THE JULY FOURTH WEEKEND took me back home, home being my native southwestern Minnesota. There my extended family gathered at my middle brother’s rural acreage near Lamberton for the first time since December 2019. To see so many family members—not all attended—felt wonderful.
Being back in that rural area of our state, in a familiar landscape, felt comforting. No matter where I’ve lived as an adult, Redwood County remains home. The place of my roots. The land and sky and wind imprinted upon me like ink on the pages of a book. Words that thread through my writing even today.
Perhaps my perspective seems too nostalgic. And if it does, I offer no apologies. I value the place which shaped me as a person and as a writer and photographer.
The familiar scenes which appear before me en route from Faribault to southwestern Minnesota welcome me back. The red barns. The vast fields of corn and soybeans. The expansive sky. Even the tractors and farm wagons and pick-up trucks.
All are part of the rural-ness. My rural-ness. The grain elevators and gravel roads and power lines stretching seemingly to infinity.
I could write chapters about the gravel roads I biked as a teen—how the gravel crunched beneath tires, how wild roses flourished in ditches, how vehicles kicked up dust. I could write chapters about barns—how I labored inside ours, feeding cows and calves, and pitching manure. I could write chapters about the ice and snow storms that left our farm without electricity, once for an entire week in the depth of winter.
A trip back to southwestern Minnesota prompts such memories. I remember. I relive. But, most of all, I recognize just how thankful I am to have been raised in this rural region. On the land. In the shadows of silos and grain elevators. Just a softball pitch away from the barn. Within scent of cows, steers and calves. As close to the earth as bare feet or the end of a hoe hacking cockle burrs in a soybean field.
As rural scenes unfold, my memories, too, unfurl. Memories of hard work and challenges balanced by carefree afternoons and prairie sunsets and all the beauty this place holds for me. Still today, some 40-plus decades after I left this land.
NORTH MORRISTOWN on the Fourth of July suits me and my rural roots. Not that I’m rooted to this place in the middle of farm country in southwestern Rice County. But the down-to-earth basics of this nearly 130-year-old Independence Day celebration appeal to the raised-on-a-Redwood-County-farm girl in me.
I appreciate how this event, held annually on festival grounds in a rural Minnesota landscape, remains basically unchanged. Just like North Morristown, which is not a town, but rather farm sites, fields, a Lutheran church and school, and the grassy, shaded celebration site.
The rural character of July Fourth here prevails. In tractors and grain trucks. In barns, machine sheds and farmhouses. But it stretches beyond that to the people, to families rooted in North Morristown for generations. In many ways, Independence Day here is as much a celebration of our nation’s birthday as it is one big family reunion. With guests, like me, welcomed.
The event feels friendly and comfortably homey. I recognize that doesn’t come without a lot of planning, time, effort and hard work on the part of volunteers. I’ve coordinated and led events much smaller than this and fully realize the work and commitment.
So to those who spearheaded this year’s Fourth of July in North Morristown, thank you. And to those who have led in the past, thank you also. You are bringing joy to a lot of people. You are preserving the past. You are bringing people of all ages together from all over, this year from as far away as the Philippines. You are strengthening families and building memories. You are offering an alternative to high tech everything.
In a fast-paced world, we need a place and event like North Morristown on the Fourth to remind us to slow down, to sit for a spell. To listen to the music. To savor a slice of homemade pie or a pork sandwich. To visit with friends and family and strangers. To watch babies toddle in bare feet and kids climb onto vintage horses. To play BINGO or hunt for a hidden medallion. To feel grateful for faith and family and health and country.
At its core, North Morristown on the Fourth represents so many things I hold dear. I expect others feel the same.
TELL ME: Did you attend the North Morristown July 4 celebration or one similar? I’d like to hear.
Although the selection was limited by this time in the day-long event, we still found tasty pies. I chose fresh strawberry while Randy opted for rhubarb, both parceled in generous portions.
While we forked our pies, the ever-popular bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, performed to an appreciative audience on the nearby Main Stage. The crowd settled onto bleachers, folding chairs inside the gazebo and onto plank benches, and also spilled onto the grassy area in lawn chairs and on blankets.
Several musical groups performed throughout a day packed with family-friendly events: A parade, patriotic program, BINGO, kiddie rides and games, and so much more.
Once we finished our pie, we roamed the festival grounds, a grassy space shaded by towering trees (including aged oaks) and next to farm sites and fields. Across the street sits Trinity Lutheran Church and School, the school benefiting from funds raised at this long-running July Fourth celebration.
I love everything about this event. The timeless quality. The step back in time. The connecting with friends (and for many, with family). The music. The food.
To be in North Morristown on the Fourth of July is to experience a sense of community, to feel comforted by the sameness of this celebration, to understand that this is about more than Independence Day. This is about rural America and how family and community and tradition are valued and cherished here.
As I watched the engineer of the barrel train steer his lawn tractor, I thought, what wonderful memories these kids will have of riding that homemade train. The same goes for the other kiddie rides and carnival games which remain unchanged. I need to bring my grandchildren here to experience this.
Generations of families run the rides and booths, stitching stories into their family histories. The kids will always remember going to North Morristown on the Fourth—to pluck a yellow rubber duck from a pond, to throw a ball toward a hoop or toward spinning “dolls,” to drop a line into the fish pond…all for some prize that is more treasure than trinket on July 4.
North Morristown on the Fourth truly rates as an American treasure.
Although Randy and I did not grow up here, we have lived in neighboring Faribault for 40 years and know a lot of people. So we saw many there—Mel, Carl, Leroy, Shirley, Virgil, Jane, Jen, Mike…and a college friend, Annette, whom I haven’t seen in decades. We made new friends, too, Kevin and Brenda from Elysian and another couple from Monticello. That’s the thing about this celebration. Sit at a picnic table and you’ll find yourself engaging in conversation with strangers.
After we completed our tour of the festival grounds and enjoyed the music by Monroe Crossing, Randy and I ordered sandwiches. I got barbecued pork. He chose a burger. The food, served from vintage stands, is always, always delicious. And, yes, we ate our dessert before our main meal because we weren’t willing to risk the pie running out.
Several hours after arriving in the less-busy, less-crowded late afternoon, we left, taking the scenic route home along gravel roads winding past farm sites. I felt so appreciative of this rural setting, of North Morristown on the Fourth of July and of the people who make this event happen. What an exceptional example of a holiday celebration which, at its core, remains unchanged and rooted in community and family.
FYI: Please check back for a second post with more photos from North Morristown on July Fourth.
FOR THE GOOD FOLKS of Janesville, the fiery “death” of Frankenstein last Saturday morning equates the loss of a community icon.
The 20-foot tall fiberglass and steel interpretation of Mary Shelley’s monster loomed on a downtown street corner in this southern Minnesota town of some 2,500. Until the early morning hours of June 12, when a 35-year-old man who lives nearby allegedly torched Frankenstein. He’s been charged with felony arson and damage to property. Only the skeleton remains of the sculpture valued at an estimated $14,000.
Janesville’s Frankenstein, originally a Vulcan displayed at the 1988 St. Paul Winter Carnival, was reinvented as a Halloween attraction in the metro before a local businessman purchased him from an auction in 2012. I photographed Frankenstein in 2016, finding him an oddity in this small Waseca County town.
But “odd” isn’t new to Janesville. For decades, “The Doll in the Window” was Janesville’s noted attraction. The mannequin, positioned inside an attic window and visible from well-traveled U.S. Highway 14 (which now bypasses the town), was the stuff of creepy legends. The man who displayed the doll died long ago and, from what I found online, a lot of unknowns remain.
Whether Frankenstein is resurrected remains to be seen. For now, folks are honoring him with flowers and other mementos placed at the base of his skeleton, drawing attention once again to this rural Minnesota community.
EAST OF FARIBAULT, the land stretches long and flat. Wide open. Fields punctuated by farm sites.
Gravel and asphalt roads divide farmland into grids. Orderly. As if a ruler was laid across the earth and straight lines inked thereon.
Sunday afternoon, after a hike at Falls Creek County Park, Randy and I took a country drive. We are farm-raised, decades removed from the farm, but with an enduring connection to the land.
On the cusp of spring planting time in Minnesota, the draw back to the land, to the familiarity of fields, calls. For me, there’s this deep yearning, this need to lay my eyes on the bare earth or the residue of last year’s crops.
At times my heart aches for missing the land. I want to smell the scent of soil, to touch the cold earth, to remember all those springs back on the farm. The steady rhythm of the tractor, the corn kernels pouring into the planter and then the faint hint of green lining the black fields.
Much about farming has changed since my leaving of the land in the early 1970s. But the basics remain. The planting, the growing and harvesting.
And even though I’ve lived in town far more decades than on a farm, my rural upbringing roots me to the land and takes me back each season. To honor my hardworking farmer dad. To equally appreciate my mom who gardened and fed and raised six children on the land. My hardworking parents instilled in me a love of the land, a connection to place and the innate need to follow gravel roads into the countryside.
This post is dedicated in loving memory of my farmer father, Elvern Kletscher, who died on April 7, 2003. Thank you, Dad, for raising me to appreciate the land, for teaching me the value of hard work. for instilling in me a love of God and of family. I am grateful. And I miss you.
THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING today seems reason to celebrate, especially here in Minnesota, the land of long winters. Or, as my California-raised son-in-law once thought, Almost Canada.
From here on, daylight lengthens. And, after this past pandemic year, I’m thankful for the seasonal transition into more sunlight and resulting warmth and melting of snow. That said, this is still March and in Minnesota that likely means more cold and snowy days.
But, as we ease into spring, I feel a sense of renewal. Warm days with temps in the 50s and near 60, like those predicted for this weekend, are freeing, uplifting and promising.
Farmers, I expect, are itching to get into the fields, although it’s way too early for that. I still think like the farm-raised woman I am, connecting seasons to the cycle of planting, growing and harvesting. That will always remain an important part of my identity and continues to influence my writing and photography.
Flash back to 10 years ago and you can read that influence in a poem I penned and submitted to the Roadside Poetry Project. In four lines, each with a 20 character limit, I wrote a spring-themed poem that bannered on four billboards in Fergus Falls. It’s the most unusual spot my poetry has ever published.
Designed “to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the landscape,” according to then Project Coordinator Paul Carney, my poem truly fit that mission. I wrote from experience, from a closeness to the land, from a landscape of understanding.
While the Roadside Poetry Project, funded by the Fergus Falls College Foundation, no longer exists, my poem endures in the legacy of my writing. To have written about spring from the perspective of a farmer’s daughter celebrates my rural Minnesota prairie roots. And spring.
FOR THOSE OF YOU who’ve followed my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog for awhile, you understand that I value small towns. They are a favorite destination, an escape of sorts back to my rural prairie roots. To a less-populated place, typically rooted in agriculture.
That said, I recognize that my definition of a “small town” may differ from yours. I view small towns as communities with populations of several thousand or less. I would not, for example, consider my city of Faribault to be small. Others would given its population of around 24,000.
What draws me to small towns, to photograph and write about them, beyond my desire to reconnect with rural places and share my finds?
It’s discovering nuances of character. It’s connecting with people. It’s the architecture and oddities and so much more. Exploring small towns is like taking a basic sentence and enhancing the main subject with adjectives.
Yet, I realize not everyone appreciates language like I do. All too often, small towns are bypassed or driven through—seemingly not a place that would attract visitors. But I am here to tell you they are worth the detour off the interstate, the destination for a day trip, the stopping on Main Street.
Montgomery, Minnesota, for example, is one of my favorite nearby small towns. Why? I love going to Franke’s Bakery, a staple in this community for 100-plus years. The bakery specializes in Czech treats, in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. Across the street from the bakery, a mural tells the history of this town. Aged buildings line the main business district, with home-grown shops and eateries and bars. The adjectives enhancing the main subject.
The Montgomery Arts and Cultural Heritage Center and Montgomery Brewing also draw me to this Le Sueur County community. And the signs and architecture.
The good folks of Montgomery have branded their community, tapping into their heritage and then building on that to create a place that attracts visitors. I think potential exists in every small town to do the same. And it starts with recognizing the strengths, the uniqueness, of a community. I know that requires time, money and effort. But, oh, the possibilities.
I, for one, love small town bakeries, antique shops, thrift stores, art centers and home-grown cafes with meal offerings that are crafted by hand, not pulled from a freezer and heated. I recently saw a sign for Beef Commercials in New Ulm. I haven’t eaten one—roast beef layered between slices of white bread, topped with a dollop of mashed potatoes and smothered in gravy—for years. Had it been meal time and not a pandemic, I may have stopped to indulge in nostalgia.
Now I know every community can’t tap into heritage like New Ulm and Montgomery. But, each place truly possesses potential to attract visitors. In Ellendale, for example, the award-winning Steve’s Meat Market draws meat lovers. I am partial to Lerberg’s Foods and its worn wooden floor, narrow aisles and aged moose head looming over cans of stacked corn.
I delight in such discoveries. Kitsch. Identity. A strong sense of place and pride. I hope that, by sharing my thoughts and photos, you, too, will view small towns through a lens of appreciation.
TELL ME: Have you discovered a small town that you just love. I’d like to hear.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I expand on this post with more photos from some of the communities featured here.
TODAY MY COUNTY OF RICE reported its 92nd COVID-related death. That saddens me. I don’t know the identity of this latest individual to die from the virus. But that matters not. What matters is that, to family and friends, this is the loss of a loved one.
That’s something we all need to remember. Ninety-two represents much more than a number added to the growing statistics. It represents a life.
With that said, I need to vent. And if you’re weary of reading about anything COVID-related, then stop reading right now. But I’m frustrated, beyond frustrated.
On Saturday, Randy and I headed to two small towns south of Owatonna. Just to get out of town for a bit. We’ve previously toured both, but several years ago. Driving into rural Minnesota, parking on Main Street and then walking to see what we can find is an adventure.
Our day trip into these two rural Steele County communities on Saturday proved to be an adventure alright. What we found was absolutely, totally, disheartening. Compliance to Minnesota’s state mask mandate is pretty much non-existent. That left me exiting several businesses—a hardware store and boutiques—before the doors had barely closed behind me. And we’re not talking just customers here without masks. We’re talking owners and employees.
Never mind the signs posted outside these businesses stating that “masks are required.” Why bother? Oh, because the state requires posting of these signs, apparently.
Here’s how I felt when I saw those business owners and employees without masks. I felt disrespected. I felt unsafe. I felt unwelcome. I felt frustrated. I felt angry. I felt like they didn’t really want my business. And, as much as I wanted to say something to them about my feelings, I didn’t. You never know who’s carrying a gun these days and may harm you if you speak up. So I walked out.
And the thing is, several of those small town boutiques, especially, were inviting little shops filled with merchandise that may have interested me. But I felt uncomfortable from the moment the unmasked shopkeepers greeted me and I turned to make a hasty exit.
This masking issue isn’t a problem unique to small towns. When we returned to Faribault and stopped to pick up a few groceries, I spotted mask-less customers. They are increasing in number. The non-maskers and half-maskers. But at least I don’t see business owners and employees without masks in my community (except at the farm implement dealer). That’s the difference. In the two small towns in Steele County, business owners and employees were without masks. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Masks are a scientifically-proven way to prevent spread of COVID-19. Why risk the health of customers? This, what I perceive as selfish and uncaring behavior, left me with a really negative perspective of these two towns. And that’s something no business, no community, needs, especially now.
But on this stop, we’d just come from neighboring Redwood County, where we saw my mom in the nursing home. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our last in-person visit before COVID-19 closed care center doors to visitors and changed everything.
By the time we reached Sleepy Eye well past the noon hour, I was hungry. It’s a running joke in our family that I need to eat on time or I get crabby. It’s the truth, not a joke.
We ended up at The Railway Bar & Grill, appropriately named given its location near the train tracks. Next to the grain elevator. I don’t recall what I ordered other than a sandwich. Nothing memorable, but sustenance.
In a pandemic year that’s been especially difficult for bars and restaurants, The Railway apparently struggled. The business—complete with bar, two dining areas, private conference room, an outdoor patio, 12 tappers and more—is now for sale. For $165,000.
I’m not familiar with dining options in Sleepy Eye. But I know one thing about small towns—cafes and bars and grills are community gathering places. Spots to meet with family and friends. After a ball game. On a Saturday night. To shoot the breeze. To celebrate. To get out of the house on a cold winter evening. To BS over a beer or two. From all indications, The Railway filled that need in Sleepy Eye.
When Randy and I finished our sandwiches on that early March Saturday afternoon in 2020, I stepped outside to photograph the neighborhood while he paid the bill. I focused my lens on three houses crammed together.
And then I aimed toward the towering grain elevators next to the bar & grill. Vintage elevators always draw my eye for their architectural interest (as cathedrals of the prairie), historical importance and connection to my farming past. Silo style grain storage units will never hold the same appeal as these rectangular grey elevators soaring high above small towns. Too many of these have vanished, including in my hometown of Vesta where a local farmer moved the elevators onto his farm.
On this Saturday, I delighted in reconnecting with my rural roots outside The Railway. In my memory, I heard the rumble of a train, saw grain trucks lining up at the elevator, smelled the earthy scent of harvest…
RURAL MINNESOTA. For Randy and me, that represents our upbringing, the place of our roots, the land that is part of our personal geography.
We both grew up on farms, in large families—his three kids larger than mine at nine. We both picked rock—he more than me as Morrison County in central Minnesota sprouts more rocks than Redwood County. We each labored in fields and barns and understood the value of hard work and our importance in the farming operation. Even at a young age. That carries through in our strong work ethics and our strong link to the land.
And, though we left our rural communities at age 17, we still hold dear the small towns—Buckman and Vesta—that were such an important part of our upbringing. Both have changed with familiar businesses long gone. Society changed and locals began driving farther for groceries and other necessities.
It’s easy to get caught in the memories, of the back then, of wishing nothing had changed. But it has and it does. And life goes on.
Returning to our hometowns, our home areas, causes me to reflect while simultaneously appreciating that which remains. Cafes and churches and hardware stores. Post offices and bars and grain elevators. These are the community gathering spots that still mark many of Minnesota’s smallest communities, those towns that span only blocks from east to west, north to south.
But more than buildings, people form community. Even in Faribault, where Randy and I have lived since 1982, we’ve found our small town in a city of around 25,000. That’s in our faith family at Trinity Lutheran Church, the “town” that centers our lives. An uncle and I discussed this recently. He lives in Minneapolis. His neighborhood is his community, his small town.
No matter where you live, whether in rural Minnesota or New York City, the mountains of Idaho or the plains of Nebraska, I hope you’ve found your community and place of joy.