Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The story of Babe the Blue Ox in Nisswa November 13, 2017

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WHAT DEFINES NISSWA?

 

 

Ten years ago, Nisswa Elementary School students created a work of art which partially answers that question in an unlikely place—on a Babe the Blue Ox statue.

 

 

Situated on a corner of Main Street, the artwork showcases most anything a visitor, like me, would want to know about this northwoods Minnesota community.

 

 

From the story behind the town’s name to the availability of pizza and ice cream treats to the turtle races, these kids highlight the best of Nisswa on Paul Bunyan’s sidekick.

 

 

They appreciate their parks and bookstore, Pioneer Village, the Halloween parade and, yes, the local library, too.

 

 

Well done, former kids of Nisswa.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Up North in Nisswa November 9, 2017

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Babe the Blue Ox of Paul Bunyan Legend stand on the corner by the tourism office along Nisswa’s Main Street.

 

ON THE THURSDAY I toured Nisswa in mid-September, the turtle race track stood empty, Babe the Blue Ox stood tall and this northern Minnesota community buzzed with visitors.

 

 

Set in the heart of lake country, this town of some 2,000 draws folks from nearby cabins, resorts and hotels to meander through the many shops that line several blocks of a route once followed by Native Americans traveling northward through these parts from southern Minnesota.

 

Babe the Blue Ox bears the history of Nisswa’s name on its flank.

 

The name Nisswa comes from the Ojibwe word nessawae meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Nisswa sits in the middle of three lakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this day, I didn’t learn much about local history. But I did learn that these northerners rate as a friendly bunch. In business after business, shopkeepers greeted Randy and me with friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. With the exception of signs prohibiting photos of merchandise (much of it original art) prevalent throughout Nisswa, I felt more than welcome.

 

 

A shopkeeper at The Fun Sisters Up North Boutique even convinced me to try on leggings and an appropriate bum-covering top. Inside my mind, I protested. But she was just so darned nice that I agreed. I’ll admit that I looked better than I thought in leggings. But I still felt like I was playing dress-up in fashionable attire totally foreign to me. She didn’t make the sale. But the clerk sold me on the genuine friendliness of Nisswa.

 

Signature northwoods birch logs propped outside a business.

 

I dropped my money in several other businesses, picking up Minnesota-themed gifts for friends and my granddaughter.

 

 

 

Vintage Native American art outside a shop tips visitors off to this region’s history.

 

 

The legend of Paul Bunyan, here interpreted in a woodcarving, runs strong in the Minnesota northwoods.

 

Nisswa presents a definitively northwoods feel with more than one Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan and plenty of buffalo plaid and loon art. Randy and I spent hours here ducking in and out of shops. And that says a lot for the attraction of Nisswa to someone like me who generally dislikes shopping. The original arts and crafts and merchandise with a Minnesota bent kept me interested.

 

 

 

Painted turtles mark businesses.

 

Although we didn’t patronize a Nisswa eatery, there are plenty of options for meals, treats and brew.

 

Had we arrived in Nisswa at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday weeks earlier, we would also have witnessed the weekly summertime turtle races. Reminders of that tourist draw are evident in the turtle race track and in turtles painted onto sidewalks in front of businesses. I applaud communities like this that hatch and then latch onto an idea that identifies and sets them apart from other towns. For Nisswa, it’s turtle races and friendly folks in quaint northwoods shops.

TELL ME: Have you been to Nisswa? What is your impression of this small Minnesota town?

Please check back for a closer look at the iconic Babe the Blue Ox statue along Main Street.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Paul & Babe, more than a Minnesota legend October 26, 2017

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I purchased this vintage 1960s mini book, published by BANG Printing of Brainerd, at a used book sale.

 

IN MINNESOTA, PERHAPS no other legend perpetuates as much as that of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

 

Photographed outside a hardware store in Pequot Lakes.

 

The larger-than-life pair fits the image we present of hardiness and strength, of surviving, and thriving, in a cold and snowy land. Paul cleared woods in one swell swoop of his axe. Babe imprinted our soil with depressions soon filled with water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

 

“The Paul Bunyan Family” with Babe the Blue Ox suggested as a Halloween costume on a recent edition of Twin Cities Live.

 

Dressed in our buffalo plaid flannel shirts—and I’m wearing one right now while typing this post—we embrace our identity as practical people. We don our flannels and our snow boots, fish on frozen lakes, shovel snow and long for summer, although we’re not going to tell you that.

 

Many northern Minnesota businesses tap into the Paul Bunyan legend as indicated in this sign photographed in Pine River.

 

We are of stolid, hardworking immigrant stock—of farmers who broke virgin sod, of lumberjacks who felled trees, of families who fled refugee camps and war torn countries, of men and women and children who decided Minnesota offered a place to fulfill our dreams.

 

Legendary Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidj. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo.

 

We showcase Paul and Babe as legendary celebrities not because we’re trying to boast—we are mostly a modest bunch—but because we realize the value of these two. The pair reflects us, markets Minnesota, promotes tourism, boosts local economies, especially in the Brainerd Lakes area and to the north in Bemidji. Both communities feature oversized statues of Paul and Babe.

 

Paul Bunyan and Babe stand next to the iconic Brainerd water tower in this sculpture on a downtown Brainerd street corner.

 

Throughout the Minnesota northwoods and lakes region, the lumberjack and the ox show up in roadside attractions, in business and state trail names, in art and more. They symbolize the Minnesota spirit of strength and of creativity. We are a place of artists and wordsmiths, of hardworking men and women unafraid of getting our hands dirty, of determined entrepreneurs, of business leaders, of educators, of young people forging their paths into the woods of life…

We are individuals crafting our lives in a land that has, for generations, valued the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox as part of our Minnesota story.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II from Hackensack: My observations of this northwoods Minnesota town October 10, 2017

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Lucette Diana Kensack, Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart.

 

IN THE HEART OF NORTHWOODS MINNESOTA, in the land of legends and lake cabins, sits a village of some 300 folks. Hackensack. Twice I’ve been here, twice photographing Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette, who resides along the shores of Birch Lake, and once picnicking along that same lake.

 

 

I’ve never explored this town much except with my camera. But simple observations through a viewfinder can reveal a lot about a place. In Hackensack, I see a hardy northwoods character, a laid-back attitude and a welcoming spirit.

 

The lovely log cabin library right next to Lucette is run by volunteers.

 

Nearby stands Paul Bunyan in chainsaw art.

 

I would love to sample food from the seasonal Butts & Buns BBQ.

 

That rugged character shows in log cabin style construction from lake homes to food truck and in the chainsaw carved wood sculptures around town.

 

 

This seems like my kind of kicked back place where I’d feel comfortably at home in buffalo plaid flannel and jeans. Kids biking along a narrow street with tackle box, fishing poles, bait and net in hand confirm my assessment of a town that appears Mayberry timeless.

 

 

 

Lucette is a tourist attraction.

 

 

Yet, there’s a definite awareness of tourism, of welcoming the temporary residents who arrive here in the spring to open their lake cabins for weekend get-aways, summer vacations and final autumn visits.

 

Hackensack hosts numerous arts-related events including the Northwoods Art & Books Festival and an annual Chainsaw Event.

 

My quick visual perusal of Hackensack certainly doesn’t tell the entire story. But it gives a glimpse of a place appreciated by those who live here. And appreciated, too, by the people who come here to experience the legends, the arts, the food, the sense of place that is so northwoods Minnesota.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Hackensack, or live or vacation here, how would you describe this community? What should I know about Hackensack?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids September 25, 2017

An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.

 

“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.

 

At Smoky Hills Art Gallery, I discovered this lovely mural.

 

I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.

 

Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.

 

For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.

 

I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.

 

 

 

On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.

 

I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.

 

Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.

 

Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.

 

There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.

 

My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.

 

But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.

 

 

Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.

 

 

I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.

 

 

Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.

 

 

As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.

 

 

Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.

 

Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A quick stop in the Minnesota German city of New Ulm August 3, 2017

Domeier’s German Store, snugged into a residential neighborhood for decades, is a must-see German import shop in New Ulm.

 

NESTLED IN THE MINNESOTA RIVER Valley, New Ulm has long been one of my favorite Minnesota communities. I love not only the sweep and rise of the valley and hills, but also the vibe of this definitively German city.

 

Nutcrackers peer out a window at Domeier’s.

 

My maternal family roots run deep in this region. Drop the surname Bode at the Guten Tag Haus in downtown New Ulm and a look of familiarity flashes across a clerk’s face. She knows the name. My ancestors settled just to the east in the farmland surrounding nearby Courtland.

Last weekend en route to a wedding in southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I scheduled time in New Ulm to peruse a thrift store and two German gift shops. I was looking for ethnic items for an upcoming Helbling family reunion. We’re having an Oktoberfest theme to celebrate my in-laws’ heritage. The mini German flags I needed as accents for bouquets of flowers in steins were elusive given the community’s recent Bavarian Blast. I found one at a price I was willing to pay. I need six.

 

The thrift shop Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck is perfect given the Helblings settled (and still mostly live) in that region of North Dakota. I found the last remaining 99-cent cotton German flag at the Guten Tag Haus.

 

Still, we scored, among other items, two bier mugs at the MVAC Thrift Store, German chocolate mice at Domeier’s German Store and that coveted German flag at the Guten Tag Haus, some at Crazy Days bargain prices. Success.

 

A snippet view of German Park.

 

This monument in German Park honors those who suffered in the US-Dakota War of 1862 which was centered in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Nearby a whimsical sculpture reminds visitors to keep the park clean.

 

In between shopping, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch and a respite at the beautiful German Park a block from New Ulm’s main drag. Here a fountain centers lovely gardens and pieces of art.

Whenever I’m in New Ulm, I feel comfortably at home. Sure, my ancestral roots are in this region. But it’s more than that. This southwestern Minnesota community works hard to preserve and present its German heritage in a welcoming way. I love that about New Ulm.

 

FYI: Click here to read a 2015 photo rich post I published on beautiful German Park.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Second restored carnival car debuts in Faribault, birthplace of the Tilt-A-Whirl July 12, 2017

Signage and seating inside a restored Tilt-A-Whirl car installed in downtown Faribault in June 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

SEVERAL BLOCKS FROM MY FARIBAULT home, laborers once built the iconic Tilt-A-Whirl and lesser-known amusement rides. Occasionally I spotted oversized bears, dragons and other animal-themed spin rides aboard flatbed trailers exiting the Frog Town neighborhood, location of Sellner Manufacturing.

 

The Dizzy Dragon was once also made in Faribault. This ride and other versions of it are now built by Larson International, Inc. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

There Herbert Sellner, inventor of the Tilt-A-Whirl, opened his manufacturing company. From 1926 until its sale to a Texas company in 2011, the business made carnival rides.

 

The 1950s Tilt-A-Whirl car faces north toward Central Avenue. Here’s the beautiful back. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Often I wondered why Faribault didn’t promote the Tilt-A-Whirl. Next to the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel, it’s likely the most recognized amusement ride spanning generations. The American made ride seemed a natural tourist draw to me. Today, thanks to the efforts of local businesswomen Tami Schluter (of the Historic Hutchinson House B & B) and Peggy Keilen (of Faribo Air Conditioning & Heating), there’s an increased awareness of the Tilt-A-Whirl’s origins in my southeastern Minnesota community.

 

A restored 1950s vintage Tilt-A-Whirl has been permanently installed by Burkhartzmeyer Shoes in historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

In August 2014, the pair unveiled a 1950s Tilt-A-Whirl prototype car restored by Rick’s Restoration of Las Vegas and placed next to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

 

The second car, before restoration. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

On Thursday, the two will celebrate the refurbishing of another Tilt-A-Whirl car donated by local Harley’s Auto Salvage.

 

The restored car in place by the State Bank. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Dedication of that car will take place at noon in front of the State Bank of Faribault, 428 Central Avenue North.

 

Under Dwight Henning’s hands, a work in progress. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

The reconstructed and primed car. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Nearly complete. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Unlike the first car, this car has been restored by former Sellner employees, Dwight Henning of Henning Fiberglass and Karen Bussert of Design Specialties. That involvement of a local craftsman and artist strengthens community pride and ownership, always a bonus with any project.

 

The first restored Tilt-A-Whirl car sits in downtown Faribault, outside a third-generation family shoe store. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

There are already hints of a third Tilt-A-Whirl restoration project. The first restored car has proven a photo op tourist attraction down at the shoe store. I expect the car by the bank to also draw attention, probably more, though, from locals than visitors. This car is not restored to vintage, but rather painted/decorated in green, white and gold, the State Bank’s colors. Green and white are also the public school colors of the Faribault Falcons.

 

Historic info featured on the “table” of the latest restored Tilt-A-Whirl car. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Schluter and Keilen have worked tirelessly to bring these Tilt-A-Whirl cars to downtown Faribault. They’ve also gotten significant financial support and community backing. Still, it takes someone to initiate.

 

Karen Bussert creates Tilt-A-Whirl themed t-shirts like this one worn by Faribault native Janet Timmers at a Car Cruise Night. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I see additional potential here to expand upon what these two have started. For now I envision a seasonal pop-up mini museum showcasing the Tilt-A-Whirl in an empty downtown storefront and/or perhaps a kiosk that includes Tilt-A-Whirl t-shirts. Maybe the local F-Town Brewing Company could craft a beer named after this iconic ride. And, if I’m going to brainstorm here, I may as well dream big. I’d love to see an operating Tilt-A-Whirl find a permanent home in our historic downtown.

TELL ME: How can my community further promote the Tilt-A-Whirl as a tourist attraction? I’d love to hear your ideas.

 

The Mural Society of Faribault created and placed the Tilt-A-Whirl mural on the side of Jim’s Auto & Tire in downtown Faribault, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FYI: The Rice County Historical Society includes a small exhibit on Sellner Manufacturing. And a downtown mural features the Tilt-A-Whirl.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling