Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Kenyon: An historic train depot up close June 11, 2020

These tracks run past The Depot Bar & Grill (in the background) in my community of Faribault, Minnesota. I can hear these trains from my home. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOMETIMES IN THE EVENING, when the traffic lessens on my busy street, I hear the train, horn blasting, wheels rumbling from the tracks just blocks away.

 

Railroad art created by John Cartwright. The Shoreview artist was selling copies of his ink drawings during the 2012 Railroad Swap Meet in Randolph, Minnesota. Visit his website at ArtRail.com for more information. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

There was a time, decades ago, when railroads connected communities, carrying passengers and freight, grain, coal… Bringing mail and goods like lumber and much more. But those days are long gone, those versatile trains all but a memory for many rural Minnesota communities.

Sure, trains still run, but along main routes and without the diverse economic importance of decades past.

 

The Depot Bar & Grill, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

With the railroad’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also came the abandonment of train depots. Many of those hubs of commerce were torn down or left to decay. But some remain. In Faribault, a former depot houses The Depot Bar & Grill, among my favorite local dining spots. Another historic depot serves as a business center.

 

The old train depot, repurposed as a shelter/gathering spot, sits in Depot Park, Kenyon.

 

And in the nearby small town of Kenyon, the once busy Chicago Great Western Railroad depot serves as a gathering spot at Depot Park. You can rent the building—with amenities of refrigerator, stove, sink, restroom, 29 chairs and eight tables—for $30 weekdays or for $40 on a Saturday or Sunday.

 

A back and side view of the Kenyon Depot.

 

On a recent day trip to Aspelund Peony Gardens & Winery, Randy and I stopped first at Kenyon’s Depot Park for a picnic lunch. It’s a lovely spot, centered by that depot, a playground and a swimming pool.

 

The history of the Kenyon Depot is summarized in an on-site sign.

 

The sign is posted prominently on the depot.

 

The bottom portion of that informational sign.

 

After finishing my turkey sandwich, grapes and strawberries, I grabbed my camera and walked over for a closer look at the old depot, built around 1885. I peered inside the windows, studied the roof-line, read the signage. The railroad once held an important place in Kenyon and the surrounding area by providing freight and passenger service. Immigrants arrived here by train. Farmers shipped milk, awaited the arrival of seed and tools and farm implements. And mail.

 

Identifying signage on the front of the Kenyon Depot.

 

Posted next to the old depot.

 

This side of the depot faces the park space.

 

When rail service shut down here in the late 1960s or early 70s (I read conflicting information online), a local house mover bought the depot. And in 1974, he, upon approval of the city, moved the depot to the park.

 

A vintage light.

 

I noticed these letters/numbers on a corner of the depot. Anyone know what they signify?

 

Tape on window trim.

 

But there’s one more interesting piece of history about this building, a story shared in a 2012 letter to The Kenyon Leader written by former Mayor John L. Cole. According to Cole, the Kenyon High School Class of 1975 was tasked with painting the depot after “getting into trouble” during a class trip to Grandview Lodge in Brainerd. Now he doesn’t explain what that “trouble” may have been. But Cole thanks the class, emphasizing that something good came out of the bad.

 

This drinking fountain next to the depot has been around for awhile.

 

As a 1974 high school graduate (from a school nowhere near Kenyon), I can only guess. We were on the tail end of the Vietnam War, a bit vocal and determined and rebellious. My class got into trouble for choosing “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” as our class song. Not exactly fitting for a high school graduation ceremony. I expect had we gone on a trip like the teens from Kenyon, we, too, would have gotten into trouble.

 

This street lamp, I’m guessing vintage, stands near the depot.

 

I digress. But history has a way of connecting us. Through stories. Through places. Like depots that hold the history of a community and its people.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At the railroad swap meet in Randolph April 5, 2012

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Vendors packed a gym at the Randolph School with their railroad merchandise.

IF I WAS INTO TRAINS or railroading, I could have spent hours filing through the collections of railroad-related merchandise offered at the Randolph Railroad Days Swap Meet on Saturday.

But after awhile, admittedly because I know little about this railroading hobby, the goods started to blend together. So I had to pick and choose and focus on the details to keep myself from becoming lost in the sheer volume of the offerings.

That said, join me on this select tour of the swap meet in a gym at the Randolph School. I was more than a bit distracted by the school’s icon, the rocket, displayed everywhere, even on the gym floor. I’m wondering “why Rockets?” other than the obvious connection to the “R” in Randolph. But that’s another topic because, you know, I did photograph those Rockets.

Railroad date nails drew my attention. The numbers represent the years.

Pocket-size calendars, which I choose to call "railroad art."

And then there's railroad art like this created by John Cartwright. The Shoreview artist was selling prints of his ink drawings. Visit his website at ArtRail.com for more information.

Toy/model trains galore were available for purchase.

Condition doesn't matter to this swap meet buyer.

I found this attractive belt buckle among an assortment of buckles.

Yes, this hobby could get expensive. The details in train set-ups impressed me.

This replica toy depot caught my eye because it reminded me of the metal dollhouse I had as a child. Oh, how I wish my mom had kept the vintage dollhouse and not given it to my cousins.

Just the cheerful, vivid colors alone are enough to make you smile.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thank you to railroad artist John Cartwright for allowing me to photograph his beautiful ink drawing prints. You can learn more about this award-winning artist by clicking here.

 

Heading back home to the southwestern Minnesota prairie for Christmas December 26, 2010

We drove along U.S. Highway 14 as we traveled to southwestern Minnesota for Christmas. This stretch is between the Sanborn corners and Lamberton.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, my family and I celebrated Christmas Eve with my mom and four of my five siblings, and their families, “back home” on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

It was my mom’s wish that all of us be there, attending Christmas Eve church services with her at our home church, St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta.

Our Christmas together was as wonderful and memorable and as full of laughter and love as I expected it would be.

Initially, I doubted that we would make the 2 ½-hour trip west given the steady snow that began falling early Christmas Eve, slicking the highways and creating difficult driving conditions. But by the time we left Faribault around 2:30 p.m. Friday, the snow had stopped and major highways were clear.

So, with the trunk packed full of luggage, air mattresses and sleeping bags, presents and coolers, the five of us crammed ourselves into the car (along with pillows and board games on our laps) for the journey to Redwood County. We were headed first to my brother’s house just north of Lamberton.

When we got to New Ulm, nearly 1 ½ hours into the trip, I dug my camera out of the camera bag wedged near my feet and snapped occasional photos of the prairie. It is the land I most love—the place my kids call “the middle of nowhere.”

A train travels east along U.S. Highway 14 between Essig and Sleepy Eye while we travel west.

I love this land of plowed fields and wide open spaces, of small-town grain elevators occasionally punctuating the vast skies, of cozy farm sites sheltered by barren trees.

I love, especially, the red barns accented by the fresh-fallen snow, portraying an agrarian beauty that perhaps only someone who grew up on a farm can appreciate.

As much as I have disliked all of the snow we’ve had this winter, I saw only a beautiful winter wonderland when I was back home for Christmas on the prairie.

The sun begins setting over the prairie as we head west, passing through Sleepy Eye and Springfield before reaching Lamberton. We saw only occasional glimpses of sun on a mostly gray day.

The elevators in Sleepy Eye. Small-town prairie elevators like this can be seen for miles away.

One of many picturesque barns along U.S. Highway 14.

Elevators and trains are a common site along U.S. Highway 14 in the rich farmland of southwestern Minnesota. We've nearly reached our destination when I photograph this elevator complex near sunset.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling