Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota prairie roots revisited, remembered, reflected January 25, 2023

My “Hope of a Farmer” poem exhibited at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum. The exhibit also includes my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

WHEN I RETURNED to my beloved southwestern Minnesota prairie in September, I did so with one primary purpose—to see my poetry showcased in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum in Marshall. Any additional attractions—like viewing a public art sculpture outside the local ice arena and a stop at Brau Brothers Brewing—would only enhance the day trip.

Randy Walker’s “Prairie Roots” sculpture defines the entrance outside the Red Baron Arena on Marshall’s east side at 1651 Victory Drive. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

My one regret is that Randy and I didn’t stay overnight, allowing more time to explore local sites without feeling rushed. Forty years have passed since I visited Marshall en route to the Black Hills on our honeymoon. The college and county seat town lies 20 miles to the west of my hometown, Vesta in Redwood County, and 140 miles from my current home in Faribault.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2013)

This area of Minnesota is the place of my roots. My prairie roots. It is the place of wide open space, expansive skies, small towns and endless acres of cropland.

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

The land where I grew up inspired my blog name, Minnesota Prairie Roots. The name fits me as a person and a creative. The sparseness of the prairie taught me to notice details, to fully engage my senses. To appreciate the landscape and people. The vastness of the flat land and the star-flushed night sky and achingly beautiful sunsets. Here I connected to the land—bare feet upon dirt, bike tires crunching gravel, dirt etched into my hands from working the soil. Here I connected to the people—down-to-earth, hardworking, linked to the land.

A favorite children’s picture book about the prairie gifted to me by my friend Kathleen.

For those who are not of prairie stock, the sparse landscape can seem uninteresting, empty, desolate. Even I admit the challenge of “if you’re not from the prairie…” A children’s picture book by that title, written by David Bouchard and illustrated by Henry Ripplinger and published in 1995, speaks to the prairie sun, wind, sky, flatness…grasses.

The tall grasses stretch to the prairie sky. The bent tops of the stems are also meant to resemble hockey sticks given the sculpture’s location outside the ice arena. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Tall grasses are often associated with the prairie. Yet, those grasses were mostly missing from the landscape of my youth as cultivated crops covered the earth. But on our farm site, a sliver of unmown grass grew between granary and grove and gravel driveway, stretching high, stems bending in the wind. That Little House on the Prairie (Walnut Grove is 20 miles from Vesta) space opened summer afternoons to imaginative play. I hold many memories rooted in those tall grasses, in the prairie.

Depending on the time of day and viewing point, the steel grass stems showcase different colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The sculpture reflected in an arena window. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Just another view of the grass stems, emphasizing the orange and yellow hues. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Prairie Roots. That name graces a public art sculpture outside the Red Baron Arena in Marshall. Minneapolis artist Randy Walker was commissioned by the City of Marshall in 2018 to create the sculpture reflecting the prairie landscape. I knew in advance of my September visit that I needed to see this artwork if time allowed. We made time. Walker used 210 painted steel poles to represent tall stems of grass, prairie grass. They are colored in hues of yellow, orange, red and green, reflecting seasonal changes and light.

Prairie grass grows within the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

And in between all those steel stems, prairie grass grows, thrives.

A grasshopper clings to a steel grass stem in the “Prairie Roots” sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I even spotted a grasshopper on a steel stalk, taking me back decades to the hoards of grasshoppers that amassed and hopped through that patch of uncut grass on the farm.

Viewing the sculpture toward the field, this perspective shows the meandering course of the Redwood River in the Marshall area on the floor of the gathering space. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Walker’s sculpture holds visual appeal against an expansive backdrop sky and open field (when viewing the art from the arena entrance outward). Via that perspective, I see the enduring strength of the prairie, and the immensity of land and sky, this place of my Minnesota prairie roots.

Please check back for more posts about my day trip back to southwestern Minnesota in September 2022.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on rabbits in “The Year of the Rabbit” January 22, 2023

A children’s picture book features zodiac animals in this story focused on the Chinese New Year.

THE FIRST TIME I NOTICED a grouping of rabbit-themed books displayed on a table at my local library, I passed right by. That’s odd, I thought to myself. The second time I glimpsed those books, I walked over and looked. Turns out 2023 is The Year of the Rabbit and this book collection is a way to celebrate.

Today, Sunday, January 22, marks the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the year when the rabbit takes zodiac animal center stage. The rabbit symbolizes luck (no surprise there; think a good luck rabbit foot), diplomacy, peace, compassion, kindness, all words I can get behind. We’re overdue for a year of people and nations treating each other with respect, kindness and decency.

This road-side white rabbit sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

While I’m not into the zodiac, I respect the Asian culture. And I like rabbits…because I am a Rabbit. Clarification, I was a Rabbit, as in a Wabasso Rabbit. I graduated from Wabasso High School, a southwestern Minnesota school with a white rabbit as its mascot. I can almost hear the laughing. A rabbit as a mascot? Yes, I admit to hearing a fair share of put-downs about being a lowly Rabbit. But don’t underestimate a rabbit/Rabbit.

A broad view of Wabasso’s Main Street. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2012)

There’s a reason behind the chosen mascot. The town name, Wabasso, is a Dakota word meaning “white rabbit.” So it makes total sense that the public school would choose a rabbit mascot. This prairie region of Minnesota is rich in Dakota history.

The WHS gym in 2009. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2009)

For me, rabbits are part of my personal history. I hold many memories of overall Rabbit pride. Pep fests, football and basketball games, theater, writing for the high school newspaper, The Rabbit Tracks… Attending a small rural Minnesota high school with mostly farm kids from the communities of Wabasso, Wanda, Lucan, Seaforth and Vesta (my hometown) was a good fit for me. I am forever proud of being a Rabbit.

The sign marking the current building came from the old building. And apparently back in the day, a “u” looked like a “v.” The school looks different than when I attended WHS. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 20029)

Next year, 2024, marks The Year of the Rabbit for me. In that calendar year, my WHS graduating class celebrates its 50th class reunion. Unbelievable. I once considered people who’ve been out of high school for 50 years to be really old. I don’t think that way any more, although I do admit my advancing age.

As we reunite, we’ll pull out our yearbooks and reminisce. We’ll pull out our smartphones to share family photos. We’ll celebrate the years we were Rabbits. And we’ll celebrate, too, the lives we’ve lived since, lives I hope have been filled with peace, kindness and love.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dealing with derailed plans & loss at Christmas December 26, 2022

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This photo, taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota in January 2010, illustrates how the wind blows snow across the land. Conditions were worse, much worse, in the recent blizzard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2010)

SATURDAY MORNING I OPENED the blinds to a winter landscape awash in brilliant sunlight. That’s not particularly unusual for December in Minnesota. But what proved different were the two pillars of light flanking the sun with a rainbow arcing between. Sun dogs glared stronger than the center sun and I couldn’t stop looking at the scene.

I’m no scientist or weather person, but the sun dogs and rainbow have something to do with the frigid temps and ice crystals in the atmosphere. They lasted for hours, a true gift on a morning when I welcomed brightness in my day.

Landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

PLANS UPENDED BY WINTER STORM

I needed that beautiful light in the midst of Christmas plans that didn’t quite unfold as hoped. I expect many of you experienced the same as this massive winter storm moved from state to state. My son, whom I haven’t seen in a year, had to rebook his canceled flight from Indianapolis. His plane lands early this evening at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and he arrives here Tuesday morning with his oldest sister and her family. I cannot wait to enfold him in a tight, lingering hug.

Yesterday Randy and I drove the 35 minutes to our eldest daughter’s house for a holiday meal and time together with the four of them, including our two precious grandchildren. We played space BINGO and watched a little artist paint and gave lots of hugs and then celebrated Christmas with a zoom call after our holiday meal. I am thankful for such technology bringing my family together from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Indiana.

For many families, Christmas together never happened, and not just because of canceled flights. All of southwestern (my home area on the prairie) and south central Minnesota were basically shut down by the multi-day blizzard. More than 2,000 miles of roadway were closed, including interstates. Snow gates were dropped into place, blocking access. The Minnesota National Guard was called up to rescue stranded motorists, who shouldn’t have been out in a storm that packed up to 40 mph winds whipping snow into concrete-hard drifts. I understand a blizzard, having grown up on the prairie. Not everyone does.

(Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo used for illustration only)

MISSING FAMILY/MOM

I understand the strong yearning to be with family. Being separated from loved ones during the holidays is simply emotionally challenging. I am sort of used to it given only one of my three adult children remains in Minnesota. But the missing never goes away.

This year brought an added dimension of missing. Missing Mom, my first Christmas without her. I thought I was doing fine until the final song at our Christmas Day morning worship service. Only moments earlier, a woman pushed her elderly father to the front of the church to receive Holy Communion. In that moment, my mind flashed to my wheelchair-bound mom. Within minutes, I was crying, trying not to sob. I removed my glasses, wiped the gush of tears with the backs of my hands. I felt Randy’s hand on my back, a loving and comforting gesture.

Later that evening, my friend Gretchen texted asking for prayers. Her mom died unexpectedly earlier in the day. After Christmas Day morning worship. After lunch and gift-opening at her sister’s house in Washington. Now Gretchen and her family are scrambling to book flights from southwestern Minnesota. This broke my heart. To lose one’s mama is hard enough. But to lose her on Christmas Day, even harder. My friend Beth Ann experienced the same two years ago. Christmas will now forever be connected to loss. Yet, Gretchen and Beth Ann are both strong women of faith. Like me, they know we will see our moms again. Together. Just not now.

TELL ME: Are you grieving this holiday season? Did your Christmas plans change due to weather? What’s the weather been like in your area? I’d like to hear your stories on any/all of these topics.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Lyon County: Prairie-rooted poetry at the museum September 20, 2022

The sprawling Lyon County Historical Society Museum in the heart of downtown Marshall, across from the post office. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

RECENTLY I TRAVELED back to my native southwestern Minnesota, destination Marshall, 18 miles west of my hometown of Vesta. Specifically, I targeted the Lyon County Historical Society Museum to view the award-winning “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Two of my poems, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” and “Hope of a Farmer,” are featured therein.

Me, photographed next to the panel featuring my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” My one regret is that my mom (pictured in two smaller photo insets) never saw this exhibit in person. She died in January. (Photo by Randy Helbling, September 2022)
To the far left is the panel featuring my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” In the center is my poem, “Hope of a Farmer.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
My poem, “Hope of a Farmer.” That is not my dad in the photo. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The exhibit, which won a 2021 Minnesota History Award from the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums, opened in January of the same year. Finally, I got to Marshall last week. Up until my visit, I was unaware that two, not just one, of my poems are included. When I read the title “Hope of a Farmer,” I thought to myself, I wrote a poem with that title. And then, as I read, I realized this was my poem.

The second floor exhibit celebrates Lyon County in the award-winning exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now I’m doubly honored that my rural-themed poetry inspired by my farmer father and farm wife mother were chosen to be part of this outstanding exhibit focusing on the people, places, businesses, communities, activities, events, history and arts of Lyon County.

A clothes pin bag hangs in an exhibit space near my “Ode” poem, quite fitting. Visitors can turn a dial to generate “wind” blowing dish towels on a clothesline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Excerpt from “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (click here to read the entire poem):

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,

but to the beat of farm life—

laundry tangled on the clothesline,

charred burgers jazzed with ketchup,

finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

This panel honors literary and visual artists of the region. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As I read the “Imagining the Prairie” informational panel, my gratitude to the LCHS staff, volunteers and Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis (lead contractor for the exhibit) grew. I appreciate that an entire panel focuses on the arts: The Lyon County landscape…has inspired painters and poets and artists of all kinds. I’ve long thought that as I see the prairie influence in my writing and photography. Farms, vast prairies, wide skies and tumbling rivers define the landscape of southwestern Minnesota.

Corn rows emerge in a field near Delhi in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Excerpt from my “Hope of a Farmer” poem (click here to read the entire poem):

I see my father’s work laid out before him—

first seeds dropped into rich black soil,

next, corn rows carefully cultivated,

then fervent prayers for timely rain.

A fitting quote from Bill Holm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A quote from poet, essayist and musician Bill Holm of nearby Minneota, summarizes well the lens through which we prairie natives view the world and the creative process. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light…

A grain complex and the Oasis Bar & Grill in Milroy, near Marshall. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Holm, who died in 2009, was among southwestern Minnesota’s best-known writers, having penned poetry and multiple books such as his popular The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth and Boxelder Bug Variations. His boxelder bug book inspired his hometown to host an annual Boxelder Bug Days, still going strong.

Poetry by Leo Dangel in the ag-focused part of the exhibit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

To see my poems featured alongside the work of gifted writers like Holm and equally-talented poet Leo Dangel in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was humbling. Dangel, who died in 2016, wrote six collections of poetry. The prairie and rural influence on his work show in the featured poems, “A Farmer Prays,” “A Clear Day,” and “Tornado.”

My poem honoring my mom… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Both men taught English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, reaffirming their devotion to this rural region and to the craft of writing. The exhibit includes a section on the university, which opened in 1967 within 10 years of my leaving the area to attend college in Mankato. I sometimes wonder how my writing would have evolved had I stayed and studied on the prairie.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County, which is right next to Lyon County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

When I returned to Marshall for the first time in 40 years, nothing about the town seemed familiar. Time has a way of changing a place. But when I reached the top floor of the county museum, saw my poems and began to peruse the “home” exhibit, I felt like I was back home. Back home on the prairie, among cornfields and farm sites and grain elevators and all those small towns that dot the landscape. Back home under a wide prairie sky with land stretching beyond my vision. Back home where I understand the people. Back home in the place that influenced my writing as only the prairie can for someone rooted here.

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Please check back for more posts featuring the Lyon County Museum and the area.

The ode honoring my mother initially published in South Dakota State University’s 2017 literary journal, Oakwood.

And the poem about my father was chosen as a “Work of Merit” at the 2014 Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back to southwestern Minnesota, the place of my roots July 13, 2021

A well-kept farm site west of New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

THE JULY FOURTH WEEKEND took me back home, home being my native southwestern Minnesota. There my extended family gathered at my middle brother’s rural acreage near Lamberton for the first time since December 2019. To see so many family members—not all attended—felt wonderful.

Heading west toward Redwood County, we passed this chopper and wagons in Brown County. Minnesota Prairie Root photo.

Being back in that rural area of our state, in a familiar landscape, felt comforting. No matter where I’ve lived as an adult, Redwood County remains home. The place of my roots. The land and sky and wind imprinted upon me like ink on the pages of a book. Words that thread through my writing even today.

One of several deer spotted as we drove west. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Perhaps my perspective seems too nostalgic. And if it does, I offer no apologies. I value the place which shaped me as a person and as a writer and photographer.

A farm site along US Highway 14 west of Owatonna as we begin our 2.5-hour drive west. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Near Mankato, a truck pulls a farm wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Skirting Mankato on US Highway 14, the land dips into the Minnesota River Valley, then rises, opening to flat farm land. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

The familiar scenes which appear before me en route from Faribault to southwestern Minnesota welcome me back. The red barns. The vast fields of corn and soybeans. The expansive sky. Even the tractors and farm wagons and pick-up trucks.

Entering Morgan, where grain elevators edge the main route through town. This is in eastern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

All are part of the rural-ness. My rural-ness. The grain elevators and gravel roads and power lines stretching seemingly to infinity.

So many beautiful red barns along the route west. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I could write chapters about the gravel roads I biked as a teen—how the gravel crunched beneath tires, how wild roses flourished in ditches, how vehicles kicked up dust. I could write chapters about barns—how I labored inside ours, feeding cows and calves, and pitching manure. I could write chapters about the ice and snow storms that left our farm without electricity, once for an entire week in the depth of winter.

Love the old ACO silo on this farm site west of New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

A trip back to southwestern Minnesota prompts such memories. I remember. I relive. But, most of all, I recognize just how thankful I am to have been raised in this rural region. On the land. In the shadows of silos and grain elevators. Just a softball pitch away from the barn. Within scent of cows, steers and calves. As close to the earth as bare feet or the end of a hoe hacking cockle burrs in a soybean field.

Co-ops like this one in Morgan are part of my rural history. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As rural scenes unfold, my memories, too, unfurl. Memories of hard work and challenges balanced by carefree afternoons and prairie sunsets and all the beauty this place holds for me. Still today, some 40-plus decades after I left this land.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thankful for rain… June 29, 2021

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Playing in the rain in July 2014 in southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

RAIN, RAIN, oh, glorious rain.

Much-needed rain fell here in southeastern Minnesota over the weekend and into Monday, easing the drought that has left lawns parched brown and soybean and corn fields stressed.

Rain fell from late morning to late afternoon Saturday, with 3.5 inches collected in the rain gauge at our house. More fell on Sunday, although those were showers rather than anything substantial. Monday afternoon, just as I was about to hang laundry on the line, raindrops began falling. That ended plans to hang clothes outdoors. But I was OK with that given the steady rain.

I still think like the farmer’s daughter that I am with my dad’s words echoing in my brain. I can almost hear him saying, “They got more rain north of Echo.” No matter how much rain fell on his fields near Vesta, he always thought Echo, seven miles to the north, got more. Or that their crops always looked better.

I never understood Dad’s dissatisfaction. And I can’t ask; he’s been gone 18 years now. But if Echo got rain, good for the farmers near that small southwestern Minnesota town.

Right now all of Minnesota needs rain. And if you got some, no matter how much or where, then I’m thankful.

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TELL ME: Are you dealing with a drought or rain shortage where you live? Or if you live in Minnesota and got recent rain, how much?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring farm women via my poetry in a Minnesota museum April 27, 2021

My poem (to the left of the woman in the dress), my mom’s high school graduation photo and a four-generation family photo of me, my mom, eldest daughter and granddaughter are included in a museum exhibit in southwestern Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

AS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH ends this week, I want to share exciting news about a rural-themed poem I wrote. The poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” originally published in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood, in 2017. Today that poem is part of a museum exhibit in Marshall, Minnesota, 60 miles to the northeast of Brookings, South Dakota.

My poem first published in South Dakota State’s Oakwood literary magazine.

I feel humbled and honored to have my poem, inspired by memories of my hardworking farm wife mother, in the Lyon County Historical Society Museum’s newest semi-permanent exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” The exhibit opened in January. Its purpose, according to Executive Director Jennifer Andries, is “to share stories, artifacts, and photographs from Lyon County after World War II and to inspire residents and visitors to share their memories and experiences of growing up and living in Lyon County and the region.”

4-H and more are featured in this section of “Making Lyon County Home.” Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I grew up in this prime agricultural region, some 20 miles to the west on a dairy and crop farm near Vesta in Redwood County. I knew Marshall well back then as a shopping destination. A place to buy clothes, shoes and other essentials. But even more, I understood rural life decades ago because I lived it. I witnessed, too, how my mom worked hard to raise six children on our family farm. Before marriage, she attended Mankato Commercial College and then returned to her home area to work an office job in Marshall. Like most women of the 1950s, once she married, she stopped working off the farm.

These family photos complement my poem. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

My poem honors her in a poetic snapshot timeline of life beginning shortly before she married my farmer father. Saturday evening dances. Then rocking babies. Everyday life on the farm. Challenges. And finally, the final verse of Mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

Whenever I write poetry, especially about life in rural Minnesota, I find myself deep within memory. Visualizing, tasting, smelling, hearing, even feeling. Although I took some creative license in penning “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (I don’t know that Mom ever drank whiskey or danced at the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall), it is primarily true. She met my dad at a dance in southwestern Minnesota. She washed laundry in a Maytag, baked bread every week, made the best peanut butter oatmeal bars…

An overview of the exhibit space featuring my poem and family photos. Photo courtesy of Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I expect many who lived in this rural region in the 1950s-1970s can relate. Says LCHS Director Andries of my poem: “It is a good fit for the exhibit and fits with the agriculture section and the role of farm wives and mothers. The poem itself goes beyond just the agriculture area. I feel many people can resonate with the poem with the sense of being carefree while we are young but at some point we all have responsibilities but that doesn’t mean we lose our carefree spirit.”

Exactly.

Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Church, former managing director of Minneapolis-based Museology Museum Services, lead contractor for the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Church first contacted me more than a year ago about using my poem. He said then that the poem “offers a nice snapshot of the era and setting we’re trying to evoke in several places within the exhibit and will fit well with our story.”

A 1950s era kitchen, left, is part of the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I appreciate stories rooted in a strong sense of place. The new exhibit features themes of natural landscape, agriculture, education, industry and community. For example, the devastating and deadly June 13, 1968, F5 tornado in Tracy centers a display with information and oral histories. How well I remember that disaster. The 1980s farm crisis focuses another section. A late 1950s era kitchen fits the beginning time period of my poem.

Although I have yet to view the exhibit, I hope to do so this summer. And even more, I want my mom to know how she, and other farm women of the era, are honored via my poem. I want them to see themselves in my words, to understand the depth to which I value them. My mom, through her selflessness, her hard work, her kindness, her love, her faith, helped shape me. Today, as Mom lives out her final days in hospice, her memory and cognition diminished, I feel a deep sense of loss, of grief. But I hold onto the memories of a mother who read nursery rhymes, gardened, and, before I was born, enjoyed carefree Saturday evenings out with friends. Dancing. Laughing, Delighting in life.

FYI: The Lyon County Historical Society Museum, 301 West Lyon Street, Marshall, is open from 11 am – 4 pm Monday – Friday and from noon – 4 pm Saturdays. The “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was partially funded by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant. The exhibit is semi-permanent, meaning artifacts and stories can be rotated to fit within the themes.

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,

you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—

a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,

Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,

Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.

Interludes passed between births

until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world

in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.

Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,

sing-song nursery rhymes,

sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.

Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread

and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,

but to the beat of farm life—

laundry tangled on the clothesline,

charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,

finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,

hard work in a sun-baked garden,

sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,

endurance in endless summer days of canning,

goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now

as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.

in the final set of your life, in a place far removed

from Blue Moon Ballroom memories

and the young woman you once were.

#

Poem copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Blog post © Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The remaking of a theatre, from movies to beer, Part I March 9, 2021

A flight served in a “movie reel” at Sleepy Eye Brewing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

UP UNTIL CRAFT BREWERIES OPENED, I wasn’t much of a beer drinker. I’m still not. But I now enjoy the occasional IPA or other locally-brewed beer at a brewery. Yet, it’s about more than appreciating a good beer. For me, it’s also about the setting. The place in which these beers are brewed and served.

Reads Landing Brewing Company in Reads Landing, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And in southern Minnesota, I’ve discovered some aesthetically pleasing breweries in historic buildings. Montgomery Brewing has come full circle back to its roots, based in a 130-year-old building built to brew beer. At Chapel Brewing in Dundas, the taproom occupies a compact 1880 former chapel along the Cannon River. In neighboring Northfield, Imminent Brewing is stationed in the old National Guard Armory garage. And further to the southeast along the Mississippi River, Reads Landing Brewing occupies an 1870 dry goods store.

Outside Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company, which once housed the PIX Theatre. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Paying homage to the history of this building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
How fitting is this, a flight served in a movie reel? Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

And then there’s Sleepy Eye Brewing. Set along U.S. Highway 14 which runs right through the heart of the business district in this southwestern Minnesota community, the brewery draws beer lovers, and coffee lovers, into the former PIX Theatre. It’s a beautiful place that pays homage to its entertainment past, right down to the movie reels that hold flights of beer. I can’t write enough about how much I love the feel and look of this brewery with Sleepy Eye Coffee Company tucked into a small part of the open and airy space.

Looking up to the balcony of Sleepy Eye Brewing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Overlooking Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company, (back left) from the balcony. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
The beer selections… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

A balcony overlooks the long, narrow room defined by wood and brick and tile and stainless steel and even chandeliers.

The beautifully-restored marquee at Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

Outside, the restored marquee adds artistic and historic interest. Eye-catching. Unique. Memorable.

These items also point to the building’s past use as a movie theatre. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

I haven’t returned to Sleepy Eye Brewing since my first visit a year ago. The pandemic has kept me away from breweries. But once I feel safe and comfortable—perhaps by summer or fall—I’ll revisit some of these home-grown breweries as much for the beer as for the settings. And history.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Railway Bar & Grill, next to the tracks in Sleepy Eye March 5, 2021

Twin grain elevators mark the skyline of Sleepy Eye. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, Randy and I rolled into Sleepy Eye, a small ag-based community along U.S. Highway 14 in Brown County in southwestern Minnesota. I lived and worked there briefly as a newspaper reporter decades ago. So I’m familiar with the town, although much has changed. In recent years, we’ve stopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for stained glass. Randy occasionally creates and repairs stained glass art.

But on this stop, we’d just come from neighboring Redwood County, where we saw my mom in the nursing home. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our last in-person visit before COVID-19 closed care center doors to visitors and changed everything.

By the time we reached Sleepy Eye well past the noon hour, I was hungry. It’s a running joke in our family that I need to eat on time or I get crabby. It’s the truth, not a joke.

A side view of the Railway Bar & Grill. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Across the street from the bar and grill, train tracks and grain bins. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Those beautiful vintage grain elevators… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

We ended up at The Railway Bar & Grill, appropriately named given its location near the train tracks. Next to the grain elevator. I don’t recall what I ordered other than a sandwich. Nothing memorable, but sustenance.

The condiment holder on our table. These always reveal insights into local tastes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

In a pandemic year that’s been especially difficult for bars and restaurants, The Railway apparently struggled. The business—complete with bar, two dining areas, private conference room, an outdoor patio, 12 tappers and more—is now for sale. For $165,000.

A sign posted inside The Railway Bar & Grill shows community involvement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

I’m not familiar with dining options in Sleepy Eye. But I know one thing about small towns—cafes and bars and grills are community gathering places. Spots to meet with family and friends. After a ball game. On a Saturday night. To shoot the breeze. To celebrate. To get out of the house on a cold winter evening. To BS over a beer or two. From all indications, The Railway filled that need in Sleepy Eye.

Small houses cram together in the neighborhood by the grain elevators and The Railway Bar & Grill. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

When Randy and I finished our sandwiches on that early March Saturday afternoon in 2020, I stepped outside to photograph the neighborhood while he paid the bill. I focused my lens on three houses crammed together.

The grain elevators, next to the train tracks in Sleepy Eye, dwarf neighboring buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

And then I aimed toward the towering grain elevators next to the bar & grill. Vintage elevators always draw my eye for their architectural interest (as cathedrals of the prairie), historical importance and connection to my farming past. Silo style grain storage units will never hold the same appeal as these rectangular grey elevators soaring high above small towns. Too many of these have vanished, including in my hometown of Vesta where a local farmer moved the elevators onto his farm.

A strong message adds to the visual appeal of the Sleepy Eye grain elevators. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

On this Saturday, I delighted in reconnecting with my rural roots outside The Railway. In my memory, I heard the rumble of a train, saw grain trucks lining up at the elevator, smelled the earthy scent of harvest…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling