Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town November 8, 2018

The ethnicity of Ulen displayed on a business sign. I absolutely love the artistry of this signage.

 

I’D NEVER BEEN TO ULEN, a decidedly Norwegian-American community of some 600 in northwestern Minnesota. But it was on our route from Hendrum back to Detroit Lakes last week Thursday.

 

 

Ulen looks like many other small towns in this remote agricultural region. There’s a school, a grain elevator, a few businesses downtown. Typical.

 

Approaching the grain elevator complex, we notice the rising dust.

 

But then Randy and I observed something not so typical—the demolition of an aged grain elevator. Back in their heyday, these rectangular buildings rose like cathedrals on the prairie, visible for miles. They centered communities, held the harvest. Now many sit empty, replaced by massive grain bins and towering grain silos that hold no aesthetic appeal.

I don’t know the story behind the removal of the vintage elevator in Ulen. I can speculate. But speculation isn’t truth.

 

 

I know only that I felt a sense of sadness as Randy and I sat in our van watching the dust fly while demolition equipment chomped away chunks of this historic building. We missed seeing the elevator in-tact given our late arrival.

 

 

After a bit we drove back through town, past the Ulen Museum, formerly the Viking Sword Museum (the Viking sword found near Ulen has been proven a legend, not truth), then past the Top Hat Theatre.

 

 

When we spotted a vintage house for sale on a corner lot, Randy stopped to pick up a flier. He asked me to guess the price. “$47,000,” I said. Oh, how wrong that guess. The five-bedroom, two-bath house of 3,088 square feet and with four garage stalls is priced at $179,900. No, we’re not interested in living in Ulen, home to a Turkey BBQ going on its 58th year.

 

 

As we exited town, a plain green poleshed caught my eye. Lena’s Lefse, the sign thereon read. Now I know a lot of people who love lefse, who make lefse each holiday season. I’ll eat it just to be polite. I’m convinced the appeal of lefse is more about family tradition and heritage than taste. But then I’m not Norwegian. And I’m not from Ulen. Nor do I know a good Ole and Lena joke to share right now.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Welcoming signs of change in Faribault August 30, 2018

One of many photo signs extolling virtues and posted in the downtown Faribault business district.

 

I INTENTIONALLY CHOSE ONE BLOCK in the central business district of my southeastern Minnesota community to look for Faces of Faribault—Downtown posters in storefronts. I found several placards featuring photos of downtown business people and a chosen virtue. But I also discovered much more. I found inspiring quotes and welcoming signs that show a city working hard to effect a change in attitudes, to embrace all who live here, no matter their ethnicity.

 

Many Somali immigrants live in apartments above downtown Faribault businesses. They often gather on street corners to socialize. That has resulted in complaints from some locals who claim to feel unsafe and intimidated. I’ve never felt that way, choosing instead to say hello and smile. I recognize that, because these immigrants are not living in ground level apartments, they need an outdoor space to meet and talk.

 

We are a diverse community of some 23,000. Home to Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics, Somalis, Sudanese, Asians and more. It’s been a struggle for newcomers to gain acceptance, for locals to adjust to immigrants settling here to work, to start new lives. Differences in language, in social behavior, in dress and more have created a sense of unease. And conflict.

 

On the Sunday afternoon I shot these images, a couple celebrated their wedding at the 3 Ten Event Venue, recently opened in an historic building in the heart of downtown Faribault.

 

It takes effort to connect, to begin to understand one another, to see each other as individuals rather than as locals or foreigners, to celebrate our differences.

 

 

I applaud business owners who are reaching out with strong messages of acceptance posted right there on their shop windows. In a small-ish city like Faribault, there’s always the risk of losing business over taking a stand. But it’s the right thing to do, to declare that The only thing that should be separated by color is laundry.

 

 

Or to say, We stand with refugees and immigrants in our community.

 

 

One of many photo virtues signs posted in shop windows throughout the downtown business district as part of Faces of Faribault.

 

Yet another Faces poster.

 

These are positive signs, as are those Faces of Faribault posters, a project initiated by Cindy Diessner, who serves on The Virtues Project—Faribault Steering Committee. Her Faces endeavor is funded by an Artists on Main Street grant.

 

 

When we get to know each other as individuals, then the walls that separate us fall. We begin to understand that we are all just human. We may differ in skin color, language, dress, customs and more. But we still live under the same sun, the same moon.

 

FYI: A St. Paul-based theater company will present a free one-act play about an immigrant family’s daily struggles to follow the American dream at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 12, at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. A cast Q & A and an appetizer reception follow the performance of Help Wanted by Teatro Del Pueblo. The nonprofit, Latino theater company promotes cultural pride in the Latino community and cultural diversity in the arts. The play is based on a true story.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: Closing cultural gaps through public art August 29, 2018

 

One of 10 mirrored virtues signs along a trail that runs next to train tracks and the Straight River in Faribault’s Heritage Bluff Park. The trail is east of Heritage Bluff Apartments and south of The Depot Bar & Grill.

 

FINALLY, I’M SENSING A SHIFT in attitudes toward immigrants in Faribault. It’s been a long time coming, but certainly not for a lack of trying. There are good people in this community who have been, for years, working to welcome Somalians, Hispanics and others into this once mostly all-white southern Minnesota city. People like Dee and her sister Ann. And Lisa, Peter, Virginia, Suzanne, Carolyn, Cindy, Delane and many more. They’ve been there, reaching out, educating, welcoming, connecting, making a difference.

 

 

There are tangible, visible signs of those efforts, the latest in the installation of the Virtues Trail Project at Heritage Bluff Park near our historic downtown and along the banks of the Straight River.

 

 

 

 

 

As a creative, I appreciate this public art project featuring 10 mirrored signs highlighting 20 virtues like honesty, patience, kindness and, yes, tolerance. The signs edge a recreational trail, an unassuming natural setting where people can pause, view their reflections and consider words of positivity written in three languages—English, Spanish and Somali.

 

 

Here’s how it works…

 

 

Two simple words—I am—jumpstart the thought process.

 

 

An Artists on Main Street grant from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and with support from the Bush Foundation funded the project developed by Wanda Holmgren, a Faribault elementary school teacher. Faribault is among three Minnesota cities receiving grant monies to address community challenges. Twelve more arts-based endeavors are planned, or are already in place, in my city.

 

Colorful posts support, and reflect in, the signs. Even the chosen art reflects the virtues.

 

Across the tracks is a foot bridge over the Straight River, a peaceful setting unless a train is roaring through.

 

You’ve heard the phrase “other side of the tracks.” While tracks run parallel to the Virtues Trail, they (to me) symbolize connection, not division.

 

The Virtues Trail is a simple concept really, one that makes sense. Language often serves as the first hurdle in connecting cultures. If we can’t communicate, an instant divide exists. Yet a smile is universal. As are virtues.

 

 

As I walked from sign to sign with camera in hand, I intentionally avoided photographing my reflection. That wasn’t particularly easy. In a way, my evasiveness mirrors the challenges Faribault has faced in a failure to accept differences in skin color, religion, language and culture. Now I see that we are beginning to look at each other in a new way—with understanding, kindness and, yes, perhaps, finally, acceptance.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

As I photographed the Virtues Trail, a bridal couple and their photographers walked the trail. I thought they were going to stop at the sign that reads “I am loved.” But they kept right on going, never pausing.

 

They were headed to the Straight River foot bridge, which offers a scenic view of the river and Faribault’s historic viaduct.

 

What an opportunity they missed to use this sign as a wedding portrait backdrop.

 

FYI: Please check back as I show you more ways in which my community is striving to be more welcoming of many cultures.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Discovering the character of Pequot Lakes at the hardware store August 17, 2018

This sign hangs on the side of the hardware store. You won’t find a fire warden sign in southern Minnesota.

 

WHENEVER I VISIT a small town, I am drawn to the details that give a community character. Like Thurlow Hardware and Rental in Pequot Lakes.

 

The bobber water tower in Pequot Lakes.

 

I visited this central Minnesota town nearly a year ago. This area and parts north are decidedly different from my home region in the southeastern section of the state. To the north, lakes and woods abound and Paul Bunyan lore is prevalent in tourist attractions, business names and more. Pequot Lakes, for example, features a water tower resembling a Bunyan-sized bobber.

 

Inside the hardware store are lots of taxidermied animals hanging above the aisles.

 

A northwoods culture prevails, stamps upon these towns.

 

I always look for signage that reveals more about the place I am visiting.

 

These folks also appreciate their heritage.

 

 

 

 

These details I noticed, along with vintage signage, as I checked out that small town hardware store.

TELL ME: Do you explore small towns? If yes, what draws your interest? Give me a specific example, if you wish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

First impressions of downtown Madison, Wisconsin June 11, 2018

 

 

AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T particularly like big cities, and I realize that term is relative, I like Madison. That surprised me.

 

The modernistic entrance to the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

 

The Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

 

But on my recent first visit to Wisconsin’s capital city of 252,000-plus, I discovered a downtown that mixes historic and contemporary to create an energetic, yet small town inviting, vibe. Granted, I only spent an hour downtown and popped into only one shop on a Sunday morning. But that was enough for me to grasp a sense of place, a place I want to explore further.

 

 

Looking toward the capitol.

 

 

This is a foot-friendly city with State Street, a pedestrian mall, stretching for blocks from the University of Wisconsin—Madison to the state capitol building. This is also a bike-friendly city. I noted, too, many restaurants with outdoor dining along tree-hugged streets. Madison visually impresses with its greenery seemingly everywhere.

 

 

With the exception of homeless people I observed alongside a building near the capitol, I never felt like I was in an overpowering-to-my-senses urban area.

 

 

 

 

I felt, instead, like I was in greater Boston, which has the same smallish within a large metro area feel. Pie-slice street corners and angled buildings remind me of Porter and Davis Squares on the East Coast. Just less busy with pedestrians actually respectful of motor vehicle traffic.

 

 

Likewise, the packed, porch-fronted old houses of the downtown Madison area neighborhoods remind me of the old neighborhoods around Tufts University (where my son attended college) in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I expect had UW-Madison been in session, I would have seen lots of college students in the heart of this city given the university’s downtown location.

 

 

 

 

I found plenty to focus my attention. Architecture and signage always draw my interest and Madison offers visual variety in both.

 

 

After an hour-long tour through downtown with family, I determined that I need to return, to step inside the buildings, the places, that define the center of this capital city.

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Madison, what would you suggest I see on my next visit? Please check back for two more posts from Madison, including one on Bucky Badger craziness.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mazeppa, not just another small Minnesota town, Part II March 29, 2018

A scene in downtown Mazeppa, photographed in October 2016.

 

SMALL TOWNS CONTINUE to hold my interest.

 

The former creamery in Mazeppa houses the city maintenance garage and also serves as a backdrop for historical art.

 

 

Therein I often find unexpected delights, but also decline. Most of these communities are not the places they once were with thriving businesses lining Main Street. You know the story.

 

Out for a walk in downtown Mazeppa, October 2016.

 

Still, these towns are home to life-long residents or kids who stuck around or newbies—folks looking for a quiet and affordable place to live within driving distance of jobs outside city boundaries.

 

 

People make a town. And if they’re lucky, locals still have places to gather for fish fries and beer and BINGO and a meal out. Gathering spots—restaurants, bars, schools, churches and more—provide that sense of community essential to small towns.

 

 

 

WD’s, destroyed by fire, was a community gathering spot.

 

I saw those communal places when I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 (although one—WD’s Bar & Grill recently burned to the ground).

 

 

 

 

Patriotism often runs strong in small towns. The presence of the well-kept American Legion Post 588 in the heart of downtown Mazeppa confirms that.

 

 

 

 

Mazeppa is a visual delight for a photographer. Signs crafted by local sign painter Mike Meyer give this southeastern Minnesota riverside community a signature artsy look. This is a town I remember.

 

A unique business in Mazeppa. The shop was closed when I was in town. Andy Denny builds banjos here.

 

That’s the thing, too, about small towns. They need an identity to draw visitors. A unique business or three. A historical site. A theater or other arts venue. A natural attraction.

 

The Maple Street Bridge crosses the north branch of the Zumbro River a block off Mazeppa’s Main Street.

 

How often have you sidetracked off a main highway or interstate, or even a county road, to drive through a small town, maybe even stop? Not that often, I expect. But you’re missing something by not doing so. You’re missing out on people and places and experiences that are grassroots America. Interesting. Yes, even that quintessential word “charming.” Perhaps vibrant or thriving. Maybe not. But still at their root essence, authentic.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Propped by Mike Meyer’s sign shop.

 

 

 

 

When I was in town in October 2016, work was being done on the original 1909 bank building, now housing the Mazeppa Area Historical Society. The exterior covering of the beautiful brick building traces back to the 1970s when the former People’s State Bank was “updated.”

 

In 1912, an addition was made to the bank building to house the local newspaper.

 

Signage on the side of the historical society building.

 

TELL ME about a favorite small town and why you appreciate the community.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The sign painter of Mazeppa, Part I March 28, 2018

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I love that Mazeppa restored this historic bridge spanning the Zumbro River and converted it into a pedestrian walkway. Noted W.S. Hewett Company designed the Walnut Street Bridge in 1904.

 

WHEN I VISITED MAZEPPA awhile back, I fell in love with this town of some 800 just north of Rochester and along the north branch of the Zumbro River.

 

Some of my favorite signage hangs on the City of Mazeppa maintenance garage housed in a former creamery.

 

This signage honors the butter crafted by the former Mazeppa Farmers’ Cooperative Dairy Association.

 

Another favorite of mine: this sign on Mike Meyer’s shop.

 

Or to be more specific, I fell for the hand-painted signs that grace buildings in this community. Most are the work of local sign painter, Mike Meyer.

 

 

 

Meyer’s corner sign shop was closed on the day I visited. So I knew nothing then of his notoriety. But he is world-renowned for his sign painting skills. This I learned while researching him online and watching the short film, “Man with a Brush.” He leads hand lettering workshops across the country and around the world from Amsterdam to Berlin to Dublin to Barcelona to Sweden and beyond.

 

 

 

 

Alright then. I’m impressed. But I’m even more impressed by the humbleness of this artist who grew up in Mazeppa and claims there’s no place he’d rather live than in his southeastern Minnesota hometown. His father barbered and painted signs in between cutting hair and Meyer learned from him. He left for three years to serve in the Army, but came right back home to follow his passion of painting signs. He went to sign school, too, and worked for a sign painter before being laid off.

 

Meyer’s shop anchors a corner of downtown Mazeppa.

 

That prompted him to take the bold step of opening his own sign shop. One quote in the “Man with a Brush” strikes me in particular: “Nobody really said, ‘Don’t run over the hill like the rest of the rats. Go the other way,’” Meyer says. He chose to make his future in his hometown doing what he loves. Away from the rat race. How many people can say they are doing what they love in a place they love as they go to work every day? Probably not many.

 

 

 

 

Now Meyer could have just stayed in Mazeppa, tucked away quietly painting signs for businesses and such. But he didn’t. He holds an innate desire to pass along his knowledge, his skills, his passion, to others. That theme of mentorship threads throughout the film on Meyer’s life as a sign painter. He teaches others the artistry of the trade.  Watch the film (click here) and you see the undeniable joy this long-time painter experiences in sharing his expertise while working side-by-side with novices and beyond. He’ll lead workshops locally during Mazeppa Daze in July.

 

 

Individuals like Meyer make our small towns unique places that exist outside the rat race. He proves that success and happiness come from within ourselves in following our passions. No matter where we live.

 

Please check back for another post from Mazeppa.

© Photos copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sources: Mike Meyer’s Facebook page, Better Letters Co. and “Man with a Brush” (directed and produced by UK-based Dimension 2)