Kilkenny, proud of its Irish heritage, maintains a twinship with Kilkenny County in the Old Country. And each September, the community celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with Half-Way to St. Paddy’s Day complete with parade and, in the past, toilet bowl races. I’ve never attended, but need to and document this event.
Three years ago while out and about on one of those rural drives I so enjoy, Randy and I passed through Kilkenny, marked by a signature silo style light green water tower decorated with a shamrock. There was no doubt we were in an Irish proud small town.
At the time, Murphy’s Pub centered the core of Kilkenny, which, as I recall, is about a handful of businesses. Today that Irish-tagged pub with the memorable ale drinking leprechaun signage is closed, replaced by The Toy Box Saloon. That doesn’t quite hold the same Irish appeal as the name Murphy’s Pub. But you will still find Irish brew, like Finnegan’s Irish Amber.
In Scott County to the north, in unincorporated St. Patrick, I discovered a strong Irish enclave centered around a church, cemetery, ballpark and tavern. St. Patrick of Cedar Lake Township Catholic Church and its surrounding cemetery sit high atop a hill across from St. Patrick’s Tavern and next to the ball field. The ballpark, St. Patrick’s Bonin Field, is named after Father Leon Bonin, a strong supporter of local baseball.
That this rural place is proud of its Irish heritage is clear. I need to return to St Patrick, perhaps pop into the bar for a brew. Make that an Irish stout.
During my one and only visit in the summer of 2015, I mostly wandered the cemetery. I find cemeteries historically and artistically interesting.
Back in Le Sueur County, I meandered through the St. Thomas Church Cemetery in the unincorporated settlement of St. Thomas. During my March 2018 visit, I found plenty of Irish buried here.
Down the road a bit, I spotted an apparently abandoned Callahan’s Bar.
And then I saw Derrynane Town Hall, Derrynane being a small village in County Kerry, Ireland. Ah, yes, Irish roots run deep in pockets of rural Minnesota.
This St. Patrick’s Day I celebrate Kilkenny, St. Thomas and St. Patrick. What a delight to have found these backroad places of Irish heritage in rural southern Minnesota.
SHE WAS NOT QUITE 33 years old, this young mother of five living on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm in March 1965. It was an especially harsh winter, documented in a spiral bound notebook she kept.
She filled page after page with several-line daily entries about everyday life. She wrote about crops and household chores and kids and food and the most ordinary daily happenings. And, always, she recorded the weather—the wind, the precipitation, sometimes the temperature.
This keeper of prairie history in rural Redwood County was my mother, who died in January 2022 at the age of 89. I am the keeper of her journals, which she kept from 1947-2014, from ages 15 to 82. Sixty-seven years of journaling. Several years, when she met and fell in love with my dad, are noticeably missing.
Recently, I pulled the tote holding her collection of writing from the closet. This snowy winter of 2022-2023 in Minnesota prompted me to filter through Mom’s notebooks from 1964 and 1965. That winter season of nearly 60 years ago holds the state record for the longest consecutive number of days—136—with an inch or more of snow on the ground. We are closing in on that, moving into the top ten.
Mom’s journal entries confirm that particularly snowy and harsh winter on the Minnesota prairie. From February into March, especially, many days brought snow and accompanying strong wind. Two photos from March 1965 back up Mom’s words. Her first March entry is one of many that notes the seemingly never-ending snow falling on our family farm a mile south of Vesta. She writes of the weather:
March 1—What a surprise! Snowing & blowing when we got up & kept on all day. No school.
March 2—Still blowing & started to snow again. Really a big drift across the driveway. Mike came & opened up driveway. No school again. Milk truck didn’t come so Vern has to dump tonight’s milk.
Let me pause here and emphasize the hardship referenced in Mom’s March 2 entry. My dad had to dump the milk from his herd of Holsteins. That was like pouring money down the drain. I can only imagine how emotionally and financially difficult that was to lose a day’s income. But if the milk truck can’t get through on snow-clogged country roads to empty the bulk tank, there’s no choice but to pour away milk.
On March 3-5, Mom writes the same—of snow and blowing snow and efforts to keep the driveway open and no school. Then comes a respite from the snow. Dad was even planning ahead to spring, receiving a delivery of DeKalb seed corn on March 15. But then snowfall resumes on St. Patrick’s Day in this land of wide open spaces, where the wind whips fierce across the prairie.
March 17—Snowing & blowing. Got worse all day. Good thing the milk truck came. No school.
March 18—Quit snowing, but is really blowing. Huge drift across driveway & in grove. Almost all roads in Minn are blocked. No school. Cold, about 10 degrees.
March 19—We all went outside & took pictures of the big drifts & all the snow. Mike came over through field by gravel pit & started to clear off yard. Clear & cold.
Mom’s March 19 entry is notable for multiple reasons. First, my parents documented the snowdrifts with their camera. They didn’t take pictures often because it cost money to buy and develop the film. Money they didn’t have. That is why I have few photos from my childhood. That they documented the huge drifts filling our driveway and farmyard reveals how much this snow impacted their daily lives. In the recesses of my memory, I remember those rock-hard drifts that seemed like mountains to a flat-lander farm girl. That my Uncle Mike, who farmed just to the east, had to drive through the field (rather than on the township and county roads) to reach our farm also reveals much about conditions.
In the two days following, Mom writes of a neighbor coming over with his rotary (tractor-mounted snowblower) to finally open the driveway. But when the milk truck arrived at 4:30 am, the driveway was not opened wide enough for the truck to squeeze through the rock hard snow canyon. The driver returned in the afternoon, after Dad somehow carved a wider opening.
The weather got better in the days following, if sunny and zero in the mornings and highs of 12 degrees are better. At least the snow subsided. On March 23, Mom even notes that they watched the space shot on TV. I expect this first crewed mission in NASA’s Gemini Project proved a welcome diversion from the harsh winter.
In her March 27 journal entry, hope rises that winter will end. Mom writes: Sunny & warmer than it has been for days. Got to 45 degrees. Minnetonka beat Fairbault (sic) in basketball tournament. I almost laughed when I read that because Minnesotans often associate blizzards with state basketball tournament time. I also laughed because Faribault would eventually become my home, the place I’ve lived for 41 years now.
So much for optimism. On March 28, snow fell again. All day.
But the next day, Mom writes, the weather was sunny and warm enough to thaw the snow and ice and create a muddy mess. I stopped reading on March 31. I’d had enough snow. I expect Mom had, too.
Beata. What a beautiful name, one I’d never heard before scrolling through a recent list of obituaries from my home region of southwestern Minnesota. I wanted, needed, to learn more about this 98-year-old woman with the Latin-derived (beatus) name meaning “blessed.”
A well-written obituary provides not only basic factual information of birth, life and death, but also enough personal details to tell a story. Beata’s obit speaks to a strong woman born 98 years ago in the Sandager family home in Swedes Forest Township in the northern most part of Redwood County.
Even the township name titles a story—of the Scandinavian immigrants who started settling this area just south of the Minnesota River in 1867. Norwegians, mostly, and Swedes and Danes (like Beata’s Danish-born grandfather, Nils H. Sandager). Knute and Erick and Thor and Ole and Torkel and Turi and Gunhild and Ingeborg… And Beata Ellen’s Norwegian grandmothers, Beret and Ellen, after whom she is named.
History runs deep here, all the way back across the ocean. Family history held importance for Beata, who died on February 11 and will be buried today at Rock Dell Cemetery in Swedes Forest Township. This township, this land, this place, it was hers. Beata’s home since her December 27, 1924, birth.
She left only briefly, heading to college in Moorhead in 1942 before returning in 1943 when her father died. Beata was just 18. But her mother, Barbra, and brother Nels needed her help on the family farm. Six years later she would marry Lloyd Sampson, also a farmer. After only 11 years of marriage, Beata was widowed at age 35, her husband dead from cancer.
What strength it must have taken for this young woman and mother of two to endure first the death of her father and then her husband. I’d like to think she had a strong support system of friends and family and neighbors rallying around. A community of people who cared. Knowing rural southwestern Minnesota as I do, I expect that’s true.
Yet, “after a couple years in their big, cold house, Beata and her children (Coral Beth and Joel Loren) moved to live with her mom and brother.” Recognizing the importance of immediate family love and support, of understanding that she needed family near, shows strength, too.
But there’s more, much more, to Beata’s story. In 1979, she became the first woman elected to office in Swedes Forest Township. It took 107 years for a woman to gain an elected seat on the township board. While that seems unfathomable in today’s world, it’s absolutely believable for that time period. Beata served for 24 years as treasurer of Swedes Forest Township.
She followed in the footsteps of her grandfather Nils H. Sandager, who also left a legacy of public service. He was elected township treasurer 12 times and also held the offices of town chair, supervisor and constable for a total of 19 years.
Beata’s local involvement stretches beyond township government. She was active, too, in the Lutheran churches she attended—Rock Dell and Grace. And she found time for the other aspects of life that held her heart—living in the country, the outdoors, flowers, bird watching, family history, family, children, puzzles…and pretty dishes. Yes, this strong strong woman who made history in Swedes Forest Township, who was there for her family, loved pretty dishes. And that, too, says a lot about a woman whose name means “blessed.”
My one regret is that Randy and I didn’t stay overnight, allowing more time to explore local sites without feeling rushed. Forty years have passed since I visited Marshall en route to the Black Hills on our honeymoon. The college and county seat town lies 20 miles to the west of my hometown, Vesta in Redwood County, and 140 miles from my current home in Faribault.
This area of Minnesota is the place of my roots. My prairie roots. It is the place of wide open space, expansive skies, small towns and endless acres of cropland.
The land where I grew up inspired my blog name, Minnesota Prairie Roots. The name fits me as a person and a creative. The sparseness of the prairie taught me to notice details, to fully engage my senses. To appreciate the landscape and people. The vastness of the flat land and the star-flushed night sky and achingly beautiful sunsets. Here I connected to the land—bare feet upon dirt, bike tires crunching gravel, dirt etched into my hands from working the soil. Here I connected to the people—down-to-earth, hardworking, linked to the land.
Tall grasses are often associated with the prairie. Yet, those grasses were mostly missing from the landscape of my youth as cultivated crops covered the earth. But on our farm site, a sliver of unmown grass grew between granary and grove and gravel driveway, stretching high, stems bending in the wind. That Little House on the Prairie (Walnut Grove is 20 miles from Vesta) space opened summer afternoons to imaginative play. I hold many memories rooted in those tall grasses, in the prairie.
Prairie Roots. That name graces a public art sculpture outside the Red Baron Arena in Marshall. Minneapolis artist Randy Walker was commissioned by the City of Marshall in 2018 to create the sculpture reflecting the prairie landscape. I knew in advance of my September visit that I needed to see this artwork if time allowed. We made time. Walker used 210 painted steel poles to represent tall stems of grass, prairie grass. They are colored in hues of yellow, orange, red and green, reflecting seasonal changes and light.
And in between all those steel stems, prairie grass grows, thrives.
I even spotted a grasshopper on a steel stalk, taking me back decades to the hoards of grasshoppers that amassed and hopped through that patch of uncut grass on the farm.
Walker’s sculpture holds visual appeal against an expansive backdrop sky and open field (when viewing the art from the arena entrance outward). Via that perspective, I see the enduring strength of the prairie, and the immensity of land and sky, this place of my Minnesota prairie roots.
Please check back for more posts about my day trip back to southwestern Minnesota in September 2022.
KIDS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS. I can vouch for that. I raised three kids, cared for many others and am now the grandmother of two, one going on seven, the other just turned four.
Recently the grandkids, Isabelle and her little brother, Isaac, stayed overnight. During that short stay, Izzy elicited laughter with her honest observations and her leadership skills.
First the honesty. I don’t recall how we got on the topic, but at some point I shared that I grew up in a house without a bathroom. Taking a bath meant my dad hauling a tin tub from the porch into the kitchen every Saturday evening and then Mom filling it with water. Our bathroom, I explained to Izzy, was a little building outside with two holes cut in a bench. And in the winter, we used a covered pot set inside the unheated porch.
I don’t know that Izzy understood all of this. But, as she sat there listening to Grandma spin tales of the olden days, she assessed. “It sounds like a different world to me!” I laughed at her observation. She was right. Growing up in rural Minnesota in the 1950s and 1960s was, most assuredly, a different world from hers. My granddaughter lives in a sprawling suburban house with four bathrooms. In 1967, my family of birth moved into a new farmhouse with a single bathroom. And a bathtub. Today I feel thankful to live in a house with one bathroom. I wouldn’t want to clean four.
Then there’s BINGO, which we play nearly every time we’re together with Isabelle and Isaac. They were introduced to the game at the Helbling Family Reunion and have loved it since. The kids take turns not only playing, but also calling numbers.
Isabelle has advanced greatly in her BINGO-calling skills. This time, in addressing us, she called us “folks.” I don’t know where Izzy heard that term, but it’s certainly more rural than suburban lingo. I suggested she might be ready to call BINGO next summer at North Morristown’s annual Fourth of July celebration. Unincorporated North Morristown is a Lutheran church and school and a few farm places clustered in the middle of nowhere west of Faribault. Izzy seems well-prepared to call BINGO numbers to the folks there.
I should have shared with my granddaughter that, when I was growing up, we covered our BINGO cards with corn kernels during Vesta’s (my hometown) annual BINGO Night. I expect she would have responded as a child 60 years younger than me: “It sounds like a different world to me!” And I would have agreed.
IN THE FLEETING DAYS of autumn here in Minnesota, there’s an urgency to get things done before winter. Hurry and rake the leaves. Tune up the snowblower. Wash the windows. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
But in the haste of all that preparation, there’s also a need to slow down and delight in autumn. Simply stepping outside my home to view the backyard maple and neighbors’ trees fills my soul. I love the contrast of orange, red, yellow against the bold October sky. Sometimes when I look skyward, I see a mix of seasons from green leaves, to autumnal leaves to bare branches.
Every single day calls for pausing to appreciate the beautiful natural world of October in southern Minnesota. I know this won’t last and I need to savor these scenes.
Last Saturday morning, instead of pursuing yard work, Randy and I headed on one more drive through the countryside to view the diminishing fall colors. Leaf raking, although started, could wait. As we followed back county paved roads and township gravel roads through open farmland and through woods, I felt embraced and connected to the local landscape and scenes unfolding before me.
Sunshine dappled through trees.
To the north, a cloud deck drew a nearly straight horizontal line across the sky, a hint of the cold weather to come. And it blew in later that day with a raw wind and a drop in temps.
Colors were well past their peak in Rice County. Still the occasional oak or maple dropped red or russet into muted tree clusters.
Harvested and unharvested fields of corn and soybeans spread before us. Grain trucks, some brimming with the yield, anchored fields. Former farm kids that we are, we discussed the crops. Always have, always will. It’s something we learned early on, me from Sunday afternoon drives with my parents and siblings to view the crops and during dinner table discussions.
We passed farm sites, one with a well-kept signature red barn. There’s something about a barn…
Another farm place was all grey. Grey bin. Grey machine shed. Grey silo. Grey outbuilding. Grey garage. Weathered grey barn.
Soon the weather will shift to the grey of November, the month when winter creeps in. Already we’ve felt the bite of unseasonably cold October days that are giving way, this weekend, to unseasonable warmth. These mark bonus days. Days to drive the countryside, visit an orchard, take a hike…days for anything but raking leaves, washing windows or tuning the snowblower.
ON THE THIRD CONSECUTIVE DAY of viewing fall colors in southern Minnesota, Randy and I headed northwest of Faribault to area lakes. But even before we got out of town, we drove along two city streets—Second Avenue by Bethlehem Academy north to Seventh Street and then Seventh Street—which are particularly beautiful in autumn. There’s no need to leave Faribault to see stunning trees of orange, red and yellow mixed with brown and green.
Yet, there’s something about a colorful lakeshore treeline against the October sky that is particularly lovely. Thus I suggest a country drive. Perhaps my favorite area autumn color viewing spot is at the public boat landing on Kelly Lake. We return there each fall and Randy joked that I could just use the same photos taken last year. I didn’t.
We edged Roberds Lake after trailing a winding gravel road past farm sites. Country drives are, by definition, about immersing ourselves in the country. Appreciating ripening corn and soybean fields, stately barns, ginormous round hay bales staged in a field… And then hugging the side of the road upon meeting a massive combine.
Mostly, I take in the landscape, this October day set against moody clouds on blue sky. Clouds create interest, depth, interesting patterns to backdrop fields and trees.
I see curves and lines and the way everything flows, first with my eyes, then through the viewfinder of my aged Canon EOS 20-D camera. Water flows into trees, trees into sky. It all comes together to create this scene, this autumn.
At the west-side boat landing in Shieldsville, Randy noted the low water level of Lake Mazaska. It would be impossible to launch a boat here. I photographed the lake through a stand of grass, perhaps bulrushes. A peeling, aged sign a block away landmarked Bulrush Bay.
Individual leaves and stems of grass don’t go unnoticed. The singleness merges into the whole. This whole of autumn in Rice County.
We lunched at McCullough County Park on Shields Lake, swatting bees and beetles, before continuing our drive along County Road 64/Irwin Trail. An especially picturesque creek cutting through the land called for a stop, a photo.
And then onward we drove, up and down and all around on gravel roads, the van kicking dust.
Traveling at a slower pace allows for taking in the unfolding landscape. Cornfield nudging a clump of colored trees. So much to see if only we look.
And then a stop, an opportunity to stretch our legs and explore Trebon Cemetery surrounding an historic Czech church, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, established in 1886. We discovered this sacred place at the intersection of County Road 63/Kanabec Avenue and County Road 37/160th Street West several years ago. Like last visit, I wished I could get inside the church, but had to settle for peering through windows. The view of the countryside from the cemetery grounds is stunning.
Aiming back toward Faribault, we passed the smiley face painted on the side of a building at the intersection of Roberds Lake Boulevard and County Road 37/West 185th Street. It’s been there forever, a rural landmark that makes me smile every time I see that happiness icon.
Several hours in the rural Rice County countryside filled my spirit with happiness. Autumn has a way of weaving joy into my life with her color, her last hurrah before winter arrives. So I say, get out there. Take a country drive. Slow down. Pause. Delight in these October days.
ANOTHER DAY OF SUNSHINE and unseasonably warm temps here in southern Minnesota prompted Randy and me to once again hit the road in search of fall colors. This time we headed into eastern Rice County, following backroads in the Cannon City and Nerstrand areas with a lengthy stop at Valley Grove Churches.
At those historic hilltop churches, we followed prairie trails until we reached the highest point. There we stood, impressed by the distant Big Woods treeline colored in the hues of autumn. Valley Grove is one of our favorite spots in any season, but especially when the leaves are morphing color.
Our drive also took us on the road slicing through Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. We didn’t stop, simply enjoyed driving under a canopy of trees evolving in color. They have not yet reached their prime.
As always, Farmer Trail (off Falk Avenue) drew us in. This secluded road twists and turns among the maples and seems a well-kept secret. Thick woods edge the gravel road on both sides. I feel sheltered here, as if I’ve briefly entered some magical place.
This time of year in southern Minnesota truly feels magical given the remarkable beauty found in trees shifting from green to yellows, reds, oranges and browns.
My community of Faribault is ablaze and still erupting with color. City View Park on the east side overlooks the city, offering a vista view. The Shattuck-St. Mary’s clock tower always focuses my eye when taking in the city below and beyond.
Even traveling down the viaduct into downtown impresses in the autumn. There’s so much to see locally in autumn colors whether along a city street, an area lake, a back country road.
If there’s anything I want to impress, it’s that all of this—this autumn color spreading across the landscape—is right here in Faribault, in Rice County, in our backyard. I don’t know if everyone realizes that. I also want to impress that the days of autumn are fleeting. A cold front is moving in along with wind. Now is the time to get out there and view the fall colors, at least locally.
IN TELLING A STORY, whether in images or words, details matter. Combined, details comprise the whole. And that’s the approach I take in creating.
Recently I attended the Valley Grove Country Social in rural Rice County. This event, hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society, celebrates the history, heritage, land and people rooted to two hilltop Norwegian churches with adjoining cemetery and restored prairie. One of the first pastors here founded St. Olaf College in nearby Northfield.
Many people from my area hold this place dear and that shows in the upkeep of the 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church rising high above a landscape of prairie, farm fields and wooded areas near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.
I, too, despite no personal connection to Valley Grove, have come to hold this site dear. I appreciate the historic churches and cemetery and the surrounding landscape. And I also appreciate gatherings like the Country Social.
This Social showcases Valley Grove in a way that stretches beyond history, although that decidedly focuses the celebration. Music and art and hands-on activities weave into the all of it.
I love to see adults and youngsters engaging, conversing, teaching, learning. The younger generation will one day carry on with events like this and with the preservation of history and heritage at Valley Grove. So offering hands-on activities like rope-making, corn grinding, doing laundry, playing with yesteryear toys…is vital.
While I was persuaded to wind twine into a rope with Randy, I simply observed the other participatory activities. I prefer to meander unobtrusively (not always easy) with my camera, observing, documenting. I strive to tell a story that will encourage others to embrace events and places like Valley Grove. There’s so much right here in Rice County to explore and experience. We need to treasure that which is in our backyard. Just like the “eat local” movement, I say, “Explore local.”
Much of what I feature here on my blog is local. And, if it isn’t, it’s rooted in my region. I value southern Minnesota, especially the small towns, the rural landscape, the people, the arts, the events…the all of it defining this place I call home.
TELL ME: What specific places and/or events do you appreciate where you live and which you feel go unnoticed by many locals?
A COUNTRY SOCIAL EVOKES an essence of history, of community celebration, of activities that hearken to a bygone era. The Valley Grove Country Social held on Sunday afternoon high atop a hill near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park fits that and beyond. This site, the location of two historic churches and an adjoining cemetery, marks one of my favorite places in rural Rice County for its history, natural beauty and peace.
On this September afternoon, I delighted in an event that brings people together to celebrate Norwegian heritage and history, people and place, stories past and present, the arts, and, oh, so much more.
From garden and prairie flowers tucked into Mason jars set atop window sills in the 1862 stone church to a recital inside the 1894 church to horse-drawn wagon rides to kids grinding corn to an artist painting, the scope of activities proved broad. There was something for everyone from the youngest to the eldest. Generations mingled, connected. One taught, the other learned.
To observe, to converse, to listen, to feel, to experience all of this imprints upon my soul gratitude for those who know this place, this Valley Grove, is worth preserving and sharing. Although I hold no personal connection here, I feel connected. It is my faith, my love of the land, especially the surrounding prairie and farmland, and the quiet of this remote rural location which cause me to feel comfortably at home, at peace.
If you’ve never visited Valley Grove and live near enough to tour, then do. I’ve been here many times to walk the cemetery and grounds, to hike through the prairie, even once sitting on the front steps of the wooden church for a picnic lunch. The churches are locked when not open for events or special services like a wedding or Christmas Eve worship.
Still, whether inside or outside the two churches, a sense of the past prevails. Gravestone after gravestone bears the names of Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. Study the markers and stories begin to emerge, whether real or imagined. I can only imagine the joys and sorrows shared here.
Valley Grove is about more than a place where historic churches stand next to a cemetery. It is a gathering spot for those who are celebrating, those who are grieving, those who are remembering and, on this afternoon of a Country Social, a place of connecting with community.