Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Near Clearwater, MN: Discovering Bing’s service station collectibles & more August 14, 2014

THE COLLECTION OF VINTAGE GAS PUMPS, signage, phone booths and more is overwhelming, mind-boggling and impressive. To say the least.

The signs in Bing's collection are either original, reproductions or ones painted by him.

The signs in Bing’s collection are either original, reproductions or ones painted by him.

I could have wandered for hours at Bing and Mary Skelton’s property north of Clearwater in central Minnesota to see it all.

Rows of collectibles...

Rows of collectibles…

“All” is a massive collection of service station memorabilia coupled with those outdoor public phones, horse harnesses and so much more gathered during the past 15 years. That time span could be longer. Bing, real name Charles, isn’t precise on when he began amassing this stuff.

Bing poses for a portrait in his garage.

Bing poses for a portrait in his garage.

But one thing is certain. Bing welcomes visitors with the hospitality of long-time friends. His warmth is genuine, his enthusiasm unbridled. He grew up in the 1950s and appreciates items from that era. He likes Elvis and filling stations and, obviously, lots of other stuff from the past.

An overview of Bing's place upon entering the circle drive.

An overview of Bing’s place upon entering the circle drive.

Upon arriving at Bing’s place, discovered while attending a family reunion at Sportman’s Park just down the road and around the corner, I simply stood and took in the scene before me. You just cannot believe what you are seeing.

Looking down the short driveway to Stearns County Road 143. Use extreme caution when exiting onto the county road.

Looking down the short driveway to Stearns County Road 143. Use extreme caution when exiting onto the county road.

And even more unbelievable is that nothing is for sale nor does Bing charge for the joy and privilege of viewing his collection. People from all over the world find his place, tucked behind a hedge row and trees, hidden from Stearns County Road 143, just off 27th Avenue East off CR 75. If you’re not observant, you could easily miss this attraction that sits nearly atop the roadway.

Among all the signage, I noticed this print of Christ in the garage.

Among all the signage, I noticed this print of Christ in the garage.

It didn’t take me long, though, to notice a particular print among all the signage and collectibles in a garage that carries the aged scent of motor oil. There, above a May 1989 calendar page from St. Augusta Oil Co., to the left of a 2011 Gas & Oil Collection auction bill from Perham and near a portrait of a much younger Bing and Mary, hangs a portrait of Christ.

“It’s our Lord and Saviour,” Bing tells me as I remark on the image by artist Bette Meyers.

And I tell him I know and it is then that this collector shares his faith, terming himself a “caretaker for Jesus,” his collection a “calling card” to draw people in.

Not that he pushes his faith upon visitors. I did not sense that at all. Rather, by simply being Bing—a man who is genuinely welcoming, interesting and kind—he is witnessing. He’s not boastful either, just delighted to share his collecting passion.

Some of the wood sculptures Bing carved.

Some of the wood sculptures Bing carved.

His wife, Mary, who exited their adjacent home to rest on a chair in the cool of the garage, confirms that. Bing doesn’t like to talk about himself, she tells me. Not until Mary reveals it, do I learn that her husband molds metal to rebuild the oldest of the gas pumps on their property. And he paints signs and has created items, like guitars and sculptures from wood.

The wood guitars Bing crafts.

The wood guitars Bing crafts.

The talents of this man with past work experience on a mink ranch, fighting forest fires, in plumbing, sheet metal and more, are many. Mary seems his strongest supporter. She’s as kind and friendly and as gentle in spirit as her husband.

I convinced Mary to pose for this sweet portrait with her husband.

I convinced Mary to pose for this sweet portrait with her husband outside the garage. She hugged me before we left.

When I inquire as to her talent, the couple’s 45-year-old son, Joe, who has arrived at his parents’ place to tinker on a car, pipes up that his mom can cook. She confirms that and eventually father and son lead me into a lean-to off the garage. Inside rests a mammoth blue cookstove that Mary used while Joe was growing up. Lots of pizzas baked inside that oven.

The wood-burning cookstove Mary used when Joe was growing up.

The wood-burning cookstove Mary used when Joe was growing up.

During Joe’s youth, his dad collected antiques, but then Bing sold them all. And now he’s amassed this “new” collection.

Then I am treated to one more glimpse into the past after spotting a black rotary dial phone in the garage.

The Skeltons' working rotary dial phone.

The Skeltons’ working rotary dial phone.

That phone doesn’t work. But Joe tells me his folks have a working rotary dial wall phone inside the house. When I look doubtful, Mary takes me inside to view the vintage phone. I pick up the receiver, hear a dial tone.

I am a believer. Exactly what Bing hopes.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Pausing among the pumps.

Pausing among the pumps.

More collectibles, including horse harnesses, are clumped around the General Store.

More collectibles, clumped around the General Store.

Vintage phone booths are a major part of the collection.

Vintage outdoor public phones are a major part of the collection.

The Sinclair dinosaur has always been one of my favorite icons.

The Sinclair dinosaur is among the numerous gas company signs in Bing’s collection.

Two of my favorite of Bing's carvings, of Native Americans.

Two of my favorite of Bing’s carvings, of Native Americans.

Another favorite icon, the flying red horse.

Bing has several of the iconic flying red horse signs.

FYI: Please check back tomorrow for more photos of Bing’s collection.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Discovering art in downtown Wabasha March 24, 2014

BRICK, A BENCH, A RIVER…

Each provides a canvas or backdrop for art in Wabasha, an historic Mississippi River town of 2,500 in southeastern Minnesota.

On a recent visit here to the National Eagle Center, where art abounds inside, I also noticed art integrated into the downtown.

Wabasha, Wapahasha II

A 10-foot tall bronze sculpture of Wapahasha II, a Native American after whom the city of Wabasha is named, stands atop a fountain next to the riverside eagle center.

If you shift your eyes a bit, you’ll notice a bridge in the distance. I view that 26-year-old link between Minnesota and Wisconsin as art given the overhead span of trusses.

Wabasha, eagle bench

Just up the street, set atop brick pavers, co-joined park benches have become artwork, too, with eagle paintings backing the benches. It’s a nice touch, emphasizing Wabasha’s eagles and the reason many visitors come here.

Wabasha, Riverside Dollar

Around the corner, Riverside Dollar also incorporates eagles into its signage on a cozy building tucked between taller historic buildings. Fifty properties in Wabasha are on the National Register of Historic Places, another reason I appreciate this community. The buildings, in and of themselves, are works of art with ornate details that showcase the craftsmanship of another era.

Wabasha, Squirt sign

A block away, a faded vintage Squirt sign painted onto the side of a brick building contrasts with a sleek and shiny Pepsi vending machine. That amuses me.

Wabasha, Rivertown Cafe front of

At the Rivertown Cafe, I appreciate the aging signage suspended from the second level. It adds a certain charm to the exterior and directs the eye toward the business.

Wabasha, street corner sculpture

A stone’s throw away, a modern sculpture graces a street corner.

Wabasha, cafe sign up close

Certainly, Wabasha features more art; I had time to photograph only this sampling this trip.

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CLICK HERE TO READ my previous post about art inside the National Eagle Center.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The power of light in photography May 7, 2013

“WAIT. DON’T GO,” I requested as he was about to pull away from a stop sign in Owatonna.

Through the drizzled windshield, my eye caught a flash of red letters against the backdrop of a moody blue grey sky.

Shot Tuesday evening, April 30, in downtown Owatonna, Minnesota.

Shot Tuesday evening, April 30, in downtown Owatonna, Minnesota.

I wanted a photo of the dreamy scene—the bright signage atop the Owatonna Power Plant building, the warm glow of lantern street lights, flashes of taillights and headlights, the patch of light through a glass door, the reflection of light upon wet pavement.

In that precise moment, the frame unfolding before me was all about light, a gift to any photographer. There was no hesitating. Hesitation, for a photographer, equals regrets.

A closer shot of the 75-year-old signage.

A closer shot of the 75-year-old signage.

And so my husband, who understands, or at least pretends to understand, held foot to brake, flipped on the windshield wipers and allowed me to fire off several shots before continuing through the intersection.

Unexpected opportunities like this, to photograph an iconic landmark in remarkable light, are to be embraced.

FYI: The sign atop the Owatonna Power Plant recently underwent a transformation as the neon letters were replaced with LED technology. Also, as a result of damage caused by a September 2010 flood, the building has been repurposed into office space. The power plant has not been used as an energy source for years with Owatonna Public Utilities purchasing its electricity instead from Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling