Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Park art August 8, 2017

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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.

 

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

 

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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

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Two Minnesota towns July 27, 2017

Fields and sky envelope a farm building just west of Wabasso in my native Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I GREW UP ON THE PRAIRIE, a place of earth and sky and wind. Land and sky stretch into forever there, broken only by farm sites and the grain elevators and water towers that define small towns.

 

Along Minnesota Highway 19, this sign once marked my hometown. That sign has since been replaced. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County once bustled with businesses—a lumberyard, feed mill, hardware stores, grocers, cafes, a blacksmith… Now the one-block center of town is mostly empty, vacant lots replacing wood-frame buildings that once housed local shops. Time, economics and abandonment rotted the structures into decay and eventual collapse or demolition.

 

One of the few businesses remaining downtown, the Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? The back story of my prairie hometown, where buildings were built mostly of wood rather than brick or stone, led me to a deep respect and appreciation for communities that have retained buildings of yesteryear. Cities like Cannon Falls, founded in 1854. By comparison, Vesta was founded in 1900.

 

The rear of an historic stone building in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Cannon Falls still has a thriving downtown landmarked by 29 properties in a Commercial Historic District. It’s population of around 4,000 and location between Rochester and the metro contrast sharply with Vesta’s population of 300 in the much more rural southwestern corner of Minnesota.

 

This sign marks the aged former Firemen’s Hall, now the Cannon Falls Museum, pictured below. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

The Cannon Falls Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Drive through Cannon Falls neighborhoods and you will see history still standing. In Vesta, history comes in photos and memories. It’s sad really. But that is reality.

 

The Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal congregation founded in Cannon Falls in 1866. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

Because I grew up without solid stone buildings in a place that unsettles many for its breadth of sky and land, I am drawn to stone structures. They portray a strength and permanency that defies time and change. Yet I expect both masons and carpenters shared the same dreams of a better life, of prosperity and success.

 

Another lovely stone building photographed behind downtown Cannon Falls buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

 

That’s the underlying truth. Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something. The land remains—the same earth upon which early settlers planted their boots and stood with hope in their hearts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This ain’t no museum July 11, 2017

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SMALL TOWNS PRESENT a visual smorgasbord of signage that often humors, delights and entertains me. While day tripping to southeastern Minnesota communities last week, I spotted numerous such signs, including this one on the front display window of Thrifty Chix in Elysian:

 

 

I confess that I’ve often been guilty of museum type viewing in shops, especially antique shops. I enjoy perusing vintage and antique merchandise that I remember with fondness from years past. Seldom do I purchase anything, primarily because of cost but also because I don’t really “need” whatever I want.

This particular sign caused me to pause and consider and, then, to laugh out loud. Humor, when used well, works for me. How about you?

TELL ME about any particularly humorous signs you’ve discovered.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dresbach & Dakota, that would be in Minnesota June 27, 2017

Following Interstate 90 along the Mississippi River bluffs in southeastern Minnesota.

 

IN THE MANY YEARS I’VE TRAVELED Interstate 90 along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border in southeastern Minnesota, I’ve never exited to explore Dresbach or Dakota.

That changed this past spring when Randy and I were returning from a day trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Time allowed for the pull off onto Riverview Drive which passes through unincorporated Dresbach and Dakota, population 323 or thereabouts.

 

We pulled off Riverview Drive and curved the van to a small riverside park in Dresbach where I took this photo of the Mississippi.

 

Traffic signs in Dresbach.

 

Leaving Dresbach, I noticed this lengthy, leaning retaining wall.

 

We did a drive through with thoughts of returning again to poke around more. Both villages sit along the western bank of the Mississippi River between La Crosse and Winona, in Minnesota. The river setting is scenic, beautiful, worthy of a second look when the weather warms and river traffic increases.

 

A welcoming sign outside a business in Dakota. That’s quite a name, Trynowski.

 

Holy Cross Church in Dakota.

 

A well-preserved former corner gas station in Dakota that I found absolutely charming.

 

I snapped a few quick photos from the van and called it good. While both villages deserve more of my photographic study, this is a start.

TELL ME: Have you ever driven through/visited Dresbach or Dakota? If yes, what should I see the next time I’m in either community.

If anyone can provide information about any of the places photographed here, please share.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Doublewide, where everybody probably knows your name February 24, 2017

The Doublewide is home of the signature The Doozy Bloody Mary.

The Doublewide is home of the signature The Doozy Bloody Mary.

DOWN THE HILL from Saint Nicholas Catholic Church and along the street named Saint Joseph rests a doublewide trailer. No one lives there. Rather, the doublewide is The Doublewide, a popular bar in Elko New Market.

Not that I’ve ever stepped inside the bar. I’ve only photographed the exterior and checked out the business website and Facebook page.

The bar hosted a vintage snowmobile show and beer bash in January.

The bar hosted a vintage snowmobile show and beer bash in January.

Why bother? Because I’m interested. And what I learned indicates The Doublewide is more than just a place to grab a beer and shoot a game of pool. It’s a place for the community to come together whether for a meat raffle; entertainment in the form of BINGO, live music or karaoke; a vintage snowmobile show; a combo fashion show-wine tasting; open mic night; bean bag league; and more.

 

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It seems fitting that the bar is situated along a street named after a patron saint of working people. I’m inclined to think that good hard-working Minnesotans are drawn to The Doublewide for the sense of community, of caring for one another.

TELL ME: Is there a Doublewide in your community?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The artsy allure of a Jordan antique shop February 22, 2017

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I’M DRAWN TO ANTIQUE SHOPS. Not necessarily because I’m scouting for an antique or collectible. Rather, the history, the art, the nostalgia, the connection to childhood memories draw me inside.

In an antique shop I find a certain comfort remembering days past, of simpler times, of stories, of the saving of an object that once meant something to someone.

 

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On a recent stop in the Minnesota river town of Jordan, I explored several antique and specialty shops, including LB Antiques along Water Street in the heart of downtown. Natural light poured through the lengthy front windows, adding warmth to a space that would work well as an art gallery. I always appreciate antiques grouped artfully in uncluttered settings.

Within LB Antiques, I saw the work of an artistic shopkeeper.

 

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I delighted in the graceful curve of an unadorned water pitcher symmetrically balanced between two ornate angel candle holders.

 

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Tucked into a mostly unseen floor space, a vintage clown graphic grabbed my attention. I’ve always appreciated graphics, a nod to my days working as a newspaper reporter, photographer and occasional page designer.

 

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On a shelf, the contrast of utilitarian textured metal pots created visual interest against signage in bold hues of yellow, orange, red and pink.

 

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Likewise, a fabric banner advertising the 1967 Saint Paul Winter Carnival contrasted with the day—an exceptionally warm February afternoon of temps reaching near 60 degrees.

 

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My eyes were drawn, too, to a beer bottle from Ernst Fleckenstein Brewery, a long ago brewery in Faribault. I alerted a local collector to this mint condition bottle with the lovely gold-edged type face.

 

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Even the block letters of a hand-printed sign soliciting merchandise caused me to pause and appreciate.

 

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In a back room, albums—two for $1—were stacked on tables, awaiting anyone willing to take the time to sort through them. For a collector of vinyl, this would equal striking a jackpot.

 

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That’s the thing about antique shops. What I might care about, another shopper would find of no interest. And vice versa. Our pasts shape our interests. And nowhere does that seem more evident than inside an antique shop.

TELL ME: Do you browse antique shops? Why? What draws you inside?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poking around Jordan on a Saturday afternoon February 21, 2017

A scene in downtown Jordan on Saturday afternoon, an exceptionally warm February day in Minnesota.

A scene in downtown Jordan on Saturday afternoon, an exceptionally warm February day in Minnesota.

JORDAN, MINNESOTA is quintessential small town, the type of place where kids bike to the ballpark, propel skateboards down the middle of the street and walk the dog with friends.

A Chinese restaurant is housed in one of Jordan's many historic buildings.

Empire Wok, a Chinese restaurant is housed in one of Jordan’s many historic buildings.

It’s an historic town of aged buildings, a creekside restaurant dubbed The Feed Mill and a collection of gift, specialty and antique shops clustered within walking distance of each other.

Two guys rested on a bench Saturday afternoon in downtown Jordan.

Two guys rested on a bench Saturday afternoon in downtown Jordan.

Here curbside benches encourage sitting for a spell.

This sign drew me into a wonderful little shop.

This sign drew me into a wonderful little shop.

Inside The Jordan Junker I found this creatively repurposed school desk.

Inside The Jordan Junker I found this creatively repurposed school desk with a U.S. map top-side. It would make for a unique end table. And, yes, the desk opens to storage inside.

Creative signage lures shoppers.

Customer favorites at Pekarna Meats are smoked pork sausage, ring bologna and baby back ribs.

Customer favorites at Pekarna Meats, family-owned since 1893, are smoked pork sausage, ring bologna and baby back ribs.

And the meat market sees a steady stream of customers.

Numerous shops are located downtown.

Numerous shops are located downtown.

Saturday afternoon my husband and I popped into this 1854 Minnesota River Valley community to poke around a few downtown shops. I appreciate the slower pace of Jordan, the Mayberry feel of this place with railroad tracks slicing through the business district. Here shopkeepers chat it up with customers in a welcoming way that is neighbor-friendly.

Two historic log cabins are situated downtown where bikers and others stopped on Saturday afternoon.

Two historic log cabins are situated downtown where bikers and others stopped on Saturday afternoon.

The community has a good vibe. And although our stay was brief and we didn’t see everything Jordan offers, I got a good sense of this small town. Only months earlier I visited Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store located along U.S. Highway 169 on the outskirts of Jordan. That place buzzes with busyness and the rush of traffic on the four-lane, so different from the quiet of downtown.

I delight in exploring small Minnesota towns like Jordan. This merchandise was displayed outside The Vinery Floral Home & Garden.

I delight in exploring small Minnesota towns like Jordan. This merchandise was displayed outside The Vinery Floral Home & Garden.

I’ll return to Jordan, next time better prepared with an itinerary. Seven years have passed since my last stop in the heart of the community. I won’t let that much time lapse before my next visit.

Another eye-catching sign outside a local garage.

Another eye-catching sign outside a local garage.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite small town? I’d like to hear.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a close-up of a Jordan antique shop.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling