Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Summer showers in the sweltering heat July 19, 2011

A hose was for more than watering the garden or cattle when I was growing up on the farm. Read on.

WITH THE CURRENT HEAT WAVE we’re experiencing in Minnesota, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather of yesteryear. And here’s what I’ve concluded. Unless the weather impacted some major event in my life or ranked as exceptional, I really can’t specifically remember one summer to the next or one winter to the next. Fall and spring sort of get lost in the mix of seasons.

That is the reality of my long-term memory.

For me, the summers of my youth on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm were defined, not by the weather, but by playing “cowboys and Indians” (yes, I realize that is not politically correct today, but it was the reality of the 1960s), by after-chores softball games on the gravel farmyard and by evening showers with a garden hose.

Let me explain that last one. I lived for the first dozen years of my life in a cramped 1 ½-story wood-frame farmhouse with my farmer-father, my housewife-mother and four siblings. The third brother was born later, after we moved into the new house.

The old house didn’t have a bathroom. That meant we took a bath once a week, on Saturday night, in an oblong tin bath tub that my dad lugged into the kitchen. Yes, we shared bath water. And now that I consider it, given we labored in the barn daily, we must have really stunk by Saturday night.

Sometimes in the summer, when the weather was especially hot and humid, we showered. After my dad finished milking cows, he would thread the green garden hose through an open porch window outside to the east side of the house. Then, with one of us “standing guard” where the driveway forked, within a stone’s throw of the tar road, we began the process of showering.

One-by-one we took our turn standing naked on the grass, soap bar in one hand, garden hose in the other, scrubbing away the sweat and animal stench, the bits of ground feed and hay and silage, the dirt that clung between our toes.

And all the while we showered, we worried that a relative or a neighbor might turn into the farmyard or an airplane might fly overhead, as if a pilot could see us from high in the prairie sky.

So during a hot stretch like we’re experiencing right now in Minnesota, I remember those primitive summer showers on the farm. I recall, too, the single turquoise box fan we owned—the one reserved for my hardworking farmer-father who endured heat and flies as he bent to wash another udder, to attach another milking machine, all to earn money to feed his growing family.

And I think, as I sit here at my computer in my air-conditioned office just around the corner from the bathroom with the combination bathtub and shower that I have it good, darned good.

Growing up on the farm, we had one box fan similar to this one.

DO YOU HAVE summer memories like mine, or another weather-related story? Submit a comment and share.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Appreciating mom-and-pop businesses like Mutch Hardware June 27, 2011

Buildings across the street reflect in the windows of Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato where these signs hang on a front plate-glass window.

“Grass Seed and Fertilizer.”

“We cut glass and plexiglass.”

I didn’t need grass seed or fertilizer or any glass cut. Yet, the signage drew me to the storefront plate-glass window of the hardware store along Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato. How often do you see business signs like this with letters printed in near-perfect penmanship between two penciled ruler lines on white tagboard?

After I admired the simplicity of this advertising in a world of mass-produced, flashy, signage, I noticed the old screen door. That did it. I was smitten with this place, this Mutch Northside Hardware that, from the exterior, reminded me of the small town hardware stores of my youth.

You know, the kind of store where you can buy everything and anything. The place packed with merchandise from floor to ceiling, aisles narrow as a sidewalk crack. Nails and bolts jumbled in scarred cubbies. Belts dangling from hooks on pegboard. Wooden floors that creak.

Mutch Hardware is crammed with merchandise, some of it displayed in the window fronts.

An old ACE Hardware sign decorates the front door where a handwritten sign is posted listing store hours.

I could almost hear the vintage screen door slam shut behind me as I stood outside the closed hardware store, hands cupped around my eyes, peering inside. It was late Saturday afternoon and I was hours too late to step inside Mutch Hardware, much to my disappointment.

But that didn’t stop a flood of memories from washing over me. Memories of going to town with my dad, stopping at Joe Engel’s Hardware store on Vesta’s main street to pick up a few bolts or maybe a belt or something else for the farm.

My siblings and I had another reason for hitching a ride to the southwestern Minnesota hardware store with our dad. Joe Engel’s supplied our ammo—coiled rolls of red-perforated paper pocked with gun powder for our toy cap guns. This was the 1960s, and even though not politically-correct today, an era of playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I remember those days with a depth of fondness that I doubt today’s tech-oriented kids will ever experience.

I would like to take each of them inside a business like Mutch Hardware, where I expect helpful, personal service, care and friendliness accompany each purchase. Places like this seem rare in our fast-paced world of big box stores run by corporations in far away cities. Few mom-and-pop stores can survive in today’s economy. That is reality.

I’m not a prima donna; I shop chain stores as much as anyone. Yet when I see a business such as Mutch Northside Hardware in North Mankato, I take notice. I appreciate the hardworking men and women who, as independent business owners, still offer us a shopping option.

Outside Mutch Northside Hardware, a place reminiscent of bygone days.

DOES AN OLD-FASHIONED mom-and-pop type business like Mutch Northside Hardware exist in your community, or do you know of one somewhere? I’d like to hear. Tell me about it by submitting a comment.

This image of a section of Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato shows the following businesses, from left: Like-Nu-Cleaners, Christy's Cafe, Mutch Northside Hardware, Skillings & Associates, Dino's Gourmet Pizzeria, Craft-n-Floral Center, the U.S. Post Office, Frandsen Bank & Trust and Bobby Joe's Pub.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling