Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating the history & beauty of Valley Grove on a September afternoon September 18, 2019

A horse-drawn wagon takes visitors through the prairie at Valley Grove with the Big Woods in the distance. When fall colors change, the treeline is spectacular.


I CONSIDER IT ONE of the most scenic spots in Rice County. A location that presents a sweeping vista of the countryside from atop a hill adjacent to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Autumn, especially, at Valley Grove offers a visual delight.


Folks gather in the restored 1862 stone church for cake, hot dogs, beverages and conversation.


On Sunday afternoon, in hot and humid temps that felt anything but autumn-like, I attended the annual Valley Grove Country Social hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society.


The beautiful and well-preserved historic churches of Valley Grove as photographed from the cemetery.


The group aims to preserve and maintain this place on the National Register of Historic Sites. Here, on this land claimed by early Norwegian immigrants, two churches (built in 1862 and 1894) stand next to a cemetery and next to the prairie.


An historic photo and flowers grace a window ledge inside the stone church.


These crosses, crafted from Valley Grove burr oaks, were on sale.


One of six sets of historic sconces to be installed in the stone church as preservation efforts continue.


To visit here is to feel a deep appreciation for the history of this place and those who chose this site to build houses of worship.


Hutenanny, a Northfield-based traditional Nordic music group, entertains those attending the Valley Grove Country Social.


Making music with Hutenanny.


A sing-along inside the wood-frame church.


To attend the country social is to experience history—through music,


Donna Johnson of the mother-daughter duo Nordic Arts demonstrates the Norwegian art of rosemaling.


These sisters try rosemaling using crayons rather than paint.


An example of Nordic Arts’ art.



Hewing a log next to the wood-frame church.


demonstrations, historical talks,


Learning how to make a rope.


Rope-making up close.


Kids especially loved doing laundry the old-fashioned way.


hands-on activities and more.


The Valley Grove churches.


I always feel such a peace at Valley Grove. As if the world of today exists somewhere distant.


A simple floral still-life on a windowsill in the wood-frame church.


It’s good for the soul to take time on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September to step back in time. Not necessarily to idealize life then—because it was hard. But to gather with others in the countryside far from traffic and distractions and the noise of modern-day life.


I noticed these dolls lying on the ground behind the old stone church. So fitting for the day.


To appreciate simpler times


Such beauty in this floral bouquet adorning a window ledge in the wooden church.


and simple beauty.


Valley Grove wildflowers at prairie’s edge.


To gather under the burr oaks, to walk the prairie, to study tombstones, to sing in the same church where early settlers sang, to watch youngsters craft ropes and walk on stilts. And so much more.


Built in 1862.


I appreciate the preservationists who understand the personal and historic importance of Valley Grove, of not allowing these churches to fall into disrepair like too many other shuttered country churches. They clearly value the land, the efforts of their forefathers, the importance of this place. Still today.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Elsie September 3, 2019

Elsie Keller, right, works in the kitchen at St. John’s Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.


THERE ARE PEOPLE you meet in life who make a profound impact. Not on a grand, public scale. But upon the people they meet, the communities in which they live and serve simply by the way they live and serve. Humbly. Exuding kindness and friendliness. Living a life of service, of giving to others. Elsie Keller fits that description.

I don’t recall exactly when I met Elsie. But I know where. At St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, just down the road from the rural Nerstrand home where she lived her entire life. Ninety-three years.


Elsie making German potato salad, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.


Inside the church kitchen, that’s Elsie standing next to her stool at a Lenten Soup Luncheon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


Elsie next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John’s in honor of her husband, Arnold. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I’ve attended many functions at St. John’s from the annual Germanfest to Lenten soup luncheons to ice cream and pie socials to the yearly The Last Supper Drama. And every time I set foot inside that aged limestone church, Elsie was there. Most often behind the scenes—plating pie, stirring German potato salad, operating spotlights and much more.


Elsie poses with family at the 2017 Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.


If I didn’t spot her, I sought her out to hug her diminutive frame, to see her sweet smile, to catch up a bit. She was that kind of woman. The grandmother you miss. The mother who lives too distant. The friend who cares. The churchgoer who lives her faith in service to her church and to God. Singing. Coordinating Vacation Bible School for 51 years. Teaching Sunday School for more than five decades.


Elsie, hard at work in the Pie Room. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


A member of St. John’s Youth Fellowship waits, plate in hand, for a slice of pumpkin pie scooped up by Elsie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


By the end of the day, Elsie had blisters on her hand from cutting pies. Here she scoops a slice of apple pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


To know Elsie was to love her. I loved her smile, her demeanor, her humility, her kindness, her devotion to church and family, her work ethic. I remember, especially, the time I found her working in the St. John’s pie room sliding pieces of homemade pie onto plates with her gnarled arthritic hands.


Elsie takes a break from kitchen work to enjoy a bowl of ham and bean soup. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


Back at the farm, Elsie still gardened. She canned green beans on Thursday evening. The night before her death.


Elsie in The Pie Room, a space so small that this petite woman can barely fit her stool between a counter and refrigerator. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


I still cannot believe my friend is gone, even though she was nearly 94 years old. There are people in life who seem ageless, whom you always expect will be there. For me, that was Elsie. If only you could have known her. For those of you who did, you understand why I will miss her. Her smile, her kindness, her positive and giving spirit…

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


What’s the deal with all the flies at Valley Grove? April 27, 2018


The historic Valley Grove Churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.


ALL YOU SCIENTIST, ENTOMOLOGY, biology types out there, I need your input to solve a mystery. I suppose I could google the topic, but I’d rather read your theories or fact-based conclusions.


The buzzing started once we stepped inside the front gate and onto the grass between the two churches.


Last Sunday afternoon while walking on the grounds of Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand, I heard a buzzing. Like a zillion bees. At first I thought I was hearing things because, when I would stop, the droning also stopped.

I questioned whether I could be suffering from tinnitus, an occasional issue given my hearing loss. I’m nearly deaf in the my right ear which causes all sorts of problems in determining sound sources and in hearing in general.



But this buzzing seemed real. I risked asking my husband if he heard what I heard. He did. We paused on the dormant dried grass. No buzzing. Then we took a few steps and the irritating hum resumed. Then my observant husband, with the way better vision than me, saw the flies. Everywhere. Infinite numbers settled on the grass as if sunning themselves. I strained to see the camouflaged flies and then photograph them. I managed one image of a single fly. Whenever either of us moved, they, too, moved. It was the craziest thing.


One of several birdhouses located on the grassland hiking area.


I’m a woman who has a history with flies. They were part of my growing up environment on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm. A fly swatter was always at the ready. Sticky fly traps dangled from ceilings in our farmhouse; one even hung over the kitchen table. Not at all appealing. But I’d rather see a dead fly than have one land on my dinner plate. In the barn, biting, swarming flies were a constant problem. For cows. And for humans.


This aged, massive oak is a focal point in the corner of the cemetery.


But why were these thousands (maybe even millions) of flies here, on these church and cemetery grounds on a sunny late April afternoon, the first warm weekend of the season in Minnesota? There were no cattle (although the occasional piles of deer and other animal poop). There was no food.



The insects didn’t swarm the entire grounds—mostly just the area between the two historic church buildings and along the edge of the adjoining cemetery.



Once I got past the fly territory, I enjoyed my time at Valley Grove. It’s a beautiful place of quiet, of peace, set high atop a hill with lovely rural vistas. There are hiking trails and history in the cemetery (and churches when they are open). Generations of families are buried here. And there are oak trees, including one held together by thick chains in the corner of the cemetery.

This place holds stories. And now it holds one more story—the mystery of the fly invasion.


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Touring Simple Harvest Organic Farm, rural Nerstrand July 25, 2016

The Zemans' farmhouse and yard.

The Zemans’ farmhouse and yard, this view looking toward the driveway.

SIBLINGS KATHY AND NICK ZEMAN farm the old-fashioned way.

Visitors park along the county road by Simple Harvest Organic Farm for the Eat Local Tour.

Visitors park along the county road by Simple Harvest Organic Farm on 155th Street East, rural Nerstand, for the recent Eat Local Farm Tour.

Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 17 geese close-up


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 79 beehives


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 69 pigs


Their 20-acre rural Nerstrand acreage is home to an assortment of animals typical of farms of yesteryear. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, goats, cows and rabbits along with two dogs and bees comprise the collection of critters I spotted on a recent visit.


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 15 back ends of goats


Livestock graze in pastures and are fed a vegetarian diet. These animals see sunlight and sky on this organic farm.


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 8 Simple H sign


Simple Harvest Organic Farm was among sites featured on the recent 2016 Eat Local Farm Tour. As I hiked up the driveway toward the farm yard, I noticed the absence of a barn. I didn’t ask Kathy about that. I was distracted by the goats and then the chickens peering from behind chicken wire in the weathered chicken house.


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 43 bunnies


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 39 goat close-up


Then it was on to the rabbits and the sweet bunnies and a single milk goat that preferred chomping on dry leaves over fresh leaves.


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 18 geese walking


As I circled the property, I noticed plenty of weeds and droppings from wandering geese. This isn’t a pristine picture perfect farm. But it’s lovely in the sort of way that this is a way of life for Kathy and her brother. Not only do they raise food for themselves, but also for others through their Community Supported Agriculture business.


This weathered building houses the chickens, who roam inside and out.

This weathered building houses the chickens, who roam inside and out.

This pair peered through chicken wire in a chicken coop window.

This pair peered through chicken wire in a chicken coop window opening.

The farm store is located in a closed corner of the pole shed which also houses pigs and fowl.

The farm store is located in a an enclosed corner room of the pole shed which also houses pigs and fowl.

On the second Saturday of every month, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., the Zemans open their farm store—housed in a room in a pole shed—to CSA and other customers who stop by to pick up frozen whole chickens, eggs and more. The farm is also open by appointment.


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 81 bikes


As I chatted with Kathy, whom I met 30-plus years ago when I was a newspaper reporter and she the Steele County dairy princess, she paused to greet new arrivals. “The neighbors are here,” she enthused. And they really were her neighbors, their bikes leaning against a fence near the end of the farm driveway.


Simple Harvest raw honey available for purchase at the farm.

Simple Harvest raw honey available for purchase at the farm.

Friendliness and old-fashioned neighborliness prevail here on Simple Harvest Organic Farm.


On the day I visited, these items were available for purchase from Simple Harvest.

On the day I visited, these items were available for purchase from Simple Harvest.

I photographed this sunflower by the chicken coop.

I photographed this sunflower by the chicken coop.

Customers could also purchase Wildflower Honey from Schoolhouse Apiary during the farm tour.

Customers could also purchase Wildflower Honey from Schoolhouse Apiary, Northfield, during the farm tour.


Simple Harvest Organic Farm, 7 Eat Local sign


FYI: Check back as I take you several miles away to Shepherd’s Way Farms, also on the 2016 Eat Local Farm Tour.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling