Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Improvements to part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway April 21, 2022

U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF YOU’RE A FAN of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series, you will recognize these town names: Walnut Grove. Sleepy Eye. Mankato. In the TV version, the Charles and Caroline Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove, but also traveled to Sleepy Eye and Mankato. In her books, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t write about journeying to either town from Walnut Grove. Hollywood added its creative perspective, including a setting that is not exactly accurate in its depiction of the prairie. I know this area well. My hometown of Vesta lies 20 miles north of Walnut Grove on the mostly flat prairie of big sky and wide open spaces.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato in March 2013, before that section of two-lane expanded to four-lane. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2013)

The trip back to Redwood County from my Faribault home takes me along U.S. Highway 14, also known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. That road passes through Mankato and Sleepy Eye and many other communities into the heart of rural Minnesota, along a particularly dangerous stretch of roadway. Highway 14 has/had a reputation for above average deadly crashes. That’s no surprise given the narrow lanes carrying heavy traffic volumes.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane. It’s at this point where the current four-lane expansion begins to New Ulm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2016)

But that is all changing. Several days ago, government officials and others gathered for a ceremonial event to kick off a two-year road construction project that will replace 12 miles of two-lane roadway between Nicollet and New Ulm with a four-lane road. It’s about time. This is the last stretch of two-lane converting to four-lane from Rochester to New Ulm.

Westbound on Highway 14 heading to Nicollet from Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

I don’t get back to southwestern Minnesota all that often anymore, just for the occasional funeral or family gathering. But I’m thankful that come October 2023, the drive between Nicollet and New Ulm will be easier, safer, faster. Just like it is now between Mankato and Nicollet.

Once west of New Ulm, Highway 14 will remain the same. Narrow. Well-traveled. Not particularly safe. But for today, I’m grateful for the improvements to 12 miles of a route the Ingalls family didn’t follow, but which many fans of “Little House on the Prairie” travel today en route to Walnut Grove.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Christmas joy along US Highway 14 December 22, 2020

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The joy of Christmas banners McNeilus Steel, Inc., Dodge Center, Minnesota.

HOLIDAY DECORATIONS SEND a message, lift spirits, bring joy. This year, more than ever.

Santa and his reindeer fly across the side of a McNeilus building.

I appreciate every homeowner, every city, every church, every nonprofit and every business that takes the time and effort to create Christmas joy via festive decorations.

McNeilus, a 70-plus-year-old family-owned business centered in Dodge Center, has four locations.

McNeilus Steel, Inc., headquartered in Dodge Center, uses its sprawling complex of buildings as a canvas for holiday art.

More holiday joy at McNeilus.

I photographed the company’s holiday decorations recently while traveling along US Highway 14. The business sits right next to the busy highway. I had to focus and shoot quickly from the passenger seat as the decorations flashed past our van.

Stretching along another building, more Christmas decor.

What a gift from this family-owned full-line steel distributor and processor to the thousands of motorists who pass by daily.

Another view of Santa and his reindeer.

During a year that’s challenged and stretched us in so many ways due to COVID-19, I’m grateful for scenes like these that share the Christmas spirit in such a visual, public way.

TELL ME: Have you spotted holiday decorations that bring you an added measure of joy this Christmas? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When torrential rains cause major flooding in my home region of southwestern Minnesota July 4, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, my friends. I hope this finds you celebrating your freedom in a fun way.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta earlier this spring. That’s my home farm in the distance. I expect the flooding is much worse now. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In my home region of southwestern Minnesota, where I was supposed to be yesterday and today with extended family, residents are cleaning up after heavy rainfall flooded the region. Flash flooding resulted in water in basements (and higher), road wash-outs and closures, mudslides, swamped farm fields, overflowing rivers and more. That includes in my home county of Redwood. And the communities of Wabasso (where I graduated from high school) and Vesta (my hometown).

After a flurry of texts between me and my five siblings and lots of online searching yesterday, Randy and I decided not to risk the trip into the flooded region. Although I second-guessed our decision multiple times, it was the right one. This morning floodwaters flowed across a section of US highway 14 east of Lamberton, our route to and from my middle brother’s rural acreage just north of that small town. Likewise I expect the rising Cottonwood River has flooded a county road within a mile of our destination.

Some roads have collapsed in Redwood and Renville counties. I don’t trust the structural integrity of any road covered with water. The Redwood County Sheriff’s Department issued this statement on Facebook early yesterday morning:

We have had numerous (reports) of water covering the roadways. Please DO NOT drive on any roadway that has water running over it. MN DOT and Redwood County highway departments are doing the best they can do get these roads blocked off to warn motorists.

 

A combine similar to this was moved from a Tracy dealership onto Highway 14. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

One of the most creative road blocks happened in Tracy where crews parked a massive John Deere combine across Highway 14 to keep traffic off the flooded roadway.

 

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In Wabasso, which got 11 inches of rain within 12 hours, a resident noted on social media that the white rabbit was safe from floodwaters. He was referencing an over-sized rabbit sculpture along State Highway 68. Wabasso means “white rabbit” and is the local school mascot.

It’s good to find humor in a difficult situation, in an area where residents endured another round of rain this Fourth of July morning.

To those who live in my native southwestern Minnesota (and that includes many family and friends), I am sorry you are experiencing this major flooding. Please be safe.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II March 9, 2018

 

WHEN I SEE A COMMUNITY like Sleepy Eye with so many architecturally-pleasing historic buildings, I wish I could wave a financial wand.

 

 

If I could, I would sweep away the metal, the wood, the stucco, the fake fronts that hide the bones of these beautiful, mostly-brick, structures. I would restore them to their grandeur, drawing the interest of motorists passing through this southwestern Minnesota community. I would give people a reason to stop, to check out the architecture, the unique small town shops and eateries. Many do. More could.

 

Details like this curved, ornate railing on city hall add visual interest and charm.

 

I would also make this busy main street more pedestrian and visually-friendly with bump-out corners graced by public art and lovely flower planters.  I would replace concrete sidewalks with brick, or at least edge them in brick. I’d buy some paint and repair windows and fix unsafe and run-down buildings…if only I held a magical wand of unlimited finances.

 

This map, from a vintage Orchid Inn promo, shows Sleepy Eye’s location in southwestern Minnesota.

 

With US Highway 14, a major east-west roadway running right through Sleepy Eye, heavy traffic is already here. And the bonus of this route as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway adds to the potential.

 

These architecturally detailed buildings hold Sleepy Eye’s history in dates and names.

 

You have to look upward to see the true beauty of these historic buildings.

 

A rooster weather vane drew my interest atop city hall, housed in a former bank.

 

If I had unlimited financial resources, I would do all of these things for this Brown County community west of New Ulm. But magical wishes differ from reality. It takes money to make these improvements. And I expect the merchants here, like those in so many small farming communities, are simply happy they’re still in business given competition from regional shopping centers, Big Box stores and online sources.

 

In numerous buildings I noted lovely tile, inside and out.

 

Yet, small towns like Sleepy Eye offer an alternative, a welcome break from the sameness of mass everything. Places like Sleepy Eye Stained Glass draw customers from all over to purchase stained glass supplies or to get stained glass windows and more restored. Three local antique shops, other shops and the friendliness and service of small town proprietors are additional draws. Schweiss Meats is a popular place for those who appreciate small town meat markets.

 

The old Pix Theatre needs lots of work inside and out. The intention is to save and restore the marquee, according to EDA Coordinator Kurk Kramer.

 

Within a year or so, two local physicians hope to reopen the abandoned Pix Theatre as a nano-brewery and coffee shop, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk K. Kramer. He also runs K & J Antiques and Collectibles. If all goes as planned, the former Orchid Inn motel and event center will become AGlobal, a STEM-based learning center with a focus on agriculture. Additionally, the Orchid would house a language immersion institute.

 

 

 

 

Those plans show me people are working hard to keep this community thriving, with businesses that distinguish Sleepy Eye from other small Minnesota towns. EDA Coordinator Kramer noted that Sleepy Eye is also home to a business (Mark Thomas Company) which serves the funeral home industry by producing such products as handcrafted wooden urns. Who knew? Not me.

 

Sleepy Eye honors its namesake on its water tower.

 

But I do know that Sleepy Eye is named after Chief Sleepy Eyes, buried at a monument site marking his grave. Everywhere you will see the respected Dakota leader’s portrait. He brings historical interest and identity to Sleepy Eye. Those are existing strengths.

 

 

Perhaps some day these historic downtown buildings will all be restored. I appreciate that some already are. Funds are available through the Sleepy Eye Downtown Rehabilitation Incentive Program to make improvements. So perhaps my vision for this small Minnesota town will evolve into more than simply a wish…

 

FYI: Highway 14 improvements in downtown Sleepy Eye this summer call for sidewalk replacement, pedestrian flashers at ped crossings and more. Click here to read details.

Please check back next week for “The Art of Signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III.”

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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