Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Up North in Nisswa November 9, 2017

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Babe the Blue Ox of Paul Bunyan Legend stand on the corner by the tourism office along Nisswa’s Main Street.

 

ON THE THURSDAY I toured Nisswa in mid-September, the turtle race track stood empty, Babe the Blue Ox stood tall and this northern Minnesota community buzzed with visitors.

 

 

Set in the heart of lake country, this town of some 2,000 draws folks from nearby cabins, resorts and hotels to meander through the many shops that line several blocks of a route once followed by Native Americans traveling northward through these parts from southern Minnesota.

 

Babe the Blue Ox bears the history of Nisswa’s name on its flank.

 

The name Nisswa comes from the Ojibwe word nessawae meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Nisswa sits in the middle of three lakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this day, I didn’t learn much about local history. But I did learn that these northerners rate as a friendly bunch. In business after business, shopkeepers greeted Randy and me with friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. With the exception of signs prohibiting photos of merchandise (much of it original art) prevalent throughout Nisswa, I felt more than welcome.

 

 

A shopkeeper at The Fun Sisters Up North Boutique even convinced me to try on leggings and an appropriate bum-covering top. Inside my mind, I protested. But she was just so darned nice that I agreed. I’ll admit that I looked better than I thought in leggings. But I still felt like I was playing dress-up in fashionable attire totally foreign to me. She didn’t make the sale. But the clerk sold me on the genuine friendliness of Nisswa.

 

Signature northwoods birch logs propped outside a business.

 

I dropped my money in several other businesses, picking up Minnesota-themed gifts for friends and my granddaughter.

 

 

 

Vintage Native American art outside a shop tips visitors off to this region’s history.

 

 

The legend of Paul Bunyan, here interpreted in a woodcarving, runs strong in the Minnesota northwoods.

 

Nisswa presents a definitively northwoods feel with more than one Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan and plenty of buffalo plaid and loon art. Randy and I spent hours here ducking in and out of shops. And that says a lot for the attraction of Nisswa to someone like me who generally dislikes shopping. The original arts and crafts and merchandise with a Minnesota bent kept me interested.

 

 

 

Painted turtles mark businesses.

 

Although we didn’t patronize a Nisswa eatery, there are plenty of options for meals, treats and brew.

 

Had we arrived in Nisswa at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday weeks earlier, we would also have witnessed the weekly summertime turtle races. Reminders of that tourist draw are evident in the turtle race track and in turtles painted onto sidewalks in front of businesses. I applaud communities like this that hatch and then latch onto an idea that identifies and sets them apart from other towns. For Nisswa, it’s turtle races and friendly folks in quaint northwoods shops.

TELL ME: Have you been to Nisswa? What is your impression of this small Minnesota town?

Please check back for a closer look at the iconic Babe the Blue Ox statue along Main Street.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Biancabella, books & bliss at Becky’s bookshop October 30, 2017

 

PRINCESS BIANCABELLA first drew me to the business along Milaca’s main drag. Stretched out atop carpet next to stacks of books in the front window display area, the calico cat appeared blissfully content. Not even my photographic efforts disturbed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene delighted me—this bookstore cat in one window, a vintage typewriter in another and a creative OPEN sign crafted from a book and propped outside Bexter Book & Copy.

 

 

It’s not often anymore that you find an independent bookstore, especially in a town the size of Milaca with not quite 3,000 residents. This shop, which opened about a year ago, anchors a corner of the downtown business district in an historic building. And it appears the owner, Rebecca Rittenour, is working hard to make her business a success. She not only sells new and used books, but also offers hometown copy services and engages her patrons via a Mystery Book Club, creative in-store displays and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I especially like her artistic vignettes that encourage folks to shop local. I didn’t speak much with Becky other than to greet her, ask for permission to photograph and praise her store. But I got the sense, both from wandering the bookshop and from reading the Bexter website and Facebook page, that she truly holds a passion for books and for sharing her love and knowledge with others. That’s always the benefit of shopping local—excellent customer service from a passionate shopkeeper.

 

 

 

 

Milaca is fortunate to have an independent bookstore with books tucked into open drawers, filed onto shelves and showcased in artful ways.

 

 

On my quick stop in town, this bookshop charmed me with its vivid chartreuse walls, homey character and resident princess cat.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? If yes, what delights you and draws you to this bookshop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A first in Minnesota, a meat vending machine in Ellendale October 19, 2017

Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale is co-owned by Donnavon Eaker and her daughter, Rachael Lee. Steve, married to Donnavon, died in 2006. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

YOU CAN BUY candy, snacks, sandwiches, pop and more from a vending machine. Ditto for renting movies and getting cash. Now a small southeastern Minnesota meat market is offering its award-winning smoked and cured meat products to customers via a vending machine.

 

The Ellendale Centennial Mural along Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I couldn’t quite believe this when I heard a radio spot promoting the newly-installed meat vending machine outside Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna. But there it was, documented on Steve’s Facebook page and promoted as the first of its kind in Minnesota and second in the U.S. The machine comes from Germany.

 

Smokey Acres is the in-house label for Steve’s meats. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Smokey Acres…Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

An artsy window display at Steve’s promotes its fresh cut meat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Installed last week, the vending machine seems like a smart move on the part of the Ellendale market, a family run business for more than 40 years. The shop can’t be open all the time, frustrating consumers who today seemingly want 24/7 access to Steve’s products. Now happy customers can come anytime day or night for beef sticks, cheese curds and more, yes, even bacon. Just bring your debit or credit card; the machine doesn’t accept cash or Ebt cards.

 

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

This meat vending machine is creating quite the buzz in this community of nearly 700 where you’ll also find an old-fashioned grocery store—Lerberg’s Foods—worth visiting.

 

Steve’s is one of those small town meat markets that draws customers both far and wide for its quality products. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

While Steve’s claims their refrigerated meat vending machine as the first in Minnesota, some 100 miles away to the north in Hudson, Wisconsin, RJ’s Meats installed one earlier this year.

 

TELL ME: What do you think of this idea?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Frozen” comes to Wabasha’s SeptOberfest October 17, 2017

 

THE WORLD OF ELSA and Anna and Olaf is mostly foreign to me. But to anyone with young kids, those are wildly popular characters from the hit 2013 Disney animated film “Frozen.”

 

 

So it was a smart move on the part of SeptOberfest organizers in Wabasha to theme a straw maze after the movie.

 

 

Set along the main drag through this Mississippi River town in southeastern Minnesota, the “Frozen” Straw Maze features handcrafted characters from the film staged atop straw bales.

 

 

When kids aren’t tracing the winding trail or climbing atop bales, they can rock and bounce on mini horses or scoot down one of two slides propped against bales.

 

 

The “Frozen” maze presents just another fun and engaging free activity for families visiting Wabasha during SeptOberfest. This is my kind of family-friendly small town.

 

FYI: This concludes my three-part series on three key family-focused aspects of SeptOberfest. Click here to read my first post about Zootopia on the RiverFront. And click here to view my post about the Pumpkin Patch. This fest runs until October 21.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Free family fun at Zootopia on the RiverFront in Wabasha October 12, 2017

My first view of Zootopia on the RiverFront from the hill overlooking this play area along the Mississippi River in Wabasha.

 

ON AN EARLY OCTOBER Sunday in Wabasha, brilliant sunshine angled sharp shadows across the beaten grass of a riverside attraction teeming with kids and watchful adults.

 

 

 

 

 

The lion tunnel proved especially popular.

 

Here, while a young boy carried his tacklebox and fishing pole along a busy Mississippi River walkway, kids tossed rings, rolled balls, scrambled through a tunnel, zipped down a slide and more in a magical land. Here adults encouraged and interacted with the little ones and clicked endless photos.

 

 

 

 

My son-in-law, Marc, takes Izzy’s photo as she walks through the tiger tunnel while her mom (my daughter Amber) watches.

 

Walking on the colorful walrus crafted from tires…

 

My husband and I joined in on the SeptOberfest kids’ activities along with our 18-month-old granddaughter and her parents.

 

You can zip down this elephant slide into Zootopia on the RiverFront.

 

 

I discovered the play area after sighting an elephant slide behind Hill’s Hardware Hank. I walked the half-block to check it out and found the city of Zootopia. The good folks of Wabasha crafted a temporary themed play area after the movie of the mammal metropolis. What a delight for not only grandmas like me, but also for all those kids and other adults.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wabasha has always impressed me as a small town that knows how to bring visitors into the community. The addition of Zootopia on the RiverFront to this year’s nearly two-month long SeptOberfest just notched up my respect for the tourism, business and other leaders in this southeastern Minnesota town of some 2,500. These folks are smart enough to realize that bringing families into town equals an immediate financial return plus an investment in future returns. The kids’ activities are free. But the local economy benefits from monies dropped in restaurants, gas stations, and ice cream and other shops.

 

Randy waits for Izzy to emerge from the lion tunnel.

 

Running in the kick ball croquet area.

 

Even the big kids/aka grandpas can have fun.

 

Watching my 1 ½-year-old granddaughter crawl multiple times through the lion tunnel, place rings on elephant trunks, roll a ball in the kick ball croquet area and more simply made me happy. Even at her young age, Izzy could participate in most of the activities.

 

 

This Zootopia rated as just plain good old family fun—Wabasha style.

 

In the foreground, on the hillside, giraffes (and zebras) overlook Zootopia.

 

FYI: Zootopia on the RiverFront continues through October 21. Click here for more details.

Check back for two more posts on kids’ SeptOberfest activities in Wabasha.

This community is also home to the National Eagle Center, another family friendly place to visit.

 

Part II from Hackensack: My observations of this northwoods Minnesota town October 10, 2017

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Lucette Diana Kensack, Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart.

 

IN THE HEART OF NORTHWOODS MINNESOTA, in the land of legends and lake cabins, sits a village of some 300 folks. Hackensack. Twice I’ve been here, twice photographing Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette, who resides along the shores of Birch Lake, and once picnicking along that same lake.

 

 

I’ve never explored this town much except with my camera. But simple observations through a viewfinder can reveal a lot about a place. In Hackensack, I see a hardy northwoods character, a laid-back attitude and a welcoming spirit.

 

The lovely log cabin library right next to Lucette is run by volunteers.

 

Nearby stands Paul Bunyan in chainsaw art.

 

I would love to sample food from the seasonal Butts & Buns BBQ.

 

That rugged character shows in log cabin style construction from lake homes to food truck and in the chainsaw carved wood sculptures around town.

 

 

This seems like my kind of kicked back place where I’d feel comfortably at home in buffalo plaid flannel and jeans. Kids biking along a narrow street with tackle box, fishing poles, bait and net in hand confirm my assessment of a town that appears Mayberry timeless.

 

 

 

Lucette is a tourist attraction.

 

 

Yet, there’s a definite awareness of tourism, of welcoming the temporary residents who arrive here in the spring to open their lake cabins for weekend get-aways, summer vacations and final autumn visits.

 

Hackensack hosts numerous arts-related events including the Northwoods Art & Books Festival and an annual Chainsaw Event.

 

My quick visual perusal of Hackensack certainly doesn’t tell the entire story. But it gives a glimpse of a place appreciated by those who live here. And appreciated, too, by the people who come here to experience the legends, the arts, the food, the sense of place that is so northwoods Minnesota.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Hackensack, or live or vacation here, how would you describe this community? What should I know about Hackensack?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Park art August 8, 2017

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mural-in-waterville-36-shelterhouse-mural

 

THE POSTCARD STYLE MURAL pops color in to the mini shelterhouse at Lions Park in Waterville.

But it’s more than that. The painting by Kimberly Baerg also provides a snapshot glimpse of this southeastern Minnesota resort and farming community.

 

mural-in-waterville-37-close-up

 

Examine the details and you will see a tractor, a canoe, a buggy, a train. All important in the history of this town.

 

mural-in-waterville-39-close-up

 

This mini mural is an example of how a little artistic ingenuity, effort and paint can transform an otherwise plain cement block wall in to a canvas that promotes a place, shares history and pops with community pride.

Well done, Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling