Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

So…I forgot about St. Patrick’s Day amid COVID-19 concerns March 18, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In March 2015, friends posted shamrocks in my yard on St. Patrick’s Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

IF LEPRECHAUNS REALLY EXISTED, perhaps we could dispatch them into the U.S. with their lucky charms. Oh, never mind. Travel bans went into effect at midnight March 16 keeping native leprechauns from entering the U.S. in efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

My apologies to all you Irish readers. I forgot yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day. My mind has been elsewhere—on family indirectly affected by the coronavirus, on a work project, on anything but this day that honors St. Patrick.

 

Irish pride shows on the town water tower.

 

So here I am, a day late, sharing photos I took in late January while passing through Kilkenny. That would be Minnesota. Not Ireland.

 

Kilkenny’s gathering spot, Murphy’s Pub.

 

Kilkenny, a community of around 130 in Le Sueur County, doesn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Not on March 17 anyway. Rather, they celebrate Half-way to St. Paddy’s Day in September with a parade, car show, “World Famous Toilet Bowl Races” (don’t ask) and more.

 

A distant view of the Kilkenny, Minnesota water tower.

 

My recent drive through Kilkenny yielded minimal photos. I focused mostly on the Irish angle—the water tower and the local pub. I expect St. Patrick’s Day in Kilkenny was rather quiet this year given the state-mandated closure of all bars and restaurants by 5 pm Tuesday and continuing until March 27. Those establishments can still deliver and offer take-out, just not dine-in. But it’s not like you can order a mug of green beer or a shot of Irish whiskey and drive or walk away (which is a good thing).

 

Another view of Murphy’s Pub in Kilkenny.

 

It’s to the point where I can’t remember all the closures and cancellations that are happening. But, they are countless and, in Minnesota, include movie theaters, museums, craft breweries, bowling alleys and much more. Even the Mall of America has closed. Not that that affects me. I’ve never been there.

 

There he is. Now I see the leprechaun.

 

As I wrote this late Tuesday afternoon, the number of positive coronavirus cases in Minnesota stood at 60. None in my county yet. So perhaps a leprechaun did fly into Minnesota prior to the travel ban and passed through Rice County with his lucky charms while en route to Kilkenny.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery revisited, Part I February 26, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:15 AM
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A section of downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, with its many historic buildings.

 

I DOUBT I’VE WRITTEN about any small Minnesota community more than I’ve written about Montgomery. Located within a half hour of my Faribault home, it’s a quick drive away. And Montgomery offers just enough to keep me returning.

 

Signs always draw my eye, including this one. It’s simple, nostalgic…

 

Especially interesting is the downtown with eye-catching signage, aged buildings and home-grown shops.

 

Among the sweet offerings at the long-time, popular Franke’s Bakery.

 

An old-fashioned bakery.

 

Outside the entry to the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center located in Hilltop Hall.

 

A thriving Arts & Heritage Center.

 

Beer to go at Montgomery Brewing.

 

A brewery with outstanding craft beers.

 

The friendly young man I met while photographing downtown. He paused to let me pet Buddy.

 

Friendly people.

 

Everywhere downtown you’ll find signs promoting kolacky.

 

A deep appreciation for the area’s Czech heritage. Combine those and you have a small town that appeals to me.

 

Third-generation Franke’s Bakery is known for its kolacky.

 

I recognize that what interests me may not interest you. But there’s something to be said for small towns with a strong sense of identity and pride in that identity. For Montgomery, it’s the tag, “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The kolacky is a bun-like Czech pastry filled with a fruit or poppyseed filling. Risking the wrath of the Czech, I will tell you that it’s not a favorite of mine. I’d choose a doughnut before a kolacky. But then I am of German descent and was not raised in this area of Minnesota.

 

Stand in the grocery store parking lot and you can see the grain elevator in one direction, the brewery in another and the main street through downtown, too.

 

None of that matters really. What matters is that I like Montgomery. Unleash me with a camera in this town and I get excited about the photo ops, all the ways I can capture the essence of this place. If my creative work is anything, it has always been about defining place.

 

Spotted in the window of a downtown business. These handwritten signs give a place character.

 

I will always feel most comfortable in a rural town like Montgomery. I appreciate a place where I can view a grain elevator, spot handwritten signs on business doors and windows, chat it up with the locals, stop to pet a passerby’s dog and stand in the middle of Main Street to take a photo without worry of traffic.

Now that my photo essay about Montgomery has published in the March issue of Southern Minn Scene magazine, I am free to share more photos from my January day trip to this Le Sueur County community. Enjoy and watch for additional posts highlighting Montgomery as I, once again, define this place in images and words.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery, Through a SoMinn Lens February 24, 2020

A scene outside Franke’s Bakery in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday morning. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

 

SEVERAL WEEKS HAVE PASSED since my last day trip to Montgomery, a small Minnesota town of some 3,000 about a 30-minute drive from my Faribault home.

Randy and I went to Montgomery specifically to view an exhibit of 1900s era photos of Native Americans by noted photographer Edward S. Curtis. The exhibit at the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center closes this Saturday, February 29. You can learn more about that show by clicking here and reading a previous post.

My reason for writing about Montgomery today is to share my latest Through a SoMinn Lens photo essay column, “Day trip to Montgomery, Kolacky Capital of the World,” which just published in the March issue of Southern Minn Scene. To see the current issue of this free lifestyle, arts and entertainment magazine, click here.

As always, I am delighted to showcase a small Minnesota community well worth your visit. As time allows this week (I’m trying to complete other writing projects with deadlines), I will share more Montgomery photos with you. Enjoy!

And if you have any suggestions of small towns (or attractions) in southern Minnesota that I should visit, please pass along your ideas.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a small Minnesota town celebrates the arts & its Czech heritage February 4, 2020

The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center in small town Minnesota.

 

IN THE HEART OF CZECH COUNTRY, in the small southern Minnesota community of Montgomery, population 3,000, the arts thrive.

 

Photographed in the arts center gift shop.

 

That’s a testament to the devotion of those who care about the arts and about preserving Czech culture and heritage in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. (Kolacky are a Czech pastry.)

 

Beautiful Hilltop Hall with the arts center on the right and a floral and gift shop on the left. A performing arts space is located on the second floor.

 

In a section of historic Hilltop Hall—yes, appropriately named for its hilltop location in the heart of downtown—the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center centers the arts. I love this place, where I’ve attended theatrical performances and viewed exhibits, most recently vintage photos of western U.S. Native Americans photographed by Edward S. Curtis.

 

The Edward Curtis exhibit in the foreground and the gift shop in the back.

 

Czech glassware in the gift shop.

 

After touring that exhibit, I walked toward the back of the narrow room to the gift shop which features Czech, handcrafted and other goods.

 

Portraits of past Masopust kings in Montgomery.

 

There I also spotted portraits of Masopust kings, young men crowned at the community’s annual Czech Mardi Gras. That celebration is set for noon – 5 p.m. Sunday, February 23, at American Legion Post 79 and includes a costume ball, polka music, silent auction and Czech food.

In April, the Legion hosts an Escape Room Experience fundraiser for the Arts & Heritage Center through Tri-City United Community Ed.

I love how people in small towns work together and support one another. At different times from March into May, the arts center will exhibit the artwork of local elementary, middle and high school students.

The arts center is also honoring Montgomery’s rural-ness with a “Celebration of Farmers and Agriculture” exhibit of art at local businesses from mid-May to the end of October. Work from artists, in any 2D or 3D medium, is being sought with a March 1 registration deadline. To entice entrants, there’s a top prize of $1,000. That’s substantial. Prizes will be awarded during Kolacky Days weekend July 24-26.

 

A sampling of Kolacky Days queen portraits.

 

Jane shows me a group photo of Kolacky Days queens.

 

Czech words I inquired about.

 

As I meandered through the Arts & Heritage Center, I noticed portraits of Kolacky Days queens rimming the room near the ceiling. Jane, volunteering her time to staff the center on the day of my visit, pulled down a group photo of past queens riding together on a Kolacky Days float. She’s of Czech heritage. But she couldn’t translate a posting of Czech words I spotted. Not that I, of German heritage, could translate German words, even if I studied German for six years. I understand.

 

Volunteer Jane stationed near the front door.

 

Jane presented a warm welcome to this exceptional small town Minnesota center for the arts and preservation of the community’s Czech heritage. I encourage you to visit Montgomery. Stop at the Arts & Heritage Center, walk through the main business district, shop the small shops, grab a bite to eat, maybe even a beer at the local brewery. There’s so much to appreciate about Montgomery. (Keep in mind that this is a small town and places are open limited hours.)

 

Quilt art honoring Montgomery’s Czech heritage hangs in the gift shop.

 

This community is the focus of my monthly Through a SoMinn Lens photo essay, publishing soon in Southern Minn Scene magazine.

 

 

FYI: The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center is open from 2-5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 a.m. – noon on Saturdays. It is supported primarily by memberships, fundraisers and donations. Visit the center’s Facebook page for more info on events mentioned in this post.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.

 

BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

 

It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.

 

This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.

 

Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.

 

Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.

 

Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.

 

Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.

 

A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.

 

Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.

 

I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.

 

But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.

 

Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.

 

Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What I’m drawn to photograph in rural Minnesota January 7, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.

 

I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.

 

Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.

 

A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.

 

Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.

 

While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.

 

In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.

 

It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.

 

A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

 

I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.

 

In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.

 

On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.

 

A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling