Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Revisiting & appreciating Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse August 18, 2021

Little Prairie School, rural Dundas, Minnesota. The date on the building conflicts with the date on an on-site memorial and I don’t know why. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

MANY YEARS HAVE PASSED since Randy and I stopped at the Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse, rural Dundas. But on a recent weekend afternoon, we picnicked on the school grounds, next to a cornfield and a stone’s throw away from a vintage outhouse.

We ate our picnic lunch here. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I embraced this rural Bridgewater Township setting as I ate my sandwich and watched the occasional vehicle fly by on paved Rice County Road 8. Mostly, though, quiet prevailed.

Little Prairie United Methodist Church, repaired following a damaging tornado several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

When I finished my lunch, I grabbed my camera to document the country school and more, including Little Prairie United Methodist Church just across the road. Last visit, the then-pastor toured us through the church and then unlocked the schoolhouse. This time, I had to settle for peering through a school window.

A paver honors Little Prairie founders, the Emerys. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Little Prairie—a name that resonates with my prairie roots—was settled in 1855 when Jacob and Eliza Emery homesteaded here. He’s noted as the church founder on a paver at the Little Prairie Community Memorial, new since our last visit. Emery, as history goes, cut a 3-mile track through the Big Woods to find this 60-acre prairie. Little Prairie.

A memorial honors the people of Little Prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.
Among the “farmer” pavers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.
Students remembered. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

A study of the memorial pavers reveals names of early settlers, farmers, teachers, families and others with connections to this prairie place. History imprinted upon stone.

I pushed Randy briefly on the merry-go-round, Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Beyond that, when I let this place speak to me, I could hear the voices of children as they played tag on the playground. Or circled on the aged merry-go-round. Screams. Laughter. Joy. Maybe even pleas to stop the dizziness.

The mud scraper. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I could hear, too, the scraping of shoes on the mud scraper bolted to cement steps outside the front doors.

A necessity at rural schools, the water pump. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I could hear the creak of the water pump handle moving up and down, up and down.

The outhouse has been painted since the last time I was here and a screen added.

I could hear the bang of the outhouse door.

A view inside the classroom through a window. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Locked doors kept me from accessing the school. But I imagined the determined voice of a teacher, the recitation of spelling words, the scratch of chalk upon slate, the clomp of shoes upon wooden floor…

A back view of the simple country schoolhouse. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

This schoolhouse, built in 1858, holds no personal meaning to me. Yet, I cherish it. Within these walls, children learned. They flourished. They grew friendships and knowledge and, I expect, a deep appreciation for their community. This place. This Little Prairie.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Merry-go-round details. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2021.
Information on ordering and purchasing a memorial paver for $225 is available inside this mailbox on the schoolhouse steps. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads of Rice County with Mr. Bluebird August 17, 2021

Mr. Bluebird, Keith Radel. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

DOWN THE GRAVEL ROAD, I saw him exit the ditch, cross the roadway and then climb into his red pick-up truck.

A man on a mission, to save bluebirds. Those are nesting boxes in the truck bed. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

“That’s Keith,” I told Randy. Even from a distance I recognized the tall, lean profile of Keith Radel. Known as Mr. Bluebird, he travels the backroads of Rice County checking bluebird nests.

Keith puts on countless miles in his red pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Randy and I had just finished a short hike at the nearby Cannon River Wilderness Park when I spotted Keith on a gravel road in rural Dundas. We paused, his pick-up and our van pulled side-by-side, windows rolled down, the three of us conversing like farmers meeting on a rural road to talk crops.

Keith’s simple mission statement. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Except we were talking bluebirds. Not that I know much about these songbirds. But Keith, who’s been tracking, counting and caring for bluebirds for nearly 40 years, does. He’s relentless in his passion to assure this bird thrives. And that devotion drives him to drive miles upon endless miles to check nest boxes and count eggs and do whatever it takes to assure bluebird survival. Rice County has the most successful bluebird recovery program in Minnesota.

A nesting box for bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I didn’t take notes when we were talking, although I recall Keith saying major ice storms in Texas this year had a devastating effect on the current bluebird population. He keeps meticulous notes on each nesting box.

Bluebird eggs. We didn’t see any bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Mostly, I focused on being in the moment. When Keith offered to show us two bluebird nesting boxes just down the road, we didn’t hesitate, reversed course, our van following his truck in a trail of dust. Once parked, Keith led us down the side of a ditch, lifting the nest cylinder from its post to reveal three beautiful blue eggs inside. The next nest held only a single egg.

Keith checks a bluebird nest. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Soon we were on our way, Randy and I looking for a place to eat a picnic lunch and Keith continuing with his bluebird checks.

The personalized license plate on Keith’s pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But there’s more to this story than that of a man sporting a MINNESOTA BLUEBIRD RECOVERY PROGRAM cap with a specialty BLUEBRD license plate and a window sticker on his pick-up that proclaims his mission, Helping Bluebirds. There’s a personal connection. Keith is from my hometown of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He grew up north of town. I grew up south of town. Both of us on family farms.

I photographed this cornfield and farm site from the gravel road where we stopped with Keith to check a bluebird nesting box. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Place connects us. Most people in Rice County are clueless as to the location of Vesta, or even our home county of Redwood some 120 miles to the west. So whenever I see Keith, I feel this sense of connection to my home area, to the land. When we met on that gravel road on a July afternoon, Keith understood my need to exit Faribault, to follow gravel roads, to reconnect with the land. And, yes, even to look at the crops.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At a rural Minnesota flea market, a photo essay June 3, 2019

Flea markets often theme to location. At the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Swap Meet & Flea Market, you’ll find a lot of agricultural merchandise.

 

LONG BEFORE RECYCLING, upcycling and repurposing emerged in popularity, hand-me-downs existed. Clothing, furniture and more passed down from person to person. Especially among farm families. Ask my sister and she will tell you about my horrible fashion sense and how she had to wear the bad choices I made in clothing. She followed me in birth order.

 

 

Fast forward to today and I still appreciate previously-used items. I don’t need the latest fashion off the rack because I still don’t much care about fashion. Give me jeans and a t-shirt.

 

 

 

 

I prefer sturdy, well-crafted furniture to new. I like vintage drinking glasses, bowls, tablecloths, art… I prefer vintage stuff to new. I appreciate the craftsmanship, the novelty, the memories, the uniqueness.

 

 

For those reasons, I delight in flea markets, garage and yard sales, and thrift stores. I don’t shop them as often as I once did because I really don’t need more stuff. Even so, it’s fun to poke around.

 

 

 

 

To filter through the odd and practical merchandise. The memories.

 

Crafted by J & J Glass Art (Jeff & Jane Peterson) of Austin.

 

 

 

To appreciate the work of artisans.

 

 

 

 

 

To chat with the vendors.

 

 

Here in Minnesota, pop-up second-hand shops—the term seems fitting for all those garage and yard sales and flea markets—have launched for the season.

 

 

If you’ve never embraced second-hand, I’d suggest you reconsider. Maybe you’ll develop an affinity for this alternative shopping option. Or maybe you’ll decide you want nothing to do with the current trend.

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever your perspective, enjoy my photo essay of the spring Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Flea Market held in rural Dundas on Memorial Day weekend. Let this inspire you to think beyond new, to consider the value in previously-owned.

 

 

TELL ME: Do you shop second-hand? If yes, why and what treasures have you discovered?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating a Minnesota barn’s 100th birthday with an old-fashioned barn dance September 28, 2015

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The band, Downtown Sound, sets up inside the Becker barn for a 10th birthday barn dance.

The band, Downtown Sound, sets up inside the Becker barn for a 100th birthday barn dance.

THE OLD BARN was all decked out with rural décor.

 

Barn dance, 24 Dekalb sign & corn

 

Barn dance, 84 wagon display

 

Barn dance, 30 bouquet

 

Guests gather in a corner near a display of Becker family farm photos.

Guests gather in a corner near a display of Becker family farm photos. The images are displayed on the exterior of the bathroom built into the barn.

Ear corn and seedcorn signs. Washboard and washtubs. Gourds and pumpkins. Fresh-cut zinnias, cosmos and other garden flowers in jars. Red-and-white checked gingham tablecloths. And in a corner, a collection of family and barn photos.

 

Barn dance, 127 Becker barn banner close-up

 

Across the end of the hayloft, just above the section where the band, Downtown Sound, was setting up, and below an American flag, a banner blazed Becker Barn Dance 1915 – 2015.

The sun sets on a perfect September evening on the Becker farm.

Guests gather on the hayloft deck as the sun sets Saturday evening.

John and Debbie Becker purchased the farm from John's dad, Herb, in 1988.

John and Debbie Becker purchased the farm from John’s dad, Herb, in 1988.

John and Debbie Becker purchased the farm from John's dad, Herb, in 1988.

John and Debbie Becker

 

Hundreds gathered on a perfect September Saturday evening at the John and Debbie Becker farm just west of Dundas along Rice County Road 1 to celebrate the birthday of a sprawling 36-foot by 100-foot barn built in 1915. One hundred years ago.

Family arrives for the barn dance and party.

Family arrives for the barn dance and party.

A vintage photo of the Herb and Dorothy Becker family. The current barn owner, John, is the youngest in the family.

A vintage photo of the Herb and Dorothy Becker family. The current barn owner, John, is the youngest in the family.

Family and friends visit before the meal and dance.

Family and friends visit before the meal and dance.

But this party was about more than commemorating this century-old massive barn in the Becker family since Herb and wife, Dorothy (both now deceased), purchased the farm in 1948. It was also about a coming together of family—only one of the elder Beckers’ descendants was missing—and friends to celebrate the land, farming and the rural way of life.

A view of the farmyard and barn dance guests from a hayloft window.

A view of the farmyard and barn dance guests from a hayloft window.

Posted in the barn

Posted in the barn, a photo of the Becker farm and an appropriate saying.

Aunt and nephew at the barn dance.

Aunt and nephew at the barn dance.

As I gazed through an open hayloft window at the crowd mingling in the farmyard below, I considered how thankful I am to have grown up in rural Minnesota, to have this close connection to the land and to extended family. Just like the Becker family.

The sun spotlights machine sheds. Vehicles parked in every nook and cranny on the farm.

The sun spotlights machine sheds. Vehicles parked in every nook and cranny of the farm.

Wagons rolled.

Wagons rolled.

A vintage swingset proved a popular spot.

A vintage swingset proved a popular spot.

Playing games...

Playing games…

Here, on this evening when the sun set a brilliant gold across ripening corn fields and edged shadows around silos, kids rumbled wagons across gravel, pumped legs high on an aged swingset, covered eyes in an old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek. It was like a flashback to yesteryear for me, back to simpler days when kids played with imagination and folks took time to visit.

 

Barn dance, 28 interior barn overview 2

 

Nostalgia prevailed on this September evening of a near full moon. Host John Becker briefed guests on the history of the barn, known long ago for its neighborhood barn dances. In his youth, long before he bought this farm, John’s father attended dances here, where men sat on one side of the hayloft, women on the other. On this evening, all generations mingled in the hayloft and John reminded them to be thankful to the Lord for the harvest.

 

Barn dance, 36 barn dance sign outside barn

 

I was thankful to be here, sitting on a bench on the newly-constructed deck off the hayloft. Gazing at the peak of the barn toward the evening sky scattered with stars. Inside the band played Sweet Caroline as the autumn breeze cooled me.

 

Barn dance, 268 dark barn interior band area

 

Later I would twirl, in my husband’s arms, across the cornmeal slicked plywood floor to a polka, flap my elbows to the chicken dance and rock it out to I Fought the Law (and the law won) and many more tunes. I danced until my muscles ached. And I smiled, oh, how I smiled. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun, since I’ve forgotten the worries of life and immersed myself in the joy of a memorable evening with friends.

 

Barn dance, 131 plate of food

 

Barn dance, 148 family in food line

 

Barn dance, 118 fall themed pie close-up

 

Judging pies.

Judging pies.

The food was equally as memorable with savory beef and pork sandwiches from Nerstrand Meats, baked beans and an assortment of salads and bars brought by guests. Later, after judges sampled pies in the pie-baking contest, plated pies presented a dessert smorgasbord. And if that wasn’t enough, sausage and cheese, chips and dip and other snack foods were available for grazing later.

The side entry into the hayloft.

The side entry into the hayloft.

Some six hours after we arrived, Randy and I descended the steep walk-way into the hayloft and followed the gravel drive past the grain dryer (next to the yard light) toward vehicles parked on the lawn. We threaded our way toward our car, music fading as the distance widened between us and the 100-year-old barn.

FYI: Check back for more photos from the barn dance in additional posts tomorrow and thereafter.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Boys at a barn dance September 25, 2015

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Portrait #41: Boys at a barn dance

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011

 

Several years ago when my dear friends John and Debbie hosted a dance in their rural Dundas barn, I photographed these two boys. To this day, it remains one of my favorite portraits. Such sweetness in those faces.

I didn’t ask the boys to pose as they did. The cowboy just slung his arm around the other boy. They may be cousins or brothers or simply friends. I don’t recall. But it’s obvious they enjoy each other and were having a good time.

Maybe I’ll see the pair again this weekend, all grown up, perhaps sporting cowboy hats, maybe not. John and Debbie are celebrating the 100th birthday of their barn with an old-fashioned barn dance. I can’t wait to kick up my heels to live music, chow down on great food (including meat from Nerstrand meats and pie from the pie-baking contest), mingle with party-goers, and simply delight in the ambiance of dancing in the hayloft.

And, yes, I’ll have my camera in hand to document the event.

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Minnesota Faces is featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: A pastor with prairie roots February 20, 2015

Portrait #8: Pastor Gordon

 

Portrait 8, Pastor Gordon Deuel at Little Prairie

 

This week, the beginning of Lent and Christ’s journey toward crucifixion, seems an appropriate time to feature a portrait of a pastor.

I met the Rev. Gordon Deuel several summers ago when he was still shepherding Little Prairie United Methodist Church, rural Dundas. He left in June 2013 to become the Elko New Market Campus Pastor for Lakeville-based Crossroads Church.

My introduction to this clergyman happened on a Sunday afternoon when my husband and I stopped at Little Prairie School, a former country school located kitty corner from the Little Prairie church. Pastor Gordon noticed us lingering, walked across the road and unlocked the door into the historic building.

Later, we strolled over to the church and poked around. That’s when I captured this portrait of the preacher in beautiful natural light.

While talking to Rev. Gordon, I learned that he, like me, is a native of southwestern Minnesota. He’s from Hendricks, which is about as close to South Dakota as you can get without being in it. I always feel a special kinship with prairie people. We are rooted deep in the land, appreciative of wide open spaces and big skies, fields and small towns. We don’t dismiss the prairie as the middle of nowhere, as some place to pass through en route to somewhere better. The prairie is home, whether we still live there or not.

With that commonality of place, I connected with Pastor Gordon that Sunday afternoon in August 2012.

Now, 2 ½ years later, after visiting the City of Hendricks website, I understand even more how people and place shaped the pastor. Here’s a snippet of well-crafted writing designed to draw visitors and new residents to this rural community of some 700 folks just a stone’s throw from South Dakota:

The residents of Hendricks have focused on creating a town which is a perfect place for children. Our school district is one of the best in the nation. Our weather is temperate and provides for four seasons of fun. We are well grounded in our past, as we continue to worship in a prairie church which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. We look to better our tomorrow through efforts such as our wind farm and organic farming. We believe you will find the Hendricks, Minnesota, quality of life second to none.

And I expect, as in Lake Wobegon, that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average” in this “Little Town by the Lake.”

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, published every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Lake Wobegon quote is from Minnesota writer Garrison Keillor.

 

Harvest barn dance celebrates family, friends and yesteryear September 19, 2011

A father and son were among the hundreds of guests attending a dance in this 96-year-old barn.

IN THE 1930s, at the height of The Great Depression, a young Herb Becker attended dances in the sprawling red barn along Rice County Road 1 several miles west of Dundas.

Herb didn’t know it then, but in 1948 he and his wife Dorothy would buy the “Faber farm” site with the 36-foot by 100-foot barn.

Today his youngest son John and wife Debbie own the farm, purchased in 1988. Saturday they hosted their first-ever Harvest Time Barn Dance.

John and Debbie Becker have reshingled and done other work to their barn to keep it from deteriorating.

“It’s a dream come true,” John said several times through-out the event which brought the barn back full circle to his father Herb—who died in 2009—and those long-ago barn dances.

I bet Herb would have been pleased with the party that drew family, friends and neighbors of the Beckers together on a cool autumn evening to visit, eat and dance the night away in the old hay mow. My husband Randy and I were among our friends’ invited guests.

Everything about the celebration in this 1915 barn spoke to the kind of down-home neighborliness and love of family that define the Beckers and the Malechas (Debbie’s family). These are good, honest, hard-working people of faith with their roots planted deep in the earth. I doubt I stopped smiling all evening.

And there was plenty to smile about—from the country-style decorated barn complete with red-and-white checked tablecloths, zinnias/sedum/golden rod in fruit jars, pitchforks, bushel baskets, seed corn signage, wooden barrels, cream separator, horse harness and lots more to the kids and adults sporting cowboy hats, cowboy boots and other western attire to the welcoming, sometimes boot-stomping, music of The Revivals band.

Battery-operated tea light candles and flowers in quart jars decorated tables covered with red and/or red-and-white checked cloths. This photo looks toward the west end of the hay mow.

Everywhere collectibles and antiques were on display, creating a setting of simple country charm.

Guests indulged in tasty roast beef sandwiches, calico beans, an array of salads and bars.

The Beckers created a coffee corner, where guests could grab some "De-Calf" or "Real Calf," visit, maybe even pull a deck of cards from the shelf for a game of Euchre.

Fall and vintage decorations lined the pathway leading into the barn.

It was the type of evening reminiscent of the old-fashioned gatherings of yesteryear, when adults could visit while the kids played with carefree abandon. And they did on Saturday. Tag and hide-and-seek. Pick-up football in the dusty farm yard. Make-believe, chasing each other with cap guns blazing.

Kids ran and played and ran and played--all night.

Heading out the barn door...

The kids, and a few adults, brought cap guns.

Probably my favorite image of the evening...no words necessary to describe these happy boys.

Inside, the adults admired the architectural bones of the barn, cranking necks upward toward the skeletal rafters, toward the conveyor that once carried hay bales across this dairy barn hay mow. And before that, the hay fork, on display outside the barn. They imagined climbing the ladder on the east end of the barn, like daring trapeze artists, to a platform above.

Looking toward the east end of the hay mow.

The east end of the hay mow with the ladder and platform and highlighting the barn's framework.

Looking toward the west end of the hay barn.

Pulling popcorn duty at the barn dance.

And later, when The Revivals from New Prague rocked the rafters with music that spanned polkas and waltzes to country and 1950s-1970s hits, adults and kids alike slid their feet across the corn meal-slicked plywood covering the maple floor that was too unsalvageable for refinishing. They twirled and shook and twisted.

And they danced like Herb would have wanted them to dance, celebrating life.

The Revivals from New Prague played a mix of music from old-time to rock.

Leaving the barn dance. Vehicles packed the farm yard.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE barn dance images. I won’t have photos of the dancing; once I had my band shot, I put away the camera.

HAVE YOU EVER attended a barn dance? If you haven’t, you might want to become friends with the Beckers. I bet they’ll have plenty of requests for a repeat harvest dance next fall. Thanks, John and Debbie, for an absolutely memorable and fun evening.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling