Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the backroads of Rice County with Mr. Bluebird August 17, 2021

Mr. Bluebird, Keith Radel. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

DOWN THE GRAVEL ROAD, I saw him exit the ditch, cross the roadway and then climb into his red pick-up truck.

A man on a mission, to save bluebirds. Those are nesting boxes in the truck bed. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

“That’s Keith,” I told Randy. Even from a distance I recognized the tall, lean profile of Keith Radel. Known as Mr. Bluebird, he travels the backroads of Rice County checking bluebird nests.

Keith puts on countless miles in his red pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Randy and I had just finished a short hike at the nearby Cannon River Wilderness Park when I spotted Keith on a gravel road in rural Dundas. We paused, his pick-up and our van pulled side-by-side, windows rolled down, the three of us conversing like farmers meeting on a rural road to talk crops.

Keith’s simple mission statement. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Except we were talking bluebirds. Not that I know much about these songbirds. But Keith, who’s been tracking, counting and caring for bluebirds for nearly 40 years, does. He’s relentless in his passion to assure this bird thrives. And that devotion drives him to drive miles upon endless miles to check nest boxes and count eggs and do whatever it takes to assure bluebird survival. Rice County has the most successful bluebird recovery program in Minnesota.

A nesting box for bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I didn’t take notes when we were talking, although I recall Keith saying major ice storms in Texas this year had a devastating effect on the current bluebird population. He keeps meticulous notes on each nesting box.

Bluebird eggs. We didn’t see any bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Mostly, I focused on being in the moment. When Keith offered to show us two bluebird nesting boxes just down the road, we didn’t hesitate, reversed course, our van following his truck in a trail of dust. Once parked, Keith led us down the side of a ditch, lifting the nest cylinder from its post to reveal three beautiful blue eggs inside. The next nest held only a single egg.

Keith checks a bluebird nest. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Soon we were on our way, Randy and I looking for a place to eat a picnic lunch and Keith continuing with his bluebird checks.

The personalized license plate on Keith’s pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But there’s more to this story than that of a man sporting a MINNESOTA BLUEBIRD RECOVERY PROGRAM cap with a specialty BLUEBRD license plate and a window sticker on his pick-up that proclaims his mission, Helping Bluebirds. There’s a personal connection. Keith is from my hometown of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He grew up north of town. I grew up south of town. Both of us on family farms.

I photographed this cornfield and farm site from the gravel road where we stopped with Keith to check a bluebird nesting box. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Place connects us. Most people in Rice County are clueless as to the location of Vesta, or even our home county of Redwood some 120 miles to the west. So whenever I see Keith, I feel this sense of connection to my home area, to the land. When we met on that gravel road on a July afternoon, Keith understood my need to exit Faribault, to follow gravel roads, to reconnect with the land. And, yes, even to look at the crops.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wedding memories after 39 years May 14, 2021

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Wedding guests toss rice at Randy and me as we exit St. John’s Lutheran Church following our May 15, 1982, wedding. Photo by Williams Studio, Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

THIRTY-NINE YEARS AGO on May 15, Randy and I were married at St. John’s Lutheran Church in my hometown of Vesta. The church sits about a half-mile north of the crop and dairy farm where I grew up. Since few people have a clue as to my hometown’s location, here are general directions: Go west of Mankato, west of New Ulm, west of Redwood Falls and follow Minnesota State Highway 19 half-way to Marshall. Vesta is a short distance from the first curve curving south.

When I reflect on that Saturday in 1982, I remember how the morning began with light rain, how I worried about my $82 wedding dress from Maurice’s getting dirty on the gravel farm driveway. Photos from that day show the sidewalk to the church dampened by rain before the 2 pm ceremony and after, when guests lined the walkway to toss rice.

That exit photo is perhaps my favorite from our wedding day. The joy on our faces and that of our guests is in-the-moment natural. Journalistic style. Slice-of-life. While I value the posed professional portraits, I especially value this celebratory image. When I study it, I see loved ones who are no longer living. My Grandma Kletscher back in the corner, daisy corsage pinned to her dress, snow white hair spilling from her red scarf. My bachelor uncle, Mike, dressed to the nines in a suit and tie and smiling broadly. And then my Aunt Sue, the beautiful and classy aunt of Italian descent, fashionably dressed, clutching rice, smiling. I miss all of them.

The Vesta Hall, a community gathering place in my hometown. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

Detailed memories fade after nearly 40 years. But the highlights of that day remain. The joy in marrying the man I loved, and still love. The congregation singing my favorite hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” during the ceremony. The joy of celebrating with all those friends and family, including two of Randy’s soon-to-give-birth sisters. The joy of dancing across the old wooden floor inside the Vesta Community Hall. And, if Randy, could insert his memory here, he would remind me of the awful green hue of the punch my mom made. It was tasty; but he’s right about the color.

Our colors were green and yellow. Not John Deere green and yellow. Just green and yellow, my favorite colors. Randy didn’t care much about color choices, as I recall. I even stitched aprons for our waitresses from green and yellow gingham. Oh, how I’d love to have one of those ruffled aprons my younger cousins wore as they waited on tables.

The Vesta Municipal Liquor Store (no longer a municipal liquor store). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

I appreciate that we were married during a time when weddings were simple. Simple as in twisted crepe paper streamers running the length of bare wooden banquet tables. Tables where locals piled corn kernels to mark BINGO cards once a year during BINGO Night. Tables that were pushed aside to open dance floor space for the Bunny Hop and the Chicken Dance and modern dancing. Dances, too, with the bride and with the groom. Randy would insert his memory here of dancing with a cousin who asked if he was sure he really wanted to get married. We still laugh about that question. But then the liquor store was just a half-block away.

Audrey and Randy, May 15, 1982. Photo by Williams Studio.

May 15 is certainly a day of reflection. But more important, it is a day of honoring our vows to one another. Of pledging to be there for one another. Always. Through the good times and the challenging times. And we’ve had plenty of both. It is a day also of celebrating what brought us together—love.

To my dear husband, Randy, thank you for loving me and for always being here for me and for our family. I appreciate you, cherish you, love you. In 40 years of knowing you and in 39 years of marriage, those feelings have only deepened. Happy anniversary! And I’m sorry about that green punch.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small towns, through the lenses of nostalgia & possibilities March 17, 2021

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My uncle’s gas station with the fuel delivery truck parked by The Old Log Cabin. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000. The Miland station and the restaurant across Highway 19 in Vesta no longer exist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

GROWING UP IN SMALL TOWN Minnesota in the 60s and 70s, I saw local businesses thriving. There were two hardware stores, two grocery stores, a lumberyard, feed mill, grain elevator, bank, restaurants, corner bar, barbershop, several service stations, post office and more in my hometown of Vesta, population 365. But today, the one-block Main Street stands mostly empty, pocked by vacant lots from long-ago torn down buildings. A few businesses remain. The elementary school closed decades ago.

Downtown Belview, Minnesota, photographed last Saturday, March 13, 2021.

In Belview seven miles to the north and east, the story repeats. I recall driving to Belview with my grandma in the early 1970s to shop for fabric so I could sew dresses for her. That dry goods store is long gone. Belview has, like most rural communities, experienced the closure of many businesses as locals headed to regional shopping hubs to shop at Big Box stores and also embraced online shopping.

An historic anchor building in downtown Redwood Falls. Sward Kemp Snyder Drug recently moved out of downtown to the new hospital and clinic on the east edge of Redwood.

Likewise, Redwood Falls, to the east of Belview along Minnesota State Highway 19, has changed considerably. That Redwood County seat and the Lyon County seat of Marshall were our family’s go-to larger towns to shop for clothes, shoes and other necessities when I was growing up on the prairie. Last Saturday when Randy and I stopped in downtown Redwood, I found the streets nearly empty and few businesses open. Nothing like the bustling downtown I remember.

Vintage Vinyl, a newly-opened business in the heart of Redwood Falls.

I can sit here and write about this with nostalgia and sadness, wishing these rural communities remained self-sufficient. But wishes are not reality. And wishing does not change things. Action does.

An overview of Vintage Vinyl, packed with albums plus gaming and trading cards, books, video games, DVDs and VHSs, figurines and more. The tables provide a place for folks to play checkers, etc., and/or just hang out.
Vinyl galore…in all musical genres.
Randy files through vinyl selections.

While in Redwood Falls, I met a young man, Nate Rohlik, who recently opened Vintage Vinyl, Toys & Games. He’s passionate about improving his community, about providing a place for young people to gather, about growing opportunities.

Looking for a poster? You’ll find them in Nate’s shop.
I spotted this Buddy Holly album leaning against the wall on the floor.
In the basement, an array of merchandise.

He’s friendly, outgoing, welcoming. Everything you want in a shopkeeper. But Nate also carries a sense of responsibility, it seems. He recently-returned to his home area after a stint with the military that took him around the world. He could have settled elsewhere. But he chose to return to his roots. (He graduated from nearby Wabasso High School, my alma mater, in 2004.) That says something.

Endless musical options…

We didn’t chat all that long. But my brief conversation with Nate gives me hope. Hope that his positive attitude, his efforts—including purchasing two arcade games—and his drive will ignite a fire of possibilities.

PLEASE CHECK BACK to read my thoughts on small towns and what draws me to them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of ice skating in Minnesota February 1, 2021

This mural of “Ice Skating on the Straight River” graces the side of 10,000 Drops in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

WAY BACK IN THE DAY, in the exuberant days of my youth, when I truly enjoyed winter, I loved to ice skate. I wore my Aunt Dorothy’s white figure skates, passed along to me. I was happy to have them.

And I was happy to find a patch of ice upon which to skate in my hometown of Vesta. Near the grain elevator. Nothing fancy. Just an open space flooded in the winter for skating.

Now my hometown is looking to offer youth more than simply a patch of ice. Local resident Jacob Kolander has started a gofundme page to raise $6,000 for a Community Outdoor Hockey Skating Rink. His goal is to erect boards and an entry gate around a rink to provide a safe place for kids to skate. So far, he’s raised $950. If you’re interested in contributing to the cause, click here.

Up in Warroad, in the northwest section of Minnesota right next to Canada, locals have created a 2.5-mile Riverbend Skate Path which has grabbed lots of media attention. It started with two families wanting to connect their ice rinks. Yes, hockey/skating is big in this part of Minnesota. Well, that initial connection expanded to include five more rinks linked via the Warroad River. And now locals are clearing and grooming the ice and looking to buy a Zamboni. Various fundraisers, like concession stands along the skating path, are aiming to generate the needed funds.

Much farther to the south in the small town of Pierz, the local library also embraces skating via lending out ice skates for a week at a time. Varied sizes, from kids to adult, are available for check out. I love this idea—just in case there are kids without an Aunt Dorothy.

TELL ME: Have you ice skated? Let’s hear your skating experiences.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing winter in Minnesota January 6, 2021

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My two-year-old grandson with his new snow shovel.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A NORTHERN state like Minnesota, where winter defines at least half the year, preparation for cold and snowy weather is a necessity, not an option.

It’s a lesson taught from early on. Snowsuit, waterproof mittens and snow boots for the kids. Check. Check. Check. Sled. Check. Snow shovel. Check.

No matter your age, dressing properly to protect from the elements and then having the right tools to deal with the snow are essentials. So we’ve equipped our grandchildren, Isabelle and Isaac, with snow shovels and sleds. Izzy got her mama’s childhood snow shovel and Lion King sled. Isaac got a new shovel purchased at the local hardware store. And we bought bright new sleds for both at a regional retailer.

Then it’s up to the parents, or the grandparents, to bundle the kids and get them outdoors. It’s a process. But important in teaching the little people that winter can be fun.

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

I loved winter as a child growing up on the wind-swept southwestern Minnesota prairie. There snow drifted into rock-hard mountains around the house and farm outbuildings. There Dad shoved snow with the John Deere tractor and loader into more mountains, where my siblings and I played for endless hours. We carved out snow caves and raced on a vintage runner sled. Such is the stuff of memories. And of winter in Minnesota.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo, rural Vesta, Minnesota. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse.

While my grandchildren’s memories will be different—they live in a new housing development in the south metro—I hope they continue to embrace winter with joy and enthusiasm. Just as their mom (Dad grew up in warm and sunny California) and maternal grandparents did before them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering & honoring my hardworking dad this Labor Day September 7, 2020

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980. He died in 2003.

 

MY DAD WORKED HARD. Really hard. He was a farmer, beginning back in the day when farming was incredibly labor intensive. Pitching manure. Throwing hay bales. Milking cows by hand. Cultivating corn. He worked from the rising of the sun to beyond sunset. Hours and hours in the barn. Long days in the field. Few, if any, days off.

 

The milkhouse, attached to the barn on the farm where I grew up just outside of Vesta, MN. I spent a lot of time in these two buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It was a life he knew from childhood, as the son of a southwestern Minnesota farmer. Dad quit school after eighth grade to work on his family’s farm in the 1940s. And when he grew into adulthood, he served on the frontlines during the Korean War, then returned to farm just down the road from the home place. There he worked his own land, milked cows and raised (along with my mom) his family of six children.

 

Some of the acreage my dad farmed in Redwood County, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Like my father, I grew up with a strong work ethic rooted in the land. Walking bean fields to pull unwanted weeds. Picking rock. Throwing hay bales into feed bunks for the Holsteins. Carrying buckets of milk replacer to thirsty calves. Climbing up the silo and forking smelly silage down the chute. The work never ended. And the next day we repeated the process.

 

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But it was, in many ways, a good life. Time together. Time outdoors. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and stretch, just like the corn stretching toward the sky.

 

Growing up on our crop and dairy farm, my eldest brother, Doug, photographed the cows and recorded details about them. My middle brother treasures this compilation of information from our farm. And so do I. Memories… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Working on the farm made me strong and resilient and fostered a sense of independence. I have always been a self-starter, preferring to work on my own. I trace that to the spirit of independence I observed in my farmer dad, who stood up for what he believed. I remember him dumping milk down the drain as the National Farmers Organization aimed to get better prices. I possess a streak of that feistiness, especially when it comes to those who are bullied/oppressed/looked down upon. I do what I can, with the talents I have, to make a positive difference. To uplift and encourage. And to really listen rather than talk.

I always told my dad I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He didn’t encourage that thought. None of my five siblings farm, although two work in ag-related businesses. It’s a credit to my parents that each of us pursued diverse careers as a partsman (and part owner) at an implement dealership, as a writer and photographer, a florist, CEO of an ethanol plant, teacher and lawyer. That’s a wide range of occupations among siblings. Our parents did not tell us what to do, and for that I shall always be grateful.

 

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

 

We were not a perfect family. Still aren’t. There were, and are, struggles. Financial and other. We were poor as in outhouse poor and no gifts for birthdays poor and wearing hand-me-downs poor and only rice for dinner poor. And only two vacations my entire childhood—one at age four to Duluth and one to the Black Hills at around age 12. Yet, I never felt like we were missing anything. We had enough. Food. Shelter. Clothes. And hardworking parents—for my mom worked equally as hard as my dad—who loved and provided for us.

My parents may not have hugged us or told us they loved us. But they showed their love by their care, their provision, their raising us in the faith. Their efforts, from parenting to farming, were a labor of love. And I shall always feel gratitude for that.

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CLICK HERE TO READ my post, “Many Reasons to Feel Blessed this Labor Day,” published last week on the Warner Press blog.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I’ll miss you, family July 26, 2020

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The potluck offerings at a past Kletscher Family Reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ON THIS, THE LAST SUNDAY in July, for decades, the descendants of Henry and Ida Kletscher have reunited in the small southwestern Minnesota community of Vesta. We—siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles and in-laws—gather in the Vesta City Park to reconnect. To share updates on our lives. To laugh. To enjoy a potluck meal of homemade dishes that cover several picnic tables. We are a big group given my grandparents raised 10 children. And we know how to cook and bake. Hotdish. Desserts. Too much food, but, oh, so good.

 

In this game, played at a past reunion, contestants race to move gummy worms from a pie plate into a cup, with their mouths. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This is our annual July tradition of family, fun and food. Our one time a year, other than funerals, when we now meet. Most years I attend. Last year I couldn’t. So I anticipated the Kletscher Family Reunion of 2020.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But, because of COVID-19, the reunion is canceled. And rightly so. Even though my home county of Redwood has only 28 cases (as of Saturday), many of us come from hotbed areas. Like the Twin Cities metro. Or my county of Rice with 944 cases, including eight deaths.

Sometimes I think it’s easy to feel insulated, protected, from the virus in rural areas. But COVID-19 knows no geographical boundaries. No age limits. No nothing. COVID cases in Minnesota’s more rural counties are increasing.

 

Contestants in the Minute-to-Win-It competitions gather around a table right after the potluck at a reunion held several years ago in the Vesta Community Hall because of the heat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The call to cancel the reunion was the right one. I would not have attended had it been a go. I have been careful for five months about trying to protect myself and reduce my risk. And, as much as I love visiting with family, it’s not worth the risk to see them. I can wait.

Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota’s infectious disease director, reported this week that her department is seeing more cases directly linked to family gatherings. I am not surprised. The relaxed setting, the desire to hug and get close and more, seems the making of the perfect storm.

 

My plated food from a previous reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And so today, on the final Sunday of July, I won’t see the extended family that means so much to me. I won’t indulge in a plate filled with incredibly delicious homemade foods. I won’t engage in conversations with cousins or admire the newest babies. But I will think of them and hope that, next summer, I can reconnect in the community of our roots with the family I love.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections after 38 years of marriage May 15, 2020

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My husband, Randy, and I exit St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta following our May 15, 1982, wedding. Photo by William’s Studio, Redwood Falls.

 

TODAY RANDY AND I CELEBRATE our 38th wedding anniversary. He is taking the day off from his job as an automotive machinist. It’s a much-needed break in this, his especially busy season. COVID-19 or not, vehicles, tractors, recreational toys and more still need repair. And rare are the specialists like Randy who do this type of work anymore. It’s labor intensive, demanding and requires knowledge that comes from decades of experience.

But I digress. Today is our anniversary, a day to reflect on our marriage and each other, not on a global pandemic and work.

 

MAY 15, 1982

Thirty-eight years ago, I married Randy in my small southwestern Minnesota home church, surrounded by family and friends. The ceremony included singing of my favorite hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” by the congregation and a solo of “O, Perfect Love” by a friend. The selected scripture reading was Genesis 2:22-24. There are no recordings of our wedding service, only still photos and a worship service bulletin. And memories.

 

The Vesta Hall, a community gathering place in my hometown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

After the ceremony at St. John’s Lutheran, we gathered at the Vesta Community Hall a few blocks away for a meal catered by HyVee, followed by socializing and then a dance, with a live band. There was nothing fancy about any of this. Strips of twisted crepe paper and vases of single carnations decorated long tables. My cousins waited on guests, green and yellow gingham cotton aprons, stitched by me, protecting their dresses. Diners sat on metal folding chairs pulled up to uncovered tables.

Randy and I toasted with green punch my mom prepared. Randy still reminds me of the putrid hue. Hey, our colors were green and yellow. Not John Deere shades, though. We posed for photos with our three-layered wedding cake with my husband insisting we not smash cake into each other’s faces. I’m thankful for that request. Smart guy.

Afterward, we danced across the worn wooden floor, twirling and linking arms and enjoying the evening with family and friends. I kicked off the ballet style shoes that pinched my toes. Around midnight we left for the short drive to nearby Marshall and a hotel room that reeked of cigar smoke. Funny how you remember details like that.

 

MAY 15, 2020

Fast forward to today. It seems unfathomable that 38 years have passed since our May 15, 1982, wedding. Three kids and two grandkids later, here we are, much older, much more seasoned in life. When I think on all that’s transpired in nearly four decades, I feel especially thankful for Randy. He remains the calm and steady man I married, a good balance for me.

 

Me, next to my poem, River Stories, posted along the River Walk in Mankato as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Photo by Randy Helbling, November 2019.

 

Together we have grieved the loss of parents and other loved ones, dealt with family crisis, faced health issues, raised a family, found joy in the simple things in life, been there for one another. When he married me 38 years ago, I doubt Randy ever envisioned attending poetry readings. But he has, many times, supporting me in my writing. That says a lot for a guy who likely never cracked open a poetry book before marrying a writer. I appreciate, too, that Randy supports my photography, sometimes even pointing out photo ops I miss.

We both enjoy country drives, small towns, craft breweries, summer concerts in the park, church dinners, time with our grown children and now, especially, our sweet grandchildren. I’ve learned to like car shows, but not for the same reasons as Randy. While he’s looking under hoods, I’m looking at hood ornaments, appreciating the artistic aspect of vintage vehicles. He enjoys reading historical non-fiction. I prefer fiction. He does Sudoku. I tried once, but failed miserably. Our interests are similar, yet separate.

 

Randy grills nearly every weekend year-round. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I appreciate Randy’s many talents, from his grilling skills (and, yes, he even grills veggies like Brussels sprouts and broccoli for me) to his ability to fix almost any mechanical issue with our vehicles to his compassion in “leading” Sunday morning video church services at a local nursing home (pre-COVID).

My love for Randy remains as strong as 38 years ago. Changed, yes. But not at its core. We have done life together. Celebrated good times and, together, managed many difficult times. He has been there for me and I for him. For 38 years. And for that I am grateful.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Adapting worship in rural southwestern Minnesota during a global pandemic May 4, 2020

The Rev. Adam Manian leads worship services at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota, on Sunday, May 3, 2020.

 

HIS ROBE BILLOWED in the wind as he stood atop the hay rack on a stunningly beautiful spring Sunday morning in southwestern Minnesota. A simple wooden table adorned with a gold cross formed a makeshift altar behind him.

To the south, vehicles filled the parking lot next to a farm field bordering the Redwood River. Across the river bridge, more fields and farm sites define the landscape, including my childhood farm a half-mile distant.

I visualized this rural scene as I focused on my computer screen. I watched the Rev. Adam Manian prepare to lead Sunday morning worship services outside St. John’s Lutheran Church, the church where I was baptized, confirmed, married, and have attended weddings and funerals of many loved ones.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2018.

 

It seemed fitting that the pastor would preach from atop a hay rack backed up to the church entry. This place in Minnesota is through and through rural, centered on agriculture. It is also a place centered by church and its importance in the faith lives of most and in the social fabric of the Vesta community. I can only imagine how much locals—including aunts, uncles and cousins—miss gathering at St. John’s. I miss seeing my faith family, too, at Trinity Lutheran in Faribault.

 

I watched the St. John’s service live-streaming Sunday morning. Drive-in worship will continue next Sunday at 9 a.m.

 

During these weeks of social-distancing, stay-at-home orders and the need to protect our most vulnerable and each other, churches have gotten creative in continuing with worship. On this first Sunday in May, the pastor of this very rural congregation in a community of some 300 launched drive-in worship. Worshipers sat in their vehicles and tuned in to 102.1 FM on their radios while he led the service. And 120 miles away to the east, I booted up my computer and watched live-streaming of St. John’s service.

It did my heart and soul good to see that on this Sunday, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the pastor at my hometown church was tending his flock—providing for their spiritual needs through the familiarity of liturgy, beloved hymns, preaching and prayers. What a blessing, especially to the many seniors in the congregation who now find themselves isolated, alone, separated from loved ones. An aunt even washed her car in preparation for Sunday’s service.

I thought back to decades earlier when my paternal great grandparents, Rudolph and Matilda Kletscher, arrived here and St. John’s grew from a mission church that met in their farm home. My faith is rooted here, in this church, in this place, among these prairie people.

 

Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As Rev. Manian preached, I noticed the wind, ever-present in this landscape of wide open space. His robes billowed. His audio caught the wind. The camera shook on occasion. Tree branches swayed. Birds flew and some chirped in morning birdsong. It was as if creation joined in worship.

Occasionally I heard the start of a motor, presumably to run the air conditioning.

And when the pastor’s family, inside the sanctuary, sang “Have No Fear, Little Flock,” I experienced such a connection to St. John’s, such a renewed sense of confidence that we will get through this COVID-19 crisis, that God stays close beside us, that we are all in this together.

 

These grain bins sit just down a gravel road from St. John’s church in Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I realized, too, that we are writing stories every day of overcoming, of adapting, of being here for one another, of resilience. We are writing stories of hope and of community. These are our stories. Faith stories. Community stories. Personal stories. Stories connected by the commonality of living during a global pandemic.

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Thank you to my cousin Lori for tipping me off to St. John’s drive-in worship service.

© Copyright 2020 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