Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An October drive in the Minnesota countryside October 16, 2018

In search of fall colors in rural southern Minnesota.

 

SATURDAY WAS THE DAY, we decided. The day to meander and view fall colors in the Rice County area following a week of nothing but grey skies. Weather forecasters promised half a day of sunshine before clouds moved in again. Yard work could wait. Randy and I needed to enjoy autumn.

 

Colorful Seventh Street in Faribault nearing the intersection of Second Avenue.

 

So, with optimism, we headed out of Faribault along Seventh Street, a roadway bordered by beautiful fall foliage. The sun shone bright during our late morning exit. I was excited, remembering the beauty of last fall, especially around area lakes.

 

This treeline along Kelly Lake showed us some fall color.

 

But as we drove, we soon realized that our expectations did not match reality. The leaves are not nearly as colorful as last season. At least not on this day. I could choose to be disappointed—and I was for quite awhile—or I could choose to look for beauty beyond splashes of fall colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Place me on a gravel road and I will find something that appeals to me whether a farm site, a field, a cluster of cattle. Just being in the country brings me joy. And peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know some would find this time just driving through the rural landscape to be a waste of hours. But not me. There is a need deep inside me to occasionally reconnect with the land, to simply escape the closeness of gridded city streets. I need to follow gravels roads. I need to see tractors and barns, even artsy rural mailboxes. It’s difficult to explain to someone without rural roots.

 

 

But for me, the land comforts. It rises up like a poem, wrapping my soul in words and images that have shaped—are still shaping—me.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Autumn on a rural Minnesota acreage, a photo essay October 4, 2018

A restored windmill towers above a refurbished mini barn (soon to be art studio) on my brother and sister-in-law’s rural Redwood County acreage.

 

OF SIX FARM-RAISED SIBLINGS, only two live in the country. Neither farmers. But two work in the ag industry, one as the CEO of an ethanol company, the other as part owner in an implement dealership.

 

 

My middle brother remains in our home county of Redwood and welcomes us back for extended family gatherings, most recently our annual autumn tradition of making horseradish—157 jars this year. The tradition honors our deceased farmer father. He dug and processed horseradish roots for many years. Now we do the same but with easier methods than using an old meat grinder powered by a drill. Like Dad, we give away the condiment.

 

Sunflowers ripen and dry under the prairie sky.

 

Our annual gathering in rural Lamberton isn’t about the horseradish as much as it is about family.

 

I’ve always delighted in milkweed pods bursting with seeds.

 

 

 

While I enjoy our time together, I usually slip away to meander, to take in the rural setting, to photograph. I need that peacefulness amid all the chattering and joking and loudness of a group with some strong personalities.

 

How lovely the broom corn rising and swaying in the prairie wind.

 

My artsy sister-in-law creates vignettes like this that change with the seasons.

 

A sunflower, heavy with seed, bows to the earth.

 

I need quiet. And I need to take in the shifting of the seasons, the artful autumn displays, the aged buildings, all the visual reminders of a rural life I still miss decades removed from the country.

 

A gazing ball in a flower garden reflects sky, land and dried black-eyed susan seed heads.

 

I am grateful for the opportunity to escape to this acreage, to reclaim the serenity of rural Minnesota.

 

An old shed recently moved onto the acreage, to be rebuilt or salvaged for the wood.

 

I realize nostalgia tinges my view of country life. Much has changed since I left the farm nearly 45 years ago. But not the love I hold for the land, for the quiet and grace and muted tones of harvest time.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of harvest in southwestern Minnesota October 2, 2018

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THE FARMER IN THE HOODED sweatshirt and jeans motions from atop the combine to the trucker across the field. He’s ready to unload just picked corn into the grain truck late on a Sunday morning near Sleepy Eye.

 

 

Scenes like this repeat throughout southern Minnesota as the fall harvest is underway. I embrace this season as much for the memories as for the sights, sounds and smells.

 

 

 

 

The farm-raised girl in me emerges, vicariously experiencing the harvest through a camera lens.

 

 

 

 

I feel this intense desire to return to the land every autumn. And last weekend an annual horseradish making party with extended family took me back to my home county of Redwood. Along the route there and back, I documented the harvest. It is the closest I come now to being part of the process of bringing in the corn and soybeans.

 

 

 

 

I miss the closeness to the earth that comes with growing up on a farm. Sure things have changed a lot in the nearly 45 years since I left rural Redwood County. But the imprint of harvest remains, still strong. You can take the girl from the land. But you can’t take the land from the girl.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches September 18, 2018

I propped my camera on the grass and tilted it up to snap this photo of the 1894 Valley Grove church, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.

 

A view of a section of the Valley Grove cemetery through a partially open window in the wood-frame church.

 

But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.

 

Duo churches grace the hilltop, the clapboard church replacing the original stone church for worship.

 

Inside the 1894 church with Doug Ohman’s equipment set up for his talk about country churches.

 

Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.

 

I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.

 

The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.

 

Imagine how many preachers preached from this pulpit. Ohman ended his talk with a short “sermon” advising us to view people and situations from the inside rather than the outside. He used a visual–that of a stained glass window appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside.

 

Altar details hold history.

 

We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”

 

The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.

 

And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.

 

Vintage photos and artifacts were propped on windows in the stone church.

 

As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”

 

Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.

 

A woman demonstrated the art of making krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, available for sampling.

 

Old buggies on the grounds added to the sense of history.

 

A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.

 

Valley Grove is an oft-photographed site with photos and artwork of the churches gracing notecards for sale at the country social.

 

This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…

 

 

He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.

 

A snippet of the musical group Hutenanny, which performed under a sprawling oak.

 

Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.

 

Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.

 

Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.

 

As I watched draft horses pull a wagon through the prairie, I imagined immigrant families traversing the prairie also.

 

I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.

 

Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.

 

Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.

 

Efforts have been onging since 2007 to restore the 1862 limestone church.

 

Inside the plain stone church, a rebuilt chandelier adds elegance.

 

The Valley Grove Preservation Society has worked hard to restore both churches. Valley Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

 

It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.

 

Every celebration calls for cake, including this cake served inside the stone church at the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating a moment in life in Cannon Falls September 17, 2018

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THE NUANCES OF RURAL MINNESOTA delight me.

On a recent Saturday afternoon stop in Cannon Falls, population around 4,000, I spotted a John Deere tractor driving through the heart of downtown, wagon in tow. A bride and groom sat on straw bales as the tractor paraded past First Farmers Merchant Bank, Brewsters Bar, antique shops, the side street leading to a winery and brewery, and on down the road.

I love moments like this when I can pause to take in a joyful scene, to smile, to celebrate the happiness of another, to appreciate the rural character of southeastern Minnesota. This is why I live where I live, why I document people and places and events and life in general. It isn’t always the big things that define life, that mean the most. It is the moments of unexpected delight that bring me joy. And if I have my camera in hand, I delight in sharing these snapshots with you. In today’s world, we need more of this—more reasons to pause, to just stand there, to take it all in, to feel moments of joy.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Looking for farm work June 29, 2018

A southwestern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

BEAN WALKERS and detasslers. I haven’t thought about those two farm jobs in a long time. Because I’d rather forget those summer jobs that found me laboring as a pre-teen and teen in the fields of southern Minnesota. Intense heat and humidity made those hours in corn and soybean fields nearly intolerable. But it was a way to earn money in rural Minnesota back in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

 

And still today apparently. I was surprised to read a recent ad placed in a south central Minnesota shopper by crews looking for work pulling weeds in soybean fields, detasseling corn and picking rocks. Yes, I picked rocks from farm fields, too.

 

Bins peek above a cornfield between Faribault and Dundas. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Hire on to any of those jobs and you will understand hard physical labor. I realize conditions have improved since I yanked tassels, hoed cockle-burrs and heaved rocks from fields. But still, that farm work isn’t easy.

Tell me, have you ever worked any of those three farm jobs? Or tell me about a summer job you worked as a teen. What did it teach you?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In the midst of aging, the joys of a walk in the park May 24, 2018

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WE’D PLANNED, ALL ALONG, to wheel her outdoors, into the sunshine of a mid-May afternoon in rural southwestern Minnesota. She embraced the idea with a hint of concern. She worried about the wind, always the wind. So I searched the drawers in her room for her stocking cap, even though she didn’t need it on this 80-some degree day. I couldn’t find the cap she wanted to protect her ears.

Soon Mom forgot about the wind in the busyness of preparing for her excursion. Staff rolled a wheelchair into her room, attached a portable oxygen tank, helped her move from easy chair into wheelchair. Mom noted how good it would be to get outside. And it was. Too many months have passed since her last wheel around the care center and into the adjoining city park.

 

The tree I can’t identify. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

As Randy pushed her wheelchair along the sidewalk fronting Parkview, Mom noted the brightness of the afternoon. I started to view the world through her eyes, cloudy with the age of 86 years. She can’t see much at a distance. Thus I became her eyes. I described the pink splash of a blossoming crabapple tree, the rough bark of a tree I couldn’t identify. I doubt Mom saw the American flag stretched straight by the wind when we paused on the sidewalk.

 

A feature in the mini golf course in the city park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Just writing this, I feel a certain sadness that comes in observing how age steals the person you love, diminishing vision and memory and mobility. Yet, aging counters that loss with a return to the simple delights of life. I tried to remember that as we wound around the care center, past the mini golf course, to the park shelterhouse, past the aged log cabin and the barn swallows swooping.

 

Apple blossoms on an evening in May. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Occasionally we stopped, once so I could stride across the grass to an apple tree. I picked a twig of blossoms, took it back to Mom. She lifted the fragrant petals to her face, told me she couldn’t smell their sweetness. Yet, she clutched the flowers in her left hand, between thumb and forefinger. I checked my emotions in the poignancy of the moment. I wanted Mom to breathe in, once more, the intoxicating scent of spring.

On our way back to the care center, Mom noted dandelions popping yellow through the greening grass. I wish now that I had paused to pick a bouquet for her, to bring back those memories of a little girl gathering dandelions in her fist, of Mom plunging the sticky stems into a jelly jar to set upon the farmhouse kitchen table.

 

The log cabin in the park is a reminder of the passage of time. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

This aging of parents is difficult. Roles reverse. I feel a mix of sadness and anger and then, because I have to, thankfulness that my mother is still here for me to hug and to kiss and to hear the words, “I love you.”

 

TELL ME: Do you have an aging parent? If so, how are you handling this stage of life?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling