Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My first stay at an Up North Minnesota lake cabin September 22, 2017

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THROUGH THE PLEATED SHADES, lightning flashed like a strobe light outside the cabin. Soon thunder rumbled, not loud and crashing, but slow and ramping in volume. I willed myself to shut out the light, the sound, to fall asleep here in this place nestled in jackpines along the shore of a lengthy lake four hours from my southeastern Minnesota home.

 

Downtown Park Rapids features two rows of parallel parking down the middle of the street and diagonal parking curbside on both sides.

 

Randy and I arrived in a flush of rain after an afternoon in Park Rapids, a resort town abundant in shops and quirky in its center of the street parking. Already I loved this place, despite the grey skies and near constant rain.

Yet, this was not my vision of our first-ever stay at a Minnesota northwoods cabin. But when you can’t control the weather, you can either choose disappointment or embrace the situation. And I was determined to make the best of our visit with friends Jackie and Rick.

 

Jackie, right, took this selfie of the two of us. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

When Jackie invited us to their cabin, I accepted with the enthusiasm of someone who has always wanted to experience this quintessential Minnesota activity of “going Up North to the cabin.” Our friends made us feel as comfortable as if we were family and long-time friends. We are neither. I met Jackie several years ago after connecting with her via blogging. She and Rick live some 40 miles from us in Rochester. Jackie is a nurse by profession and a blogger with strong photography skills.

 

Randy and I, left, with Jackie and Rick. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

We joke that we could be sisters given our shared interests in photography, barns, cemeteries, country churches, small towns, gravel roads and much more. We are women of faith, mothers of three, grandmothers and wives who are grateful for loving and supportive husbands of 35 years. We each birthed sons who weighed nearly 11 pounds. Jackie beat me by two ounces.

Mostly, though, we have that natural connection of conversing with ease, of laughing and enjoying each others’ company in a developing friendship. Previously, the four of us had gotten together briefly several times. This weekend at the cabin would forge our evolving friendship.

 

With Rick at the wheel, we head across the lake. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

Given the weather, we mostly sheltered inside the cabin peering through spacious windows toward the grey lake and rainy skies. We laughed and talked with barely a lull in the conversation. When the weather broke for a bit Saturday morning, I suggested a boat ride. I surprised all of them. I had to overcome a general uncomfortableness on water to board a boat.

 

As the boat picks up speed, waves trail behind.

 

I appreciate that Jackie and Rick honored my request that we not venture too far from shore. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to ask Rick to increase the boat speed. The distractions of my camera and Rick’s history tour of the lake along with Jackie’s encouragement made for a pleasant ride. There’s something to be said for friends who are supportive and loving.

 

Watching Randy relax and unwind from work gave me much joy. We needed this vacation.

 

That evening, after dining on grilled steak, we clustered around the dining room table for a game of Outburst. Boys against girls. We laughed and talked and laughed some more between munching on caramel corn from Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks in Park Rapids. Before 11, we were off to bed and I slept well without rumbling thunderstorms.

 

Only a few boats were on the lake Saturday morning.

 

As wonderful as the cabin experience was, I had hoped to spot a loon. Sunday morning while looking across the lake, I noticed a black floating shape with the seeming distinctive curve of a loon. Jackie handed me binoculars while she fetched her glasses. Through the lenses, we confirmed a loon sighting. It would have to do—this lone loon in the distance. I was thrilled.

 

A grouping of loons. Photo by Jackie Hemmer.

 

That evening, hours after our mid-morning departure, Jackie texted a photo of seven loons with this message: Saw about 15 loons on the lake tonight just beautiful!

 

 

Just beautiful. That summarizes, too, our weekend stay with friends who blessed us with a delightful time at their Up North cabin.

 

FYI: Click here to read Jackie’s blog, “Who Will Make Me Laugh.”

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos by Jackie Hemmer are also copyrighted and used with her permission as noted.

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Back from the Minnesota northwoods September 19, 2017

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Jackie Hemmer photographed me shooting lake scenes while on a boat ride on a lake south of Park Rapids. My husband and I were weekend cabin guests of Jackie and her husband, Rick.

 

WORDS TOOK ME to the northwoods of Minnesota. To a friend’s cabin. To a lake. To a book release party.

I am home now six days later, my suitcase emptied, tucked back in the closet.

But now the words and images of those days mingle memories of small towns explored, of laughter and good conversations shared, of a boat trailing waves and a loon on a lake, of wild rice hotdish and Gull Dam good beer.

Stories. There are so many stories waiting to be written.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo courtesy of my friend, Jackie Hemmer, who shares her words and photos at “Who will make me laugh.” Please check out Jackie’s blog post about our friendship and recent visit by clicking here.

 

From sunshine to storm on Labor Day September 4, 2017

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Looking to the north and the Minnesota River Valley just outside Delhi around 4 p.m. Monday.

 

TO THE NORTH, storm clouds bruised the sky late Labor Day afternoon.

 

To the east of Delhi heading toward Redwood Falls.

 

Brooding blue, then masses of grey before the rain gushed near New Ulm as we drove east from the southwestern Minnesota prairie toward home. The rainfall, while heavy at times, seemed nothing more than a September downpour.

 

Sky and corn define this area of Minnesota.

 

Well before we got to Mankato, the rain stopped.

 

The farther east we drove, the more ominous the clouds appeared.

 

Yet clouds continued to stack and I began to consider the possibility of severe weather as we entered Waseca, then Steele, counties. Randy switched on the radio to a local station but then turned it off when our son called from Boston. I ended the conversation as we reached Owatonna and exited U.S. Highway 14 onto Interstate 35.

Rounding the entrance ramp, Randy noticed a state highway patrol car and, then, a short distance later, another. By that time the rain had ramped. Wheels hydroplaned. And the wind blew so fierce the van rocked.

“I’m scared,” I said. “I want to get off the interstate.” Randy steered the van off the next exit, much to my relief. But I was still scared. I don’t like storms or strong winds like these of probably 50 mph. I’ve seen the damaging power of tornadoes and straight line winds and I respect them enough to fear them.

 

Just a few miles from Faribault on Rice County Road 45.

 

We drove through part of Owatonna, the wind still whipping trees. The short detour off I-35 proved enough to semi calm me before Randy directed the van out of town along a back county road. I wanted nothing more than to get home to Faribault. I’d had enough of the wind and the rain on an otherwise glorious September day in southern Minnesota.

 

TELL ME: Have you ever been caught on the roadway in a storm that scared you? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

West of Mankato August 23, 2017

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

 

WHEN I TELL FELLOW MINNESOTANS I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, specifically near the small town of Vesta, I typically get a blank stare. So, when “Vesta” doesn’t register with them, I mention Marshall to the west and Redwood Falls to the east of my hometown. Both are county seats and fair-sized communities, in my opinion.

 

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling to southwestern Minnesota.

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling through southern Minnesota toward the prairie.

 

Even after dropping those two names, I still often get that quizzical look. It’s as if they have no idea there’s anything west of Mankato.

 

This barn along U.S. Highway 14 west of Sleepy Eye always catches my eye.

Gotta love this barn between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.

 

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

 

 

But there is. Lots. Land and sky and small towns and oddities and grain elevators, and corn and soybean fields stretching into forever. There are pitch-black skies perfect for star-gazing and sunsets so bold I sometimes wonder why I ever left this land.

 

There are so many well-kept barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

There are so many beautiful old barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

I understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I simply want others to see that this corner of Minnesota, just like the lakes and woods to the north and the rolling hills and rivers to the south and the Twin Cities metro, is lovely and quirky and interesting in a peaceful prairie way.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

U.S. Highway 14 passes through many small towns, like Sleepy Eye where these guys were shopping for a car.

Shopping for cars in Sleepy Eye, one of many small towns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

 

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

 

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

 

FYI: All of these photos are from my files and were taken along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Lamberton. That would be west of Mankato.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A quick stop in the Minnesota German city of New Ulm August 3, 2017

Domeier’s German Store, snugged into a residential neighborhood for decades, is a must-see German import shop in New Ulm.

 

NESTLED IN THE MINNESOTA RIVER Valley, New Ulm has long been one of my favorite Minnesota communities. I love not only the sweep and rise of the valley and hills, but also the vibe of this definitively German city.

 

Nutcrackers peer out a window at Domeier’s.

 

My maternal family roots run deep in this region. Drop the surname Bode at the Guten Tag Haus in downtown New Ulm and a look of familiarity flashes across a clerk’s face. She knows the name. My ancestors settled just to the east in the farmland surrounding nearby Courtland.

Last weekend en route to a wedding in southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I scheduled time in New Ulm to peruse a thrift store and two German gift shops. I was looking for ethnic items for an upcoming Helbling family reunion. We’re having an Oktoberfest theme to celebrate my in-laws’ heritage. The mini German flags I needed as accents for bouquets of flowers in steins were elusive given the community’s recent Bavarian Blast. I found one at a price I was willing to pay. I need six.

 

The thrift shop Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck is perfect given the Helblings settled (and still mostly live) in that region of North Dakota. I found the last remaining 99-cent cotton German flag at the Guten Tag Haus.

 

Still, we scored, among other items, two bier mugs at the MVAC Thrift Store, German chocolate mice at Domeier’s German Store and that coveted German flag at the Guten Tag Haus, some at Crazy Days bargain prices. Success.

 

A snippet view of German Park.

 

This monument in German Park honors those who suffered in the US-Dakota War of 1862 which was centered in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Nearby a whimsical sculpture reminds visitors to keep the park clean.

 

In between shopping, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch and a respite at the beautiful German Park a block from New Ulm’s main drag. Here a fountain centers lovely gardens and pieces of art.

Whenever I’m in New Ulm, I feel comfortably at home. Sure, my ancestral roots are in this region. But it’s more than that. This southwestern Minnesota community works hard to preserve and present its German heritage in a welcoming way. I love that about New Ulm.

 

FYI: Click here to read a 2015 photo rich post I published on beautiful German Park.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Loving the settings & beer at these greater Minnesota breweries July 14, 2017

A flight of craft beer from F-Town Brewing in my community of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FIVE YEARS AGO if anyone had suggested I would drink (and like) craft beer, I would have laughed. I was only the occasional have-a-beer-with-your-pizza or on a hot summer evening type of beer drinker. And at that, I drank whatever mass produced beer the husband had stocked in the fridge.

How my tastes have changed. I can no longer drink beer that flows by the gallons into bottles or cans inside a sprawling factory. Those beers taste like water to me. Rather, I’ve become a beer snob, preferring hoppy IPAs crafted at small breweries.

I’ll be the first to tell you my preference for craft beer developed over time as an acquired taste. But once acquired, I was hooked, enough so that I, along with my husband, seek out craft breweries. These specialty businesses are an experience, not just a place to try new beers.

 

Reads Landing Brewing Company in Reads Landing, Minnesota.

 

Two recent road trips took us to Reads Landing Brewing Company (between Lake City and Wabasha) and to Imminent Brewing Company. They are distinctly different breweries, but both with excellent beer. And I don’t say that about every craft beer.

We almost missed the Reads Landing establishment in the same named unincorporated community along U.S. Highway 61 in southeastern Minnesota. The brewery sits at the base of a hillside, a train track away from the Mississippi River. Housed inside an historic 1870 former dry goods store, the setting hearkens to bygone days. As an appreciator of old buildings, I delighted in the location and the wide window view of the Mississippi.

 

Randy and I shared a sampler flight of Reads Landing beer.

 

With the exception of slow service on a weekday afternoon when the place wasn’t overly busy, I rate Reads Landing Brewing highly. Randy and I settled onto high chairs at the front window for a perfect view of the river and a slow moving train. Then we waited and waited until the bartender/waiter finally got off the phone, noticed us and then made excuses for his lack of attention. Thankfully, the house-made beers in the sampler flight and accompanying Bavarian Style Soft Pretzel Sticks with homemade beer cheese and mustard dipping sauces compensated for the inattention and left us with a mostly good impression of this brewpub.

Of special note is the Cap’n Amber beer, a beer into which Cap’n Crunch cereal is incorporated in the mash. All of the beers were to our liking; we’d recommend this beer and brewery.

 

The patio outside Imminent Brewing Company in Northfield, Minnesota.

 

Farther inland to the north and east in the riverside college town of Northfield, we checked out the recently-opened Imminent Brewing. I love this place, declaring to Randy that this was my absolute favorite brewery. Located in a former National Guard Armory garage, the brewery has an industrial look and a welcoming vibe. There’s just something about this place that seems particularly comfortable for anyone from a blue collar worker to a college professor.

The brewery also features an expansive patio. And, bonus, food trucks. On this particular weekday evening, Randy and I enjoyed arepas from Noris Cuisine. We didn’t stick around for the live music.

We shared a flight sampler of simply superb craft beers. We’ll be back, given the location some 15 miles from our home.

And we’ll be checking out Tanzenwald, the other new brewery in Northfield, sometime soon.

TELL ME: Do you drink craft beer and/or visit craft breweries? Share your favorites.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Second restored carnival car debuts in Faribault, birthplace of the Tilt-A-Whirl July 12, 2017

Signage and seating inside a restored Tilt-A-Whirl car installed in downtown Faribault in June 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

SEVERAL BLOCKS FROM MY FARIBAULT home, laborers once built the iconic Tilt-A-Whirl and lesser-known amusement rides. Occasionally I spotted oversized bears, dragons and other animal-themed spin rides aboard flatbed trailers exiting the Frog Town neighborhood, location of Sellner Manufacturing.

 

The Dizzy Dragon was once also made in Faribault. This ride and other versions of it are now built by Larson International, Inc. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

There Herbert Sellner, inventor of the Tilt-A-Whirl, opened his manufacturing company. From 1926 until its sale to a Texas company in 2011, the business made carnival rides.

 

The 1950s Tilt-A-Whirl car faces north toward Central Avenue. Here’s the beautiful back. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Often I wondered why Faribault didn’t promote the Tilt-A-Whirl. Next to the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel, it’s likely the most recognized amusement ride spanning generations. The American made ride seemed a natural tourist draw to me. Today, thanks to the efforts of local businesswomen Tami Schluter (of the Historic Hutchinson House B & B) and Peggy Keilen (of Faribo Air Conditioning & Heating), there’s an increased awareness of the Tilt-A-Whirl’s origins in my southeastern Minnesota community.

 

A restored 1950s vintage Tilt-A-Whirl has been permanently installed by Burkhartzmeyer Shoes in historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

In August 2014, the pair unveiled a 1950s Tilt-A-Whirl prototype car restored by Rick’s Restoration of Las Vegas and placed next to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

 

The second car, before restoration. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

On Thursday, the two will celebrate the refurbishing of another Tilt-A-Whirl car donated by local Harley’s Auto Salvage.

 

The restored car in place by the State Bank. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Dedication of that car will take place at noon in front of the State Bank of Faribault, 428 Central Avenue North.

 

Under Dwight Henning’s hands, a work in progress. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

The reconstructed and primed car. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Nearly complete. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Unlike the first car, this car has been restored by former Sellner employees, Dwight Henning of Henning Fiberglass and Karen Bussert of Design Specialties. That involvement of a local craftsman and artist strengthens community pride and ownership, always a bonus with any project.

 

The first restored Tilt-A-Whirl car sits in downtown Faribault, outside a third-generation family shoe store. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

There are already hints of a third Tilt-A-Whirl restoration project. The first restored car has proven a photo op tourist attraction down at the shoe store. I expect the car by the bank to also draw attention, probably more, though, from locals than visitors. This car is not restored to vintage, but rather painted/decorated in green, white and gold, the State Bank’s colors. Green and white are also the public school colors of the Faribault Falcons.

 

Historic info featured on the “table” of the latest restored Tilt-A-Whirl car. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

 

Schluter and Keilen have worked tirelessly to bring these Tilt-A-Whirl cars to downtown Faribault. They’ve also gotten significant financial support and community backing. Still, it takes someone to initiate.

 

Karen Bussert creates Tilt-A-Whirl themed t-shirts like this one worn by Faribault native Janet Timmers at a Car Cruise Night. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I see additional potential here to expand upon what these two have started. For now I envision a seasonal pop-up mini museum showcasing the Tilt-A-Whirl in an empty downtown storefront and/or perhaps a kiosk that includes Tilt-A-Whirl t-shirts. Maybe the local F-Town Brewing Company could craft a beer named after this iconic ride. And, if I’m going to brainstorm here, I may as well dream big. I’d love to see an operating Tilt-A-Whirl find a permanent home in our historic downtown.

TELL ME: How can my community further promote the Tilt-A-Whirl as a tourist attraction? I’d love to hear your ideas.

 

The Mural Society of Faribault created and placed the Tilt-A-Whirl mural on the side of Jim’s Auto & Tire in downtown Faribault, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FYI: The Rice County Historical Society includes a small exhibit on Sellner Manufacturing. And a downtown mural features the Tilt-A-Whirl.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling