Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Brainerd memories November 20, 2017

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Life could be compared to a beaded necklace, each bead representing a memory. Together the beads form a necklace, an accumulation of our life stories. Artist Cyrus Swann created this necklace with handmade porcelain beads and displayed at Crossing Arts Alliance in downtown Brainerd as part of the recent “ART TO WEAR, TEXTILES AND BEYOND” exhibit.

 

MORE AND MORE THESE DAYS, the quickness of time catches me by surprise like the first brisk wind of winter stinging my face.

 

Like the varied art in the “ART TO WEAR, TEXTILES AND BEYOND” exhibit, we each hold unique qualities, shaped by our experiences, our personalities and more. The center showcased garment is the work of Carolyn Abbott and is titled “Missus Carolyn Quite Contrary.”

 

I pull my wool jacket closer, tighten my scarf, wrap my hands in the warmth of gloves. Those actions won’t stop winter. But they keep me warm, comfortable.

So do positive memories.

 

This art by Lisa Jordan seems to hold years of memories.

 

Many decades of memories—difficult and joyful, mundane and remarkable, everyday and extraordinary—crowd my brain. Some seem so distant, as if another person lived that life in another place in another body.

In reviewing my life, I page through the chapters of growing up, of college and jobs and then marriage and family and, finally, today, the reality of a house now empty of children with Randy and me back at start.

 

 

We brought to our marriage those years when no connection existed between us. And those are the 25 years that still yield discoveries. On a recent trip to central Minnesota, we stayed two nights in Brainerd. Randy attended vocational school there more than 40 years ago. He knows the town. I don’t.

 

Chain businesses, and homegrown businesses, edge main routes in Brainerd. Many are new since Randy lived here in the mid 1970s.

 

But in four decades, things change. That proved the resounding theme. “That wasn’t there. That’s gone,” Randy repeated. And on and on. In the context of revisiting a community you left long ago, the reality of aging strikes hard.

 

I always appreciate public art, including this sculpture of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on a downtown Brainerd street corner.

 

One of my favorite discoveries: this gathering space for knitters inside Utrinkets, a yarn, antiques and boutique shop along Laurel Street. Loved the place and the people.

 

It was nice to see this locally owned bridal and formal wear shop downtown.

 

Downtown carried a sense of emptiness, surprising us both as we pulled into Brainerd on a late mid-week afternoon in September. I held a preconceived image of a city crammed with mom-and-pop shops. Sure, they exist. But not as in you can’t find a place to park and we’ll never have enough time to get to all these shops (like in Park Rapids or Stillwater).

As a side note, while writing this post I learned that Brainerd is among two Minnesota cities recently selected as one of 20 finalists competing for the coveted spot of featured town in Small Business Revolution–Main Street, Season Three. The other is Owatonna, just a dozen miles from my home. The winner garners a substantial monetary prize and a Main Street revitalization plan.

 

No photo ban at the bridal shop, but a shoe ban instead, which makes sense.

 

But back to my Brainerd visit, where, after our stop downtown and a long day of travel, I wanted a craft beer. Much searching and many wrong turns, later, we eventually found Roundhouse Brewery in a railroad yard posted with signs forbidding photography. Photo bans irk me when I view so much visual storytelling potential. So I drank my beer, chatted it up with locals and simply enjoyed the evening before we headed to a hotel and dinner out.

 

I laughed at this sign outside Hockey House Minnesota in downtown Brainerd.

 

The next day we aimed north to Nisswa and Pequot Lakes, returning to our Brainerd hotel and a second town tour as the sun edged evening toward night. I tried to be patient while Randy wove the van down street after street, even snailing by Granny Growler’s house where he and two friends rented rooms and strained spaghetti in the bath tub. (The upstairs lacked a kitchen.) I’ve heard the tale too many times not to believe its truth.

 

The Crow Wing County Courthouse.

 

Randy talked of walking to the nearby vo-tech, now part of the high school campus, and reminisced about working in the tire shop at JC Penney. Or was it Sears? His words blurred, the memories he spoke holding much more meaning for him than for me.

 

The historic water tower, photographed as we drove by it.

 

The landmark Lions head drinking fountain, here since 1968.

 

 

Still, in the decades of change, some things remain unchanged in Brainerd—like the water tower and the lion’s head drinking fountain. There’s comfort in that, in tangible places that endure time, that still hold seasons of memories.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

In the dark of the night along a rural Minnesota roadway… November 2, 2017

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A semi awaits the harvest. Photo used for illustration purposes only and not at the same location where this story takes place. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

 

AHEAD OF US along the side of a county road between Faribault and Medford, hazard lights from a tractor trailer pulsated amber into the blackness of a late autumn evening.

A few miles away, combines spotlighted cornfields as farmers worked the night shift in an already late harvest season.

In the rural blackness, our 2003 Chevy Impala beamed headlights through the deep dark, our eyes scanning ditches for deer evicted from fields.

The setting was prime for drama, for threatening possibilities, for imaginations to race rampant.

And then it happened. As we edged even with the parked semi near the county line and our turn-off intersection, the driver stepped from the cab, hailing us. Randy stopped the car. I rolled down the window and the stranger approached. I never considered in that moment the possibility of danger. It was only afterward when friends questioned our decision that I evaluated our choice. But in this moment, this man needed assistance.

Randy pulled the car ahead to a safer spot. Then the stranger leaned toward me, handed me a slip of paper, cigarette breath hanging in the air. I pulled down the visor, flipped up the mirror cover to unleash light. He spoke in jerks of thickly-accented words. “No English. Ukraine, Poland…”

He pointed to the paper again. And we understood that this Ukrainian needed to find his delivery destination. Here, in this countryside where the wind whipped across fields in bone-chilling cold. Here, where dark prevailed. We pulled our smartphones out and Randy punched in the address. We were there, at the driver’s destination. But in the blackness, we perceived nothing except the faint outlines of grouped buildings.

I tried to explain that we would turn around, check out the location and return. But the driver didn’t understand and started walking, swallowed by the darkness. Randy followed. Except I didn’t know that he planned, too, to disappear into that roadway ribbon of blackness. As the minutes ticked by and I waited, my angst rose. Where was my husband? Had this stranger robbed him, assaulted him, pushed him into the road ditch…?

I picked up my phone, punched the green icon connecting to Randy’s phone. He answered. My fear lessened. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Walking back,” he assured. “There in a minute.” And he was, along with the truck driver.

Still, we hadn’t solved the problem. Randy thought the destination business had a second access. There was none, only a single gated road in and no room for a tractor trailer to park until the next morning. Our efforts to communicate in English with the driver failed. So I resorted to mimicking sleep, the rising sun and turn around and go back to town with my arms. Finally he understood and thanked us profusely.

We left the trucker there on the side of the county road, in the blackness of night. Hours later we retraced our route home to find the semi gone, presumably parked miles away at a truck stop for the night. And we wondered about the Ukrainian, how he had come to be a commercial truck driver lost on a rural southeastern Minnesota roadway in the season of harvest.

 

TELL ME: Would you have stopped if this trucker flagged you down along a remote rural roadway in the dark of night?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III from Hackensack: A close call along Highway 371 October 27, 2017

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TOOLING ALONG MINNESOTA State Highway 371 just south of Hackensack on the second to last day of our Up North vacation, Randy and I chatted and watched the northwoods landscape pass by. We’d had a good past five days exploring this part of the state, attending a book release party and visiting with friends.

Except for the cool and rainy mid-September weather and me forgetting my swimsuit, our much-needed get-away to the Brainerd Lakes and Park Rapids areas and to Hackensack had gone well. But that almost changed. Almost.

Ahead of us on the shoulder of the opposite traffic lane, we spotted a large bird huddled and feasting on roadkill. We expected a crow.

But as the van drew nearer, we identified the bird as a bald eagle. With my Canon DSLR camera in my lap, I was excited about the prospect of photographing the eagle.

 

An eagle sculpture at Veterans Memorial Park in Morristown. Imagine if this was a live eagle flying over your vehicle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012 used here for illustration purposes only.

 

That did not happen because…moments before our vehicle drew even with the eagle, the bird lifted off from the roadside. That would have been OK except for one problem. The eagle flew directly toward our traffic lane and our van.

In that moment, thoughts flashed of the eagle slamming into, and through, our windshield. Instinctively I ducked. Massive talons and an impressive wing span filled my view as the eagle flew over our windshield. This bird of prey is much larger than you think when observed from an underside open wing span perspective.

Randy estimates the eagle missed our van by four feet. He later told me he swerved slightly toward the fog line hoping to soften the blow of impact. I had no sense of him doing that.

Looking back on this incident, I am thankful the eagle cleared our windshield. But I’m kicking myself for missing what would have been a heckuva photo.

 

FYI: This concludes my series from Hackensack. Click here to read my first post and then my second.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Tour Rice County for fabulous fall colors October 14, 2017

Kelly Lake, rural Faribault.

 

WHEN MINNESOTANS CONSIDER best places to see fall colors, they often think of the North Shore and Mississippi or Minnesota River towns. I doubt many think of Rice County.

 

Angling in Kelly Lake.

 

But we have some fantastic colors right here, right now, in this region an hour south of the Twin Cities metro.

 

I switched lenses for a closer view of the Kelly Lake angler and the stunning treeline.

 

Saturday morning, after picking up potatoes and zucchini at the Faribault Farmers’ Market, Randy and I headed north and west out of town on Minnesota State Highway 21 for a fall color tour. Our first turn took us off the highway headed for Kelly Lake. There we pulled into the public access off Kelly Lake Trail so I could snap a few photos in the beautiful mid-morning light.

 

A scene along 175th Street West on the way to French Lake.

 

Fishing French Lake.

 

A section of the French Lake shoreline ablaze in orange.

 

From there we drove toward French Lake, stopping at the public access along 177th St. West. I photographed more anglers fishing in the wind and cold. Already clouds were beginning to push in, greying the skies.

 

Near Roberds Lake.

 

Arriving a short while later at Roberds Lake, even heavier clouds settled in. We wished for sunshine to better showcase the fall colors, but realistically did not expect the veil of grey to lift.

 

Ableman’s Apple Creek Orchard is located at 5524 185th Street West. “Take a left by the smiley face near Roberds Lake” to find the orchard.

 

 

 

 

A turn onto 185th Street West yielded a surprise—Ableman’s Apple Creek Orchard. We stopped for a bulging bag of pie apples, chatting it up with friendly Diane who lives a mile down the road. Before we pulled back onto the highway, I admired the stone foundation on the mammoth orchard barn and photographed a stone still horse.

 

 

A clump of colorful woods southwest of Roberds Lake along Garfield Avenue required another stop on a gravel road.

 

Not much luck fishing Cedar Lake on this Saturday morning.

 

 

 

Eventually we reached Cedar Lake, where boaters were trying their luck—one had fished for three hours with only a single catch.

 

 

 

My eyes swept across the lake to the opposite shore and trees flaming red and orange between those still green.

 

 

As time raced toward noon, Randy steered the van back toward Faribault along Rice County Road 12. Swatches of colorful trees sweep along this stretch of roadway in the distance.

 

 

Eventually we ended up on Cedar Lake Boulevard before connecting with Roberds Lake Boulevard. There, at that intersection, a stunning maple flamed fire against the grey like an exclamation point at the end of our Rice County Fall Color Drive.

 

FYI: If you want to see the fall colors in Rice County, I wouldn’t wait. They likely will not be around for much longer.

Click here to read a previous post about places in eastern Rice County to view the fall colors.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II from Hackensack: My observations of this northwoods Minnesota town October 10, 2017

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Lucette Diana Kensack, Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart.

 

IN THE HEART OF NORTHWOODS MINNESOTA, in the land of legends and lake cabins, sits a village of some 300 folks. Hackensack. Twice I’ve been here, twice photographing Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette, who resides along the shores of Birch Lake, and once picnicking along that same lake.

 

 

I’ve never explored this town much except with my camera. But simple observations through a viewfinder can reveal a lot about a place. In Hackensack, I see a hardy northwoods character, a laid-back attitude and a welcoming spirit.

 

The lovely log cabin library right next to Lucette is run by volunteers.

 

Nearby stands Paul Bunyan in chainsaw art.

 

I would love to sample food from the seasonal Butts & Buns BBQ.

 

That rugged character shows in log cabin style construction from lake homes to food truck and in the chainsaw carved wood sculptures around town.

 

 

This seems like my kind of kicked back place where I’d feel comfortably at home in buffalo plaid flannel and jeans. Kids biking along a narrow street with tackle box, fishing poles, bait and net in hand confirm my assessment of a town that appears Mayberry timeless.

 

 

 

Lucette is a tourist attraction.

 

 

Yet, there’s a definite awareness of tourism, of welcoming the temporary residents who arrive here in the spring to open their lake cabins for weekend get-aways, summer vacations and final autumn visits.

 

Hackensack hosts numerous arts-related events including the Northwoods Art & Books Festival and an annual Chainsaw Event.

 

My quick visual perusal of Hackensack certainly doesn’t tell the entire story. But it gives a glimpse of a place appreciated by those who live here. And appreciated, too, by the people who come here to experience the legends, the arts, the food, the sense of place that is so northwoods Minnesota.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Hackensack, or live or vacation here, how would you describe this community? What should I know about Hackensack?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling