Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

May the force of creativity be with you this Halloween October 29, 2013

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YOU CAN TAKE A PUMPKIN and carve or paint it all fancy schmancy for Halloween.

But sometimes it’s the simplest form of creativity which most impresses:

May the force be with you this Halloween.

May the force be with you this Halloween.

Now, I cannot recall ever viewing a Star Wars movie for I am not a fan of sci-fi and/or fantasy. But even I can appreciate this stick drawing created by some devoted fan in Plainview, Minnesota, and set outside the entry to a downtown business a half block from the Rural America Arts Center/Jon Hassler Theater.

The Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center in downtown Plainview.

The Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center in downtown Plainview.

I bet Hassler, a former Plainview resident and an author noted for his nuanced fictional depictions of small town Minnesota life, would value the childish art on this pumpkin.

And the fact that I noticed.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


What would you do with this old bakery in Lamberton? May 31, 2012

The former Sanger’s Bakery in Lamberton, a Minnesota farming community. I’d move the garbage bin in front of the building, replace it with a bench and add pots of vivid flowers.

I’VE PHOTOGRAPHED many an old building in a lot of small towns. My appreciation for history and architecture and for rural life keep drawing me back to Main Street.

One building in particular intrigues me. The former Sanger’s Bakery, a brick stronghold anchoring a corner in downtown Lamberton in southern Redwood County, possesses a sweet, timeless charm that causes it to stand out.

How long has this signage been painted on the front window of Sanger’s?

It’s not necessarily the exterior that catches my eye, although certainly the signage and sweeping arched front window and the fancy details in the brick appeal to me. Rather, it’s the interior which truly captures my interest.

The two times I’ve photographed the exterior, I’ve also paused to press my nose against the windows and peer inside to a snapshot of the past. You would swear the hands on the vintage 7-UP clock have not moved in decades. An old-fashioned candy counter and vintage lunch counter rimmed with stools look like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

A vintage sign suspended from the front of the bakery.

Honestly, you just don’t find places like this anymore. Martin Kuhar opened the bakery in 1928. The Sanger family purchased it in 1946 and eventually Bob, the youngest of Nick and Mary’s six children, bought the business in 1961. He was a 1955 graduate of the baking program at Dunwoody Institute.

All of this I learned on a recent stop at the bakery, where I found Bob’s obituary taped to the front door. He died March 30.

Just days before his death, this long-time baker was serving coffee to his friends. Oh, how I wish I could have been in that coffee klatch, listening to the stories.

I bet Bob would have shared plenty about the place where he served up baked goods, hand-scooped ice cream cones, malts and candy. He baked buns for local schools and churches and crafted wedding cakes. He also sold fresh eggs from his chickens and honey from his bees. He tended a garden.

After reading Bob’s obit, I desired even more to get into the bakery. I jiggled the front door knob, hoping the door might be unlocked. It wasn’t. I’m determined, on my next trip to Lamberton, to get inside the bakery, to share with you this treasure from the past.

In the meantime, owners of this building and Lamberton area residents, I hope you appreciate what you have here. I could easily see this former bakery reopened as an ice cream/sandwich/pie/coffee/gift shop. The location along U.S. Highway 14 only 10 miles from Walnut Grove, childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, is ideal. The area already draws plenty of tourists during the summer months.

The right owner, with the right ideas, a good business and marketing plan, and adept at using social media could turn this old bakery into a destination.

I can envision the possibilities.

Readers, what do you think? If anyone out there knows anything about plans for the old bakery, submit a comment. Or, if you simply have ideas, I’d like to hear those, too.

A side shot of the former bakery. Just imagine the possibilities for this spacious building. Let’s hear your ideas.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The truth about goldfish revealed at a convenience store October 11, 2011

YOU’RE ON THE ROAD. You need to pee. You also need a beverage to quell your thirst. It’s a hot afternoon. So you pop into a convenience store.

You use the facilities, select a bottle of tart lemonade and then head for the check-out counter.

That’s when you spot this message scrawled on the whiteboard, propped between the Minnesota State Lottery and Jean Ross sunglasses displays:

The message posted recently at a southeastern Minnesota convenience store.

And then you think to yourself, “What is the meaning of this message?”

When you inquire, you learn that this is the “thought of the day,” with a new parcel of wisdom or tidbit of information posted whenever the manager is on duty.

It’s as simple as that.

As you walk out of Parkside Gas and Grocery on Main Street in Nerstrand, you think, “Well, I just learned something new.”

And then you have this fleeting thought that you should rush out and buy a goldfish, stash the fish tank in a closet and test the validity of this statement.

But then you remember just how much you dislike cleaning a fish tank.

HAS ANYONE ever tried this? Do goldfish really turn white when kept in the dark?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From a small Minnesota town: “My dad got shot” August 10, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:13 PM
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WEEKS LATER, I STILL can’t shake her haunting words. “My dad got shot,” the darling pixie of a 6-year-old with brown eyes and long, spaghetti-straight auburn hair tells me.

I don’t want to believe her and even question the truthfulness of her statement.

But she is too quick to respond, to say that her dad, Bill, is dead, “buried in the ground.” The father who stole a car and went to jail was shot by someone who came to the house when she was only one, she says. I don’t know if she has her story spot-on correct, but I figure she’s heard it too many times to mess up the truth.

Recently, the police stopped by her house—the one across from the park with the boxspring leaning outside the front door and the stockade of a fence enclosing the back yard. “I don’t know why they came,” she says. I can see the hint of fear in her eyes.

I don’t pry. But I want to swoop her up, hug her, take her away from the bad memories and the stories of the violent death of her father, away from a life that seems not all that stable even now.

Yet, I’ve only met her as my husband and I are in a southern Minnesota small-town city park on a Sunday afternoon. I want to advise her and the boy, who isn’t her brother but lives with her because her mom and his dad “are in love,” that they shouldn’t talk to strangers in the park.

But she has already told me the dead father story and rolled her eyes at the living arrangement between parents. I can’t just tell her and the little boy to go home. Be safe. Don’t talk to strangers or accept food from them. She’s already caused my heart to ache.

So instead, we offer them food. She refuses any. But the boy, about four, gobbles up the potato chips and grapes we give him. It is 1:00 and they have not eaten lunch, although the six-year-old says they ate a late breakfast.

I’m not so sure. Maybe she’s heeding advice she once heard about not accepting food from strangers. Yet, she’s the one who approached Randy when we first arrived, when I was using the porta potty, and told him he looked like her friend Emma’s grandpa.

They seem hungry, not only for food, but for someone who cares.

“I have a dad,” the boy shares between mouthfuls of chips. And that’s when the mite of a girl tells us about her dead father.

Soon the boy’s older sister, by a few years, arrives at the park, apparently sent over to check on the other two.

“Do you want some potato chips?” I ask. She accepts a handful.

“She stole a peach,” the redhead accuses.

“From the grocery store?” I ask, thinking I may now need to teach them right from wrong.

No. The peach was stolen at home.

“I stole pop tarts,” the talkative six-year-old confesses. “She told me to.” She looks directly at the other girl, the one who may someday become her sister if the two in-love parents marry.

I don’t understand her word choice—“stole.”

“We’re supposed to ask (for food),” she explains or “get in trouble.”

Now I am worried. “You don’t get hit for taking food, do you?”

They say “no” and I inwardly breathe a sigh of relief.

Then, after we give cheese slices to the little boy and his sister, with the pixie girl still refusing food, she obeys a summons to come home. The boy is still standing near the picnic table, his sister a short distance away. He struggles to unwrap the single cheese slice.

“Here, let me help you,” I say. He hands me the cheese and I unwrap it. He shoves the slice into his mouth and runs home. His sister declines my offer to remove the cheese wrapping, determined to do it on her own. She does.

I leave the small-town park unsettled and worried about the future of these three children. Already they’ve experienced so much in their young lives: Violent death. Police knocking on the door. Food they feel they must steal.

My heart aches for these children. Will they grow up tough, hardened by the life they’ve already lived? Will they overcome the pain they’ve already experienced? Will they continue to approach strangers in the park…to talk about the dad who was shot, the food they must “steal?”

I wonder. I worry.  Should I have done something more?

THE NAMES IN THIS STORY have been changed to protect these children who thought nothing of walking up to strangers in a park. That also is the reason I am not revealing the Minnesota town where I met them. The rest of the story, sadly, is true.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Canning jars and funeral info at the hardware store July 24, 2011

A sign in the Gambles' hardware store window gives updated visitation and funeral information to the residents of the New Richland area.

SHE PULLED UP ALONGSIDE the curb Sunday afternoon, leaned toward the semi-open window on the passenger side of her van and asked if my husband or I knew why Rodney had died. “He seemed so young,” she said.

“We’re not from here,” I answered. “I have no idea.”

But I had a question for her: “Why is his funeral information in the Gambles’ window?”

She didn’t exactly have a response for me—not one I can publicly share anyway—so I took this as one of those small-town oddities.

Even finding a Gambles hardware store in New Richland, population around 1,200, seemed an oddity. But there it was, sandwiched between New Richland Drug and Blondie’s Grill, along a main drag in this Waseca County community. These hardware stores were common when Randy and I were growing up in the 1960s, but not so much now.

Gambles stores, like this one in New Richland, were once common in Minnesota small towns. From 1925 - 1928, Gamble-Skogmo was headquartered in Fergus Falls and then moved to Minneapolis.

As surprised and delighted as we were to find the Gambles store, we were even more surprised to see that funeral and visitation information posted in the front window next to the canning jars.

But apparently this business place public posting is a usual practice in New Richland since the elderly van driver pulled up in front of Gambles for the sole purpose of checking out the information about Rodney Arnold.

Randy, wanting to know how she defined “seemed so young,” inquired while I snapped photos of that seemingly out-of-place sign in the hardware store window.

“He was maybe in his early 60s,” the woman, probably in her late 70s or early 80s, guessed, then drove off.

For the record, Rodney Arnold was 62. Upon our return home, I went online to Friedrichs Funeral Home and checked. I also learned that this self-employed dry wall installer met his friends every morning for coffee at Dads Good Stuff, just a few doors down from Gambles.

The things you learn if you simply take the time to stop along a small-town Minnesota Main Street…to read the latest funeral information.

The flashy front door of Dads Good Stuff.

Unfortunately, Dads Good Stuff antique, etc., store was closed when we were in New Richland Sunday afternoon.

Just a close-up shot of New Richland's Gambles store, which was closed when we were in town.

READERS: This is the first of many posts I’ll publish this week about a Sunday afternoon drive south to Hope, west to Ellendale and New Richland, north to Otisco and Waseca, and then back home to Faribault, with two country church stops in between.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling