Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From southern Minnesota: Signs of the times March 19, 2020

Posted in the window of Keepers Antiques, downtown Faribault, Minnesota.

 

LIFE FEELS ALMOST SURREAL. Like we’re living in a science fiction film. Or a horror movie.

 

The Paradise Center for the Arts in downtown Faribault is closed until April (or longer). Messages like “STAY HEALTHY” mark the PCA marquee.

 

Each day brings more bad news as COVID-19 spreads and more restrictions are put in place. The anxiety is almost palpable. No matter where we live—from rural to suburban to urban—we are affected.

 

Posted on the door of the local American Legion, which serves food and beverages and is also an event center.

 

Tuesday evening, on the day the Governor of Minnesota ordered all bars and restaurants and other social gathering places like bowling alleys, theaters and museums to close by 5 pm, I grabbed my camera to document this order. In signs posted in my southern Minnesota community.

 

Posted at Bluebird Cakery.

 

Most messages are simple. But the sign displayed in the window of Bluebird Cakery carries an emotional tone, beginning with these words: To our beloved Faribault community and employees…

 

Bluerbird Cakery is a popular gathering spot in the heart of downtown Faribault.

 

Beloved. That’s such a powerful heart-touching word, especially in these difficult times.

 

A helpful reminder posted on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee.

 

If we can all remember that we are beloved to one another, then we will have brought something beautiful out of this crisis. That is my hope. That we will care more deeply for one another. That we will grow in compassion and love. That we appreciate and value one another more. That we can rise above that which separates us to that which brings us together. And for now, together means standing unified in our efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

 

Our local library closed on Monday.

 

PLEASE FEEL FREE to share in the comments section specifics on what’s happening in your part of the world as it relates to COVID-19.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sample billboards along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin February 19, 2020

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Drive Interstate 90 between La Crosse and Madison, Wisconsin, and you’ll see lots of billboards around the larger cities and in the area by the Dells. Edited Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

BILLBOARDS CAN CLUTTER the landscape. Too many words. Too many materialistic messages. Too much visual imprint when I’d rather see the natural surroundings.

 

As you would expect in Wisconsin, there are lots of signs for cheese places along I-90. Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

But I understand the value of signs, large or small, in drawing people into businesses, to destinations, to detour off the interstate. That said, I noticed a lot of vacant billboard real estate while traveling Interstate 90 from La Crosse to Madison, Wisconsin, this past weekend. I can only speculate that in a tech driven world, this form of marketing to the masses is declining.

 

Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots. Anyone know the story behind this billboard?

 

Still, I pay attention to roadside signage and noticed a billboard with a simple and profound message: FORGIVE and BE KIND. I photographed the sign within 10 minutes of Exit 69, the road to Mauston and Oxford. A LAMAR Advertising credit runs along the bottom.

FORGIVE and BE KIND. The words are simple enough. But forgiveness and the added directive to “be kind” can prove a struggle when the pain and hurt run deep. Yet, both can be achieved. It takes work. Time. Healing.

 

Another cheese sign along I-90 in south central Wisconsin. Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the FORGIVE and BE KIND billboard and/or on billboards in general.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mixed message December 3, 2019

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AS A WORDSMITH, I’m especially drawn to signage, including this one spotted Sunday afternoon along Division Street in downtown Northfield.

I laughed given the falling snow, the snow banked on the front of the pick-up truck parked curbside and the mixed message sent.

Cacti are not warm and fuzzy, although the environment in which they grow is warm, even hot. I suppose that was the idea—to get us Minnesotans thinking about warmer places like Little Joy Coffee with its hot brew.

While the words and art seem especially mismatched to me, I noticed, photographed and remembered them. Thus, marketing accomplished.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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