Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on rabbits in “The Year of the Rabbit” January 22, 2023

A children’s picture book features zodiac animals in this story focused on the Chinese New Year.

THE FIRST TIME I NOTICED a grouping of rabbit-themed books displayed on a table at my local library, I passed right by. That’s odd, I thought to myself. The second time I glimpsed those books, I walked over and looked. Turns out 2023 is The Year of the Rabbit and this book collection is a way to celebrate.

Today, Sunday, January 22, marks the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the year when the rabbit takes zodiac animal center stage. The rabbit symbolizes luck (no surprise there; think a good luck rabbit foot), diplomacy, peace, compassion, kindness, all words I can get behind. We’re overdue for a year of people and nations treating each other with respect, kindness and decency.

This road-side white rabbit sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

While I’m not into the zodiac, I respect the Asian culture. And I like rabbits…because I am a Rabbit. Clarification, I was a Rabbit, as in a Wabasso Rabbit. I graduated from Wabasso High School, a southwestern Minnesota school with a white rabbit as its mascot. I can almost hear the laughing. A rabbit as a mascot? Yes, I admit to hearing a fair share of put-downs about being a lowly Rabbit. But don’t underestimate a rabbit/Rabbit.

A broad view of Wabasso’s Main Street. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2012)

There’s a reason behind the chosen mascot. The town name, Wabasso, is a Dakota word meaning “white rabbit.” So it makes total sense that the public school would choose a rabbit mascot. This prairie region of Minnesota is rich in Dakota history.

The WHS gym in 2009. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2009)

For me, rabbits are part of my personal history. I hold many memories of overall Rabbit pride. Pep fests, football and basketball games, theater, writing for the high school newspaper, The Rabbit Tracks… Attending a small rural Minnesota high school with mostly farm kids from the communities of Wabasso, Wanda, Lucan, Seaforth and Vesta (my hometown) was a good fit for me. I am forever proud of being a Rabbit.

The sign marking the current building came from the old building. And apparently back in the day, a “u” looked like a “v.” The school looks different than when I attended WHS. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 20029)

Next year, 2024, marks The Year of the Rabbit for me. In that calendar year, my WHS graduating class celebrates its 50th class reunion. Unbelievable. I once considered people who’ve been out of high school for 50 years to be really old. I don’t think that way any more, although I do admit my advancing age.

As we reunite, we’ll pull out our yearbooks and reminisce. We’ll pull out our smartphones to share family photos. We’ll celebrate the years we were Rabbits. And we’ll celebrate, too, the lives we’ve lived since, lives I hope have been filled with peace, kindness and love.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grieving in Minnesota, three tragedies April 23, 2022

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Third grader Henry Johnson of Nerstrand Charter School created this vivid work of art for a Student Art Exhibit at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. Published with this post for illustration purposes only. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I CONTEMPLATED WHETHER I should write about the tragic deaths of four Minnesota children recently. But it’s important for me, in some small way, to pause and share that which imprints sadness upon my heart. To lose a child is perhaps life’s deepest sorrow.

The first tragedy happened on April 15 in rural Wabasso—I graduated from Wabasso High School—in southwestern Minnesota. Braxton Welch, 20 months, died after being struck by a vehicle driven by his dad. I cannot even begin to fathom the grief this family is experiencing. This is personal to me because I know the Welch family back a few generations. I knew Braxton’s deceased great grandfather Gary, who lived in my hometown of Vesta and worked as a mechanic at my Uncle Harold’s service station. And I babysat Braxton’s grandfather (Gary’s son), Troy, and siblings a few times as a teen. Now Troy has lost his grandson, a sweet little boy with the brightest blue eyes. Braxton loved dancing and giggling and his big brother. And I expect so much more.

To the west, in rural Lynd, a 9-year-old girl (not yet identified) has died after being shot in the head on April 18. Authorities are classifying the shooting as “accidental.” Again, an unfathomable tragedy. UPDATE, April 26, 2022: The Lyon County Sheriff’s Department has identified Caitlin Renee Demuth as the young girl who died as a result of this tragic shooting. A public visitation will be held from 5 – 7 pm Friday, April 29, at the Hamilton Funeral Home in Marshall.

And then way up north, in the port city of Duluth, the Barry family was found shot to death in their beds on April 20. The victims include mom, Riana, 44; dad, Sean, 47; and their daughters, Shiway, 12, and Sadie, 9. The identified shooter, their 29-year-old nephew/cousin, also died, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police continue their investigation into the motive while publicly stating the shooter struggled with mental health issues. This murder-suicide, resulting in the deaths of two children and three adults in a single family circle, is undeniably tragic. It is almost too much to bear and my heart absolutely breaks for everyone touched by this tragedy, especially family and friends but also the greater Duluth community and responding law enforcement.

Friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help extended family pay for the Barrys’ funerals and for travel and other expenses. I encourage you to visit that site, donate if you can and pause to read the comments written by those connected to the Barry family. You will read of a kind, loving and generous family who welcomed newcomers, of two little girls who sold Girl Scout cookies, of guinea pigs and bike riding and all those ordinary life events that, in death, take on new meaning.

Tears flow. I feel emotionally drained. My heart hurts. Yet, I recognize that what I feel is nothing compared to the friends and families of Braxton; the little girl from Lynd; and the Barry family. To experience their loss and grief seems incomprehensible. Tragic beyond words.

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FYI: A public vigil for the Barry family will be held on Sunday evening, April 24, outside the family’s home at 715 E. 12th Street in Duluth. A short program begins at 8 pm with the lighting of holiday lights on the home. Christmas was one of the family’s favorite holidays. Attendees can also share stories at the event. The public is also invited to bring new children’s books to be donated in the family’s honor. The Barrys had a Little Free Library outside their home to share their love of reading and of books.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When torrential rains cause major flooding in my home region of southwestern Minnesota July 4, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, my friends. I hope this finds you celebrating your freedom in a fun way.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta earlier this spring. That’s my home farm in the distance. I expect the flooding is much worse now. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In my home region of southwestern Minnesota, where I was supposed to be yesterday and today with extended family, residents are cleaning up after heavy rainfall flooded the region. Flash flooding resulted in water in basements (and higher), road wash-outs and closures, mudslides, swamped farm fields, overflowing rivers and more. That includes in my home county of Redwood. And the communities of Wabasso (where I graduated from high school) and Vesta (my hometown).

After a flurry of texts between me and my five siblings and lots of online searching yesterday, Randy and I decided not to risk the trip into the flooded region. Although I second-guessed our decision multiple times, it was the right one. This morning floodwaters flowed across a section of US highway 14 east of Lamberton, our route to and from my middle brother’s rural acreage just north of that small town. Likewise I expect the rising Cottonwood River has flooded a county road within a mile of our destination.

Some roads have collapsed in Redwood and Renville counties. I don’t trust the structural integrity of any road covered with water. The Redwood County Sheriff’s Department issued this statement on Facebook early yesterday morning:

We have had numerous (reports) of water covering the roadways. Please DO NOT drive on any roadway that has water running over it. MN DOT and Redwood County highway departments are doing the best they can do get these roads blocked off to warn motorists.

 

A combine similar to this was moved from a Tracy dealership onto Highway 14. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

One of the most creative road blocks happened in Tracy where crews parked a massive John Deere combine across Highway 14 to keep traffic off the flooded roadway.

 

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In Wabasso, which got 11 inches of rain within 12 hours, a resident noted on social media that the white rabbit was safe from floodwaters. He was referencing an over-sized rabbit sculpture along State Highway 68. Wabasso means “white rabbit” and is the local school mascot.

It’s good to find humor in a difficult situation, in an area where residents endured another round of rain this Fourth of July morning.

To those who live in my native southwestern Minnesota (and that includes many family and friends), I am sorry you are experiencing this major flooding. Please be safe.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wabasso High Class of 1974 celebrates 40 years since graduation September 16, 2014

FORTY YEARS AGO, my Wabasso High School graduating class voted “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” as our class song.

But our senior class advisers nixed the choice and “We May Never Pass This Way Again” became our theme song instead.

We never were a class to follow the norm, to keep quiet, to go along with whatever the adults desired. We were outspoken teens—some more than others—challenging authority, growing into adulthood in the turbulent early seventies. Kids who’d just missed sending our male classmates off to fight in Vietnam.

The Wabasso High School Class of 1974 fortieth year reunion.

The Wabasso High School Class of 1974 fortieth year reunion group photo. That’s a teacher seated in the front row, right. I’m in the back row near the middle with the pink, white and black striped shirt. Photo by Randy Helbling.

This past Saturday we gathered at the community center (and then moved to the Roadhouse Bar & Grill) in the southwestern Minnesota prairie town of Wabasso to reminisce about our school days and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of our graduation in May 1974.

Forty years. How do four decades pass that quickly?

WHS reunion pic 7 and 8

Maybe we haven’t grow up so much. Or perhaps it’s just that we still like to have fun.

So much has changed, yet so little. We’ve grown up and reached the point in our lives when we realize life is too short, that the years we shared are worth celebrating.

In responding to questions for a reunion book I helped pull together, nearly every single classmate wrote that the best thing to happen to them since high school was getting married and having children. There was not a single answer like “I’m rich, live in a mansion and run a Fortune 500 company.” Not a single person placed wealth or career above family.

One other question—What has been the most influential book you’re read since high school?—also garnered a single most popular response—the bible. Many classmates wrote of their spiritual growth and the importance of God and faith in their lives.

On the right are the three of us from Vesta who attended the reunion.

On the right are the three of us from Vesta who attended the reunion. Micki, Dallas and I grew up on farms within a mile of each other. That’s a V, for Vesta, that we’re shaping with our hands in the top image.

This was, by far, the best class reunion of all I’ve attended. And I believe I’ve missed only two.

We mingled and laughed and talked about our kids and grandkids (those who have them) and all sorts of things and simply had a really good time. There was no cornering off of friends, no division, none of those issues that seem to plague classes even decades later.

How many classmates can cram into a photobooth, left, and four members of the reunion committee, right.

How many classmates can cram into a photobooth, left, and four members of the reunion committee, right.

As one of my 88 classmates noted, we were always a class that got along. He’s right. At one point Saturday evening, we crammed as many people as possible into a photo booth (New Ulm-based Up All Night Photobooth) contracted for the event. I was an initial naysayer on the photo booth. But I’d recommend it. The photo sessions got us out of our chairs and totally mixing it up.

My husband and I pose for a photo that I told him will be our Christmas card. In the photo to the right is Lindsey, right front, whom I have not seen in 40 years. He promised to return for the next reunion.

My husband and I pose for a photo that I told him will be our Christmas card. In the photo to the right is Lindsey, right front, whom I have not seen in 40 years. He promised to return for the next reunion.

I saw classmates I have not seen in 40 years. And, yes, I had to sneak a sly peek at several name tags to identify people. But for the most part, I recognized my 29 classmates and the single teacher in attendance.

One classmate told me I still looked the same. I took that as a compliment. Obviously, he didn’t notice the gray hair, the creases in my face or the pounds added since I was a hip hugger, mini skirt, hot pants, go-go boot wearing teenager.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Voting for Minnesota’s most unique high school mascot & insights into other team names in our state February 26, 2013

A gym at Wabasso High School, home of the Rabbits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

A gym at Wabasso High School, home of the Rabbits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

MY ALMA MATER, Wabasso High School, has a white rabbit as a mascot. As you would rightly expect, a rabbit does not conjure up an image of athletic prowess. But I do not care. Rabbits reflects the name of the community, Wabasso, a Dakota word, I’m told, meaning “White Rabbit.”

The rabbit mascot also stands out among all the Eagles and Tigers, the most common high school team names in Minnesota, and the country in general, according to Terry Borning, author of MascotDB.com, a free searchable database of team names and mascots. (More on that later.)

Rabbits, though, was not unusual enough to grab the attention of USA TODAY’s High School Sports staff which is sponsoring a competition to find the nation’s most unique high school mascots. Staff chose five mascots from each state and Washington D.C. in the first round of the contest.

Tom Ressler created Blooming Prairie's logo, a black-and-white Awesome Blossom , in 1979.

The Awesome Blossoms logo from the school website.

Now the public will choose their favorites, via online voting, to advance to the second round. One winner from each state and D.C. will move on to regionals and the opportunity to win prizes ranging from $100 to $2,000 for their high school athletic departments.

In the running from Minnesota are the Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms, Roosevelt Teddies, Jordan Hubmen, Sauk Centre Mainstreeters and Winona Winhawks.

I’ll admit to a fondness for Blooming Prairie’s Awesome Blossoms, for several reasons. Any school strong enough to sport the name Blossoms deserves to win. Second, Blooming Prairie, a farming community of around 2,000 located 15 miles south of Owatonna, is the smallest of the Minnesota communities vying for this honor. I will always pick the smallest, most rural town and root for the underdog. (Plus, I really like the “Prairie” part of the town’s name.) Third, my second daughter first introduced me to the Blooming Prairie mascot when she was in high school and attended an Awesome Blossoms basketball game with a good friend. It was also the first night she failed to get home at a reasonable hour. Enough said on that.

Apparently, the Blossoms got their name from an area newspaper more than a century ago, according to one source. “Awesome” was later added by locals.

A seen from Main Street in Sauk Centre, home to the Mainstreeters.

A scene from Main Street in Sauk Centre, home to the Mainstreeters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Now, if I had to choose my second favorite from the Minnesota five, I’d select the Mainstreeters for the sole reason that I love Sauk Centre native Sinclair Lewis’ satirical book, Main Street.

So there, if this interests you, click here and go online to vote. Voting for the state winners continues through March 5. Those 51 winners then advance to second round regional voting from March 6 -14. Six regional winners then enter the finals March 15-25.

Terry Borning with TC Bear, the Twins mascot.

Terry Borning with TC Bear, the Twins mascot. Borning attended Concordia College in Moorhead, home of the Cobbers.

NOW, LET’S DELVE DEEPER into Minnesota high school mascot names via Terry Borning of the earlier mentioned MascotDB.com. Just a note, Borning, of Billings, Montana, and a computer science adjunct faculty member for an Arizona college, is my cousin. He has 43,799 sports team names and mascots in his database covering U.S. and Canadian high school, college and professional teams, past and present.

Borning’s interest in team names stretches back to high school, when he played nine-man football for the Hendricks Huskies. Hendricks is about as close as you can get to South Dakota in southwestern Minnesota without actually living in our neighboring state.

Hendricks and nearby rival Ivanhoe have since consolidated, becoming the Lincoln H I Rebels. Lincoln references Lincoln County where the schools are located while the “H” and “I,” obviously, stand for the separate communities. Adds Borning: “The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were a dominant NCAA basketball team at the time the schools consolidated in the early 1990s. The teens of that time considered themselves rebellious, so the moniker fit.”

That led me to ask my cousin how schools choose mascots and to specifically cite examples in Minnesota. He notes the popularity of Vikings here (11 high schools with this mascot) and the once common Warriors and Indians (no longer used), plus names like the Flying Dutchmen, all traced to ethnic heritage.

Agriculture and local industries also factor into names like the Moorhead Spuds, Austin Packers, Bemidji Lumberjacks and Crosby-Ironton Rangers.

Team names can extend, too, from the school’s name such as Lindbergh (Hopkins) Flyers, Robbinsdale Robins, Red Wing Wingers and Burnsville Blaze.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In the past, animals, such as my beloved Rabbits, were common as mascots.

Recent trends during school consolidations are to forge a new identity such as the Northern Freeze Nordics comprised of students from the small northwestern Minnesota communities of Newfolden, Viking and Holt. (Yes, I had to check a map.)

The Otto the otter statue in Adams Park in Fergus Falls. The Otter Tail River runs through this city where the Fergus Falls High School mascot is the otter.

The Otto the otter statue in Adams Park in Fergus Falls. The Otter Tail River runs through this city where the Fergus Falls High School mascot is the Otters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Naturally, I wanted to know what mascots Borning might have selected for that USA TODAY contest had he been given the opportunity. He suggests these stand-out Minnesota names: Moorhead Spuds, Esko Eskomos, Thief River Falls Prowlers, Edgerton Flying Dutchmen, Two Harbors Agates, Grand Meadow Superlarks, McGregor Mercuries, Mahtomedi Zephyrs, Blackduck Drakes, Fergus Falls Otters and Barnum Bombers.

Just reviewing that list, I can see the connections between many of the mascots and their respective communities.

Borning also points out some unique Minnesota team names that have been lost to history such as the Jasper Quartziters, Tyler Danes, Walnut Grove Loggers, Granite Falls Kilowatts, Hendricks Midgets, Tracy Scrappers and Freeborn Yeomen.

I photographed this logo a year ago at Randolph Public Schools, home of the Rockets.

I photographed this logo a year ago at Randolph Public Schools, home of the Rockets.

Finding information on past high school sports team names has proven challenging for Borning, so he continues to research information for MascotDB, the only searchable online database of U.S. and Canadian high school, college and professional team names/mascots. “Reading up and discussing great and interesting team nicknames and mascots has always been a fun pastime for me,” he says. That led him to develop MascotDB.

Given the sheer amount of research he’s done, my cousin was able to tell me that only three U.S. high schools have Rabbits (not to be confused with Jackrabbits) as their mascots. Those are in Atlanta, Texas; Delta, Utah; and Wabasso, Minnesota.

Go, Rabbits.

A water tower in Wabasso sports the school's mascot, a white rabbit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

A water tower in Wabasso sports the school’s mascot, a white rabbit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

FYI: Click here to visit MascotDB.

Borning also welcomes information and questions about sports’ names/mascots. Contact him at info at mascotdb.com

Also, click here to learn more about the origin of the Rabbits mascot at my alma mater.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Main Street Wabasso, home of the White Rabbit April 25, 2012

The Roadhouse Bar & Grill is a popular gathering and dining spot in Wabasso. During the summer, old car enthusiasts and motorcyclists gather here for Tuesday evening "Roll-ins" that draw up to 1,000 people. There's plenty of outdoor seating on a sprawling patio where a hamburger bar is set up for the popular event. The Grill also offers an extensive burger and sandwich menu with reasonable prices.

WITH A HALF HOUR wait before we could be seated at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill in Wabasso on a recent Saturday evening, I hit the sidewalk determined to photograph the Main Street of this small southwestern Minnesota town where I attended high school.

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso, which means white rabbit.

I have, through the decades, discovered minimal familiarity among most Minnesotans with Wabasso, a Redwood County farming community of around 650 that links to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”

Longfellow writes in his section on the Four Winds:

“Honor be to Mudjekeewis!”
Cried the warriors, cried the old men,
When he came in triumph homeward
With the sacred Belt of Wampum,
From the regions of the North-Wind,
From the kingdom of Wabasso,
From the land of the White Rabbit.

I’ve always been told that Wabasso is an Indian word meaning “white rabbit.” I never learned of the poetic connection until researching on my own; English teachers at Wabasso High never taught this, that I recall. I doubt many of the locals are aware of Longfellow’s reference.

Wabasso is decidedly proud of its white rabbit namesake, though. You’ll find an oversized rabbit statue along State Highway 68 on the south side of town. The public school mascot is, of course, a white rabbit. And, as I found, even local businesses support the Rabbits via storefront signage.

Wabasso’s downtown business district is typical rural Minnesota with a mix of well-kept and deteriorating buildings that border a broad street. Attempts to modernize once stately brick buildings with wood and metal fail and make you wish for a money bag of gold to restore such structures to their original grandeur.

But for now, in this economy, one must choose to appreciate the imperfections of Main Street as adding character to a community like Wabasso, home of the white rabbit.

A broad view of a block along Wabasso's Main Street on a recent Saturday evening.

Wabasso is a strong agricultural-based community. The outgoing Future Farmers of America Minnesota State President Hillary Kletscher (my niece) graduated from Wabasso High School in 2011.

A sign supporting the high school sports team hangs in a salon window.

Wabasso is fortunate enough to still have a grocery store.

Signage in the window of Salfer's Food Center.

My WHS class of 1974 classmate Marcis owns this combination floral shop and hair salon along Main Street. Marcy was also waiting tables at the Roadhouse the Saturday evening I was in town.

Wabasso is fortunate to also still have a post office, unlike more and more rural communities in Minnesota.

THE PHOTOS IN THIS POST are similar in content to those printed in the just-published spring issue of Minnesota Moments magazine. Photographer Ryan Ware of Chaska and I contributed 16 images from 14 small towns to a photo essay titled “Touring Main Street in Small Town, Minnesota.” The essay is only a small sampling of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of images we have taken of small towns and rural areas. Both natives of southwestern Minnesota, Ryan and I share a passion for photography that connects us to our rural roots. I would encourage you to check out Ryan’s photos at his Fleeting Farms blog by clicking here.

CLICK HERE to reach the Minnesota Moments website.

CLICK HERE for more information about the Roadhouse Bar & Grill.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Wabasso.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling