Fiery hillsides of trees edge the Kasota Prairie in the distance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)
A lone cedar stands atop a hill on the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Near Kasota, we turned onto Le Sueur County Road 101 off CR 21 and took a winding gravel road about five miles to the Kasota Prairie. It was worth the dusty road, the meandering drive, to reach this grassland. As we pulled into the parking lot and hiked an uneven dirt trail into the prairie, I stopped multiple times to photograph the distant treeline painted in shades of mostly orange, red, brown… This prairie is a must-see, oh, so lovely, showcasing backdrop trees that hug the Minnesota River.

Colorful treelines can be seen along both sides of US Highway 169. Stunning. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Color in the Minnesota River Valley is near-prime. Originally, we’d intended to tour Mankato, but shifted gears when I learned that my poem, “The Mighty Tatanka,” is not yet posted as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Instead, we drove to St. Peter and took US Highway 169 north out of town. And wow, oh, wow. The colors along the stretch of highway from St. Peter to Le Sueur, especially, are spectacular. This is a must-drive right now. Don’t wait. Not one day. Not two days. Go now.

A memorable barn because of its copper-hued roof. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Heading east on Minnesota State Highway 19 toward New Prague, we turned south at Union Hill and shortly thereafter took a gravel road to State Highway 13, then turned onto Le Sueur County Road 145, landmarked by a barn roof the color of copper set against an autumn backdrop of trees.

A road sign that fit the day’s purpose, to view leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

If I remember correctly, this farm site is along Leaf Trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Heading back toward Faribault, another stunning treeline next to a cornfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

More gravel roads, including one appropriately named Leaf Trail, and blacktop eventually led us to Millersburg and aiming home to Faribault mostly along CR 46. Interstate 35 may have been a better choice for fall colors based on the colorful trees spotted there on Sunday between Faribault and the first Lakeville exit.

A view of Lake Washington from the public boat landing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

But by then it was late afternoon, many road miles later with stops at lakes and the prairie and a park for a picnic lunch. We’d had a full day. A day full of autumn in Minnesota at its best. Warm. Mostly sunny. And ablaze in colors, the reason I so love this season.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering The White Barn Boutique October 1, 2022

The White Barn Boutique, rural Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

IF NOT FOR A ROADSIDE SIGN noticed while on a fall color drive in northern Rice County, I wouldn’t have landed at The White Barn Boutique by Circle Lake. But the sign drew Randy and me to turn onto a narrow gravel road curving to a white barn and silo edged between trees. As Randy pulled our van onto a grassy parking space bordered by a colorful string of flags, I remarked, “Maybe they have antiques.”

An inviting scene on the second level, at the top of the stairs. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Admittedly, the word “boutique” doesn’t appeal to most guys, so I appreciate that Randy was willing to stop. I was right. The White Barn includes plenty of antiques, collectibles and vintage, enough to hold the interest of anyone who appreciates treasures of yesteryear.

Flowers bloom aside the barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The welcoming entry to the barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A scene staged under a tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Even before I opened the barn door adorned with a simple, seasonal wheat wreath, I felt welcomed, interested, impressed. An array of tables, chairs, flowers and other items outside hint at what’s inside.

Art can be found everywhere. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Most boutique owners, like Susie Morrison, the talent behind The White Barn, are not only business savvy but creative. I observed that inside and out in the artful display of merchandise, the vignettes, the purposeful groupings… When creatively staged, it’s easy to imagine a piece of furniture, an accessory, glassware, textiles, even a vintage phone or a collection of Hardy Boys books in your home.

Sunlight floods the upper level merchandise displays. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Merchandise packs this barn on two levels. While I began meandering through the cozy areas crafted in a once open space, Randy chatted it up with one of Susie’s sisters. Three of the Benjamin sisters were on-site at the seasonal fall boutique open Friday and Saturday and then next weekend, October 7 and 8, from 10 am – 5 pm at 3175 122nd Street West Faribault, two miles off Interstate 35 in the Millersburg area between Faribault and Northfield. December brings a holiday boutique here with other sales during the year.

Even a vintage card box makes for interesting art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

While engaging in conversation, Randy and I realized we’d been on this property decades ago for a company picnic and overnight camping when the sisters’ parents lived here. There was that sense of familiarity, yet time has a way of fading memories.

The colors and the tabletop phone remind me of the 1970s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An artfully draped vintage linen reminds me of Grandma. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The vibrant floral on this chair caught my eye. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

In some ways, shopping at The White Barn is about memories, about nostalgia, about reclaiming the past. It’s like walking into Grandma’s house or into a scene from the 1970s…the remembering, the imagining, the desire to bring this all home.

Fall colors found in floral art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Shopping here is an experience, an unexpected one for us on this autumn afternoon, if not for that roadside sign diverting us from emerging fall colors to a white barn along a rural road.

Directions for parking. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite seasonal boutique in your area? If yes, what draws you inside?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Valley Grove Country Social, up close September 22, 2022

The young boy wearing these cowboy boots watched intently as Northfield artist David F. Allen worked on a painting of Valley Grove Church. The two talked about creating (the little guy likes to color) and about a newly-acquired pig named Pinky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

IN TELLING A STORY, whether in images or words, details matter. Combined, details comprise the whole. And that’s the approach I take in creating.

A painting of the 1862 Valley Grove stone church and cemetery by David F. Allen and for sale at the Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022, photographed with the artist’s permission)
Panels placed alongside the stone church provided historical details. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

In the entry of the 1894 church, more historical info and photos. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Recently I attended the Valley Grove Country Social in rural Rice County. This event, hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society, celebrates the history, heritage, land and people rooted to two hilltop Norwegian churches with adjoining cemetery and restored prairie. One of the first pastors here founded St. Olaf College in nearby Northfield.

Folks gather outside the 1894 church to converse and to view the art of David F. Allen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Many people from my area hold this place dear and that shows in the upkeep of the 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church rising high above a landscape of prairie, farm fields and wooded areas near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

A section of the cemetery looking toward the rolling prairie land. The Social included tours of the cemetery and of the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A prairie restoration project fills the prairie with wildflowers, grass and insects. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
This striped gopher ran across the cemetery lawn before popping into a hole. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I, too, despite no personal connection to Valley Grove, have come to hold this site dear. I appreciate the historic churches and cemetery and the surrounding landscape. And I also appreciate gatherings like the Country Social.

This prop horse harnessed to a buggy features a horse hide blanket. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An accordion players plays with Hutenanny under the oaks in the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Ribbon-tied notecards for sale in the stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

This Social showcases Valley Grove in a way that stretches beyond history, although that decidedly focuses the celebration. Music and art and hands-on activities weave into the all of it.

Doing laundry the old-fashioned way. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Corn ground at the Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Toys like this stick horse were available for kids to use. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I love to see adults and youngsters engaging, conversing, teaching, learning. The younger generation will one day carry on with events like this and with the preservation of history and heritage at Valley Grove. So offering hands-on activities like rope-making, corn grinding, doing laundry, playing with yesteryear toys…is vital.

Musicians perform under the oaks while Social attendees listen and/ore explore the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

While I was persuaded to wind twine into a rope with Randy, I simply observed the other participatory activities. I prefer to meander unobtrusively (not always easy) with my camera, observing, documenting. I strive to tell a story that will encourage others to embrace events and places like Valley Grove. There’s so much right here in Rice County to explore and experience. We need to treasure that which is in our backyard. Just like the “eat local” movement, I say, “Explore local.”

The goats drew lots of admirers as they wandered, tethered, with their owner. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The kids’ tent, right, featured hands-on activities. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A leashed dog came with its owner. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Much of what I feature here on my blog is local. And, if it isn’t, it’s rooted in my region. I value southern Minnesota, especially the small towns, the rural landscape, the people, the arts, the events…the all of it defining this place I call home.

TELL ME: What specific places and/or events do you appreciate where you live and which you feel go unnoticed by many locals?

This concludes my three-part series on the 2022 Valley Grove Country Social. Click here to read my first post about Bjorn Norgaard and my second post, an overview of the Social.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting, celebrating & more at Valley Grove Country Social September 21, 2022

Vehicles line the gravel driveway leading to the hilltop Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, during the September 18 Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A COUNTRY SOCIAL EVOKES an essence of history, of community celebration, of activities that hearken to a bygone era. The Valley Grove Country Social held on Sunday afternoon high atop a hill near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park fits that and beyond. This site, the location of two historic churches and an adjoining cemetery, marks one of my favorite places in rural Rice County for its history, natural beauty and peace.

Inside the stone church, now used for fellowship, folks grab refreshments, converse and view historical information and art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Among the newest additions to the stone church are four tapestries woven by Minneapolis artist Robbie LaFleur and reflective of Valley Grove. This one is titled “Pastor Quammen Skis between Parishes.” He was the longest serving pastor at the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A vintage buggy adds another historic aspect to the Valley Grove Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this September afternoon, I delighted in an event that brings people together to celebrate Norwegian heritage and history, people and place, stories past and present, the arts, and, oh, so much more.

Bouquets and vintage photos edge window sills in the oldest church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An organist and violinist play during a recital in the newer church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Horse-drawn wagon rides onto the prairie drew many passengers throughout the afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Grinding corn as part of the hands-on learning opportunities. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Northfield artist David Allen brought his brushes, watercolors and paper to paint on-site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

From garden and prairie flowers tucked into Mason jars set atop window sills in the 1862 stone church to a recital inside the 1894 church to horse-drawn wagon rides to kids grinding corn to an artist painting, the scope of activities proved broad. There was something for everyone from the youngest to the eldest. Generations mingled, connected. One taught, the other learned.

From cemetery’s edge, the open prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Rope making, a nod to Valley Grove’s agrarian roots, was part of the Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
All ages were drawn to these two goats. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

To observe, to converse, to listen, to feel, to experience all of this imprints upon my soul gratitude for those who know this place, this Valley Grove, is worth preserving and sharing. Although I hold no personal connection here, I feel connected. It is my faith, my love of the land, especially the surrounding prairie and farmland, and the quiet of this remote rural location which cause me to feel comfortably at home, at peace.

One of David Allen’s paintings of Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

If you’ve never visited Valley Grove and live near enough to tour, then do. I’ve been here many times to walk the cemetery and grounds, to hike through the prairie, even once sitting on the front steps of the wooden church for a picnic lunch. The churches are locked when not open for events or special services like a wedding or Christmas Eve worship.

A musician performs with the group Hutenanny under the oak trees in the cemetery.

Still, whether inside or outside the two churches, a sense of the past prevails. Gravestone after gravestone bears the names of Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. Study the markers and stories begin to emerge, whether real or imagined. I can only imagine the joys and sorrows shared here.

Toys of yesteryear were available to try. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Valley Grove is about more than a place where historic churches stand next to a cemetery. It is a gathering spot for those who are celebrating, those who are grieving, those who are remembering and, on this afternoon of a Country Social, a place of connecting with community.

Please check back for more photos from the Valley Grove Country Social. And click here to read my first post from the event, a personal piece about a young man named Bjorn.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Learning about the Wahpekute in Faribault September 2, 2022

Signage marks an entry to Wapacuta Park near my Faribault home. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

FOR 38 YEARS I’VE LIVED in the same house, “the Swanson house,” along Willow Street in Faribault. Just below Wapacuta Park, blocks from the home of town founder Alexander Faribault. Wednesday evening I learned information about the park up the hill, about my neighborhood, which left me feeling unsettled and troubled, but newly-informed.

This shows just a small section of Wapacuta Park, shelter in the distance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The park atop the hill, according to Susan Garwood, executive director of the Rice County Historical Society, was used by the Wahpekute, one of the seven “Council Fires” of the Dakota Nation, for honoring their dead. Not for final burial of their loved ones in this place which now houses a picnic shelter, playground, disc golf course and basketball courts, but rather for the construction of scaffolding to temporarily hold the deceased. Letters and other documents verify the placement of the scaffolding in Wapacuta (incorrectly spelled) Park.

I had no idea. No idea at all that this hilltop land held such importance in the lives, and deaths, of these Indigenous Peoples who called Rice County home long before French Canadians and others settled here.

Peace Park, where Wahpekute were buried, is located near Buckham Memorial Library in the background. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The monument in Peace Park honors those who served in WW II. There is no mention that this slice of land is a Wahpekute burial site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The WW II monument at Peace Park. That’s Willow Street running aside the park. The area across the road is being cleared for apartments and senior housing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But Garwood shared even more unknown-to-me information. After a year, the bodies of the Wahpekute were removed from the scaffolding to a nearby burial spot. That’s the current day Peace Park, located near the intersection of Minnesota State Highway 60, Division Street and Willow Street by Buckham Memorial Library. The site, she said, is considered a cemetery, confirmed many decades ago by the discovery of bones wrapped in bark and hide. There were 14 burial mounds and sacred sites in the county, according to Garwood, who said this is closely-guarded information known to historians.

To learn all of this proved enlightening and left me wondering how many others are unaware. And what can be done to raise awareness and respect? Garwood asked the same question during her public presentation on “The Indigenous History of the land that is now Rice County, Minnesota.” She was the first presenter in a new endeavor, the Faribault Diversity Coalition Speaker Series, which will introduce those who call/called Faribault home through these monthly speaking events at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

This was part of an outdoor art installment at Bridge Square during Northfield’s Earth Day celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

Near the end of her hour-plus-long talk followed by questions and comments, Garwood encouraged attendees to remember and acknowledge the Wahpekute, who are still here. She referenced a Land Acknowledgment Statement and “Eagle Relatives” sculpture now in place in neighboring Northfield. She also mentioned efforts underway to honor the culture, history and places of the Wahpekute in Faribault. She encouraged all of us to become informed, to educate ourselves, to listen to the stories of Indigenous Peoples.

These first peoples lived in harmony with nature, with the land, Garwood noted. Life changed when fur traders came to the area and a dependency grew as the Wahpekute traded for goods that would make their lives easier. The US-Dakota War of 1862, centered to the west in Redwood, Renville and Brown counties, brought more change, including the loss of life, land and relocation for Indigenous Peoples. That aspect of Garwood’s talk was familiar to me given I grew up in Redwood County.

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this artwork gracing the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

She talked, too, about Alexander Faribault and Bishop Henry Whipple and how they befriended and helped the Dakota. Faribault, after the 1862 war, offered land he owned (today River Bend Nature Center and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind) as an “Indian Camp,” Garwood said. Sixty-five Wahpekute from 12 families lived there.

Peace Park is located at a major Faribault intersection. The Alexander Faribault house can be seen in the background, just to the right of the red-roofed gas canopies at the local co-op and behind the hedge row. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Garwood focused primarily on the Wahpekute, the first people of Rice County, the “Shooters Among the Leaves.” They were, she said, hunters and gatherers who did not work the land but rather moved from place to place to find food, to sustain themselves. Every lake in the county was home to a Wahpekute village, she said. Rivers, too. Teepee Tonka Park along the banks of the Straight River in Faribault was among their riverside homes. Not far from Peace Park. Not far from Wapacuta Park. Near my home.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on the Wahpekute in my area of Minnesota August 4, 2022

Following the Wahpekuta Trail (albeit incorrectly spelled) at Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

IF I WAS TO CLIMB the hill behind my house through the tangle of weeds, wildflowers and woods, I would reach Wapacuta Park. But it’s easier to take the street and then the mowed hillside to this Faribault city park.

Years ago, this was the go-to spot for our family—for the kids to zoom down the towering slide and scale the massive rock in the summer and to slide down the sledding hill in the winter. Today it’s a place to occasionally take the grandkids to play on the updated playground.

My research shows this sign at Sakatah Lake State Park should be spelled differently, as Wahpehkute. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

But years ago, oh, so many years ago, this spot of land belonged to the Dakota. That I assume given its name—Wapacuta, even though incorrectly spelled. The correctly spelled Wahpekute are members of the Dakota Nation. My county of Rice is the homeland of these indigenous peoples. They are an integral part of Faribault history. Town founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault traded with the Dakota who lived in the area.

A posted map of the park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

To the west, along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Waterville, Sakatah Lake State Park also reflects the Dakota influence in its name. The native Dakota called the land thereon Sakatah or “singing hills” in their native language.

Native peoples sourced water directly from the Sakatah lakes, unlike here via a water pump. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail runs through the park for three miles. That trail spans 39 miles from Faribault to Mankato, another Dakota-sourced name correctly spelled Mahkato, meaning “greenish blue earth.” Mankato is the site of the largest mass execution in US history with 38 Dakota hung on December 26, 1862, after the US-Dakota War of 1862. It is a horrible atrocity in our state’s history and one which, to this day, remains unknown to too many Minnesotans.

Southern Minnesota lakes are typically polluted/green, not sky-tinted. Here the fishing pier at Sakatah State Park is inaccessible, not linked to land, due to excessive ice damage last winter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

We are a state with many location names tracing back to the Dakota—Mankato, Wabasha, Wabasso, Sleepy Eye, Winona, Winnebago… Even the name Minnesota comes from the Dakota Mnisota, meaning “sky-tinted waters” and referencing the Minnesota River.

I saw several motorboats on the lake at Sakatah. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

On a mid-June visit to Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, I thought about the Dakota who lived on this land, including at a village on the point separating Upper Sakatah and Lower Sakatah Lakes. I imagined the Wahpekute gliding across the lakes in canoes, angling for fish in these waters.

Mushrooms cling to a tree in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

Then, as I followed the Wahpekuta Trail, I wondered about hunting and berry picking and perhaps mushroom gathering in the denseness of woods.

The Sakatah campgrounds fill quickly, like many Minnesota state parks. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

And, instead of campers in these trees, I imagined tipis.

We have much to learn as we follow the trails of history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

I have much to learn about the Wahpekute. But at least I hold basic knowledge of their early presence here, of their importance in the history of this place I call home.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling