Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Checking in on small town cafes April 9, 2020

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The sole cafe in my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

IN RURAL COMMUNITIES, restaurants serve as gathering spots, as social hubs, for those who live there. Farmers, retired or not, meet for coffee and cards at the local cafe. Some return for dinner—that would be the noon meal in farming country—joined by younger men. Women come, too, for food and conversation. Plus families and others, like me, pop in from out of town on occasion.

But all of that has changed because of COVID-19. Those restaurants which center these small towns (along with churches and schools) are now closed to in-house dining. And that’s a challenge for those who rely on these places to connect with friends and family, to socialize.

 

Looking south from the cafe to the bank on the corner and the Vesta water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I wondered about my hometown of Vesta, a farming community of some 320 in southwestern Minnesota. The one-block Main Street looks much different than when I grew up on a dairy and crop farm south of town decades ago. There’s still a grain elevator, a bank, a post office and a few other businesses. Years ago, though, hardware stores, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, a barbershop…filled the block.

Community leaders had the foresight, when the last restaurant closed, to build a community cafe, the Vesta Cafe. When my mom still lived in Vesta, prior to her move to a senior care center in nearby Belview, Randy and I occasionally ate at the restaurant. I saw the importance of this gathering spot to locals. In 2012, I helped bring a Little Free Library to my hometown, which doesn’t have a public library or even a bookmobile. Since then the sharing of books and magazines has expanded to include jigsaw puzzles.

But back to now. I went online to see how the Vesta Cafe is faring during these difficult times. And if Facebook is any indication, the cafe is experiencing enthusiastic support from the community. A full menu is posted for April with meals to go. That includes Easter dinner, available for pick-up between 10 am-12:30 pm. Sunday. For $8.95, you’ll get a choice of roast beef or ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots, a dinner roll and dessert. Orders must be placed in advance.

Reading through the menu posted on Facebook, I see the rural influence. Like a beef commercial—roast beef layered between pieces of white bread, topped with a scoop of mashed potatoes and then smothered in gravy. It was my dad’s favorite meal on the rare occasion he ate at a cafe. Other rural-centric meals feature liver and onions, scalloped potatoes and ham, sausage and sauerkraut, and meatloaf.

But the Vesta Cafe also offers menu items like walleye, BBQ ribs, shrimp and, now, take-and-bake pizzas.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

I’m pleased, that during these challenging times, my hometown continues to support its sole restaurant. I also want to give a shout-out to The Amboy Cottage Cafe, a lovely eatery I discovered in the small town of Amboy, south of Mankato, six years ago. The made-from-scratch food is exceptional and unusual for a farming community. Offerings range from burgers to tuna melts to Salmon Quiche and Foraged Nettle Lasagna. The Amboy eatery continues to cook and bake (pies, rolls, bread pudding, etc), offering curbside pickup for several hours on limited days.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad, ordered at the Amboy Cottage Cafe in July 2014. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It is my hope that these small town restaurants can survive. They are more than simply a place to enjoy a good meal. They are a place to gather, to talk, to connect and share each others heartaches and joys. And daily lives.

TELL ME: Do you know of a small town restaurant that continues to thrive during this time of COVID-19 restrictions? I’d love to hear about these eateries that center our rural communities.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My dream come true: A Little Free Library installed in my hometown on the southwestern Minnesota prairie July 3, 2012

IMAGINE GROWING UP in a town without a library and, all your life, wishing for a library in your hometown.

Then imagine one July day, when you have been gone for nearly four decades and are old enough to qualify as a senior citizen, that a couple drives into your hometown in their station wagon to deliver a library.

That scenario played out in my hometown on Sunday afternoon as Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library, traveled three hours from Hudson, Wisconsin, with his wife, Susan, and their two dogs to deliver and install a LFL at the Vesta Cafe in the southwestern Minnesota prairie town of Vesta.

Troy Krause of The Redwood Falls Gazette interviews Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol as Dorothy Marquardt, left, and Karen Lemcke of the Vesta Commercial Club listen.

“I love books. They are part of my heart and soul,” Todd Bol said Sunday as he stood outside the cafe near the over-sized birdhouse style library anchored on a post. I listened and snapped photos as Troy Krause, editor of The Redwood Falls Gazette interviewed this man who has seen his LFL story spread to media outlets worldwide, from The Huffington Post to The Los Angeles Times and beyond.

The LFL Todd and Susan installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe.

Little Free Libraries are popping up everywhere across the country (and even outside the U.S.), bringing books to neighborhoods and cities and now, for the first time, to places likes Vesta, the seed plant for the “Small Towns Minnesota” movement of the LFL project, according to Bol.

The beautiful handcrafted library Todd Bol had built and painted for the residents of Vesta, population around 340.

He offered to donate the library, hand-built by an Amish carpenter from Cashton, Wisconsin, to Vesta after I blogged last November about a LFL in my community of Faribault and then issued this challenge to my hometown of some 340 residents:

I’d like to challenge the residents of Vesta to start a Little Free Library. How about in or near the Vesta Cafe? Make my dream of a library in my hometown come true. I’ll even bring some books for the library the next time I’m “back home.”

The books Todd Bol and I placed inside Vesta’s LFL. I plan to bring some books for children and teens the next time I’m back in Vesta. Anyone is welcome to donate books. Overflow books will go on a bookshelf inside the cafe and books will be rotated.

Sunday afternoon I delivered on that promise as did Bol with his promise. He brought the library and we filled it with books—his donated by Coffee House Press and mine from my bookshelves. Among my seven donations were two books of poetry, not something I would typically expect Vestans to read. But I wanted Vesta’s LFL to have a copy of Poetic Strokes—A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume Four. That includes two poems I wrote, one titled “A school without a library.” (When I attended Vesta Elementary School, our library books were selected by students from the Redwood County Library in Redwood Falls 20 miles away and brought back to our school, then later returned and exchanged for a new selection of volumes.)

The other poetry book, Stone & Sky, was written by a Faribault High School English teacher who once lived in nearby Belview and who understands the prairie like I do.

Vesta resident and Vesta Commercial Club resident Dorothy Marquardt took home this book donated by Coffee House Press to Vesta’s LFL. Dorothy is an enthusiastic promoter of my hometown.

Dorothy Marquardt, a member of the Vesta Commercial Club, which worked with Bol on getting the LFL into Vesta, understands what a LFL will mean to area residents. Vesta recently saw its county bookmobile service end. “It’s kind of a godsend,” she said on Sunday, clutching a copy of Minnesota State Fair—An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky with foreword by Garrison Keillor. Marquardt is officially the first reader to pull a book from Vesta’s LFL.

The team that worked to bring a Little Free Library to Vesta includes Dorothy Marquardt, left, and Karen Lemcke, representing the sponsoring Vesta Commercial Club, LFL co-founder Todd Bol and me (holding a copy of a poetry anthology I donated).

Monday morning, while dining in the cafe, I promoted the LFL to locals, moving between tables explaining how the library works. It operates on the premise of take a book, leave a book. Or take a book and bring a book back later to place inside the outdoor library. It’s all done on the honor system and done to promote literacy and encourage reading.

For me, the establishment of a LFL in my hometown is a dream come true. I always wanted a library while growing up. And now that I’m all grown up, my hometown finally has one.

The Little Free Library at the Vesta Cafe.

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I’D LIKE TO ISSUE A NEW CHALLENGE TODAY. This one goes to the people of my native prairie, of southwestern Minnesota. I’d like to see more Little Free Libraries in the many small towns, like Vesta, that are without libraries and/or bookmobile service. Purchase a library via the LFL organization. Build your own. Work together—perhaps as a 4-H club or a church youth group or a civic organization or whatever—to bring a LFL into your town.

Be sure to officially register your LFL (there’s a small fee) so word of your library can be spread on the LFL website and via social media. Comment on this post and tell me that you are going to accept my challenge and bring a LFL to your community.

Finally, thank you, Todd Bol, for making my dream come true through your gift of a LFL to my hometown. It is my hope that the library in Vesta will inspire other communities to grow this project in rural Minnesota so that no child or adult, no matter where he/she lives, is without a library.

Thank you also to Karen Lemcke of the Vesta Commercial Club for working with Todd and me to make this project a reality.

This LFL, repurposed from a cranberry crate, needs a new home. Check The Redwood Falls Gazette to read how editor Troy Krause will be attempting to find a location for the library in southwestern Minnesota. Interested? Contact Troy.

FYI: Todd also dropped a LFL off in the neighboring community of Belview. And he left a third library with Troy Krause, editor of  The Gazette. Troy promised to publicize the availability of that third library. I’ll keep you posted on which town accepts the third LFL.

Click here to link to the LFL website and learn more about the Little Free Library project.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling