Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Sleepy Eye: When a small town clinic goes the extra mile August 23, 2019

Sleepy Eye Lake with the steeples of St. Mary’s Catholic Church visible in the distance across Minnesota State Highway 4.

 

ON A WEEKDAY AUGUST AFTERNOON as lovely as they come in Minnesota, I sat at a shelterhouse picnic table along the shores of Sleepy Eye Lake eating a salad. Sportsman’s Park proved a picturesque place to enjoy a picnic lunch with my husband and son before continuing west to visit my mom in a care center.

 

 

After lunch, we followed a paved trail to a public dock with a view of the lake and the town of Sleepy Eye to the south. I wasn’t at all surprised by the mucky green growth polluting the lake like most lakes in southern Minnesota.

 

 

A few kids hung out at a second dock angling for fish in the murky water. And two bikers zipped by in this park which also features 16 camping sites, two camper cabins, disc golf and a playground. Just a nice spot to picnic and enjoy the outdoors.

 

 

Sportsman’s Park seems pretty typical of most small town parks at first glance. But then I noticed something unique—a row of six white bicycles. Further investigation revealed a seasonal bike rental program offered through the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation. Begun in the summer of 2017, Bike Share allows users to download an app and rent a bike. I never would have expected this in a community the size of Sleepy Eye with a population of some 3,400.

 

 

But given the 3.12-mile paved Sleepy Eye Bike Trail and the camp sites and cabins at this park, this seems an ideal fit.

 

 

The nonprofit foundation, part of Sleepy Eye Medical Center, aims “to provide excellent healthcare to our patients and to enhance the wellness and quality of life in the communities we serve.” Bike Share fulfills that mission. Maybe other healthcare teams offer the same in rural communities. But this is the first I’ve seen.

 

 

Additionally, the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation sponsors an annual 5K Run/Walk for Health, a golf tournament and post-secondary scholarships for students entering the healthcare field. I’m not surprised really at the level of community support. I grew up in the county just to the west and understand the importance of local healthcare access. Without it, people sometimes drive hours to clinics and hospitals.

 

 

I’m getting sidetracked here. So I’ll circle back to those bikes, to my appreciation for these rural clinics and hospitals that show they care about the communities they serve through programs like Bike Share. The sign below the main Sportsman’s Park sign summarizes well the spirit of small towns like Sleepy Eye in the words “a cooperative project.” Working together to enhance wellness and the quality of life seems a noble goal no matter where you live, no matter the size of your community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Inside Grizzly Canyon in downtown Sleepy Eye August 22, 2019

Grizzly Canyon Antiques & Collectibles in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

 

GRIZZLY CANYON. The name doesn’t really fit Sleepy Eye, a small farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. There are no grizzly bears, or canyons, here. But the business name seems to fit Montana Mielke, the young man who owns Grizzly Canyon Antiques and Collectibles on Sleepy Eye’s main drag.

 

A local stops in to chat and play cards with Montana Mielke, left.

 

With a head of thick curly hair, a full beard and a stout build, his appearance suggests a rugged outdoorsman. This is all conjecture on my part. I never asked about his interests or the stories behind his personal and business names.

 

 

Not that either matters. He’s a personable guy, son of Brent Mielke who owns Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun across the street next to Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. His dad does his thing, he does his, Montana noted as we chatted.

 

 

As antique shops go, Grizzly Canyon is neat, orderly and not at all stuffed. I appreciate that. I often feel overwhelmed with too many antiques and collectibles cramming most antique stores.

 

 

While browsing and photographing some of the merchandise, with Montana’s OK, I noticed one particularly unusual piece—a Cape Canaveral U.S. Air Force Missile Test Center toy replica.

 

 

 

 

But I also spotted what I would expect to find in Sleepy Eye—items featuring Chief Sleepy Eye, the Dakota leader after whom this town is named.

 

 

 

 

Names. There’s that word again. Somehow Grizzy Canyon fits this narrow store with the Beware of Rattlesnakes poster and the wide-mouthed striking rattlesnake flashing its fangs inside a glass case.

 

 

FYI: Grizzly Canyon is open from 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Coming soon to the former PIX Theater in Sleepy Eye: Coffee & Beer August 21, 2019

The PIX Theater marquee photographed in March 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHEN I LAST PHOTOGRAPHED the marquee of the historic PIX Theater in downtown Sleepy Eye, I found the signage in need of repair. But I knew the future appeared bright for this once popular entertainment hub. Plans were underway by two local physicians to open a brewery and coffee shop in the old theater.

 

The coffee shop is expected to open first, later this summer, followed by the brewery.

 

Today that business, Sleepy Eye Brewing & Coffee Company, is nearer to opening. The evidence shows in the restored marquee. Peering through windows, I observed laborers working inside to create a space that will showcase the bones of this building.

 

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

 

I look forward to stopping at the brewery in this small town just a short drive west of New Ulm along U.S. Highway 14. I expect this to become a popular stop, destination or local hang-out for those who appreciate craft beer. And for those who don’t, they can patronize the coffee shop—complete with soup, sandwiches, pastries and coffee during daytime hours.

 

Photographed last week before Sleepy Eye’s annual Corn Days celebration. The marquee serves as a community bulletin board for now.

 

Anytime a business opens in a rural community is reason to celebrate, but especially now with Del Monte’s announced closure of its Sleepy Eye food processing plant. The closure will affect 69 full-time employees and some 350 seasonal workers. This is a tremendous economic loss for this farming community. When I was in Sleepy Eye last week, Del Monte had not yet announced this devastating decision.

 

I’m reflected in the mirrored underside of the marquee.

 

As I photographed the theater marquee, I delighted in its restored beauty and what this means to the good folks of Sleepy Eye. This historic building holds so many memories…with new ones yet to come.

 

I need to see the marquee at night with the lights aglow.

 

THOUGHTS?

Click here to view a story on KEYC-TV in Mankato about the brewery and coffee shop.

© 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

 

From southwestern Minnesota, where corn is king July 9, 2019

 

Farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see under an expansive sky in southwestern Minnesota.

 

TRAVEL MY NATIVE RURAL southwestern Minnesota as I did several days ago, and you will see vast fields of corn stretching across the landscape. Here you will find some of Minnesota’s richest and most fertile soil. Here corn and soybeans dominate.

 

A flooded field photographed on July 3 just east of Belview in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

In a particularly challenging growing season of late spring planting followed now by too much rain, farmers hope still for a bountiful harvest. Even as they view fields resembling lakes. But to be a farmer is to hold optimism.

 

A tractor and digger parked in a field along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Everything in these small communities centers on a farming economy. In years of good yields, businesses benefit. In years of low yields and low prices, small towns suffer. It is the cyclical nature of farm life in rural America.

 

An abandoned farmhouse sits atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

There’s much to appreciate about this rural region that roots me and grew me into a writer and photographer. Folks value the land and embrace a strong sense of community and of place.

 

Promotional billboards along U.S. Highway 14 and State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

In Sleepy Eye to the west of New Ulm, for example, the community celebrates Buttered Corn Days in August. This small town is home to a Del Monte Food’s corn and pea processing plant. We’re talking sweet corn here, not field corn.

 

Vending sweet corn in downtown Sleepy Eye on July 3.

 

Sweet corn season has just begun in Minnesota with roadside vendors pulling into parking lots and alongside roadways to sell fresh sweet corn from the backs of pick-up trucks. Farm to table at its most basic.

 

In a public visiting space at Parkview Home…

 

In the small town of Belview even farther to the west in my home county of Redwood, a single stalk of DeKalb field corn stands in a five-gallon bucket inside Parkview Home where my mom lives. I laughed when I saw the corn stalk with the notation of planted on May 13. Back in the day, corn growth was measured by “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Corn, in a typical year, now far surpasses that height by July 4. Not this year.

 

Silos and grain elevators are the highest architectural points on the prairie.

 

I can only imagine how many conversations that single corn stalk prompted at Parkview where most residents grew up on and/or operated farms. It’s details like this which define the rural character of a place and its people.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Twenty years of perpetual prayer at St. Mary’s in Sleepy Eye March 22, 2018

This painting of a woman in prayer hangs in my home, a gift from the family of Faribault artist Rhody Yule. I met Rhody several years before his death and helped organize two art shows of his work. I treasure this inspiring piece by Rhody as a reminder of our friendship and of his faith.

 

Pray without ceasing. (I Thessalonians 5:40)

“Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matthew 26: 40 – 41)

The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

 

Praying during a service at the Old Stone Church, rural Kenyon, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2010.

 

FOR THE FAITHFUL at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Sleepy Eye, those words from Scripture hold deep meaning. Not simply as words they should follow. But as words they do follow.

 

At Moland Lutheran Church, rural Kenyon, prayer needs are posted. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2013.

 

For 20 years, 24/7, the parishioners at this southwestern Minnesota prairie church have practiced Perpetual Adoration by praying. Every single hour. Of every single day. In one-hour shifts. For two decades. Remarkable.

 

A statue of Mary in prayer stands outside St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Elko New Market. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Today they pray in the Adoration Chapel housed in a new addition to the aged St. Mary’s Church. Originally, congregants prayed in the convent chapel, then the church.

 

The priest is about to proceed up the aisle to begin Mass at the Basilica of Saint Stanislaus Kostka in Winona. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.

 

Randy Krzmarzick has taken the 5 a.m. shift for all those 20 years. He writes about his experiences in a column posted on sleepyeyeonline. (Click here to read.) It’s an interesting read, especially for someone like me, a life-long Lutheran married to a former Catholic. But no matter your faith—or not—you will find value within Randy’s honest and humorous story. He suggests that we all need to quiet our hearts and seek silence in this busy and noisy world.

 

Praying at a car show at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2016.

 

Even he struggles to follow his own advice, admitting to sometimes thinking about the price of soybeans or a baseball game when he should be praying.

 

One of life’s simple delights: Wildflowers in the prairie of the Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life brims with distractions. We’re too busy. Too scheduled. Too whatever to notice the simple things in life. Or the people we love. Or those who are strangers and need our compassion.

 

Photographed at St. Stan’s in Winona. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.

 

There is much to be learned from the faithful of St. Mary’s in their two decades of dedication, discipline and devotion to prayer. In the silence, they have heard the quiet. And I expect, too, have found peace.

RELATED: Click here to read a story about Kathy Wichmann, who for 20 years has scheduled parishioners to fill those 24/7 prayer slots at St. Mary’s.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This & that from my tour of downtown Sleepy Eye, Part IV March 13, 2018

Editor’s note: Today’s post concludes my four-part series from downtown Sleepy Eye in southwestern Minnesota. This final photo essay presents a mishmash of images. Enjoy.

 

The Sleepy Eye Farmers Elevator stands as a visual reminder of this area’s strong farming base. However, the elevator has not been used since 2009 and was purchased by a private party from Central Region Cooperative just a year ago.

 

An Indian chief, spotted in a storefront window, connects visually to the town’s namesake, Chief Sleepy Eyes.

 

I took my camera inside K & J Antiques & Collectibles where shopkeeper Kurk Kramer graciously allowed me to take photos.

 

Red Wing crocks and a beautiful vintage tile floor drew my attention in this former bakery turned antique shop.

 

Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes is the town’s namesake. Kurk Kramer pulled this A.J. Pietrus & Sons vintage promo from a display case. He has plenty of Sleepy Eye collectibles for sale.

 

Native American collectibles are prominently displayed in this town named after a Dakota chief. This doll is offered for sale at K & J Antiques.

 

Sleepy Eye has a strong faith community with St. Mary’s Catholic Church and churches of other denominations. These figurines are shelved at K & J Antiques.

 

This photo shows a corner of a promo for the Orchid Inn, once a fine dining, banquet and dance hall in Sleepy Eye. These vintage paper pieces are for sale at K & J Antiques. The promo boasts (in part): “Of prime importance is the fact that while conveniently located, the Inn does provide the host with a site free of metropolitan distractions–a vital factor in group control.” It’s an interesting piece of literature for a former regional gathering place. Plans call for the property to become a STEM learning center with a focus on agriculture.

 

On a stalwart former bank building, I noticed this vintage alarm.

 

On another building I spotted this rusted mail slot. It looks like it’s been there awhile, as has the door.

 

I notice details, including this Minion towel hanging in a second floor window in an historic building. Made me laugh.

 

If you are interested in reading past posts written about Sleepy Eye through the years, please type Sleepy Eye into my blog search engine. Note that Sleepy Eye is much more than I presented in this four-part series. These posts are a result of about an hour spent walking through the downtown area before I had to be on my way. Plan your own trip to explore this community in Brown County, Minnesota. Click here to visit the Sleepy Eye Chamber of Commerce & CVB site for more information. 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling