Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Who screams for ice cream? November 19, 2018

I’ve never been to Conny’s Creamy Cone, just noticed it recently while enroute to Como Park. The shop, open from March to October, is on the corner of Dale Street and Maryland Avenue in St. Paul. It features 24 flavors of soft serve ice cream and a menu that includes burgers, cheese curds, onion rings and much more. Have you ever been here? Spotting this shop inspired this post.

 

SEASONAL ICE CREAM SHOPS have mostly shuttered here in Minnesota as demand drops with the onset of cold and snow. Or does it? I still eat ice cream from November – March. Straight from a carton in my freezer into a bowl onto a spoon and into my mouth. Yum.

 

The Betty, Cool Mint Flavor Burst ice cream, crème de mint and Oreos flurried together, then topped with whipped cream, and served at The S’Cream in Owatonna, one of my favorite ice cream shops. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

 

As much as I enjoy ice cream at home, I also enjoy the occasional stop at an ice cream shop once those businesses re-open around April 1, depending. There’s just something about standing outside a walk-up window, scanning the choices and choosing a treat to welcome spring or to cool down on a humid summer day that makes me happy. You know, the kid with an ice cream cone kind of happiness, although I seldom choose a cone. I prefer a shake or something more complex.

 

Lots of dogs waiting in line with their owners at Blast Softserve. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2014.

 

I also prefer homegrown ice cream shops with creative names for both business and offerings to chain anything. Ditto for restaurants. I want to experience a sense of place by dining at original, hometown eateries.

 

One of my favorite area bakeries, Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

I like small town bakeries, too. And craft breweries.

 

Long lines formed to the two serving windows at Blast Softserve, 206 West Rose St., Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2014.

 

None of this should come as a surprise if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile. I delight in exploring small towns, discovering that which defines the character of a community and makes it memorable. It could be a sign, architecture, a person, an event… Or a sweet little ice cream shop.

 

Serving up a cone at The Whippy Dip in Decorah, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

TELL ME: What’s your favorite homegrown ice cream shop?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town November 8, 2018

The ethnicity of Ulen displayed on a business sign. I absolutely love the artistry of this signage.

 

I’D NEVER BEEN TO ULEN, a decidedly Norwegian-American community of some 600 in northwestern Minnesota. But it was on our route from Hendrum back to Detroit Lakes last week Thursday.

 

 

Ulen looks like many other small towns in this remote agricultural region. There’s a school, a grain elevator, a few businesses downtown. Typical.

 

Approaching the grain elevator complex, we notice the rising dust.

 

But then Randy and I observed something not so typical—the demolition of an aged grain elevator. Back in their heyday, these rectangular buildings rose like cathedrals on the prairie, visible for miles. They centered communities, held the harvest. Now many sit empty, replaced by massive grain bins and towering grain silos that hold no aesthetic appeal.

I don’t know the story behind the removal of the vintage elevator in Ulen. I can speculate. But speculation isn’t truth.

 

 

I know only that I felt a sense of sadness as Randy and I sat in our van watching the dust fly while demolition equipment chomped away chunks of this historic building. We missed seeing the elevator in-tact given our late arrival.

 

 

After a bit we drove back through town, past the Ulen Museum, formerly the Viking Sword Museum (the Viking sword found near Ulen has been proven a legend, not truth), then past the Top Hat Theatre.

 

 

When we spotted a vintage house for sale on a corner lot, Randy stopped to pick up a flier. He asked me to guess the price. “$47,000,” I said. Oh, how wrong that guess. The five-bedroom, two-bath house of 3,088 square feet and with four garage stalls is priced at $179,900. No, we’re not interested in living in Ulen, home to a Turkey BBQ going on its 58th year.

 

 

As we exited town, a plain green poleshed caught my eye. Lena’s Lefse, the sign thereon read. Now I know a lot of people who love lefse, who make lefse each holiday season. I’ll eat it just to be polite. I’m convinced the appeal of lefse is more about family tradition and heritage than taste. But then I’m not Norwegian. And I’m not from Ulen. Nor do I know a good Ole and Lena joke to share right now.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The humor of Hendrum November 7, 2018

The Hendrum welcome sign is posted next to the dike.

 

WHEN MY FRIEND Tammy gave me directions to her family’s home in Hendrum, she failed to give me the exit number. Not that I expected multiple exits into this community along U.S. Highway 75. But there, on the sign welcoming me into this Red River Valley town of some 300, I read Welcome HENDRUM MINNESOTA Next 9 exits.

 

 

I laughed. Simply laughed at the absurdity of nine exits. Already I appreciated the humor of Hendrum, further expounded in the message If You Lived Here You’d be Home Now! Indeed, I would. But my home lies about five hours to the south and east in southern Minnesota, far from this community 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead.

 

Entering Hendrum from the south.

 

Exits into Hendrum are not exits in the sense that most would think of exits. Rather, Hendrum’s exits are the streets spoking off Highway 75 with the grain elevator, Red River and North Dakota to the west

 

 

 

 

and the business district, school, Lutheran church and residential neighborhoods to the east.

Tammy told me if we passed the dike protecting Hendrum from Red River flooding, we’d driven too far north. Only a line of trees separates my friend’s backyard from the grassy earthen dike ringing this small town. Her kids use the dike as a sledding hill. Good luck finding a natural hill anywhere near here. This place is flat.

 

Inside the entry into my friend’s house stands this statue of Bigfoot. It was a gift to her husband, who appreciates this creature that may or may not have been sighted in the area. I saw Bigfoot art on a nearby farm site. Whatever the truth, this Bigfoot art fits well with the humor of Hendrum.

 

But what Hendrum lacks perhaps in landscape appeal, it makes up for in appealing to those wanting a quiet place in which to raise a family. The median age of Hendrum residents is 37. I was delighted to see that my friend’s younger children built stick and log forts and tended chickens in a backyard coop. They’re actually outdoors, using their imaginations, playing, having fun.

 

 

This family of seven could be the poster family of Hendrum, fitting the demographic target market. The town’s website, banners EVERYTHING YOUR FAMILY NEEDS TO SHINE. That would be a low student-to-teacher ratio (although my friend’s kids are homeschooled), a strong and loyal local economy, and no traffic. I can vouch for that lack of traffic congestion.

The creative who put together the city’s website recognizes the strengths of this town:

Our commuters bask in their own quiet retreat, leaving the traffic and hustle in the rearview mirror every day as they head home.

Unlike other small communities surrounding Fargo-Moorhead, Hendrum resides on a quiet MN highway—not a thoroughfare of hurried weekend traffic.

We’re a small community of farmers, bankers, teachers and friends, and we’d love to show you around our neighborhood. We’re the first town with a speed limit north of Moorhead on Highway 75. Come take a tour… you’ll be home before you know it.

Just take one of the nine exits into town…

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

En route to the Red River Valley of Minnesota November 6, 2018

Somewhere on a back road between Detroit Lakes and Hendrum.

 

TRAVELING NORTHWEST TOWARD the Red River Valley from Detroit Lakes last Thursday morning, I thought I was mentally prepared for the vastness, the flatness that define this area. I am, after all, a native of the southwestern Minnesota prairie. And I’ve been to Fargo-Moorhead, which is tabletop flat.

 

Trucks hauling crops are the most common vehicles on roads in these parts this time of year.

 

But this route was different. This nearly 1.5 hour drive took Randy and me off the interstate and onto back county roads and state highways as we aimed toward Hendrum in Norman County. At times we drove for endless miles without sighting another vehicle. It’s unsettling to feel such isolation, to know that you are miles between towns, that the distance between farm places stretches farther and farther.

 

Our route took us through several small towns, including Borup just 20 miles southeast of Hendrum.

 

Yet, I tried to make the best of this drive to visit friends who once lived in Faribault. A job relocated the family of seven to this town of 300 some 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead along U.S. Highway 75.

 

Mountains of sugar beets are prevalent in this region.

 

As we headed toward Hendrum, Randy and I, both Minnesota farm-raised, observed the progress of harvest—seemingly slowed by too much rain. In places, mud from farm equipment stamped the roadway and signs warned of slippery surfaces. Acres and acres of corn remain to be harvested. Muddy conditions, however, apparently don’t stop the picking of sugar beets, a major crop in this region. Our friends’ oldest son works at a sugar beet plant as he saves money to attend a college in Washington, D.C. I can only imagine the cultural shock of moving from remote northwestern Minnesota to our nation’s capital.

 

Clusters of grain bins are common in this agricultural area.

 

This is an area that truly is Red River Valley flat, that seems to an outsider rather desolate. But, framed in a positive way, it is a peaceful place. Wide. Spacious. Uncluttered by traffic and housing developments.

 

 

It is a land marked by grain bins and by small town elevators, which can be seen for miles—seven miles once, Randy noted.

 

 

It is a land marked, too, by rectangles of stacked bales rising like barges along our route toward the Red River.

 

 

Here the land and sky seem endless.

 

 

Here agriculture anchors the economy.

 

 

Although I couldn’t live here given the flatness, the remoteness, I can appreciate that others call this place home.

TELL ME: Have you been to the Red River Valley of Minnesota or neighboring North Dakota?

RELATED: Check out this story (click here) by Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio about a Sugar Beet Museum in Minnesota.

CHECK BACK as I take you into Hendrum. You won’t want to miss the humor of Hendrum.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Downtown Wabasha up close during SeptOberfest September 27, 2018

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Autumn decor (including German flags) adds an artistic seasonal welcome to a side street next to Heritage Park in downtown Wabasha.

 

GIVEN MY PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE, I see beyond an overview. I notice details. And in the Mississippi River town of Wabasha, details abound, especially during SeptOberfest, the community’s annual two-month celebration of autumn.

 

Driving toward Wabasha and the bridge that connects Wisconsin and Minnesota.

 

Pumpkins line picnic tables in Heritage Park, site of many SeptOberfest events, including activities for children.

 

A view from the river bank of the Mississippi and the bridge between Wabasha, Minnesota, and Nelson, Wisconsin.

 

On a recent late week day afternoon, I walked about 1 ½ blocks from Heritage Park, a community gathering spot under the grassy area of the bridge connecting Wabasha to Nelson, Wisconsin, through the business district. I intentionally looked up, down and around to see the character of Wabasha. Details reveal much about a place and its people.

 

Signs above a business note the history of the building. Wabasha has some beautiful historic architecture as noted in the reflections in the window.

 

This street clock adds to the visual historic appeal of downtown Wabasha.

 

German or Irish, Wabasha has your food tastes covered during SeptOberfest.

 

I especially enjoyed the woodcarvings of George Schwalbe currently displayed in the front window of Jerry Arens Insurance.

 

Scroll through my photos and you will note an appreciation for history and heritage and a strong sense of community pride. Folks here care about how this town looks.

 

Outside Pure Identity Salon & Spa, the Tin Man, created from a pumpkin.

 

Pay attention to signs in windows. They tell you a lot about a town.

 

Festive scenes like this are staged throughout downtown Wabasha.

 

I appreciate the seasonal décor of scarecrows propped on straw bales, of festive banners, of carved pumpkins. I remember a town that goes the extra length to transform a downtown into a memorable visual. Wabasha impresses.

 

 

If you value small towns, you must visit Wabasha, also home to the National Eagle Center. Make this river town a day trip, an overnight destination. Now, as autumn blazes color into the landscape, as Wabasha celebrates the season during SeptOberfest.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A favorite fall event in Minnesota: SeptOberfest in Wabasha September 26, 2018

I photograph festive Hill’s Hardware Hand nearly every time I’m in Wabasha. A photo I took of the hardware store several years ago hangs near the Our World hardware store exhibit (modeled after Hill’s) at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul.

 

WABASHA IN SOUTHEASTERN MINNESOTA ranks as a favorite fall day trip for me. I love everything about this community from its historic architecture to the river to the National Eagle Center to its annual celebration of autumn and much more.

 

Banners throughout the downtown add to the charm.

 

A riverside play area awaits kids in Wabasha’s version of “Zootopia.”

 

A creative way of measuring height in Zootopia.

 

Another look at Zootopia, packed with activities for the kids.

 

An elephant slide zips kids down the hill into riverside Zootopia.

 

This Mississippi River town, population around 2,500, knows how to promote itself with fall-themed activities, events and attractions for all ages. From a pumpkin derby to a straw maze, petting zoo, kids’ themed play area, seasonal boutiques, a German parade and lots more, activities abound during SeptOberfest.

 

Outside a salon, a pumpkin transforms into the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

 

Across from the Pumpkin Patch, an eye-catching street corner scene.

 

Pumpkins galore…these on a picnic table in the Pumpkin Patch.

 

Beyond that, I delight in the pumpkins, straw bales, scarecrows, shocks, German flags and other décor which add seasonal visual interest.

 

All over downtown are old buildings and harvest displays.

 

This all takes planning, hard work and time. I want the good folks of Wabasha to know I appreciate their efforts. They understand the value of bringing people into town, of growing as a fall destination, of promoting their community.

 

“Grumpy Old Men,” a film set in Wabasha in 1993, themes this year’s straw maze.

 

Gigantic sunflowers brighten the Pumpkin Patch.

 

Pumpkins transformed into characters from the movie “Trolls.”

 

Last year my eldest daughter, her husband and our then 1 1/2-year-old granddaughter joined us on a weekend afternoon to take in the kids’ activities. Izzy loved the riverside Zootopia play space, the straw maze and the Pumpkin Patch. This year Randy and I stopped in Wabasha on a late weekday afternoon. There were no crowds, only a few kids playing at Zootopia. The town was mostly shutting down for the day. But weekends you can expect crowds, though not overwhelming, with lots of families enjoying SeptOberfest.

 

There’s lots to do in the Pumpkin Patch, including playing tic-tac-toe.

 

If you’ve never been to Wabasha in the autumn, I’d encourage you to visit. There’s still lots happening in October. Click here to learn more. Also head down Minnesota State Highway 61 to LARK TOYS on the outskirts of nearby Kellogg for a spin on the handcarved carousel and a visit to the toy store and other attractions.

 

An overview of the Pumpkin Patch created under the bridge that connects Wabasha, Minnesota, to Nelson, Wisconsin.

 

For someone like me who appreciates small towns, especially river towns, and loves autumn, Wabasha offers an ideal one-day get-away.

TELL ME: Have you ever been to Wabasha’s SeptOberfest? Or tell me about another small town autumn celebration you’ve attended and enjoyed.

Check back for another post from Wabasha.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Topiaries & a trading post in Pillager August 20, 2018

 

PILLAGER TRADING POST and Antiques. There’s something about the name that holds history. History of a place, that place being the small town of Pillager some 10 miles southwest of Brainerd in central Minnesota

 

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The overflow building is interesting with a beautiful stone fireplace.

 

 

 

Antiques pack the overflow building.

 

Randy and I stopped there briefly last September while heading north to Park Rapids for a book release party. With minimal time, we didn’t poke around this town of several hundred. Just checked out the Trading Post and the business’ second building across the street. And a nearby green space.

 

 

 

More merchandise in a side wing of the Trading Post.

 

The open space featured topiaries ringed by homemade wooden benches. An odd contrast of modern natural art to the vintage finds within the antique shop. A city park perhaps? I left town without an answer. Sometimes a bit of mystery adds to the allure of a place like Pillager.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling