Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My latest photo essay features the place that sparked my creativity October 25, 2019

Minnesota State Highway 68 near Morgan in my native southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ROOTED IN THE MINNESOTA PRAIRIE. Those words summarize my most recent photo essay published in the regional lifestyle magazine Southern Minn Scene. The four-page Through a SoMinn Lens spread features 23 of my photos, all from the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Some are recent while others are pulled from my extensive files. All were selected to showcase the land that shaped me as a person, a writer and a photographer.

My images and words fit the theme of this month’s issue, “the best of southern Minnesota.” In 2014, my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog was voted the Best Local Blog/Blogger in this annual competition. Bloggers are no longer included in the contest which spans theater to restaurants to breweries and a wide range of businesses, events and people in southeastern Minnesota. I learned a lot paging through the winners’ summaries.

I welcome you to meet the entrepreneurs and others who garnered the winning votes from readers. Please take time also to view my photo essay (beginning on page 46) about the prairie place that roots me.

Click here to read the November issue of Southern Minn Scene.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memories of my uncle’s service station in Vesta, Minnesota January 31, 2014

FOR DECADES, MY UNCLE HAROLD RAN the filling station along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Vesta.

The vintage Midland gas pumps purchased by my Uncle Milan at the gas station auction. My brother Brian recently bought the pumps from Milan with plans to restore them.

The vintage Midland gas pumps purchased by my Uncle Milan at the gas station auction. My brother Brian recently bought the pumps from Milan with plans to restore them.

It’s not the gas pumps nor the tires nor the anything vehicle related, really, that imprinted most upon my memory about his gas station.

Rather, it’s the vending machine that dispensed salted peanuts. And the pop machine, which, when pulled opened, rattled with icy cold bottles of 7-Up and Orange Crush and Hires root beer. Rare treat of soda drunk too fast. Burps stinging my nose. And salty peanuts in hand, their paper thin wrappings wafting to the floor.

I remember, too, the step down from the store interior through the tight doorway into the shop which smelled of oil and rubber and grime. The magical place of the hoist. Vehicles seemingly levitated into the air.

Vintage gas cans in my brother's garage.

Vintage gas cans in my brother’s garage.

This, a garage where my uncle and the mechanic I remember, Gary, changed tires and oil, replaced belts, fixed whatever needed fixing.

A gas nozzle from the Midland gas pump.

A gas nozzle from the Midland gas pump.

Outside, they pumped gas at this full service station. Rag pulled from back pocket to wipe the dipstick and check the oil. Wipers slapping against windshield as a squeegee washed away dust from gravel roads and crops and remnants of bugs splattered upon glass.

Memories, too, of boarding the Greyhound here, bound for Minneapolis. Me, a young farm girl with blue floral suitcase tucked inside the bowels of the bus, paper ticket in hand, ascending the steps. Alone. En route to visit my Aunt Rachel and Uncle Bob along Bryant.

When gas was only

The price on the old gas pump: only $1.41.9 a gallon.

Memories, still holding tight all these decades later, years removed from affordable gas and full customer service.

THOSE ARE MY MEMORIES. My uncle’s differ, yet intermingle with mine. Uncle Harold started driving gas truck part-time in the early 1950s for City Service in Vesta, eventually hired on full-time under new ownership in a new location at The Old Log Cabin. More on that later. He figured, Harold says, that delivering bulk gas for the new Midland service station would be better than farming.

My uncle's gas station with the fuel delivery truck parked by The Old Log Cabin. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000.

My uncle’s gas station, right, with the fuel delivery truck parked out front. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000.

Oh, the stories he could tell of his years working at, managing and then eventually purchasing the station, renamed Harold’s Service, in 1966. If I had all day to listen.

Tales of rescuing stranded motorists during harsh winters on the prairie. After he sold the station’s tow truck, Harold and crew would use the bulk fuel truck to pull vehicles from ditches and snowdrifts along Highway 19. He recalls upwards of 20 travelers once waiting out a snowstorm at the station. Another time four stranded motorists played poker until closing time, at which time they were dropped off at snow homes in town, houses with empty beds. This, all before the days of snow gates installed to close the highway.

He sold snow tires and changed oil, washed cars in the east stall of the garage, delivered bulk gas and fuel and even fertilizer (for awhile). Pumped gas. Fixed whatever needed fixing. At one time he employed as many as four mechanics.

Open every day until 9 p.m. Open until noon on Sunday.

Was it a better life than farming? For awhile, Harold says. Before gas prices shot up and it took a lot of money to buy a tanker full of gas to operate his business. Good before three other places in town started selling batteries. Good before the fertilizer plant added gas pumps. Good before car washes.

Decades later, Harold accepted a job as maintenance worker for the City of Vesta, leaving his middle son to run the station. When Randy found a job in nearby Marshall several months later, the station closed. That was in 1991.

Today the service station is gone, replaced by another automotive business. The old building that housed the station was moved west of town and remodeled into a second home.

Oh, the stories The Log Cabin, built in 1937 and for decades operated as a “beer joint”, Harold’s moniker, not mine, could tell. “It was a pretty wild place…with drunks and fights,” my uncle remembers. “It was a pretty rough place for awhile.”

He also recalls delivering gas for City Service to the tavern, which had a single pump. There’d never be money for the gas Harold brought. But the guy who delivered beer had no trouble collecting payment.

I’d like to see The Log Cabin again, the place where I accompanied my dad, boarded the Greyhound, later filled my 1976 Mercury Comet with gas.

I’d imagine, too, the beer drinkers who packed the former tavern, crammed into booths in the area where my uncle had his office and front counter. I’d think about that and all those stranded travelers once waiting out a prairie blizzard at Harold’s Service.

BONUS PHOTO:

The gas can in my brother Brian's garage that my siblings and I covet because we attended Wabasso High School. Our mascot was a white Rabbit.

My siblings and I covet this gas can in our brother Brian’s garage because we attended Wabasso High School. Our mascot was a white Rabbit.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Stone & Sky October 27, 2011

LARRY GAVIN once lived in Belview.

So, you’re likely thinking, “What does that matter and who is Larry Gavin and where the heck is Belview?”

Well, dear readers, especially readers of poetry, Larry Gavin is a poet. He moved to Belview, a southwestern Minnesota prairie town of 375, to study writing with great writers like Howard Mohr, Leo Dangel, Fred Manfred, Joe and Nancy Paddock, Phil Dacey, Robert Bly, Bill Holm, Don Olsen and many others. Do you recognize some of those names? You should.

I’m not trying to be uppity here. But Bly, who was born in Madison (Minnesota, not Wisconsin) and still lives in the western part of our state, is one of Minnesota’s most distinguished poets. Holm, a well-known essayist, author and poet, wrote numerous books, including Boxelder Bug Variations. Up until his death, he lived in his prairie hometown of Minneota (Minnesota without the “s”), where residents celebrate Boxelder Bug Days. Howard Mohr penned How to Talk Minnesotan, a must-read for every transplant to our state.

Driving through the southwestern Minnesota prairie near Morgan, about 25 miles from Belview.

Larry Gavin learned from these great writers of the prairie, where he lived for 15 years many years ago. Gavin made his home in Belview, just off State Highway 19 and some 10 miles or so from my hometown of Vesta. He served as the town’s mayor for two terms and taught English at Redwood Valley High School, back then Redwood Falls High School.

It is that connection to my home area and our shared love of language and writing and of the prairie that has connected me to Gavin, who today lives in Faribault and teaches English at Faribault High School. At least one of my daughters, if not both, has been taught by him.

We both won Roadside Poetry competitions–Gavin the first in 2008 and me, this past spring–and had our four-line poems showcased on billboards in Fergus Falls.

I once asked Gavin to read one of my poems at a local author event. Gavin is meant to read poetry. He has the kind of rich, deep voice from which words flow with the rhythm and inflection of someone who clearly loves language.

Larry Gavin during an author event at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault.

Gavin is also meant to write poetry. And he’s written enough to fill three slim books—Necessities, Least Resistance and his just-released Stone & Sky. All have been published by Red Dragonfly Press, a noted not-for-profit literary press based in Red Wing.

When I read Gavin’s poetry, I can sense his deep connection to the land and to nature, shaped, I would like to think, partially by his years on the prairie. When you live on the stark prairie, where the land stretches flat and far and where the sky dwarfs all else and where the wind blows nearly unceasing, you can’t help but write with a strong sense of place and with detail. I see that in Gavin’s poetry.

In his newest book, Stone & Sky, I read of woods and firewood, of raccoon tracks and a walk along a deserted street. Of stone and sky and snakes. I recognize places from here, in Faribault. I recognize, too, prairie-influenced writing.

I don’t pretend to understand every poem in Gavin’s latest collection. But poetry is always open to interpretation and that which I may not find meaningful today I may come to understand at a later time.

All that said, I posed a series of questions to Gavin, who has written more than poetry. For fifteen years he worked as a field editor for Midwest Fly Fishing magazine, taught at the magazine’s school in Montana in the summer and helped with the Chicago and Minneapolis fly fishing expos each spring. He currently writes for Outdoor News.

My questions to him, however, specifically address his poetry writing. I found his answers insightful and, at times, surprising.

Q:  How long have you been writing poetry, why, and when did you consider yourself a poet?

A:  I started writing poetry in sixth grade and that’s when I started considering myself a poet. I’ve written ever since.

Q: What inspires you and/or influences your poetry?

A:  Work inspires me. Everyday I get up and write something. I don’t miss a day. Inspiration has very little to do with it for me. I like working out ideas and problems in writing each day.

Q:  How would you define your poetry style and content?

A:  I consider myself an inheritor of the great romantic tradition of poetry. That, in my mind, goes from Wordsworth to Yeats and Hopkins to Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, to Gary Snyder and others. The natural world as reflected and defined by human thought and feelings. The great gift we give to the world is our thoughts and feelings about big issues: transcendence, hope, justice, peace, and love.

Q:  This is your third collection of poetry issued by Red Dragonfly Press. What was the process to getting published by this well-respected Minnesota press?

A:  Scott King is the publisher and I submit a manuscript to him. He responds either yes or no and if he accepts it the manuscript gets in line to be published. The most recent book took about four years to appear. Publication is based on press funding and a variety of other factors. I’m patient and not particularly ambitious.

Q:  Tell me about the content and theme in your first two collections, Necessities and Least Resistance.

A:  They are very different from one another. The poems deal with the natural world as seen through simple objects and ideas. They attempt to make sense of complex subjects like love and our interaction with nature in a pure form of language, and the tools poetry gives us like meter and rhyme. The poems are an explication of the world in the context of the universal individual.

Q:  Stone & Sky just released. It’s an interesting title. How does the title tie in with the content? What is the common thread running through the poems in this collection?

A:  Stone & Sky stretches the boundaries of what is real. It looks at the world in a more magical way. Not magical as fabricated but more magical as mystical – as another way of being real. The language, the images, and the poems stretch the boundaries of what is real and hopefully get at reality in a new way. They are still anchored in the natural world, still anchored in the local, but the themes, like the title, are basic, elemental.

Q:  If you were to select your favorite poem in Stone & Sky, which would it be and why? How about a favorite line?

A:  Actually they are all favorites right now. And you have to remember, I’m on to new things after four years.

Q:  Your love of nature shines in your writing. So does your love of language. How do you combine the two into poetry that sings with descriptive lines? How do you know when you’ve “nailed it,” when you have a poem exactly where you want it?

A:  The old elements of poetry combined in new ways. Rhyme, meter, repetition – give poems life. Everything is a work in progress; they’re never really finished.

Q:  Are you working on another collection? Or are you simply just always writing poetry?

A:  My next collection is called The Initiation of Praise and I’ll start sending it out soon. I also have a selected works which focuses just on outdoor poems. I’m also working on some short stories, and I write an article each week as well.

READERS, Stone & Sky is available from Red Dragonfly Press at  www.reddragonflypress.org and also at Monkey See Monkey Read (in person or through internet sales), an independent bookstore at 425 Division Street, Northfield. Eventually, Stone & Sky will also be available through Amazon. Cover cost is $10.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo and book cover courtesy of Larry Gavin