Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A flavor of the Minnesota northwoods at Bean Hole Days July 26, 2021

The Bean Hole crew guides a kettle of beans from an underground cooking pit at Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

LONG LINES FORMED an hour before the event in makeshift narrow aisles crafted from stakes and ribbon. Folks waited not for Paul Bunyan, although he was there, working the crowd. And not for Elvis, although he performed. Rather, they waited for a serving of baked beans.

Thousands line up for a bowl of baked beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
My bowl of baked beans. The beans are fee with donations accepted. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Lifting the kettles from the pit requires machinery and manpower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This scene unfolded on Wednesday, July 14, during Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes, a small town in the central Minnesota lakes region. Randy and I, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin south of nearby Crosslake, attended for the first time. And it was quite the experience. I mean that in a truly positive way. While I don’t like waiting, waiting for a generous serving of bacon-laced navy beans baked in a wood-fired pit proved well worth my time. I’ve never tasted better homemade baked beans.

The bean crew waits near the pit where the beans bake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The process of crafting these beans is impressive. I missed the prep and lowering of massive cast iron kettles into the ground Tuesday. But in chatting with a bean crew member on Wednesday, I learned that the 350 pounds of navy beans were soaked and partially cooked with propane before lowering the cauldrons into the pit of wood coals for overnight baking. And yes, it takes a knowledgeable team and machinery for this operation.

Almost ready to serve beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

My bean crew source wasn’t sharing details about ingredients, with the exception of 126 pounds of bacon mixed into the beans. The special “sauce,” which definitely tastes of molasses, is a guarded secret. And that’s all right. It adds to the mystery, the intrigue.

Lining up for beans under the direction of a volunteer. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

From my observations, volunteers have this bean-baking down to a science. And they should. Bean Hole Days began in 1938 as a way for local businessmen to thank farmers for their business. Today, the focus seems more on drawing vacationers into town—to the local shops and restaurants. While waiting in line for 45 minutes, I chatted with couples from Baxter and the Twin Cities.

We arrived early with plenty of time to check out the arts and crafts. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Bean Hole Days royalty. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
An old-fashioned barrel train weaves through the festival grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This event at Trailside Park is about much more than beans. It also features an arts and craft fair, a small kiddie carnival, food vendors and crowning of Bean Hole royalty. And this year free COVID-19 vaccinations.

These friendly vendors sold art (Shea J. Maze) and naturally-dyed goods (Diaspora Textiles). Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I enjoyed chatting with vendors, mingling, watching. And photographing.

Paul Bunyan greets Bean Hole Days attendees. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Bean Hole Days, because of its location in Pequot Lakes among lakes and pines in cabin country, reflects the Minnesota northwoods and all that entails. Fishing. The town water tower is shaped like a bobber. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Paul shook hands, posed for photos and generally welcomed guests. Babe and bobber sculptures provided photo ops.

The kettles of beans are given Scandinavian names. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Even the kettles of beans, sponsored by area businesses, feature names connecting to the region’s heritage. Lena. Sven. Ole. And more.

Elvis entertains the waiting crowd. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
This mug allows you to go in the fast/first serving line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Buy a mug and enter the fast lane. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

As I waited in line for beans, I danced to the music of Elvis performing live. That garnered a compliment from a volunteer guiding guests to the right serving kettles. Those who purchased a 2021 Bean Hole Days mug advanced through the FAST PASS FOR GAS line. I appreciated the humor. While Randy and I didn’t buy mugs, we left a donation.

Volunteers ladle generous portions of baked beans. Some people brought their mugs from past years. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And we left full of beans and appreciative of all the people who put together this unique small town Minnesota northwoods experience.

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Please check back for more photos from Bean Hole Days as I couldn’t possibly fit everything into a single post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Photographing the midway at Dam Days in Morristown June 1, 2013

SET ALONG THE CANNON RIVER in Rice County, Morristown, population around 1,000, bills itself as “The Best Little Town by a Dam Site!”

And this weekend, this southeastern Minnesota community celebrates its annual Dam Days, which continue through tomorrow. It’s one of the first summer celebrations in the area, an event that typically draws large crowds, especially for the Friday evening parade.

The compact Midway in downtown Morristown.

The compact midway in downtown Morristown.

I’ve never attended the parade, but Saturday afternoon my husband and I toured the historic grist mill and schoolhouse and also took in the carnival and kids’ tractor pull.

Dakota waves to his dad who is photographing his little boy's ride on the merry-go-round.

Dakota waves to his dad who is photographing his little boy’s ride on the merry-go-round.

As always, I found an abundance of photo ops. Today I’ll show you the midway. Oh, my gosh, a carnival is a photographer’s playground with colorful characters, happy kids, young love, and just so much to take in.

Enjoy.

In front of the local Legion, the choppers.

In front of the local Legion, the choppers.

The coveted prizes hang high.

The coveted prizes hang high.

Young love. No other words needed.

Young love. No other words needed.

A riot of color.

A riot of color.

The Old Town Tavern advertises its Dam Days specials. Great place to eat.

The Old Town Tavern advertises its Dam Days specials. Great place to eat.

Trying to win a prize.

Trying to win a prize.

One of the healthier food choices.

One of the healthier food choices.

Walking (or falling) in the water balls.

Walking (or falling) in the water balls.

A slow afternoon on the Midway...

A slow afternoon on the midway…at the Dizzy Dragons ride, originating in Faribault.

Shooting to win.

Shooting to win.

One final look at the Midway.

One final look at the carnival.

If you want to experience a small town celebration, head over to Morristown, located about 10 miles west of Faribault on Minnesota State Highway 60, tomorrow. Click here to read the entire list of events happening on Sunday.

Among Sunday events is the 2nd annual Amateur Backyard BBQ Contest, beginning at 1 p.m. in the park by the river. You can sample five BBQed items for $5.

Among Sunday events is the 2nd annual Amateur Backyard BBQ Contest, beginning at 1 p.m. in the park by the river. You can sample five BBQed items for $5.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE POSTS from the Morristown Mill, the old schoolhouse and the kids’ tractor pull.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating summer in small-town southwestern Minnesota August 1, 2011

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A chicken meal has been served for decades at V-Esta Daze.

Milt Marquardt

IF YOU GREW UP in a rural area, you likely also grew up with an annual small-town summer celebration.

A chicken/pork/burger/corn (whatever) feed, carnival, kids’ games, car show, crowning of Miss Small-Town, water fights between neighboring fire departments, softball tournaments, a parade…

My hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota has, for decades, celebrated V-Esta Daze. The town name is pronounced “Vest-a,” but for the celebration, the pronunciation rhymes with “fiesta.” Don’t ask me why. We’re mostly a bunch of Germans.

Anyway, heritage and linguistics don’t matter so much as the decades-long tradition of serving Vesta’s famous chicken. Guys like Milt Marquardt, my neighbor back when I was growing up on a dairy and crop farm, have been grilling chicken so long they can’t remember. Suffice to say that’s been more than four decades.

Milt and the crew grilled 280 pieces of chicken for the crowd that lined up in the Vesta Community Hall Friday evening for quarter or chicken halves, potato salad, beans, rolls, pickles and beverages. A few things have changed about the meal—the potato salad is no longer prepared by local women and the plastic-ware isn’t wrapped in a napkin (you grab your own). But you’ll still find my Aunt Marilyn monitoring the beverage station, the same job she’s held for some 40 years.

Diners still settle onto folding chairs pulled up to long tables in the old hall. Glass encased military uniforms and built-in wooden benches flank the sides of the hall anchored by a stage on one end. Little has changed in this building (except the addition of a kitchen), which has long been Vesta’s celebration-central—the place to celebrate weddings and anniversaries and the coming together of community.

The same sign goes up every year inside the Vesta Hall. The price is updated when necessary.

Diners eat in the Vesta Community Hall, where military uniforms hang on the walls.

This year the V-Esta Daze celebration was moved from a week night to a Friday night. Thank you, organizers. That happened to coincide with the annual Kletscher family reunion weekend. So I was there, lining up for that famous chicken and reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in years (and trying to remember their names).

Gone are the carnival, softball games and water fights between neighboring fire departments that were part of the event when I was growing up. Instead, there were pony rides and bean bag tourneys, an antique tractor and car show, a putting green, pie eating contest, water fight for kids, street dance and entertainment by the Lucan Community Band and the required beer served from the beer truck.

The Lucan Community Band played under the shade trees outside the community hall and across the street from the elevator around meal-time. Lucan is a town of about 200 seven miles south of Vesta.

Area residents brought their old tractors to town for a tractor and car show.

My cousin Dawn's son, Kegan, enjoyed a pony ride.

A view of the dashboard in a 1960 pick-up truck, looking toward some of the entries in the antique car show.

When I was growing up, members of Vesta's volunteer fire department engaged in water fights with departments from neighboring communities. Now the kids, not adults, participate in water fights.

I didn’t take in all of the events. I skipped the pie eating, bean bag toss and street dance. But I heard the band playing loud and clear a few blocks away when I left my Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Milan’s house around midnight Friday for my mom’s house a block away. Yeah, everything in Vesta, population around 300, is just a few blocks away.

HOW ABOUT YOU AND YOUR COMMUNITY? Do you have an annual summer celebration or return to your hometown for one? Submit a comment. I’d like to hear about these small-town gatherings.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The irrepressible spirit of two small Minnesota towns July 15, 2011

Entering Belview from Sacred Heart at 9 a.m. on July 2, the morning after the tornado. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

THE RESILIENCE OF RESIDENTS in two small Minnesota communities recently ravaged by storms impresses me.

The folks in Belview, a Redwood County town of 375 hit by an EF-1 tornado on July 1, and the residents of Sauk Centre, a Stearns County community of 4,221 blasted by 80 – 85 mph winds Sunday evening, won’t allow storms to squelch their summer celebrations.

This Saturday, July 16, Belview will host the town’s third “Small Town Saturday Night.”

In Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis Days, which began on Sunday, continue as planned through July 16.

I mean, honestly, would you feel like partying if you were still trying to deal with the mess after a tornado or high winds uprooted trees; downed branches; damaged homes, businesses and other buildings; and smashed vehicles in your community?

But I suppose pausing to celebrate in the midst of such devastation bolsters the spirit and allows residents time to take a break, come together, share stories and support each other.

Kim Sander, who initiated the Small Town Saturday Night, once-a-month May – August event in Belview, posted recently on the Belview Blue Jays’ Facebook page: “Come join us and celebrate our small town’s ‘back to life after the storm’…from 5 – 8 p.m. there will be a cruise-in, free popcorn, First Responder’s pork sandwiches, a special display of Arctic Cat mini-bikes, etc. This is our third Small Town Saturday Night and we appreciate being able to bounce back and be ready for ‘business as usual!’ So proud of our town and its people!”

You simply have to appreciate Sander’s upbeat attitude and enthusiasm.

I first learned about the Small Town Saturday Night from City Clerk/Treasurer Lori Ryer just days before the July 1 tornado roared through Belview. She had written an article about hot air balloons in Belview and I was gathering last-minute information prior to publication in the summer issue of Minnesota Moments magazine.

Ryer told me then about the event that brings people into town with classic cars, motorcycles, tractors and such. She mentioned the free popcorn, the vendors, the farmers’ market, food, sometime-hay rides to local vineyards (Echo Creek Vineyard and Grandview Valley Winery) and added, “Bring your lawn chair.” Ryer is among Belview’s most enthusiastic boosters.

I’m sidetracking briefly here to say that I like this whole concept of a Small Town Saturday Night, tapping into the past when farmers and their families would come to town on Saturday night. Heck, I remember watching movies on the side of a building in Vesta, which is just down the road to the south and west of Belview. Vesta movie night may have been on a Saturday night; I don’t recall for certain.

Belview residents seem to be doing a fine job of promoting their little town. Each year the community holds an Old SOD Day celebration. The event, which features your usual small-town activities like a kiddie parade, car shows and more, also has hot air balloon lift-offs. This year’s celebration is set for September 17.

The boyhood home of author Sinclair Lewis was closed for the day when we arrived in Sauk Centre.

UP IN SAUK CENTRE, I haven’t talked with anyone about Sinclair Lewis Days, the annual celebration of native son Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street and other noted books. But my husband and I stopped in Sauk Centre briefly while en route home from Fergus Falls to Faribault about a month ago. I’m a fan of Lewis and, although I had seen his boyhood home decades ago, I had not viewed the town beyond that. I wanted to see the real Main Street, the basis for his satirical writing about fictional Gopher Prairie.

While physically Sauk Centre’s appearance has changed since our visit, since powerful winds blew through the town on July 10, that won’t keep this community from celebrating. A Welsh Pony Show, fireworks, softball tournament, music in the park and Crazy Days are still continuing as planned, according to information posted online at the Sauk Centre Convention and Visitors Bureau.

I just have to say, Belview and Sauk Centre residents, your ability to continue in spite of challenges speaks volumes to your irrepressible spirits. Even Sinclair Lewis might be impressed.

The appropriately-named Main Street Theatre in Sauk Centre's downtown.

Just down the block from the theatre, the Sauk Hop Diner anchors the corner across from the Palmer House Hotel.

Sinclair Lewis worked as a night clerk at the historic Palmer House Hotel.

The typical small-town barber shop, in Sauk Centre, Tony's Barber Shop.

On a block packed with bars, six if I recall correctly, this one, the Next Door Bar and Lounge, stood out.

Another view of downtown Sauk Centre, shot several weeks ago.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling