Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Finding spring in Minnesota at the conservatory April 6, 2018

 

TO ALL MY WINTER WEARY readers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and any other place where cold and snow are lingering too long into spring, I offer you a visual respite.

 

 

This is for you, as much as for me.

 

 

 

 

A spot exists in Minnesota where flowers now bloom, the air hangs humid and palm trees rise. The proof lies in the photos I took in February 2017 at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul. I should have gone there this winter, just to take in the greenery, to pretend for an hour or so that I wasn’t in Minnesota.

 

 

Since I can’t physically flee to a warm climate of sunshine and seashore, I must mentally and visually escape. I can imagine I’m in Hawaii or Florida or California or some such spot through these photos I took just a little over a year ago inside the Conservatory.

 

 

 

 

Currently, the Spring Flower Show is in bloom inside the Sunken Garden, differing from the flowers in the photos showcased here. Imagine daffodils, tulips, hyacinths…the perfumed scent and bright hues of spring.

 

 

Mostly, imagine that you are in a setting devoid of snow and cold, that winter has vanished and spring arrived.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Eagle watching in the Faribault area March 17, 2018

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MARCH MARKS PRIME EAGLE viewing season in Minnesota. Read about my experiences spotting this majestic bird in a blog post published on the Visit Faribault tourism website.

And while you’re on the website, poke around and learn more about this place I call home in southeastern Minnesota.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Why a community should care about its alleys January 25, 2018

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This alley of art in Clear Lake, Iowa, impresses me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I NOTICE DETAILS, always have. This heightened awareness weaves into my work. I write and photograph with a strong sense of place, a quality instilled in me long ago by growing up on the prairie. In that vast space of sky and land, every nuance of the environment imprints upon the soul.

My reactions to a place evolve from first impressions, most often viewed through my camera lens. I see the world in details of color, balance and perspective, of light and mood and texture and more.

 

An alley in Milaca, photographed in September 2017.

 

With that background, you can perhaps better understand why, when photographing a community, I notice more than the slick fronts of buildings, the parks and other attractions tourism offices promote. I look beyond those to the alleys, the roof lines and even the sidewalks. The details.

 

The scene along a balcony on the back side of a building along Third Street N.E. in downtown Faribault, just across the alley from the post office is one of my favorite alley photos for the story it tells. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

 

It is the alleys in particular that draw my visual interest and show me the side of a community often overlooked. And too often neglected. There’s much to learn in those alleyways about people and places and cultures and even socioeconomic status.

 

I love the sweet surprise of these floral paintings brightening an alley in downtown Clear Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2015.

 

Hanging baskets line the alley behind Larson’s Mercantile in Clear Lake, adding a splash of color to the downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2015.

 

The Contented Cow opens onto a riverside space between buildings in historic downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

 

Looking further down that narrow space, I photographed a wedding party gathering near the Cannon River. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A mural on The Key (youth center) building in downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2017.

 

Through the years, I’ve documented many behind and between businesses scenes with my camera. I’ve seen how a community can convert an alley into a lovely and inviting space. Clear Lake, Iowa, and Northfield, Minnesota, especially, have succeeded with this attention to detail beyond storefronts.

 

Michelle’s Garden, right next to the alley behind buildings along Faribault’s Second Street and Central Avenue. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.

 

The back of The Crafty Maven (now closed) sat right across the alley from the garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.

 

This mural of an iconic scene from downtown Faribault was installed along an alleyway visible from busy Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street in the heart of downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

My community of Faribault, too, boasts an alley-side mini park and an alleyway mural creating a more inviting downtown. But dumpsters overflowing with garbage in other sections of the downtown counterbalance the positive efforts.

 

The behind buildings parking lot scene in downtown Faribault highlights the area’s ag base. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2014.

 

In my opinion, every community should pay closer attention to the details. They are part of the whole, of the impression visitors gather of a place beyond the side we’re supposed to see.

THOUGHTS? I’m interested, especially, in hearing how your community or other communities have beautified alleys and/or backs of businesses.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When a prairie native sees Mille Lacs Lake for the first time November 28, 2017

Near shore, a seagull wings across Mille Lacs Lake, water and sky melding in vastness.

 

AT MY REQUEST, Randy and I took an indirect route from Faribault to Brainerd on a mid-September Up North vacation. I wanted to see Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s second largest inland lake covering some 200 square miles. It just didn’t seem right that, as a life-long Minnesotan, I’d never viewed this expansive body of water.

As a native of the landlocked prairie, my youthful exposure to Minnesota’s lakes included occasional fishing for bullheads, swimming in Cottonwood Lake once a year and a trip at age four to Duluth along the shores of Lake Superior. When you grow up on a dairy farm, there are few vacations; mine during childhood totaled two.

 

Tethered along Mille Lacs.

 

Without the typical Minnesota background of going up to the lake on weekends, of boating and swimming and fishing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I was eager to see Mille Lacs. I’ve heard so much about the lake, especially in recent years given the controversial restrictions on walleye fishing.

 

My first view of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

Our route took us along US Highway 169 along Mille Lacs and into Garrison.

 

I focused on a nearby shoreline until I mentally adjusted to the size of Mille Lacs Lake.

 

My first glimpse of Mille Lacs from U.S. Highway 169 presented no surprises. It was as I expected—a visual vastness of blue. As our van rounded into Garrison, the view opened and I anchored my eyes to the nearby shoreline. Until I adjust, I find the initial infinity of such large lakes a bit unsettling.

 

The concourse provides a lovely view of Mille Lacs. But there’s seagull poop everywhere.

 

Soon we pulled off Highway 169 and into the Garrison Concourse, a roadside scenic overlook built between 1936- 1939 by the then Minnesota Department of Highways and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On the National Register of Historic Places, this space features a rock retaining wall that, while impressive, was also unappealing for all the dried seagull poop streaking the wall, benches, sidewalk and pavement. I had no desire to sit here, linger and enjoy the view.

 

 

So I focused my attention on the 15-foot fiberglass walleye statue, built in 1980 for a local parade, and now a kitschy roadside attraction for a town that claims to be the Walleye Capital of the World (along with Baudette and several out-of-state locations).

 

 

 

 

An oversized walleye couldn’t just land here on its own. A sign posted on the statue base, next to the one that warns to PLEASE KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE THANK YOU, credits legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan for the trophy catch. You gotta appreciate a good story.

 

 

Randy and I did the typical tourist thing and posed for selfies next to the mega walleye.

 

 

If not for my observant husband, I would have missed another attraction—a small stone marker honoring William A. Tauer, a local hotel owner who drowned while trying to save boaters during a June 10, 1927, storm on Mille Lacs Lake. Engraving credits THE PEOPLE OF MORGAN, MINN for the memorial marker. That drew my interest. Morgan sits some 175 miles away to the southwest in my home county of Redwood. Later online research revealed little more. I expect William grew up in Morgan, where the Tauer surname is still common. I’d like to know more.

 

 

All in all, the overwhelming size of Mille Lacs impressed me. But not enough that I need to return. My disappointment came in the sense of—there’s the lake, now what? Perhaps further exploration beyond just this area by Garrison would change my perspective. Or, as others suggested, a return in the winter to see the thousands of fish houses on the frozen lake would impress me.

 

 

I have no desire to board a boat in a body of water this large. Randy has done so and I’ve heard his seasick stories. Nor do I desire to fish here in the winter when the ice cracks and anglers have been stranded on ice floes.

 

 

 

Still, I enjoyed the view and the iconic walleye. I can now say, “I’ve been to Mille Lacs.” But I can’t say, “I’ve patronized the Blue Goose.” The iconic restaurant and bar, my husband noted and lamented, is gone.

 

© Copyright 2017 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

 

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