Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road in southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay November 25, 2019

Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.

Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.

 

I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.

 

Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.

 

With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.

 

The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.

 

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.

 

A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.

 

Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.

 

Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.

 

Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.

 

Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.

 

Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.

 

I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.

 

Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.

 

Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.

 

Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

 

Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.

As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

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Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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