Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

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Discovering the character of Pequot Lakes at the hardware store August 17, 2018

This sign hangs on the side of the hardware store. You won’t find a fire warden sign in southern Minnesota.

 

WHENEVER I VISIT a small town, I am drawn to the details that give a community character. Like Thurlow Hardware and Rental in Pequot Lakes.

 

The bobber water tower in Pequot Lakes.

 

I visited this central Minnesota town nearly a year ago. This area and parts north are decidedly different from my home region in the southeastern section of the state. To the north, lakes and woods abound and Paul Bunyan lore is prevalent in tourist attractions, business names and more. Pequot Lakes, for example, features a water tower resembling a Bunyan-sized bobber.

 

Inside the hardware store are lots of taxidermied animals hanging above the aisles.

 

A northwoods culture prevails, stamps upon these towns.

 

I always look for signage that reveals more about the place I am visiting.

 

These folks also appreciate their heritage.

 

 

 

 

These details I noticed, along with vintage signage, as I checked out that small town hardware store.

TELL ME: Do you explore small towns? If yes, what draws your interest? Give me a specific example, if you wish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Uniquely Pequot Lakes August 16, 2018

 

PEQUOT LAKES. That central Minnesota town name rolls off my tongue in a poetic way that pleases me. Pequot Lakes.

 

Kids walk home from school in Pequot Lakes on a mid-September afternoon.

 

A short vacation in mid-September 2017 took Randy and me to this community of some 2,000 in the Brainerd Lakes area, a popular summer vacation and weekend destination spot. On the day of our end-of-the-season visit, few people were in Pequot Lakes. I prefer the quiet of an uncrowded location with no hurry, no schedule.

 

 

 

 

 

I knew even before we drove into town that I wanted to photograph the unique bobber-shaped water tower that marks the community as a fishing destination. I’ve previously photographed the tower and the Babe the Blue Ox sculpture in Bobber Park.

 

 

 

 

After finishing that shoot, we poked around town, ducking into Thurlow Hardware and Rental complete with trophy head mounts. While I’m not one who likes suspended dead animal heads, I recognize this as part of the hunting culture. Plus, the trophies make for a memorable visual characterizing Thurlow.

 

 

 

 

We ended our late Thursday afternoon visit with a quick tour through the Jack Pine Center mini mall.

 

Art details on the Babe the Blue Ox sculpture.

 

It was a slow day in Pequot Lakes. Just like some days on the lake, when the bobber floats and the fish don’t bite.

 

FYI: Please check back for more photos from Thurlow Hardware.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back in Vesta for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion July 31, 2018

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This sign once marked my hometown. It’s gone now, replaced by a different sign. I prefer this vintage familiar one. It has character. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS WE SWEPT THE PARK SHELTER and washed picnic tables in preparation for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion in my hometown of Vesta on Sunday, a woman passed by with a cluster of children. A petite woman in an Asian rice hat and authentic attire from her Vietnamese homeland.

I never saw her face, only heard that she is married to a college professor and lives in a house a ball field away. And sometimes sells egg rolls downtown.

 

The prayer I wrote and read before our noon potluck.

 

The moment imprinted upon me. When I grew up in this rural Minnesota small town in the late 50s, 60s and early 70s, we were all the same race. White. Only our religions separated us—lots of Lutherans and Catholics with some Brethren and Presbyterians thrown in the mix.

 

A snippet of the Kletscher family lineage, my grandfather being Henry.

 

To see diversity all these years later in this prairie town pleases me. Change doesn’t always come easily in a place where generations of families are rooted.

Family brought me back to Vesta, to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and their families. And a few significant others. I appreciate that we still value each other enough to gather every year in the city park located along gravel roads and across from cornfields. This year my siblings and I hosted.

 

Food for the potluck meal spreads across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter during a previous reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Good food and conversation mark the reunion. I always make a point of moving from lawn chair circle to lawn chair circle so I can talk with nearly everyone. Conversations this year ranged from babies to flooding to a cousin getting out of an emotionally abusive marriage. He’s happy now, happier than he’s been in a long time. “Love is blind,” he noted. I encouraged him, told him how glad I am that he is now free.

 

Cards full of information used in the family jeopardy competition.

 

While that conversation ran deep, there were many light-hearted moments. Like those that came during the first-ever Kletscher Family Jeopardy Game which I planned and hosted. Team Sauerkraut (or Sour Kraut) easily defeated Team Hot Dish in a competition that sometimes seemed more like Family Feud than Jeopardy. All in good fun.

In the shade of towering trees on a July afternoon of perfect Minnesota weather, we laughed. We remembered. And we, the descendants of German immigrants, built new memories in a town where diversity once applied only to differences in religion.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Off the interstate in Mauston, Wisconsin: A community that’s dairy proud June 5, 2018

A glimpse of Mauston’s rural character.

 

IF YOU NEVER EXIT the interstate into a small town, you miss so much. Like the Cowtastic CowMoonity of Mauston. That would be in southwestern Wisconsin, just off Interstate 90/94 half-way between Minneapolis and Chicago.

 

 

A search for a picnic spot led Randy and me into this community of nearly 4,500 on a recent Saturday. After securing unclear directions to a park at a local convenience store/gas station, we ended up lost and seemingly headed out of town.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we happened upon the cows. And I momentarily forgot all about lunch, so excited was I over the herd curving along a ballpark fence. We’d just discovered, quite by happenstance, the Cowtastic CowMoonity Project of the Juneau County Dairy Promotion Council. At the under-renovation Mauston Lions Park, complete with picnic shelter, tables, restrooms and playground equipment.

 

 

 

 

After eating my turkey sandwich, clementine and yogurt—yes, yogurt—I headed over to the 60-head herd, camera in hand. You can bet this former dairy farm girl and former Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess candidate was excited.

 

 

 

 

It’s clear this community embraces all things dairy. This marks the fourth annual cow art project designed to promote the dairy industry via those cow cut-outs and panels of dairy facts and trivia.

 

 

 

 

Nonprofits, youth clubs, organizations and businesses purchase plywood cut-outs and then create cow art showcased along the park fence during June Dairy Month. So this is about more than just agriculture. Cowtastic CowMoonity also promotes local businesses and causes.

 

 

I love this folksy idea. What a creative way to educate, raise awareness and to show appreciation for the dairy industry, especially family-owned farms, in The Dairyland State.

 

 

 

 

The promotion of the dairy industry doesn’t end, though, when June Dairy Month ends at the end of June. Ten of the cows, selected by a secret panel of judges, are relocated to Veteran’s Memorial Park during the Juneau County Fair, this year from August 12 – 19. Good luck with that, judges. The public then votes for its favorite with the top cow earning a $100 prize.

 

 

 

 

Because of those cows, I’ll remember the CowMoonity of Mauston. I’d suggest this creative and dairy proud community visibly promote this outdoor educational art endeavor along the interstate. Or perhaps station a Cowtastic cow or three near that busy busy convenience store/gas station just off busy busy Interstate 90/94.

 

 

FYI: Want to play Wisconsin dairy trivia? Click here.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From small town Minnesota: Comfort on a day of mourning April 28, 2018

This banner hung in the sanctuary at my Uncle Harold’s funeral.

 

COMFORT IN SONG. Comfort in words. Comfort in family. Comfort in food. Comfort in a sense of community.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta, Minnesota.

 

I felt comforted as I gathered with extended family and my hometown community on Thursday to mourn, and remember, my beloved Uncle Harold.

 

Floral arrangements, plants and other memorials filled the front of the church. These flowers, with an oil can incorporated, were given by my siblings and our families. The oil can recognizes Harold’s previous occupation as the owner of Harold’s Service (a gas station and garage).

 

I felt blessed, too, to congregate here in a small town church overflowing with people. It is the songs, always the songs, that touch my emotions, that bring me to tears. I struggled to sing the words to “How Great Thou Art” as row upon row upon row of extended family, including me, joined the immediate family in walking in together, behind the casket, to fill St. John’s Lutheran Church.

 

Many family photos, including one of Harold and his wife, Marilyn, graced the table as did Harold’s (presumably favorite) cap.

 

I observed that the undertakers seemed surprised at the sheer volume of Kletscher relatives. We are a large lot and we come together in times of need. Only a few of my 30-plus cousins were missing. Family is important to us. Always has been. Always will be.

 

Vesta is a close-knit farming community of about 330 in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

As I sat in a folding chair at the end of a pew, pressed to the wall, I felt the closeness of this family and community that I love. Our voices swelled, loud, to sing “Amazing Grace” and, later, “Go My Children, With My Blessing.” In those moments of song, I felt especially moved by the legacy of my forefathers who helped found this congregation. There’s something about singing traditional hymns of old that comforts me and connects me to those who went before me—on this day my uncle.

 

A snippet of the life summary Harold wrote for his family.

 

Harold left a gift for his family in the form of his life’s story scrawled onto four pages of notepad paper. The notes were found in the barn/shed behind his home after his death. I didn’t have time to completely read the life summary given the crowd and busyness of funeral day. But Harold’s youngest son has promised to send me the stories, which also mention my dad.

 

The display table showcased some of the honors Harold has garnered through the years for his service to church and to community.

 

The two brothers now lie buried near each other on a cemetery just north of Vesta. The city fire truck led the long processional from the church to the burial grounds as an honor to Harold, a volunteer fireman of 45 years. On the hilltop cemetery, we said our final goodbyes, our final prayers, as the wind whipped and the sun shone. Standing there, I felt a sense of comfort not only in the closeness of family but in a sense of place. This is my land. These are my people. Even though I left Vesta decades ago, this still feels most like home.

When the graveside ceremony ended, I lingered with family, my heart heavy, yet my heart free. I paused at my father’s gravestone, too, and remembered him—dead 15 years now.

Back at the church, the celebration—and I intentionally choose to call this a celebration—continued with a lunch of scalloped potatoes and ham, coleslaw, slices of bread, homemade dill pickles and cupcakes served with lemonade and coffee. No Funeral Hotdish #1 or Funeral Hotdish #2, as I refer to the Reception Committee hotdishes published in the St. John’s Anniversary Cookbook of 1985. I scooped only small servings of food onto my paper plate, cognizant of the crowd to feed, and not necessarily expecting Jesus to multiply the scalloped potatoes like the fishes and loaves.

 

Harold worked as the city of Vesta maintenance engineer for many years before retiring at age 70.

 

Food and conversation comforted me on this Thursday, Harold’s burial day. He would have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love—by the vehicles overflowing onto the county road beside the church, by the lines waiting to comfort his wife and children, by the raised voices singing, Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee. How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Uncle Harold April 24, 2018

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Harold Kletscher

MY UNCLE HAROLD died on Saturday. Unexpectedly. He was eighty-four. Even though he lived a long life, the length of years never seems enough for loved ones. The loss is no less difficult.

Harold, like two other uncles, lived within a mile of the farm place where I grew up in southwestern Minnesota. He was just always around. At church on Sunday mornings. Visiting the farm. But most often, working at the gas station he owned and operated along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Vesta. The business long ago closed.

In January 2014, I interviewed my uncle and wrote about his memories and my memories of Harold’s Service. I am thankful I took the time to listen to my uncle’s stories of doing business in a community of some 350. These businesses, once the backbone of small town economies, are dwindling. It’s important that we document the stories of these entrepreneurs as much for historical reference as for examples of determination, hard work and service. Today I direct you to that post (click here), as I think of my beloved uncle—husband, father, grandfather, businessman, city employee, church janitor, small town city councilman, volunteer and man of faith.

I am fortunate to come from a large extended family of many aunts, uncles and cousins. Nearly all lived within close geographical proximity back in my growing up years in Redwood County, Minnesota. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries together. These days, with my generation of cousins and our families now spread well beyond the prairie, we see each other only once a year at the annual Kletscher Family Reunion. Or at funerals.

There is comfort in memories and in the closeness of extended family. We have a legacy of faith passed from our great grandparents. They were among founding members of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. Funerals for my grandparents, father, and other uncles were held there. This week we gather again at St. John’s, to remember Uncle Harold. Loved by many. And now in his eternal home.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling