Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Keep Christ in Christmas December 24, 2012

REMINDING MOTORISTS traveling in southwestern Minnesota of the real reason for Christmas is this billboard along U.S. Highway 14 just east of Springfield.

Billboard, Christmas

Thank you, St. Raphael’s Knights of Columbus Council #2769 of Springfield for sponsoring this message.

Well done.

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A glimpse of winter on the Minnesota prairie March 8, 2011

 

Traveling U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm to southwestern Minnesota.

I NEEDED A TRIP to southwestern Minnesota this past weekend, as much to be with extended family as to reconnect with the land where I grew up. I was not disappointed, on both counts.

I embraced the family I love as we talked and laughed and talked and laughed some more while celebrating my middle brother’s 50th birthday until just past midnight on Saturday.

Sometime in between, we joked about the possibility of being snowed in on his Redwood County acreage. Snow was in the forecast and we all know that snow on the prairie, combined with wind, could strand us.

By the time we finished breakfast mid-morning on Sunday, the flakes were flying and U.S. Highway 14 was dusted with snow, enough to cause cautionary travel as my husband, son and I headed east back to our Faribault home.

Fortunately, we drove out of the snow even before reaching New Ulm.

Every time I visit the prairie, I realize all over again how harsh winters are out there and how very different they are from the winters I experience in southeastern Minnesota. Honestly, if you saw the drifts and plowed ridges of snow along Highway 14 and the endless vista of wide open spaces that stretch like a sea of white, you would understand.

Join me on this visual journey along a section of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway between New Ulm and Lamberton. These photos don’t even do justice to winters on the prairie because we weren’t traveling in a prairie blizzard. But, in these images, you can envision the possibilities…

 

Railroad tracks run parallel to Highway 14 as the land stretches under spacious skies.

In some spots along U.S. Highway 14, the snow is piled higher than vehicles.

Snow had been pushed into rows in fields along Highway 14, acting as natural snow fences.

The wind sculpted drifts along the snow fences.

The snow had been pushed into mountains so high that only the top portion of Family Foods was visible from Highway 14 on the eastern side of Sleepy Eye.

Snow pushed off Highway 14, as seen through the windshield of our car.

Visibility was reduced as we traveled along U.S. Highway 14 Sunday morning near Lamberton, creating this surreal image of the local grain elevators. The top seven images were taken on Saturday.

We were thankful the lights on this sign, on the east side of Springfield, were not flashing Sunday morning. During severe winter weather these lights are activated and roads are closed to keep motorists safe.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Heading back home to the southwestern Minnesota prairie for Christmas December 26, 2010

We drove along U.S. Highway 14 as we traveled to southwestern Minnesota for Christmas. This stretch is between the Sanborn corners and Lamberton.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, my family and I celebrated Christmas Eve with my mom and four of my five siblings, and their families, “back home” on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

It was my mom’s wish that all of us be there, attending Christmas Eve church services with her at our home church, St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta.

Our Christmas together was as wonderful and memorable and as full of laughter and love as I expected it would be.

Initially, I doubted that we would make the 2 ½-hour trip west given the steady snow that began falling early Christmas Eve, slicking the highways and creating difficult driving conditions. But by the time we left Faribault around 2:30 p.m. Friday, the snow had stopped and major highways were clear.

So, with the trunk packed full of luggage, air mattresses and sleeping bags, presents and coolers, the five of us crammed ourselves into the car (along with pillows and board games on our laps) for the journey to Redwood County. We were headed first to my brother’s house just north of Lamberton.

When we got to New Ulm, nearly 1 ½ hours into the trip, I dug my camera out of the camera bag wedged near my feet and snapped occasional photos of the prairie. It is the land I most love—the place my kids call “the middle of nowhere.”

A train travels east along U.S. Highway 14 between Essig and Sleepy Eye while we travel west.

I love this land of plowed fields and wide open spaces, of small-town grain elevators occasionally punctuating the vast skies, of cozy farm sites sheltered by barren trees.

I love, especially, the red barns accented by the fresh-fallen snow, portraying an agrarian beauty that perhaps only someone who grew up on a farm can appreciate.

As much as I have disliked all of the snow we’ve had this winter, I saw only a beautiful winter wonderland when I was back home for Christmas on the prairie.

The sun begins setting over the prairie as we head west, passing through Sleepy Eye and Springfield before reaching Lamberton. We saw only occasional glimpses of sun on a mostly gray day.

The elevators in Sleepy Eye. Small-town prairie elevators like this can be seen for miles away.

One of many picturesque barns along U.S. Highway 14.

Elevators and trains are a common site along U.S. Highway 14 in the rich farmland of southwestern Minnesota. We've nearly reached our destination when I photograph this elevator complex near sunset.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

If only I could have gotten inside this prairie antique store September 13, 2010

LATE SUNDAY MORNING we turned off the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway in Springfield, pulled by the prairie winds.

That would be Prairie Winds Antiques, an appropriate name for a business on the edge of this farming community on the wind-swept prairie of southwestern Minnesota.

My sister Lanae had stopped there the day before and picked up an antique—shelves or a box or something—I never saw it.

“There’s an antique store in Springfield?” I asked, even exclaimed when she raved about the place.

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

And that was enough to draw me to Prairie Winds Antiques. So, Sunday, as my husband, son and I were returning to Faribault from a weekend in rural Redwood County, the guys indulged me (sort of) and we pulled off U.S. Highway 14.

I must clarify that this stop did not come without protest from the teenager in the back seat who was reading a book and was overtired from a night of star-gazing under the inky black expanse of prairie sky.

But we stopped anyway, and lucky for him, but unlucky for me, Prairie Winds Antiques was closed, despite the OPEN sign.

Despite the OPEN signage, Prairie Winds Antiques was locked late Sunday morning.

That didn’t stop me from poking around the exterior of the shop, where a cluttered yard full of antiques and collectibles sat exposed to the elements. Pails, tables, signs, farm machinery, garden art, soda bottles, wash tubs, bicycles, sleds, an old car…lots to peruse in the presence of an impatient son.

Even outdoors, you'll find lots of antiques and collectibles at Prairie Winds Antiques.

So I hurried as quickly as I can hurry around old stuff, snapping a few photos and wondering if the pile of stuff that looked like it was in a pile of junk to be burned was really a pile to be burned. I was tempted to take the painted wooden bird with the spindly wire legs from the burning pile because it reminded me of the kitschy painted wooden yard art my grandpa staked in his front yard.

But I didn’t.

You can bet that the next time we’re driving U.S. Highway 14—the road west so many years ago for those brave, adventuresome pioneers—that we’ll pull into Prairie Winds Antiques again. I need to get inside that place. Oh, yeah.

The wooden crates crammed with old soda bottles remind me of the days of my youth when pop was a treat reserved for special family celebrations like birthdays.

On-site prairie grasses dip and sway in the wind around old farm equipment at Prairie Winds Antiques on the west edge of Springfield.

This Flying Red Horse is attached to the garage at the antique shop. I've always had an affinity for this gas station symbol. As a youngster, when our family traveled once a year to visit relatives in Minneapolis, our dad always told us to "Watch for the Flying Red Horse." I don't recall why or where that horse was located; it may have been a landmark to direct us to the right road. I wish I could remember.

I spotted this grasshopper clinging to the edge of a long, weathered table sitting in the yard at the antique store. I immediately thought of the grasshoppers that, in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, infested this land and destroyed crops. Wilder wrote about the grasshoppers in her "Little House" books.

I do not like real chickens, not one bit. But these two free-range fake birds charmed me. I cannot even believe I just wrote that.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling