Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reconnecting to southwestern Minnesota, root place of my creativity May 22, 2018

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

THERE IS NO PLACE, none, that I’d rather be this time of year than in rural southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my heart, of my memories, of everything that shaped me into the person, the writer and photographer that I am today.

 

 

This place of wide skies and dark rich soil in some of Minnesota’s best farm land claims me still, decades after I left. I left not because I disliked this place, but for education and opportunity. Like so many of my generation.

 

In a reminder of decades past, a vintage tractor works the land on the edge of Delhi.

 

When I return to visit family here, I feel an ache of absence, that longing for a return to the familiar.

 

 

I realize those who’ve never lived on the prairie often fail to recognize its value, its beauty, its power in inspiring creativity. To many, even my own children, southwestern Minnesota seems the middle of nowhere. But to me, this land has always inspired. And it’s somewhere. Home.

 

 

Between Echo and Delhi.

 

A long familiar landmark tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

When you’ve lived in a place so stark, in a place that exposes you to the elements, where life evolves around the land, you learn to appreciate the details. Like the endless wind. The spaciousness of land and sky. The scent of tilled soil. Rows of corn erupting green from the earth. A lone tree along a highway.

 

 

 

 

Acre after acre after acre across this land, I take in the rural scenes of farmers working fields, rushing to get crops in during a particularly late planting season.

 

Near Morgan, Minnesota.

 

I notice vehicles kicking dust along gravel roads,

 

Parked near the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

small town grain elevators,

 

 

a school bus splashing color into the landscape. I see it all in this place, this middle of somewhere.

 

A rural-themed license plate on a vehicle driving past Echo on a recent weekday morning. I confirmed with writer and photographer Ruth Klossner that this was her vehicle. She was on her way to interview a source for a magazine article. Ruth collects cow items of all sorts and opens the doors of her Bernadotte home for visitors to view the massive collection.

 

This is my joy, to each spring return to my Minnesota prairie roots, to reconnect to the land, to embrace the birth source of my creativity.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Evan, like so many small southwestern Minnesota towns, is fading into the prairie March 19, 2018

Downtown Evan today anchored by a former bank building.

 

LIKE SO MANY OTHER SMALL TOWNS on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, Evan once boasted a long list of businesses—creamery, bank, two general stores, hardware store, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, stock dealer, garage, implement dealer, three elevators, restaurant, utility company, library and two churches.

 

Evan, incorporated in 1904, is named after Eva Hanson, married to Nels. He platted the railroad station known as Hanson Station several years earlier.

 

So claims the historical marker fronting the village hall in this Brown County community of around 80 residents.

 

Fading signage identifies this as the former lumberyard.

 

Today only remnants of those original businesses remain.

 

I believe the brick building may be the former creamery.

 

On a recent drive through Evan, I noted the decline.

 

This vintage sign hangs outside Tubby’s II Bar & Grill. A sign in the window noted the bar is closed for the winter.

 

Faded signs.

 

 

Boarded windows.

 

This vintage hay loader rested among other junk.

 

Clustered junk.

 

 

I’ve never seen anything like this graveyard of campers and trailers.

 

Abandoned campers and trailers and trucks. It made me sad, just sad, to see the abandonment.

 

The old grain elevators still stand on the edge of town along the highway.

 

But none of this surprises me. It’s our fault really. We are a much more mobile society, a society much different than back-in-the-day or even 20 years ago. At one time, places like Evan thrived as area farmers and locals kept their business local. Today regional shopping centers pull in customers from all those small towns.

 

The train still runs, not through Evan, but through neighboring Sleepy Eye.

 

The railroad left.

 

Without jobs, with our farmer fathers still farming, many from my generation of Baby Boomers left Minnesota’s small towns. We couldn’t bank on a future in our rural hometowns.

 

 

Attitudes changed. Kids from my generation left for college and bigger cities and better opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with that desire to see the world, to become something other than our parents. But in doing so we added to the demise of many a small town. I am hard-pressed to think of many classmates who stayed in my hometown of Vesta 45 minutes from Evan to the north and west. Vesta, too, is a shell of the community it was when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Grain bins on opposite ends of town mark this as a farming community still today.

 

 

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Evan’s decline except an overall understanding of why once thriving towns now are mere ghosts of their pasts. Certainly Evan’s remote rural location factors into the mix. Located along Minnesota State Highway 68, Evan is easy to bypass on the shortcut route between Sleepy Eye and Morgan.

 

The only person or moving vehicle I saw in Evan during my short stop there.

 

Yet, Evan is home for some. I saw newer homes there. Not new as in recent, but newer than old. I saw a lovely church and that well-kept village hall. And grain bins. And the fading letters on the lumberyard, a visual reminder that at one time a demand for building supplies existed in a farming community that once prospered.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Revisiting downtown Sleepy Eye & the insights gleaned, Part I March 8, 2018

A painting of a Dakota chief on the city water tower gives travelers a hint at the history of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The town is named after noted and respected Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes. He settled with his band along Sleepy Eye Lake and is buried here with a monument and park dedicated to him.

 

YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about a community by simply walking through the central business district. Many times I’ve done just that with camera in hand. I’ve found that, through photography, I focus on details in addition to the overall scene. That gives me insight into a place.

 

I photographed this stained glass hanging in the front window of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass during a May 2016 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most recently I walked along several blocks of downtown Sleepy Eye with my Canon DSLR while my husband shopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for supplies for a church window he’s refurbishing. US Highway 14 (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway) runs right through the heart of this small town in south central Brown County. That’s in southern Minnesota next to my native county of Redwood.

 

 

More than 30 years ago I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye for six months as a newspaper reporter and photographer. Thus I hold a certain familiarity of place. On this stop, I wanted to grab a sweet treat from the bakery next door to the newspaper office.

 

Sleepy Eye has many architecturally-pleasing aged buildings such as city hall.

 

I found, though, in the remembered location not a bakery, but rather K & J Antiques and Collectibles run by the welcoming Kurk K. Kramer. He happens also to work as the city’s Economic Development Authority coordinator. Given his friendly personality and clear love for Sleepy Eye, Kramer seems an ideal fit for the job. He laughed when I walked into his shop and asked for a doughnut from the long-closed bakery. He was a wealth of information about the town. I’ll share more in future posts and also show you a sampling of goods from Kramer’s shop.

 

A snippet of the downtown, situated along Highway 14, a major east-west roadway across southern Minnesota.

 

Despite my disappointment at the absence of the bakery, I still delighted in revisiting this town I called home for a short while. Whenever I explore a community, I look for fliers and notes posted in downtown businesses. Such finds often amuse me and present a snapshot of a place and its people. I love the small townishness of these public postings, these postscripts.

 

I saw lots of these stickers in many businesses, indicating a strong Chamber of Commerce and a sense of community pride.

 

Take a look at what I found in storefront windows. And then check back for more posts from Sleepy Eye. See what caught my eye as I wandered—and drew some curious looks—while the husband shopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what do my photos tell you about Sleepy Eye? Like most small Minnesota towns, community dinners/breakfasts/brunches are an integral part of the social fabric and also indicate a strong volunteer base of caring residents. Heritage is important. Note the homemade sauerkraut and Landjaeger (a type of sausage) dinner and the Sleepy Eye Area Concertina Club signs. Politeness, humor and community pride are givens.

These are my assessments based on my quick walk-through of peering into downtown storefront windows.

TELL ME: Have you ever done the same to learn more about the personality of a community?

 

Check back tomorrow for Part II in my series titled “An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, Sleepy Eye.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter poetry from the Minnesota prairie March 5, 2018

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IN THE FADING OF THE DAY, as clouds shove grey across the southwestern Minnesota prairie, a Dodge pick-up jolts color into the March landscape.

The sight pleases me visually, unleashes poetic thoughts of horizontal prairie lines. My eyes trace the truck traveling along a gravel township road against backdrop tree lines. Even the rich black soil runs horizontal across fields of melting snow.

In this scene, I see the immensity of the prairie. Land stretching. Sky stretching. Far. High. Endless.

The red pick-up provides a point upon which to focus my eyes, in which to ground myself. Still, I feel a certain smallness, a vulnerability. Even in this land where I once belonged, where my roots run deep.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road to southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay December 19, 2017

A former country school near Essig along U.S. Highway 14.

 

TWICE A YEAR, my husband and I head west from our Faribault home to my native southwestern Minnesota for gatherings with my extended family. We travel solely with destination in mind, not deviating to meander through small towns and explore. We get on Interstate 35 in Faribault, exit onto U.S. Highway 14 in Owatonna and then follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway all the way to our destination 2.25 hours away in Lamberton. That would be in Redwood County, just 10 miles east of Walnut Grove.

Near Janesville, this billboard sparkles in the morning light.

Everything along this route is familiar to me from the curves in the highway to the billboards to the farm sites and my favorite barns west of Springfield. While sometimes the drive can seem like forever, especially when wind whips snow to create iffy driving conditions, mostly I enjoy the rural route.

At the beginning of our trip, I photographed this farm site west of Owatonna. The farther west we drove, the greyer the skies became.

Enjoy this photo essay along U.S. Highway 14, aiming west toward the prairie into some of our state’s richest farmland as we headed back for the holidays last Saturday.

Red barns splash color into the rural landscape, here near Janesville.

 

An ethanol plant near Janesville breaks the monotony of farm fields.

 

Highway 14 takes us through New Ulm. I spotted this catchy and festive billboard on the west end of town.

 

You know you’re in the heart of farmland when you see a cash corn price posted on a sign, this one at Christensen Farms near Sleepy Eye.

 

This reindeer statue stands along the east edge of Sleepy Eye. It’s there year-round.

 

Weathered by wind and weather, this barn sits west of Sleepy Eye.

 

A row of vintage trucks are parked atop a hill on the east edge of Springfield.

 

One of my favorite barns on a farm site west of Springfield.

 

We reach our destination in Lamberton where grain elevators mark this rural community.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

West of Mankato August 23, 2017

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

 

WHEN I TELL FELLOW MINNESOTANS I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, specifically near the small town of Vesta, I typically get a blank stare. So, when “Vesta” doesn’t register with them, I mention Marshall to the west and Redwood Falls to the east of my hometown. Both are county seats and fair-sized communities, in my opinion.

 

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling to southwestern Minnesota.

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling through southern Minnesota toward the prairie.

 

Even after dropping those two names, I still often get that quizzical look. It’s as if they have no idea there’s anything west of Mankato.

 

This barn along U.S. Highway 14 west of Sleepy Eye always catches my eye.

Gotta love this barn between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.

 

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

 

 

But there is. Lots. Land and sky and small towns and oddities and grain elevators, and corn and soybean fields stretching into forever. There are pitch-black skies perfect for star-gazing and sunsets so bold I sometimes wonder why I ever left this land.

 

There are so many well-kept barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

There are so many beautiful old barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

I understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I simply want others to see that this corner of Minnesota, just like the lakes and woods to the north and the rolling hills and rivers to the south and the Twin Cities metro, is lovely and quirky and interesting in a peaceful prairie way.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

U.S. Highway 14 passes through many small towns, like Sleepy Eye where these guys were shopping for a car.

Shopping for cars in Sleepy Eye, one of many small towns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

 

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

 

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

 

FYI: All of these photos are from my files and were taken along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Lamberton. That would be west of Mankato.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Why I appreciate the arts in Minnesota May 11, 2017

A snippet of the colorful and whimsical mural created by Lynette Schmidt Yencho for the Owatonna Arts Center library. Art surrounds these children.

 

GROWING UP IN RURAL southwestern Minnesota many decades ago, my exposure to the arts was minimal. I don’t recall attending a single art show, concert or theatre production outside of a public school. If such opportunities existed, I was either unaware of them or my parents had no money for such extras.

 

During a one-day fundraiser, the Owatonna Arts Center sold original serigraphs (silkscreen prints) produced by Alice Ottinger and Jean Zamboni of OZ Press in Owatonna. The press no longer operates. If you are interested in a print, contact the art center.

 

Opportunities to develop my creative interests did not extend much beyond English, music, art and home economics classes, except for the two weeks of shop class in which I crafted a linoleum block print. I always wished I could play piano or an instrument. But there was no time or money for either. I still cannot read a single note of music.

 

Fruit bowl art in the Owatonna Arts Center library.

 

I don’t begrudge my parents for not exposing me to the arts. They had to keep the dairy and crop farm running and a family of eight fed. Finances were tight.

 

The 65th Annual Steele County Art Exhibition is currently showing at the Owatonna Arts Center. Here’s a sampling of art in that show.

 

Early on I learned that, if I wanted new clothes, I would have to sew them. This was back in the day when sewing clothing was far less expensive than buying ready-made. If I got store-bought clothes, they always came from the sales rack. I loved the sewing process—paging through thick volumes of Simplicity, Butterick and McCalls patterns; perusing bolts of fabric; and then cutting and sewing the fabric into wearable clothing.

In some small way, I created art. Not of my own design. But I could express myself through fabric selection and pattern choice.

 

Another section of the Owatonna Arts Center library mural by Lynette Schmidt Yencho. My love of reading as a child spurred my interest in writing.

 

I also created art in my writing. No teacher encouraged me, other than to praise my near-perfect penmanship, spelling and excellent English language usage skills. My writing was limited to class assignments and later writing for the high school newspaper, The Rabbit Tracks. I attended high school in Wabasso, which means “rabbit” in Ojibwe. Our mascot was a white rabbit.

 

A room of books and art…in the Owatonna Arts Center library.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? I share this because my background explains why I have such a deep appreciation for the arts. That cliché of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” can be applied to the near absence of art in my life early on.

 

Doors open into the OAC gallery housed in an historic building.

 

Today, living 120 miles to the east of my hometown, I have many opportunities to enjoy the arts locally in Faribault and neighboring Owatonna and Northfield at arts centers, public schools, colleges and more. I am grateful that the visual, literary and performing arts hold such high value in Minnesota.

 

More art in the Steele County artists’ show.

 

Some would argue that the arts are not necessary. I contend that they are. We all have within us that innate need to connect with others. The arts offer that interconnection, that weaving together of creativity, of humanity, of a desire/need to express ourselves. I am grateful to be part of the community of artists through my writing of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and blog posts and through my photography. I am thankful, too, for the art opportunities available to me right here in my backyard and throughout Minnesota.

 

TELL ME: Do you embrace the arts either/and or by creating or enjoying them? Please share specifics.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork photographed with permission of the Owatonna Arts Center. Art is copyrighted by the artists and may not be copied and/or reproduced.