Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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)

 

The art of signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III March 12, 2018

A pedestrian crossing sign contrasts with the historic PIX Theatre sign in need of repair in downtown Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

 

AS A CREATIVE TYPE, I am drawn to signage. I appreciate the graphics, the fonts, the uniqueness of signs that mark businesses.

 

 

Sleepy Eye in southwestern Minnesota features one of my favorite signs—that of the King Koin Launderette. I love the colors, the name, the bubbles.

 

 

 

Then there’s the bright yellow signage on Meyer’s Bar & Lounge. The martini glass makes this sign as does the word lounge. That tag hearkens to a bygone era of mixed drinks served in a place fancier than a bar. I’ve never been inside Meyer’s so I can’t confirm whether a lounge really exists there.

 

 

 

Nor have I been inside the Servicemen’s Club. But I sure do like, from an artistic perspective, the back-to-back Grain Belt signs. I don’t understand, though, how a beer can be friendly. People can be friendly. Not beer. Minneapolis Brewing Company debuted the slogan, “The Friendly Beer With the Friendly Flavor,” in 1933. Despite that confusing message, I still appreciate this visually-appealing sign advertising a beer now made by August Schell Brewing Company. That’s just down US Highway 14 from Sleepy Eye in the city of New Ulm.

 

 

 

If all goes as planned, more local beer should be available within a year or two in a former downtown movie theater, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk Kramer. Local physicians plan to open a nano brewery and coffee shop therein. That pleases me, especially since the couple intends to restore the historic PIX Theatre marquee.

 

 

 

 

Sleepy Eye businesses also honor the town’s namesake, Chief Sleepy Eyes, with his portrait featured on numerous signs. You’ll see his likenesses marking Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, The Sleepy Eye Dispatch Herald (where I worked briefly decades ago), posted on a corner downtown business and elsewhere. It’s a nod to local history, just one more point of interest.

I challenge you, the next time you are in a small town like Sleepy Eye, to pause and study the signage. Consider the graphics, the fonts, the uniqueness of these signs that often make them works of art as much as place markers.

 

Check back tomorrow for “This & that from my tour of downtown Sleepy Eye, Part IV.” That post will conclude my series on Sleepy Eye.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Revisiting downtown Sleepy Eye & the insights gleaned, Part I March 8, 2018

A painting of a Dakota chief on the city water tower gives travelers a hint at the history of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The town is named after noted and respected Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes. He settled with his band along Sleepy Eye Lake and is buried here with a monument and park dedicated to him.

 

YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about a community by simply walking through the central business district. Many times I’ve done just that with camera in hand. I’ve found that, through photography, I focus on details in addition to the overall scene. That gives me insight into a place.

 

I photographed this stained glass hanging in the front window of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass during a May 2016 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most recently I walked along several blocks of downtown Sleepy Eye with my Canon DSLR while my husband shopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for supplies for a church window he’s refurbishing. US Highway 14 (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway) runs right through the heart of this small town in south central Brown County. That’s in southern Minnesota next to my native county of Redwood.

 

 

More than 30 years ago I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye for six months as a newspaper reporter and photographer. Thus I hold a certain familiarity of place. On this stop, I wanted to grab a sweet treat from the bakery next door to the newspaper office.

 

Sleepy Eye has many architecturally-pleasing aged buildings such as city hall.

 

I found, though, in the remembered location not a bakery, but rather K & J Antiques and Collectibles run by the welcoming Kurk K. Kramer. He happens also to work as the city’s Economic Development Authority coordinator. Given his friendly personality and clear love for Sleepy Eye, Kramer seems an ideal fit for the job. He laughed when I walked into his shop and asked for a doughnut from the long-closed bakery. He was a wealth of information about the town. I’ll share more in future posts and also show you a sampling of goods from Kramer’s shop.

 

A snippet of the downtown, situated along Highway 14, a major east-west roadway across southern Minnesota.

 

Despite my disappointment at the absence of the bakery, I still delighted in revisiting this town I called home for a short while. Whenever I explore a community, I look for fliers and notes posted in downtown businesses. Such finds often amuse me and present a snapshot of a place and its people. I love the small townishness of these public postings, these postscripts.

 

I saw lots of these stickers in many businesses, indicating a strong Chamber of Commerce and a sense of community pride.

 

Take a look at what I found in storefront windows. And then check back for more posts from Sleepy Eye. See what caught my eye as I wandered—and drew some curious looks—while the husband shopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what do my photos tell you about Sleepy Eye? Like most small Minnesota towns, community dinners/breakfasts/brunches are an integral part of the social fabric and also indicate a strong volunteer base of caring residents. Heritage is important. Note the homemade sauerkraut and Landjaeger (a type of sausage) dinner and the Sleepy Eye Area Concertina Club signs. Politeness, humor and community pride are givens.

These are my assessments based on my quick walk-through of peering into downtown storefront windows.

TELL ME: Have you ever done the same to learn more about the personality of a community?

 

Check back tomorrow for Part II in my series titled “An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, Sleepy Eye.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The antique shop next to The Van Man November 29, 2017

 

Next to Bay Lake Antiques, used cars, trucks, and a few vans, cram a fenced lot bannered with signs like WORKING MANS TRUCKS, THE VAN MAN, TRUCKS AND CARS FOR THE WORKING MAN.

 

 

But what if you’re a woman?

 

 

I suppose you’re still welcome. Not that I was in the market for a different vehicle, being on vacation and all. Yet, as Randy turned our aging van off Minnesota State Highway 18 between Garrison and Brainerd, I considered the potential alienation of female customers via that marketing strategy.

 

 

After my initial surprise and after taking a few photos, I focused on the neighboring antique shop and the content therein.

 

 

 

 

The gracious proprietor accepted my request to take photos as I poked around the main shop, in several stand-alone units and in a roofed wagon jammed with merchandise.

 

 

 

 

I found several priced-right rural-themed vintage trays that interested me, but passed on them because of their condition. More and more I can talk myself out of a purchase by repeating, I don’t really need more stuff.

 

 

 

Yet, that doesn’t keep me from antique shops, from thrift stores and such that more and more these days hold the treasure of memories.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Where, oh, where has my little dog gone & pet photos July 20, 2017

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Photographed recently along a busy roadway in Cannon Falls. (Yes, I blacked out the phone number.)

 

EVERY SPRING, SUMMER and fall, handcrafted photo signs pop up on street corners with the message, LOST DOG.

DO NOT YELL, APPROACH OR CHASE, the writer advises of a dog lost recently in Cannon Falls.

I often wonder if these canines are ever found or wander home or why they are running loose in the first place. I realize pets sometimes escape…but I appreciate responsible pet owners who keep their animals under control on their property and who clean up after the dogs they’re walking. I’ve stepped in stinky dog poop too often in my yard. Yuck.

A few years ago a woman even posed her dog in the middle of a corner flowerbed by my house for a photo op. In the process, the dog destroyed flowers I’d planted. I was not happy.

 

 

But I was happy to see the owner of a lost (as in deceased) pet post a public notice offering free pet portraits. I spotted the sign recently in a Waterville gift shop. The owner of Chaz the dog is a photographer specializing in pictures of people and their pets, according to the Facebook page for Chazman Photography based in Janesville.

 

 

I haven’t photographed a lot of pets. But the animal images I’ve taken are, I think, notable. I’m not your typical stand, point-and-shoot photographer. I strive to tell a story, using perspective and setting to achieve that. Here are some cat and dog photos I’ve shot, my favorite being the “NO PETS ALLOWED” image shot outside Riverfront Park in Mankato in June of 2011. The dog owner, upset his canine couldn’t enter the park, suggested the photo location, almost daring himself and his dog to cross that line.

Here are those promised pet photos pulled from my files:

 

My sister Lanae’s fat cat, Sable, now deceased. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

Ian with Zephyr in rural Bigelow. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Titan, so active I struggled to photograph him in 2014. He was owned by the Spitzack family of rural Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I photographed this cat outside Hopefull Treasures in Hope, MN., in 2011. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Another cat photographed in 2011 in Hope, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Another view of that dog outside Mankato’s Riverfront Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Rudi, one friendly collie at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

My friend Mandy’s cat, Gretchen, photographed in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Taco the dog, photographed at the Faribault Farmers’ Market in Central Park in 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Brianna’s cat, in her home in Hayfield, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

 

At the library: Making Faribault a better place June 14, 2017

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This poster at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault promotes the theme of the summer reading program.

 

BUILD A BETTER WORLD.

 

This sign rests on the check-out desk at the library for all to read.

 

Hate has no business in our community.

 

I picked up this bookmark at the library several days ago.

 

One world, many stories.

I appreciate these three messages, shared on a poster, on a sign and on a bookmark at my local library.

 

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In this public place along Division Street in Faribault, local residents of all ages, all colors, all backgrounds, gather. While there are certainly divisions and differences, there is also a coming together here facilitated by library staff.

 

These signs were previously (and may still be) posted in the library restrooms. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Words matter. When I read words that encourage building up rather than tearing down, choosing love over hatred and fostering of unity instead of division, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that we can learn to get along, to appreciate the individual stories we each bring to our community. Once we begin to see each other as individuals, the building begins, the love flows, our world widens.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling