Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A drive in the Minnesota countryside takes me to St. Jarlath November 7, 2017

 

“SAINT JARLATH. Who’s that?” I asked my Catholic-raised and educated husband as we pulled up to a rural Minnesota cemetery during a recent Sunday afternoon drive.

 

 

He offered no information, as puzzled as me by the saint behind the name of St. Jarlath’s Catholic Cemetery located just off Waseca County Road 22 in Iosco Township. My later online research revealed Bishop Jarlath as the founder and principle patron of the Archdiocese of Tuam in Galway, Ireland. Irish names in the cemetery should have tipped us off.

 

 

I delight in discovering such well-kept rural cemeteries edged next to equally well-maintained churches. Clearly, people care deeply about this place. That pleases me although the closure of rural parishes like this one does not.

 

 

As we wandered the grounds, I spotted autumn décor adorning some gravesites. Seeing scarecrows on a tombstone marked a first for me.

 

 

I noticed, too, the trees,

 

 

the aged, and not so aged, stones,

 

 

the loving words

 

 

 

 

 

 

and clear markers of faith in crosses high and low.

 

 

I tugged at the church door, hoping to get inside. I never expect access. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. Gone are the days of unattended, open churches. I can only imagine the beauty, the history within this country church.

 

 

The ability to freely wander this cemetery on a stunning autumn afternoon tempered my disappointment. To see folks honor their ancestors and Saint Jarlath through a well-kept church and grounds encourages me. This place remains important—at least for now to those still living.

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AS I SCHEDULED this post, written days before the deadly mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I feel compelled to add this postscript expressing my sorrow and thoughts. I cannot fathom the loss to these families, to this community, about the same size as my Minnesota hometown. My heart breaks. A church, of all places, should be a sanctuary from violence. No place seems safe any more.

Initial media reports reveal the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence and that he sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law shortly before killing 26 people and wounding another 20 at the church. This troubles me. Domestic violence continues to root deep into our society. I read or hear media reports daily about murder-suicides, violations of restraining orders, calls to domestic disturbances, stalking, assaults…and more. For every case reported to law enforcement, many many more are not reported. Because of fear. Because of intimidation. Because of control and manipulation.

The invasive crime of domestic abuse and violence is affecting too many of our families, our neighborhoods, our communities and, yes, even our churches, directly and indirectly.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The season of autumn in rural Minnesota, a photo essay October 24, 2017

 

IN THE SEASON of autumn, farm memories draw me back to the land.

 

 

To follow country gravel roads

 

 

and county highways

 

 

past sweeping fields of corn

 

 

harvested,

 

A vintage Gleaner combine harvests a cornfield along LeSueur County Road 13 near Lake Jefferson.

under harvest

 

Partially harvested…

 

and unharvested.

 

 

Roads lead me by farm sites,

 

 

aged stately barns

 

Near historic Marysburg in LeSueur County.

 

and mammoth bins awaiting the yield.

 

Following a tractor pulling a 1970s era gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I observe, too, farmers creeping tractors trailing wagons,

 

 

zipping along rural roadways

 

Visiting at the intersection of LeSueur County roads 13 and 16.

 

and stalled in conversation at a rural intersection.

 

Cattle graze along 241st Avenue, just off LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I scan the landscape with the eyes of someone who misses the farm,

 

A harvested field glistens with puddled rainwater and mud. Too much rain has slowed the harvest for farmers in southern Minnesota. They will be working long days and nights to catch up and get the crop in before the snow flies.

 

who remembers the hurry of her farmer father,

 

Enjoying a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon along Waseca County Road 22.

 

who follows country roads in the season of autumn.

 

FYI: I shot these images in Rice, LeSueur and Waseca counties during a Sunday afternoon, October 22, drive with my husband.

Check back for more photos from that drive.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A tree January 19, 2017

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a-tree-in-a-corn-field

 

WHENEVER I SEE a lone tree in a field, I am grateful.

Grateful to the farmer who chose to leave it there rather than cut it down for a few more crop rows.

I am grateful for the farmer who sees beyond his pocketbook and respects the value of a tree.

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Tree photographed on October 7, 2016, western Waseca County, Minnesota

 

Abandoned in rural Minnesota January 12, 2017

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abandoned-house-truck-in-alma-city

 

SCENES LIKE THIS sadden me.

Why was this house abandoned? Did the owner fall ill or die? Or simply move to a better and more spacious home? Or did lack of finances factor into this abandonment? Or a personal crisis?

I wonder.

This scene in unincorporated Alma City in western Waseca County, rural Minnesota, is all too familiar. Houses that once sheltered families stand deserted, paint peeling, wood softening to a weathered grey.

What stories does this house hold? What memories were made here? Does anyone care that this house is no longer a home?

And what about that rusting truck? What routes did it travel? Back county roads, gravel roads, field drives? Perhaps to the hardware store, the grain elevator, a local cafe.

Who steered the wheel of this GMC? Perhaps a farmer or a retired farmer.

All these things I ask because my mind works that way. Inquisitive, ranging around thoughts, always wondering.

TELL ME: What short story would you write about this scene?

Note: This image was taken in October, well before winter arrived in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A sweet surprise: An old sorghum mill on a southern Minnesota elk farm & more August 10, 2012

HOW MANY TIMES HAS MY FAMILY driven Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian, unaware of Okaman Elk Farm to the south not far from the highway? Too many.

My husband Randy and I almost missed Okaman’s again last Sunday as we traveled along Waseca County Roads 3 and 5. If not for the colorful miniature train transporting kids and adults along the shoulder of the road, we likely would have passed right by.

Passing by the Okaman Elk Express in our car on a Sunday afternoon.

But that train stopped us in our tracks and caused us to turn around and drive back to the farm.

There we discovered much more than a plain old elk farm. We also found family-friendly activities, a farmers’ market, art, animals and history.

The historic Seha Sorghum Mill.

In 1991, Don and Joyce Kaplan bought this historic place to raise elk and then sell the meat. Their business sits on the site of Okaman, a town established in 1855 between Lake Elysian and Lily Lake. Here, according to a posted sign, several hotels, a theater, the Buckout Flour Mill, the Okaman School and the Seha Sorghum Mill were located.

Inside the sorghum mill.

It is that 1895 sorghum mill, which produced and sold sorghum syrup until 1953, that most interested me. Randy and I poked our way through and around the old mill trying to determine how the whole operation worked. I think he understood the process much better than me.

Apparently wagons of sorghum were unloaded atop the hill behind the mill where the canes were crushed and the juice then flowed into steam-heated cookers, or something like that.

The original steam boiler stands behind the sorghum mill.

According to the Waseca County Historical Society website, Cornelius L. Seha built the mill, today the only known historical sorghum mill remaining in Minnesota and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Because the mill today is basically an old building and steam boiler with weeds and brush growing around the holding tanks, equipment and structures, everything is left open to self-interpretation. Perhaps someday this historic site can be restored and specific educational information posted.

Cats roam the farm.

Then, perhaps, the younger farm visitors will be more interested in the historic buildings. They are, for now, focused on  the donkeys and alpacas, the goats and elk and dog, and especially, the cats and kittens. Or perhaps the playground equipment.

Visitors are free to wander the pasture with the alpacas, donkeys and goats.

Loved this sign at the petting zoo telling visitors that the animals are fed daily.

The farm is open seven days a week to the 3,000 – 4,000 visitors who stop by annually, says Joyce Kaplan. The Kaplans may not always be around, but guests are invited to peruse the place on their own. Just follow a few rules like:

You can enter the petting zoo pens or pastures at your own risk. Please don’t allow children to chase the animals and no dogs allowed. Close gates behind you.

Veggies from R & C Produce of Otisco.

Canned mixed veggies from Val’s Yard ‘N Gardens (Joe & Val Zimprich of Le Center).

Reusable price stickers in the back of the Zimprichs’ truck.

While the farm is always open, on Sundays from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. during the summertime harvest and into October, farmers’ market vendors set up in the farmyard peddling their garden fresh produce and other products.

An art gallery is housed in an old barn.

That beautiful old barn, with an art gallery and studio in the haymow.

Antler art, including chandeliers, inside the art gallery with Paul Ristau’s art studio behind the windows pictured here.

Inside the gift shop and adjacent art gallery, you’ll find gifts anytime and the creations of artist and craftsman Paul Ristau, who renovates homes and businesses and is a mason specializing in stone fireplaces. He was doing some tile work for the Kaplans and ended up as their in-house artist focusing on the creation of antler art. He has a workshop in the haymow-turned-art-gallery where his elk antler chandeliers are a focal point.

A Native American influence on art hung in Paul Ristau’s studio.

A Native American influence is visible in Ristau’s art given his interaction with those living on the White Earth Indian Reservation where he once drove bus.

Of course, the farm also sells elk meat, inside the original 1893 homestead. The farm is now down to 23 elk, according to Joyce Kaplan who says she grew up on a farm and has been cleaning barns all her life and maybe it’s time soon to stop cleaning barns.

The final activity of the day, feeding apples to the elk.

On the Sunday I visited, her husband was handing out apples so the kids could feed the elk.

And the Okaman Elk Express was chugging along the shoulder of the roadway, thrilling the kids and, bonus, drawing in visitors like my husband and me.

You’ll find binoculars in the barn to view the elk in the pasture.

FYI: To find Okaman Elk Farm, take Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian 1 ½ miles and then turn south to the intersections of Waseca County roads 3 and 5. The farm is open year-round. Click here to reach the farm’s website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Blooming on the prairie March 25, 2012

The former Immanuel church, front, was moved and connected to the Bethel church, back in 1951. The original parish was established in 1857. This photo was taken in the summer of 2011.

WHEN I FIRST SAW this country church last summer south of Morristown, I did a double take. It’s not often you spot two churches merged as one. At least not in the way Bethel and Immanuel became Blooming Grove United Methodist Church in 1951.

Rather than close one church and worship in a single facility, the Methodists opted to actually move one building, Immanuel, nearly four miles east to the Bethel site.

That was quite an event and quite a feat. Maurice Becht remembers in the parish newspaper, The Blooming Grove Methodist Visitor:

I had been helping off and on to get the church ready to move. When it was ready, I was standing off to the side looking when, all of a sudden, the front end of the church went down and the bell tower began to swing like a pendulum. Luckily, they had put a cable from the tower to the other end of the church so it didn’t break off. The front wheels had pulled out from under the church when the bolster slipped. We put it back on wheels and were going around the west side of Wilbert Remund’s buildings when we ran into a soft spot that had to be planked…

Wilbert and Marcella Remund recall:

Lloyd Zerck said that when he got the church moving, it had to be kept going, so Willie put his tractor on. That was just enough to keep it moving…

Eventually Immanuel reached its destination and work then continued to physically join the two buildings. Total project cost was around $16,000 with more than 7,000 hours in donated labor.

Blooming Grove United Methodist Church is located in northeastern Waseca County just off county road 10.

In a poem, “Historic Church in Action,” published in the March 1954 parish newspaper, Albert C. Reineke writes in the fourth verse:

In this alluring and peaceful countryside

Stands “God’s Temple” with towers high,

Two houses of worship now unified.

Sweet memories linger of years gone by.

I have no connection to Blooming Grove United Methodist Church. But I certainly do appreciate country churches and their rich and interesting histories.

"This church with its two steeples is a physical symbol of cooperation, compromise and trust," according to the church website. I photographed the church Saturday afternoon. Even on a hazy March day, Blooming Grove blooms on the prairie. My goal now is to get inside and photograph this church.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Three bald eagles on a Sunday February 19, 2012

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AS OBSERVANT AS I AM, and I’m quite detail-oriented, I don’t profess to have an eagle eye. That would be my husband. Randy possesses an uncanny ability to notice birds of prey in the wild.

A few weeks ago he pointed out an owl perched on a fence post as we traveled along a state highway around dusk. He’s always spotting hawks circling overhead, riding the wind.

See the two eagles in the distant trees here on the west side of State Highway 13 near Waseca?

But this time, this past Sunday afternoon, he saw two bald eagles in a stand of trees several miles north of Waseca along Minnesota State Highway 13. Now typically nothing much raises Randy’s demeanor to a level of excitement. However, he was excited enough to swing our van into a U-turn, backtrack to the grove of trees and pause so he could gawk.

Although we’d seen eagles in the wild before, we’d never seen them this close—about 60 feet away horizontally and another 30 feet away vertically.

Parked along the wide shoulder of the highway, I shot this image of the eagles.

Stopping within feet of a deer carcass, the road kill that we figure drew the eagles to this grove of trees, Randy watched the birds while I photographed, wishing all the time for a telephoto lens.

After our brief eagle-watching, we continued on to Morristown, missed our turn and spotted another bald eagle. This time I requested we backtrack because I was, by then, already formulating this blog post in my mind.

We had just passed Veterans Memorial Park, a new memorial to veterans in this Rice County town of 1,000 residents. It features a bald eagle as the focal point.

This time, without highway traffic passing dangerously close, I exited the van and captured close up our nation’s majestic symbol of freedom.

The bald eagle, flanked by flags, at the vets park in Morristown.

A broad view of the new memorial, which includes pavers honoring veterans.

Shooting into the sun, I took this shot of the memorial eagle.

HAVE YOU EVER seen a bald eagle in the wild? Tell me about your experience.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling