AFTER AN INCREDIBLY long winter followed by an exceptionally cold, cloudy and wet spring, we Minnesotans are ready to get outdoors. We are ready to celebrate. We are ready to let the sun shine into our lives. And this weekend, opportunities abound locally to get out and enjoy spring in southern Minnesota.
Rise and shine early on Saturday, May 14, to hit the Rice County Historical Society Spring Flea Market from 8 am – 2 pm in the parking lot and behind the RCHS museum in Faribault. I’ve attended many times and enjoy meandering among the vendors of antiques, collectibles, crafts and junk. I mean “junk” in a positive light.
While there, also check out the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market under the carport at the Rice County Fairgrounds from 10 am – 2 pm. Some 20 area/regional vendors will market spring produce, locally-grown starter plants, cheese, honey, pastries, woolen products, homemade soaps and much more.
Adding to the farmers’ market draw are local food trucks on site.
On Sunday, May 15, two area historic Norwegian churches celebrate Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day. Both events begin at 2 pm.
At Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, the gathering focuses on the dedication of tapestries woven by Robbie LeFlueur. The Minneapolis weaver was commissioned to create four tapestries—three will be complete by May 15—that illustrate church history, the congregation and the surrounding flora and fauna. She will also give a weaving demo. Hardanger fiddlers from St. Olaf College will provide entertainment. Valley Grove, atop a hillside near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, is a favorite destination of mine given its beautiful and peaceful country setting. I’ve attended numerous celebrations, or simply walked, there and always enjoyed myself. The Syttende Mai event goes until 4 pm.
In northern Rice County, the Norwegians of Old Trondhjem Church, rural Lonsdale, are hosting Tjarnblom, a Scandinavian folk group as their Syettende Mai celebration begins at 2 pm. There’s a brief meeting of the preservation society followed by coffee (of course), treats (of course) and fellowship (of course). I’ve also attended events at Trondhjem and recommend you join in this Norwegian celebration.
There you go. Four places to go in Rice County that will bring sunshine into your May weekend.
A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.
Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.
I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?
Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.
Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.
Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.
I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.
There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.
Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.
TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?
ATOP THIS HILL, here on the edge of the Big Woods among acres of fields near Nerstrand, I hear the whispers. Wrapping around the two historic churches. Rising from the cemetery. Sweeping through the tall prairie grasses.
This is Valley Grove, overlooking the countryside, the place where Norwegian immigrants came. Here they crafted their first church from stone in 1862, then built a second, of wood, in 1894. Both still stand.
The churches, cemetery and surrounding 50 acres are today owned, preserved and managed by the Valley Grove Preservation Society. They are a favorite nearby rural destination for me. I appreciate the natural beauty, the history, the country quiet and more. Even the wind.
I value the rural-ness. On this afternoon, the shrill crow of a rooster, the sharp crack of gunshots and the barks of two dogs running loose broke the silence. In the context of location, the sounds fit. Not that I like gunshots echoing or strange canines circling me. But they did no harm as I continued along the stomped, sometimes soggy grass trail back toward the Valley Grove Cemetery and churches.
When following the prairie paths under a wide sky, I hear whispers of the past. Of wheels creaking under the weight of wagons crammed with an immigrant family’s belongings. Of a young mother bent over her baby, singing a soothing song from the Old Country. Of a weary farmer sighing after a long day of breaking the land.
If this place could speak, it would whisper the stories of all those Norwegian immigrants who settled in and around Valley Grove and then gathered on this hilltop location to worship, socialize, celebrate, mourn.
On this winter day, the church doors are locked. But I’ve been inside both buildings. They are basic. Simple. Mostly unadorned. The wooden church is still used today for special worship services like weddings. The old stone church serves primarily as a social gathering room. Both are well preserved. Valued.
Much art already exists at Valley Grove, within the cemetery. I consider tombstones to be works of art, documentations of lives. The stone markers are many, from aged to recent. Names engraved thereon reflect the primarily Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. If these tombstones among the oaks could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. Of life in the Old Country. And of life in the New World, of this place, this Valley Grove.
FYI: Please check back for a post about the Valley Grove Cemetery.
HERE WE GO AGAIN. Due to extreme cold temps, the first-ever Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast at an historic Minnesota country church grounds has been rescheduled for the second time.
The event at Valley Grove churches is, as of today (Thursday), slated for 2 – 4 pm Saturday, January 8. Weather forecasters predict a temp of around 30 degrees, much warmer than our recent weather. Saturday will also be warmer than the predicted three degrees on Sunday, the first rescheduled date.
If you attend the Saturday gathering in the parking lot of this rural Nerstrand hilltop setting, dress warm. Even 30 degrees can feel cold if the slightest wind blows and you’re not dressed properly. That includes wearing warm winter boots. Organizers also encourage guests to bring blankets, chairs and hot beverages. If you have snowshoes and want to walk the prairie, bring that footwear.
On bitterly cold January days like today I respect the hardiness of those early Norwegian settlers who endured much to make a new home in America, in rural Rice County. This morning when I shoveled snow from my driveway and sidewalk, I three times returned to the house to warm myself. Even wearing long johns under jeans, a heavy parka over my clothes, boots, a hat, mittens and a scarf wrapped around my neck and face, my fingers and toes began to numb. That’s a warning sign that, if ignored, could lead to frostbite.
So here I am, inside my cozy office, fleece throw tossed across my lap, thankful for the warmth of the overworked furnace. Thankful to have finished that shoveling in, according to the local radio station, a wind chill temp of -31 degrees. No wonder I felt cold.
When the Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast happens on Saturday, the temp will feel some 60 degrees warmer.
Now, I’ve never heard of a Donut Hole Roast. But I could easily warm up to the idea since I like donuts. Plus, warming by a bonfire sounds especially wonderful given our current brutally cold weather here in southern Minnesota.
Come Sunday, temps could struggle to reach double digits for highs from morning lows of well below zero. Wind will also likely factor in to comfort levels. Wind chill warnings are probable. Translate: It will feel much colder than the thermometer reads. Plan accordingly so as not to experience frostbite while outdoors.
The good folks at Valley Grove promise bonfires ablaze for warming and for toasting donut holes. Still, the two churches, on the National Register of Historic Places, sit atop a hill where the wind whips.
Those attending are advised to dress warm. Bring blankets and warm beverages. Wear winter boots. If you want to sit, bring a chair. And, if you plan to explore the prairie, pack your snowshoes.
The 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church adjoin the church cemetery surrounded by 50 acres of prairie and an oak savanna restoration project. It’s a lovely place, which Randy and I have visited often. But never in the deep cold of winter. We’ve walked the church and cemetery grounds. Attended events here. Picnicked on the 1894 church steps. I love the peacefulness of this spot in rural Rice County near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I love, too, the history, the natural beauty, the art, the sacredness…
Typically, Valley Grove hosts an annual Fall Country Social and a Candlelight Christmas Eve Service. But those events were canceled this year and last due to COVID-19.
Now those who care about these aged churches, the land and the Norwegian heritage are trying something new to bring people safely together. To celebrate the new year. With donut holes toasting over bonfires blazing. Dress warm if you plan to attend.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.
Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.
I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.
Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.
Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.
But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.
And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.
Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.
To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 on 155th Street East, rural Nerstand, for the recent Eat Local Farm Tour.
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.
Livestock graze in pastures and are fed a vegetarian diet. These animals see sunlight and sky on this organic farm.
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.
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.
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 pair peered through chicken wire in a chicken coop window opening.
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.
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.
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.
I photographed this sunflower by the chicken coop.
Customers could also purchase Wildflower Honey from Schoolhouse Apiary, Northfield, during the farm tour.
FYI: Check back as I take you several miles away to Shepherd’s Way Farms, also on the 2016 Eat Local Farm Tour.