Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My thoughts on the prejudice that threads through my Minnesota community April 19, 2018

A photo and comment by a visitor posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015, used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

TWELVE YEARS AFTER my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car while crossing the street to his school bus stop, my husband and I are still occasionally asked whether the driver in the hit-and-run has ever been found. The answer: No.

I’m OK with that. Caleb was not seriously injured and enough time has passed since the May 12, 2006, incident that my anger has subsided.

But now my anger has risen anew—not at the driver but rather at a recent comment made by an acquaintance. “Was it a Mexican?” the man asked of the unknown driver.

 

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate in the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

How do you respond to something like that—something so totally ignorant and racist and uncalled for that it makes my blood boil to think that someone in this day—2018—would even think that, let alone speak it. Why that assumption? What led him to believe the driver was a “Mexican” versus a Caucasian or even a green alien from Mars?

I can’t tolerate this type of blatant racism. About Hispanics. About Somalians. About anyone. Just days ago I heard negative comments about Somalians as it relates to parking issues in Faribault’s downtown business district.

 

A St. Olaf College student/staffer studies an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma” exhibit in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I didn’t grow up here. Once I was an outsider trying to fit into Faribault, where generations of families live, where many people are inter-related, where young people stay upon graduating from high school or return to after college. I’m not saying those are bad things. Faribault’s a wonderful place to live. But I suspect the hometown factor, the deep roots, may have something to do with the “was it a Mexican” type attitude some locals hold toward newcomers, especially those of color. There’s fear in the unknown, fear in change, fear in the prospect of a community becoming something different than it has always been.

 

Kids used markers to create flags from their native countries during the International Festival Faribault in August 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

 

Change oftentimes does not come easily. Yet, that’s no excuse for sweeping negative assumptions and racism. I am thankful for the efforts of many within Faribault who welcome newcomers. Like the Faribault Diversity Coalition and individuals who tutor, assist, teach, embrace immigrants and, yes, even welcome outsiders like me from Redwood County, Minnesota. I arrived here 36 years ago knowing only my new husband (also a non-native). It took awhile for me to fit in, to find my place here.

Today I consider Faribault home. I love this community and the many dear friends I’ve made here. But I don’t appreciate the underlying and sometimes overt prejudice I occasionally see and hear.

“Was it a Mexican?”

No, my son was struck by a blue 4-door Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica. Driver unknown. Race unimportant.

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ON THE SAME TOPIC:

I find especially notable a comment made by Faribault Public School Superintendent Todd Sesker during an “AM Minnesota” interview with Gordy Kosfeld on KDHL radio. During that Monday morning interview, Sesker discussed the issue of 400-plus students open-enrolling outside of the Faribault School District. The district plans to survey families and learn why these students are choosing to attend schools elsewhere.

 

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School shows in this post commencement photo taken in May 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Sesker says, in part, “We know some of the rumors that are out there and some of the people that are complaining about our schools. We know about the cultural differences…”

“…the cultural differences…”

That tells me a lot.

According to 2018 enrollment by race/ethnicity data published on the Minnesota Department of Education website, more than half of the students in Faribault Public Schools are of a race/ethnicity other than White. Here’s the break-down on the three largest ethnic groups among the district’s 3,777 students, according to the MDE: 24.2 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 23.8 percent are Black/African American, and 47.4 percent are White.

I suggest you listen to the radio interview with Sesker by clicking here. Discussion on the open enrollment issue begins at about minute 13.

 

NOTE: All comments are moderated. Please be respectful in your comments and discussion. I reserve the right as author of this personal blog to decide whether or not to publish a comment.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Of books & puzzles & loving my granddaughter April 3, 2018

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Grandpa and granddaughter work together on a puzzle in the morning light.

 

PAJAMA CLAD FEET SLAP against wood as Izzy runs to meet me in the sunshine of a Sunday morning. My smile widens as I scoop my granddaughter into an embrace, my arms and lips kissing her with love. Oh, what joy in the morning.

We are the only two up and I’m enjoying this solo time with Izzy. The evening before, it was three of us—Izzy, Grandpa and me—hanging out while her mom and dad enjoyed dinner and a concert.

Every time I see Isabelle, which is about once a month, she’s changed, grown and learned new words, new skills, new ways to make Grandma smile.

 

 

Books remain her great love. This visit, I read, among many other titles, Pat the Bunny, the same book I read to her mama decades ago. There’s something endearing about familiar words passed from generation to generation. There’s something remarkable, too, about the act of reading to someone you love. The closeness, the teaching moments, the interaction, the bonding over words and pictures imprints love. As I cuddle Izzy in the bend of my arm, her lean body pressed against me, I feel an overwhelming, nearly indescribable, love for this almost two-year-old.

 

 

When I watch my husband put puzzles together with his granddaughter, I experience the same. Likewise when I observe Izzy with her mom and dad, other grandparents and extended family. This little girl is loved by many from West Coast to East Coast and in between.

 

 

On this visit, Izzy demonstrates that she’s learning her letters and numbers. She’s got “o” down and the hoot of owls, a favorite for awhile. But now she loves Poppy, her new best friend from the movie “Trolls.” And she likes Elmo and Daniel the Tiger and Minnie Mouse and… She’s stringing words together, counting to five, learning her colors. She’s holding up two fingers to indicate that she will soon turn two.

I see the independent traits of a two-year-old emerging. I see, too, her endless energy. I swing Isabelle upward and back down just to hear her laugh. (There’s a reason I lift weights.) And I reread the same books just to make her happy. I am thankful I can be part of this growing, this learning, this loving. There’s nothing quite like being a grandma.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The tough part about holidays for this mom April 2, 2018

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MOST HOLIDAYS, NO MATTER how hard I try, I find myself envying families who can all be together. I know it’s juvenile thinking and I should be thankful for the times I have my three adult children (that always seems like such an oxymoron) under my roof for a holiday.

But if you’re a mom (or dad), and you’re honest, don’t you miss having every child you’ve birthed or adopted together with you, celebrating? OK, maybe it’s just me. But I miss the daughter who lives four hours away. And I miss the son who lives 1,400 miles away. And, when my eldest daughter and her family are with the other side of the family on the other side of the country, I miss them, too.

I’m getting better at accepting this as the way things are when your kids grow up and leave home. I’m adjusting. Connecting via technology helps. Randy and I have also found other ways to deal with the absence of our once nuclear family. On Thanksgiving, for example, we volunteered to deliver meals in our community. Last Easter we drove 2.5 hours to southwestern Minnesota to visit my mom in a care center. I can choose to be sad. Or I can choose to purposely give joy, thus receiving joy in return.

I’ve learned to delight in the once-a-year-occasion (maybe) that our family gathers in Minnesota. That last happened in August. Seven months ago. Too long. But at least we were together for a few days. Never mind that my son texted recently that he is changing his residency to Massachusetts, tangible evidence that he doesn’t plan to return to Minnesota to live anytime soon.

Then I think of the parents who have lost children and I have no reason, none, to feel sorry for myself.

This is life. I am reminded that, as parents, we are to give our kids roots and wings. Roots and wings. It sounds so poetic, so uplifting. But the reality is that sometimes I wish my kids had missed that flying part. Or at least landed closer to home.

TELL ME: Do you share any of my feelings? How do you cope with missing your kids on holidays? Or are you one of those “lucky” parents who always has your kids around for holidays?

 

Just for the record, I spent this Easter with my husband, oldest daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. And it was wonderful.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mazeppa, not just another small Minnesota town, Part II March 29, 2018

A scene in downtown Mazeppa, photographed in October 2016.

 

SMALL TOWNS CONTINUE to hold my interest.

 

The former creamery in Mazeppa houses the city maintenance garage and also serves as a backdrop for historical art.

 

 

Therein I often find unexpected delights, but also decline. Most of these communities are not the places they once were with thriving businesses lining Main Street. You know the story.

 

Out for a walk in downtown Mazeppa, October 2016.

 

Still, these towns are home to life-long residents or kids who stuck around or newbies—folks looking for a quiet and affordable place to live within driving distance of jobs outside city boundaries.

 

 

People make a town. And if they’re lucky, locals still have places to gather for fish fries and beer and BINGO and a meal out. Gathering spots—restaurants, bars, schools, churches and more—provide that sense of community essential to small towns.

 

 

 

WD’s, destroyed by fire, was a community gathering spot.

 

I saw those communal places when I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 (although one—WD’s Bar & Grill recently burned to the ground).

 

 

 

 

Patriotism often runs strong in small towns. The presence of the well-kept American Legion Post 588 in the heart of downtown Mazeppa confirms that.

 

 

 

 

Mazeppa is a visual delight for a photographer. Signs crafted by local sign painter Mike Meyer give this southeastern Minnesota riverside community a signature artsy look. This is a town I remember.

 

A unique business in Mazeppa. The shop was closed when I was in town. Andy Denny builds banjos here.

 

That’s the thing, too, about small towns. They need an identity to draw visitors. A unique business or three. A historical site. A theater or other arts venue. A natural attraction.

 

The Maple Street Bridge crosses the north branch of the Zumbro River a block off Mazeppa’s Main Street.

 

How often have you sidetracked off a main highway or interstate, or even a county road, to drive through a small town, maybe even stop? Not that often, I expect. But you’re missing something by not doing so. You’re missing out on people and places and experiences that are grassroots America. Interesting. Yes, even that quintessential word “charming.” Perhaps vibrant or thriving. Maybe not. But still at their root essence, authentic.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Propped by Mike Meyer’s sign shop.

 

 

 

 

When I was in town in October 2016, work was being done on the original 1909 bank building, now housing the Mazeppa Area Historical Society. The exterior covering of the beautiful brick building traces back to the 1970s when the former People’s State Bank was “updated.”

 

In 1912, an addition was made to the bank building to house the local newspaper.

 

Signage on the side of the historical society building.

 

TELL ME about a favorite small town and why you appreciate the community.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reconnecting to the land during a March drive in Minnesota March 27, 2018

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SOMETIMES I NEED JUST to get out into the countryside—to reconnect with the land, to see the sky, to feel the pulse of the earth.

 

 

I need to see farms,

 

 

follow rural roads,

 

 

 

hear the crunch of tires upon gravel,

 

 

pass by rows of grain bins,

 

 

notice the oddities of signage,

 

 

the art of the land.

 

 

All of this I need to satisfy that part of me which misses rural life. I shall always retain my farm girl spirit, my connection to my rural roots despite my now decades-long absence.

 

Note: All photos are edited to create a more artsy look. All scenes were photographed in Le Sueur County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Evan, like so many small southwestern Minnesota towns, is fading into the prairie March 19, 2018

Downtown Evan today anchored by a former bank building.

 

LIKE SO MANY OTHER SMALL TOWNS on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, Evan once boasted a long list of businesses—creamery, bank, two general stores, hardware store, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, stock dealer, garage, implement dealer, three elevators, restaurant, utility company, library and two churches.

 

Evan, incorporated in 1904, is named after Eva Hanson, married to Nels. He platted the railroad station known as Hanson Station several years earlier.

 

So claims the historical marker fronting the village hall in this Brown County community of around 80 residents.

 

Fading signage identifies this as the former lumberyard.

 

Today only remnants of those original businesses remain.

 

I believe the brick building may be the former creamery.

 

On a recent drive through Evan, I noted the decline.

 

This vintage sign hangs outside Tubby’s II Bar & Grill. A sign in the window noted the bar is closed for the winter.

 

Faded signs.

 

 

Boarded windows.

 

This vintage hay loader rested among other junk.

 

Clustered junk.

 

 

I’ve never seen anything like this graveyard of campers and trailers.

 

Abandoned campers and trailers and trucks. It made me sad, just sad, to see the abandonment.

 

The old grain elevators still stand on the edge of town along the highway.

 

But none of this surprises me. It’s our fault really. We are a much more mobile society, a society much different than back-in-the-day or even 20 years ago. At one time, places like Evan thrived as area farmers and locals kept their business local. Today regional shopping centers pull in customers from all those small towns.

 

The train still runs, not through Evan, but through neighboring Sleepy Eye.

 

The railroad left.

 

Without jobs, with our farmer fathers still farming, many from my generation of Baby Boomers left Minnesota’s small towns. We couldn’t bank on a future in our rural hometowns.

 

 

Attitudes changed. Kids from my generation left for college and bigger cities and better opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with that desire to see the world, to become something other than our parents. But in doing so we added to the demise of many a small town. I am hard-pressed to think of many classmates who stayed in my hometown of Vesta 45 minutes from Evan to the north and west. Vesta, too, is a shell of the community it was when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Grain bins on opposite ends of town mark this as a farming community still today.

 

 

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Evan’s decline except an overall understanding of why once thriving towns now are mere ghosts of their pasts. Certainly Evan’s remote rural location factors into the mix. Located along Minnesota State Highway 68, Evan is easy to bypass on the shortcut route between Sleepy Eye and Morgan.

 

The only person or moving vehicle I saw in Evan during my short stop there.

 

Yet, Evan is home for some. I saw newer homes there. Not new as in recent, but newer than old. I saw a lovely church and that well-kept village hall. And grain bins. And the fading letters on the lumberyard, a visual reminder that at one time a demand for building supplies existed in a farming community that once prospered.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter poetry from the Minnesota prairie March 5, 2018

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IN THE FADING OF THE DAY, as clouds shove grey across the southwestern Minnesota prairie, a Dodge pick-up jolts color into the March landscape.

The sight pleases me visually, unleashes poetic thoughts of horizontal prairie lines. My eyes trace the truck traveling along a gravel township road against backdrop tree lines. Even the rich black soil runs horizontal across fields of melting snow.

In this scene, I see the immensity of the prairie. Land stretching. Sky stretching. Far. High. Endless.

The red pick-up provides a point upon which to focus my eyes, in which to ground myself. Still, I feel a certain smallness, a vulnerability. Even in this land where I once belonged, where my roots run deep.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling