Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the backroads between Faribault and New Prague October 10, 2018

 

A MONTH AGO, before the grey of this too rainy autumn settled upon the southern Minnesota landscape, Randy and I followed the backroads from Faribault to New Prague en route to a brewery. We enjoy craft beers and wanted to check out Giesenbrau Bier Company, billed as a German style bier hall and garten.

I am directionally-challenged when roads are not prairie grid perfect. Randy knows this about me. It’s also a source of frustration when I am unable to read a map. Yes, we still rely on paper maps and atlases. But “just drive” seems more Randy’s philosophy. He’s always confident of eventually reaching our destination.

In no particular hurry to get there on this Sunday afternoon, we took some paved, some gravel, roads, occasionally stopping to observe and, for me, to take photos. At the time I jotted down locations, but have since misplaced my notes. We were somewhere northwest of Faribault, well off the interstate. I prefer this type of travel which allows for a close-up look at life.

 

 

 

 

From a town hall to a grasshopper,

 

 

 

 

 

from a lake to the detail of bordering cattails,

 

 

 

 

from a cornfield to a weathered corn crib to the cobs inside, I notice the overall picture and then the details.

 

 

Along the way we often come across small delights. Scenes that remind us of our rural roots. Scenes that remind us that life does not always need to speed, that afternoons like this are meant to be savored.

 

 

At one point, Randy parked the van along a gravel road so we could watch a couple baling hay. Not with a massive tractor and baler, but with a small tractor and an old-fashioned baler spitting out rectangular bales. Just like we remember from the farm. When the tractor reached the end of the field, the lean farmer leapt off the trailer and headed toward us.

 

 

“You looking for work?” he joked. We told him we’d pass, that we were former farm kids who understood the hard work of baling hay.

 

 

 

 

We continued on toward New Prague then, winding our way to the bier hall, then to a nearby park for a short walk before taking backroads home,

 

 

 

 

past another farmer baling hay and an aged barn with a new metal roof and a sturdy rock foundation.

 

 

I noted then that we should drive these roads again when autumn hues colored the hilly landscape somewhere between New Prague and Faribault. That would be now.

TELL ME: Do you drive backroads? If yes, where and what have you seen?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Off the interstate in Mauston, Wisconsin: A community that’s dairy proud June 5, 2018

A glimpse of Mauston’s rural character.

 

IF YOU NEVER EXIT the interstate into a small town, you miss so much. Like the Cowtastic CowMoonity of Mauston. That would be in southwestern Wisconsin, just off Interstate 90/94 half-way between Minneapolis and Chicago.

 

 

A search for a picnic spot led Randy and me into this community of nearly 4,500 on a recent Saturday. After securing unclear directions to a park at a local convenience store/gas station, we ended up lost and seemingly headed out of town.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we happened upon the cows. And I momentarily forgot all about lunch, so excited was I over the herd curving along a ballpark fence. We’d just discovered, quite by happenstance, the Cowtastic CowMoonity Project of the Juneau County Dairy Promotion Council. At the under-renovation Mauston Lions Park, complete with picnic shelter, tables, restrooms and playground equipment.

 

 

 

 

After eating my turkey sandwich, clementine and yogurt—yes, yogurt—I headed over to the 60-head herd, camera in hand. You can bet this former dairy farm girl and former Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess candidate was excited.

 

 

 

 

It’s clear this community embraces all things dairy. This marks the fourth annual cow art project designed to promote the dairy industry via those cow cut-outs and panels of dairy facts and trivia.

 

 

 

 

Nonprofits, youth clubs, organizations and businesses purchase plywood cut-outs and then create cow art showcased along the park fence during June Dairy Month. So this is about more than just agriculture. Cowtastic CowMoonity also promotes local businesses and causes.

 

 

I love this folksy idea. What a creative way to educate, raise awareness and to show appreciation for the dairy industry, especially family-owned farms, in The Dairyland State.

 

 

 

 

The promotion of the dairy industry doesn’t end, though, when June Dairy Month ends at the end of June. Ten of the cows, selected by a secret panel of judges, are relocated to Veteran’s Memorial Park during the Juneau County Fair, this year from August 12 – 19. Good luck with that, judges. The public then votes for its favorite with the top cow earning a $100 prize.

 

 

 

 

Because of those cows, I’ll remember the CowMoonity of Mauston. I’d suggest this creative and dairy proud community visibly promote this outdoor educational art endeavor along the interstate. Or perhaps station a Cowtastic cow or three near that busy busy convenience store/gas station just off busy busy Interstate 90/94.

 

 

FYI: Want to play Wisconsin dairy trivia? Click here.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reconnecting to southwestern Minnesota, root place of my creativity May 22, 2018

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

THERE IS NO PLACE, none, that I’d rather be this time of year than in rural southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my heart, of my memories, of everything that shaped me into the person, the writer and photographer that I am today.

 

 

This place of wide skies and dark rich soil in some of Minnesota’s best farm land claims me still, decades after I left. I left not because I disliked this place, but for education and opportunity. Like so many of my generation.

 

In a reminder of decades past, a vintage tractor works the land on the edge of Delhi.

 

When I return to visit family here, I feel an ache of absence, that longing for a return to the familiar.

 

 

I realize those who’ve never lived on the prairie often fail to recognize its value, its beauty, its power in inspiring creativity. To many, even my own children, southwestern Minnesota seems the middle of nowhere. But to me, this land has always inspired. And it’s somewhere. Home.

 

 

Between Echo and Delhi.

 

A long familiar landmark tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

When you’ve lived in a place so stark, in a place that exposes you to the elements, where life evolves around the land, you learn to appreciate the details. Like the endless wind. The spaciousness of land and sky. The scent of tilled soil. Rows of corn erupting green from the earth. A lone tree along a highway.

 

 

 

 

Acre after acre after acre across this land, I take in the rural scenes of farmers working fields, rushing to get crops in during a particularly late planting season.

 

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

I notice vehicles kicking dust along gravel roads,

 

Parked near the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

small town grain elevators,

 

 

a school bus splashing color into the landscape. I see it all in this place, this middle of somewhere.

 

A rural-themed license plate on a vehicle driving past Echo on a recent weekday morning. I confirmed with writer and photographer Ruth Klossner that this was her vehicle. She was on her way to interview a source for a magazine article. Ruth collects cow items of all sorts and opens the doors of her Bernadotte home for visitors to view the massive collection.

 

This is my joy, to each spring return to my Minnesota prairie roots, to reconnect to the land, to embrace the birth source of my creativity.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reconnecting to the land during a March drive in Minnesota March 27, 2018

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SOMETIMES I NEED JUST to get out into the countryside—to reconnect with the land, to see the sky, to feel the pulse of the earth.

 

 

I need to see farms,

 

 

follow rural roads,

 

 

 

hear the crunch of tires upon gravel,

 

 

pass by rows of grain bins,

 

 

notice the oddities of signage,

 

 

the art of the land.

 

 

All of this I need to satisfy that part of me which misses rural life. I shall always retain my farm girl spirit, my connection to my rural roots despite my now decades-long absence.

 

Note: All photos are edited to create a more artsy look. All scenes were photographed in Le Sueur County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Evan, like so many small southwestern Minnesota towns, is fading into the prairie March 19, 2018

Downtown Evan today anchored by a former bank building.

 

LIKE SO MANY OTHER SMALL TOWNS on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, Evan once boasted a long list of businesses—creamery, bank, two general stores, hardware store, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, stock dealer, garage, implement dealer, three elevators, restaurant, utility company, library and two churches.

 

Evan, incorporated in 1904, is named after Eva Hanson, married to Nels. He platted the railroad station known as Hanson Station several years earlier.

 

So claims the historical marker fronting the village hall in this Brown County community of around 80 residents.

 

Fading signage identifies this as the former lumberyard.

 

Today only remnants of those original businesses remain.

 

I believe the brick building may be the former creamery.

 

On a recent drive through Evan, I noted the decline.

 

This vintage sign hangs outside Tubby’s II Bar & Grill. A sign in the window noted the bar is closed for the winter.

 

Faded signs.

 

 

Boarded windows.

 

This vintage hay loader rested among other junk.

 

Clustered junk.

 

 

I’ve never seen anything like this graveyard of campers and trailers.

 

Abandoned campers and trailers and trucks. It made me sad, just sad, to see the abandonment.

 

The old grain elevators still stand on the edge of town along the highway.

 

But none of this surprises me. It’s our fault really. We are a much more mobile society, a society much different than back-in-the-day or even 20 years ago. At one time, places like Evan thrived as area farmers and locals kept their business local. Today regional shopping centers pull in customers from all those small towns.

 

The train still runs, not through Evan, but through neighboring Sleepy Eye.

 

The railroad left.

 

Without jobs, with our farmer fathers still farming, many from my generation of Baby Boomers left Minnesota’s small towns. We couldn’t bank on a future in our rural hometowns.

 

 

Attitudes changed. Kids from my generation left for college and bigger cities and better opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with that desire to see the world, to become something other than our parents. But in doing so we added to the demise of many a small town. I am hard-pressed to think of many classmates who stayed in my hometown of Vesta 45 minutes from Evan to the north and west. Vesta, too, is a shell of the community it was when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Grain bins on opposite ends of town mark this as a farming community still today.

 

 

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Evan’s decline except an overall understanding of why once thriving towns now are mere ghosts of their pasts. Certainly Evan’s remote rural location factors into the mix. Located along Minnesota State Highway 68, Evan is easy to bypass on the shortcut route between Sleepy Eye and Morgan.

 

The only person or moving vehicle I saw in Evan during my short stop there.

 

Yet, Evan is home for some. I saw newer homes there. Not new as in recent, but newer than old. I saw a lovely church and that well-kept village hall. And grain bins. And the fading letters on the lumberyard, a visual reminder that at one time a demand for building supplies existed in a farming community that once prospered.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bringing poetry to the people in Mankato & I’m in January 19, 2018

 

NEARLY SIX MONTHS have passed since I stopped at Spring Lake Park in North Mankato to view my poem posted there as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride.

 

The post just to the front left of the car holds a sign with my poem printed thereon.

 

 

Looking back across the lake toward the willows and my nearby poetry sign.

 

Located at the edge of a parking lot next to a trail and within a stone’s throw of drooping weeping willows, my award-winning poem about detasseling corn contrasts with the tranquil setting of lake and lawn separated by bullrushes flagged by cattails.

 

The Sibley Farm playground inside Sibley Park features these cornstalk climbing apparatus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The poem may have been more appropriately placed next to cornstalk climbing apparatus at the Sibley Farm playground in Mankato’s Sibley Park.

 

A beautiful setting for poetry.

 

 

 

Still, I am grateful for this opportunity to get my poetry out there in a public place. This placement of selected poems along recreational trails and in parks in Mankato and North Mankato brings poetry to people in an approachable and everyday way. That is the beauty of this project—the accessibility, the exposure in outdoor spaces, the flawless weaving of words into the landscape.

 

Inside a southern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My poem, as with much of my writing, reflects a strong sense of place. In Cornfield Memories, I take the reader into a southwestern Minnesota cornfield to experience detasseling corn, a job I worked several summers as a teenager. It’s hard work yanking tassels from corn stalks in the dew of the morning and then in the scorching sun of a July afternoon. All for $1.25/ hour back in the day.

 

My poem, Bandwagon, previously posted at Lion’s Park in Mankato as part of a previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

My poem shares rural history, a story, an experience. Just as my past poems—The Thrill of Vertical, Off to Mankato to “get an education” and Bandwagon—selected as part of previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride contests did.

 

 

I value public art projects like the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Not only as a poet, but as an appreciator of the literary arts. Poetry doesn’t need to be stuffy and mysterious. And this project proves that.

I’D LIKE TO HEAR your thoughts on bringing poetry to the public in creative ways like this. Have you seen a similar project? Would you stop to read poems posted in public spots?

NOTE: All photos were taken in early September, within weeks of the 2017 Poetry Walk & Ride poems being posted.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A last-look photo essay from a Minnesota steam & gas engines show, Part V September 13, 2017

IT’S ALL ABOUT the vintage tractors for many participants and attendees:

 

 

 

 

 

 

For others, the flea market is the main draw:

 

Larry and Nicholas Ahrens of The Brown Barn Works craft garden art from scrap metal and more.

 

New caps are sold by the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show.

 

 

Under a vendors’ table, I spotted these horses and other merchandise.

 

 

People have to eat. You’ll always find something tasty in the food court area:

 

Randy and I stopped for a mid-afternoon glass of freshly-squeezed lemonade. During the noon hour, this dining area is packed.

 

When feet tire, you can ride on this horse-drawn wagon or in a bring-your-own golf cart:

 

 

 

Old-time music draws attendees to the music barn:

 

The Czech Area Concertina Club performs.

 

For kids (and some adults) the vintage playground equipment entertains:

 

 

 

A view of the merry-go-round in the background from the front of a vintage tractor. There’s a handcrafted seesaw (which Randy and I rode) in between.

 

 

When you can’t keep up with the kids/grandkids at the playground, you just have to rest.

 

THE END:

 

Randy and I followed this tractor off the show grounds northbound on Minnesota State Highway 3 toward Dundas.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling