Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Sleepy Eye: When a small town clinic goes the extra mile August 23, 2019

Sleepy Eye Lake with the steeples of St. Mary’s Catholic Church visible in the distance across Minnesota State Highway 4.

 

ON A WEEKDAY AUGUST AFTERNOON as lovely as they come in Minnesota, I sat at a shelterhouse picnic table along the shores of Sleepy Eye Lake eating a salad. Sportsman’s Park proved a picturesque place to enjoy a picnic lunch with my husband and son before continuing west to visit my mom in a care center.

 

 

After lunch, we followed a paved trail to a public dock with a view of the lake and the town of Sleepy Eye to the south. I wasn’t at all surprised by the mucky green growth polluting the lake like most lakes in southern Minnesota.

 

 

A few kids hung out at a second dock angling for fish in the murky water. And two bikers zipped by in this park which also features 16 camping sites, two camper cabins, disc golf and a playground. Just a nice spot to picnic and enjoy the outdoors.

 

 

Sportsman’s Park seems pretty typical of most small town parks at first glance. But then I noticed something unique—a row of six white bicycles. Further investigation revealed a seasonal bike rental program offered through the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation. Begun in the summer of 2017, Bike Share allows users to download an app and rent a bike. I never would have expected this in a community the size of Sleepy Eye with a population of some 3,400.

 

 

But given the 3.12-mile paved Sleepy Eye Bike Trail and the camp sites and cabins at this park, this seems an ideal fit.

 

 

The nonprofit foundation, part of Sleepy Eye Medical Center, aims “to provide excellent healthcare to our patients and to enhance the wellness and quality of life in the communities we serve.” Bike Share fulfills that mission. Maybe other healthcare teams offer the same in rural communities. But this is the first I’ve seen.

 

 

Additionally, the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation sponsors an annual 5K Run/Walk for Health, a golf tournament and post-secondary scholarships for students entering the healthcare field. I’m not surprised really at the level of community support. I grew up in the county just to the west and understand the importance of local healthcare access. Without it, people sometimes drive hours to clinics and hospitals.

 

 

I’m getting sidetracked here. So I’ll circle back to those bikes, to my appreciation for these rural clinics and hospitals that show they care about the communities they serve through programs like Bike Share. The sign below the main Sportsman’s Park sign summarizes well the spirit of small towns like Sleepy Eye in the words “a cooperative project.” Working together to enhance wellness and the quality of life seems a noble goal no matter where you live, no matter the size of your community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Coming soon to the former PIX Theater in Sleepy Eye: Coffee & Beer August 21, 2019

The PIX Theater marquee photographed in March 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHEN I LAST PHOTOGRAPHED the marquee of the historic PIX Theater in downtown Sleepy Eye, I found the signage in need of repair. But I knew the future appeared bright for this once popular entertainment hub. Plans were underway by two local physicians to open a brewery and coffee shop in the old theater.

 

The coffee shop is expected to open first, later this summer, followed by the brewery.

 

Today that business, Sleepy Eye Brewing & Coffee Company, is nearer to opening. The evidence shows in the restored marquee. Peering through windows, I observed laborers working inside to create a space that will showcase the bones of this building.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

I look forward to stopping at the brewery in this small town just a short drive west of New Ulm along U.S. Highway 14. I expect this to become a popular stop, destination or local hang-out for those who appreciate craft beer. And for those who don’t, they can patronize the coffee shop—complete with soup, sandwiches, pastries and coffee during daytime hours.

 

Photographed last week before Sleepy Eye’s annual Corn Days celebration. The marquee serves as a community bulletin board for now.

 

Anytime a business opens in a rural community is reason to celebrate, but especially now with Del Monte’s announced closure of its Sleepy Eye food processing plant. The closure will affect 69 full-time employees and some 350 seasonal workers. This is a tremendous economic loss for this farming community. When I was in Sleepy Eye last week, Del Monte had not yet announced this devastating decision.

 

I’m reflected in the mirrored underside of the marquee.

 

As I photographed the theater marquee, I delighted in its restored beauty and what this means to the good folks of Sleepy Eye. This historic building holds so many memories…with new ones yet to come.

 

I need to see the marquee at night with the lights aglow.

 

THOUGHTS?

Click here to view a story on KEYC-TV in Mankato about the brewery and coffee shop.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Downtown Sleepy Eye: A glimpse of small town character August 20, 2019

Just east of Sleepy Eye on U.S. Highway 14. That’s Christensen Farms headquarters to the right.

 

SMALL TOWNS, like cities, possess character. Each is unique. No matter how many rural communities I visit or how often I tour the same town, I discover something new. It takes more than a precursory glance to truly appreciate a community. Too often people dismiss small towns as places to simply pass through when traveling from Point A to Point B. But these communities are much more. And to see that requires pulling off the highway, parking your vehicle and exploring.

 

Agriculture anchors the small towns of southwestern Minnesota.

 

On a recent drive to southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Sleepy Eye, which is west of New Ulm which is west of Mankato. I am forever pointing out to folks that civilization exists west of Mankato. I am proud to have grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in rural Redwood County. I once lived and worked for the newspaper in Sleepy Eye, located in Brown County next to my county of origin.

 

A snippet of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

Sleepy Eye, like so many other small towns, has felt the impact of a more mobile society, of technology and more. Businesses I remember—a bakery, a department store—have long closed.

 

A wooden cut-out of Chief Sleepy Eye as photographed through an antique shop window. The town is named after this Dakota leader.

 

Photographed inside the entry of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

But new businesses have opened in the decades since I left. Antique shops. Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, the reason for our stop. And the soon-to-open Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company.

 

Agriculture centers these small towns as evidenced in this storefront signage.

 

A display window at Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun drew my interest. I would like to explore this space open to the public (on weekends) for birthday and other parties. It was closed when I was in Sleepy Eye.

 

Another section of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

While Randy searched for stained glass, I grabbed my camera and meandered through a short stretch of the business district along busy U.S. Highway 14. I found myself wishing the second stoplight had not been removed during recent road reconstruction. The downtown is much less pedestrian friendly now. It’s a difficult roadway to safely cross.

 

Posted on a door at the bottom of a stairway leading to upstairs apartments by Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. I love discovering signage like this.

 

That aside, I managed and took some photos that show the unique character of Sleepy Eye. Enjoy. And check back for more posts from this southwestern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesota roadside sweet corn stand August 13, 2019

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 3 just south of Dundas.

 

ACROSS SOUTHERN MINNESOTA, signs pop promoting sweet corn. Fresh. From the field. Tasting of summer.

 

 

Some farmers sell at local farmers’ markets or to grocery stores. Others vend from pick-up trucks, beds heaped with piles of sweet corn.

 

Randy selects corn from the Highway 3 stand.

 

Others park a wagon roadside,

 

 

secure a payment box thereon and trust customers to pay on the honor system.

 

 

Shove bills into box, bag your corn and go.

 

 

I love those stands—the unmanned ones that show people still believe in the goodness of other people. Trust. Honesty. Goodness. Virtues seemingly lost on too many these days. But still present in rural Minnesota.

 

 

And I love stories, like the one posted at a sweet corn stand along Minnesota State Highway 3 between Dundas and Faribault.

 

These entrepreneurs are growing pumpkins and squash, too, in the field next to the sweet corn stand.

Stories that make customers want to buy, and then return.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small town Minnesota: Pretty in pink butcher shop July 24, 2019

 

WHEN I’M OUT AND ABOUT in small town Minnesota, I look for the unique, the interesting, the whatever that makes a rural community memorable.

 

 

A month ago we stopped in Wanamingo to kill some time while waiting for friends to arrive at nearby Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens. Along the main route through downtown, I spotted a local butcher shop, Wanamingo Meats & Catering, aka Blondies Butcher Shop. You can’t miss it.

 

 

Bright pink shutters class up an otherwise non-descript brick building also accented by a pink Holstein cow, pink signage and pots of primarily pink petals.

 

 

And then there’s the message out front: Its (sic) better to have grilled and burned than to never have grilled at all. As a mega fan of grilled foods—thank you, Randy, for grilling every weekend year-round—I agree.

 

 

Blondies Butcher Shop certainly focuses visual attention, exactly the point to draw customers inside this female-owned business. I’ll remember this small town shop next to the grain bins long after I’ve exited Wanamingo.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From southwestern Minnesota, where corn is king July 9, 2019

 

Farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see under an expansive sky in southwestern Minnesota.

 

TRAVEL MY NATIVE RURAL southwestern Minnesota as I did several days ago, and you will see vast fields of corn stretching across the landscape. Here you will find some of Minnesota’s richest and most fertile soil. Here corn and soybeans dominate.

 

A flooded field photographed on July 3 just east of Belview in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

In a particularly challenging growing season of late spring planting followed now by too much rain, farmers hope still for a bountiful harvest. Even as they view fields resembling lakes. But to be a farmer is to hold optimism.

 

A tractor and digger parked in a field along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Everything in these small communities centers on a farming economy. In years of good yields, businesses benefit. In years of low yields and low prices, small towns suffer. It is the cyclical nature of farm life in rural America.

 

An abandoned farmhouse sits atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

There’s much to appreciate about this rural region that roots me and grew me into a writer and photographer. Folks value the land and embrace a strong sense of community and of place.

 

Promotional billboards along U.S. Highway 14 and State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

In Sleepy Eye to the west of New Ulm, for example, the community celebrates Buttered Corn Days in August. This small town is home to a Del Monte Food’s corn and pea processing plant. We’re talking sweet corn here, not field corn.

 

Vending sweet corn in downtown Sleepy Eye on July 3.

 

Sweet corn season has just begun in Minnesota with roadside vendors pulling into parking lots and alongside roadways to sell fresh sweet corn from the backs of pick-up trucks. Farm to table at its most basic.

 

In a public visiting space at Parkview Home…

 

In the small town of Belview even farther to the west in my home county of Redwood, a single stalk of DeKalb field corn stands in a five-gallon bucket inside Parkview Home where my mom lives. I laughed when I saw the corn stalk with the notation of planted on May 13. Back in the day, corn growth was measured by “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Corn, in a typical year, now far surpasses that height by July 4. Not this year.

 

Silos and grain elevators are the highest architectural points on the prairie.

 

I can only imagine how many conversations that single corn stalk prompted at Parkview where most residents grew up on and/or operated farms. It’s details like this which define the rural character of a place and its people.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

North Morristown on the Fourth, the place to be in southern Minnesota July 2, 2019

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A glimpse of the North Morristown celebration grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

NORTH MORRISTOWN, MINNESOTA, on the Fourth of July is grassroots Americana.

 

Buy your pie early for the best selection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

From the country setting to the popular parade featuring the Candy House to a medallion hunt and flag-raising ceremony and concerts and offerings of homemade pies and much more, this celebration reflects rural America at its best.

 

 

If you haven’t experienced July 4 at North Morristown, I suggest you travel to this southern Minnesota holiday destination this week.

 

The BINGO callers of North Morristown. I won first place for this photo in a contest sponsored by National Mutual Benefit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the North Morristown Fourth of July celebration in 2016. This is one of my favorite close-up images and among those published in Fleur-de-lis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Craig and Kathy enjoying the Fourth at North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Here you’ll find BINGO and bands, burgers and beer, and, at day’s end, fireworks bursting over farm fields.

 

The popular bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, performs twice at North Morristown, at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

For many, this event represents an annual reunion with family and friends. Even with no roots to this place, I embrace this celebration, delighting in some really good food, visiting with friendly people and enjoying the music of crowd favorite Monroe Crossings, which returns year after year to perform at North Morristown on the Fourth.

 

One of several vintage kiddie carnival rides at North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

If you appreciate the company of good folks who value country, community, family and hard work, then North Morristown will appeal to you. Bring your lawn chair. Bring your appetite. Bring your kids and/or grandkids. And be sure to express your gratitude to the volunteers who make this event happen. Thank them. And buy a $2 celebration button to show your financial support.

 

This food stand served tasty BBQ pork and beef sandwiches and other food during a past celebration.  Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Billed as the longest-running Fourth of July celebration in Minnesota at 127 years, this is a must-attend for anyone interested in an authentic, down-to-earth way to commemorate our nation’s birthday.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling