Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

All about loons in Otter Tail County & beyond in Minnesota October 28, 2019

The world’s largest loon sculpture in Vergas, Minnesota.

 

IN MINNESOTA WE HAVE the comedic and musical actresses the Looney Lutherans, who showcase our ya, sure you betcha Scandinavian image. We decorate our Up North cabins with loon décor in honor of our state bird. Minnesota writer Gerald Anderson features the loon in Murder Under the Loon as part of his An Otter Tail County Mystery series. And if all that loon madness isn’t enough, the village of Vergas boasts the world’s largest loon sculpture.

 

 

Look closely at the sign in the photo above and you will see this rock art balancing on the sign.

 

This rock art left on the dock by the FM Rock Hounds made me smile.

 

Aquatic life up close in Long Lake.

 

Recently I sought out that roadside art while in Otter Tail County. I always appreciate kitschy art that defines a place. And Vergas, population 350, is all about embracing loons. Each August, the community celebrates Looney Daze. The Frazee-Vergas baseball team is named the Loons. And then there’s that 20-foot tall loon statue looming over Long Lake.

 

 

But finding that loon proved difficult, even after getting instructions from a local to follow that road (he pointed), turn right, cross the tracks… No loon. Eventually Randy and I found the loon sculpture dedicated in 1963 to Postmaster Ewald C. Krueger. The Vergas Fire Department sponsored the community project.

 

The only loon I’ve ever seen up close.

 

Now, if I actually spotted a real loon up close, I will have completed my loon fix. But I’ve only ever seen them from a distance, in the middle of a lake. You see, even though the loon is our state bird, it is primarily a central or northern Minnesota bird. Not necessarily representative of the entire state.

 

 

But the loon is representative of one small Minnesota town situated in the lake country of Otter Tail County.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When a prairie native sees Mille Lacs Lake for the first time November 28, 2017

Near shore, a seagull wings across Mille Lacs Lake, water and sky melding in vastness.

 

AT MY REQUEST, Randy and I took an indirect route from Faribault to Brainerd on a mid-September Up North vacation. I wanted to see Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s second largest inland lake covering some 200 square miles. It just didn’t seem right that, as a life-long Minnesotan, I’d never viewed this expansive body of water.

As a native of the landlocked prairie, my youthful exposure to Minnesota’s lakes included occasional fishing for bullheads, swimming in Cottonwood Lake once a year and a trip at age four to Duluth along the shores of Lake Superior. When you grow up on a dairy farm, there are few vacations; mine during childhood totaled two.

 

Tethered along Mille Lacs.

 

Without the typical Minnesota background of going up to the lake on weekends, of boating and swimming and fishing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I was eager to see Mille Lacs. I’ve heard so much about the lake, especially in recent years given the controversial restrictions on walleye fishing.

 

My first view of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

Our route took us along US Highway 169 along Mille Lacs and into Garrison.

 

I focused on a nearby shoreline until I mentally adjusted to the size of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

My first glimpse of Mille Lacs from U.S. Highway 169 presented no surprises. It was as I expected—a visual vastness of blue. As our van rounded into Garrison, the view opened and I anchored my eyes to the nearby shoreline. Until I adjust, I find the initial infinity of such large lakes a bit unsettling.

 

The concourse provides a lovely view of Mille Lacs. But there’s seagull poop everywhere.

 

Soon we pulled off Highway 169 and into the Garrison Concourse, a roadside scenic overlook built between 1936- 1939 by the then Minnesota Department of Highways and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On the National Register of Historic Places, this space features a rock retaining wall that, while impressive, was also unappealing for all the dried seagull poop streaking the wall, benches, sidewalk and pavement. I had no desire to sit here, linger and enjoy the view.

 

 

So I focused my attention on the 15-foot fiberglass walleye statue, built in 1980 for a local parade, and now a kitschy roadside attraction for a town that claims to be the Walleye Capital of the World (along with Baudette and several out-of-state locations).

 

 

 

 

An oversized walleye couldn’t just land here on its own. A sign posted on the statue base, next to the one that warns to PLEASE KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE THANK YOU, credits legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan for the trophy catch. You gotta appreciate a good story.

 

 

Randy and I did the typical tourist thing and posed for selfies next to the mega walleye.

 

 

If not for my observant husband, I would have missed another attraction—a small stone marker honoring William A. Tauer, a local hotel owner who drowned while trying to save boaters during a June 10, 1927, storm on Mille Lacs Lake. Engraving credits THE PEOPLE OF MORGAN, MINN for the memorial marker. That drew my interest. Morgan sits some 175 miles away to the southwest in my home county of Redwood. Later online research revealed little more. I expect William grew up in Morgan, where the Tauer surname is still common. I’d like to know more.

 

 

All in all, the overwhelming size of Mille Lacs impressed me. But not enough that I need to return. My disappointment came in the sense of—there’s the lake, now what? Perhaps further exploration beyond just this area by Garrison would change my perspective. Or, as others suggested, a return in the winter to see the thousands of fish houses on the frozen lake would impress me.

 

 

I have no desire to board a boat in a body of water this large. Randy has done so and I’ve heard his seasick stories. Nor do I desire to fish here in the winter when the ice cracks and anglers have been stranded on ice floes.

 

 

 

Still, I enjoyed the view and the iconic walleye. I can now say, “I’ve been to Mille Lacs.” But I can’t say, “I’ve patronized the Blue Goose.” The iconic restaurant and bar, my husband noted and lamented, is gone.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Roadside art & more in Foley December 22, 2016

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AN ECLECTIC MIX OF CAST-OFFS rests roadside at the intersections of Minnesota State Highways 23 and 25 in Foley.

I don’t know what to make of this collection. Trucks. Trailers. Wheels. Sections of perhaps culverts and grain bins. All jumbled together.

Storage lot mixed with art, I assess.

 

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If anything, the scene succeeds in grabbing the attention of passersby who, perhaps like me, wonder about the story behind these sculptures, this space.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When you’re not into Star Wars December 21, 2015

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MY KNOWLEDGE OF STAR WARS is limited. I would recognize Darth Vader if I saw him on the street. I know there’s a Princess Someone or Other. And Luke Skywalker. Yes, I remember that name. But that’s about it.

I grew up watching Lost in Space on TV with characters like Judy, Penny, Will, Don and the evil Dr. Smith. And a robot whose name may have been Robot.

You never know what art will be showcased in Hot Sam's Interstate 35 display. I've seen a shark, guitar, submarine...

You never know what art will be showcased in Hot Sam’s Interstate 35 display. I’ve seen a shark, guitar, submarine…and now this spaceship.

Sci-Fi, though, as an adult, is not my genre. Still, I had to wonder about the spaceship suspended in an artsy display along Interstate 35 at Hot Sam’s Antiques near Lakeville, south of Minneapolis. I last visited Hot Sam’s in 2012. This one-of-a-kind place features an eclectic mix of art and old stuff scattered over several acres.

The hovering spaceship.

Hot Sam’s hovering spaceship.

Recently, the spaceship was added to the highly-visible hilltop Interstate collection. I thought perhaps it was a Star Wars ship replica. At this point, feel free to laugh. My son may have snickered when I asked. “Uh, no, Mom.” he said.

To all you Star Wars fans, my apologies.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a prairie chicken saves the day May 14, 2013

NUMEROUS TIMES ON TRIPS to and from Fargo, I’ve wanted to stop and photograph a kitschy roadside attraction along Interstate 94 on the edge of Rothsay. But time never allowed, until Friday morning.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

This prairie chicken statue celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area.

I convinced my husband, who didn’t seem as excited as me, that we had time for a photo op with an 18-foot tall, 8,000-pound prairie chicken. He sat in the van while I did a quick photo shoot in the whipping wind.

In the right background of this photo, you can see the smoke rising from a grass fire along Interstate 94 near Rothsay late Friday morning.

In the right background of this photo, you can see smoke.

From our hilltop position next to the interstate, we noticed a towering plume of white smoke in the distance. Randy speculated a controlled burn at a nearby wildlife refuge. I wasn’t so sure. Who would be crazy enough to light the land afire on a windy day like Friday? But what do I know?

The road to the left leads into Rothsay, "The Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota."

The road to the left leads into Rothsay, “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.”

So…given my curiosity about this self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” we drove into Rothsay and meandered through residential areas before parking across from the Wilkin County Sheriff’s Department office (that’s another story) to scout out the town.

Soon, the wail of sirens pierced the quiet of an unexciting Friday morning in Rothsay as a rescue squad vehicle and fire truck roared out of town. To that fire, I presumed.

I shot a few more photos and then, just as we were about to leave the downtown, spotted a thrift store in an old church. We stopped.

This photo shows a section of the road ditch burned Friday morning along I-94 near Rothsay and photographed several hours later.

This photo shows a section of the road ditch burned Friday morning along I-94 near Rothsay and photographed several hours later.

When I met a local exiting the thrift shop, I asked if he knew anything about the fire. As I expected, he did. Word travels fast in a small town like Rothsay, population around 500. The fire, he said, was burning in the road ditch along the west side of the interstate about a mile north of town.

“Could have started with a bearing going out on a truck,” he speculated.

Or a cigarette butt tossed out a vehicle window, I thought.

Then he advised us not to take the interstate. “Go past the truck stop on the edge of town and keep going straight north til you get to County Road 108. Turn onto that and it will take you back onto the interstate,” he repeated. Thrice.

He reckoned that drivers, blinded by the smoke, might be piling into one another on the roadway. “They don’t slow down like they should.”

More of the charred road ditch from the Friday morning grass fire which halted traffic and caused accidents.

More of the charred road ditch from the Friday morning grass fire which halted traffic and caused accidents.

Randy wasn’t so sure the elderly man was right. I was. He seemed quite sure of his information.

As we aimed toward the edge of Rothsay, my indecisive husband suggested that we watch for southbound traffic on I-94. There was none. So north we traveled on a county road, soon catching glimpses of long lines of stopped traffic on both sides of the interstate.

From the County Road 108 entrance ramp nearly all the way to Moorhead, a distance of about 40 miles, we had the entire interstate mostly to ourselves. Talk about an eerie feeling. But better to freewheel along the interstate than to be stuck in traffic at the dual emergency site of a grass fire and multiple crashes.

So that is my story of how a prairie chicken, and a kindly man from Rothsay, saved the day for us.

And, I suppose, I can take some credit, too, as I suggested we stop in Rothsay. If not for my desire to photograph kitschy art, we would have driven right into that smoke and…perhaps another vehicle.

The feet of the giant prairie chicken along with info about the statue built in 1976 by artist

The feet of the giant “booming” prairie chicken along with info about the statue erected in 1976.

FYI: According to minimal information I found online, several crashes resulted from the large grass fire burning along I-94 near mile marker 36 north of Rothsay. I couldn’t find any details.

Also, according to info I read online, the 23-mile section of roadway from the Downer exit to Rothsay is known as “the Bermuda Triangle of I-94” because of the high volume of crashes during the winter months. The article doesn’t cite grass fires. Click here to read that story.

This past weekend, numerous grass fires were reported in this region of Minnesota. Click here to read about the fires.

Also, due to the high fire danger in many areas of Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources has issued burning restrictions in specific counties. Click here to learn more about those restrictions.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My adventure at a Minnesota “antique theme park,” Part II September 18, 2012

Would you follow this driveway into the woods? I did. And what an adventure.

“I’M A LITTLE SCARED,” I admitted as we turned off Pillsbury Avenue just south of Lakeville, Minnesota, onto a narrow, hard-packed gravel road. Thick dark woods crept to the edge of the driveway and my imagination ran wild with fairy tales that ended badly.

What lurked in those woods? I glanced toward my husband, who was guiding our van into the unknown. “I hope there’s not a big dog.” I imagined a ferocious canine, teeth bared, legs planted in a defensive stance.

A dog-themed sign, one of many signs on the property. And, no, spelling is apparently not a priority here.

There were no guard dogs—unless you count the little dog interested only in pursuing a baby bunny and not humans. There were no bad endings.

But I wanted to warn you, lest you initially think like me and consider backing out even before you enter the wonderment which is Hot Sam’s Antiques.

Junk cars line the driveway, left. And, yes, that’s a Statue of Liberty standing in that red junk car in the background.

This place is part junkyard, sculpture garden and antique shop.

If you like your picking places all nice and neat and tidy, then this may not be your shopping venue.

Under construction in the woods, an over-sized motorcycle sculpture currently lashed to a tree limb among the junk.

But if you are adventuresome, don’t mind scuttling around junk (aka art/fabulous finds/treasures), have lots of time to meander and appreciate a one-of-a-kind place bursting with creativity, then, welcome to Hot Sam’s Antiques.

FYI: Click here to read my first post introducing you to Hot Sam’s Antiques. I have so much to show you that I will be writing a third post.

Along the driveway, you’ll see this fence decorated with an eclectic collection of stuff.

Just more abandoned vintage cars along the side of the driveway.

One of two planes on the property; the other one’s nosedived into the swampland. Yup, that’s a train in the background, behind the gigantic sunflower and to the left.

Following its theme park theme, Hot Sam’s pays tribute to the 1960s television sitcom, “Petticoat Junction,” via several on-site train cars (including this caboose) and a water tank. You’ll find antiques and collectibles inside the boxcars.

Anyone who knows me and how much I fear chickens will appreciate that I actually photographed these fowl roaming at Hot Sam’s.

This log cabin is simply bursting with antiques and collectibles, inside and out.

The hippie van, parked along the beach in the theme park area of Hot Sam’s.

I was tempted, quite tempted, to disobey these signs. Next visit…

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Touring Hot Sam’s, an “antique theme park” near Lakeville September 17, 2012

Northbound on Interstate 35 just south of Lakeville, you’ll see this roadside art marking the location of Hot Sam’s Antiques.

YOU’VE SEEN THE ECLECTIC COLLECTION, I’m sure, if you’ve ever traveled Interstate 35 northbound near Lakeville.

Just another view of the eclectic art collection, shot while traveling the interstate. No stopping for this photo.

You’ll see the fearsome shark first as you’re driving north on I35.

Just south of exit 81 atop a hill on the east side of the interstate, a red ANTIQUE sign draws your eye to a mish-mash of stuff. Several rusting cars. A rather vicious looking blue shark (although I’m sure you don’t notice the detailed sharp teeth while racing along the interstate at 70 mph). A lady bug. A rocket and a submarine. And, heck, there’s an oversized guitar, too.

At the north end of the line, the ginormous guitar.

A view from atop the hill, in the middle of the eclectic collection.

For 30 years I’ve seen the changing collection and always wondered about Hot Sam’s Antiques. Now, after a recent Saturday afternoon visit, I need wonder no more.

Kathy Sakry, left, and Aina Puritis on the front porch of the log cabin.

Honestly, how to begin to describe this place seems an impossibility, until I meet Aina Puritis—pronounce that Latvian first name with a silent “A” and a long “i”—a part-time employee of three months. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” I tell Aina.

“You got that right, honey,” she agrees, then offers her definition. “It’s an antique theme park, a mix of this and that.”

The log cabin, back and to the right, is packed with antiques and collectibles. I spotted the charming, cottage style treehouse, left, but didn’t even check to see if I could explore inside. I was running short on time.

Aina nails Hot Sam’s with that description because, in addition to thousands of antiques and collectibles crammed inside and outside a log house, outbuildings and train cars and scattered upon the grass and through the woods and along the sides of the narrow gravel drive, you’ll discover a wonderment of creations fitting a theme park.

Barry was painting a giant sunflower when I came upon him among the junk in the woods.

You might find Barry (no last name offered), a retired laser cutter turned artist, back in the woods among all the junk working on his latest sculptures—painting a giant sunflower or building an oversized motorcycle roped and suspended from a tree limb.

Nemo from the back, looking toward the log cabin on the hill, center, a boat on the left and train cars in the distance to the right.

He takes credit for transforming a vintage car into the Disney cartoon fish Nemo via orange paint, the addition of fins and eyes and some major interior redecorating. Nemo’s beached in sugar fine sand along a ribbon of water which meanders into the 10-acre property.

Inside Nemo, my absolute favorite part of the entire antique theme park. Who would ever think you could turn an old car into something so incredibly magical?

The tropical beach scene seems oddly out of place given the native swampland grass and surrounding woods and the autumn leaves littering the sand. But no one claims anything’s exactly as it should be at Hot Sam’s.

A close-up of the hippie van parked in a beach setting with fine white sand and even a hammock.

That’s part of the appeal, to see a peace-out hippie van parked on the beach; the wreck of the S.S. Minnow from the 1960s T.V. sitcom, Gilligan’s Island, hugging the shore; the canary yellow tail of a crashed airplane poking through the swampland grass across the water.

“It became a labor of love,” Kathy Sakry says of this whole intriguing place. She’s the significant other of Jake Hood, who, along with his mother, Gladys Hood, 26 years ago transformed a field with a two-car path into Hot Sam’s Antiques. Nine years prior to that, the business was located in Burnsville. Gladys died in December 2010.

Kathy prefers not to explain the story and inspiration behind the antique theme park, choosing instead to hand over a reprint of an article written by Gladys and published in Reader’s Digest. To summarize, Gladys’ father, Hyreeg, an Armenian immigrant living in Detroit, collected scrap metal to raise money for a flagpole upon which he flew a U.S. flag symbolizing his pride in becoming an American.

Inside the log cabin, I found this collectible glassware and this welcoming sign, which seems to exemplify the welcoming spirit of Hot Sam’s Antiques.

Gladys wrote in 2002 that she acquired her father’s love for hard work and collecting (she would go “picking” with him as a child) and continued his legacy via her business. She collected for practical and recycling reasons and for the joy of sharing in the memories of those who visit Hot Sam’s.

I saw at least three Statues of Liberty on the property.

Whether a tribute to her father’s patriotism or not, numerous replicas of the Statue of Liberty are planted on Gladys’ tangible slice of the American dream.

About that business name… Kathy says Hot Sam was Gladys’ nickname, a name she preferred to her given Gladys, which taunting youngsters reinvented into, well, you can figure that out, during her childhood.

Then Kathy shares more about Gladys and a clearer picture emerges of this strong woman. She once raced cars, breaking the land speed record on Daytona Beach in 1956.

This mock, crashed airplane is positioned across swamp grass on the property.

Despite her prior days of daring, competitive racing in a man’s world and of traveling, Gladys seldom left Hot Sam’s once established, Kathy relates. And when she did, it was to attend air shows with her adopted daughter, airline and aerobatic pilot Julie Clark. The bi-plane and staged, mock plane crash at Hot Sam’s are perhaps visual connections to Julie, whose birth father was murdered in 1964 while piloting a plane which subsequently crashed, killing all 44 aboard. Or perhaps the planes reflect Gladys’ general affection for air shows.

While wandering the grounds of Hot Sam’s, you have to wonder where Jake and Gladys acquired all this stuff and Kathy says only that they are buyers and sellers. She wants me to talk to Jake and sets off to find him. But I am anxious to photograph this magical antique theme park in the perfect, golden hour around sunset. I never do connect with Jake.

I am not the only photographer here on this late Saturday afternoon. I meet a young couple and their two children primping for a family photo shoot with St. Louis Park-based portrait photographer Jess Sandager of Olive Avenue Photography. Later I meet up with the family and photographer near the beach. Jess tells me Hot Sam’s is well-known in the photo industry.

Although I’d like more details, I won’t keep Jess from the waning, perfect light.

I watch for a minute as Jess works her camera, photographing the little boy on a tractor and then mom and baby.

The beached Nemo.

Father and son, in the meantime, are now heading toward the orange fish on the beach, toward Nemo—dad walking, son running…

Watch for this sign at 22820 Pillsbury Avenue South directing you onto the narrow gravel road into Hot Sam’s Antiques.

FYI: To get to Hot Sam’s Antiques from Interstate 35, take exit 81 near Lakeville and go east on Dakota County Road 70 about half a mile to the stoplight. Then turn south onto Kenrick Avenue/County Road 46. Continue approximately 1 1/2 miles on Kenrick, which turns into Pillsbury Avenue. Hot Sam’s is located on the west side of the road at 22820 Pillsbury Avenue South, Lakeville. You’ll see a sign.

Hours are from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. weekdays (except closed on Thursday) and Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Check back for more photos from Hot Sam’s because there’s so much more I need to share with you.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling