Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove March 30, 2022

The cemetery at Valley Grove sidles near the two historic Norwegian churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.

Art and heritage and faith and lives remembered. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Today I am drawn to cemeteries, especially rural cemeteries. That includes the hilltop Valley Grove Cemetery in rural Nerstrand.

Oaks edge the cemetery and a road along it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.

The cemetery surrounds three sides of the 1862 stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?

Erik Floren’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The in-ground marker of Ole Hemvig. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Honoring Thomas and Einar Halvorsen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2022)

Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.

On Clyde Heggedahl’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.

A faith and love-filled message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.

A special marker for a veteran’s grave. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.

The old stone church and cemetery at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.

What’s the story behind the “Snuffy” nickname? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.

Posted on the gated entry to Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New date for Valley Grove’s Donut Hole Roast January 6, 2022

The gated entry to Valley Grove, rural Nerstrand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Due to extreme cold temps, the first-ever Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast at an historic Minnesota country church grounds has been rescheduled for the second time.

The event at Valley Grove churches is, as of today (Thursday), slated for 2 – 4 pm Saturday, January 8. Weather forecasters predict a temp of around 30 degrees, much warmer than our recent weather. Saturday will also be warmer than the predicted three degrees on Sunday, the first rescheduled date.

If you attend the Saturday gathering in the parking lot of this rural Nerstrand hilltop setting, dress warm. Even 30 degrees can feel cold if the slightest wind blows and you’re not dressed properly. That includes wearing warm winter boots. Organizers also encourage guests to bring blankets, chairs and hot beverages. If you have snowshoes and want to walk the prairie, bring that footwear.

Whether you attend the bonfire and roast or not, I encourage you to visit the Valley Grove website to learn more about these Norwegian churches on the National Register of Historic Places. Valley Grove rates as one of my favorite area rural destinations. It’s a peaceful, quiet and beautiful place with a strong sense of history and heritage.

On bitterly cold January days like today I respect the hardiness of those early Norwegian settlers who endured much to make a new home in America, in rural Rice County. This morning when I shoveled snow from my driveway and sidewalk, I three times returned to the house to warm myself. Even wearing long johns under jeans, a heavy parka over my clothes, boots, a hat, mittens and a scarf wrapped around my neck and face, my fingers and toes began to numb. That’s a warning sign that, if ignored, could lead to frostbite.

So here I am, inside my cozy office, fleece throw tossed across my lap, thankful for the warmth of the overworked furnace. Thankful to have finished that shoveling in, according to the local radio station, a wind chill temp of -31 degrees. No wonder I felt cold.

When the Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast happens on Saturday, the temp will feel some 60 degrees warmer.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating the history & beauty of Valley Grove on a September afternoon September 18, 2019

A horse-drawn wagon takes visitors through the prairie at Valley Grove with the Big Woods in the distance. When fall colors change, the treeline is spectacular.

 

I CONSIDER IT ONE of the most scenic spots in Rice County. A location that presents a sweeping vista of the countryside from atop a hill adjacent to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Autumn, especially, at Valley Grove offers a visual delight.

 

Folks gather in the restored 1862 stone church for cake, hot dogs, beverages and conversation.

 

On Sunday afternoon, in hot and humid temps that felt anything but autumn-like, I attended the annual Valley Grove Country Social hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society.

 

The beautiful and well-preserved historic churches of Valley Grove as photographed from the cemetery.

 

The group aims to preserve and maintain this place on the National Register of Historic Sites. Here, on this land claimed by early Norwegian immigrants, two churches (built in 1862 and 1894) stand next to a cemetery and next to the prairie.

 

An historic photo and flowers grace a window ledge inside the stone church.

 

These crosses, crafted from Valley Grove burr oaks, were on sale.

 

One of six sets of historic sconces to be installed in the stone church as preservation efforts continue.

 

To visit here is to feel a deep appreciation for the history of this place and those who chose this site to build houses of worship.

 

Hutenanny, a Northfield-based traditional Nordic music group, entertains those attending the Valley Grove Country Social.

 

Making music with Hutenanny.

 

A sing-along inside the wood-frame church.

 

To attend the country social is to experience history—through music,

 

Donna Johnson of the mother-daughter duo Nordic Arts demonstrates the Norwegian art of rosemaling.

 

These sisters try rosemaling using crayons rather than paint.

 

An example of Nordic Arts’ art.

 

art,

Hewing a log next to the wood-frame church.

 

demonstrations, historical talks,

 

Learning how to make a rope.

 

Rope-making up close.

 

Kids especially loved doing laundry the old-fashioned way.

 

hands-on activities and more.

 

The Valley Grove churches.

 

I always feel such a peace at Valley Grove. As if the world of today exists somewhere distant.

 

A simple floral still-life on a windowsill in the wood-frame church.

 

It’s good for the soul to take time on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September to step back in time. Not necessarily to idealize life then—because it was hard. But to gather with others in the countryside far from traffic and distractions and the noise of modern-day life.

 

I noticed these dolls lying on the ground behind the old stone church. So fitting for the day.

 

To appreciate simpler times

 

Such beauty in this floral bouquet adorning a window ledge in the wooden church.

 

and simple beauty.

 

Valley Grove wildflowers at prairie’s edge.

 

To gather under the burr oaks, to walk the prairie, to study tombstones, to sing in the same church where early settlers sang, to watch youngsters craft ropes and walk on stilts. And so much more.

 

Built in 1862.

 

I appreciate the preservationists who understand the personal and historic importance of Valley Grove, of not allowing these churches to fall into disrepair like too many other shuttered country churches. They clearly value the land, the efforts of their forefathers, the importance of this place. Still today.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling