Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Snapshots of Le Center April 5, 2018

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Parked along an alley in downtown Le Center, Minnesota.

 

WHEN THE WEATHER WARMS (it will happen soon in Minnesota, right?), I’ll have my camera out more. Documenting. Photographing. Showing you the places I visit, the discoveries made.

 

The original section of the Le Sueur County Courthouse was built in 1897 of brick and Kasota stone at a cost of $55,000. It was designed by Chicago architect Louis M. Curry of Mayo & Curry in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style. Additions have been made to the building and remodeling done.

 

Those include small towns like Le Center. It’s the county seat of Le Sueur County and about a 45-minute drive northwest of Faribault. It’s one of those communities you’d likely not drive to unless you had business or family there or were passing by en route to somewhere like St. Peter.

 

I love this row of well-kept old buildings in the heart of Le Center.

 

On a recent Saturday afternoon of road tripping, Randy and I stopped in Le Center. We parked downtown, popped into the thrift store minutes before closing, walked 1 ½ blocks along sidewalks and then looped back through an alley to the van.

 

 

I snapped a few photos. These images offer a glimpse of this community.

 

A front window in Mexican Delights, a downtown restaurant.

 

Diverse.

 

 

Patriotic.

 

Spotted inside a Le Center thrift store.

 

Trusting.

 

 

Lovely in aged buildings.

 

Assorted trucks and other vehicles were parked in a vacant lot and along an alley behind Main Street businesses.

 

You can tell a lot about a town in first impressions. I need to revisit Le Center, though, to uncover more of its personality. Small towns are each individual, as individual as the folks who call these communities home.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

A lot of Irish in Saint Thomas in Derrynane Township March 20, 2018

 

I APPROACHED THE BEAUTIFUL brick church with the full expectation that the doors would be locked. They were. There would be no getting inside St. Thomas Catholic Church on this St. Patrick’s Day. I felt disappointment, but not surprise.

 

 

 

A hot pink sign tacked onto the church sign notes an Easter vigil here on March 31.

 

Even though shut out, Randy and I still explored, circling this immense church with stained glass windows and with tower steepling to a cross.

 

 

We crunched across crusty snow to look at gravestones that bear the Irish history of this place in names like O’Malley, Shea, O’Connell and noted ancestral roots in Cork County, Ireland and elsewhere.

 

Driving into Saint Thomas, Minnesota.

 

This village lies in the middle of farmland with this farm site on the edge of Saint Thomas.

 

This ag business sits right next to the cemetery.

 

Then comes the town hall.

 

And, finally, Callahan’s, which appeared no longer in business.

 

Saint Thomas is through-and-through Irish, based on our observations of this unincorporated village along Le Sueur County Road 28 just north of Le Center in Derrynane Township. We found this settlement via an atlas that is our guidebook to mostly unknown places in Minnesota. With a name like St. Thomas, we expected a Catholic church and not much more.

 

 

The church, built in 1883, closed in January 2011, just another among many rural Catholic churches shuttered and merged. Mass is still held occasionally at St. Thomas.

 

 

I often wonder how long such mostly vacated churches will stand. St. Thomas appeared well-cared for still. At least on this St. Patrick’s Day in 2018. But when those who once worshiped weekly here are gone, will their descendants care? Will they still tend the cemetery, swing open the doors for an Easter vigil? I hope so.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Evan, like so many small southwestern Minnesota towns, is fading into the prairie March 19, 2018

Downtown Evan today anchored by a former bank building.

 

LIKE SO MANY OTHER SMALL TOWNS on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, Evan once boasted a long list of businesses—creamery, bank, two general stores, hardware store, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, stock dealer, garage, implement dealer, three elevators, restaurant, utility company, library and two churches.

 

Evan, incorporated in 1904, is named after Eva Hanson, married to Nels. He platted the railroad station known as Hanson Station several years earlier.

 

So claims the historical marker fronting the village hall in this Brown County community of around 80 residents.

 

Fading signage identifies this as the former lumberyard.

 

Today only remnants of those original businesses remain.

 

I believe the brick building may be the former creamery.

 

On a recent drive through Evan, I noted the decline.

 

This vintage sign hangs outside Tubby’s II Bar & Grill. A sign in the window noted the bar is closed for the winter.

 

Faded signs.

 

 

Boarded windows.

 

This vintage hay loader rested among other junk.

 

Clustered junk.

 

 

I’ve never seen anything like this graveyard of campers and trailers.

 

Abandoned campers and trailers and trucks. It made me sad, just sad, to see the abandonment.

 

The old grain elevators still stand on the edge of town along the highway.

 

But none of this surprises me. It’s our fault really. We are a much more mobile society, a society much different than back-in-the-day or even 20 years ago. At one time, places like Evan thrived as area farmers and locals kept their business local. Today regional shopping centers pull in customers from all those small towns.

 

The train still runs, not through Evan, but through neighboring Sleepy Eye.

 

The railroad left.

 

Without jobs, with our farmer fathers still farming, many from my generation of Baby Boomers left Minnesota’s small towns. We couldn’t bank on a future in our rural hometowns.

 

 

Attitudes changed. Kids from my generation left for college and bigger cities and better opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with that desire to see the world, to become something other than our parents. But in doing so we added to the demise of many a small town. I am hard-pressed to think of many classmates who stayed in my hometown of Vesta 45 minutes from Evan to the north and west. Vesta, too, is a shell of the community it was when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Grain bins on opposite ends of town mark this as a farming community still today.

 

 

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Evan’s decline except an overall understanding of why once thriving towns now are mere ghosts of their pasts. Certainly Evan’s remote rural location factors into the mix. Located along Minnesota State Highway 68, Evan is easy to bypass on the shortcut route between Sleepy Eye and Morgan.

 

The only person or moving vehicle I saw in Evan during my short stop there.

 

Yet, Evan is home for some. I saw newer homes there. Not new as in recent, but newer than old. I saw a lovely church and that well-kept village hall. And grain bins. And the fading letters on the lumberyard, a visual reminder that at one time a demand for building supplies existed in a farming community that once prospered.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter exposure in southern Minnesota March 15, 2018

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Near New Ulm.

 

IN THE NAKEDNESS of winter, when trees are stripped bare of leaves, when fields lie exposed to the elements, rural Minnesota seems especially vulnerable.

 

Near Essig along US Highway 14.

 

In no other season do I notice more the intimate details of this place.

 

Along US Highway 14 somewhere west of Owatonna.

 

Red barns seem redder.

 

By Morgan

 

Power poles appear more intrusive.

 

Morgan, Minnesota

 

Grain elevators dominate, shoving grey mass into an already colorless landscape.

All of this I see through eyes that crave now the melting of snow, the cloaking of the land in the greening of spring.

 

NOTE: All images have been edited to create an artsy look.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This & that from my tour of downtown Sleepy Eye, Part IV March 13, 2018

Editor’s note: Today’s post concludes my four-part series from downtown Sleepy Eye in southwestern Minnesota. This final photo essay presents a mishmash of images. Enjoy.

 

The Sleepy Eye Farmers Elevator stands as a visual reminder of this area’s strong farming base. However, the elevator has not been used since 2009 and was purchased by a private party from Central Region Cooperative just a year ago.

 

An Indian chief, spotted in a storefront window, connects visually to the town’s namesake, Chief Sleepy Eyes.

 

I took my camera inside K & J Antiques & Collectibles where shopkeeper Kurk Kramer graciously allowed me to take photos.

 

Red Wing crocks and a beautiful vintage tile floor drew my attention in this former bakery turned antique shop.

 

Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes is the town’s namesake. Kurk Kramer pulled this A.J. Pietrus & Sons vintage promo from a display case. He has plenty of Sleepy Eye collectibles for sale.

 

Native American collectibles are prominently displayed in this town named after a Dakota chief. This doll is offered for sale at K & J Antiques.

 

Sleepy Eye has a strong faith community with St. Mary’s Catholic Church and churches of other denominations. These figurines are shelved at K & J Antiques.

 

This photo shows a corner of a promo for the Orchid Inn, once a fine dining, banquet and dance hall in Sleepy Eye. These vintage paper pieces are for sale at K & J Antiques. The promo boasts (in part): “Of prime importance is the fact that while conveniently located, the Inn does provide the host with a site free of metropolitan distractions–a vital factor in group control.” It’s an interesting piece of literature for a former regional gathering place. Plans call for the property to become a STEM learning center with a focus on agriculture.

 

On a stalwart former bank building, I noticed this vintage alarm.

 

On another building I spotted this rusted mail slot. It looks like it’s been there awhile, as has the door.

 

I notice details, including this Minion towel hanging in a second floor window in an historic building. Made me laugh.

 

If you are interested in reading past posts written about Sleepy Eye through the years, please type Sleepy Eye into my blog search engine. Note that Sleepy Eye is much more than I presented in this four-part series. These posts are a result of about an hour spent walking through the downtown area before I had to be on my way. Plan your own trip to explore this community in Brown County, Minnesota. Click here to visit the Sleepy Eye Chamber of Commerce & CVB site for more information. 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II March 9, 2018

 

WHEN I SEE A COMMUNITY like Sleepy Eye with so many architecturally-pleasing historic buildings, I wish I could wave a financial wand.

 

 

If I could, I would sweep away the metal, the wood, the stucco, the fake fronts that hide the bones of these beautiful, mostly-brick, structures. I would restore them to their grandeur, drawing the interest of motorists passing through this southwestern Minnesota community. I would give people a reason to stop, to check out the architecture, the unique small town shops and eateries. Many do. More could.

 

Details like this curved, ornate railing on city hall add visual interest and charm.

 

I would also make this busy main street more pedestrian and visually-friendly with bump-out corners graced by public art and lovely flower planters.  I would replace concrete sidewalks with brick, or at least edge them in brick. I’d buy some paint and repair windows and fix unsafe and run-down buildings…if only I held a magical wand of unlimited finances.

 

This map, from a vintage Orchid Inn promo, shows Sleepy Eye’s location in southwestern Minnesota.

 

With US Highway 14, a major east-west roadway running right through Sleepy Eye, heavy traffic is already here. And the bonus of this route as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway adds to the potential.

 

These architecturally detailed buildings hold Sleepy Eye’s history in dates and names.

 

You have to look upward to see the true beauty of these historic buildings.

 

A rooster weather vane drew my interest atop city hall, housed in a former bank.

 

If I had unlimited financial resources, I would do all of these things for this Brown County community west of New Ulm. But magical wishes differ from reality. It takes money to make these improvements. And I expect the merchants here, like those in so many small farming communities, are simply happy they’re still in business given competition from regional shopping centers, Big Box stores and online sources.

 

In numerous buildings I noted lovely tile, inside and out.

 

Yet, small towns like Sleepy Eye offer an alternative, a welcome break from the sameness of mass everything. Places like Sleepy Eye Stained Glass draw customers from all over to purchase stained glass supplies or to get stained glass windows and more restored. Three local antique shops, other shops and the friendliness and service of small town proprietors are additional draws. Schweiss Meats is a popular place for those who appreciate small town meat markets.

 

The old Pix Theatre needs lots of work inside and out. The intention is to save and restore the marquee, according to EDA Coordinator Kurk Kramer.

 

Within a year or so, two local physicians hope to reopen the abandoned Pix Theatre as a nano-brewery and coffee shop, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk K. Kramer. He also runs K & J Antiques and Collectibles. If all goes as planned, the former Orchid Inn motel and event center will become AGlobal, a STEM-based learning center with a focus on agriculture. Additionally, the Orchid would house a language immersion institute.

 

 

 

 

Those plans show me people are working hard to keep this community thriving, with businesses that distinguish Sleepy Eye from other small Minnesota towns. EDA Coordinator Kramer noted that Sleepy Eye is also home to a business (Mark Thomas Company) which serves the funeral home industry by producing such products as handcrafted wooden urns. Who knew? Not me.

 

Sleepy Eye honors its namesake on its water tower.

 

But I do know that Sleepy Eye is named after Chief Sleepy Eyes, buried at a monument site marking his grave. Everywhere you will see the respected Dakota leader’s portrait. He brings historical interest and identity to Sleepy Eye. Those are existing strengths.

 

 

Perhaps some day these historic downtown buildings will all be restored. I appreciate that some already are. Funds are available through the Sleepy Eye Downtown Rehabilitation Incentive Program to make improvements. So perhaps my vision for this small Minnesota town will evolve into more than simply a wish…

 

FYI: Highway 14 improvements in downtown Sleepy Eye this summer call for sidewalk replacement, pedestrian flashers at ped crossings and more. Click here to read details.

Please check back next week for “The Art of Signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III.”

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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