Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Revisiting downtown Sleepy Eye & the insights gleaned, Part I March 8, 2018

A painting of a Dakota chief on the city water tower gives travelers a hint at the history of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The town is named after noted and respected Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes. He settled with his band along Sleepy Eye Lake and is buried here with a monument and park dedicated to him.

 

YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about a community by simply walking through the central business district. Many times I’ve done just that with camera in hand. I’ve found that, through photography, I focus on details in addition to the overall scene. That gives me insight into a place.

 

I photographed this stained glass hanging in the front window of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass during a May 2016 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most recently I walked along several blocks of downtown Sleepy Eye with my Canon DSLR while my husband shopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for supplies for a church window he’s refurbishing. US Highway 14 (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway) runs right through the heart of this small town in south central Brown County. That’s in southern Minnesota next to my native county of Redwood.

 

 

More than 30 years ago I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye for six months as a newspaper reporter and photographer. Thus I hold a certain familiarity of place. On this stop, I wanted to grab a sweet treat from the bakery next door to the newspaper office.

 

Sleepy Eye has many architecturally-pleasing aged buildings such as city hall.

 

I found, though, in the remembered location not a bakery, but rather K & J Antiques and Collectibles run by the welcoming Kurk K. Kramer. He happens also to work as the city’s Economic Development Authority coordinator. Given his friendly personality and clear love for Sleepy Eye, Kramer seems an ideal fit for the job. He laughed when I walked into his shop and asked for a doughnut from the long-closed bakery. He was a wealth of information about the town. I’ll share more in future posts and also show you a sampling of goods from Kramer’s shop.

 

A snippet of the downtown, situated along Highway 14, a major east-west roadway across southern Minnesota.

 

Despite my disappointment at the absence of the bakery, I still delighted in revisiting this town I called home for a short while. Whenever I explore a community, I look for fliers and notes posted in downtown businesses. Such finds often amuse me and present a snapshot of a place and its people. I love the small townishness of these public postings, these postscripts.

 

I saw lots of these stickers in many businesses, indicating a strong Chamber of Commerce and a sense of community pride.

 

Take a look at what I found in storefront windows. And then check back for more posts from Sleepy Eye. See what caught my eye as I wandered—and drew some curious looks—while the husband shopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what do my photos tell you about Sleepy Eye? Like most small Minnesota towns, community dinners/breakfasts/brunches are an integral part of the social fabric and also indicate a strong volunteer base of caring residents. Heritage is important. Note the homemade sauerkraut and Landjaeger (a type of sausage) dinner and the Sleepy Eye Area Concertina Club signs. Politeness, humor and community pride are givens.

These are my assessments based on my quick walk-through of peering into downtown storefront windows.

TELL ME: Have you ever done the same to learn more about the personality of a community?

 

Check back tomorrow for Part II in my series titled “An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, Sleepy Eye.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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On the road to southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay December 19, 2017

A former country school near Essig along U.S. Highway 14.

 

TWICE A YEAR, my husband and I head west from our Faribault home to my native southwestern Minnesota for gatherings with my extended family. We travel solely with destination in mind, not deviating to meander through small towns and explore. We get on Interstate 35 in Faribault, exit onto U.S. Highway 14 in Owatonna and then follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway all the way to our destination 2.25 hours away in Lamberton. That would be in Redwood County, just 10 miles east of Walnut Grove.

Near Janesville, this billboard sparkles in the morning light.

Everything along this route is familiar to me from the curves in the highway to the billboards to the farm sites and my favorite barns west of Springfield. While sometimes the drive can seem like forever, especially when wind whips snow to create iffy driving conditions, mostly I enjoy the rural route.

At the beginning of our trip, I photographed this farm site west of Owatonna. The farther west we drove, the greyer the skies became.

Enjoy this photo essay along U.S. Highway 14, aiming west toward the prairie into some of our state’s richest farmland as we headed back for the holidays last Saturday.

Red barns splash color into the rural landscape, here near Janesville.

 

An ethanol plant near Janesville breaks the monotony of farm fields.

 

Highway 14 takes us through New Ulm. I spotted this catchy and festive billboard on the west end of town.

 

You know you’re in the heart of farmland when you see a cash corn price posted on a sign, this one at Christensen Farms near Sleepy Eye.

 

This reindeer statue stands along the east edge of Sleepy Eye. It’s there year-round.

 

Weathered by wind and weather, this barn sits west of Sleepy Eye.

 

A row of vintage trucks are parked atop a hill on the east edge of Springfield.

 

One of my favorite barns on a farm site west of Springfield.

 

We reach our destination in Lamberton where grain elevators mark this rural community.

 

© 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

 

Put your money in the can August 2, 2017

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THIS TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, roadside stands pop up with a bounty of fresh garden produce. Some are staffed. Some are not.

 

 

On Sunday evening, Randy and I stopped at an unmanned stand along U.S. Highway 14 as we passed through Courtland (between New Ulm and Mankato) after a weekend in southwestern Minnesota. We needed potatoes and always appreciate newly-dug spuds.

 

 

Pickings were slim at that time of day. But we found a bag of potatoes for $2 that fit our needs. Randy pulled two bills from his wallet and deposited the money in a mammoth coffee can labeled PUT MONEY HERE.

I love this trustworthiness that exists in rural Minnesota.

 

 

But apparently the gardener doesn’t trust Mother Nature. Inside the coffee can, an over-sized stone weighted the container against the wind.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fashionably cold in Minnesota January 4, 2017

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Along a gravel road somewhere between Nerstrand and Kenyon, Minnesota.

Along a gravel road somewhere between Nerstrand and Kenyon, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2014.

WHILE ROAD-TRIPPING FROM MINNESOTA to Massachusetts last May, I found myself defending my home state. Apparently non-residents have a singular impression of Minnesota. And that would be “cold.”

Back then, when spring was emerging green and beautiful here, I assured non-residents that Minnesota is about much more than cold weather.

But today I can’t argue with the cold assessment as arctic air settles into Minnesota, plunging temperatures to the single digits above zero. Thank you, Canada, for kicking the cold out your front door toward your neighbor’s property.

When my cheeks started hurting and flaming red, I added a second scarf.

Me bundled up several years ago for two hours of ringing bells for the Salvation Army in arctic cold. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Fortunately, Minnesotans know how to handle the frigid temps. Along with complaining, we bundle up. At least I do. Fashion isn’t nearly as important to me as warmth. Gone are the days of caring whether a stocking cap will flatten my hair or whether my Northwest Territory boots are in style. Warmth trumps appearance.

 

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Yet, apparently you can be “cute and cozy” in outdoor winter attire, according to a Scheels billboard I spotted along U.S. Highway 14 between Waseca and Janesville. The model appears well-cozied in her winter jacket, leggings and boots (which seem more fashionable than practical). I wouldn’t want to be slip-sliding around on the ice in those heels.

That all said, I appreciate Scheels’ efforts to convince us that we really can be fashionable in outdoor winter attire. Now if only we could convince the rest of the country that Minnesota is about much more than cold weather.

TELL ME: When you think of Minnesota, what word pops into your head? Cold? Snow? Something else?

How can Minnesota change its “cold” image? Or should we?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So thankful for this newer & safer stretch of Highway 14 December 2, 2016

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Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2013.

IN MARCH 2013, I penned a post, “Hope for one of Minnesota’s most dangerous rural highways.” That would be US Highway 14, specifically between North Mankato and New Ulm.

Back then, I quoted the Minnesota Department of Transportation:

The U.S. Highway 14 corridor between New Ulm and North Mankato in Nicollet County recorded 250 crashes from 2006 to 2010. This overall crash rate is consistent with comparable rural state highways. However, 11 of those crashes had either a fatality or a serious injury, leaving this portion of Hwy 14 with a fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Safety in the area from North Mankato to Nicollet and at the intersection of Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 north of New Ulm is of particular concern.

Did you catch that? A fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable highways.

I don’t doubt those statistics and that assessment. For decades I’ve traveled Highway 14 to and from my native southwestern Minnesota. Heavy traffic, narrow lanes, and few opportunities to safely pass make this roadway particularly dangerous.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

Barrels and signage guide motorists onto a detour in the final month of Highway 14 construction between Mankato and Nicollet. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

But now at least 10 miles of Highway 14 are safer due to the completion of a construction project which expanded the roadway from two to four lanes between North Mankato and Nicollet. Several years of putting up with detours was worth it.

Westbound on the new Highway 14 heading to Nicollet.

Westbound on the new Highway 14 heading to Nicollet.

For the first time Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I traveled on the recently-opened four-lane. It’s great. Simply great. As the smooth highway stretched before us, we considered how reassuring to have a median rather than rumble strips and pylons separating narrow traffic lanes. No worry about cross-over, head-on or rear-end crashes.

You'll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway.

Lots of semis travel this stretch of rural Minnesota highway where rumble strips and pylons once separated lanes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

We considered how the traffic flowed rather than clogged. On the old two-lane, a driver traveling below the 55 mph posted speed or slow-moving farm equipment could back up traffic. And when drivers get impatient, they don’t always use good judgment.

The highway skirts Nicollet to the south. I wonder what impact this will have on businesses in this small town.

The highway skirts Nicollet to the south. I wonder what impact this will have on businesses in this small town.

As Mankato has grown, becoming a regional shopping and cultural destination, and as our society has become increasingly more mobile, traffic has continued to increase along Highway 14. The need has existed for quite some time to expand this roadway. It makes my occasional travel to the region faster, easier, safer. I can only imagine how grateful are those who live in this area.

The four-lane ends shortly after the exit into Nicollet.

The four-lane ends shortly after the exit into Nicollet.

Now, if funding would be appropriated to finish the expansion to four-lane between Nicollet and New Ulm, I’d be even more pleased.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane.

But if it’s like the just-finished project, there will be decades of talk and multiple studies and crashes before that happens. Sigh.

© Copyright 2106 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts & scenes along the Highway 14 detour October 5, 2016

TYPICALLY, ROAD CONSTRUCTION frustrates me. Unexpected delays and detours add to travel time and sometimes to distance.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet, nearing the detour.

But I welcome at least one major road project in southern Minnesota—the expansion of U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet in to a four-lane. This stretch rates as one of the most dangerous roadways in rural Minnesota. Traffic volume along the narrow highway is high. Passing is mostly difficult and dangerous.

The improvements are needed to make this a safer highway. If only the expansion would run all the way to New Ulm.

On the detour route.

The detour route took us through Nicollet County farm land,aiming for Courtland.

Traveling to southwestern Minnesota last Saturday, my husband and I steered away from the Highway 14 project by taking Minnesota Highway 99 between St. Peter and Nicollet. Except this time 99 was closed before we reached Nicollet and we were rerouted onto the official Highway 14 detour route.

 

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The detour added about 15 minutes to our drive time. But that was OK. I enjoy rural landscapes and passing places like Immanuel Lutheran Church and School, rural Courtland, the home congregation of my maternal ancestors.

 

detour-53-nicollet-county-road-25

 

As we rounded Nicollet County Road 25 near its intersection with Highway 14, a spectacular view of the Minnesota River Valley unfolded before us. Vast blue sky striped with grey clouds butted the distant tree line. I could see for miles and miles and miles. It is not the mountains. But, still, the scene wrote lines of poetry before my prairie native eyes.

TELL ME: What are your thoughts on road construction, detours and/or dangerous roadways?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling