Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Remembering & honoring my hardworking dad this Labor Day September 7, 2020

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980. He died in 2003.

 

MY DAD WORKED HARD. Really hard. He was a farmer, beginning back in the day when farming was incredibly labor intensive. Pitching manure. Throwing hay bales. Milking cows by hand. Cultivating corn. He worked from the rising of the sun to beyond sunset. Hours and hours in the barn. Long days in the field. Few, if any, days off.

 

The milkhouse, attached to the barn on the farm where I grew up just outside of Vesta, MN. I spent a lot of time in these two buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It was a life he knew from childhood, as the son of a southwestern Minnesota farmer. Dad quit school after eighth grade to work on his family’s farm in the 1940s. And when he grew into adulthood, he served on the frontlines during the Korean War, then returned to farm just down the road from the home place. There he worked his own land, milked cows and raised (along with my mom) his family of six children.

 

Some of the acreage my dad farmed in Redwood County, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Like my father, I grew up with a strong work ethic rooted in the land. Walking bean fields to pull unwanted weeds. Picking rock. Throwing hay bales into feed bunks for the Holsteins. Carrying buckets of milk replacer to thirsty calves. Climbing up the silo and forking smelly silage down the chute. The work never ended. And the next day we repeated the process.

 

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But it was, in many ways, a good life. Time together. Time outdoors. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and stretch, just like the corn stretching toward the sky.

 

Growing up on our crop and dairy farm, my eldest brother, Doug, photographed the cows and recorded details about them. My middle brother treasures this compilation of information from our farm. And so do I. Memories… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Working on the farm made me strong and resilient and fostered a sense of independence. I have always been a self-starter, preferring to work on my own. I trace that to the spirit of independence I observed in my farmer dad, who stood up for what he believed. I remember him dumping milk down the drain as the National Farmers Organization aimed to get better prices. I possess a streak of that feistiness, especially when it comes to those who are bullied/oppressed/looked down upon. I do what I can, with the talents I have, to make a positive difference. To uplift and encourage. And to really listen rather than talk.

I always told my dad I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He didn’t encourage that thought. None of my five siblings farm, although two work in ag-related businesses. It’s a credit to my parents that each of us pursued diverse careers as a partsman (and part owner) at an implement dealership, as a writer and photographer, a florist, CEO of an ethanol plant, teacher and lawyer. That’s a wide range of occupations among siblings. Our parents did not tell us what to do, and for that I shall always be grateful.

 

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

 

We were not a perfect family. Still aren’t. There were, and are, struggles. Financial and other. We were poor as in outhouse poor and no gifts for birthdays poor and wearing hand-me-downs poor and only rice for dinner poor. And only two vacations my entire childhood—one at age four to Duluth and one to the Black Hills at around age 12. Yet, I never felt like we were missing anything. We had enough. Food. Shelter. Clothes. And hardworking parents—for my mom worked equally as hard as my dad—who loved and provided for us.

My parents may not have hugged us or told us they loved us. But they showed their love by their care, their provision, their raising us in the faith. Their efforts, from parenting to farming, were a labor of love. And I shall always feel gratitude for that.

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CLICK HERE TO READ my post, “Many Reasons to Feel Blessed this Labor Day,” published last week on the Warner Press blog.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery celebrates agriculture with art August 13, 2020

“Stop to Remember,” a pen and watercolor by Cami Vargo, was awarded third place in the show by judges Dale and Gale Looft. The art depicts her Great Grandpa Orville Richter’s 1965 Ford tractor.

 

THEIR ARTIST STATEMENTS are as compelling as their art.

 

Cami Vargo’s artist statement about her tractor art.

 

In a new exhibit, “Celebrating Farmers and Agriculture,” coordinated by the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center, 15 artists share their deep love and appreciation for all things rural. Recently I viewed the 22 pieces of art displayed in the front windows of the arts center and businesses in the heart of this small Minnesota town.

 

One of two photos by Liz Krocak, this one titled “Apple Harvest Visitors.”

 

Through the screen window, you can read this artist statement by Liz Krocak.

 

Bold and beautiful stained glass art by Annette Stavos hangs in a window of Hermann Thrifty White Pharmacy. If the drugstore is open, go inside and view the art to see the sun shining through it. Another stained glass creation by Mona Grimm hangs in a window of Montgomery Chiropractic and was awarded second place in the show.

 

From cows to a rooster to a farm dog, from tractors to windmills, from barns to country scenes, the art showcases important aspects of rural life.

 

Constructed from cardboard by Brian Prchal, this is a replica of a modified 4020 John Deere.

 

Brian Prchal shares the stories behind his two art pieces.

 

And the stories that accompany that art are often deeply personal. Rooted in the land.

 

The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center (right side of building), 206 First Street North on the north end of downtown.

 

In the ag display, 4-H buttons.

 

County fairs are an important part of rural life.

 

Before beginning my tour, I stopped first at the arts and heritage center to pick up a map and to view an exhibit of local ag-related memorabilia showing the importance of agriculture in this community.

 

The grain elevator complex in Montgomery.

 

Just down the hill from the arts center, grain elevators loom, a strong visual of ag’s local economic value. On the opposite end of town, the canning company processes sweetcorn. And on every border of town, homes or businesses adjoin farm fields.

 

Future Farmers of America, based at the local high school.

 

Recognizing 4-H in Le Sueur County.

 

Lots of signs downtown celebrate kolacky, a Czech pastry sold at Franke’s Bakery and Mackenthune’s Fine Foods.

 

Montgomery centers on agriculture and its Czech heritage as the self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. So it seems particularly fitting that the arts center would focus its new exhibit on farmers and agriculture. The project was funded with a Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council grant and donations from the Bob and Mary Jo Loftus Foundation and Compeer Financial.

 

“The Nuts & Bolts of Farming” fits this tractor art crafted by Tyler Fromm.

 

Area artists clearly enjoyed the challenge of creating ag-themed art. I saw that in tractor art drawn, formed from string and nails, cut and crafted from cardboard, welded from nuts and bolts.

 

Pat Preble won first place for “Old Barn” and “Cows in the Field.” She incorporated a “Star of Heaven” quilt block into her barn art in honor of her mom, a quilter.

 

Stained glass. Batik. Wood. Photos. Quilts. So many different tools and styles and ways of creating art add to the interest.

 

This artist statement made me laugh out loud. Because of glare, I was unable to photograph Anna’s cow art.

 

The art honors pioneer women who pieced quilts, an uncle, farm wives… Liz Krocak writes in her artist’s statement, “Behind every good farmer is his wife, rolling her eyes.” Yes, humor even infuses some of the artist statements.

 

Glare made it really challenging to photograph Carol Ehrhardt’s entire cattle and windmill art. But I decided I like this image showing only the top of the windmill and the reflection of an aged building. Ehrhardt was awarded third place in the show.

 

Annette Stavos, who grew up on a hobby farm, honors her uncle. “My uncle was the real farmer and we helped him pick rocks and bale hay.”

 

A close-up of Susan Hayes batik art titled “Summer Fields.”

 

Susan Hayes, a city girl who married a farmer, writes. “…I’ve had first hand experience with agriculture and life on a small farm. It’s not easy getting up before 5 am to milk the cows or baling hay in 100 degree weather. She created a beautiful batik piece, “Summer Fields.”

 

A farm in the Montgomery area.

 

Anna Prchal expresses her love of rural life in these words: “The fresh air, hard work ethic and never having a dull moment there are the things I love most about the farm.”

 

The countryside near Montgomery.

 

For Kimmie Loranger, who once traveled with the carnival, worked as a nanny and waitress, and who was at one time homeless, living in rural Montgomery and now creating art “is the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life.”

 

Tyler Fromm drew this picture of his “beloved farm dog, Buddy.” Oak siding from the corn crib on his family’s century old farm frames the art.

 

These are the stories that make this exhibit especially meaningful, especially touching, especially impressionable. This isn’t just another art show, but rather an expression of emotions with a rural perspective. Written. And showcased in art.

 

FYI: You can view this exhibit any time during the day as the art is visible from outdoors in front windows. Note that glare and reflections sometimes make seeing the art a challenge. The Arts & Heritage Center, however, is open limited hours from 2-5 pm Thursday and Friday and from 9 am to noon Saturdays. The exhibit runs until the end of November. Maps to the art locations are available from several downtown Montgomery businesses in addition to the arts center. Be sure to vote for your favorite for the People’s Choice Award. This blog post represents only a sampling of art in the exhibit.

Please check back next week for additional posts from my visit to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a drive along a back road prompts thoughts about farming today February 12, 2020

 

I CALL IT THE BACK ROAD to Morristown, Rice County Road 15 south of Faribault and running west to Morristown. The more-traveled main route follows Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

 

But, I prefer the back way, which takes me past farm sites hugging the county road.

 

Looking across a snowy field along Rice County Road 15 near CR 45.

 

Here I feel immersed in the rural setting with less traffic, open land spreading wide under an equally wide sky.

 

 

I know some of the people who live along this road. They are salt-of-the-earth folks, hardworking, caring… Dairy farmers. Retired pig and crop farmer. A farmer who balances crop farming with a full-time job in town. Families raised on the land, with only one son among those I know along CR 15 continuing in farming. One son’s moved to Nashville, where he’s finding success as a professional oboist. I’m working on a story about him for a regional arts and entertainment magazine.

The times they are a changin’.

 

 

But then agriculture has always been evolving. I think back to my great grandparents and my grandparents who broke the land and farmed with horses in an especially labor-intensive way of life. And then machinery replaced horse power for my dad and his farmer brothers. And my middle brother, who no longer farms, saw even more advances in mechanization and technology. I barely recognize the farms of today.

 

 

I’d like to think, though, that those who still work the land do so because they love and value the land. In recent years I’ve observed a shift in attitudes toward a deepening respect of the soil, of using less chemicals (or even none), of adapting innovative erosion control practices, of protecting waterways…

 

 

I recognize the challenges of balancing the need to earn a living from the land, getting the highest yields possible, with decisions about farming practices. It’s not easy. Public perception and government regulations and weather and fluctuating markets add to the stress. It’s not easy being a farmer today. This is not our grandparents’ farm. Nor even our parents.

 

 

To those who choose to live on and work the land, I admire your stamina and determination. While I miss the peace and solitude of living in the country on land where the nearest neighbor lives more than a driveway width away, I realize I never would have made it as a farmer. I don’t have the guts or the fortitude or adaptability necessary to farm.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small town observations from southwestern Minnesota April 3, 2019

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I APPRECIATE THE ODDITIES of small towns. If oddities is the correct word.

But there are things you can do in rural communities that you can’t in others much larger.

For example, while driving through downtown Belview, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I spotted two guys outside the August Donnor American Legion Post washing a tank. One with a hose, the other with hands on hips. Supervising probably.

The scene seemed so iconic rural.

I snapped two frames while Randy and I passed by, returning from the Cenex just down the main street on the northern end of the short business district. I needed a cylinder of Pringles for my mom back at the city-owned care center. She’d asked for them. I found a few canisters in several flavors, a neon orange sticker pricing the potato chips at $2.39. That sticker in itself speaks small town.

I explained my mission to the clerk, who used to work at Parkview, whose mother was once my mother’s table mate in the assisted living part of the facility. That’s the thing about rural Minnesota, too. Lives weave into lives.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From rural Minnesota: Farmer of the Year film showing this weekend in Faribault March 23, 2019

Near Edgerton, 30 miles south of Tyler, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

CALL US THE BOLD NORTH, Fly-over Land, that place that’s too cold and snowy—whatever your description of Minnesota, I love this place. Most of the time.

We are a place of prairie vistas, lakes and woods, rolling hills, river bluffs. We are urban and rural. We are separately and together Minnesota.

The Minnesota I know best, and love most, is rural. South of the Twin Cities metro. Gravel roads and small towns. Church gatherings and family reunions. Popping into the grocery store only to strike up conversations with friends and acquaintances. This is the place of hotdishes (not casseroles) and recipes passed among generations.

 

 

But we are also a place of growth. In technology, industry, education, the arts. This weekend art follows rural roads to my native southwestern Minnesota. To an independent feature film written by former Lincoln County Dairy Princess Kathy Swanson. I blogged a few days ago about Farmer of the Year, a film which Kathy co-produced and directed with her partner, Vince O’Connell.

Even though she now calls Vermont home, Kathy remains true to her rural roots in the writing of this fictional story about a retired farmer embarking on a cross country road trip. I’m thankful for that rural authenticity. I’m thankful for Kathy’s creative focus on her rural southwestern Minnesota. It’s a place too often overlooked. Even by Minnesotans. When I tell people where I grew up, I often get a blank look. So I work my way back east, asking whether they know the location of New Ulm. If not, I backtrack even farther east to Mankato. Or often I will say “half-way between Redwood Falls and Marshall” and let them figure out the precise location of Vesta, my hometown. Portions of the film are shot in Marshall, but most are primarily around Kathy’s hometown of Tyler. That includes on her childhood family farm, still in the family.

 

A scene photographed from Rice County Road 15 between Faribault and Morristown, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I hope you will follow Interstate 35, Minnesota State Highway 60, or whatever highway or backroad to Faribault this weekend to view the Minnesota made film Farmer of the Year by YellowHouse Films. It’s showing at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 23, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

If you are interested in viewing this independent feature film in your community, talk to the folks at your local movie theater or arts center as the film is not widely distributed. Then connect with Kathy at YellowHouse Films so she can follow up. Whether you live in Minnesota or New York or California or any place in between, Kathy’s happy to work with you in bringing Farmer of the Year to a screen in your area. I’d love for you all to see this rural Minnesota made film that features the place of my roots, southwestern Minnesota.

CLICK HERE to view a trailer of the film and for additional info.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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