Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Some thoughts on aging vehicles, horse power & more December 29, 2020

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My father-in-law, Tom Helbling, painted this holiday scene and gifted it to Randy and me. Every December I pull the painting from my stored art collection and hang it on the dining room wall. It’s among my most treasured artwork.

AS RANDY AND I DISCUSSED YET another issue with our aging vehicles over dinner, I glanced at the painting on our dining room wall. “Sometimes I wish we got around by horse and buggy,” I said. “Life would be simpler.”

Or would it? There would be horses to feed, wagons or sleighs to fix, manure to pitch from a barn we don’t have. And our travel would be limited. Nah, wouldn’t work.

Our used van, purchased from a private party and photographed quite a number of years ago. It’s marked by rust now, from winter exposure to salt, sand and chemicals placed on Minnesota roadways. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So we continue to keep our 2003 Chevy Impala with 276,000 miles and our 2005 Dodge Caravan with some 175,000 miles in running order. Or should I say Randy does? He’s an automotive machinist (that’s different than a mechanic) and is pretty darned skilled in vehicle maintenance and repair after 40+ years in the profession. This year he’s done brake work on both vehicles, put a new sway bar in the car and replaced a belt tensioner and belt, alternator and radiator in the van. Oh, and done regular oil changes.

Randy’s skills save us lots in labor costs. But parts alone, even with his work place discount, still ran $865.

I figured with all those repairs already this year, we were good to go for awhile. But then Randy texted recently that the heater in the car wasn’t working. He had one long, cold 22-minute commute to work. He thought the problem may be a blown fuse. It wasn’t. And, not being skilled in the electrical components of a vehicle or wanting to navigate repair inside/under the dashboard, he let the guys at Witt Bros Service in Northfield work their repair magic. They’re a great, trustworthy crew, located across the parking lot from Randy’s work place. Still, sinking $200 (most of that in parts) into a nearly 18-year-old car gives reason to pause. But, hey, where can you buy a well-maintained used car for that price?

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop in 2015. I display this every May during Kentucky Derby time. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Now, if we weren’t paying $1,868/month in health insurance premiums in 2021 (up $144/month from this year), we could drive newer, nicer vehicles. Thus far in 2020, we’ve forked out $20,447 for health insurance premiums with deductibles of $4,250/each. Sigh. Nearly $21,000 could go a long way toward paying for a vehicle upgrade or anything for that matter. But, hey, at least we have health insurance (that is basically worthless unless we have a major health event) and wheels, not horses, to get around.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An architecturally historic bridge in Waterford Township November 9, 2020

NOTE: This post features photos from a mid-August stop at the historic Waterford bridge near Northfield, Minnesota.

The historic Waterford Bridge, located in Waterford Township in Dakota County, Minnesota.

 

TO THE MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT of Transportation, the historic Waterford Bridge some two miles northeast of Northfield is tagged as bridge number L3275. I suppose bridges, like roads, require such numerical identifiers.

 

This is truly an artful and unique bridge in southern Minnesota.

 

Much more than a name or number, this “140-foot, steel, riveted and bolted, Camelback through truss on concrete abutments” bridge, according to MnDOT, stands as an historic bridge spanning the Cannon River.

 

The new plain-looking bridge.

 

Rare in design here in Minnesota, the 1909 bridge closed to vehicle traffic in 2009 and was rehabilitated in 2014. A new, non-descript modern bridge replaced it.

 

Weeds, wildflowers and other plant growth surround the bridge.

 

I’ve long wanted to see the old bridge in Waterford Township as it reminds me of a similar truss bridge from my childhood. That bridge took US Highway 71/Minnesota State Highway 19 traffic across the Minnesota River near Morton. When my dad drove our family Chevy across the bridge en route to Minneapolis once a year to visit relatives, my siblings and I pounded on the interior roof to scare any trolls lurking underneath at water’s edge. That all seems silly now, reflecting as an adult. But, back then, it was great fun.

 

The narrow path to the bridge.

 

I stopped along the path to photograph a butterfly atop a thistle. I saw multiple butterflies.

 

Fast forward to today and my desire to see a similar-in-design bridge. Randy had actually driven across the Waterford Bridge at one time while doing some automotive repair work for a farmer in the area. So he easily found it. After parking, we set out to reach the bridge, weaving through a narrow pathway bordered by trees, thistles, goldenrod, wildflowers and other plants. Boulders blocked the deteriorating paved trail to motor vehicle traffic.

 

I hesitated, but only for a moment.

 

Upon reaching the bridge, I wondered if we should even venture onto it given the BRIDGE CLOSED—BRIDGE NOT SAFE NO TRESPASSING signage. But the deck looked safe…and many others had obviously been here before us.

 

In need of paint, or perhaps replacement.

 

The Waterford Bridge spans the Cannon River.

 

There’s lots of graffiti on the bridge.

 

Once on the bridge, I was surprised at its condition. Rusting metal. Flaking paint. Weathered boards. Graffiti. Vandalized signage. Cracked pavement.

 

Historical details on a sign posted high above the bridge deck.

 

As I walked, dodging dog poop, I considered the condition of the bridge built by the Hennepin Bridge Company with Dakota County Surveyor Charles A. Forbes leading the project design. His name and that of other government officials are listed on a plaque atop one end of the bridge which now appears abandoned to the elements. The bridge is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Tubers exit the Cannon River near the new Waterford Bridge.

 

The new Waterford Bridge photographed from the old bridge with tubers in the distance at river’s edge.

 

A couple carries their kayaks along the narrow path leading to the historic Waterford Bridge.

 

Under that bridge, the Cannon River flows, muddy and brown, carrying tubers, canoeists and kayakers—we met two of them, saw others—to places eastward. We watched as one couple carried their kayaks along the narrow path to the bridge with plans to travel eight miles to Randolph, a journey they expected to take three hours.

 

The muddy Cannon River, a popular waterway for water sport enthusiasts.

 

It was a lovely summer day to be on the water. Or, like us, to walk across an historic bridge that, for me, bridges past to present via childhood memories.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Kenyon: More than just a bus service October 23, 2020

Held Bus Service in downtown Kenyon, Minnesota.

MANY TIMES I’VE PASSED through Kenyon, usually en route to visit family in Madison, Wisconsin, four hours distant. But many times also, this town of some 1,800 about a half hour east of Faribault has been my specific destination. Last Sunday afternoon on a drive to view the harvest and fall colors (before an unexpected snowstorm changed the landscape to winter), Randy aimed our van north out of Monkey Valley toward Kenyon just a few miles away.

This window features a classroom of yesteryear.
A close-up of a focal globe in the classroom display.
More details from the past…

We had no intention of stopping in Kenyon. But the passenger side window needed cleaning so Randy pulled into a corner service station and washed the glass. (He’s thoughtful like that.) Then we continued down Minnesota State Highway 60, which runs through the heart of the business district. As luck would have it, I happened to look, just at the right time, at the Held Bus Service building. And there, in the front windows, I spotted a school-themed display. Photo-worthy, I thought, as I asked Randy to swing around the block and return to the bus building. He even pulled ahead so the van wouldn’t reflect in the glass. (He’s thoughtful like that.)

Look at this bus-themed window display with the apparently handcrafted bus.

Photographing the window art proved challenging given the reflections. But I was determined to do my best. Someone worked hard to craft and create these educational-themed displays that show the importance of the Kenyon-Wanamingo School in this community—right down to the Knights mascot, the happy bus driver in the red cap and the smiling students. Yes, by that time I’d noticed two separate window displays, one an historic classroom and the other themed to school buses.

Love these portraits of students on the bus.
The school mascot even gets a place of honor.
More KW students riding the bus.

As someone who grew up riding the bus for 12 years to schools in southwestern Minnesota, I understand the importance of bus drivers. Mine were Jeff and Harley. Great guys. Friendly. Kind. Competent. It’s not easy driving on rural roads during a Minnesota winter. Nor is it necessarily easy dealing with a bus full of kids.

Presumably Jon Held behind the wheel of the bus.

But Jon Held, owner of Held Bus Service, loves kids. According to a 2016 KARE 11 TV feature on him, he is well-loved, too. He knows kids by name, greeting them daily before and after school (pre-COVID), often with hugs. He keeps a candy stash and one year even handed out his company’s signature red caps to some happy students.

The business is housed in an historic building which was damaged in an August 2016 fire. You can’t tell by looking at it now.

That’s a snapshot of the backstory framing these window displays. These are the stories that define small towns like Kenyon as caring communities, more than simply some place to pass through en route to somewhere else.

Please check back for more photos from Kenyon.

© Copyright 2020 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