Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Downtown Sleepy Eye: A glimpse of small town character August 20, 2019

Just east of Sleepy Eye on U.S. Highway 14. That’s Christensen Farms headquarters to the right.

 

SMALL TOWNS, like cities, possess character. Each is unique. No matter how many rural communities I visit or how often I tour the same town, I discover something new. It takes more than a precursory glance to truly appreciate a community. Too often people dismiss small towns as places to simply pass through when traveling from Point A to Point B. But these communities are much more. And to see that requires pulling off the highway, parking your vehicle and exploring.

 

Agriculture anchors the small towns of southwestern Minnesota.

 

On a recent drive to southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Sleepy Eye, which is west of New Ulm which is west of Mankato. I am forever pointing out to folks that civilization exists west of Mankato. I am proud to have grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in rural Redwood County. I once lived and worked for the newspaper in Sleepy Eye, located in Brown County next to my county of origin.

 

A snippet of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

Sleepy Eye, like so many other small towns, has felt the impact of a more mobile society, of technology and more. Businesses I remember—a bakery, a department store—have long closed.

 

A wooden cut-out of Chief Sleepy Eye as photographed through an antique shop window. The town is named after this Dakota leader.

 

Photographed inside the entry of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

But new businesses have opened in the decades since I left. Antique shops. Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, the reason for our stop. And the soon-to-open Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company.

 

Agriculture centers these small towns as evidenced in this storefront signage.

 

A display window at Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun drew my interest. I would like to explore this space open to the public (on weekends) for birthday and other parties. It was closed when I was in Sleepy Eye.

 

Another section of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

While Randy searched for stained glass, I grabbed my camera and meandered through a short stretch of the business district along busy U.S. Highway 14. I found myself wishing the second stoplight had not been removed during recent road reconstruction. The downtown is much less pedestrian friendly now. It’s a difficult roadway to safely cross.

 

Posted on a door at the bottom of a stairway leading to upstairs apartments by Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. I love discovering signage like this.

 

That aside, I managed and took some photos that show the unique character of Sleepy Eye. Enjoy. And check back for more posts from this southwestern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Signs of Christmas linger in Minnesota into March March 28, 2019

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ACROSS THE STREET, on my neighbor’s front door, a faded Christmas wreath hangs. Needles dried and dropping. Decorative ribbon faded. In my own side yard, our dried Christmas tree, once buried under snow, lies atop a flowerbed.

 

Christmas greetings on an outbuilding on a farm site just west of Mankato along U.S. Highway 14 photographed on Saturday.

 

It’s not uncommon here in Minnesota to see outdoor Christmas decorations up well into spring. Whatever the reason. I suppose the cold and snow hinder removal, especially this winter.

 

In a New Ulm yard, a sign on a tire swing says, “Santa stop here.” Christmas lights also wrap an entry column on the left. Photographed on Saturday, March 23.

 

Or, after awhile, we simply don’t notice whatever we pass by on a daily basis. That explains, for example, why cardboard covers a section of wall in my dining room. We removed a brick chimney about 10 years ago with plans to add a mini pantry. Such is the stuff of plans detoured by finances. Now I don’t think about that plan much anymore, unless a first-time visitor stops by and I find myself explaining why we have a cardboard wall. But I digress.

 

At the site of Farm Fest and the Gilfillan Estate, the Redwood County Historical Society wishes motorists a Happy New Year.

 

Back to that holiday décor. I photographed several examples of Christmas greetings still in place while traveling back to my native southwestern Minnesota this past Saturday. Hopefully soon spring and/or Easter themed décor replaces signs of Christmas.

 

 

At least one New Ulm business, A to Zinnias Florals & Gifts, recognizes the seasonal change to spring by offering 25 percent off on all bunnies. That would be home decorating bunnies. Not real.

 

Rudolph in a farmyard along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm about half way to Morgan.

 

TELL ME: Is it common in your area for seasonal Christmas decorations to stay up too long? Or what defines “too long?”

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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