Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Valley Grove Country Social, up close September 22, 2022

The young boy wearing these cowboy boots watched intently as Northfield artist David F. Allen worked on a painting of Valley Grove Church. The two talked about creating (the little guy likes to color) and about a newly-acquired pig named Pinky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

A painting of the 1862 Valley Grove stone church and cemetery by David F. Allen and for sale at the Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022, photographed with the artist’s permission)
Panels placed alongside the stone church provided historical details. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

In the entry of the 1894 church, more historical info and photos. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

Folks gather outside the 1894 church to converse and to view the art of David F. Allen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

A section of the cemetery looking toward the rolling prairie land. The Social included tours of the cemetery and of the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A prairie restoration project fills the prairie with wildflowers, grass and insects. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
This striped gopher ran across the cemetery lawn before popping into a hole. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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 prop horse harnessed to a buggy features a horse hide blanket. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An accordion players plays with Hutenanny under the oaks in the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Ribbon-tied notecards for sale in the stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

Doing laundry the old-fashioned way. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Corn ground at the Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Toys like this stick horse were available for kids to use. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

Musicians perform under the oaks while Social attendees listen and/ore explore the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.”

The goats drew lots of admirers as they wandered, tethered, with their owner. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The kids’ tent, right, featured hands-on activities. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A leashed dog came with its owner. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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?

This concludes my three-part series on the 2022 Valley Grove Country Social. Click here to read my first post about Bjorn Norgaard and my second post, an overview of the Social.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting, celebrating & more at Valley Grove Country Social September 21, 2022

Vehicles line the gravel driveway leading to the hilltop Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, during the September 18 Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

Inside the stone church, now used for fellowship, folks grab refreshments, converse and view historical information and art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Among the newest additions to the stone church are four tapestries woven by Minneapolis artist Robbie LaFleur and reflective of Valley Grove. This one is titled “Pastor Quammen Skis between Parishes.” He was the longest serving pastor at the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A vintage buggy adds another historic aspect to the Valley Grove Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

Bouquets and vintage photos edge window sills in the oldest church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

An organist and violinist play during a recital in the newer church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Horse-drawn wagon rides onto the prairie drew many passengers throughout the afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Grinding corn as part of the hands-on learning opportunities. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Northfield artist David Allen brought his brushes, watercolors and paper to paint on-site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

From cemetery’s edge, the open prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Rope making, a nod to Valley Grove’s agrarian roots, was part of the Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
All ages were drawn to these two goats. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

One of David Allen’s paintings of Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

A musician performs with the group Hutenanny under the oak trees in the cemetery.

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.

Toys of yesteryear were available to try. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

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.

Please check back for more photos from the Valley Grove Country Social. And click here to read my first post from the event, a personal piece about a young man named Bjorn.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Valley Grove: In loving memory of Bjorn September 19, 2022

On the east side of the Valley Grove Cemetery, massive oaks rise next to a restored prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

HE APPROACHED ME inquiring whether I was the official photographer. I was not. But I was photographing the Valley Grove Country Social on Sunday afternoon in rural Nerstrand.

The beautiful historic churches stand next to the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

That unexpected encounter proved powerful, revealing why this hilltop location of two historic churches and a cemetery holds such deep personal meaning for many. From the Norwegian immigrants who built the stone church in 1862, replaced by a wooden church in 1894, to today, this land keeps stories and memories and provides a place to grieve.

The hilltop cemetery provides a sweeping view of the prairie and distant treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

For Brett Norgaard, Valley Grove is the final resting place of his beloved son, Bjorn Erik Norgaard, struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on February 20, 2011, while skiing on frozen Lake Superior. He was only 23. Bjorn’s gravestone, imprinted with a ballad he penned, sits near the site of a massive oak felled in a September 2018 tornado. That tree, in the southwest corner, was a cemetery landmark, the spot where many baptisms occurred.

Memory boxes crafted from a landmark fallen oak at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Mementoes honoring Bjorn Norgaard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A photo of Bjorn rests between two poems he wrote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now, in this chance meeting, I learned of Bjorn’s connection to that tree. His father held it—two boxes crafted from that fallen oak, the larger one holding a passport, an American Birkebeiner pin and other mementos of a dearly loved son.

Brett Norgaard asked me to take this family photo. I was happy to do so after hearing his son’s story. Shortly thereafter, rain began falling so I was unable to photograph Bjorn’s gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But it was Bjorn’s poems that expressed to me the creative spirit of this outdoorsman, environmentalist, cross country skier, Alaska fly fishing guide, 2006 Northfield High School graduate, son, grandson, friend…

This cemetery is rich in history, in stories and in natural beauty and peace. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The second verse of his poem, “Oak Leaves,” seems almost prophetic. He wrote:

New season coming, you must change,

but please remain, not yet time to fade away.

For one day we will cease to be,

will you drop your leaves and cover me?

Today Harold Bonde, 94, will be buried at Valley Grove, not far from Bjorn’s grave, not far from the site of the fallen landmark oak. His burial space was marked off during Sunday’s Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

After Bjorn died, his father found 80 poems in his son’s journals. I understand why he cherishes them. These are the words of a soulful, introspective, nature-centered, sensitive spirit. And although the oak tree no longer stands, unable to drop leaves onto Bjorn’s gravestone, there’s a sense that the tree remains. Strong. Sheltering those who lie beneath the soil and those who walk upon the earth, come here to visit, embrace and remember loved ones. Only days earlier, on September 15, Bjorn would have turned 35.

Many families meandered and conversed in the cemetery on Sunday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this day of a Country Social, Bjorn’s family remembered him, honored him. I saw love in a father’s hands wrapped around oak boxes, in watery eyes and precious stories. Here at Valley Grove, atop a hill edged by prairie, woods and farmland, and centered by two historic churches, humanity comes in moments like this, when a father shares his grief with a stranger. Compassion rises. A connection is made. Comfort comes. A loss is shared.

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Please check back for a follow-up post featuring the Valley Grove Country Social in its entirety.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So much to do this weekend in the Faribault area September 16, 2022

Performers at the 2019 Hispanic Heritage Celebration in Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

IF EVER THERE WAS A WEEKEND packed with community activities, especially in Faribault, this is the weekend. Here’s a summary list of events, most of which I’ve attended through the years.

Let’s start with Friday, September 16:

The artsy front of a Ford Torino at a past car show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

The final Faribault Car Cruise Night of the season takes place from 6 – 9 pm in the parking lot of Faribault Harley-Davidson. Besides vintage vehicles, there will also be food vendors and music.

Moving to Saturday, September 17:

Goats were a popular draw at Family Day in 2019. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2019)

Start out early by shopping the Faribault Farmers’ Market, which opens at 7 am in Central Park and closes at noon. But this isn’t any ordinary market day. This is Family Day with farm animals, a bounce house and more for kids. That starts at 9 am and continues til noon.

Flea market vendors set up shop on the grounds of the Rice County Historical Society during a past market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Blocks away to the north, the Rice County Historical Society hosts its popular Fall Flea Market from 8 am – 2 pm in the parking lot and on the grounds.

At 11 am, until 2 pm, Harry Brown’s is hosting a Car Show at the fairgrounds.

Riding her Harley during a June 2020 Car Cruise Night. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2020)

Meanwhile, way across town, Faribault Harley-Davidson celebrates an Anniversary Bash from 9 am – 10 pm as the motorcycle dealer marks 45 years in business. There will be a bike show and ride, music and food vendors.

At Divine Mercy Catholic Church on the south edge of Faribault, folks will gather from 4 – 9 pm for the annual Spirit Fest. That features food, music, an auction, bake sale, hay maze, drive-in movie, fireworks and much more.

Out-of-town events on Saturday, September 17:

The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center, 206 First Street North on the north end of downtown. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2020)

The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery has a morning full of activities that include a book-signing by Barbara Marshak of New Prague, author of Painted Skies, beginning at 10 am. Sister Anita Smisek presents on “Minnesota’s Big Woods Musicians” at 11 am. Guests can also view the work of wildlife artist Tom Miller, current exhibitor, and see the Czech dancer topiaries created by Meghan Petricka. The arts center opens at 9 am and closes at noon.

Dancers perform at the 2019 Hispanic Heritage Celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2019)

From 11 am – 6 pm at Central Park in Northfield, Hispanic Heritage Celebration 2022 is happening. That event features food vendors, arts and crafts activities, dance and art, all themed to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

One more nearby event, on Sunday, September 18:

Wagon rides are part of the country social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

The Valley Grove Preservation Society hosts the Valley Grove Country Social from 1 – 4 pm at its hilltop location near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. This is the site of two historic churches. The event includes an organ recital at 2 pm, Scandinavian music performed outdoors, prairie and cemetery walks, horse-drawn wagon rides, rope-making and more.

There you go. Rain, unfortunately, or fortunately since we need moisture, is in the forecast for Friday and Saturday…

For detailed information on all of these events, please search online.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Featuring fun finds, farm-fresh, fiddling & more May 10, 2022

At last spring’s RCHS Spring Flea Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021)

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.

Spotted at the spring 2021 flea market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2022)

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.

Plants available for purchase a year ago, looking toward the vendor site under the fairgrounds car port. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2021)

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.

Customers place orders at the Local Plate food truck at the May 2021 Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.)

Adding to the farmers’ market draw are local food trucks on site.

A group of mostly Northfield area musicians performed as Hutenanny at a past Valley Grove Country Social. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2010)

On Sunday, May 15, two area historic Norwegian churches celebrate Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day. Both events begin at 2 pm.

Duo churches grace the hilltop at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2018)

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.

Completed in the fall of 1899, the second Trondhjem Church sits atop a 100-foot high hill. Listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in Minnesota, this Norwegian church has walls constructed with 24 corners to brace it against the wind. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

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.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove March 30, 2022

The cemetery at Valley Grove sidles near the two historic Norwegian churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

Art and heritage and faith and lives remembered. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Today I am drawn to cemeteries, especially rural cemeteries. That includes the hilltop Valley Grove Cemetery in rural Nerstrand.

Oaks edge the cemetery and a road along it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

The cemetery surrounds three sides of the 1862 stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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?

Erik Floren’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The in-ground marker of Ole Hemvig. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Honoring Thomas and Einar Halvorsen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2022)

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.

On Clyde Heggedahl’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

A faith and love-filled message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.

A special marker for a veteran’s grave. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

The old stone church and cemetery at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

What’s the story behind the “Snuffy” nickname? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

Posted on the gated entry to Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Whispers of history & heritage at Valley Grove March 29, 2022

Valley Grove churches rise over the hill as I follow the prairie path back to the church grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

The cemetery sits next to the churches, then rings the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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 Valley Grove Preservation Society cares about the land, too, with restoration and preservation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
I spotted swirls of prairie grass alongside a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Dried hydrangea alongside the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

A view from the parking lot, outside the fenced grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent March Sunday afternoon I walked the prairie paths, wound among aged tombstones, admired the sturdy churches. And while I’ve wandered these grounds many times and attended community celebrations inside and outside the church buildings, each visit brings new discoveries and reminders of why I love this place so much.

Atop the steeple of the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

Land and sky define the prairie path. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

The roofline and steeple of the simple 1862 stone church rise above the rural landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

The 1894 church closeup. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The bell in the wooden church still rings for special occasions. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

In the foreground, the back of the old stone church, which sits near the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon four tapestries, woven in the Norwegian billedvev tradition, will grace the walls of the stone church. Minneapolis weaver Robbie LaFleur was commissioned by the Valley Grove Preservation Society to create the art. It features the plants, animals, land, immigrants and churches of Valley Grove. A grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places funded the project. LaFleur’s tapestries will be showcased during a Syttende Mail celebration from 2-4 pm Sunday, May 15.

One of many Oles buried at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

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.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New date for Valley Grove’s Donut Hole Roast January 6, 2022

The gated entry to Valley Grove, rural Nerstrand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

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.

Whether you attend the bonfire and roast or not, I encourage you to visit the Valley Grove website to learn more about these Norwegian churches on the National Register of Historic Places. Valley Grove rates as one of my favorite area rural destinations. It’s a peaceful, quiet and beautiful place with a strong sense of history and heritage.

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.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bonfires blazing, donut holes toasting December 30, 2021

The Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2021)

UPDATE #2: 1:45 pm Thursday, January 6, 2022. The Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast has been rescheduled for the second time due to cold weather. It’s now set for 2-4 pm Saturday, January 8.

UPDATE #1: 1 pm Friday, December 31, 2021. The Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast has been postponed and rescheduled for 2-4 pm Sunday, January 9, due to the drop in temperatures.

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, an unusual invite landed in my email in-box. The invitation came from the Valley Grove Preservation Society. The board, tasked with overseeing two historic Norwegian churches near Nerstrand, is hosting a Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast from 2-4 pm Sunday, January 2.

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.

A sweeping view of the land surrounding Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2018)

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…

A woman demonstrated the art of baking the Norwegian treat Krumkake, available for sampling at a past Fall Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2018)

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.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

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.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling