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

 

Vintage snapshots from Vergas October 30, 2019

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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT AN AGED pick-up truck… Perhaps it’s the agrarian connection or the nostalgic appeal. Or even the vehicle design that conveys comfort in its rounded shape.

Whatever the reasons, I am draw to vintage pick-up trucks. Randy, too. He wishes he owned one. And a 1964 Chevy, too.

But since we don’t and never will, I settle for visual enjoyment with my eyes and through the camera lens.

 

 

As I waited in the van recently for Randy outside a Vergas, Minnesota convenience store, a lovely old pick-up pulled up to the gas pumps. Without hesitation, I grabbed my camera, stepped from the van and snapped a few images of the portable piece of art temporarily parked at the pump.

 

 

And then I swung my camera the other way to photograph the store exterior because that appealed to me visually also with its welcoming front porch and log cabin style design.

 

 

Then we were off to find the world famous Vergas loon sculpture. And, as we passed through the business district, I snap-shotted the hardware store sign through the window. Because I have this thing about hardware stores, too, and about signs. Small town memories and art.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Westward, ho: A surprising discovery at the Cannon Mall March 16, 2017

 

I’VE SHOPPED MANY ANTIQUE stores and malls. But this is a first: an 1840 Conestoga wagon for sale. Not to be confused with a covered wagon, this heavy-duty wagon hails from the Conestoga River region of Pennsylvania.

 

Beautiful lighting marks Thora Mae’s inside the Cannon Mall.

 

Inside the Cannon Mall, which houses about a half-dozen businesses.

 

Storefront windows to Thora Mae’s Timeless Treasures, 31284 64th Avenue Path, Cannon Falls.

 

If not for my husband noticing a fabric Antiques sign fluttering in the breeze along the highway, we would have missed this rare find inside the Cannon Mall in Cannon Falls. We didn’t even know the mall existed and we’ve visited this southeastern Minnesota community numerous times.

 

Vintage and other signage directs shoppers to Thora Mae’s.

 

Thora Mae’s has lots of vintage signage, most of it rural, for sale.

 

Another sign at Thora Mae’s…

 

But there is was, hidden from our view and housing a hardware store, Chinese restaurant, dollar store, an occasional shop and Thora Mae’s Timeless Treasures. This is one antique shop worth your visit. It’s bright, well-organized and filled with an abundance of yesteryear merchandise.

 

 

Given our late arrival shortly before closing on a Saturday afternoon, Randy and I had minimal time to poke around. And I spent some of that precious shopping time focused on the Conestoga wagon. Signage reveals the wagon traveled four times along the Oregon Trail and was used on the set of the TV western “Wagon Train.” That series ran from 1957 – 1965.

 

 

Dr. Joseph Link Jr. donated the wagon to the Hamilton County Park District in, I believe, the Cincinnati area in 1975. I couldn’t access online info to learn more during a quick search.

 

There’s even a western theme in a portion of this Thora Mae’s window display.

 

Now, if you’re my Baby Boomer age, you grew up watching and re-enacting westerns and appreciate anything that jolts those childhood memories. Right now I’m thinking straw cowboy hats, cap guns, stick horses and a red wagon, aka an improvised covered wagon.

 

 

For $6,000, I could have the real deal, the real experience and a genuine piece of early American history.

 

 

TELL ME: What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever seen for sale at an antique shop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than just an aged pick-up truck January 29, 2016

A GMC 150 parked in historic downtown Faribault.

A GMC 150 parked in a city lot in historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

GROWING UP ON A FARM, I never truly appreciated pick-up trucks. They were simply a part of farm life—the workhorse of the farmer.

The truck needs a lot of work, but it has potential.

The truck needs a lot of work, but it has potential. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

In the bed of his red and white Chevy pick-up, my dad tossed fence posts, seedcorn bags, chains, shovels, and a myriad of other agricultural essentials. He may even have transported an animal or two.

I recall flying along gravel roads in the front seat of the pick-up, and sometimes in the bed, dust trailing a cloud across the prairie. Other times Dad would bump his truck across the stubbled alfalfa field.

Every time I spot an aged pick-up truck, I covet it. Not because I necessarily desire ownership. Rather, it’s about reliving, and holding onto, those rural memories.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Traveling art September 23, 2015

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Art car, entire view of #89

 

I’VE SEEN THIS CAR tooling around Faribault and parked at the local library. It’s memorable. One-of-a-kind. Definitely photo-worthy. But I never had my Canon DSLR with me when I spotted it. On a recent Saturday I did.

 

Art car, front of

 

I practically flew from the van with my camera upon sighting the colorful car parked along Central Avenue in front of the Paradise Center for the Arts. And then, bonus, the owner strode across the street toward his vehicle as I was snapping frames.

 

Art car, Michael in photo

 

He is Michael. No last name given. I didn’t ask. We chatted briefly, enough for me to learn that this former travel industry professional “works to travel.” His words, not mine. He’s been to about 100 countries.

 

Art car, close-up side

 

A close examination of the national flags and words pasted onto Michael’s Saturn reveals those destinations: Bangkok, Vienna, Zurich, Barcelona, Hawaii, Paris, Delhi…

“Try to see it all,” the message adhered to the trunk advises.

 

Art car, horse on roof

 

Art car, elephant on roof

 

Art car, helicopter

 

And Michael has, via some interesting, and ordinary, modes of transportation—car, plane, train, helicopter, horse and elephant—documented by toys attached to the car’s roof. He rode the elephant in Laos or Cambodia. I can’t remember which.

 

Art car, front side close-up #90

 

Michael, though friendly, seemed reticent to engage in a more in-depth conversation. Maybe he was, like me, on a tight schedule. Or simply reserved, choosing to maintain a level of mystery about himself and his travels. That’s OK.

 

Art car, Frank Zappa quote

 

I asked if there was anything specific on his car that I should photograph. He directed me to a Frank Zappa quote on the windshield: “Progress is not possible without deviation from the norm.”

 

Art car, rear back close-up

 

Perhaps that reveals more about Michael than anything he could have spoken.

 

Art car, hood close-up

 

As does this question, posted on the Saturn’s hood: “Where to next Michael?”

FYI: To read another post about an art car I’ve photographed in Faribault, click here. Then click here to view one I photographed in Northfield. And to view a photo of another art car, photographed by one of my favorite Minnesota documentary photographers, Dan Traun of Red Wing, click here and check out the Sept. 14 entry.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At the Faribault car show, Part II: Fit for royalty & fit for the jester July 21, 2015

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The Rolls Royce parked in downtown Faribault Friday evening for the Car Cruise.

The Rolls Royce parked in downtown Faribault Friday evening for the Car Cruise.

YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU may see at a car show.

A royal photo opp.

A royal photo opp.

At Friday evening’s Faribault Car Cruise Night, it was the 1970s Rolls Royce parked on the corner of Fourth Street/Minnesota Highway 60 and Central Avenue that drew lots of second looks. One group even posed for photos. The owners, whose identity I did not ask, take the car to the occasional car show and on Sunday afternoon drives. I expect if you own a Rolls Royce, you are selective about where you drive.

Typically, this dog's behind is attached to the back of the truck. But on this evening, it was resting on the roof. This made me laugh.

Typically, this dog’s behind is attached to the back of the truck. But on this evening, it was resting on the roof. This made me laugh.

While the Rolls Royce rated riveting royal attention, the behind of a dog attached to the roof of a truck did too. Except it seemed more fitting for the jester’s court. No one was photographing that except me.

Zooming in on the details, a Mustang emblem.

Zooming in on the details, a Mustang emblem.

I often focus on details as much as the overall scene to tell a story. An event is like a book. There are letters within words within sentences within paragraphs within chapters, between the covers. Without one, there is nothing.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Vehicles lined one block of Central Avenue.

Vehicles lined one block of Central Avenue.

I have no idea what Dixie 66 means. But there are always interesting plates on these vehicles.

Apparently 1966 Mustangs are “Dixie Dream Cars.”

Interested in what's under the hood? Many hoods are open at car shows.

Interested in what’s under the hood? Many hoods are open at car shows.

Art on the hood of a Thunderbird.

Art on the hood of a Pontiac Firebird.

Car cruise participants typically bring lawn chairs and sit near their vehicles.

Car cruise participants typically bring lawn chairs and sit near their vehicles.

More car art, this time on the trunk.

More car art, this time on the trunk.

FYI: Click here to read my first post on the July 17 Faribault Car Cruise Night. The final Cruise Night of the season is slated for 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday, August 21 on Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The pick-up truck March 23, 2015

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The pick-up truck that inspired this most, photographed Saturday afternoon in West Concord.

The pick-up truck that inspired this post, photographed Saturday afternoon in West Concord, Minnesota.

IT’S ICONIC SMALL TOWN. The pick-up truck parked along Main Street within view of the grain elevator.

By my definition, a pick-up serves as a farmer’s all-purpose vehicle. Bags of seed corn piled in the back. Squealing pigs penned for market. Fence posts slid across the bed. Must-have auction purchases tossed in the back.

My image is based upon memory. Yesteryear. My Dad’s red-and-white 1960s vintage pick-up, replaced later by a newer one.

This is a late 1960s Chevy.

This is a late 1960s Chevy.

You can have your shiny new hulking pick-up trucks. I’ll take those aged by history—by the weight of a farmer sliding onto a cracked seat, springs groaning, his seed corn cap nearly brushing the cab interior.

Farmer or not, I don't know. But I told this guy I liked his truck. He bellowed out a big, "Thank you" before firing up the truck.

Farmer or not, I don’t know. But I told this guy I liked his truck. He bellowed out a big, “Thank you” before firing up his unmuffled truck. And just as I shot this frame, a much newer pick-up truck rounded the corner behind him.

I’ll take muddy Red Wings planted on floorboards, grease-stained fingers gripping the steering wheel, smell of cows lingering.

Roll down the windows to the wind. Crank the radio to ‘CCO. Bounce along the gravel road, dust rolling behind in a cloud.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts on mass transit in Minnesota: memories & more January 15, 2015

MY EAST COAST COLLEGE son enthuses about mass transit, specifically about the T in Boston. It’s his go-to form of transportation if he’s not walking or unicycling.

The lack of wide-spread mass transit in Minnesota frustrates him. As I see it, cars, cost, lower population, and a much larger geographical area all factor into less public transportation availability here than out East.

I’ve reminded him that many a compact East Coast state would fit inside Minnesota’s borders. We don’t have nearly as many people living here as there.

The light rail heads toward the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The light rail heads toward the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

To be fair, mass transit exists in Minnesota’s larger communities and cities with bus service and, in the Twin Cities metro, light rail. And even in rural areas, limited bus service is available in some counties.

Decades ago, when I visited my Aunt Rae and Uncle Bob each summer, riding the Greyhound bus solo from my Uncle Harold’s gas station along Highway 19 in Vesta in southwestern Minnesota all the way to downtown Minneapolis, I experienced big city mass transit.

An excited nervousness jittered through me as Rae and I boarded a Minneapolis city bus to wherever she wanted to take me. To the Munsingwear warehouse to sort through piles of fabric. Or maybe downtown to view an art exhibit. Specific destination details mostly elude me now all these decades later.

But the wonderment of wheeling along narrow city streets, the bus pulsating to a stop, door swishing open, passengers boarding, remains with me. To be young and in the big city hustle far from corn and soybean fields and bellowing cows opened my eyes.

I saw beyond rural. I saw the possibilities. Another life. Another world.

Not that I ever fell in love with the big city. But riding the bus through Minneapolis sparked something inside me. A yearning for art galleries and music and museums and architecture. A library. An appreciation for people who didn’t look like the German Lutherans and Catholics back home. An almost dizzying awareness of noise and lights and motion. And tall buildings.

Vehicle traffic and light rail meet at this oddly configured intersection near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Vehicle traffic and light rail meet at this oddly configured and confusing intersection near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

I wonder if, today, a young girl from outstate Minnesota boards the Metro Blue Line (light rail) with her parents, perhaps headed to Target Field for a Twins game or to the Mall of America, and feels the same thrill I experienced decades ago riding the bus through the streets of Minneapolis.

Does she imagine the possibilities, study the faces, note the traffic, delight in her destination, desire to explore more of the city? Or is she overwhelmed by it all, wishing only to leave?

FYI: The Minnesota Department of Transportation has a statewide rail plan for an inter-city passenger rail line running from the metro to my community of Faribault and perhaps farther south. This proposal is in the early discussion stages. Click here to learn more.

Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

No Minnesota car wash blues for us December 5, 2014

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HOW LONG WILL YOU wait in line at a car wash?

Which line should we choose?

Which line should we choose?

 

My husband and I recently waited for nearly half an hour at the Kwik Trip Car Wash in Faribault on a Saturday evening. Fourth in line. Next to a second line equally as long.

Moving up in line.

Moving up in line.

Arriving, we pondered which row to choose. Which will move faster? The one with the monster pick-up that doesn’t really appear in need of a wash? Or the other row? It’s a gamble. We chose the pick-up line. (Yeah, I know…)

I passed the time by deleting content from my cell phone. I took photos. I scanned the waiting vehicles and wondered why some were there, like that truck.

Before we headed over to the car wash, I snapped this photo through the dirty driver's side window.

Before we headed over to the car wash, I snapped this photo through the dirty driver’s side window.

It was obvious why my husband and I were waiting. Road salt and grime layered our van from a 600-mile round trip to eastern Wisconsin when the windshield wipers and washer fluid dispenser worked over-time. We could barely see out the side and rear windows for the film of white.

Randy wished aloud for some car wash tune to play on the radio while he amused himself by timing the length each vehicle was in the bay.

Not exactly a night at the movies, but entertaining anyway in the form of car wash art.

Not exactly a night at the movies, but entertaining anyway in the form of car wash art.

As for me, I thought to myself, after 32 years of marriage, it’s come to this—a Saturday night date at the car wash. But, you know, I’m OK with that.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Even the Amish need to scrape windshields December 4, 2014

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I always watch for Amish farms in the Coloma, Wisconsin, area.

I always watch for Amish farms in the Coloma, Wisconsin, area.

I’D NEVER CONSIDERED THIS, how the Amish travel comfortably in cold weather months. But then I don’t live in Amish country, only pass through it on the several times a year trips from southeastern Minnesota to eastern Wisconsin.

 

Amish buggy 1

 

On Thanksgiving morning I spotted an Amish buggy along Wisconsin State Highway 21 just outside of Coloma. I didn’t expect this on such an unseasonably cold and winter-like day. I wondered how this mode of transportation can possibly keep its occupants warm. Perhaps a heater, as suggested by a Google search, provides the necessary warmth.

 

Amish buggy 2

 

I couldn’t see the riders for the glass. A disappointment. But then again, who would ride in an open buggy in such cold temps? Not me. And not these Amish either.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling