Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Peonies, mysteries & pay June 10, 2022

Peonies bloom at Aspelund Peony Gardens. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2018)

I HAVE SEVERAL TOPICS on my mind today, all unrelated, but a trio of information I want to share.

First up, Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens. This is one of my favorite rural Minnesota places to visit each June. On this 10-acre parcel of land just outside Aspelund (northeast of Kenyon or northwest of Wanamingo), Dawn and Bruce Rohl have created a little bit of heaven. Here they cultivate 50-plus varieties of peonies and also make wine. The couple are the most down-to-earth friendly folks. I always feel welcomed by them and their roaming dog, Rascal.

Peonies will bloom for several more weeks. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2020)

Now, with fragrant peony buds opening, is the absolute ideal time to visit Aspelund Peony Gardens and walk among the rows of flowers. I do so at a leisurely pace—dipping my nose into the perfumed petals, stopping to photograph these old-fashioned flowers that once graced many a bridal bouquet, noting the lovely shades of pink and crimson.

At the bottom of the hill, rows and rows of peonies grow against a country backdrop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2020)

The gardens are also a business. The Rohls invite guests to stroll the gardens, then order peonies. In the fall, root peony tubers are available for customer pick-up or shipping. Gardens are open from 4-7 pm Thursday and Friday, from 10 am-7 pm Saturday and from 10 am-5 pm Sunday.

On the deck at Aspelund Winery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2018)

Be sure to order a glass of wine to enjoy on-site outdoors overlooking the scenic Zumbro River Valley. And then buy a bottle to take home.

A map included in a Mailbox Mystery created by Matt Stelter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Next up, Mailbox Mysteries created by OrangeGuy Games, aka Matt Stelter. During the pandemic, this Cannon Falls librarian crafted mysteries to mail to patrons stuck at home while the library was closed. It was a creative outreach program that I learned about while visiting Cannon Falls. I got on the mailing list for those mysteries and found them challenging, informative and a welcome escape from reality.

Now, with the library reopened, Stelter is no longer creating Mailbox Mysteries for the library. But he is selling his mysteries via Etsy through his private business, OrangeGuy Games. Given all the hard work, time and effort he invested in the games, simply letting them languish seems unwise. Thus the Etsy offering. His three mysteries—Spy School, Gangster’s Gold and Cypher Cabin—have been tweaked, updated, fine-tuned and improved. And they are half-price from now until the end of June.

My husband, Randy, at work in the automotive machine shop at NAPA Auto Parts Store, Northfield, in a job he’s held for 39 years. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

Lastly, applications opened Wednesday for the Minnesota Frontline Worker Pay program for those who continued to go to their respective workplaces during the pandemic without the option of working from home. There are income and other guidelines.

At his job as an automotive machinist, Randy resurfaces heads, grinds valves, turns brake rotors, does complete engine overhauls and much more. His work is highly-specialized and in high demand. Few people do the type of work Randy does. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

I’m thankful this legislation finally got passed because, as the spouse of an employee whose job requires him to be present (in the automotive machine shop) and in close contact with co-workers and customers, the risk of getting COVID was (still is) real and concerning.

State officials expect approved applicants to get about $750/each in frontline worker pay, depending on number of qualified recipients. That’s not a lot considering the risk. But it’s something and will help us as Randy is now paying more to commute 30 miles to and from work daily. In less than three months, he won’t have that gas expense as he’s losing his job of 39 years under new company ownership.

Aspelund Winery offers a variety of tasty wines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2016)

And so that’s what’s on my mind today. Peonies. Mysteries. Pay. And a glass of wine.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Rural reflections in the season of autumn November 22, 2021

Harvest in Monkey Valley near Kenyon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2021)

NOVEMBER MARKS A MONTH of transition from autumn to winter here in Minnesota.

A tree frames an abandoned silo and the remains of a barn in Monkey Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Trees stand against an often grey sky, brisk winds stripping the last of their leaves to bare branches. Nests crafted by squirrels high in treetops appear vulnerable, unsheltered, exposed to the elements while far below these busy oversized rodents munch on maple seeds, hide walnuts, prepare for winter. Their smaller cousins find their way into our aged house and garage, necessitating a daily check of the trap-line.

Harvesting corn in Monkey Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Harvest is done. Corn and soybeans reaped. A once lush rural landscape now looks drab, awash in muted earth-tones.

Endless acres of corn defined the landscape near Kenyon pre-harvest. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

For farmers, long days and nights in the field are but a memory. Stress and rush easing into a slower rhythm of life.

Spotted along a gravel road near Kenyon, grazing cattle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

The early days of autumn hold such beauty in landscape, such promise in anticipation of harvest. I’ve always loved September and October. This autumn, particularly, in the unchanging season of COVID-19, I’ve needed to reconnect with the earth. To witness the harvest. To view farm sites. To follow back country gravel roads, dust trailing the van. To find peace.

A farm site in the ghost town of Aspelund. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

My appreciation for rural traces to my rural roots. I shall always feel gratitude for my 18 years on the farm. The southwestern Minnesota prairie shaped me as a writer and a photographer in that I noticed, still notice, details. The brutal slice of the winter prairie wind. The remarkable beauty of a flaming sun edging down. The taste of earth in potatoes dug from the garden. The sound of silence in hearing nothing. The unmistakable smell of harvest carried from combine to farmyard.

Just another view of the farm site in Monkey Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

These farm memories I carry with me as autumn wanes, as November days move Minnesota toward winter. Harvest done.


NOTE: All of these photos were taken a month ago. The landscape looks much different now. Grey. Stark.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Destination: Monkey Valley October 22, 2020

On Sunday afternoon, the landscape near Kenyon looked very much like autumn.

JUST DAYS AGO, the southern Minnesota landscape looked like autumn. But, after a record-breaking early snowstorm of up to nine inches of snow on Tuesday, this place I call home looks like winter.

Prairieville United Methodist Church, located along Minnesota State Highway 60 east of Faribault, is no longer an active congregation and opens only for special occasions.

Still, I need to share with you the last remnants of autumn, photographed during a Sunday afternoon drive east of Faribault and eventually into the Zumbro River Valley between Zumbrota and Oronoco. Randy and I felt the urge, the need, to take this final drive of the season, although we were really about two weeks late to see the fall colors. Yet, we found much to appreciate.

These grain bins are located along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Kenyon.

As usual, I collected photo stories. Drives into the countryside and into small towns yield many such stories that often go untold. Had the day been warmer than about 35 degrees, we would have stopped more than twice to walk in these small communities. Our plans to eat a picnic lunch at a park ended with us parked outside the Zumbrota Public Library eating our ham sandwiches, grapes and protein bars in the van.

Harvesting corn Sunday afternoon east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60.

I filled my camera with images as we began out eastward drive along Minnesota State Highway 60. I found myself focused on documenting the harvest. Farmers were out in full force on Sunday, sweeping across acres of cornfields to bring in the crop.

A common site, and reason to slow down, during the harvest season.

Countless times, we encountered farm machinery on the highway, which led to Randy reciting this sound bite: Farmer on the road! That became a familiar refrain each time we slowed behind or met a tractor or combine and attempted to safely pass.

We’ve traveled highway 60 so many times that I struggle to find something new and interesting to photograph. So I suggested exiting onto a gravel road southwest of Kenyon into Monkey Valley.

Beautiful Monkey Valley.

The name itself intrigues me. As legend goes, the area was named such after a monkey escaped a traveling circus many many years ago. True? I don’t know. But I like the story.

The gravel road winding through Monkey Valley.
Grain wagons parked next to a grain bin in Monkey Valley.
A semi truck awaits the harvesting of corn in a Monkey Valley field.

And I also like this rural route, Monkey Valley Hollow, a gravel road which twists and turns through the woods past farm sites and fields and the Old Stone Church (which I didn’t photograph this time).

A lone grain wagon, my final photo before leaving Monkey Valley.

After completing this leg of our day trip, we aimed north for Kenyon. I always find something interesting in this small town, even though I’ve been here many times. Check back for those photo stories tomorrow as I show you my discoveries.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Good Friday: Faith & Art April 10, 2020

Photographed at St. Jarlath Cemetery, Waseca County, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.




Centering the altar is this depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, New Trier, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


In my many years exploring Minnesota’s backroads and small towns, I’ve discovered impressive art in churches and cemeteries.


A stained glass window inside Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


From sculpted tombstones to glorious and vibrant stained glass windows, this art inspires, uplifts and illustrates history recorded in biblical accounts. Like Good Friday and the crucifixion of Jesus.


In the face of Mary, I see profound grief in losing her son, Jesus. Sculpture photographed at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, New Trier, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Today I’ve selected a few photos from my files that honor Christ, this important day and my Christian faith.


A cross in Trebon Cemetery, 10 miles northwest of Faribault in Shieldsville Township. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I appreciate the skills of these artists. Their work stirs emotions. And thoughts, especially of gratitude.


A monument in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Buckman, MN., where my mother-in-law in buried. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, August 2012.


In the darkness and sadness of Good Friday, I anticipate the light and joy of Easter. Even more so in these current difficult days.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An afternoon on a Minnesota peony farm & winery June 8, 2018

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An overview of one of the gardens at Aspelund Peony Gardens, located at 9204 425th Street, rural Kenyon (near Aspelund).


WE WERE ON OUR WAY to do some shopping last Sunday afternoon when Randy mentioned a radio ad for Aspelund Peony Gardens.


A view from Minnesota State Highway 60 on the way to the peony gardens and winery.


That’s all it took to turn the van around, make a brief stop back home for a Minnesota road atlas and bottled water, and then head east on State Highway 60 rather than south on the interstate. I will choose touring flower gardens any day over shopping.


Nearing Aspelund.




Now marks prime peony viewing time at the Goodhue County gardens of Bruce and Dawn Rohl. I first met the engaging couple two years ago at their rural Kenyon (northwest of Wanamingo) acreage, also home to Aspelund Winery. They are a delight, the type of neighborly folks who hold a passion for peonies and wine in addition to full-time off-the-farm jobs.







Both visits I felt comfortably at home, welcome to stroll the gardens and the oak-shaded grounds where the wind sweeps across the hilltop location. I feel as if I’m a world away from reality in this peaceful setting of natural beauty and farm field vistas. Dogs play. A cat roams. A tire swing sways.





As I walked through the freshly-tilled rows of peonies, I stopped many times to dip my nose into fragrant blossoms, to study the lush (mostly) shades of pink petals, to photograph the flowers that danced a steady rhythm in the wind.



There is something endearing and connective and romantic in meandering through a peony garden. The spring flower reminds me of long ago brides gathering blooms from their mother’s/grandmother’s gardens. Young love. Sweet. Poetic.



It’s been a good year for peonies at Aspelund Peony Gardens, according to Dawn. Perfect weather conditions burst the bushes with an abundance of blossoms.




Lilacs, not quite in bloom, are also found on the farm site.


At an open house from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday (June 9/10), visitors can peruse those peonies, choose favorites and select roots available in the fall. The Rohls sell 65 types of peonies and are currently growing 150 varieties.


The vineyard.


Additionally, they craft wine—from apples, rhubarb, grapes, elderberries, raspberries, cucumbers and more. High Country Spice, made from tomatoes grown on-site, is probably their most unusual wine, one that I loved. Peppered, made from bell peppers, debuts this autumn.


The small wine tasting room on the right is connected to the Rohls’ home.



Towering oaks populate the farm yard, although many were damaged and some destroyed during a downburst in 2017.


After touring the peony gardens, a sampling of wines or a glass of wine—sipped inside or on the spacious deck—caps a lovely afternoon in the Minnesota countryside.


Aspelund Peony Gardens and Winery are located about five miles from Wanamingo.


There’s a sense of neighborliness here, even among guests. Like the couple we met from Skunk Hollow after we’d discussed the differences between hotdish and casseroles with the Rohls. It is all so quintessential Minnesotan, and, oh, so much better than shopping.



FYI: Plan a visit to Aspelund Peony Gardens during this weekend’s open house which will feature a KOWZ 100.9 FM radio personality on-site on Saturday along with a food truck. Peonies may continue to bloom through Father’s Day, but there’s no assurance of that.

The winery is open from noon – 5 p.m. weekends only. Just like the gardens, open Saturdays and Sundays only.

Click here to read my 2016 post on Aspelund Peony Gardens and Winery.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


With joy & thankfulness on Easter March 27, 2016

This stained glass window of the women at Jesus' empty tomb rises above the altar at Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota.

This stained glass window of the women at Jesus’ empty tomb rises above the altar at Holden Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

This shows a snippet of the center stained glass window in a trio above the altar at Trinity Lutheran Church, Wanamingo, Minnesota.

This depiction of the risen Lord centers three stained glass windows above the altar at Trinity Lutheran Church, Wanamingo, Minnesota.

He is not here; he has risen!

© Photos copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Scripture text from the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Luke 24:5 & 6