Kilkenny, proud of its Irish heritage, maintains a twinship with Kilkenny County in the Old Country. And each September, the community celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with Half-Way to St. Paddy’s Day complete with parade and, in the past, toilet bowl races. I’ve never attended, but need to and document this event.
Three years ago while out and about on one of those rural drives I so enjoy, Randy and I passed through Kilkenny, marked by a signature silo style light green water tower decorated with a shamrock. There was no doubt we were in an Irish proud small town.
At the time, Murphy’s Pub centered the core of Kilkenny, which, as I recall, is about a handful of businesses. Today that Irish-tagged pub with the memorable ale drinking leprechaun signage is closed, replaced by The Toy Box Saloon. That doesn’t quite hold the same Irish appeal as the name Murphy’s Pub. But you will still find Irish brew, like Finnegan’s Irish Amber.
In Scott County to the north, in unincorporated St. Patrick, I discovered a strong Irish enclave centered around a church, cemetery, ballpark and tavern. St. Patrick of Cedar Lake Township Catholic Church and its surrounding cemetery sit high atop a hill across from St. Patrick’s Tavern and next to the ball field. The ballpark, St. Patrick’s Bonin Field, is named after Father Leon Bonin, a strong supporter of local baseball.
That this rural place is proud of its Irish heritage is clear. I need to return to St Patrick, perhaps pop into the bar for a brew. Make that an Irish stout.
During my one and only visit in the summer of 2015, I mostly wandered the cemetery. I find cemeteries historically and artistically interesting.
Back in Le Sueur County, I meandered through the St. Thomas Church Cemetery in the unincorporated settlement of St. Thomas. During my March 2018 visit, I found plenty of Irish buried here.
Down the road a bit, I spotted an apparently abandoned Callahan’s Bar.
And then I saw Derrynane Town Hall, Derrynane being a small village in County Kerry, Ireland. Ah, yes, Irish roots run deep in pockets of rural Minnesota.
This St. Patrick’s Day I celebrate Kilkenny, St. Thomas and St. Patrick. What a delight to have found these backroad places of Irish heritage in rural southern Minnesota.
SIGNS, WHETHER PROFESSIONALLY-CREATED, handcrafted or handwritten, provide insights into a community beyond simply identifying information.
I find myself drawn to signs, especially when exploring small towns. Three months ago my attention focused on signage in downtown Pine Island. This community of nearly 3,900 some 15 miles north of Rochester in Goodhue County provides plenty of signs to catch my interest.
Likewise, I am drawn to the town’s historic architecture.
This was not my first visit to Pine Island. I’ve dined here, picnicked at Trailhead Park, followed the Douglas State Trail a short distance, popped into an antique shop and more. I wonder how often motorists traveling along busy US Highway 52, if they have no connection to the community, pull off the four-lane to explore. Pine Island, along the Zumbro River, is worth a stop, a walk, a close-up look, as are most small towns.
As historical accounts go, the Dakota sheltered here in tipis during the winter months, thick pine boughs protecting their temporary homes from the wind and snow. A stand of pines once stood here, like an island in the prairie. The town’s name comes from the Native word wazuweeta, translated to “Isle of Pines.”
My brief walk through the heart of Pine Island revealed none of that Indigenous history. However, I spotted community pride, diversity, entrepreneurship, compassion and more in signs. Signage says a lot about what people value, about a business community, about communicating in a succinct and eye-catching way.
Some of my favorite finds are handwritten or homemade notes posted in shop windows. I appreciate these messages in our fast-paced, technology-based world. A dash of writing, perhaps added art, combine to create meaningful, connective communication that feels decidedly personal.
My interest in signs traces to my love of words and of associated graphics. Both matter to me. I even make product decisions sometimes based solely on either. In Pine Island I noted the art on Taqueria Let’s Go Tacos signs and how that connects with the restaurant’s heritage and food. The same goes for The Little Hair Salon with comb and scissors graphics on signage.
In another location, I needed to sleuth online to decipher the meaning of I.O.O.F. and three other faded letters, FLT, linked in a link on a dirty window pane. The letters stand for Independent Order of Odd Fellows and their mission of Friendship, Love and Truth.
These are the things I discover in small towns, those places often passed by as people hurry from one destination to the next. Each community is unique. I discover individuality in words and art bannered upon buildings, taped on doors and windows, printed on sandwich boards…
I glimpse a town’s personality through signage as I explore places like Pine Island.
WE KNOW IT’S COMING. Winter. Yet, we Minnesotans hope for one more glorious autumn day. One more day of warm temps. One more day of no snow. The reality, though, is that this is November and the weather can shift just like that to cold, grey and, well, seasonal.
With the exception of minimal rain in an already drought-stricken state, this fall in southern Minnesota has been exceptional with many sunny, warm days and lovely fall colors.
Minnesota fully embraces autumn with unbridled enthusiasm. It’s as if we need to pack in as much as we can, outdoors especially, before we settle mostly inside for the winter.
The end of daylight savings time this weekend signals that seasonal shift. It will get darker earlier and that, psychologically, triggers an awareness of winter’s impending arrival. I find myself just wanting to stay home in the evening, snuggled under a fleece throw reading a good book.
A page from “Count Down to Fall” in the current StoryWalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)
Sometimes that may be a children’s book. Picture books aren’t just for kids. I find the stories and illustrations therein inspiring, entertaining, informative, poetic. In Faribault, Buckham Memorial Library even brings picture books right into the community via a StoryWalk. Pages from a selected picture book are posted in protective casings along several blocks of Central Avenue to the library. The currently featured book is Count Down to Fall written by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Sherry Neidigh.
DUST HANGS OVER THE LANDSCAPE like smoke. Hazy. The air dirty with debris kicked up by combines sweeping across corn and soybean fields in southern Minnesota. Harvest is well underway here as farmers bring in the season’s crops.
From back country gravel roads to the interstate, I’ve witnessed this scene unfolding before me in recent weeks. Combines chomping. Harvested corn and beans spilling into grain trucks.
Farmers work all hours of the day and night in the rush to finish gathering crops before winter arrives. In the dark of night, bright headlights spotlight fields. In daylight, sunlight filters through clouds of dust.
Harvest is part of my DNA by having been raised on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm. Decades removed from the land, I still take notice of the harvest. The smell. The hues. The hurry. I understand this season in rural Minnesota.
In nearby Northfield, I recently happened upon a bronze sculpture, “Harvest,” which had gone unnoticed by me. It’s been there since 2008 at Sesquicentennial Legacy Plaza along the Cannon River, near the post office, near Bridge Square. In all my visits to Northfield, to the Riverwalk area, I missed this public art created by Raymond Jacobson.
It’s beautiful, fitting for a community rooted in agriculture. The 3,000-pound sculpture symbolizes Northfield’s heritage of wheat farming and milling. Just across the river sits the Ames Mill, where the gristmill in the late 1860s produced 150 barrels of wheat daily.
In 1927, John Campbell of the Campbell Cereal Company took over the mill and began producing Malt-O-Meal hot cereal. Today Post Consumer Brands owns the mill and still makes that hot cereal. Dry cereal is manufactured at a nearby production facility. Many days the scent of cereal wafts over Northfield.
All of this—the smell of cereal, the “Harvest” sculpture, the historic Ames Mill—reminds me of the importance of agriculture in our region. It reminds me, too, of my rural roots. I am grateful for my farm upbringing. I am grateful, too, for those who today plant, tend and harvest crops. They are essential to our economy, feeding the world, providing raw product.
That this season of harvest is honored in a “Harvest” sculpture shows a deep appreciation for history, heritage and agriculture in Northfield. The public art gives me pause to reflect on inspiration in creativity. Today I celebrate the artistic interpretation of harvest displayed along the banks of the Cannon River.
TODAY, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY, I think of the US-Dakota War of 1862. When as a high school student I studied that war, I felt an immediate connection to the event which occurred in my home county and neighboring counties in southwestern Minnesota. My interest sparked because this happened in my backyard. Today I have a much better understanding of the 1862 conflict among the native Dakota peoples, the settlers and the government. My learned “white” perspective has shifted, my viewpoint has broadened. That has come through listening, reading, educating myself.
I see the same shift in attitudes throughout our nation, state and communities today. Land acknowledgment agreements are being written. There’s an awareness that indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of the land, including in my home county of Redwood and my home of the past 40 years, Rice County.
I recently learned that the Wahpekute, part of the Dakota Nation, placed their dead on scaffolding on land just up the hill from my Faribault home. Land that is now a city park. After a year, the bones of the deceased were moved a few blocks away to a permanent burial grounds. That cemetery is not marked as such. Up until a presentation by Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society, I was unaware that Peace Park was a sacred place, not simply a triangle of land with a WW II memorial along busy streets. Efforts are underway in Faribault to landmark such places of importance, to honor the Dakota.
It starts at a grassroots level, this unraveling of the truth, this recognition, this acknowledgment. I’ve toured museum exhibits, read books, attended presentations and more to assure that I am informed. I highly-recommend reading the award-winning book, The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. (Click here to read my review.)
I value that awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ food, culture, history and more is growing. In Minneapolis, diners can enjoy North American traditional indigenous food at award-winning Owamni by The Sioux Chef, for example.
Back in my home county, the Lower Sioux Indian Community is working hard to assure its culture remains strong through ongoing traditional events and teaching of the Dakota language.
I still have much to learn about the Indigenous Peoples of Minnesota. That I admit. Perhaps much of it is really unlearning. Today I pause to honor those who called this place, this southern Minnesota, home first, back when prairie grasses stretched high, bison roamed and the land was respected.
AUTUMN POPPED COLOR—brilliant oranges, reds, yellows—into the landscape on an October day as beautiful as they come here in southern Minnesota.
Throughout Rice, Le Sueur and Nicollet counties, leaves are rapidly changing, splashing hillsides, groves, shorelines and other stands of trees in spectacular seasonal hues.
Randy and I headed on a fall color drive Monday morning, referencing the DNR Fall Color Finder guide promising plenty of colorful leaves to the west. Hours of traveling mostly county roads (including gravel) through the southern Minnesota countryside on our day-long drive provided incredible leaf viewing.
Retracing our exact route through Rice and Le Sueur counties and a small section of Nicollet County would be nearly impossible. But we started out by heading west on Rice County Road 12, eventually following CR 14 to Horseshoe Lake by Camp Omega. The public boat landing there was our first stop to view a lakeside treeline ablaze in fiery hues.
It wasn’t just the trees that drew my eye. I love, too, the acres of corn and soybeans drying under the autumn sun. The muted gold of corn leaves adds to the sense of seasons shifting.
Harvest is well underway with combines and grain trucks in fields. I appreciate the rural landscape any time of year, but especially now as farmers bring in the crops.
From fields to farm sites (especially barns) to roadside vegetable stands to cattle in pastures, I found myself reconnecting with my agrarian roots, my prairie roots, while on this day trip.
Near Kasota, we turned onto Le Sueur County Road 101 off CR 21 and took a winding gravel road about five miles to the Kasota Prairie. It was worth the dusty road, the meandering drive, to reach this grassland. As we pulled into the parking lot and hiked an uneven dirt trail into the prairie, I stopped multiple times to photograph the distant treeline painted in shades of mostly orange, red, brown… This prairie is a must-see, oh, so lovely, showcasing backdrop trees that hug the Minnesota River.
Color in the Minnesota River Valley is near-prime. Originally, we’d intended to tour Mankato, but shifted gears when I learned that my poem, “The Mighty Tatanka,” is not yet posted as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Instead, we drove to St. Peter and took US Highway 169 north out of town. And wow, oh, wow. The colors along the stretch of highway from St. Peter to Le Sueur, especially, are spectacular. This is a must-drive right now. Don’t wait. Not one day. Not two days. Go now.
Heading east on Minnesota State Highway 19 toward New Prague, we turned south at Union Hill and shortly thereafter took a gravel road to State Highway 13, then turned onto Le Sueur County Road 145, landmarked by a barn roof the color of copper set against an autumn backdrop of trees.
More gravel roads, including one appropriately named Leaf Trail, and blacktop eventually led us to Millersburg and aiming home to Faribault mostly along CR 46. Interstate 35 may have been a better choice for fall colors based on the colorful trees spotted there on Sunday between Faribault and the first Lakeville exit.
But by then it was late afternoon, many road miles later with stops at lakes and the prairie and a park for a picnic lunch. We’d had a full day. A day full of autumn in Minnesota at its best. Warm. Mostly sunny. And ablaze in colors, the reason I so love this season.
IF I WAS TO CLIMB the hill behind my house through the tangle of weeds, wildflowers and woods, I would reach Wapacuta Park. But it’s easier to take the street and then the mowed hillside to this Faribault city park.
Years ago, this was the go-to spot for our family—for the kids to zoom down the towering slide and scale the massive rock in the summer and to slide down the sledding hill in the winter. Today it’s a place to occasionally take the grandkids to play on the updated playground.
To the west, along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Waterville, Sakatah Lake State Park also reflects the Dakota influence in its name. The native Dakota called the land thereon Sakatah or “singing hills” in their native language.
We are a state with many location names tracing back to the Dakota—Mankato, Wabasha, Wabasso, Sleepy Eye, Winona, Winnebago… Even the name Minnesota comes from the Dakota Mnisota, meaning “sky-tinted waters” and referencing the Minnesota River.
On a mid-June visit to Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, I thought about the Dakota who lived on this land, including at a village on the point separating Upper Sakatah and Lower Sakatah Lakes. I imagined the Wahpekute gliding across the lakes in canoes, angling for fish in these waters.
Then, as I followed the Wahpekuta Trail, I wondered about hunting and berry picking and perhaps mushroom gathering in the denseness of woods.
And, instead of campers in these trees, I imagined tipis.
I have much to learn about the Wahpekute. But at least I hold basic knowledge of their early presence here, of their importance in the history of this place I call home.
I HAVE A MIXED OPINION of birds. I appreciate them at a distance, but not necessarily up close, although I’ve grown more comfortable with their nearness as I’ve aged. Just don’t plunk me in an enclosed garage or other space with a trapped bird. Outdoors is mostly fine.
Recently I observed a cute little yellow bird, a finch, I think, dip into a tree stump water feature at the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Gardens at the county fairgrounds in Faribault. With a zoom lens on my 35 mm camera, I photographed the finch briefly splash in the water before flitting away. There was something joyful in that sole moment of focusing on a tiny winged creature.
We need such moments of simplicity. Of peace. Of birdsong, even if this bird isn’t singing. Moments to quiet our souls in the midst of too much busyness and too many distractions. And too much technology.
I remember how my mom loved the Baltimore orioles that one year, quite unexpectedly, showed up on my childhood farm in southwestern Minnesota flashing orange into the trees. She thrilled in their presence among all the blackbirds, sparrows and barn swallows. In her delight, Mom taught me that not all birds were like the swooping swallows I despised.
In my years of doing farm chores, I grew to dislike the swallows that dived as I pushed a wheelbarrow of ground feed down the barn aisle or shoved cow manure into gutters. That the barn ceiling was low only magnified their, to me, menacing presence. The swallows, I now acknowledge, were only protecting their territory, their young, in the mud nests they built inside the barn. And they ate mosquitoes, which I should have appreciated.
Yet I don’t miss the swallows or the rooster that terrorized my siblings and me, until the day Dad grabbed the axe and ended that.
More than 40 years removed from the farm, I seldom see barn swallows. Rather, in my Faribault backyard, I spot cardinals, wrens, robins and occasionally a blue jay. The front and side yards, however, bring massive crows lunching on remnants of fast food tossed by inconsiderate motorists who find my property a convenient place to toss their trash. I’ll never understand that disrespectful mindset of throwing greasy wrappers and bags, food bits, empty bottles and cans, cigarette butts, and more out a vehicle window.
And so these are my evolving bird stories—of shifting from a long ago annoyance of swallows to understanding their behavior, of delighting in the definitive whistle of a cardinal flashing red into the wooded hillside behind my Faribault home, of observing the feeding habits of crows in my front and side yards drawn to garbage tossed by negligent humans.
TELL ME: I’d like to hear your bird stories, positive or negative.
AFTER WHAT SEEMED an especially long, cold winter in Minnesota, spring is emerging. And although the calendar confirms that with the vernal equinox on March 20, I need only look around me to verify this change in seasons.
Several days of gloriously warm weather, capping with 70 degrees on Monday, meant lots of time outdoors in the warmth and sunshine. And nature, mostly nature.
I especially delight in following the packed dirt roads at Faribault Energy Park. Even with its location next to busy Interstate 35, the park provides, for me, a preferred place to immerse myself in the outdoors. I love the wide sky, the prairie feel of this landscape.
As I began my walk around the on-site ponds that attract waterfowl aplenty, I hear first the overwhelming chorus of birdsong. Red-winged blackbirds, perched high atop a cluster of trees, trill a song of spring. I welcome the music.
On two of the three ponds, I observe ducks and geese—mostly geese—rippling gracefully across the open water.
The water on the pond nearest the energy plant remains frozen except along the fringes where an angler catches and releases bass and bluegills. It’s a good place to fish with kids, he says, or for someone like him, a kid. I laugh.
As I follow the paths and walk along main pond’s edge with camera slung around my neck, I notice the remnants of seasons past interwoven with signs of spring.
Dried leaves, sumac, grasses, cattails, berries, milkweed pods, pine cones, even a bird nest tucked low in the crook of a tree, remain from months earlier.
But now, amid all those visuals of autumn and winter, spring pops. Red dogwood colors the brush.
Pussy willow buds open, tracing a line of mini cotton balls along slender branches.
I take in this seasonal change. With my eyes, then my camera. And I listen to those blackbirds in concert, interrupted by the occasional applause of geese against the background music of I-35 traffic.
It’s good to be here, to experience the beginning of spring. To connect to the earth along muddy dirt roads. To feel, hear and observe the transition of seasons as we step into spring in southern Minnesota.
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY from southern Minnesota, where my thoughts today focus more on the brutally cold weather than on this day of love. The weather monitor atop the fridge early this morning showed minus 18 degrees outside our Faribault home. That’s air temp. Factor in windchill, and it feels even colder.
Minnesota remains in a windchill warning with windchills of 35-50 degrees below zero. That’s biting cold. Dangerous cold. Exposed skin can freeze in a matter of minutes cold. Nothing to mess with cold.
If you’ve never experienced cold like this, trust me when I say I can feel the cold filtering from outdoors through the walls and windows after endless days of this frigid weather. Ice films the upstairs windows. If I pull away the rag rug positioned at the bottom of the front door to block air leaks, I’ll find a line of frost. The furnace is working overtime. Water from the kitchen faucet gushes ice cold. I’ve partially opened the cupboard door so heat can flow toward the vulnerable water pipes. No one wants pipes freezing, furnaces stopping or vehicles breaking down.
We postponed a weekend trip to visit our son, daughter and son-in-law in Madison, Wisconsin, because of the weather. We didn’t want to risk our van breaking down during that four-hour drive. Not that it would, but things happen.
Today’s high temp here in southern Minnesota is expected to reach only minus eight degrees. Tomorrow? Minus three.
I have no intention of going outside. Instead, I’ll write, read, enjoy a delicious valentine’s meal of tuna steak and veggies, and a glass of wine, with Randy. And I’ll think of those I love—the family I miss, friends who are dear—and summer days of green grass and flowers and the wind blowing warm breezes.