Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Patio art June 12, 2017

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THE WHITE GLOBES stretch across the patio in a string of lights creating a party ambiance.



There’s nothing remarkable really about the lights purchased years ago in the end of summer discount aisle at Target. They add a mood setting touch to our backyard and practical functionality once the sun sets.



Beyond that and the inconvenience of hanging and removing them after each usage—they’re not waterproof—I hadn’t thought much about the patio lights.



But that changed one recent evening when, relaxing in my lawn chair, I tipped my head back, eyes drawn skyward.. The white orbs glowed golden against inky blue. In that moment, I saw art.



Do you ever experience delights like that, when the ordinary transitions into something more, something so lovely that you pause and appreciate? Or, if you’re me, you dash indoors to grab your camera.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Owatonna: Showcasing the work of fashion designer Spencer Versteeg May 9, 2017

Two of the dresses Spencer Versteeg designed, now on display at the Owatonna Arts Center.


HIS PASSION FOR FASHION is evident. It shows in his work, in his enthusiasm, in his energetic vibe.


Spencer answers questions about his fashions during his OAC gallery reception.


I observed all of that Sunday afternoon at an Owatonna Arts Center reception honoring Spencer Versteeg who returned to his hometown for his first ever gallery showing. He’s an apparel design student heading into his senior year at the University of Minnesota.


The exhibit features notebooks and pages of Spencer’s design sketches.


Spencer has known since age seven that he wanted to design clothing.

Spencer has known since age seven that he wanted to design clothing. He pursued that interest early on via local theatre and a high school internship at Kristi’s Clothing Boutique.




Already Spencer is making an imprint on the fashion scene. Last fall his work was showcased in the noted Envision Fashion Show at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. And this summer he’s interning at Target, working on a floor set that should land his women’s clothing designs in Target stores.




Front dress details drape.


Spencer’s clothing designs hang high on a gallery space wall.


Asked to describe his design style, Spencer paused, then responded with a single word: vibrant. That seems accurate when I consider his fashion designs beyond hue and pattern. His clothing possesses a vibrancy in a sense of motion, in the flow of fabric, in the impression it exudes.


Spencer talks with a gallery guest about his fashion designs. He invited visitors to page through his sketchbooks.


And then there’s Spencer himself, engaging family and friends with a notable appreciation for their support and with a deep love for the creative process of fashion design.


Rows of sketches by Spencer are taped to a gallery wall.


When I inquired about his future, he provided an honest answer. “That’s a good question,” Spencer said, offering no hint at the direction his life may take after graduation from the U of M.


The bodice of a particularly creative dress shown at the Envision Fashion Show.


“New York?” I asked.



He’s been to New York, Spencer said, enough to understand he needs space, open physical space. But I expect if opportunities present themselves in the New York fashion scene, this Owatonna native will embrace them.




Clothing patterns are tapped to gallery windows.




I know next to nothing about fashion, although I sewed my own clothing (from purchased patterns) while in high school. But I understand the need, the desire, the passion to create. Just like Spencer.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Pick the Bic from the pocket, please January 14, 2014

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NOW WE ALL KNOW that merchandise is returned to stores every day and restocked on shelves, right?

But how thoroughly are those returns checked, if at all?

Recently my husband shopped at the Target in Northfield and bought two pairs of jeans for our college-aged son, currently home from Boston on holiday break. These were purchased with cash as we have canceled our Target REDcard. We are choosing to be proactive rather than follow Target’s advice to “monitor our account” for possible fraudulent activity.

That said, we are always please to find jeans that fit our long-legged and slender 19-year-old.

Surprise. These jeans purchased at Target came with a Bic lighter stashed inside a front pocket and repositioned in this staged photo.

Surprise. These jeans purchased at Target came with a Bic lighter stashed inside a front pocket and repositioned in this staged photo.

I wasn’t pleased, though, when I discovered a Bic lighter buried in a front pocket of one pair of jeans as I removed labels to launder the pants.

Bonus two: A receipt to Walgreens tucked into the other pocket. This receipt was visible.

Bonus two: A receipt to Walgreens tucked into the other pocket. This receipt was visible.

A receipt to the Northfield Walgreens store was tucked inside the opposite pocket.

I assumed the jeans were not worn as all labels were attached and the pants appeared in new condition. So I tossed them in the wash.

Jeans purchased at Target with a receipt in one pocket and a Bic lighter in the other.

Jeans purchased at Target with a receipt in one pocket and a Bic lighter in the other.

It’s a good thing I always check pockets before doing the laundry. I wish Target would do the same before restocking merchandise.

But I suppose they have more important things to worry about than Bics in pockets.

HAVE YOU EVER FOUND anything unexpected in the pockets (or elsewhere) of just-purchased merchandise or discovered the merchandise had been used? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Forget shopping in North Dakota on a Sunday morning November 25, 2012

A sign along a city street welcomes us to Fargo, North Dakota, from Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River.

LET’S PRETEND FOR A MOMENT that you are me. You’ve traveled nearly 300 miles from southeastern Minnesota to Fargo, North Dakota, with your husband to visit your son at North Dakota State University in mid-October.

Your son needs basic supplies like laundry detergent and deodorizing powder to sprinkle into his smelly athletic shoes. He also needs long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, socks and a warm scarf to wrap around his neck. Winter, after all, is waiting on flat and windy Fargo’s doorstep.

Being the nice parent that you are, you offer to take your boy shopping. And even though your son detests shopping, he agrees. He is no dummy. He would rather spend Mom and Dad’s money than his own.

So you plan a shopping trip to Target in West Fargo for 10 a.m. Sunday because that will allow the teen to sleep in. Afterward you’ll grab lunch around 11 a.m., then proceed to J.C. Penney (you checked online and Penneys does not open until noon) and leave town by 1 p.m. That is the plan. You have 300 miles to drive yet today.

But the entire plan is tossed out the window when you arrive at Target around 10:30 a.m. Sunday to find the doors locked. This big box retailer does not open until noon.

You suggest heading to Walmart. Your son gets on his smart phone, which he’s recently purchased quite successfully without your assistance or money, thank you. The three of you are soon winding your way around West Fargo, aiming for the discount retailer many love to hate.

Pulling into the parking lot, you notice that the place appears mostly deserted of cars and certainly of customers. As you draw nearer to the front doors, you spot signs stationed at the entrances:

The sign posted in front of the West Fargo Walmart on a Sunday morning.

OK, then.

Now what? Change of plans. Again.

Time to proceed with Plan C, which would be to check if Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River, has a Target. It does. So you aim west for the border, driving five-plus miles, burning up gas because you don’t have time to wait for North Dakota’s stores to open.

You arrive at the Minnesota Target to find the parking lot packed with vehicles bearing mostly North Dakota license plates.

If only you had known about the Sunday morning shopping ban in NoDak, you would have planned differently and squeezed in a Saturday evening shopping outing. You would not be a now unhappy and grumpy Fargo visitor.

But you’ve heard/read nothing of this Blue Law (which you can read about in detail by clicking here)…

How are you supposed to know this stuff? You live in southeastern Minnesota.

And why is such a seemingly antiquated law still on the books?

FYI: I DID NOT REALIZE until I later spoke with a friend, a Minnesotan who grew up in North Dakota and whose son lives and works in Fargo, that the Blue Law not all that long ago prohibited retailers from any Sunday sales. So I suppose I should consider it progress that North Dakota retailers can now open their doors at noon on Sunday.

Secondly, this same friend told me that North Dakota has a five percent sales tax on clothing, of which I was unaware. The trip back across the river to the Target store in Moorhead thus saved us some tax dollars. However, according to information I found online, some North Dakota legislators want to repeal that tax. You can read about those efforts by some Fargo Democrats by clicking here.

Finally, can anyone explain the origin of the Blue Law in North Dakota? I expect it dates back to Sunday as a day of rest, as the Lord’s Day. I respect that and hope that most would choose worship over shopping. Yet, times have changed and church services are held on Saturdays too and, well, you know…

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Black Friday shopping my way & a shooting November 25, 2011

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Amber's $10 vintage coat.

SO, DEAR READERS, did you shop today, on Black Friday?

I hadn’t intended to, but then my oldest daughter ran downtown to the bank and I decided to tag along. We, along with my other daughter, perused merchandise at The Clothes Closet, a used clothing store operated by the Faribault Senior Center.

Amber, the oldest, walked out with what she termed a “vintage” jacket. Price: $10. You can judge whether this qualifies as “vintage.” She’s happy, even though her brother claims she looks like Santa in the coat. (Brothers!)

As a bonus, the clerk threw in a free pair of $2 earrings on a “buy one, get one half price” special.

After lunch, during which my husband called from work in Northfield to tell me about a shooting last night near the Target store, Amber left to return to her Minneapolis home and Miranda and I headed to the Salvation Army Store. (Click here to read about the Target area shooting, which began with an armed robbery and reported shooting in Faribault.)

Yes, I realize that now you could care less about any purchases I made and you would rather hear details of that shooting. But, alas, I have nothing more to tell you about the crime or the waiting-in-line Target shoppers who heard the gun shots and saw the cop cars and helicopter.

At the Salvation Army Store in Faribault, signs of an earlier crime remained in a boarded up front window. Several weeks ago a man allegedly drove into the building then fled the scene. Why is it taking so long to replace that window?

All this crime aside—and honestly, we typically do not have shootings in Rice County or cars driving into buildings—the second daughter and I spent $9.21 at the Salvation Army. Miranda got a shirt and a dress. I got two vintage trays and an original painting.

No crowds. No rush. No shootings. No worries. Just bargains with the money going to a good cause to boot.

HOW WAS YOUR Black Friday? What did you do? If you went shopping, tell me about your experiences and deals.

A $4 dress and a $2 shirt from the Salvation Army.

I purchased two vintage trays for $1.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Inside the Hamilton Wood Type Museum & the Target connection August 17, 2011

A picturesque view of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, as seen from the historic Rogers Street Fishing Village.

We treated ourselves to ice cream sundaes after the museum visit.

IF NOT FOR MY SECOND DAUGHTER’S neighbor mentioning a day trip to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, I might never have discovered the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum or its connection to Minnesota-based Target.

The retailing giant collaborated with the museum on a recently-released fall Vintage Varsity collection promoted as “Cool Never Fades.”

With vintage so in vogue right now, Target definitely found the right place for designers to authenticate this new line. Hamilton made wood type from 1880-1985 and boasts a collection of 1.5 million pieces, the largest in the world. Target dipped into that collection to create graphics for the Vintage Varsity line.

The Target connection, however, wasn’t my reason for visiting Two Rivers, a city of 13,000 just south of Door County. Rather, Lake Michigan drew me here on a recent Sunday when my husband, son and I were visiting our daughter Miranda at her Appleton home 50 miles to the west.

My family can assure you that fashion wouldn’t draw me anywhere. But wood type would.

So, when I planned our day trip from Appleton to Two Rivers, Hamilton Wood Type ranked high on my must-see list, right after Lake Michigan. A promise to the teenage son of ice cream afterward at the historic Washington House, just across the street from the museum, kept him from complaining too much about my museum meandering. Interestingly enough, the sundae originated in Two Rivers in 1881.

Had I opted to take the official Hamilton tour, I likely would have learned much more about Hamilton Manufacturing Company and the museum, which also includes a collection of 1930s – 1970s advertising cuts, wood type and Linotype equipment, tools and more. The manufacturing company, which once made medical office furniture, appliances and more, is still in business today producing steel lab equipment.

Hamilton manufactured the first gas-powered clothes dryers.

The museum is a self-supporting, working museum where artists and designers and others get hands-on experience in wood type printing and where custom printing is done, according to a Minneapolis woman who was printing at the museum on the day I visited.

In all honesty, Hamilton’s historical details didn’t interest me. Rather, I was here because of my decades-earlier connection to Linotype and because of my profession. During my first job out of college in 1978, I worked as a reporter at The Gaylord Hub, a small-town weekly newspaper that still used hot metal type to create auction bills and other custom printing. At the time, I failed to appreciate this fading art. Rather, I found the constant clack-clack-clack of the vintage machines bothersome, especially when conducting phone interviews.

Today my attitude has changed. I appreciate printing as an art. I took that perspective to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum and knew, even before I stepped inside the 1927 building, that my focus would be visual.

The Hamilton complex of buildings covers blocks.

The building exterior features aesthetically appealing letters and punctuation.

My eyes swept across the nothing-fancy, industrial space filled with letters in more fonts and sizes than I could ever imagine. Posters. Colors. Graphics. Drawers upon drawers upon drawers that I wished I could pull open. Machines. Cement floors and brick walls. Jumbled pieces of wood and smeared paint cans, and brushes hung on walls.

I felt almost overwhelmed by the photographic possibilities, the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that changed as I circled the room.

Everywhere you'll see letters and numbers in differing sizes and fonts, a visual delight.

One of the many vintage prints you'll see in the museum.

Rows upon rows of tempting drawers, presumably filled with wood type.

An oversized vintage photo anchors the wall you first see upon entering the museum.

John Burnet, an early engraver at Hamilton.

Lines of type.

One of the many graphic cuts you'll see in the museum.

Only when I was in a back room, where the Minneapolis artist was printing and the museum manager/tour guide chastised me for taking his photo without asking, did I think about the Target collection. I had passed by a clothing rack earlier, hadn’t even looked. But then the Minnesotan mentioned Target. So on my way out the door I paused, shot a quick photo and then joined the impatient teen for an ice cream sundae across the street.

A t-shirt I pulled from the rack of clothing at the museum. I don't know whether this is from the Target collection, because I didn't check.

Stacks of paint cans clue you in that this is a working museum.

Prints hang on a wall in one of the back rooms.

This photo shows printers' aprons and, to the back, the wall just inside the museum entry.

The entry provides a sweeping view of the museum.

FYI: For more information about the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, click here. The museum is open from1 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Sunday and from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday from May 1 to October 31. Winter hours are from noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Friday and Saturday by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling