Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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

 

Looking for the “best of” places to dine in small towns & two recommendations April 10, 2018

Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

MY FIRST AND ONLY ATTEMPT ever to eat with chopsticks happened nearly two years ago at Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I tried to position my fingers like my son demonstrated, to clamp the slippery ramen noodles between thin sticks and then maneuver the food to my mouth. I failed.

 

A ramen dish at Sapporo Ramen, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

I was hungry. A spoon would work just fine, thank you.

I’ll admit, I haven’t had all that much exposure to ethnic foods. Choices are limited here in Greater Minnesota, the name tagged to any place outside the Twin Cities metro. Typical restaurant fare around here is standard American. Any ethnic restaurants are primarily Mexican.

 

One of my favorite burgers, the Strawberry Hill Burger, served at Fielder’s Choice in Northfield, Minnesota. The burger features peanut butter, strawberry jam, pepperjack cheese and bacon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I often wish we had more creative choices in dining. But the reality is that folks seem to like the usual burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, deep-fried fish, the occasional steak—familiar foods to Minnesotans.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Because of cost, I don’t dine out all that often. So when I do, I want something different, something I can’t prepare at home, something tasty and fresh and definitely something made from scratch. When I think about really good food that I’ve eaten at Minnesota restaurants, two places pop to mind—The Amboy Cottage Cafe and The Good Life Cafe.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Homemade blackberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Five years ago Randy and I ate at the Cottage Cafe in Amboy south of Mankato. We specifically stopped in this small town to dine in the 1928 cottage style former gas station. I’d read about the great homemade food. There I enjoyed the best salad ever—raspberry chicken—while Randy had spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Both were superb as was our shared slice of blackberry pie. I need to revisit this restaurant.

 

My Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side from The Good Life Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Some 4.5 hours to the north in the tourist community of Park Rapids I found another hometown restaurant that served up one memorable dish. That would be The Good Life Cafe and the Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish. I loved the creamy, savory flavor of the hotdish (casserole to those of you not from Minnesota), so comforting and delicious on a cool and rainy September day.

How about you? What do you look for when dining out? Tell me about a favorite restaurant and/or meal. I’m especially interested in hearing about restaurants in small (Minnesota) towns.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Snapshots of Le Center April 5, 2018

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Parked along an alley in downtown Le Center, Minnesota.

 

WHEN THE WEATHER WARMS (it will happen soon in Minnesota, right?), I’ll have my camera out more. Documenting. Photographing. Showing you the places I visit, the discoveries made.

 

The original section of the Le Sueur County Courthouse was built in 1897 of brick and Kasota stone at a cost of $55,000. It was designed by Chicago architect Louis M. Curry of Mayo & Curry in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style. Additions have been made to the building and remodeling done.

 

Those include small towns like Le Center. It’s the county seat of Le Sueur County and about a 45-minute drive northwest of Faribault. It’s one of those communities you’d likely not drive to unless you had business or family there or were passing by en route to somewhere like St. Peter.

 

I love this row of well-kept old buildings in the heart of Le Center.

 

On a recent Saturday afternoon of road tripping, Randy and I stopped in Le Center. We parked downtown, popped into the thrift store minutes before closing, walked 1 ½ blocks along sidewalks and then looped back through an alley to the van.

 

 

I snapped a few photos. These images offer a glimpse of this community.

 

A front window in Mexican Delights, a downtown restaurant.

 

Diverse.

 

 

Patriotic.

 

Spotted inside a Le Center thrift store.

 

Trusting.

 

 

Lovely in aged buildings.

 

Assorted trucks and other vehicles were parked in a vacant lot and along an alley behind Main Street businesses.

 

You can tell a lot about a town in first impressions. I need to revisit Le Center, though, to uncover more of its personality. Small towns are each individual, as individual as the folks who call these communities home.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mazeppa, not just another small Minnesota town, Part II March 29, 2018

A scene in downtown Mazeppa, photographed in October 2016.

 

SMALL TOWNS CONTINUE to hold my interest.

 

The former creamery in Mazeppa houses the city maintenance garage and also serves as a backdrop for historical art.

 

 

Therein I often find unexpected delights, but also decline. Most of these communities are not the places they once were with thriving businesses lining Main Street. You know the story.

 

Out for a walk in downtown Mazeppa, October 2016.

 

Still, these towns are home to life-long residents or kids who stuck around or newbies—folks looking for a quiet and affordable place to live within driving distance of jobs outside city boundaries.

 

 

People make a town. And if they’re lucky, locals still have places to gather for fish fries and beer and BINGO and a meal out. Gathering spots—restaurants, bars, schools, churches and more—provide that sense of community essential to small towns.

 

 

 

WD’s, destroyed by fire, was a community gathering spot.

 

I saw those communal places when I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 (although one—WD’s Bar & Grill recently burned to the ground).

 

 

 

 

Patriotism often runs strong in small towns. The presence of the well-kept American Legion Post 588 in the heart of downtown Mazeppa confirms that.

 

 

 

 

Mazeppa is a visual delight for a photographer. Signs crafted by local sign painter Mike Meyer give this southeastern Minnesota riverside community a signature artsy look. This is a town I remember.

 

A unique business in Mazeppa. The shop was closed when I was in town. Andy Denny builds banjos here.

 

That’s the thing, too, about small towns. They need an identity to draw visitors. A unique business or three. A historical site. A theater or other arts venue. A natural attraction.

 

The Maple Street Bridge crosses the north branch of the Zumbro River a block off Mazeppa’s Main Street.

 

How often have you sidetracked off a main highway or interstate, or even a county road, to drive through a small town, maybe even stop? Not that often, I expect. But you’re missing something by not doing so. You’re missing out on people and places and experiences that are grassroots America. Interesting. Yes, even that quintessential word “charming.” Perhaps vibrant or thriving. Maybe not. But still at their root essence, authentic.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Propped by Mike Meyer’s sign shop.

 

 

 

 

When I was in town in October 2016, work was being done on the original 1909 bank building, now housing the Mazeppa Area Historical Society. The exterior covering of the beautiful brick building traces back to the 1970s when the former People’s State Bank was “updated.”

 

In 1912, an addition was made to the bank building to house the local newspaper.

 

Signage on the side of the historical society building.

 

TELL ME about a favorite small town and why you appreciate the community.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The sign painter of Mazeppa, Part I March 28, 2018

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I love that Mazeppa restored this historic bridge spanning the Zumbro River and converted it into a pedestrian walkway. Noted W.S. Hewett Company designed the Walnut Street Bridge in 1904.

 

WHEN I VISITED MAZEPPA awhile back, I fell in love with this town of some 800 just north of Rochester and along the north branch of the Zumbro River.

 

Some of my favorite signage hangs on the City of Mazeppa maintenance garage housed in a former creamery.

 

This signage honors the butter crafted by the former Mazeppa Farmers’ Cooperative Dairy Association.

 

Another favorite of mine: this sign on Mike Meyer’s shop.

 

Or to be more specific, I fell for the hand-painted signs that grace buildings in this community. Most are the work of local sign painter, Mike Meyer.

 

 

 

Meyer’s corner sign shop was closed on the day I visited. So I knew nothing then of his notoriety. But he is world-renowned for his sign painting skills. This I learned while researching him online and watching the short film, “Man with a Brush.” He leads hand lettering workshops across the country and around the world from Amsterdam to Berlin to Dublin to Barcelona to Sweden and beyond.

 

 

 

 

Alright then. I’m impressed. But I’m even more impressed by the humbleness of this artist who grew up in Mazeppa and claims there’s no place he’d rather live than in his southeastern Minnesota hometown. His father barbered and painted signs in between cutting hair and Meyer learned from him. He left for three years to serve in the Army, but came right back home to follow his passion of painting signs. He went to sign school, too, and worked for a sign painter before being laid off.

 

Meyer’s shop anchors a corner of downtown Mazeppa.

 

That prompted him to take the bold step of opening his own sign shop. One quote in the “Man with a Brush” strikes me in particular: “Nobody really said, ‘Don’t run over the hill like the rest of the rats. Go the other way,’” Meyer says. He chose to make his future in his hometown doing what he loves. Away from the rat race. How many people can say they are doing what they love in a place they love as they go to work every day? Probably not many.

 

 

 

 

Now Meyer could have just stayed in Mazeppa, tucked away quietly painting signs for businesses and such. But he didn’t. He holds an innate desire to pass along his knowledge, his skills, his passion, to others. That theme of mentorship threads throughout the film on Meyer’s life as a sign painter. He teaches others the artistry of the trade.  Watch the film (click here) and you see the undeniable joy this long-time painter experiences in sharing his expertise while working side-by-side with novices and beyond. He’ll lead workshops locally during Mazeppa Daze in July.

 

 

Individuals like Meyer make our small towns unique places that exist outside the rat race. He proves that success and happiness come from within ourselves in following our passions. No matter where we live.

 

Please check back for another post from Mazeppa.

© Photos copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sources: Mike Meyer’s Facebook page, Better Letters Co. and “Man with a Brush” (directed and produced by UK-based Dimension 2)