Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Pull off Highway 14 & view the historic buildings of Lamberton June 7, 2012

A portion of Lamberton’s Main Street shows this to be a strong agricultural community.

LAMBERTON. Just another small town on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, so you would think if you’re driving on U.S. Highway 14, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway.

But this community some dozen miles east of Walnut Grove, destination for fans of “The Little House” books and television series, is worth at least a drive-through if not a stop.

I’ll admit that up until my middle brother moved onto acreage north of Lamberton several years ago, I hadn’t spent much time in this town of 822 except to visit an uncle and aunt who once lived and ran a furniture store here.

I still haven’t explored this agricultural community like I should. But I’ve seen enough to know that I need to look more in depth. Let me show you why, via photos I took, mostly along Main Street, during a brief stop two months ago.

The once-popular corner gas station still stands in downtown Lamberton.

Most small towns once had creameries like this one.

Hanzlik Blacksmith Shop, dating to 1895, was gifted to the city and preserved by the local historical society. With the original wood floor and tools, it’s been called “a warehouse of a long ago lost art” by locals. The community celebrates this piece of history with an annual Hot Iron Days, this year set for September 7 – 8.

It’s the old buildings—from the cute corner gas station to the stout brick creamery to the old wood-frame blacksmith shop—that appeal to me. Some 30 miles to the northwest in my hometown of Vesta, which like Lamberton sits in Redwood County, the old buildings are mostly gone. But not in Lamberton. Here you’ll find plenty of historic buildings to please your artist’s eye and your historian’s heart.

Now all I need is someone with keys so I can take you inside these old buildings.

Vintage signs hold a certain historic charm.

The Music Mart supplies most major brands of band and orchestral instruments. Sales staff reach out to 100-plus schools in southern Minnesota, according to online information. Who would expect to find this type of business in a small town of less than 1,000 residents? Not me.

The Lamberton Antique Peddler is a must-see for anyone who is into antiques. This place is packed with merchandise in the former furniture store once operated by my uncle and aunt, Merlin and Iylene.

The Sewing Shoppe next to the creamery. Love the architecture.

An old Farmall is parked next to a building just off Main Street.

“The locker.”

A low-slung brick building, perhaps a former garage, caught my eye.

TO VIEW ANOTHER particularly beautiful building in Lamberton, a former bakery, click here to read a previous post on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Same day, same highway 50 miles apart: Plane lands, cattle truck crashes January 7, 2012

KNOWN AS A NOTORIOUSLY DANGEROUS roadway along some stretches, U.S. Highway 14 in southern Minnesota Thursday grabbed headlines again with two separate crashes about 50 miles and 12 hours apart. One involved a cattle truck, the other a small plane.

This time though, only cattle, not people, died.

I know this road, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, well as it’s the route my family travels back to my native southwestern Minnesota.

I shot this image along U.S. Highway 14 east of Lamberton several weeks ago.

Around midnight Thursday, January 5, a semi truck pulling a cattle trailer left Highway 14 just east of the Nicollet County Road 37 intersection near New Ulm and rolled onto its side in the ditch, according to news reports. The driver suffered only minor injuries, but some of the 35 cattle were killed in the crash or had to be euthanized.

About 50 miles west and some 12 hours earlier, Highway 14 east of Revere in Redwood County became a runway for a Lakeville pilot who was forced to make an emergency landing, according to news sources. He managed to land his plane on the road before it went into a ditch and flipped.

As in the cattle truck accident, the pilot escaped with only minor injuries.

When I first heard and read about these accidents, I was simply thankful that the truck driver and pilot survived. I was thankful, too, that others traveling along Highway 14 were not involved.

Then I started wondering exactly how many vehicles travel along these sections of Highway 14 each day and how those counts and the timing and locations of the incidents affected the outcomes.

According to the most recent statistics I could find from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Transportation Data and Analysis, the 2009 annual average daily traffic count was 8,000 for the Highway 14 area where the cattle truck crashed.

See how the outcome could have been so much different had this occurred during peak daylight travel hours? Anyone who’s driven Highway 14 between New Ulm and Mankato realizes just how unsafe this narrow, arterial road is with its heavy traffic, county and other roads intersecting the highway and few opportunities to safely pass.

Fortunately, 50 miles west, the traffic count drops considerably as the population decreases and the land stretches flat and wide into acres of fields punctuated by farm sites and small towns.

Near Revere, where the pilot landed his plane on Highway 14 before noon on Thursday, MnDOT lists the 2007 annual average daily traffic count as 1,550. Odds of putting a plane down without hitting a vehicle were definitely in the pilot’s favor.

And given trees are sparse on the prairie, luck was in the aviator’s favor there, too.

Fortunately, the emergency landing also occurred outside of Revere, in the 3.5 miles between the town of 100 residents and Highwater Ethanol and not too dangerously close to either. The ethanol plant, of which my middle brother is the CEO/GM, is situated along Highway 14 between the crash site and Lamberton.

Viewing a 1994 plat of the area, I spotted a landing strip just to the north and east of Revere. I could not verify whether that still exists and it really doesn’t matter given the pilot claims he had to make a snap decision to put his failing aircraft down Thursday on Highway 14 at a speed of 90 mph.

I’m thankful that on January 5, 2012, U.S. Highway 14 in southern Minnesota didn’t rack up more fatal statistics. It’s already had too many.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A glimpse of winter on the Minnesota prairie March 8, 2011


Traveling U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm to southwestern Minnesota.

I NEEDED A TRIP to southwestern Minnesota this past weekend, as much to be with extended family as to reconnect with the land where I grew up. I was not disappointed, on both counts.

I embraced the family I love as we talked and laughed and talked and laughed some more while celebrating my middle brother’s 50th birthday until just past midnight on Saturday.

Sometime in between, we joked about the possibility of being snowed in on his Redwood County acreage. Snow was in the forecast and we all know that snow on the prairie, combined with wind, could strand us.

By the time we finished breakfast mid-morning on Sunday, the flakes were flying and U.S. Highway 14 was dusted with snow, enough to cause cautionary travel as my husband, son and I headed east back to our Faribault home.

Fortunately, we drove out of the snow even before reaching New Ulm.

Every time I visit the prairie, I realize all over again how harsh winters are out there and how very different they are from the winters I experience in southeastern Minnesota. Honestly, if you saw the drifts and plowed ridges of snow along Highway 14 and the endless vista of wide open spaces that stretch like a sea of white, you would understand.

Join me on this visual journey along a section of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway between New Ulm and Lamberton. These photos don’t even do justice to winters on the prairie because we weren’t traveling in a prairie blizzard. But, in these images, you can envision the possibilities…


Railroad tracks run parallel to Highway 14 as the land stretches under spacious skies.

In some spots along U.S. Highway 14, the snow is piled higher than vehicles.

Snow had been pushed into rows in fields along Highway 14, acting as natural snow fences.

The wind sculpted drifts along the snow fences.

The snow had been pushed into mountains so high that only the top portion of Family Foods was visible from Highway 14 on the eastern side of Sleepy Eye.

Snow pushed off Highway 14, as seen through the windshield of our car.

Visibility was reduced as we traveled along U.S. Highway 14 Sunday morning near Lamberton, creating this surreal image of the local grain elevators. The top seven images were taken on Saturday.

We were thankful the lights on this sign, on the east side of Springfield, were not flashing Sunday morning. During severe winter weather these lights are activated and roads are closed to keep motorists safe.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


If only I could have gotten inside this prairie antique store September 13, 2010

LATE SUNDAY MORNING we turned off the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway in Springfield, pulled by the prairie winds.

That would be Prairie Winds Antiques, an appropriate name for a business on the edge of this farming community on the wind-swept prairie of southwestern Minnesota.

My sister Lanae had stopped there the day before and picked up an antique—shelves or a box or something—I never saw it.

“There’s an antique store in Springfield?” I asked, even exclaimed when she raved about the place.

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

And that was enough to draw me to Prairie Winds Antiques. So, Sunday, as my husband, son and I were returning to Faribault from a weekend in rural Redwood County, the guys indulged me (sort of) and we pulled off U.S. Highway 14.

I must clarify that this stop did not come without protest from the teenager in the back seat who was reading a book and was overtired from a night of star-gazing under the inky black expanse of prairie sky.

But we stopped anyway, and lucky for him, but unlucky for me, Prairie Winds Antiques was closed, despite the OPEN sign.

Despite the OPEN signage, Prairie Winds Antiques was locked late Sunday morning.

That didn’t stop me from poking around the exterior of the shop, where a cluttered yard full of antiques and collectibles sat exposed to the elements. Pails, tables, signs, farm machinery, garden art, soda bottles, wash tubs, bicycles, sleds, an old car…lots to peruse in the presence of an impatient son.

Even outdoors, you'll find lots of antiques and collectibles at Prairie Winds Antiques.

So I hurried as quickly as I can hurry around old stuff, snapping a few photos and wondering if the pile of stuff that looked like it was in a pile of junk to be burned was really a pile to be burned. I was tempted to take the painted wooden bird with the spindly wire legs from the burning pile because it reminded me of the kitschy painted wooden yard art my grandpa staked in his front yard.

But I didn’t.

You can bet that the next time we’re driving U.S. Highway 14—the road west so many years ago for those brave, adventuresome pioneers—that we’ll pull into Prairie Winds Antiques again. I need to get inside that place. Oh, yeah.

The wooden crates crammed with old soda bottles remind me of the days of my youth when pop was a treat reserved for special family celebrations like birthdays.

On-site prairie grasses dip and sway in the wind around old farm equipment at Prairie Winds Antiques on the west edge of Springfield.

This Flying Red Horse is attached to the garage at the antique shop. I've always had an affinity for this gas station symbol. As a youngster, when our family traveled once a year to visit relatives in Minneapolis, our dad always told us to "Watch for the Flying Red Horse." I don't recall why or where that horse was located; it may have been a landmark to direct us to the right road. I wish I could remember.

I spotted this grasshopper clinging to the edge of a long, weathered table sitting in the yard at the antique store. I immediately thought of the grasshoppers that, in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, infested this land and destroyed crops. Wilder wrote about the grasshoppers in her "Little House" books.

I do not like real chickens, not one bit. But these two free-range fake birds charmed me. I cannot even believe I just wrote that.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling