Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Stone windmill symbolizes strength of Minnesota immigrants August 29, 2019

Walking toward Seppman Mill, located just outside a fenced area holding bison at Mnneopa State Park, rural Mankato, Minnesota.

 

IN THE PRAIRIE PART of Minneopa State Park where the bison roam, an historic stone windmill stands tall on the prairie’s edge. Minus the blades.

 

Interpretive signs detail the mill’s history.

 

 

The granary was rebuilt in 1970 to its original size.

 

The Seppman Mill symbolizes the strength and grit of the early immigrants, among them Louis Seppman. Seeing a need for a local flour mill, this stone mason started crafting the mill in 1862 from local stone hand-carried or transported in wheelbarrows to the site, according to the book, Minnesota: A State Guide.

 

 

The task of constructing the windmill patterned after those in Seppman’s native Germany took two years. Eruption of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict in the region in 1862 delayed construction. Once operational, the mill could grind 150 bushels of wheat into flour on a day of favorable winds.

 

 

While the wind powered the arms of the 32-foot high windmill, it also proved the mill’s ultimate demise. In 1873, lightning struck and knocked off two of the arms and sails. Seven years later, tornadic winds ripped off the replacement arms. And, finally, in 1890, a third storm damaged the mill beyond repair.

 

A prairie restoration is underway here at Minneopa as noted in this sign posted near the windmill.

 

I can only imagine the frustration of Seppman and others who tried, tried and tried again to keep the mill operating. Three strikes and you’re out seems applicable.

 

Coneflowers, with their deep roots, thrive among the prairie grasses.

 

But then I consider all they did to even get the mill built. Those early settlers truly exemplify hard work and determination. How many of us would carry all those stones up an inclined roadway and then seemingly puzzle-piece the stones together? It’s remarkable really.

 

Black-eyed susans.

 

I’m thankful this windmill has been mostly restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It is a visual tribute to the early settlers of Minnesota, a reminder of the value these immigrants brought to this land, to this state, to this prairie place they called home. Then. And still today.

 

A sign along the prairie’s edge near the mill informs about bison in Minnesota.

 

Here, where the bison once roamed.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mingling with the bison in Minnesota August 28, 2019

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With more than 300 acres to roam, the bison conveniently clustered around a watering hole next to the road through the prairie during our visit to Minneopa State Park.

 

OH, GIVE ME A HOME, where the buffalo roam…

 

This pair was so close to our van that I could almost have reached out and touched the calf.

 

Whenever I think of buffalo, those lyrics pop into my head. My classmates and I sang the words during informal music time at Vesta Elementary School some 50-plus years ago.

 

Interpretive signage about the bison is positioned overlooking the prairie.

 

An overview of the Minneopa prairie, home to a herd of bison.

 

A map shows native prairie remaining in Minnesota, land needed by bison for grazing.

 

Or, whenever I think of buffalo, I remember childhood visits to the small zoo at Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls. There a tall wire fence separated us from these massive animals I associate with Native American buffalo hunts on the prairie.

 

 

Or, more accurately, bison hunts. These powerful animals are technically bison, not buffalo.

 

 

Today you can see them in Minnesota at the Minnesota Zoo, Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and now at Minneopa State Park outside Mankato.

 

A gravel road slicing through the Minneopa prairie allows visitors to get a close-up view of the bison herd.

 

 

 

On a recent weekday afternoon, we drove to Mankato into bison territory. Literally. Vehicles turn onto a gravel road that winds through the Minneopa prairie, home to about 20 bison. Having grown up on a dairy and beef farm (with several mean bulls), I respect animals that outsize me, especially those with horns.

 

 

 

Vehicles park to watch the bison and a passenger steps out to photograph the dangerous animals.

 

I didn’t even question the validity of signage warning visitors to stay inside their vehicles because bison are dangerous. I watched in disbelief as a woman stood outside a car taking photos with the bison herd within stone’s throw. What on earth was she thinking? Only moments earlier a sheriff’s car passed by and I wished the deputy had seen, and ticketed, her.

 

 

We had a bit of a scare ourselves when a bison walking nearby suddenly bolted toward our van, but veered away at the last second. I envisioned horns impaling the metal.

 

 

These animals command respect. They are massive, powerful and beautiful, a part of our state’s history.

 

 

To share space with them upon the prairie is not only an experience, but an honor.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Road trip stories: You can’t beat the pre-season price & peacefulness at this lakeside Indiana inn May 4, 2018

A sunset view of Lake James in Pokagon State Park, Angola, Indiana.

A sunset view of Lake James in Pokagon State Park, Angola, Indiana.

 

I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO STAY in a lakeside resort or cabin. And you’d think, as a life-long Minnesotan, that would be part of my vacation history. Yet, the opportunity to stay lakeside never presented itself. Until May 2016.

 

Docked at Lake James in Pokagon State Park.

Docked at Lake James in Pokagon State Park.

 

And it happened not in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but rather in the extreme northeastern corner of Indiana. Because my husband made a wrong turn, we ended up at the Potawatomi Inn Resort & Conference Center while en route from Minnesota to Massachusetts for our son’s college graduation.

 

The newer section of the Potawatomi Inn, opened in 1995.

The newer section of the Potawatomi Inn, opened in 1995.

 

Prior to departure, we’d plotted the location of our first day stopping point—some 600 miles away in Angola, Indiana. I’d researched lodging options, including a weekday pre-season special of $59 a night at the Potawatomi Inn. I mentioned the deal to Randy, who muttered something like “What are you going to get for $60?” So I scrapped the idea and resigned myself to staying at a non-descript chain hotel along Interstate 80/90.

 

Lovely framed signage inside the entry to the historic section of the inn complex

Lovely framed signage inside the entry to the historic section of the inn complex promotes Indiana state parks as “memories made naturally.”

 

Then came that wrong turn and we ended up directly in front of the entrance to Pokagon State Park, wherein the Inn is located. “It won’t hurt to look since we’re right here,” I suggested. “We can always leave if we don’t like it.” Randy agreed and steered the van along the tree-lined road into the park. After explaining our mission to the park ranger, we continued toward the Inn, our expectations low.

 

This is the original 1920s section of the historic inn with a dining room and lounge on the first floor and hotel rooms on the second level.

This is the original 1920s section of the historic inn with a dining room and lounge on the first floor and guest rooms on the second level.

 

We couldn’t have been more surprised. Rounding a turn, before us sprawled a complex of buildings perched atop a hill and edged by manicured plantings of trees, flowers and shrubs. It was beautiful to behold.

 

This massive sun deck overlooks Lake James.

This massive sun deck overlooks Lake James, the boat rental house and the public campfire pit.

 

The Lake James dock at sunset.

The Lake James dock at sunset.

 

The lovely sun deck up close as daylight fades.

The lovely sun deck up close as daylight fades.

 

And below, across a wide expanse of lawn, lay Lake James. The setting appeared like paradise to two weary travelers.

 

The decor is a bit dated and the bedspread showing wear. But the room was clean, the bed comfortable, the setting beautiful and the

The decor is a bit dated and the bedspread showing wear. But the room was clean, the bed comfortable, the wooded setting beautiful and the location quiet. Our room was located in the new part of the inn, opened in 1995.

 

Still, I wasn’t convinced. How could a place this lovely, at least from the exterior, cost only $59/night? Time to check out the interior. The front desk clerk, whose name eludes me, but whose husband is a native of Delano, Minnesota, greeted us with Hoosier hospitality and suggested that, since we were from Minnesota, we should have a lake view room. Perfect. It was a nice gesture. But the room was much too cramped, the promised lake view from a small, high window. We returned to the front desk, landing in a much more spacious room with windows overlooking woods. Perfect.

 

Cabins in the woods are also available for rent.

Cabins in the woods are also available for rent.

 

After being on the road for 10 hours, the Potawatomi Inn was precisely where we needed to stay. Away from the Interstate in a peaceful natural setting.

 

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the original wooden toboggan run in 1935. It was updated through the years to a refrigerated slide.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the original wooden toboggan run in 1935. It was updated through the years to a refrigerated slide.

 

We walked to the lake and then followed a trail to the park’s historic toboggan run.

 

The historic dining room, nearing closing time, was a quiet place to dine on a weekday evening in late May.

The historic dining room, nearing closing time, was a quiet place to dine on a weekday evening in late May.

 

We shared a dinner of barbecued ribs with enough for both of us plus left-overs. I love the pine cone design on the over-sized plates.

We shared a dinner of barbecued ribs with enough for both of us plus left-overs. I love the pine cone design on the over-sized plates.

 

Suspended from the dining room ceiling.

Suspended from the dining room ceiling.

 

We explored the buildings, dined in an historic dining hall. And then, when evening faded to dark, we joined a young couple around a campfire. From Elkhart, an hour to the west, they, too, were Hoosier friendly. As we talked, we learned what brought them to the Potawatomi Inn. Cancer. Tyler was taking a break from chemotherapy, his treatment set to resume four days later. He and Kelsey—ironically once an oncology nurse now working in labor and delivery—inspired us with their upbeat attitudes, their thankfulness for the good prognosis, a 95 percent cure rate for Tyler’s cancer.

 

A lovely courtyard filled with plants and with a water feature offers a lovely place to dine outside the Courtyard Cafe.

A courtyard filled with greenery and with a water feature offers a lovely place to dine outside the Courtyard Cafe.

 

Now, as I reflect on the wrong turn that led us to the Potawatomi Inn, I am especially grateful. We spent our first night on the road in a tranquil setting. We met some truly wonderful Hoosiers. And I fulfilled my wish to stay at a lakeside resort.

 

The Lonidaw Lounge just outside the historic dining room.

The Lonidaw Lounge just outside the historic dining room.

 

But what really clinched my appreciation for this resort was my husband’s response to a question asked by a friend about a favorite part of our Minnesota to Massachusetts trip. “The Potawatomi Inn,” Randy answered. I agree.

 

The library is well-stocked with books, board games and puzzles. You'll also find a pool, spa and sauna; activity, exercise, video and game rooms; and a gift shop on-site.

The library is well-stocked with books, board games and puzzles. You’ll also find a pool, spa and sauna; activity, exercise, video and game rooms; a conference room; and a gift shop on-site.

 

FYI: The low rate we got in May 2016 was a pre-season weekday special. Don’t expect a deal this good during the busy summer months. And since this rate is from two years ago, expect that rates have likely increased. I’d highly recommend staying here. It was a great option to a chain hotel and in the most peaceful of settings.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring the Minnesota side of Interstate Park October 17, 2014

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Westbound from Wisconsin and about to cross the St. Croix River into Taylors Falls, Minnesota. Interstate Park is just over the bridge to the left.

Westbound from Wisconsin and about to cross the St. Croix River into Taylors Falls, Minnesota. Interstate Park is just over the bridge to the left.

PUBLISHED IN 1953 in the anthology Minnesota Skyline, the poem “Taylors Falls” by Pearl Nearpass opens with these lines:

Climb higher and higher in the Dalles of the St. Croix
Until you look over the jutting cliffs
Of echoing beauty, the great eternal mounting
For a village linked and timed with history.

From the Wisconsin side, you

From the Wisconsin side of Interstate Park, you can see Minnesota’s Interstate Park to the right of the St. Croix.

History seems chiseled in stone here, rock carved away by forces of nature to reveal the magnificent St. Croix River gorge that divides Minnesota and Wisconsin.

You can glimpse the St. Croix River through the trees.

You can glimpse the St. Croix River through the trees.

Everywhere walls of rock dominate.

Everywhere walls of rock dominate.

Stunning views of the gorge prevail.

Stunning views of the gorge prevail.

Interstate Park, a duo state park just outside Taylors Falls, Minnesota, and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, offers spectacular views of the Dalles of the St. Croix. Towering cliffs of solid rock. Jutting pine trees. River running wild.

Rocks pock the ground in both parks.

Rocks pock the ground in both parks.

Visit both, even though the Wisconsin park ranger suggested if my husband and I had to choose one, we choose hiking the Wisconsin side as it offers more trails. Maybe so. But the experience in each differs. We found the two trails we hiked in our neighboring state to be much more rugged than those in Minnesota.

The path through Devil's Parlor.

The path through Devil’s Parlor.

And an explanation of Devil's Parlor.

And an explanation of Devil’s Parlor.

Railings are welcome along rocky walls.

Railings are welcome along rocky walls.

In Minnesota’s park, railings and asphalt and planked walkways are more accommodating to those who prefer an easier perusal of the land. After following a short, rugged path to view the steep-sided river gorge, we followed a trail that led us down steps and into Devil’s Parlor and The Bake Oven, areas of rock carved away by water.

Nature's peephole with the Taylor Falls Princess awaiting passengers in the river below.

Nature’s peephole with the Taylor Falls Princess awaiting passengers in the river below.

Down the river just a bit, the Taylors Falls Queen was docked, too.

Down the river just a bit, the Taylors Falls Queen was docked, too.

The Minnesota side of the park also serves as the launch site for river cruises, a popular activity on the day we visited. One can only imagine the steamboats that once docked along this river.

Somehow trees grow seemingly right out of the rock.

Somehow trees grow seemingly right out of the rock.

Continues Pearl:

No longer the blasting charges
Drown the voices of loggers and waters.
But lonely and majestic moves the breeze
Above the pot-holes and the Devil’s Chair
Of a village albumed in history.

FYI: To read my post about the Wisconsin side of Interstate Park, click here.

(Poetry excerpts from Minnesota Skyline, Anthology of Poems About Minnesota, published in 1953 by The Lund Press, Inc. and a gift from my eldest daughter.)

 

Hiking rugged and rocky Interstate Park in Wisconsin October 16, 2014

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Rocky terrain defines Wisconsin's Interstate Park.

Rocky terrain defines Wisconsin’s Interstate Park.

HIKING INTERSTATE PARK along the St. Croix River in Wisconsin requires the sure-footedness of a mountain goat, the eagle eye of a bird of prey or, minimal, a walking stick or steady hand of a friend or family member.

I discovered that last week while exploring the park with my husband, Randy, who offered his hand numerous times to guide me safely along rocky paths.

I’ll admit that, with my camera in tow and an artificial right hip, I tend to be more cautious than most.

Rock steps along a trail.

Rock steps along a trail.

But we pretty much tossed caution aside when Randy decided we should hike, I mean climb, the .8-mile Eagle Peak Trail to the highest point overlooking the valley. Here’s a description of that path from a park publication: unsurfaced; stone stairs; uneven and steep terrain.

Pine needles and fallen leaves hide trail obstacles.

Pine needles and fallen leaves hide trail obstacles.

Add to that pine needles and leaves hiding underfoot rocks, plus sticks that roll quite easily under soles, and you have treacherous conditions. I’m not an experienced hiker, so take my comments from that perspective.

Ferns sprout from rock along Eagle Point Trail.

Ferns sprout from rock along Eagle Peak Trail.

In the end, this trail does not live up to the promised end given trees block the valley view. But, if you desire a hiking challenge, this is your trail.

The rocky St. Croix River gorge is stunning in its craggy beauty.

The rocky St. Croix River gorge is stunning in its craggy beauty.

Randy poses at the scenic overlook.

Randy poses at the scenic overlook. And, yes, I had no option but to shoot into the sun.

Rock everywhere along this river.

Rock everywhere along this river.

Much easier to traverse is the .4-mile Pothole Trail, the other path we had time to walk during our 90-minute visit to the park. Stone stairs and unevenness also define this trail. But there’s much less climbing and the view of the Dalles of the St. Croix River gorge is spectacular. I even pushed through my fear of heights to enjoy the view.

Watch for potholes. I felt like I was watching my step all the time.

Watch for potholes. I felt like I was watching my step all the time.

You’ll also discover potholes here pocking rock. Yes, you’ll want to watch your feet lest you step into one.

Driving through Interstate Park.

Driving through the Wisconsin side of Interstate Park.

Interstate Park deserves more time than the 1 ½ hours we gave it. But daylight was fading and we didn’t want to spend $10 for a single day pass. Once upon a time, a Minnesota State Park sticker would allow you free access to Wisconsin’s Interstate Park, but no more. Interstate Park continues on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix. I’ll take you there, too.

To notice details, you have to stop. Otherwise you miss them because you're too preoccupied watching your feet.

To notice details, you have to stop. Because I was constantly watching my step, I felt like I missed out on a lot.

Wear your hiking shoes.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rugged Blue Mounds State Park on the southwestern Minnesota prairie September 17, 2013

Welcoming visitors to Blue Mounds State Park in rural Rock County, Minnesota.

Welcoming visitors to Blue Mounds State Park in rural Rock County, Minnesota.

YOU WOULD THINK, considering I am a native of southwestern Minnesota, that I would have visited Blue Mounds State Park many times.

But I hadn’t, ever, and it has been on my list of must-see places for the past several years. That and the Brandenburg Gallery in Luverne, four miles to the south. That would be Jim Brandenburg, perhaps Minnesota’s best-known nature photographer. He grew up in rural Luverne, near the South Dakota border.

Hundreds of windmills now define this region of southwestern Minnesota.

Hundreds of windmills now define this region of southwestern Minnesota.

Recently my husband and I traveled to this corner of Minnesota specifically to see these two sites. It was well worth the long drive that took us through many small agricultural communities, past acres and acres of cropland, and past hundreds of wind turbines which define so much of the landscape in this region now. While I understand their energy value, these unnatural giants, in my opinion, have ruined the aesthetics of the prairie. I like my prairie big, open and wide, without monstrosities to detract from its natural beauty.

Beautiful natural scenery.

Beautiful natural scenery.

Thankfully, preserved and protected prairie remains in places like Blue Mounds State Park and nearby Touch the Sky Prairie and in Brandenburg’s images.

Hiking the path up and through the prairie grass.

Hiking the path up and through the prairie grass.

On the Saturday we hiked Blue Mounds, strong winds buffeted the land, bending prairie grasses as we climbed a hillside,

Mounds of flat rock naturally planted upon the prairie.

Mounds of flat rock naturally planted upon the prairie.

A close-up shot of that in-ground flat rock.

A close-up shot of that in-ground flat rock.

examined and walked upon clumps of huge rock,

My husband inside the portion of the park where rock was once quarried.

My husband inside the portion of the park where rock was once quarried.

An impressive quarry wall of Sioux quartzite.

An impressive quarry wall of Sioux quartzite.

admired towering cliffs of Sioux quartzite,

The prickly pear cactus seemingly grows right out of the rock.

The prickly pear cactus seemingly grows right out of the rock.

bent low to study the prickly pear cactus, an unexpected plant in this northern climate. In the distance, we glimpsed the park’s herd of bison.

One example of the many prairie wildflowers.

One example of the many prairie wildflowers.

Look at the size of that Sioux quartzite rock compared to my husband.

Look at the size of that Sioux quartzite rock compared to my husband.

Just inside the park entry, I spotted this couple getting wedding photos taken among the prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Just inside the park entry, I spotted this couple getting wedding photos taken among the prairie grasses and wildflowers.

I stopped more often than not to photograph wildflowers and the prairie grass and rocks and the overall scenery in this stunning spot on the prairie, unlike any I’ve ever viewed in Minnesota.

From a gravel road that loops past the park, I photographed this rugged rock line.

From a gravel road that loops past the park, I photographed this rugged rock line.

This prairie differs from the flat, cropped agricultural prairie of my youth. This prairie rolls and rises and meets the sky and feels wild and rugged and untamed. I almost expected to see horses galloping across the land, like a scene out of a western. It has that feel.

Pasture land near the park for these grazing sheep. Note their wool clinging to the fence.

Pasture land near the park for these grazing sheep. Note the tufts of wool clinging to the fence.

I observed sheep and cattle grazing in an abundance of rocky pastures nestled between corn and soybean fields. And from the hilltops, the land seemed to stretch in to forever in all directions.

BONUS PHOTOS:

No rock climbing for us, but if you're a rock climber, Blue Mounds allows this sport.

No rock climbing for us, but if you’re a rock climber, Blue Mounds allows this sport.

Photographing wildflowers is more my type of "sport."

Photographing wildflowers is more my type of “sport.” That proved a challenge in the wind.

Farms like this border Blue Mounds State Park.

Farms like this border Blue Mounds State Park.

We followed this gravel road around the park and past a country church in the distance.

We followed this gravel road around the park and past a country church in the distance.

Sheep graze in a pasture near the country church.

Sheep graze in a pasture near the country church.

And because I value detail, I set my camera on the prairie and took this shot.

And because I value detail, I set my camera on a rock on the prairie and took this shot.

CHECK BACK for more posts from this region of Minnesota. I’ll take you into Luverne to view the Brandenburg Gallery and other points of interest.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling