Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

June bride at the Village of Yesteryear June 26, 2020

A sign marks the Village of Yesteryear, a sprawling collection of historic buildings in Owatonna.

 

WHILE WALKING TOWARD THE HISTORIC CHURCH, I first saw her. The woman dressed in black. With a camera. Although I wondered at her formal attire, I didn’t consider that she might be someone other than a photographer interested in the Village of Yesteryear.

 

The District 14 school moved here in 1963.

 

I took this photo of the old school before the bride and her bridesmaids arrived.

 

From a distance, I photographed the photographer at work.

 

But soon enough, when I saw a bride and her attendants rounding the back of the 1856 District No. 14 schoolhouse, the photographer’s purpose became clear.

 

Trees frame the steeple of the Saco Church.

 

By that time, I’d reached St. Wenceslaus Church of Moravia, a church built in 1891 and moved here, to the grounds of the Steele County Historical Society in Owatonna, in 1962.

 

While I’ve previously been inside this historic church, it was locked on Saturday.

 

I pondered for a moment whether a wedding was planned here, but saw nothing to indicate that. So I took a few photos of the aged church, which was locked, just like all the other buildings in this historic village on this late Saturday afternoon. And while I did that, I kept my eye on the nearby photo session.

For one, I didn’t want to stray into the path of the professional photographer. I’ve been in her shoes and understand the frustration of dealing with wedding guests who get in the way and want to take photos. That presents challenges in time and management and more.

 

I stood to the side and photographed the bride and her attendants.

 

But, as I neared the group of women while en route to the parking lot, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Is it okay if I take your picture? I’m a blogger.” The bride was quick to approve and the photographer invited me to stand next to her. I declined. “I don’t have my mask,” I explained. She didn’t have her face mask either.

 

From the back of the church, the bride and her party are visible from afar.

 

That is the reality of living during a global pandemic. As excited as I was to happen upon this most common of summer scenes—an outdoors bridal photo session—I still remembered COVID-19. Minutes earlier I’d congratulated the bride on her wedding day, specifically commenting on the challenges of marrying in a pandemic.

 

You can see and feel the love in this photo.

 

But, as I framed a few photos, my thoughts shifted back to the moment, to the celebration, to the joy. Here were four beautiful young women, stunning in their sparkly dresses, arms wrapped around one another, luscious bouquets of peonies clutched in their hands, posing for portraits against an historic backdrop.

In that moment I witnessed life. Ordinary and celebratory. Life full and joyous. Life as lovely as a June bride.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

WW I from a Steele County, Minnesota, personal perspective April 16, 2019

 

YOU CAN SPEND considerable time reading all of the information included in a World War I exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. But I am more a Cliffs Notes reader when it comes to museum-based history. I scan to gain a general overall understanding and then choose to focus more on content that interests me most.

 

 

 

“Fight the foe with the hoe.”

 

The “Over Here, Over There: The Great War” exhibit presents Steele County’s role in WW I, both on the battlefield and at home. It’s an incredible research project. Well done. Detailed and personalized. I’ve come to expect such historical accuracy and professionalism in homegrown exhibits at this southern Minnesota museum.

 

 

As I ducked into military and medical tents, listened to the sounds of machine gun fire,

 

 

 

 

took in the wall of nearly 1,100 soldiers’ names,

 

 

admired military medals,

 

 

pulled copies of soldiers’ letters from mailboxes,

 

 

observed blacklisted books of German poetry,

 

 

considered the sacrifices of Wheatless Wednesdays and Heatless Mondays, I contemplated how this war affected every aspect of life. Not just for those military personnel in battle, but for the everyday American.

 

 

And when I read the section on immigration, I contemplated how little has changed. How the issues of yesterday—back then the hatred of Germans—today has only a new color, a new ethnicity. I read: Mass immigration created social tensions. Many native-born citizens demanded assimilation and wanted less immigration.

I don’t intend for this post to spark intense discussion on immigration issues. But the immigration section of this exhibit certainly resonated with me. I am of German heritage. If my grandparents were still living, I would question them about issues they faced because of their ethnicity.

It saddens me to think how, still today, social tensions and demands for assimilation and hostility toward immigrants remain. Strong. Often hateful. As if we didn’t all come from immigrants. As if we aren’t all human beings worthy of love and respect and a place to call home.

 

 

 

All of that aside, I’d encourage you to tour “Over Here, Over There: The Great War.” There is much to be culled from this exhibit whether you read every single word or browse through the information. In history we learn. If only we’d retain those lessons so history does not repeat itself.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Owatonna: Toys exhibit highlights 50 years of child’s play April 5, 2019

Turtle power displayed.

 

CAN YOU NAME all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I bet my daughters can. These fictional teenage cartoon characters are named after Italian artists of the Renaissance. And they were vastly popular when my girls were growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s.

 

 

Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael. The turtles are among toys featured in a “Toys & Play, 1970 to Today” exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. This museum ranks as one of my favorite regional history centers. Why? Because of the home-grown changing exhibits, the traveling exhibits and the adjoining Village of Yesteryear. Staff and volunteers clearly work hard to create engaging exhibits with a local connection.

 

 

 

Go ahead, play.

 

Kids are welcome to play with some of the exhibit toys, including these farm-themed wood cut-outs.

 

From videos to interactive activities to creative displays and more, visitors experience history. I am so thankful for this shift from “look and don’t touch” to hands-on that now imprints most history centers. History, to be remembered, must be experienced through the senses. I find myself bored at museums that revolve around simply walking past glass-encased historical artifacts. I need engagement to pull me in.

 

All three of my kids, including the son, owned one Cabbage Patch doll.

 

Front and center in the exhibit, fabric drapes over a cardboard box to create a fort.

 

 

Without kids in tow, though, I mostly observed this exhibit, flashing back to sweet memories of my daughters cradling their Cabbage Patch dolls, clasping tiny Polly Pockets in their little hands, sliding Viewmaster reels into place, creating art with a Lite-Brite, building forts from blankets draped over card tables and much more.

 

In a mock-up child’s bedroom, visitors are invited to play Nintendo.

 

Our family played lots of board games. Those are part of the Owatonna exhibit, but are a don’t touch part of the exhibit.

 

A table full of pogs, ready for playing.

 

I limited their screen time. They played together. Indoors and outdoors. And they used their imaginations.

 

 

 

I was happy to see a tractor displayed in a case full of toys.

 

The exhibit extends beyond a collection of popular toys. It also addresses the value of play as a learning tool, consumerism, issues related to technologically-based toys… There’s much to contemplate as I consider how toys have changed in the decades since I was a kid galloping around the farmyard on my stick horse crafted from a sock and an old broom handle.

 

 

But one thing remains unchanged—that is a kid’s desire for whatever is the hottest, newest toy. I remember flipping through the pages of the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog, aka the Wish Book, to tag the toys I knew I’d never get. A pogo stick sticks in my memory. I could dream all I wanted while repeatedly turning those pages. But in reality my parents had only minimal money and not enough to buy those coveted toys.

 

Through the museum window I saw this playground, such a fitting visual for the info posted inside the mock child’s bedroom.

 

Looking back now, I am thankful for that lack of material possessions as a child. Instead, the vast outdoors of rural Minnesota provided all I needed for imaginative play with my siblings. There were no battery operated toys, which I refuse to buy even today for my grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

Parenting children today, I think, proves more challenging than that of previous generations, even of raising my own kids. Screen time robs too many kids of creative play, of family time, of spending time outdoors. I realize it’s a much different world. And I can lament all I want about the changes. But that does no good. The bottom line is that we can make choices for our children. We decide whether to cave to whining. We decide which toys to buy. We decide on screen time. We decide on the importance of outdoor play. We have the ability to encourage healthy, engaging and creative play.

 

My girls’ My Little Ponies came from garage sales, as did many of their toys.

 

PLEASE SHARE your thoughts on toys, on child’s play, on your favorite childhood toy, on parental choices, whatever you feel inclined to say about kids and toys and, yes, parents, too.

 

FYI: The Steele County Historical Society museum is open Tuesdays – Saturdays. The toy exhibit remains open into the fall. Call to confirm dates.

RELATED: Click here to read about the reasons behind the closing of Creative Kidstuff, a group of home-grown toy stores in the Twin Cities.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A final look at weddings in Steele County, Part III May 5, 2016

A groom's jacket from

A groom’s jacket from 1897.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE GROOMS? I wondered as I toured the Wedding Traditions of Steele County exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

 

Look at the fabulous detail on the back of this bridal gown.

Look at the fabulous detail on the back of this bridal gown.

 

Among the nearly two dozen bridal gowns displayed, I noticed only two dresses complimented by groom’s attire. What’s with that? I figured I knew the reason. Char Ost, a volunteer who helped with the project, confirmed my suspicions. The museum simply doesn’t have groom’s clothing in its collection (other than those displayed and some military uniforms) because the men continued to wear their suits after their weddings.

Makes sense.

 

The bride wore a blue grey wool suit at her 1944 wedding.

The bride wore a practical blue grey wool suit at her 1944 wedding.

 

I really enjoyed this exhibit. It gave me insights on how world events and the economy and personal wealth (or lack thereof) and tradition shaped weddings.

 

This dress had the longest train of all those on display.

This dress had the longest train of all those on display.

 

Here’s one final look at this exhibit from my perspective. You may notice things I didn’t if you were to view this display at the Steele County History Center. And that’s the beauty of a collective historical display. We each bring our own backgrounds, our own interests, our own experiences to an exhibit.

 

My favorite headpiece is this lovely hat worn by a bride in 1923.

My favorite headpiece is this lovely hat worn by a bride in 1923.

 

A crown headpiece, probably from the 1950s (I don't recall).

A crown headpiece, probably from the 1950s (I don’t recall).

 

Hair prep essentials.

Hair prep essentials.

 

Imagine fitting your feet into these tiny boots and then attempting to lace them.

Imagine stuffing your feet into these tiny boots and then attempting to lace them.

 

Vintage portraits are part of the exhibit, helping to tell the wedding story.

Vintage portraits are part of the exhibit, helping to tell the wedding story.

 

Look at the beautiful hardanger on this 1909 wedding gown.

Look at the beautiful hardanger on this 1909 wedding gown. Simply stunning in handmade simplicity.

 

FYI: To read my previous posts in this three-part series, click here. And then click here.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Details of weddings in Steele County, Part II May 4, 2016

A sampling of dresses in the exhibit.

A sampling of dresses in the Wedding Traditions of Steele County exhibit.

 

AS A PHOTOGRAPHER AND WRITER, details matter to me. Likewise, details matter to historians. We are meticulous in our documentation. We understand that details tell the complete story.

 

Details have always been important in wedding photography.

Details have always been important in wedding photography as shown in this exhibit photo.

 

Wedding gifts are listed in this book on display.

Wedding gifts are listed in this book on display.

 

That is evident in Wedding Traditions of Steele County, a recently-opened exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Although bridal gowns certainly are the highlight, there is so much more to be seen—in the photos, in the genealogy, in the explanations of traditions.

 

This bow sits on the shoulder/neckline of a dress.

This bow sits on the shoulder/neckline of a dress.

 

Lovely fabric rosettes adorn a 1964 bridal gown.

Lovely fabric rosettes adorn a 1964 bridal gown.

 

A sash ties in the front of a dress designed by Owatonna native Scott Nylund.

A sash ties in the front of a dress designed by Owatonna native Scott Nylund.

 

An illusion neckline drapes on a 1949 bridal gown.

An illusion neckline drapes on a 1949 bridal gown.

 

As I took in the displays, I found myself focusing on details in bridal gown design.

 

Sharon West and her wedding party party get ready for her September 1959 wedding at the United Methodist Church in Owatonna.

Sharon West and her wedding party get ready for her September 1959 wedding at the United Methodist Church in Owatonna. Although this vintage shot doesn’t look posed, it likely was.

 

And then I studied the wedding photos, noting how wedding photography has changed from mostly formal posed portraits to the journalistic style of today.

 

A name place card is among items displayed.

A name place card is among items displayed.

 

Details, details, details. In planning a wedding, they are essential. And this exhibit shows that.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for one final post in this Wedding Traditions of Steele County series. Click here to read my first post in this series.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A historical look at weddings in Steele County, Part I May 3, 2016

This sign marks the exhibits currently showing in the Steele County History Center through spring 2017.

This sign marks the exhibits currently showing in the Steele County History Center through spring 2017.

THE DETAILS ARE, OH, SO LOVELY. Dainty buttons. Lace. Shiny satin. You’ll see them all in Wedding Traditions of Steele County, a newly-opened exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

This section highlights dresses from the 1910s and 1920s.

This section highlights dresses from the early 1920s.

Nearly two dozen wedding dresses take center stage in this exhibit created by three volunteers and a museum staffer over some six months.

The exhibit team carefully researched the genealogies of the brides and grooms.

The exhibit team carefully researched the genealogies of the brides and grooms.

But this exhibit extends well beyond dresses to include wedding history, traditions and genealogy. It’s an impressive visual documentation, especially fitting as the wedding season begins.

The dress and matching feathered hat worn at this 1923 wedding are in lovely brown tones.

The dress and matching feathered hat worn at this 1923 wedding are in lovely brown tones.

Did you know, for example, that a bride didn’t always wear white? Prior to 1840, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in an all-white gown, a bride simply wore her best dress, no matter the color. Blue, rather than white, once symbolized purity.

"Something blue" is woven into this crocheted ring bearer's pillow.

“Something blue” is woven into this crocheted ring bearer’s pillow.

And about that “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”…this started as a tradition to ward off evil spirits. You’ll learn that and a whole lot more as you peruse this multifaceted exhibit.

Fuller and lacier dresses defined the style of gowns in the 1950s.

Fuller and lacier dresses defined the style of gowns in the 1950s.

Volunteer Char Ost spent hours researching and planning with team members at meetings and at home as this exhibit came together. She’s a former museum staffer and board president who simply thought the project would be fun. The team reviewed photos of wedding dresses in the museum collection before choosing gowns that would display nicely and were in suitable condition to showcase, she said. Those selected gowns cover the time period from 1896 – 1997.

This photo shows the details on a 1950s dress.

This photo shows the bead and lace details on a 1950s wedding dress.

Missing, though, are wedding dresses from the 1980s and more from the 1990s. People are still familiar with those bridal gowns and those brides are not giving away their dresses, including to the museum, Ost noted. That explains why I didn’t see 1980s dresses reflecting the royal influence of Princess Diana’s wedding gown. I was married in 1982 and my $80 wedding dress definitely did not have beads, sequins, puffy sleeves or a long train like that of the princess.

Margaret Ringhofer wore this dress at her August 25, 1931, wedding. It reminds me of my Grandma Josie's bridal gown.

Margaret Ringhofer wore this dress at her August 25, 1931, wedding. It reminds me of my Grandma Josie’s bridal gown.

As I studied the gowns, grouped by time periods, it was easy to see the period influence. In the glass encased Depression era dresses, conservatism shows in neck lines, fabric choices and style. I spotted a 1931 gown that looks a lot like my maternal grandmother’s, a simple style I considered wearing on my wedding day until discovering I was considerably taller than Grandma Josephine.

Wedding dresses from the 1960s.

Wedding dresses from the 1960s.

In the 1960s, bridal gowns reflected “anything goes,” according to a posted sign. How true of that decade.

These three dresses were designed by Scott Nylund, a 1995 graduate of Owatonna High School. He once worked for music superstar Beyonce'.

These dresses worn by Maggie, Genny and Anne were designed by Scott Nylund, a 1995 graduate of Owatonna High School. He once worked for music superstar Beyonce’.

Three dresses from the 2000s are also included, specifically sought out for the exhibit. Owatonna native and fashion designer Scott Nylund created the gowns. They are luxuriously stunning with laces from Paris, a brooch from the East Village of NYC and fabrics of silk chiffon and silk duchess satin.

The invitation to the wedding of Charlene Newman and Stuart Ost is displayed in a case.

The invitation to the 1959 wedding of Charlene Newman and Stuart Ost is displayed in a case.

Char and Stuart Ost's 1959 wedding cake topper.

Char and Stuart Ost’s wedding cake topper.

You’ll find other wedding related items displayed, including an invitation, napkin, cake topper, photo and hand-sewn apron from volunteer Char’s 1959 wedding.

Portraits, too, tell a story about styles, traditions and even photography.

Portraits, too, tell a story about styles, traditions and even photography.

Many wedding portraits are interspersed with dresses as is information about traditions like dowries, engagement rings, feeding of the wedding cake and even the bunny hop.

Even handwritten vows are part of the exhibit.

Even handwritten vows are part of the exhibit.

The display gets as personal as Jason and Angie’s wedding vows hand-printed on recipe cards.

Volunteers worked hard to assure that descriptions of the dresses were accurate, team member Char Ost said.

Volunteers worked hard to assure that descriptions of the dresses were accurate, team member Char Ost said.

It’s clear the organizers of this exhibit invested a lot of time in gathering and sharing of information, from the genealogy associated with each dress to the descriptions of the dresses right down to the type of fabric, neckline, sleeves and more.

Some dresses could not be fully closed on the fuller forms.

Some dresses could not be fully closed on the forms.

Once all that research was completed, the crew faced one more challenge. “We did contortions to get some of those dresses on (the forms),” Char said, noting that perhaps corsets also should have been shown.

It was then that I suggested a follow-up exhibit, Wedding Traditions of Steele County II. I loved the exhibit that much.

FYI: Wedding Traditions of Steele County will be on display until the spring of 2017. Museum hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursdays; and from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturdays. Closed on Sunday. The history center is located at 1700 Austin Road on the southeast side of Owatonna. Admission is charged. While there, you can also peruse an exhibit on disasters in Minnesota and in Steele County.

On Thursday, June 9, the history center will host Toss the Bouquet: The Wedding Professionals Spin from 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Wedding industry leaders will share their thoughts on wedding trends and also talk about wedding planning details.

Check back tomorrow for Part II in this series on the Wedding Traditions of Steele County exhibit.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: The disasters of Steele County April 15, 2016

Steele County disasters, 107 pandemic display

 

OF ALL THE DISASTERS HIGHLIGHTED in a current local disasters exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, it is the flu pandemic of 1918 that feels most personal. To read the names of victims like Cora, Helen and Forest and to see photos of gravestones grieved me. Every winter, even today, we hear of those who’ve died from the flu. Young. Old. In between. Thankfully, we have vaccines that prevent the illness from infecting most of us.

Snowdrifts blocked a train as noted in this news clip.

Snowdrifts blocked a train as noted in this news clip.

This detailed exhibit, an off-shoot of the Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit Disasters of Minnesota: Stories of Strength and Survival, connected a worldwide tragedy to Minnesota. To the county just to the south of mine.

Masks, precautions and isolation helped protect against the flu epidemic. To the left in this photo are names of Steele County residents who died from the flu in 1918.

Masks, precautions and isolation helped protect against the flu epidemic. To the left in this photo are names of Steele County residents who died from the flu in 1918, plus photos of some of their gravestones.

In Minnesota alone, according to one report, as many as 12,000 died of the flu in 1918. Worldwide, sources put deaths at 40 or 50 million.

Activities that brought people together were suspended during the flu outbreak.

Activities that brought people together were suspended during the flu outbreak.

I’d never considered the vast scope of this tragedy, how fearful folks must have been, how deep the grief at losing loved ones and friends. I also hadn’t thought about the impact on everyday life. As I browsed the exhibit, I noted news stories about libraries, dance halls, theaters and churches closed because of the pandemic.

I am old enough to remember also the fringe ending of the polio epidemic, highlighted, too, in this exhibit.

These newspaper articles feature snowstorms in the county.

These newspaper articles feature snowstorms in the county.

Steele County has experienced plenty of floods.

Steele County has experienced numerous floods.

Fires, too, have devastated the county.

Fires, too, have devastated the county.

Steele County has experienced plenty of disasters involving snow, heat, wind, water and fire. These are outlined in panel displays.

Portrait of Virginia Hart

Portrait of Virginia Hart

It would be easy to become discouraged, to feel only despair that so many southern Minnesota residents have suffered so much through the years. I was especially appreciative of stories that uplifted me, like that of Ruth Weinmann. The young teacher, ill with the flu in 1918, was taken in by a doctor’s family after her landlady refused to house her and the hospital was full. In gratitude to Dr. Alfred and Alice Hart, Ruth painted a portrait of their daughter, Virginia. It is a lovely expression of thankfulness.

 

Steele County disasters, 104 chicks hatch in heat

 

And then there’s the story of chicks hatching in the middle of Steele County’s longest, hottest heat wave—13 straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees beginning on July 5, 1936. Mrs. Tilford Morreim left five eggs on the window sill of her woodshed. In the heat, the eggs hatched. I needed to read that humorous story in the midst of all the suffering and loss.

Information on tornadoes in Steele County.

Information on tornadoes in Steele County.

In every disaster, we must find a reason to be hopeful, to survive, to share our stories…for in sharing exists hope and resilience.

These two exhibits are on display through March 2017.

These two exhibits are on display through March 2017.

FYI: For more information about this exhibit, click here. To read my first post about this exhibit in Owatonna, click here. Check back for a post on a wedding dress exhibit also now showing at the Steele County History Center.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Minnesota disasters up close April 14, 2016

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

DISASTER. How do you define that word? In a Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit currently displayed at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, disaster covers everything from tornadoes to the 35W bridge collapse to the grasshopper plague, drought, blizzards and more.

I personally remember many Minnesota disasters—such as the bridge collapse; the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the 1998 St. Peter-Comfrey tornadoes; the 1968 Tracy tornado which killed nine; the drought of 1976; and the devastating floods of September 2010.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota's deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota’s deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

This week, Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week, seems an appropriate time to focus on the topic of disasters and to show you the MHS exhibit, Minnesota Disasters: Stories of Strength and Survival.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retainted by Lantz.

I expect many of you have been, at some point, personally impacted by a disaster. The deadly Tracy tornado forever put the fear of tornadoes in my heart. That southwestern Minnesota community lies only 25 miles from my hometown; I saw the devastation in Tracy. Decades later, a tornado damaged the farm where I grew up and high winds partially ripped the roof from my home church of St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta. I respect the powerful forces of nature, specifically of wind.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

A debris pile on the edge of the St. John’s Lutheran Church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof (covered with a tarp here) and brick from the bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2011.

Elsewhere in Minnesota—in Belview, St. Peter and individual farm sites across Minnesota—I’ve seen the damage a tornado can cause.  I reported on and photographed tornado damage while working as a newspaper reporter. When a tornado warning siren blows, you won’t see me standing in the driveway looking for the twister. I’ll be sheltering in the basement.

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything.

I cannot imagine grasshoppers so thick that they obliterated everything.

As I perused the MHS disaster exhibit and the accompanying stories of disasters in Steele County, I realized the depth of loss Minnesotans have endured. The Grasshopper Plague of 1873-1877 recounts how locusts devoured even the laundry hanging on clotheslines.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

On February 5, 1924, forty-one miners drowned in the Milford Mine near Crosby in northern Minnesota. “For God’s sake, run!” one miner shouted to his co-workers. A warning like that floods the mind with fear. I’d never heard of the mine disaster until touring the MHS exhibit in Owatonna. Now I’ll never forget it.

Because I have extended family in the Hinckley area, I was fully aware of The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 which claimed 418 lives. To read of feet baking inside shoes and stockings from the fire is horrifying.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

As bad as those and many other natural disasters, Minnesotans voted the drought of the 1920s and 30s (the Dust Bowl era) as the “number-one state weather event of the 20th century,” according to information posted in the exhibit. I was born decades after that disaster. But, as a teen, I recall a Good Friday dust storm that blew into Redwood County. We were shopping in nearby Marshall and arrived home to find the house layered in dirt; we’d left the windows open. For hours we worked to wash away the grime.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our rural Vesta driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. I’m standing here with my mom, older brother and three younger siblings.

Blizzards, especially, imprinted upon my memory. There is nothing like a prairie blizzard that drives snow across open farm fields, sculpting the snow into rock-hard drifts around buildings and trees. Those winter storms of the 1960s and mid-1970s created all kinds of problems with roads closed, the power out and cows to be milked. Snowstorms of today don’t compare. And, no, I didn’t walk two miles to school uphill in a blizzard. Rather, in one particularly snowy winter, I rode to town on my dad’s cab-less John Deere tractor so I could catch the bus at Don’s Cafe to ride the 20 miles to junior high school in Redwood Falls. The bus drove sometimes on a single lane cut through snowbanks higher than the bus.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

Tell me, what’s your story of dealing with a natural disaster? If you don’t have one, be thankful.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a look at disasters in Steele County, Minnesota. The disasters exhibit will be on display through March 2017 at the history center in Owatonna. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesotans remember the Holocaust in traveling exhibit June 23, 2014

I READ IT IN THEIR STORIES. Courage. Hope. Strength. Fortitude. Survival.

I see it in the lines that etch deep into their faces, in their piercing eyes, in their hands. Courage. Hope. Strength. Fortitude. Survival.

Panels showcase portraits and stories.

Panels showcase portraits and stories.

They are men and women, now living in Minnesota, who survived the Holocaust.

On a recent Saturday, in Owatonna, a rural Minnesota community far removed from the horrible history of Nazis and concentration camps and atrocities against Jews, I was introduced to brave souls who endured almost unimaginable experiences to emerge with spirits still strong, hope alive, lives to live.

Holocaust survivor Leo Weiss.

Holocaust survivor Leo Weiss.

Eva, Ella, Sam, Walter, Paula, Anne, Joe, Trudy, Leo…

The Steele County History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna, is hosting "Transfer of Memory" through August 17.

The Steele County History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna, is hosting “Transfer of Memory” through August 17. Museum admission charges apply.

Thirty-five impressive portraits by photographer David Sherman and accompanying information written by Lili Chester tell the stories of these Holocaust survivors in the traveling exhibit, “Transfer of Memory.” The show, created in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, will remain at the Steele County History Center until August 17.

Their stories will touch you.

Their stories will touch you.

I’m especially pleased that this exhibit is showing in Owatonna, offering southeastern Minnesota residents like myself the opportunity to view the portraits and read the stories without traveling into the Twin Cities metro.

Panels of portraits and stories define "Transfer of Memory."

Panels of portraits and stories define “Transfer of Memory.”

As I perused the panels of photos, plucking laminated story cards from below the portraits, I found myself immersed in the personal stories of survival and lessons learned. Hands gripped to prevent separation. Warnings given to save lives. Lying about age and religion to save one’s self. Death and marches and sickness. Horrible horrible stories.

Hope in a story.

In their words: hope.

But always hope. Hope and faith and more allowed these individuals to survive such awful atrocities.

I wonder if I would have possessed the willpower to continue on, to overcome, as they did.

Survivor portraits and stories impress.

Survivor portraits and stories impress.

These Holocaust survivors offer not only their experiences, but their introspection. Therein lies the power of this exhibit:

Don’t hate, it is a terrible thing. Everyone is born innocent. There is no reason to hate.—  Eva Gross

The United State presents to me and all our sons and daughter (s) an equal opportunity. Have patience, make an effort and be tolerant.—  Sam Rafowitz

The potential of (evil) is there in all of us if we do not remember the past.—  Lucy Smith

FYI: If you are unable to view this exhibit in person, click here to see the portraits and read the stories online.

Permission was secured from curators Laura Zelle and Susie Greenberg and from photographer David Sherman to use these photos of Sherman’s work and the exhibit quotes published here. Original exhibit photos and text are copyrighted.

 

 

Owatonna exhibit celebrates Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World October 8, 2013

MILK COURSES through my veins, for I am the daughter of a dairy farmer.

Inside the Wegners' barn, where dairy products come from.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Ron and Diane Wegner’s rural Faribault dairy barn.

Growing up, I labored in the barn beside my dad and siblings—feeding cows, bedding straw, lugging pails of milk to the bulk tank, washing milking machines, scraping manure and more.

I smelled of cow, watched bovines’ tails flick flies and rise to release streams of splashing hot pee into barn gutters.

Sandpaper rough tongues sometimes grated across my skin. Cold, wet noses dampened the sleeves of my chore coat.

I carried gallons of frothy fresh milk to the house for pasteurization and consumption.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. The Steele County exhibit features  photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier carved butter heads from past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A current exhibit at the Steele County History Center features photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier this year, carved butter heads from recent past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

I knew cows and milk and once competed for Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess, a title I coveted but could not win because I lacked the poise and confidence and beauty to represent the industry.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

These memories flit through my mind as I consider a recent visit to the Steele County History Center in Owatonna to tour the featured exhibit, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

It’s a must-see exhibit which will trigger memories for those who grew up on dairy farms and educate those who didn’t. And, even with my dairying background, I learned a lot about the history of dairy farming in Steele County.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

For example, Steele County gained its world-wide Butter Capitol reputation after Owatonna Manufacturing Company invented the mechanized butter churn in 1893, revolutionizing the dairy industry.

But two decades prior, in 1873, the county was well on its way to establishing a strong dairy reputation with four local cheese factories producing 150,000 pounds of cheese, more than any other Minnesota county.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

At one point, Steele County boasted two dozen-plus creameries.

Coveted butter

Hope Creamery, south of Owatonna, still produces coveted, award-winning Grade A butter in small batches. Butter boxes from Steele County creameries are displayed behind glass in the exhibit.

In December 1926, thieves stole 19 tubs of butter valued at $700 from the Steele Center Creamery.

Two Steele County women, Mina Holmes and Marianne McRostie, won numerous national awards for their hand-churned butter.

Photos of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Images of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Yes, so many accomplishments led to this southern Minnesota county holding the title of Butter Capitol of the World from 1898 – 1940, says Jerry Ganfield, who along with a committee of four women involved in the dairy industry, created this remarkable exhibit. Ganfield, holds a background in communications and marketing, grew up in Iowa and worked one summer during college as a milkhouse operator. Today he lives in a barn turned house near Bixsby and volunteers with the Steele County Historical Society, serving on its board of directors.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County's dairy industry.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County’s dairy industry.

Work on the Butter Capitol exhibit began in January with the historic display debuting in mid-July. It runs through November 10. Eventually, many of the items will be returned to the farm machinery building in the Village of Yesteryear (next to the Steele County History Center) where most were previously displayed.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on the model cow in the photo above.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on a model cow.

Perhaps I am a bit biased being a dairy farmer’s daughter and all. But this exhibit is one of the most impressive, thorough, detailed and interesting I’ve seen in a county history center.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World is well worth a drive to Owatonna to peruse.  Just give yourself two hours, minimum, to tour the display.

#

BONUS PHOTOS:

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. I've never seen one prior to this. The exhibit also features an incredible handcrafted replica of a barn.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. The exhibit also features a handcrafted replica of a barn.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in the background display.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in this display. My dad used these before he installed a pipeline.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items. Indian Maid Feeds was sold from the late 1950s – 1984 by Owatonna Elevator Company. The brand pictured an Indian maiden to recall the legend of Princess Owatonna, whose health was restored by drinking the mineral spring waters of the area. The exhibit also features a large wooden logo of the princess that once rested atop the elevator. You’ll need to visit the exhibit to see that vintage art.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County History Center/Historical Society, housed in a fabulous new building opened in April 2012, click here.

The Steele County History Center encourages kids to join its Time Travelers Club and History Detectives. The detectives meet at 10:15 a.m. and the travelers at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna.

Click here to read a Minnesota Public Radio story about Hope Creamery.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling