Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The old blacksmith is watching, just ask John July 20, 2012

A sign tacked onto the blacksmith shop at the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna reads: It reminds us of the “horse and buggy” days gone by. A lot of horseshoes, buggy and wagon wheels came in and out of the Bixby shop, as well as other blacksmith shops throughout the county. These shops were an essential part of all villages, towns and cities in the 1800’s.

INSIDE THE OLD BLACKSMITH SHOP, John Styndl is reading the newspaper on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon. He has no intention of firing up the forge or picking up the tools to demonstrate how his great great grandfather, Frank Styndl, once pounded hot metal into useful equipment or shaped shoes for horses.

Instead, he takes pride in telling visitors about the blacksmith shop Frank built on his farm east of Bixby in 1896, ten years after the Styndl family immigrated to the U.S. from the Czech Republic. Frank worked as a blacksmith in the Old Country and then in his own shop in Steele County, Minnesota, until his death in 1931.

Today that blacksmith shop sits on the grounds of the Steele County Historical Society’s Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna which, on a recent Sunday, hosted an historical extravaganza. John was volunteering in the blacksmith shop when I entered through double sliding doors into a dark room illuminated by the blinding glare of a bare light bulb and sunlight filtering through doors.

John in Frank’s blacksmith shop where, “all the equipment in the shop such as wheelbenders, drill presses, bench vises, foot grinders, files, hammers, tongs and other equipment were used by Frank.”

Rusty tools and horseshoes cling to the walls and a cut out, near life-sized photo of Frank leans next to an anvil draped with horseshoes as great great grandson John speaks about his interest and work in preserving the blacksmith shop.

He remembers biking past the abandoned blacksmith shop as a kid, asking his father about the faded signage on the building. His father and a great uncle did occasional blacksmithing, but nothing like that of three generations of the Styndls prior who earned their livelihoods as blacksmiths.

John dreamed of someday moving Frank’s shop to the Village of Yesteryear. Eventually that became a reality and, from 1991 – 1996, his family and neighbors worked to restore the building. He even found an old house chimney from the appropriate time period, knocked off the mortar and rebuilt the 240 bricks into a new chimney.

Family photo of John and Frank Styndl.

“I’m glad to be able to preserve it,” John says of F. Styndl’s blacksmith shop. He’ll tell you, though, that he gets a bit uneasy with Great Great Grandpa Frank’s likeness watching his every move.

About that time in our conversation, another visitor steps into the blacksmith shop and shares how he remembers, years ago, observing his local blacksmith, bent over, toiling in the heat of his shop. “He was always cranky,” he notes.

The three of us laugh and figure we’d be crabby, too, in such uncomfortable working conditions.

It is stories and remembrances like this which make a building like the old blacksmith shop more than just a structure occupying space at a site such as the Village of Yesteryear.

Stories connect buildings to people and to the past.

You need only take the time to pause and ask, to listen and to observe, if you are to understand the history that has molded lives and communities and is still shaping the future.

CLICK HERE TO READ a previous blog post about the Steele County Historical Society’s Extravaganza at the Village of Yesteryear. Then click here to read a second post on the event.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Always obey Rule 99 & other historic reflections July 12, 2012

VISIT A PLACE like the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna, especially during a celebration such as last weekend’s Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza, and you get an in-depth glimpse of life back in the day.

Dressed in period costumes, members of the Old West Regulators added a real-life element to the Extravaganza.

Guides, costumed reenactors and others, with their extensive historical knowledge, most assuredly add to the educational and entertainment value.

But, because it is impossible to speak with every one of them or to observe every activity or to read every informational sign, one must sometimes rely on simple observations to consider the historic stories and realities which define life years ago.

I therefore present these Extravaganza photos with basic information. Much more lies open to your interpretation, influenced perhaps by your experiences or the stories passed down from generation to generation within your family. That is your personal history. Take it. Remember it. Own it. Pass it along.

Memories of attending a one-room country school remain for many, including my 55-year-old husband. He attended Chimney Butte School in rural North Dakota and recalls the day students were kept indoors during recess because of coyotes roaming the schoolyard.

What memories does the District 14 country schoolhouse, pictured above, hold for those who were taught in this 1856 building four miles south of Owatonna until the school closed in 1962 due to consolidation?

Hollyhocks stand strong and sturdy outside that same schoolhouse at the Village of Yesteryear.

But for me, hollyhocks belong next to the milkhouse, an odd place for flowers, it would seem. Yet, on the southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm where I grew up, that was their spot, a splash of beauty perhaps more for my mother than for her farmer husband.

 A scene recreated in the 1866 Bixby railroad depot leaves you wondering about the railroad crew and passengers who waited here to board trains. Where were they going? And, for the passengers, why?

And then you see this sign inside an old caboose and completely forget about those passengers and question why the railroad employees climbed onto the roof of the caboose because they certainly must have or there would be no Rule 99.

How many tears were shed, in joy and in sorrow, by those occupying these pews in the 1891 St. Wenceslaus Mission in Moravia Church built in 1891 in Moravia seven miles south of Owatonna? Who crafted these pews? And how did parishioners feel when their church closed in 1952?

Perhaps you could ask Tony Seykora, whose mother, Mary Meixner, attended St. Wenceslaus and whose daughter, Susan, was married here. He wasn’t sharing any stories on Sunday while touring his ancestral church at the Village of Yesteryear.

 Oh, the stories this old town hall, the Owatonna Town Hall built in the late 1850s, could tell about those who met here and shaped the future of the city.

And if you could peek over their shoulders, would you to see how those in the Meriden area voted? This folding polling booth was patented in March of 1892 making it first available for the Presidential election that same year. The polling booth was used at the Meriden Town Hall until 2009. Until 2009, people.

Who wore these hats displayed inside the historic 1868 Dunnell House, home of Minnesota legal scholar, educator and Congressman Mark Hill? Were they hats of mourning, hats of celebration, practical hats…?

A volunteer who works with the Blue Earth County Historical Society and the Betsy-Tacy Society in Mankato in decorating vintage hats studies the collection for ideas.

Also in the Dunnell House, a nook in the parlor offers a place for quiet conversation. Oh, to have been there, eavesdropping…the stories and secrets you may have heard about/from Congressman Hill and other legislators.

Horse power, but certainly not horses…these vintage tractors were parked next to the horse barn at the Steele County Fairgrounds. Surely they would speak of long, hard days on the farm, their wheels weighed down by the burdens of a farmer’s worries and the uncertainties that have always been a part of farming from the early days of Minnesota to current day Minnesota.

What is that saying? You haven’t walked a mile until you’ve walked in my shoes. Consider that, how challenging it would have been to walk in the boots/shoes of your ancestors for whom life presented so many daily challenges simply to survive.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County Historical Society, click here.

CLICK HERE to read my first blog post about the Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza. Watch for one final, upcoming post.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling