Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What’s the deal with all the flies at Valley Grove? April 27, 2018


The historic Valley Grove Churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.


ALL YOU SCIENTIST, ENTOMOLOGY, biology types out there, I need your input to solve a mystery. I suppose I could google the topic, but I’d rather read your theories or fact-based conclusions.


The buzzing started once we stepped inside the front gate and onto the grass between the two churches.


Last Sunday afternoon while walking on the grounds of Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand, I heard a buzzing. Like a zillion bees. At first I thought I was hearing things because, when I would stop, the droning also stopped.

I questioned whether I could be suffering from tinnitus, an occasional issue given my hearing loss. I’m nearly deaf in the my right ear which causes all sorts of problems in determining sound sources and in hearing in general.



But this buzzing seemed real. I risked asking my husband if he heard what I heard. He did. We paused on the dormant dried grass. No buzzing. Then we took a few steps and the irritating hum resumed. Then my observant husband, with the way better vision than me, saw the flies. Everywhere. Infinite numbers settled on the grass as if sunning themselves. I strained to see the camouflaged flies and then photograph them. I managed one image of a single fly. Whenever either of us moved, they, too, moved. It was the craziest thing.


One of several birdhouses located on the grassland hiking area.


I’m a woman who has a history with flies. They were part of my growing up environment on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm. A fly swatter was always at the ready. Sticky fly traps dangled from ceilings in our farmhouse; one even hung over the kitchen table. Not at all appealing. But I’d rather see a dead fly than have one land on my dinner plate. In the barn, biting, swarming flies were a constant problem. For cows. And for humans.


This aged, massive oak is a focal point in the corner of the cemetery.


But why were these thousands (maybe even millions) of flies here, on these church and cemetery grounds on a sunny late April afternoon, the first warm weekend of the season in Minnesota? There were no cattle (although the occasional piles of deer and other animal poop). There was no food.



The insects didn’t swarm the entire grounds—mostly just the area between the two historic church buildings and along the edge of the adjoining cemetery.



Once I got past the fly territory, I enjoyed my time at Valley Grove. It’s a beautiful place of quiet, of peace, set high atop a hill with lovely rural vistas. There are hiking trails and history in the cemetery (and churches when they are open). Generations of families are buried here. And there are oak trees, including one held together by thick chains in the corner of the cemetery.

This place holds stories. And now it holds one more story—the mystery of the fly invasion.


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Inside the colorful Big Woods of Minnesota October 5, 2011

EVERY TIME I HEAR the words “Big Woods,” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, Little House in the Big Woods, pop into my mind. It’s a natural reflex given my deep love for the Little House books. Think grade school teacher reading the series to her students after lunch and me growing up about 20 miles from Walnut Grove, Wilder’s brief childhood home on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

That all said, Laura was born in 1867 in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin some seven miles from Pepin.

I visited the Ingalls’ home site many years ago with my family, when my girls were elementary age and we were deep into reading the Little House series. The Big Woods and cabin are long gone, replaced now by open prairie and a replica cabin.

Yet, only a short drive east of my Faribault home, I can experience the Big Woods at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I have no idea if these woods are anything like those in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. But I like to think they are.

An informational sign along a trail in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

Check out the history section of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and you’ll find this information about the Nerstrand woods:

“When the first settlers arrived in 1854, they discovered an island of woods in the vast oak savanna prairie which now makes up Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees shade the land.”

I spent half my time in the Big Woods looking, and aiming, my camera skyward.

The park boasts a lovely picnic grounds sheltered by trees like this one.

A close-up look at oak leaves changing color.

This time of year those trees flame in fiery hues, making Nerstrand a popular destination for viewing fall colors in Minnesota.

Sunday afternoon, following a fall color drive to the Sogn Valley area in northwestern Goodhue County, my husband and I stopped briefly at this state park just west of Nerstrand. We managed to find a space in a parking lot packed to overflowing in this park teeming with visitors.

If you’re seeking a quiet, people-free escape, you won’t find it here on a weekend.

But you will find a perfect fall experience complete with the earthy scent of decaying leaves; brilliant reds and yellows painted on the cobalt palette of sky; drifts of leaves to plow through; the crisp crunch of leaves beneath feet; a spirit of friendliness among visitors hiking into the Big Woods; a respite from the busyness of life; and an opportunity to savor the fleeting days of autumn in Minnesota.

Everywhere trees provided a colorful canopy of color.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into the Big Woods.

Along the path, a bursting milkweed pod.

Follow this gravel road west of the park entrance for three miles to Caron Park.

BEYOND THE STATE PARK, there’s more to see at places probably known mostly to the locals:

Follow the gravel road (Rice County Road 88) west of the state park three miles to Caron Park, a 60-acre county park that is a remnant of the Big Woods. You’ll find 1.5 miles of hiking trails here, a lovely waterfall and few people. Late Sunday afternoon we saw a single truck parked in the parking lot.

Nerstrand Meats & Catering, a family-owned business since 1890.

To the east of the park lies the small town of Nerstrand, worth a stop to check out Nerstrand Meats (open 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays), the International Peace Garden at the local charter school, Nerstrand Elementary, and Main Street small-town Minnesota. (Watch for a future post on interesting signage in Nerstrand. Click here to read a previous post about the Peace Garden.)

A snippet of Nerstrand Elementary School and its International Peace Garden.

North of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, along Rice County Road 30, sit the historic and picturesque 1862 and 1894 Valley Grove churches surrounded by 50 acres of rolling prairie grasses and trees. From high atop this hillside location, you’ll get a spectacular view of the fall colors. You can also hike a prairie path here. (Click here to read a previous post I wrote about Valley Grove’s annual fall country social.)

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

To assure that you don’t miss out on these color viewing opportunities, I’d highly recommend hopping in your vehicle sooner than later. Leaves are changing and falling as I write and we all know these splendid days won’t last forever in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Sunday afternoon at Valley Grove September 21, 2010

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PRAIRIE GRASSES and wild flowers dipped in the wind, swaying to the folksy music of Hütenänny. And I thought, as l listened, of the movie, Sweet Land, filmed in southwestern Minnesota and based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s book.

But I wasn’t in the southwestern part of the state. Rather, I stood atop a prairie hillside in southeastern Minnesota, in the backyard of the Valley Grove churches, delighting in the rhythm of the Nordic music so fitting for this place settled by Norwegian immigrants.

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

Valley Grove visitors can walk through a restored prairie, where wildflowers grow.

On this Sunday afternoon in September, folks gathered outside and inside the 1862 stone church and the neighboring 1894 white clapboard church, in the graveyard, underneath the majestic sprawling oak where the musicians played, and on the prairie, close to the land.

Visitors spread quilts upon the grass and enjoyed the music of Hutenanny.

A group of mostly Northfield area musicians performed as Hutenanny at the Valley Grove Country Social. On Sunday evenings they perform as the Northern Roots Session at the Contented Cow in Northfield.

A member of Hutenanny dresses country for the folksy Nordic music performed at Sunday's Social.

In the churchyard, next to the simple wooden church, youngsters swish-swished goat milk into a pail, admired colorful caged chickens and crafted ropes to twirl high above their heads.

Kathy Zeman of next-door Simple Harvest Organic Farm gave a young boy lessons in milking a goat.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens attracted lots of interest.

Along the fenceline that guards the duo hillside churches near Nerstrand, families waited to board a horse-drawn wagon that would take them along a path past the churchyard, up and down the prairie hill, where, if they looked, the land stretched down to farms and to woods tipped in the first rustic colors of autumn.

A horse-drawn wagon carried visitors on a path through the 50-acre prairie.

Inside the 1894 historic church, a musician pressed pedals and keys and tugged at pulls as the faithful lifted their voices in reverent song. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” they sang, followed by “Amazing Grace.”

Organists performed several concerts inside the 1894 Valley Grove Church on a pipe organ built in St. Louis and installed in 1911.

Art and bluebirds and old photos. Sunshine, mixed with clouds. Memories shared, new memories made. Photos snapped. Gravesites visited. Hugs exchanged. All comprised the Valley Grove Country Social, a soul-satisfying way to spend a Sunday afternoon in September in Minnesota.

An archway at the entry to the Valley Grove churchyard.

The Valley Grove churches are on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Old-fashioned hydrangea bushes nestle against the clapboard church.

The spire of the 1894 church can be seen for miles.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society is working to preserve the buildings, land and history for future generations.

CHECK OUT THESE PLACES/GROUPS referenced in this Minnesota Prairie Roots blog post:

Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota

Simple Harvest Organic Farm

The Contented Cow

Northern Roots Session

ALSO CHECK OUT my previous Valley Grove posts published Oct. 9, 19 and 31, 2009, and Nov. 2, 2009, on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling