Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

June bride at the Village of Yesteryear June 26, 2020

A sign marks the Village of Yesteryear, a sprawling collection of historic buildings in Owatonna.


WHILE WALKING TOWARD THE HISTORIC CHURCH, I first saw her. The woman dressed in black. With a camera. Although I wondered at her formal attire, I didn’t consider that she might be someone other than a photographer interested in the Village of Yesteryear.


The District 14 school moved here in 1963.


I took this photo of the old school before the bride and her bridesmaids arrived.


From a distance, I photographed the photographer at work.


But soon enough, when I saw a bride and her attendants rounding the back of the 1856 District No. 14 schoolhouse, the photographer’s purpose became clear.


Trees frame the steeple of the Saco Church.


By that time, I’d reached St. Wenceslaus Church of Moravia, a church built in 1891 and moved here, to the grounds of the Steele County Historical Society in Owatonna, in 1962.


While I’ve previously been inside this historic church, it was locked on Saturday.


I pondered for a moment whether a wedding was planned here, but saw nothing to indicate that. So I took a few photos of the aged church, which was locked, just like all the other buildings in this historic village on this late Saturday afternoon. And while I did that, I kept my eye on the nearby photo session.

For one, I didn’t want to stray into the path of the professional photographer. I’ve been in her shoes and understand the frustration of dealing with wedding guests who get in the way and want to take photos. That presents challenges in time and management and more.


I stood to the side and photographed the bride and her attendants.


But, as I neared the group of women while en route to the parking lot, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Is it okay if I take your picture? I’m a blogger.” The bride was quick to approve and the photographer invited me to stand next to her. I declined. “I don’t have my mask,” I explained. She didn’t have her face mask either.


From the back of the church, the bride and her party are visible from afar.


That is the reality of living during a global pandemic. As excited as I was to happen upon this most common of summer scenes—an outdoors bridal photo session—I still remembered COVID-19. Minutes earlier I’d congratulated the bride on her wedding day, specifically commenting on the challenges of marrying in a pandemic.


You can see and feel the love in this photo.


But, as I framed a few photos, my thoughts shifted back to the moment, to the celebration, to the joy. Here were four beautiful young women, stunning in their sparkly dresses, arms wrapped around one another, luscious bouquets of peonies clutched in their hands, posing for portraits against an historic backdrop.

In that moment I witnessed life. Ordinary and celebratory. Life full and joyous. Life as lovely as a June bride.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The old blacksmith is watching, just ask John July 20, 2012

A sign tacked onto the blacksmith shop at the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna reads: It reminds us of the “horse and buggy” days gone by. A lot of horseshoes, buggy and wagon wheels came in and out of the Bixby shop, as well as other blacksmith shops throughout the county. These shops were an essential part of all villages, towns and cities in the 1800’s.

INSIDE THE OLD BLACKSMITH SHOP, John Styndl is reading the newspaper on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon. He has no intention of firing up the forge or picking up the tools to demonstrate how his great great grandfather, Frank Styndl, once pounded hot metal into useful equipment or shaped shoes for horses.

Instead, he takes pride in telling visitors about the blacksmith shop Frank built on his farm east of Bixby in 1896, ten years after the Styndl family immigrated to the U.S. from the Czech Republic. Frank worked as a blacksmith in the Old Country and then in his own shop in Steele County, Minnesota, until his death in 1931.

Today that blacksmith shop sits on the grounds of the Steele County Historical Society’s Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna which, on a recent Sunday, hosted an historical extravaganza. John was volunteering in the blacksmith shop when I entered through double sliding doors into a dark room illuminated by the blinding glare of a bare light bulb and sunlight filtering through doors.

John in Frank’s blacksmith shop where, “all the equipment in the shop such as wheelbenders, drill presses, bench vises, foot grinders, files, hammers, tongs and other equipment were used by Frank.”

Rusty tools and horseshoes cling to the walls and a cut out, near life-sized photo of Frank leans next to an anvil draped with horseshoes as great great grandson John speaks about his interest and work in preserving the blacksmith shop.

He remembers biking past the abandoned blacksmith shop as a kid, asking his father about the faded signage on the building. His father and a great uncle did occasional blacksmithing, but nothing like that of three generations of the Styndls prior who earned their livelihoods as blacksmiths.

John dreamed of someday moving Frank’s shop to the Village of Yesteryear. Eventually that became a reality and, from 1991 – 1996, his family and neighbors worked to restore the building. He even found an old house chimney from the appropriate time period, knocked off the mortar and rebuilt the 240 bricks into a new chimney.

Family photo of John and Frank Styndl.

“I’m glad to be able to preserve it,” John says of F. Styndl’s blacksmith shop. He’ll tell you, though, that he gets a bit uneasy with Great Great Grandpa Frank’s likeness watching his every move.

About that time in our conversation, another visitor steps into the blacksmith shop and shares how he remembers, years ago, observing his local blacksmith, bent over, toiling in the heat of his shop. “He was always cranky,” he notes.

The three of us laugh and figure we’d be crabby, too, in such uncomfortable working conditions.

It is stories and remembrances like this which make a building like the old blacksmith shop more than just a structure occupying space at a site such as the Village of Yesteryear.

Stories connect buildings to people and to the past.

You need only take the time to pause and ask, to listen and to observe, if you are to understand the history that has molded lives and communities and is still shaping the future.

CLICK HERE TO READ a previous blog post about the Steele County Historical Society’s Extravaganza at the Village of Yesteryear. Then click here to read a second post on the event.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Always obey Rule 99 & other historic reflections July 12, 2012

VISIT A PLACE like the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna, especially during a celebration such as last weekend’s Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza, and you get an in-depth glimpse of life back in the day.

Dressed in period costumes, members of the Old West Regulators added a real-life element to the Extravaganza.

Guides, costumed reenactors and others, with their extensive historical knowledge, most assuredly add to the educational and entertainment value.

But, because it is impossible to speak with every one of them or to observe every activity or to read every informational sign, one must sometimes rely on simple observations to consider the historic stories and realities which define life years ago.

I therefore present these Extravaganza photos with basic information. Much more lies open to your interpretation, influenced perhaps by your experiences or the stories passed down from generation to generation within your family. That is your personal history. Take it. Remember it. Own it. Pass it along.

Memories of attending a one-room country school remain for many, including my 55-year-old husband. He attended Chimney Butte School in rural North Dakota and recalls the day students were kept indoors during recess because of coyotes roaming the schoolyard.

What memories does the District 14 country schoolhouse, pictured above, hold for those who were taught in this 1856 building four miles south of Owatonna until the school closed in 1962 due to consolidation?

Hollyhocks stand strong and sturdy outside that same schoolhouse at the Village of Yesteryear.

But for me, hollyhocks belong next to the milkhouse, an odd place for flowers, it would seem. Yet, on the southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm where I grew up, that was their spot, a splash of beauty perhaps more for my mother than for her farmer husband.

 A scene recreated in the 1866 Bixby railroad depot leaves you wondering about the railroad crew and passengers who waited here to board trains. Where were they going? And, for the passengers, why?

And then you see this sign inside an old caboose and completely forget about those passengers and question why the railroad employees climbed onto the roof of the caboose because they certainly must have or there would be no Rule 99.

How many tears were shed, in joy and in sorrow, by those occupying these pews in the 1891 St. Wenceslaus Mission in Moravia Church built in 1891 in Moravia seven miles south of Owatonna? Who crafted these pews? And how did parishioners feel when their church closed in 1952?

Perhaps you could ask Tony Seykora, whose mother, Mary Meixner, attended St. Wenceslaus and whose daughter, Susan, was married here. He wasn’t sharing any stories on Sunday while touring his ancestral church at the Village of Yesteryear.

 Oh, the stories this old town hall, the Owatonna Town Hall built in the late 1850s, could tell about those who met here and shaped the future of the city.

And if you could peek over their shoulders, would you to see how those in the Meriden area voted? This folding polling booth was patented in March of 1892 making it first available for the Presidential election that same year. The polling booth was used at the Meriden Town Hall until 2009. Until 2009, people.

Who wore these hats displayed inside the historic 1868 Dunnell House, home of Minnesota legal scholar, educator and Congressman Mark Hill? Were they hats of mourning, hats of celebration, practical hats…?

A volunteer who works with the Blue Earth County Historical Society and the Betsy-Tacy Society in Mankato in decorating vintage hats studies the collection for ideas.

Also in the Dunnell House, a nook in the parlor offers a place for quiet conversation. Oh, to have been there, eavesdropping…the stories and secrets you may have heard about/from Congressman Hill and other legislators.

Horse power, but certainly not horses…these vintage tractors were parked next to the horse barn at the Steele County Fairgrounds. Surely they would speak of long, hard days on the farm, their wheels weighed down by the burdens of a farmer’s worries and the uncertainties that have always been a part of farming from the early days of Minnesota to current day Minnesota.

What is that saying? You haven’t walked a mile until you’ve walked in my shoes. Consider that, how challenging it would have been to walk in the boots/shoes of your ancestors for whom life presented so many daily challenges simply to survive.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County Historical Society, click here.

CLICK HERE to read my first blog post about the Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza. Watch for one final, upcoming post.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Steele County showcases history in a big way July 10, 2012

Five-year-old David of Faribault, aka Apache Shadow, was among costumed reenactors from the Old West Regulators.

WHEN THE STEELE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY in Owatonna throws an extravaganza, they put on a heckuva an event.

Late Sunday morning my husband Randy and I headed about 15 miles south on Interstate 35 to the Village of Yesteryear for the historical society’s 26th annual celebration of history. I cannot believe that I’ve never known about this extravaganza, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in a free family-friendly day of learning about the past.

Kids, like Kennedy, right, were drawn to the water and the old-fashioned wringer.

Owatonna resident Tom Gray carves a mountain man.

From hands-on demonstrations of rope making to washing clothes the old-fashioned way to printing on an aged press to carving wood and working with leather, and more, we observed an array of dedicated and passionate historians showcasing yesteryear.

Two actresses shoot it out in a scenario presented by the Old West Regulators.

Add in costumed reenactors modeling period attire and shooting it out in mini dramas; a country singer crooning Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart;” kids circled around a table in an old country school crafting corn husk dolls; tractors snail-crawling toward the finish line in a slow tractor race; the tantalizing aroma of shredded pork sandwiches and the refreshing promise of icy root beer; 15 buildings, most of them vintage, plus a caboose to tour, and you have a full day.

Dunnell Lenort, who has performed at the Grand Ole Opry and elsewhere, presented a selection of songs, including “I Fought the Law.” It was, he said, “for those who have been on the wrong side of the law.”

Kids learned how to make corn husk dolls inside the former District 14 country school, built in 1856 and located about four miles south of Owatonna along Lemond Road. The school was closed by consolidation in 1962.

Lest you think the John Deere won this race, you would be wrong. The winner here was the tractor which drove the slowest along about a 50-foot stretch to the finish line in a slow tractor race.

Randy expected we would be there an hour; we left more than four hours later and could have stayed longer. We missed the vintage baseball game and other events.

Pete the printer at work in the Village of Yesteryear print shop.

Of course, my spouse will tell you that, had I not been so interested in the village print shop, we could have knocked perhaps 30 minutes off our extravaganza tour. But given my journalism background; two years of employment at a weekly newspaper which printed auction bills and other items on an old Linotype machine; and my appreciation for the art of printing, I was fascinated by the working print shop and its resident printer, Pete Baxter.

Randy indulged my print obsession and I, likewise, later feigned interest in the engine display over in the agricultural section of the extravaganza.

Letters laid out to spelling “printing.”

Let’s back up to that print shop and printer Pete, who once owned North Cal Printing, as you would expect, in California. Family brought Pete to Minnesota about a dozen years ago. And the old print shop at the Village of Yesteryear was one of the deciding factors in his settling specifically in Owatonna.

Today he’s an enthusiastic volunteer who dons a printer’s apron as he educates visitors, spins a few stories and inks up the press to spew out bookmarks and cards with messages like “Without a love for books the richest person is poor.”

Spend any time with this man who owns a library of 1,500 volumes; is a member of The Wördos, an organization which meets monthly in the metro to discuss errors in local and national media; and who knows the ins and outs of the printing business, and your interest in printing is likely to grow, too. When he mentioned the bit about The Wördos and their dissection of media grammar, usage and more, I wanted to grab back the business card I’d handed him for fear of him scrutinizing my writing. But I didn’t.

I wasn’t about to allow my insecurities to interfere with learning from an old-school printer educated in the 1940s at California Polytechnic State University during the transition from letterpress to offset printing.

Pete’s interest in printing stretches back to his childhood when he often accompanied his dad to a California street car station and stood at the window of a nearby newspaper office watching printers at work.

One day, as Pete dramatizes with arms gesturing, a worker exited the print shop, grabbed him by the arm and shouted, “Get your snot nose off my window.” He hauled young Pete inside, gave him a tour, and, as the printer says, “I was hooked.”

The next Christmas, he received a toy printing press and a case of type. Years later, he would earn a printing degree from Cal Poly and eventually own a print shop.

An original OZ Press print of the Indian princess after whom Owatonna is named, on display in the print shop.

That Pete the printer understands and appreciates printing is obvious to anyone who takes the time, as I did, to listen. He’s quick to spotlight the work of Owatonna’s probably most notable press, OZ Press. OZ co-owners Alice Ottinger and Jean Zamboni—thus the OZ name—donated an 1885 working printing press and artwork to the Village of Yesteryear print shop. Their press specialized in original art printing and silk screening during its 40 years in business, 22 of them in Owatonna.

Jean Zambonia, left, talks about OZ Press at the artisan market. Framed OZ Press prints, on the table, were for sale.

Later I met Jean Zamboni in the new Steele County History Center and learned that she taught art at Minnesota State University, Mankato, before opening her press with friend Alice Ottinger. They designed some program covers for the college, did silk screening and eventually determined they could afford to start a press.

“So that was it,” Jean summarized as she stood next to a table where a limited selection of OZ framed prints were sold at the extravaganza. I wish now that I’d purchased one.

And you likely wish, about now, that I’d informed you of the Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza before the event. Mark it on your calendar for next July. Before that, though, you can attend Christmas in the Village, set for 4:30 – 8:30 p.m. Friday, November 30, and again from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 1. The holiday celebration includes sleigh rides, visits by Santa and Mrs. Claus, children’s activities, selected buildings decorated for the season, a cookie sale, music and more. If it’s anything like the summer extravaganza, you will not want to miss it.

The general store and Museum of Professions at the Village of Yesteryear.

FYI: Click here to learn more about the Village of Yesteryear. Watch for several more posts from the extravaganza to be published here on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling