Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Pass the gizzards, please, or not February 28, 2019

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’VE HEARD OF PIE, hot dog, even sauerkraut, eating contests. But a Grackle Gizzard Eating Contest? Never.

But that contest opportunity happens during Winthrop, Minnesota’s 35th annual Grackle Days from April 5 – 7. What’s a grackle you ask? A blackbird.

Participants won’t gobble down grackle gizzards, though. Rather, organizers of this first-time contest have substituted turkey gizzards.

 

 

Grackle. Turkey. I don’t care what type of gizzard is on the table. I won’t be among those flocking to sign up for a contest limited to 10 competitors on two teams. Just the thought of eating a gizzard grosses me out.

How about you? Would you eat a gizzard? Have you eaten a gizzard?

Hand me a plate of sauerkraut and I’ll happily indulge. But a plate of gizzards? No thank you.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The “real” Fergus Falls as viewed by a Minnesotan December 28, 2018

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A view of downtown Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

IF YOU LIVE IN MINNESOTA, New York or Germany, you are likely familiar with the case of a now-fired Der Spiegel journalist who visited Fergus Falls and fabricated a magazine story about this west central Minnesota community and its people. If there’s one thing we Minnesotans don’t like, it’s lies about who we are. How this writer thought he could pen such a piece of fiction and get away with it is beyond my comprehension.

 

The iconic Dairyland Drive In in Fergus Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, click here to read a post on Bob Collins’ NewsCut blog at Minnesota Public Radio. He offers a good summary. Fergus Falls folks set the record straight with their own investigation of Claas Relotius’ claims in a particularly humorous piece. It’s worth your read.

 

Visitors to the Kaddatz Galleries in downtown Fergus Falls peruse the art of Charles Beck. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’ve been to Fergus Falls. Several times. And I’ve found it to be an artsy community with a lovely downtown and equally lovely people.

 

The most unusual place my poetry has been published, on billboards as part of the Roadside Poetry Project in Fergus Falls. This is the last of four billboards featuring my poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Heck, I even had a poem posted on billboards there back in 2011 as part of the (now-defunct) Roadside Poetry Project.

 

The iconic The Viking Cafe with its vintage booths and lunch counter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I visited several places that endear Fergus Falls to me—The Viking Cafe, Dairyland Drive In, Kaddatz Galleries, Otto the Otter statue and top of my list, Victor Lundeen & Company. Then third-generation print shop owner Paul Lundeen gave me a personal tour of his second floor print shop, showing me lots of vintage art and type. You can bet I was an appreciative visitor given my interest in all things print.

 

Victor Lundeen & Co. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This is the Fergus Falls I saw. Not some backward, gun-toting community of hicks, as portrayed by the German magazine writer.

 

The Otto the otter statue in Adams Park in Fergus Falls. The Otter Tail River runs through this city where the Fergus Falls High School mascot is the otter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Take a look at my blog posts for my view of Fergus Falls. It’s nothing like Relotius’ fabricated version. And that’s a good thing.

 

https://mnprairieroots.com/2013/05/30/a-photographic-tour-of-downtown-fergus-falls/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2013/06/13/dairyland-an-old-fashioned-drive-in-in-fergus-falls/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2013/05/23/touring-a-third-generation-family-print-shop-in-fergus-falls/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2013/05/22/up-on-the-rooftop-in-fergus-falls/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2011/06/17/off-i-94-artsy-fergus-falls/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2011/06/12/prairie-poetry-in-fergus-falls/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2011/06/18/my-visit-with-otto-the-otter/

https://mnprairieroots.com/2011/06/15/lunch-at-the-viking-cafe/

 

TELL ME: Are you familiar with this story and how would you react if a foreign writer negatively fictionalized your community? Have you been to Fergus Falls? If yes, what’s your perspective of this Minnesota community?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A glimpse of Northfield during the holiday season December 21, 2018

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Outside an antique shop in historic downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

 

NORTHFIELD RATES AS ONE of my favorite Minnesota cities. It’s a charming/quaint/picturesque river town with a timeless small town feel.

 

Photographed through the front window of Quality Bakery, a snippet of the bakery’s holiday window display.

 

Signage directs families to Santa’s house in Bridge Square.

 

The Christmas tree in Bridge Square brightens the wintry landscape with bold red decorations.

 

For someone like me who prefers rural to urban, a 22-minute drive there with no traffic hassles, visual delights in a historic downtown, an artsy vibe (including sidewalk poetry) and more, make this college city of some 20,000 particularly appealing. Especially at Christmas.

 

Bridge Square in the heart of downtown Northfield.

 

An ornament on that community Christmas tree.

 

Santa’s house, where Santa has always been absent whenever I’ve stopped at Bridge Square.

 

Fancied up holiday window displays, a Santa House and Christmas tree in Bridge Square (the downtown community gathering spot), an annual Christmas Walk, the renowned St. Olaf College Christmas Concert and more transform Northfield into a magical place during the holiday season.

 

 

I recently spent some time Christmas shopping in the downtown made famous by The James-Younger Gang’s robbery of the First National Bank on September 7, 1876. Today that bank building houses the Northfield Historical Society. The museum sits right across the street from Bridge Square.

 

A wagon load of Wisemen awaits shoppers outside an antique shop.

 

It’s not that I like shopping—I don’t. But I’d rather shop in one-of-a-kind local shops than in Anywhere Mall, USA. Northfield offers an abundance of home-grown retail stores.

 

 

There’s a lot of creativity in Northfield. And an appreciation of that creativity. I once participated in a beer poetry reading at a local brewery. How cool is that?

 

Beau inside Marketplace @ 416.

 

Christmas or not, the Americana small town-ness of Northfield endears this river town to me.

 

 

TELL ME: Have you been to Northfield and, if so, what about it appeals to you? Or what town do you find especially charming wherever you live?

© Copyright 2018 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

 

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