Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Owatonna: Toys exhibit highlights 50 years of child’s play April 5, 2019

Turtle power displayed.

 

CAN YOU NAME all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I bet my daughters can. These fictional teenage cartoon characters are named after Italian artists of the Renaissance. And they were vastly popular when my girls were growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s.

 

 

Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael. The turtles are among toys featured in a “Toys & Play, 1970 to Today” exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. This museum ranks as one of my favorite regional history centers. Why? Because of the home-grown changing exhibits, the traveling exhibits and the adjoining Village of Yesteryear. Staff and volunteers clearly work hard to create engaging exhibits with a local connection.

 

 

 

Go ahead, play.

 

Kids are welcome to play with some of the exhibit toys, including these farm-themed wood cut-outs.

 

From videos to interactive activities to creative displays and more, visitors experience history. I am so thankful for this shift from “look and don’t touch” to hands-on that now imprints most history centers. History, to be remembered, must be experienced through the senses. I find myself bored at museums that revolve around simply walking past glass-encased historical artifacts. I need engagement to pull me in.

 

All three of my kids, including the son, owned one Cabbage Patch doll.

 

Front and center in the exhibit, fabric drapes over a cardboard box to create a fort.

 

 

Without kids in tow, though, I mostly observed this exhibit, flashing back to sweet memories of my daughters cradling their Cabbage Patch dolls, clasping tiny Polly Pockets in their little hands, sliding Viewmaster reels into place, creating art with a Lite-Brite, building forts from blankets draped over card tables and much more.

 

In a mock-up child’s bedroom, visitors are invited to play Nintendo.

 

Our family played lots of board games. Those are part of the Owatonna exhibit, but are a don’t touch part of the exhibit.

 

A table full of pogs, ready for playing.

 

I limited their screen time. They played together. Indoors and outdoors. And they used their imaginations.

 

 

 

I was happy to see a tractor displayed in a case full of toys.

 

The exhibit extends beyond a collection of popular toys. It also addresses the value of play as a learning tool, consumerism, issues related to technologically-based toys… There’s much to contemplate as I consider how toys have changed in the decades since I was a kid galloping around the farmyard on my stick horse crafted from a sock and an old broom handle.

 

 

But one thing remains unchanged—that is a kid’s desire for whatever is the hottest, newest toy. I remember flipping through the pages of the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog, aka the Wish Book, to tag the toys I knew I’d never get. A pogo stick sticks in my memory. I could dream all I wanted while repeatedly turning those pages. But in reality my parents had only minimal money and not enough to buy those coveted toys.

 

Through the museum window I saw this playground, such a fitting visual for the info posted inside the mock child’s bedroom.

 

Looking back now, I am thankful for that lack of material possessions as a child. Instead, the vast outdoors of rural Minnesota provided all I needed for imaginative play with my siblings. There were no battery operated toys, which I refuse to buy even today for my grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

Parenting children today, I think, proves more challenging than that of previous generations, even of raising my own kids. Screen time robs too many kids of creative play, of family time, of spending time outdoors. I realize it’s a much different world. And I can lament all I want about the changes. But that does no good. The bottom line is that we can make choices for our children. We decide whether to cave to whining. We decide which toys to buy. We decide on screen time. We decide on the importance of outdoor play. We have the ability to encourage healthy, engaging and creative play.

 

My girls’ My Little Ponies came from garage sales, as did many of their toys.

 

PLEASE SHARE your thoughts on toys, on child’s play, on your favorite childhood toy, on parental choices, whatever you feel inclined to say about kids and toys and, yes, parents, too.

 

FYI: The Steele County Historical Society museum is open Tuesdays – Saturdays. The toy exhibit remains open into the fall. Call to confirm dates.

RELATED: Click here to read about the reasons behind the closing of Creative Kidstuff, a group of home-grown toy stores in the Twin Cities.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Memories of all the pretty little horses September 15, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Free horse and baby stuff 002 - Copy

 

WHEN MY NEIGHBOR PLACED a pile of baby equipment on the boulevard recently along with an oversized plastic toy horse, memories rushed back of my dear second daughter and her love of all things horses.

As a preschooler, Miranda obsessed over equines, wanting to check out only books about horses from the library. She drew pastel horses with Magic Markers. And she played with toy horses. Endlessly.

Now a plastic tote heaped with her childhood horses rests on a shelf in the basement, in storage. Those equines represent memories, sweet and treasured of a daughter I love beyond words.

I was tempted to dash across Willow Street and pluck that horse from the grass. But I left it there for the young girl who opened the passenger side of her mom’s SUV and scooped the critter into her arms. Perhaps some day her mom will pack that horse away in a plastic container and remember when her little girl loved horses.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The magic of LARK Toys, a southeastern Minnesota toy store October 6, 2015

A handcrafted sign inside LARK Toys, Kellogg, Minnesota.

A handcrafted sign next to a window inside LARK Toys, Kellogg, Minnesota.

LARK TOYS IS MAGICAL.

All of the creatures on the LARK carousel are handcarved.

All of the creatures on the LARK carousel are hand-carved.

A cozy and creative corner int he bookstore.

A cozy and creative corner in the bookstore.

In the game room, you can try out games.

In the game room, you can try out games.

No other adjective quite as succinctly describes this sprawling toy store along Minnesota State Highway 61 on the outskirts of Kellogg. It’s a business that showcases old toys and new, handcrafted and mass-produced. Toss in a candy shop and a bookstore, hands-on opportunities for kids to try out toys and the focal point—a hand-carved carousel—and you have magic.

Playful puppets pop color into a section of the multi-room toy store.

Playful puppets pop color into a section of the multi-room toy store.

Our family visited LARK years ago, when the kids were still at home. But this time it was just my husband and me meandering through the maze of rooms amid lots of grandparents with grandchildren in tow. I made a mental note to some day, when I become a grandmother, revisit this place.

For $2, kids can ride this one-of-a-kind carousel.

For $2, kids can ride this one-of-a-kind carousel.

It's not just your usual horses on this merry-go-round.

It’s not just your usual horses on this merry-go-round.

This LARK employee dressed the part of a fun-loving carousel attendant.

This LARK employee dressed the part of a fun-loving carousel attendant as she watched the ride go round and round.

But this was now and I delighted in watching youngsters scramble onto their chosen animals—like a giraffe, dragon or pelican—as the colorful carousel curator readied the ride for a spin.

Jelly bean and other candy choices are plentiful.

Jelly bean and other candy choices are plentiful.

From there I ducked into the candy shop, perusing the vast collection of jelly beans in flavors like juicy pear, strawberry jam and tangerine.

When I was growing up, Felix the Cat with his magical bag of tricks was my favorite cartoon.

When I was growing up, Felix the Cat with his magical bag of tricks was my favorite cartoon.

Another vintage toy in Memory Lane.

Another vintage toy in Memory Lane.

My Scrabble memories stretch back nearly 50 years. This message on the Scrabble letter holder is like many positive quotes displayed throughout the store.

My Scrabble memories stretch back nearly 50 years. This message on the Scrabble letter holder is like many positive quotes displayed throughout the store. I love that detail about LARK Toys.

Then, along the hallway to the toy store, I paid homage to Felix the Cat, a favorite cartoon character from yesteryear displayed in the store’s Memory Lane section of vintage toys.

A connecting hallway serves as Memory Lane.

A connecting hallway serves as Memory Lane.

Passing a public police box (a TARDIS for those of you who know and understand the BBC sci-fi TV show Doctor Who), I entered the Main Toy Store. And, oh, how I wished I was the grandkid with Grandpa and Grandma carrying a credit card.

No one was at work in the toy shop when I snapped this quick photo through an open door.

No one was at work in the toy shop when I snapped this quick photo through an open door.

These muddy pigs are among the wooden pull toys handcrafted at LARK Toys.

These muddy pigs are among the wooden pull toys handcrafted at LARK Toys.

More animal pull toys handcrafted by LARK Toys artisans.

More animal pull toys handcrafted by LARK Toys artisans.

Without doubt, I would have begged for a wooden pull toy handcrafted at LARK Toys. As Randy and I admired pull toys like a fire truck, elephant, snail and even a mud-splashed pig, we remembered the wooden frog our eldest daughter hopped everywhere until the toy eventually wore out. It was not crafted at LARK. But it was similar to LARK toys. There’s something grassroots appealing about the simplicity of a wooden pull toy.

A troll (I think) on the carousel.

A troll (I think) on the carousel.

And there’s something about LARK Toys, too, that’s truly Minnesota magical.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Enter at your own risk, grandparents.

Enter at your own risk, grandparents.

Toy samples are set up for kids to play with within the toy store.

Toy samples are set up for kids to test.

Rows and rows of Schleich animals fill shelves.

Rows and rows of Schleich animals fill shelves.

LARK Toys offers a vast selection of marbles.

LARK Toys offers a vast selection of marbles.

Kids left their signatures in magnetic letters.

Kids left their signatures in magnetic letters.

Fun walking sticks.

Fun walking sticks.

Art on display.

Art on display.

Fun on a windowsill.

Religion on a windowsill.

Randy and I have a little fun with a funhouse style mirror.

Randy and I have a little fun with a funhouse style mirror.

There's fun outdoors, too, with mini golf and llamas to observe.

There’s more outdoors with mini golf and miniature llamas.

FYI: In December 2014, USA Today named LARK Toys among the top 10 best toy stores in the U.S. A year prior, viewers at WCCO TV voted LARK Toys the best toy store in Minnesota.

The toy store is located at 63604 170th Avenue outside Kellogg in southeastern Minnesota. Take County Road 18 to Lark Lane. You can see the dark brown sprawling building from U.S. Highway 61. (I think the structure should be painted in multiple eye-catching vibrant colors more suiting to a toy store.)

Hours vary according to seasons but are 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily from now through December. After that, limited winter hours kick in for two months. Click here for full store hours.

As part of the Wabasha-Kellogg area SeptOberfest celebrations continuing to the end of October, LARK Toys is hosting stories and songs for preschoolers and families in the bookstore from 10:15 a.m. – 11 a.m. on Friday, October 9. A musical march to the carousel follows with free rides.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Toy stories at the Minnesota History Center December 11, 2014

TOY: Object for a child to play with.

 

Toys, sign and Twister

 

If you’re a Baby Boomer, that object may have been Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs, anything space or Western related, a baby doll or Barbie or perhaps a troll. How about a Tonka truck? Twister or Cootie or Candy Land, anyone?

 

Toys, promo on wall

 

The Minnesota History Center’s “TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” is a skip down memory lane for my generation. A recent tour of the exhibit, which runs through January 4, 2015, skipped joy into my heart as I spotted toys I hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes it’s fun simply to forget about today and remember the carefree days of youth. The days of hopscotch and jacks and stick horses and…

Outdoor toys and a play area are part of the exhibit.

Outdoor toys and a play area are part of the exhibit.

I didn’t see a jump rope, though, but perhaps missed it.

Oh, the hours sitting cross-legged with Tinker Toys scattered across the floor, attempting to construct a Ferris Wheel.

 

Toys, Cootie

 

Oh, the anticipation of rolling a six on the die to insert the last of six legs into a Cootie’s body.

Oh, the tears that raged when I discovered my oldest brother had punched in the boobs of my new bridal doll.

Oh, the gratitude to my friend Robin for gifting me with a mini pink-haired troll at my ninth birthday party. It was the only troll or childhood birthday party I would ever have.

Toys, Spirograph

Some artsy favorites like Spirograph, Lite Brite and making bugs from goop.

 

Oh, the delight in creating kaleidoscopic designs with Spirograph’s pens and plastic shapes.

A museum visitor checks out the 1960s exhibit.

A museum visitor checks out the 1960s exhibit.

Memories rolled in waves as I perused the showcased toys. Some I had as a child; many I did not.

In the '50s section of the exhibit, a Christmas tree with coveted toys of the decade.

In the ’50s section of the exhibit, a Christmas tree with coveted toys of the decade.

I remember each December paging through the Sears Christmas catalog (AKA “Wish Book”) that arrived in our rural southwestern Minnesota mailbox, wishing for so much, knowing in my deepest desires that I would never get the Pogo stick I coveted nor the doll that cried with the pull of a string or a new bicycle (mine came from the junkyard).

Space toys were big in the 1960s and my oldest brother had a rocket.

Space toys were big in the 1960s and my oldest brother had a rocket.

I would receive what my parents could afford and I expect they sacrificed much even for that.

Toys strewn across the floor in a play area of the 1970s part of the exhibit.

Toys strewn across the floor in a play area of the 1970s part of the exhibit.

Looking back, that inability to give me and my siblings a pile of toys was a gift in itself. Sure, I wanted the hottest new toy. That’s normal thinking for a kid who doesn’t understand family finances or a parent’s thoughts on curbing greed.

I remember life without TV and our first television, in black and white. And Mr. Potato Head, a popular toy back in the day.

I remember life without TV and our first television, black and white. And Mr. Potato Head, a popular toy back in the day.

Because of my upbringing, I have never focused on material things.

Anything Western related was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Here you see the Western influence in furniture.

Anything Western related was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Here you see the Western influence in furniture. My siblings and I spent countless hours riding our stick horses through the grove and, in the winter, around the house.

Yes, toys are fun to get and give, especially those that encourage creativity and imaginative play and don’t require batteries.

I cherish the blessings of family and home more than anything. I spotted this needlework in the 1970s portion of the exhibit.

I cherish the blessings of family and home more than anything. I spotted this needlework in the 1970s portion of the exhibit.

But it is family that I cherish most. And when I toured the History Center’s toy and other exhibits, I did so with my husband, eldest daughter and son-in-law. Nothing skips joy into my heart like being with those I love.

As we left the museum, we voted for our favorite Minnesota made toy. My daughter and I voted for Cootie. Our husbands chose Tonka.

As we left the museum, we voted for our favorite Minnesota made toy. My daughter and I voted for Cootie. Our husbands chose the Tonka truck.

FYI: For information on “TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” click here. Just a little heads up: This exhibit was packed on a Saturday afternoon. I’d advise visiting this St. Paul museum on a weekday, especially if you want an opportunity to participate in the interactive parts of exhibits.

BONUS PHOTOS:

My son-in-law noted, as we toured the 1970s part of the exhibit, that toys began to reflect social issues such as being environmentally conscious.

My son-in-law noted, as we toured the 1970s part of the exhibit, that toys began to reflect social issues such as being environmentally conscious.

A 1960s living room.

A 1960s living room.

Never saw this cartoon and I'm glad I did. Audrey carrying a gun? Really.

I didn’t grow up on the Little Audrey cartoon and I’m glad I didn’t. Really, a little girl carrying a gun?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Where the men & boys shop: At a rural Minnesota farm toy show January 31, 2013

OH, TO BE A FARM KID again, steering toy tractors through imaginary fields, corralling cattle into a replica barn, pretending to be a farmer just like Dad.

A trio of brothers dressed in John Deere attired waited while their dad signed up for a Massey Harris tractor raffle from Rice County Steam & Gas Engines, Inc.

A trio of brothers dressed in John Deere attire wait while their dad signs up for a Massey Harris tractor raffle from Rice County Steam & Gas Engines, Inc. The youngest was camera shy.

I imagine many of the kids tagging along with Grandpa or Dad to Louie’s Toy Box Farm Toy Show at the Nicollet County Fairgrounds in St. Peter last weekend were farm kids wishing for a new toy tractor or other piece of farm equipment to role-play their futures, or their ancestral pasts.

Masses of shoppers among a mass of merchandise.

Masses of shoppers among a mass of merchandise.

Shouldering my way through packed aisles Saturday morning, I couldn’t determine who seemed more excited—the men or the boys. And they had every reason to thrill in the mass of ag-related merchandise displayed by 43 vendors from Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

Johnson Hall, site of Louies' Toy Box Farm Toy Show.

Johnson Hall, site of Louie’s Toy Box Farm Toy Show.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I entered the unassuming pole-shed style Johnson Hall at the fairgrounds. But I didn’t expect to find so many people (an estimated 2,000 weekend attendees), so many vendors and so much merchandise crammed into such a tight space. This venue is definitely too uncomfortably small for a toy show of this size.

Vending John Deere toy tractors.

Vending toy John Deere tractors.

That aside, I managed to wiggle my way through mostly throngs of men sporting caps and sweatshirts advertising ag companies. John Deere, which marked its 175th anniversary in 2012, showed a dominating presence in apparel.

But when it came to merchandise, I expect every line was represented.

My first look at the farm toy show left me feeling overwhelmed.

My first look at the farm toy show left me feeling overwhelmed.

Upon first entering the toy show, I just stood there, overwhelmed by the stacks and stacks and stacks of boxed tractors and other toys stretching out before me. Honestly, I thought I’d made a mistake suggesting to my husband that we come here. I may have played with toy farm equipment as a kid, but it doesn’t especially interest me as an adult.

Maneuvering the aisles proved challenging.

Maneuvering the aisles proved challenging, especially with a camera bag on my hip and a camera in hand.

I wandered for awhile like a lost sheep, wondering where to focus, how to best work my way through the crowd. Arrows taped to the floor to direct traffic flow would have helped. But eventually I figured it out and backtracked the other direction, easing into the line of shoppers (which did include some women and girls).

An edited photo of vintage matchbooks. Love those graphics.

An edited photo of vintage matchbooks. Love those graphics.

Another edited photo, of a 1950 calendar.

Another edited photo, of a 1950 calendar.

Eventually I found my niche, not in the toys, but in graphics gracing vintage matchbooks, calendars, literature and other advertising items. When I examined a 1950s vintage calendar and balked aloud at the $98 price tag, the vendor informed me that 10 years ago he would have asked even more. I couldn’t bring myself to shell out that kind of money or even $10 for a teeny tiny matchbook. I’d need to be a serious collector to justify such expenditures.

Shortly thereafter I met a serious collector, Wendell Bakker of Renville, whom I observed filing through stacks of magazines, about a half-dozen notebooks stuffed in a back pants pocket and another open notebook in his hand. Because I’m nosy, and I admitted that to Wendell, I initiated a conversation. This former crop, dairy and hog farmer and recently-retired field rep for the Minnesota Farmers Union has been collecting issues of the Allis Chalmers Landhandler and other farm magazines for 50 years.

One of Wendell's notebooks, noting which magazines he already has in his collection.

One of Wendell’s notebooks, noting which magazines he already has in his collection.

“Everybody has a bad habit,” Wendell surmised, not that I would term collecting magazines a bad habit.

I didn’t question any of the other shoppers about their reasons for attending the farm toy show. But, based on the bulging bags most carried out of Johnson Hall, I’d guess many are collectors. As for me, I didn’t purchase anything, just added 94 images to my photo collection in 1 ½ hours. Total cost: the $3 admittance fee.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Toys, sign

A vendor’s sign.

A vendor in training.

A vendor in training.

I don't smoke and don't like smoking. But I sure do I like vintage ash trays like this one from my husband's birthplace.

I don’t smoke and don’t like smoking. But I sure do I like vintage ash trays like this one from my husband’s town of birth.

We were tempted to buy this lighter from Faribault, for a business we'd not heard of, but the $18 price was more than we wanted to pay.

We were tempted to buy this lighter from Faribault, for a business we’d not heard of, but the $18 price was more than we wanted to pay.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about show organizer, Louie’s Toy Box, click here.

Check back for more photos from the toy show.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Musings of a Baby Boomer upon touring a museum exhibit in Moorhead November 15, 2012

I’M WONDERING IF the rest of you baby boomers out there feel as I do, that youthful years have vanished, poof, just like that.

I need only look in the mirror to see the patches of ever spreading gray (time for a dye, again), the lines and creases and sagging skin to realize that Age has crept into my life to the point that I no longer can deny her presence.

Age has also shoved me into the corner of those who are overwhelmed by technology. It’s like the boxing gloves never come off as I resist, rather than embrace, technological changes. No Facebook or Twitter for me. No PayPal or paying bills online. And what is a smart phone and an iPad?

I am not joking, people. I need to enroll in a Technology 101 course or persuade the 18-year-old son, who is pursuing a degree in computer engineering, to tutor me.

Interestingly enough, this musing relates to a recent tour of  The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County exhibit, “The BOOM 1945-1960 in Clay County,” at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

While I was only a few years old at the end of that boom period, much of what I saw in that exhibit, including the outhouse, looked pretty darned familiar:

These books are shelved in a mock boom era one-room schoolhouse display. I own that exact Dick and Jane book.  I love Dick, Jane, Sally, Tim, Spot and Puff. They taught me to read. Oh, I mean my teacher taught me to read via that book series.

Fun with Dick and Jane book. Check.

So familiar to me, desks just like I sat in through my years at Vesta Elementary School. The blackboard, though, is not correct. Ours was black, not green.

Rows of school desks. Check.

I remember the floral print plastic curtains which once hung in the tiny wood-frame house where I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Today I collect vintage tablecloths like the one draping the table here. And, yes, I use them. Come to dinner at my house and you’ll find one gracing the table. I love retro.

A floral print curtain and floral print tablecloth. Check.

Tucked behind the close-up of the vintage plate, you’ll spy eyeglasses. I’ve worn prescription eyeglasses since age four, including the cat eye style and dark brown framed ones.

Dark-framed eyeglasses and vintage tableware. Check.

Popular Baby Boomer toys, ones my children, born between 1986 and 1994, also played with. Some toys truly are timeless, although I expect the View-Master isn’t. I played with Mr. Potato Head in the background, but he was not a favorite.

An Etch a Sketch, View-Master reels and Tinker Toys, all among my favorite childhood toys. Check, check and check.

There was not a piece of technology in sight save the old grainy black-and-white television.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering: Boys, blocks & 9/11 September 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:09 AM
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THROUGHOUT THIS WEEK I’ve contemplated the post I would write about 9/11. And not once have I deviated from my initial idea.

So yesterday I headed to the basement and started digging through totes in search of building blocks and toy airplanes. I found the blocks, but not the planes. Those I discovered later while rummaging through my son’s upstairs bedroom closet.

Ten years ago, on September 11, 2001, my boy was only seven years old. He was home from school that day, not feeling well, when my husband phoned with news of the first plane crashing into the first tower.

I switched on the television. Typically I don’t have the TV on during the day and would not have known about the terrorist attacks until much later.

From that moment on, I could not take my eyes off the screen even though I worried about exposing my son and a younger boy in my care that day to the news coverage. How would they react? And did they truly understand the gravity of what was unfolding in our country?

I attempted to explain the situation, to tell the boys this was “real” and not some television show. They continued playing with whatever toys they had out at the time—I can’t recall.

But clearly they were listening and watching, for soon the two pulled a box of wooden building blocks from the toy box. Then they pulled out the toy airplanes.

I watched as my 7-year-old and his friend constructed teetering towers, then smashed those miniature planes into the towers. Blocks tumbled across the living room carpet.

I reconstructed a tower using the same blocks my son and his friend used on September 11, 2001, to duplicate what they saw on television. These are also the same airplanes they flew into the towers.

They repeated the action: Build the towers. Fly the planes. Smash the towers. Build. Fly. Smash.

I could have cried over the loss of innocence—mine and theirs.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL memories of September 11, 2001? Please submit a comment and share your story.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling