Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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

 

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

 

An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II March 9, 2018

 

WHEN I SEE A COMMUNITY like Sleepy Eye with so many architecturally-pleasing historic buildings, I wish I could wave a financial wand.

 

 

If I could, I would sweep away the metal, the wood, the stucco, the fake fronts that hide the bones of these beautiful, mostly-brick, structures. I would restore them to their grandeur, drawing the interest of motorists passing through this southwestern Minnesota community. I would give people a reason to stop, to check out the architecture, the unique small town shops and eateries. Many do. More could.

 

Details like this curved, ornate railing on city hall add visual interest and charm.

 

I would also make this busy main street more pedestrian and visually-friendly with bump-out corners graced by public art and lovely flower planters.  I would replace concrete sidewalks with brick, or at least edge them in brick. I’d buy some paint and repair windows and fix unsafe and run-down buildings…if only I held a magical wand of unlimited finances.

 

This map, from a vintage Orchid Inn promo, shows Sleepy Eye’s location in southwestern Minnesota.

 

With US Highway 14, a major east-west roadway running right through Sleepy Eye, heavy traffic is already here. And the bonus of this route as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway adds to the potential.

 

These architecturally detailed buildings hold Sleepy Eye’s history in dates and names.

 

You have to look upward to see the true beauty of these historic buildings.

 

A rooster weather vane drew my interest atop city hall, housed in a former bank.

 

If I had unlimited financial resources, I would do all of these things for this Brown County community west of New Ulm. But magical wishes differ from reality. It takes money to make these improvements. And I expect the merchants here, like those in so many small farming communities, are simply happy they’re still in business given competition from regional shopping centers, Big Box stores and online sources.

 

In numerous buildings I noted lovely tile, inside and out.

 

Yet, small towns like Sleepy Eye offer an alternative, a welcome break from the sameness of mass everything. Places like Sleepy Eye Stained Glass draw customers from all over to purchase stained glass supplies or to get stained glass windows and more restored. Three local antique shops, other shops and the friendliness and service of small town proprietors are additional draws. Schweiss Meats is a popular place for those who appreciate small town meat markets.

 

The old Pix Theatre needs lots of work inside and out. The intention is to save and restore the marquee, according to EDA Coordinator Kurk Kramer.

 

Within a year or so, two local physicians hope to reopen the abandoned Pix Theatre as a nano-brewery and coffee shop, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk K. Kramer. He also runs K & J Antiques and Collectibles. If all goes as planned, the former Orchid Inn motel and event center will become AGlobal, a STEM-based learning center with a focus on agriculture. Additionally, the Orchid would house a language immersion institute.

 

 

 

 

Those plans show me people are working hard to keep this community thriving, with businesses that distinguish Sleepy Eye from other small Minnesota towns. EDA Coordinator Kramer noted that Sleepy Eye is also home to a business (Mark Thomas Company) which serves the funeral home industry by producing such products as handcrafted wooden urns. Who knew? Not me.

 

Sleepy Eye honors its namesake on its water tower.

 

But I do know that Sleepy Eye is named after Chief Sleepy Eyes, buried at a monument site marking his grave. Everywhere you will see the respected Dakota leader’s portrait. He brings historical interest and identity to Sleepy Eye. Those are existing strengths.

 

 

Perhaps some day these historic downtown buildings will all be restored. I appreciate that some already are. Funds are available through the Sleepy Eye Downtown Rehabilitation Incentive Program to make improvements. So perhaps my vision for this small Minnesota town will evolve into more than simply a wish…

 

FYI: Highway 14 improvements in downtown Sleepy Eye this summer call for sidewalk replacement, pedestrian flashers at ped crossings and more. Click here to read details.

Please check back next week for “The Art of Signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III.”

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

Serving up kraut at a Minnesota “feed” July 7, 2016

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HOW DO YOU DEFINE feed?

In Minnesota, the word can typically be defined as an event in which large numbers of people are served food by a group of volunteers aiming to raise money for a cause. Not exactly a Webster dictionary concise definition.

This sign is posted at the intersection of U.S. Highway 14 and Minnesota State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

This sign is posted at the intersection of U.S. Highway 14 and Minnesota State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

Often the featured food reflects the ethnicity of the region. Take, for example, the Eagle’s Kraut Feed slated for tomorrow at the Servicemen’s Club in Sleepy Eye. This southwestern Minnesota community has a strong German heritage. That would explain the Kraut Feed menu of all you can eat sauerkraut, dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, Landjagers (sausage), applesauce, bread and coffee and/or milk.

Even though I’m 100 percent German and do eat sauerkraut, I don’t like dumplings or sausage. But apparently a lot of folks do.

Downtown Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, photographed on July 2.

Downtown Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, photographed on July 2.

While searching online for info about the July 8 Kraut Feed, I also read that the Servicemen’s Club hosted a Ring Bologna Feed in February and a Bullhead Feed in March. I’m not surprised. I grew up in the county next to Sleepy Eye and my mom cooked both. I wasn’t fond of either ring bologna or bullheads. But those locally-sourced (from our farm and nearby School Grove Lake) cheap foods fed our family of eight.

Sleepy Eye's Del Monte plant, located on the west edge of town along U.S. Highway 14.

Sleepy Eye’s Del Monte plant, located on the west edge of town along U.S. Highway 14.

In August, Sleepy Eye will serve free buttered sweet corn at its annual Buttered Corn Days. That event connects to the local Del Monte company, a community fixture since 1920. According to the Del Monte website, the Sleepy Eye plant “produces the largest case quantities of peas and corn for the company, planted by over 300 different growers on more than 26,000 acres.” That and the employment of up to 400 seasonal employees are good enough reasons to host a free community sweet corn feed.

TELL ME: What types of feeds are popular in your area? Or what is the most unusual feed you’ve come across and/or attended?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling