Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Saturday in November in southern Minnesota November 19, 2020

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The weather on Saturday, November 7, was warm enough to put the top down on the convertible, this one driving along Rice County Road 45 toward Medford.

WITH SNOW LAYERING the ground as I write this several days before publication and with the furnace cranking out heat to stave off the cold, warmer days seem but a distant memory. But not that long ago, on November 7 and 8, we were enjoying warm temps and sunshine here in southern Minnesota. And my photos document that.

Before the recent snow, fallen leaves defined the lawn at the Medford City Park.

On that recent weekend, Randy and I finished raking and hauling leaves to the compost pile on Saturday morning. Then we packed a picnic lunch with intentions of an afternoon wandering through rural Minnesota with no specific destination. One of our Sunday afternoon drives, except on a Saturday. Only briefly did we discuss staying home to wash windows. Nope, the weather was too nice and we wanted to enjoy the afternoon. In Minnesota we recognize such beautiful November days as rarities to savor in time spent outdoors. Playing, not working.

So we gased up the van and then headed south on the back county road to Medford. A few miles from Faribault, we heard a clunk and Randy realized he’d left the gas cap at the gas station. We retraced our route, retrieved the cover and restarted our leisurely drive. I was a bit irritated with the husband for forgetting the gas cap. More on that later.

An artsy roofline on the shelter where we ate our picnic lunch.
A plaque on a bench: Kevin loved this park!
The expansive playground next to the shelterhouse.

By the time we reached Medford, it was past noon and we were both hungry for that picnic lunch. So we pulled into the city park along the Straight River, settled in at a picnic table inside a wind-whipped shelter and watched kids on the playground while we ate our sandwiches.

The Straight River winds past the park.
The second shelter sits by the ballpark.
A view of the ball field.

Afterward, we walked around the park for a bit, down to the banks of the Straight River, around the ballpark and then back to the van. After more photos—I can always find something interesting to photograph—we were on our way.

I laughed at this sign, at the “softball landing area” warning.

Except we weren’t. Two blocks from the park, the power steering went out in the van. The engine light flashed on. Gauges indicated overheating. Randy switched off the van, lifted the hood and investigated. At times like this, I am thankful for a husband who has worked as an automotive machinist for decades and is extremely knowledgeable in diagnosing and dealing with vehicle issues.

I love small town scoreboards like this with character.

I suggested we call a tow truck. Randy insisted we could make it home to Faribault. If the engine didn’t overheat. I was skeptical. Half-way back, he noted that the engine was getting hotter. Long story, but we pulled into friends’ rural property (they weren’t home) and waited about 45 minutes for the engine to cool. Back on the road, with only miles to go, Randy cut the engine at the top of a hill. The van then coasted the final miles into Faribault. At a stop sign, Randy restarted the van to get the remaining blocks home. We made it. Who would have thought?

Love the colorful bleachers…

So much for that planned afternoon outing. Randy was now out in the garage, back under the hood, rooting out the problem. He diagnosed a broken spring inside the tensioner. That caused the belt to come loose which caused the subsequent issues. A trip to the parts store and about an hour later, he had fixed the van.

Posted on the ball field fence. Small towns have a knack for finding creative ways to fund projects.

But here’s the deal. Remember that forgotten gas cap and the irritation I felt over Randy’s forgetfulness? Well, if he hadn’t left the cover, we would have been further down the road, probably to Owatonna. And those extra miles likely would not have allowed us to get the van back home on our own. So, yeah, sometimes when little things like this happen and delay our best-laid plans, it’s for a reason. Lesson learned. On a beautiful day in early November in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Signs that prompt thought, discussion &, maybe, action October 28, 2020

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One of the many inspiring signs posted in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SIGNS. I FIND THEM INTRIGUING. Interesting. Telling. A way to communicate a message, a thought, an idea.

I think we can all agree, though, that during this election year, sign overload exists. Political signs clutter yards and buildings, even vehicles and sides of roadways. It’s visually overwhelming at times.

Photographed in Kenyon, Minnesota, on Sunday, October 22.

But some especially meaningful signs have emerged, signs that convey ideas rather than banner a candidate’s name. Those I appreciate because they prompt thought. And that includes the BLACK LIVES MATTER signs I’ve seen, some in Rice County (especially in Northfield), many in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin, and, just last week, two posted on a modest house in Kenyon.

A comment posted by a visitor on her Polaroid photo at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I often wonder about the stories behind those posting the BLACK LIVES MATTER (or similar “issue”) signs. Did a personal experience prompt someone to share their views in such a public way? Or rather do they simply believe so strongly in something that they opt to freely express their opinion via signage? Maybe both. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they care about this social justice issue, this human issue really. Even in small towns like Kenyon, population around 1,800.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

I recognize that, when you live in a small community (under 5,000 by my definition), everyone pretty much knows everyone. If you hang a sign like BLACK LIVES MATTER on your front door and porch windows, everyone in town will know. There is no anonymity. You could quickly become the subject of coffee talk or rumors or whatever people choose to circulate. I’m not saying this is the case in Kenyon, just making a general observation.

Posted in the “Selma to Montgomery” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Whatever, at least people will be thinking. Maybe even engaging in meaningful and respectful conversations that promote understanding and healing. Bring fairness and equality. In the current divisive environment, I recognize that’s not easy to achieve. But we must keep trying.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Neighbor helping neighbor in Zumbrota October 27, 2020

The grain elevator complex in Zumbrota, a busy place especially during the fall harvest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 18, 2020.

TOO OFTEN THESE DAYS, I feel discouraged by all the discord in our country, by the selfishness and lack of care for others.

But then I discover something that lifts my spirits and reaffirms my belief in our goodness, our ability to help one another, to think beyond ourselves and our needs to those of the people around us.

This is the story of such a discovery. Of goodness and kindness and care for those we call our family, neighbors, friends. Or strangers. And this I found in Zumbrota, a small town about a 45-minute drive east of Faribault.

On a recent Sunday afternoon drive through the Zumbro River Valley of southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Zumbrota for a picnic lunch, or what was supposed to be a picnic lunch. The weather, only in the 30s and blustery, proved too cold for outdoor dining. We opted to eat in the van while parked outside the public library.

“Heritage of Promise” by Jeff Barber. A third sculpture of a child is not included in this photo.

Directly in our line of vision stood a sculpture of children near a structure, which I soon determined to be an artistic interpretation of an historic covered bridge on the other side of the library. I planned, upon finishing my sandwich, grapes and protein bar, to photograph the art and then we would be on our way.

Some of the words inscribed on the sculpture. In the background, you can see the historic covered bridge.

On any other day, Randy and I would walk across that aged bridge to the park, explore a bit while stretching our legs. But the weather was just too darned cold. I hurried to photograph the sculpture as my fingers numbed.

The Community Cupboard and the Zumbrota Public Library designs both mimic the historic covered bridge nearby.

Once done, I walked back toward the van, only to notice a Little Free Library next to the public library. I found that odd.

As I drew closer, I found I was mistaken. This was not a LFL but rather a Community Cupboard—a source of food and hygiene products. Free for the taking.

The message thereon invites those opening the door of this small structure, designed like the nearby covered bridge, to TAKE WHAT YOU NEED, LEAVE WHAT YOU CAN. Baby formula. Snacks. Dried legumes. I didn’t poke around to see all of the contents.

Rather, as I photographed the Community Cupboard, I felt a sense of gratitude for this “Sharing Our Saviour” food outreach of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. I thought of the many times Jesus fed the hungry of body and of soul. And how thankful I am that churches and nonprofits and so many others help people in more ways than we will ever know. This lifts my spirits.

TELL ME: How do you or your community or church (or whatever) help individuals and families in need? I’d like to hear more uplifting stories.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Kenyon: More than just a bus service October 23, 2020

Held Bus Service in downtown Kenyon, Minnesota.

MANY TIMES I’VE PASSED through Kenyon, usually en route to visit family in Madison, Wisconsin, four hours distant. But many times also, this town of some 1,800 about a half hour east of Faribault has been my specific destination. Last Sunday afternoon on a drive to view the harvest and fall colors (before an unexpected snowstorm changed the landscape to winter), Randy aimed our van north out of Monkey Valley toward Kenyon just a few miles away.

This window features a classroom of yesteryear.
A close-up of a focal globe in the classroom display.
More details from the past…

We had no intention of stopping in Kenyon. But the passenger side window needed cleaning so Randy pulled into a corner service station and washed the glass. (He’s thoughtful like that.) Then we continued down Minnesota State Highway 60, which runs through the heart of the business district. As luck would have it, I happened to look, just at the right time, at the Held Bus Service building. And there, in the front windows, I spotted a school-themed display. Photo-worthy, I thought, as I asked Randy to swing around the block and return to the bus building. He even pulled ahead so the van wouldn’t reflect in the glass. (He’s thoughtful like that.)

Look at this bus-themed window display with the apparently handcrafted bus.

Photographing the window art proved challenging given the reflections. But I was determined to do my best. Someone worked hard to craft and create these educational-themed displays that show the importance of the Kenyon-Wanamingo School in this community—right down to the Knights mascot, the happy bus driver in the red cap and the smiling students. Yes, by that time I’d noticed two separate window displays, one an historic classroom and the other themed to school buses.

Love these portraits of students on the bus.
The school mascot even gets a place of honor.
More KW students riding the bus.

As someone who grew up riding the bus for 12 years to schools in southwestern Minnesota, I understand the importance of bus drivers. Mine were Jeff and Harley. Great guys. Friendly. Kind. Competent. It’s not easy driving on rural roads during a Minnesota winter. Nor is it necessarily easy dealing with a bus full of kids.

Presumably Jon Held behind the wheel of the bus.

But Jon Held, owner of Held Bus Service, loves kids. According to a 2016 KARE 11 TV feature on him, he is well-loved, too. He knows kids by name, greeting them daily before and after school (pre-COVID), often with hugs. He keeps a candy stash and one year even handed out his company’s signature red caps to some happy students.

The business is housed in an historic building which was damaged in an August 2016 fire. You can’t tell by looking at it now.

That’s a snapshot of the backstory framing these window displays. These are the stories that define small towns like Kenyon as caring communities, more than simply some place to pass through en route to somewhere else.

Please check back for more photos from Kenyon.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on Minnesota Nice (Enough) October 19, 2020

Stickers span generations. Here my granddaughter, then two, looks at her Poppy stickers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2018.

WHEN MY GIRLS, now in their early 30s, were growing up, sticker books were all the rage. They filled mini books with stickers. Peel stickers from sheets of glossy paper and adhere them to blank pages. Horses. Kitties. And much more. Cute and bold Lisa Frank designs mostly in a vivid rainbow of hues, strong on pinks and purples.

Park and other stickers grace the window of a 1959 Edsel Village Wagon at a Faribault Car Cruise Night, proving that even adults value stickers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

My daughters loved paging through their sticker books. Stickers still hold universal appeal. For all ages. (The stickers of my era were lick-and-stick to scenes printed on pages of a sticker book.)

That segues to Minnesota Nice Enough, a Nisswa-based company that crafts weatherproof vinyl stickers that are not your kids’ mass-produced outsourced stickers. These are promoted as “made by real people who care about quality, art, beer, bicycles & dogs.” Now that appeals to me.

Babe the Blue Ox sculpture in Nisswa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

I first learned about this company during a September visit to Nisswa, a small tourist town located in Minnesota’s central lakes region. Randy and I were in the area, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin. One day, we ventured into nearby Nisswa to check out the many shops that define this town. Those businesses include Zaiser’s Gift Shop, billing itself as “serving the Nisswa lakes area since 1947 with the most kick-ass products this side of the Milky Way!”

Small grassroots shops line downtown Nisswa.

Already I like this business. Humor and creativity rate high with me. And Biff Ulm, MN Nice Enough creative head who also owns the family retail boutique, obviously possesses both. One need only scroll through the sticker offerings (also sold on etsy) to confirm that. (The business also sells mugs.)

Paul Bunyan, carved into a totem pole at the Totem Pole shop in Nisswa.

Many stickers feature a decidedly northwoods Minnesota theme with buffalo plaid, Paul Bunyan, moose, pines, loons, canoes… Others highlight Minnesotans’ idiosyncrasies like calling pop “pop,” not soda. And calling hotdish “hotdish,” not casserole. And, as promised, beer gets some love in several stickers, including Minnesota and Wisconsin-shaped beer mugs. Yes, Wisconsin also gets lots of love from Minnesota Nice Enough. And, yes, you can purchase a Minnesota Nice Enough sticker, too.

The sticker that initially grabbed my attention.

But it was the oversized ALL WELCOME sticker in the front window of Zaiser’s that first grabbed my attention and led me to learn more about Minnesota Nice Enough (which also features products for adult, not kids’, eyes). That spotlight sticker proclaims that all are welcome. All cultures, beliefs, colors, sizes, ages and identities. And at a time when our nation is so divided, so filled with animosity toward one another, I appreciate this message. It gives me hope, uplifts and encourages me. Thank you, Minnesota Nice Enough.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

LaNette’s, more than a coffee shop in small town Montgomery August 18, 2020

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A view outside LaNette’s Coffee Shop, 225 First Street South, Montgomery, Minnesota.

 

FOUR PLASTIC MOLDED CHAIRS in a blue that seems more beachy than rural Minnesota, angle outside LaNette’s Coffee Shop. Two women sit here, sip coffee, engage in conversation on this sunny summer Saturday morning.

 

A close-up of that kitschy cute cone art.

 

The occasional vehicle passes by or stops at the stop sign before crossing or turning onto First Street. LaNette’s anchors a corner on the south end of Montgomery’s main business district and is housed in a small brick building marked by smiling waffle cone art that identifies this as more than just a coffee source.

Besides a variety of coffees and bakery treats like muffins, cinnamon rolls and cookies, Owner LaNette also serves up ice cream in homemade waffle cones. I’ve yet to try any of her treats. Next visit.

 

Pat Preble won first place for “Old Barn” and “Cows in the Field,” both displayed in the front window of the coffee shop.

 

But this time in town, I’d already eaten my sweet for the day—from Franke’s Bakery just up the street. Instead, I popped into La Nette’s for a closer look at the art displayed in her front window as part of the local “Celebrating Farmers and Agriculture” Exhibit coordinated by the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center. I asked LaNette if I could turn a barn painting by Pat Preble to photograph it. She quickly agreed.

 

An example of the art in LaNette’s.

 

I noticed the work of other artists showcased and available for purchase in LaNette’s shop. I love when local businesses support local artists. And writers, as noted by a Hometown Authors section in a wall display.

 

The inviting interior.

 

An antique doorstop keeps the front door open.

 

LaNette’s with mismatched tables and chairs, inviting sitting spaces, art, a few antiques, a pine plank floor and the aforementioned beverages and treats, has a comfortable feel of neighborliness. Of gathering with friends. Of catching up on family and town news. Of enjoying the often slower pace of life found in small town Minnesota. Of contentment.

 

A neon sign in the front windows signals that the coffee shop is open.

 

FYI: LaNette’s Coffee Shop is open from 6 am – 3 pm Monday-Saturday. Please check back for one final post from Montgomery tomorrow.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Anything but prune & much more in Montgomery August 17, 2020

Popular Franke’s Bakery anchors a corner in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.

 

SMALL TOWN MINNESOTA. What is it about our rural communities that holds my heart? Surely, my upbringing on a crop and dairy farm in the southwestern region of our state influences how I feel about rural places.

 

Farms and fields surround Montgomery.

 

But it’s more than that. I see in these communities, like Montgomery in Le Sueur County, a distinct character, a connection of people, an appreciation for the quieter life afforded to those who live in this ag-based area.

 

Art in downtown business windows showcases the town’s annual Kolacky Days celebration.

 

Fresh-baked kolacky are always available at Franke’s Bakery.

 

One of my favorite signs in Montgomery banners the 106-year-old bakery.

 

I’ve written about and photographed Montgomery many times. Each visit I notice the details that define this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World with its strong Czech heritage. Kolacky are a fruit-filled (sometimes poppyseed, too) Czech pastry, available at the century-plus-old Franke’s Bakery and elsewhere.

 

A quilt adorns an historic downtown building.

 

When I walk along First Street, the main street through the downtown business district, I always notice the historic buildings.

 

 

And the home-grown businesses, including multiple meat markets.

 

The Monty Bar is missing its corner signage, which I loved.

 

And, like many small towns, multiple bars. Montgomery also has a craft brewery, Montgomery Brewing.

 

Signs plaster the front of the Monty Bar, including this one.

 

But I also notice the signage that is distinctly Montgomery. Like the best place to buy Jell-O shots (the Monty Bar).

 

An historic building houses the Happy Hour Bar & Grill.

 

The Happy Hour lunch special on the day of my visit.

 

Or the lunch-time Sloppy Joe special at the Happy Hour Bar & Grill.

 

Signage marks the Rustic Farmer.

 

The inviting dining space in front of the Rustic Farmer along Montgomery’s main street.

 

It is this type of signage that reveals much about a town and its people. When I spot the event space, Rustic Farmer on Main, and later sit there at a patio table to enjoy a custard-filled sweet treat from Franke’s, I think on that name. Rustic Farmer. It fits this rural community.

 

Hilltop Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

The same goes for Hilltop Hall, an historic building perched atop a hill on the north end of downtown. It’s home to Posy Floral & Gifts and the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center.

 

I photographed this puzzle at Herrmann Drug, where it’s available for purchase.

 

That center houses a small gift shop and heritage displays, including Kolacky Days celebration buttons. Photographer Sarah Dolejs designed a 513-piece jigsaw puzzle featuring a photo of a button collection. The puzzle is available in local businesses and online. Recently, organizers of this year’s virtual Kolacky Days held a “Jigsaw Puzzle Competition from Your Kitchen Table” to see who could assemble the puzzle the fastest. The winning time was 67 minutes by Team Sherman. They beat out Anything but Prune (a reference to prune kolacky) by a mere minute. The Poppyseed Posse (another reference to kolacky) and the Laughing Polka Ladies didn’t even come close to winning.

 

The town’s water tower is located near the Montgomery National Golf Club.

 

I love those creative names. They reveal a sense of humor, a sense of pride, a sense of appreciation for heritage and all that defines this town. This Montgomery, Minnesota.

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A section of downtown Montgomery, including the popular eatery, Pizzeria 201, on the left. It’s located in the historic Westermann Lumber Office & House.

 

Please check back as I continue my series of posts from Montgomery. Upcoming posts will feature the community’s redone mural and a downtown coffee shop.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Building on history in Montgomery August 12, 2020

Fire destroyed an historic building at 104 South First Street in downtown Montgomery during the early morning hours of July 29.

 

ANY TIME AN HISTORIC BUILDING falls, I feel a certain sadness. You can’t replace a structure built half a century, maybe even 100 years, ago. Stories and memories remain. But there’s something lost when a building crumbles, collapses, comes down, for whatever reason.

 

The long-time barbershop, a local gem, did not catch fire.

 

Recently, the small town of Montgomery—self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World—lost one (possibly two) historic buildings in an early morning July 29 fire. The fire started on the second floor of a vacant building previously declared hazardous and slated for demolition in mid-August. The blaze then spread to an adjoining building which houses a plumbing and air conditioning business and an apartment. Main Street Barber, located in a diminutive building next door, was spared.

 

The fire site.

 

Just days after the fire, the smell of smoke still lingered. Barricades and a fence blocked access to the pile of rubble. As I photographed the scene, I considered the depth of loss to this Le Sueur County community. Locals with the Montgomery Historical Society have been inventorying and documenting the downtown in an effort to get historic district designation, helpful in attracting visitors. This was a snag in that process.

 

One of many historic buildings in Montgomery. Several are already on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

I recognize the importance of that historic district designation. According to the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, a historic district is “a geographically defined area with a concentration of historic buildings, structures, site, spaces and objects unified by past events, physical development or design.”

 

A snapshot section of Montgomery’s downtown.

 

No one needs to sell me on the historic beauty and connections in downtown Montgomery. The aged buildings are one of the reasons I love this small town. Every time I visit, I walk through the main business area downtown, photographing buildings and signs and whatever else draws my eye.

 

In the window of a downtown business, art promoting Montgomery’s Kolacky Days, held virtually this year. Kolacky is a Czech pastry.

 

But buildings do not define a place. People do. And I have always found the people of Montgomery to be incredibly welcoming. I appreciate their friendliness, their community spirit, their cohesive respect for their Czech heritage, their efforts to build Montgomery, even when buildings fall.

Please check back for more posts from Montgomery.
© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A snapshot of downtown Elysian, Minnesota July 1, 2020

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Rural Minnesota, somewhere between Elysian and Faribault.

 

IF YOU GAVE ME THE CHOICE of visiting a big city or a small town, I would always choose rural over urban. In small towns, I feel the most comfortable, the most rooted. I grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota, on a farm a mile south of Vesta, current population around 300.

 

On a back country gravel road, we met this farmer who had been raking hay.

 

Because of that upbringing, I find myself drawn to the countryside and to small towns. To explore. To photograph. To see for myself what defines these rural places.

 

That same tractor in the side passenger mirror. I love following gravel roads.

 

On a recent Sunday, Randy and I did a day trip along back country roads, eventually landing in nearby Elysian, population around 600. We picnicked in a lakeside park shelter before driving downtown. There we walked on a beautiful June afternoon, taking in the aged buildings and sharing our thoughts about them.

 

Once the home of the Elysian Co-op Creamery.

 

Sometimes we have grand ideas. Like turning the “for lease” former creamery into a brewery. Because, well, we like craft beer and the building looks like an ideal fit for a brewery in this community that draws summer visitors to area lakes.

 

This old garage still stands strong.

 

One of my favorite buildings in Elysian is Pribyl Bro’s Garage, its current use unknown to me. But I love the look of this place, which reminds me of a winery in Cannon Falls. There’s another idea.

 

If you’re interested in joining the local volunteer fire department…

 

Further down the street, we paused to read signage posted on the windows of City Hall. I’m always drawn to these local postings, which reveal a lot about a town. I focused on the notice seeking firefighters. Minutes earlier we’d watched the fire department use a tanker truck to fill a residential above-ground swimming pool.

 

A rare outdoor public pay phone.

 

Next, we spotted an outdoor public pay phone, seldom seen in this day of cellphones. It stands outside a stunning mini brick building. (I noticed a lot of brick buildings in Elysian.) Randy pulled out his cell and dialed the number listed on the pay phone, thinking it would ring. It didn’t.

 

Just one more shot to show the small town setting.

 

Then he grew weary of waiting for me. “How many pictures do you have to take of a phone?” he asked. Clearly he doesn’t think like a photographer excited about discovering something not often seen. But, he had a point. I framed a few more images and moved on.

 

Gracing the window boxes at a realty office, if I remember correctly.

 

We paused on a street corner, me to photograph window boxes crammed with Fourth of July themed décor and flowers. Elysian typically hosts a big holiday celebration. But this year’s events are scaled down to fireworks at 10 pm on Friday, July 3, and the Fourth of July Boat & Pontoon Parade around Lake Francis from noon until 1 pm on July 4. The town sits along Lake Francis. City of Elysian and Lake Francis residents can join the parade, which offers generous cash prizes for creative decorating and enthusiasm by boaters. Plus, the Elysian Area Chamber of Commerce has sponsored a Light-Up July Fourth event encouraging residents and businesses to decorate their homes, businesses, trees, shrubs and more with red, white and blue lights. Judging is Friday with cash prizes awarded.

 

Many small towns have corner bars, so it seems.

 

From those window boxes, I shifted my camera lens to Fischer’s Corner Bar.

 

There are a lot of old brick buildings in downtown Elysian.

 

And then I swung my Canon to the right and Pamela’s Pet Shop. Probably a bank at one time, we decided, before turning to retrace our route back to the van.

 

Now that hair salons have reopened in Minnesota, I expect this place is busy.

 

From across the street, I stopped to photograph Trailside Trims, appreciating the bicycles propped out front with flower baskets, a nod to the many bikers who pass through and stop in Elysian while using the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. Elysian is the midpoint for this 39-mile paved recreational trail running between Faribault and Mankato.

 

I don’t advocate defacing public or private property. But I do find graffiti interesting.

 

And, finally, I paused one final time. To study the many names etched into the brick of Pribyl Bro’s Garage. Morgan, whoever she is, wins with her name appearing most often. By writing her name here, Morgan is now part of the history of this place, this small town.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Checking in on small town cafes April 9, 2020

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The sole cafe in my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

IN RURAL COMMUNITIES, restaurants serve as gathering spots, as social hubs, for those who live there. Farmers, retired or not, meet for coffee and cards at the local cafe. Some return for dinner—that would be the noon meal in farming country—joined by younger men. Women come, too, for food and conversation. Plus families and others, like me, pop in from out of town on occasion.

But all of that has changed because of COVID-19. Those restaurants which center these small towns (along with churches and schools) are now closed to in-house dining. And that’s a challenge for those who rely on these places to connect with friends and family, to socialize.

 

Looking south from the cafe to the bank on the corner and the Vesta water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I wondered about my hometown of Vesta, a farming community of some 320 in southwestern Minnesota. The one-block Main Street looks much different than when I grew up on a dairy and crop farm south of town decades ago. There’s still a grain elevator, a bank, a post office and a few other businesses. Years ago, though, hardware stores, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, a barbershop…filled the block.

Community leaders had the foresight, when the last restaurant closed, to build a community cafe, the Vesta Cafe. When my mom still lived in Vesta, prior to her move to a senior care center in nearby Belview, Randy and I occasionally ate at the restaurant. I saw the importance of this gathering spot to locals. In 2012, I helped bring a Little Free Library to my hometown, which doesn’t have a public library or even a bookmobile. Since then the sharing of books and magazines has expanded to include jigsaw puzzles.

But back to now. I went online to see how the Vesta Cafe is faring during these difficult times. And if Facebook is any indication, the cafe is experiencing enthusiastic support from the community. A full menu is posted for April with meals to go. That includes Easter dinner, available for pick-up between 10 am-12:30 pm. Sunday. For $8.95, you’ll get a choice of roast beef or ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots, a dinner roll and dessert. Orders must be placed in advance.

Reading through the menu posted on Facebook, I see the rural influence. Like a beef commercial—roast beef layered between pieces of white bread, topped with a scoop of mashed potatoes and then smothered in gravy. It was my dad’s favorite meal on the rare occasion he ate at a cafe. Other rural-centric meals feature liver and onions, scalloped potatoes and ham, sausage and sauerkraut, and meatloaf.

But the Vesta Cafe also offers menu items like walleye, BBQ ribs, shrimp and, now, take-and-bake pizzas.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

I’m pleased, that during these challenging times, my hometown continues to support its sole restaurant. I also want to give a shout-out to The Amboy Cottage Cafe, a lovely eatery I discovered in the small town of Amboy, south of Mankato, six years ago. The made-from-scratch food is exceptional and unusual for a farming community. Offerings range from burgers to tuna melts to Salmon Quiche and Foraged Nettle Lasagna. The Amboy eatery continues to cook and bake (pies, rolls, bread pudding, etc), offering curbside pickup for several hours on limited days.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad, ordered at the Amboy Cottage Cafe in July 2014. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It is my hope that these small town restaurants can survive. They are more than simply a place to enjoy a good meal. They are a place to gather, to talk, to connect and share each others heartaches and joys. And daily lives.

TELL ME: Do you know of a small town restaurant that continues to thrive during this time of COVID-19 restrictions? I’d love to hear about these eateries that center our rural communities.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling