Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

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Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Belview: A taste of small town Minnesota November 13, 2019

Looking to the south in downtown Belview.

 

TOO MUCH TIME HAS PASSED since I’ve explored small towns with my camera. Things happens and we get diverted by more important matters that require our full attention. So life goes. But life is settling somewhat now and I have time to pause and take in the nuances of places, which I love to document.

This past weekend Randy and I traveled 2.5 hours west to my native Redwood County to visit my mom in a senior living center. But before we pulled into Parkview, we swung through the heart of Belview, population around 350. It’s a small farming community on the southwestern Minnesota Prairie.

 

The sandwich board caught my attention as we drove by.

 

Belview did not disappoint. I spotted a sandwich board outside the Belview Bar & Grill that required a stop and a few quick photos. The sign was, oh, so Minnesotan with a menu listing that included Tater Tot Hotdish. We joke about our hotdishes here in Minnesota. That would be casseroles to those of you who live elsewhere. Hotdish ingredients here lean to hamburger, pasta/rice/tater tots and a creamy soup (mushroom/chicken/celery) to bind everything together. Spices? Salt and pepper.

 

The sign also promoted the University of Minnesota Gophers football game at 11 that morning. The Gophers went on to defeat Penn State.

 

At some point in Minnesota culinary lore, Tater Tot Hotdish became our signature hotdish. I don’t know that it still holds such high esteem. I much prefer Minnesotan Amy Thielen’s more savory and complicated Classic Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish.

 

While I’ve not eaten at the Belview Bar & Grill, I will always choose a home-grown eatery over a chain.

 

But others, I expect, still embrace the basics of that solid and comforting tater tot-topped hotdish. Belview Bar & Grill advertised the dish, along with chili and beef stew, as hunters’ specials. That would be deer hunting. I saw a few orange-attired hunters in Belview, including two who stopped at the senior care center to drop off lunch for an employee.

These are the small town stories I love. Stories that I discover simply by observing, by listening, by gathering photos that document everyday life.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Vintage snapshots from Vergas October 30, 2019

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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT AN AGED pick-up truck… Perhaps it’s the agrarian connection or the nostalgic appeal. Or even the vehicle design that conveys comfort in its rounded shape.

Whatever the reasons, I am draw to vintage pick-up trucks. Randy, too. He wishes he owned one. And a 1964 Chevy, too.

But since we don’t and never will, I settle for visual enjoyment with my eyes and through the camera lens.

 

 

As I waited in the van recently for Randy outside a Vergas, Minnesota convenience store, a lovely old pick-up pulled up to the gas pumps. Without hesitation, I grabbed my camera, stepped from the van and snapped a few images of the portable piece of art temporarily parked at the pump.

 

 

And then I swung my camera the other way to photograph the store exterior because that appealed to me visually also with its welcoming front porch and log cabin style design.

 

 

Then we were off to find the world famous Vergas loon sculpture. And, as we passed through the business district, I snap-shotted the hardware store sign through the window. Because I have this thing about hardware stores, too, and about signs. Small town memories and art.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Sleepy Eye: When a small town clinic goes the extra mile August 23, 2019

Sleepy Eye Lake with the steeples of St. Mary’s Catholic Church visible in the distance across Minnesota State Highway 4.

 

ON A WEEKDAY AUGUST AFTERNOON as lovely as they come in Minnesota, I sat at a shelterhouse picnic table along the shores of Sleepy Eye Lake eating a salad. Sportsman’s Park proved a picturesque place to enjoy a picnic lunch with my husband and son before continuing west to visit my mom in a care center.

 

 

After lunch, we followed a paved trail to a public dock with a view of the lake and the town of Sleepy Eye to the south. I wasn’t at all surprised by the mucky green growth polluting the lake like most lakes in southern Minnesota.

 

 

A few kids hung out at a second dock angling for fish in the murky water. And two bikers zipped by in this park which also features 16 camping sites, two camper cabins, disc golf and a playground. Just a nice spot to picnic and enjoy the outdoors.

 

 

Sportsman’s Park seems pretty typical of most small town parks at first glance. But then I noticed something unique—a row of six white bicycles. Further investigation revealed a seasonal bike rental program offered through the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation. Begun in the summer of 2017, Bike Share allows users to download an app and rent a bike. I never would have expected this in a community the size of Sleepy Eye with a population of some 3,400.

 

 

But given the 3.12-mile paved Sleepy Eye Bike Trail and the camp sites and cabins at this park, this seems an ideal fit.

 

 

The nonprofit foundation, part of Sleepy Eye Medical Center, aims “to provide excellent healthcare to our patients and to enhance the wellness and quality of life in the communities we serve.” Bike Share fulfills that mission. Maybe other healthcare teams offer the same in rural communities. But this is the first I’ve seen.

 

 

Additionally, the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation sponsors an annual 5K Run/Walk for Health, a golf tournament and post-secondary scholarships for students entering the healthcare field. I’m not surprised really at the level of community support. I grew up in the county just to the west and understand the importance of local healthcare access. Without it, people sometimes drive hours to clinics and hospitals.

 

 

I’m getting sidetracked here. So I’ll circle back to those bikes, to my appreciation for these rural clinics and hospitals that show they care about the communities they serve through programs like Bike Share. The sign below the main Sportsman’s Park sign summarizes well the spirit of small towns like Sleepy Eye in the words “a cooperative project.” Working together to enhance wellness and the quality of life seems a noble goal no matter where you live, no matter the size of your community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inside Grizzly Canyon in downtown Sleepy Eye August 22, 2019

Grizzly Canyon Antiques & Collectibles in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

 

GRIZZLY CANYON. The name doesn’t really fit Sleepy Eye, a small farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. There are no grizzly bears, or canyons, here. But the business name seems to fit Montana Mielke, the young man who owns Grizzly Canyon Antiques and Collectibles on Sleepy Eye’s main drag.

 

A local stops in to chat and play cards with Montana Mielke, left.

 

With a head of thick curly hair, a full beard and a stout build, his appearance suggests a rugged outdoorsman. This is all conjecture on my part. I never asked about his interests or the stories behind his personal and business names.

 

 

Not that either matters. He’s a personable guy, son of Brent Mielke who owns Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun across the street next to Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. His dad does his thing, he does his, Montana noted as we chatted.

 

 

As antique shops go, Grizzly Canyon is neat, orderly and not at all stuffed. I appreciate that. I often feel overwhelmed with too many antiques and collectibles cramming most antique stores.

 

 

While browsing and photographing some of the merchandise, with Montana’s OK, I noticed one particularly unusual piece—a Cape Canaveral U.S. Air Force Missile Test Center toy replica.

 

 

 

 

But I also spotted what I would expect to find in Sleepy Eye—items featuring Chief Sleepy Eye, the Dakota leader after whom this town is named.

 

 

 

 

Names. There’s that word again. Somehow Grizzy Canyon fits this narrow store with the Beware of Rattlesnakes poster and the wide-mouthed striking rattlesnake flashing its fangs inside a glass case.

 

 

FYI: Grizzly Canyon is open from 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Coming soon to the former PIX Theater in Sleepy Eye: Coffee & Beer August 21, 2019

The PIX Theater marquee photographed in March 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHEN I LAST PHOTOGRAPHED the marquee of the historic PIX Theater in downtown Sleepy Eye, I found the signage in need of repair. But I knew the future appeared bright for this once popular entertainment hub. Plans were underway by two local physicians to open a brewery and coffee shop in the old theater.

 

The coffee shop is expected to open first, later this summer, followed by the brewery.

 

Today that business, Sleepy Eye Brewing & Coffee Company, is nearer to opening. The evidence shows in the restored marquee. Peering through windows, I observed laborers working inside to create a space that will showcase the bones of this building.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

I look forward to stopping at the brewery in this small town just a short drive west of New Ulm along U.S. Highway 14. I expect this to become a popular stop, destination or local hang-out for those who appreciate craft beer. And for those who don’t, they can patronize the coffee shop—complete with soup, sandwiches, pastries and coffee during daytime hours.

 

Photographed last week before Sleepy Eye’s annual Corn Days celebration. The marquee serves as a community bulletin board for now.

 

Anytime a business opens in a rural community is reason to celebrate, but especially now with Del Monte’s announced closure of its Sleepy Eye food processing plant. The closure will affect 69 full-time employees and some 350 seasonal workers. This is a tremendous economic loss for this farming community. When I was in Sleepy Eye last week, Del Monte had not yet announced this devastating decision.

 

I’m reflected in the mirrored underside of the marquee.

 

As I photographed the theater marquee, I delighted in its restored beauty and what this means to the good folks of Sleepy Eye. This historic building holds so many memories…with new ones yet to come.

 

I need to see the marquee at night with the lights aglow.

 

THOUGHTS?

Click here to view a story on KEYC-TV in Mankato about the brewery and coffee shop.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Downtown Sleepy Eye: A glimpse of small town character August 20, 2019

Just east of Sleepy Eye on U.S. Highway 14. That’s Christensen Farms headquarters to the right.

 

SMALL TOWNS, like cities, possess character. Each is unique. No matter how many rural communities I visit or how often I tour the same town, I discover something new. It takes more than a precursory glance to truly appreciate a community. Too often people dismiss small towns as places to simply pass through when traveling from Point A to Point B. But these communities are much more. And to see that requires pulling off the highway, parking your vehicle and exploring.

 

Agriculture anchors the small towns of southwestern Minnesota.

 

On a recent drive to southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Sleepy Eye, which is west of New Ulm which is west of Mankato. I am forever pointing out to folks that civilization exists west of Mankato. I am proud to have grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in rural Redwood County. I once lived and worked for the newspaper in Sleepy Eye, located in Brown County next to my county of origin.

 

A snippet of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

Sleepy Eye, like so many other small towns, has felt the impact of a more mobile society, of technology and more. Businesses I remember—a bakery, a department store—have long closed.

 

A wooden cut-out of Chief Sleepy Eye as photographed through an antique shop window. The town is named after this Dakota leader.

 

Photographed inside the entry of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

But new businesses have opened in the decades since I left. Antique shops. Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, the reason for our stop. And the soon-to-open Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company.

 

Agriculture centers these small towns as evidenced in this storefront signage.

 

A display window at Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun drew my interest. I would like to explore this space open to the public (on weekends) for birthday and other parties. It was closed when I was in Sleepy Eye.

 

Another section of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

While Randy searched for stained glass, I grabbed my camera and meandered through a short stretch of the business district along busy U.S. Highway 14. I found myself wishing the second stoplight had not been removed during recent road reconstruction. The downtown is much less pedestrian friendly now. It’s a difficult roadway to safely cross.

 

Posted on a door at the bottom of a stairway leading to upstairs apartments by Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. I love discovering signage like this.

 

That aside, I managed and took some photos that show the unique character of Sleepy Eye. Enjoy. And check back for more posts from this southwestern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling