Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

For the love of books, a spotlight on several Little Free Libraries October 22, 2018

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I was delighted to find a Little Free Library near my son’s apartment when I visited him in Somerville, Massachusetts, in May of 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHENEVER I SPOT A LITTLE FREE LIBRARY, I feel a deep appreciation for the stewards of these mini libraries.

The ability to read, as I see it, is the foundation of learning. But to read, you need access to books. Not everyone has that, whether by geographical location or lack of money for books.

So those individuals who place a Little Free Library in their yards (or elsewhere) and then stock and restock shelves have my gratitude. They realize the importance of easy 24/7 access to books.

 

The LFL Todd and Susan Bol installed outside the community-owned Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

I grew up in a rural Minnesota community without a library. I understand what it’s like to be without library books. But thanks to Little Free Library founder Todd Bol, my hometown of Vesta has had a small public library since July 1, 2012. A Little Free Library. Todd gifted that to this small farming town. I am grateful.

 

A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa.

 

Recently I spotted two particularly distinct Little Free Libraries, one in the heart of downtown Decorah, one of my favorite northeastern Iowa cities. The library sits in a public plaza next to Oneota Community Food Co-op. That it’s barn-shaped seems especially fitting in a primarily agricultural state. A red barn remains an iconic symbol of rural life.

I grabbed a hardcover copy of James Patterson’s Double Cross with every intention of starting to read the book while in Decorah. That never happened and now the book sits on my to-read pile back here in Minnesota. First I need to finish The Girls of Ames—A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow. The national bestseller published in 2009. The book holds special interest for me given one of the women taught journalism at Faribault High School and served as advisor to the student newspaper when my second daughter was co-editor. It’s an excellent read. And quite revealing.

But I digress.

 

 

A variety of books for all ages fill an eye-catching LFL posted at 805 State Street in Waseca. It’s designed as a TARDIS, the featured mode of transportation on the BBC sci-fi television show “Doctor Who.” I know nothing about the show. To me, the TARDIS resembles a blue phone booth.

 

 

The stewards of the Waseca TARDIS do a great job of visually promoting the LFL with the library now seasonally decorated for autumn and Halloween. Inside, they’ve also stocked Halloween-themed books. They seem to have a lot of fun with their LFL. I expect given its location along one of Waseca’s main arteries that the library is well-used.

 

 

What kid wouldn’t be drawn to a mini TARDIS? Or adult for that matter?

 

 

 

I love when folks run with the LFL idea and get especially creative, all for the purpose of getting books into the hands of others.

 

A cat watched as I photographed the TARDIS LFL.

 

FYI: This post is dedicated to Todd Bol, who founded the Little Free Library movement and who died on October 18 of pancreatic cancer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A rite of autumn in southern Minnesota: My sister’s soup party October 19, 2015

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Soup, 15 crocks of

 

CROCKPOTS BRIMMING WITH SOUPS and chili crammed the tables in a Waseca garage on a recent Saturday evening as my sister Lanae and her husband, Dale, hosted their annual Soup Party.

 

Soup, 42 crock close-ups

 

It is a rite of autumn, this gathering of family and friends to sample a soup smorgasbord. Each guest arrives with a crockpot of homemade soup or chili—this year 22 types ranging from Bourbon Chili to Chicken Fajita, Beer Cheese and many more tasty varieties.

 

Soup, 24 crocks 2

 

You can always count on Teresa to bring a crock of Oyster Stew from across the street. And Monica, my other sister, never deviates from her Broccoli Cheese Soup. Kristi, a particularly creative cook, prepared savory Dill Pickle and Hungarian Mushroom Soups.

 

All soups are labeled.

All soups are labeled.

 

My middle brother arrived this year from southwestern Minnesota with Mystery Meat and Ham Soup. He challenged guests to name the mystery meat for a $10 prize. It was alligator.

 

Soup, 17 bread

 

Soup, 21 cheese balls

 

Soup, 19 Bloody Finger Cookies

 

Food traditions extend beyond the soups. Julie from next door always brings bread, although this year not as much given she’s battling cancer. My sister the hostess always buys a mega container of cheese balls and dumps them into an orange tub. Monica always brings Bloody Finger Cookies.

 

Soup, 53 smell my feet sign

 

A sarcastic message chalked on a board in the garage.

A sarcastic message chalked on a board in the garage.

 

Soup, 57 hat swaying in tree

 

A talented floral designer, Lanae always decorates her home and yard with Halloween themed items—this year witches hats swaying from a tree, strategically placed pumpkins, Halloween signage and more.

Vintage metal trays hold soup samples scooped into Styrofoam cups.

Everything is ready. Vintage metal trays will hold soup samples scooped into Styrofoam cups.

In the backyard, my brother-in-law Dale builds and tends a campfire as guests retreat to talk and laugh and settle in after eating way too much soup and too many sweets.

As the sun sets in southern Minnesota, guests gather on the driveway and in the garage to sample soups and chili.

As the sun sets in southern Minnesota, guests gather on the driveway and in the garage to sample soups and chili.

It’s a memorable evening, an autumn tradition that connects family and friends through good food and conversation. Rarely have I missed Lanae and Dale’s Soup Party.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

American pride on Memorial Day weekend May 25, 2015

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Downtown Waseca, Minnesota, on Memorial Day weekend.

Downtown Waseca, Minnesota, on Memorial Day weekend.

MEMORIAL DAY BRINGS a focused gratefulness for freedom. And nothing is more visually representative of freedom in the U.S. than the American flag.

Another scene from downtown Waseca, on the other side of the street.

Another scene from downtown Waseca, on the other side of the street.

This weekend those flags are flying seemingly everywhere. On front porches, from flag poles and from lamp posts.

Driving eastbound on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and Mankato.

Driving eastbound on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and Mankato.

I feel my national pride swell at the sight of flags flying in communities like Elysian, Waseca and Morristown. On a Saturday trip from Faribault to Belview and back, I noticed the red-white-and-blue adorning homes, businesses, pick-up trucks and even silos. Just outside of Morristown, a couple grilled on their deck, an American flag waving in the wind just inches away.

A business in downtown Belview, Minnesota.

A business in downtown Belview, Minnesota.

I am thankful to live in this country. And grateful to those men and women who died for freedom. Because of them, I am free to express myself through writing and photography. Free.

The American flag on a bag of  Crystal Sugar.

The American flag on a bag of Crystal Sugar.

On Sunday, as I diced rhubarb in my kitchen, I pulled a bag of sugar from the cupboard. And there, at the top of the bag, was printed an American flag. I paused in that moment, remembering the words I’d sung hours earlier at Trinity Lutheran Church, where I am free to worship:

God bless America, Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above…

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“God Bless America” by Irving Berlin

 

Pearl Button Primitives: A gem of a shop in Waseca July 18, 2014

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I’VE SHOPPED COUNTLESS antique shops in my life.

Looking toward the front of Pearl Button Primitives.

Looking toward the front of Pearl Button Primitives.

But never have I seen one as artistically inclined as Pearl Button Primitives in downtown Waseca.

A candy display rack repurposed.

A candy display rack repurposed.

Shopping here is like perusing an art gallery or perhaps a museum curated by someone with an artistic flair.

This setting seems the perfect prompt for a story.

This setting seems the perfect prompt for a story.

I expect that’s because Justine Meyer possesses an educational background in art. It shows in the way she artfully arranges merchandise in snippet scenes that catch the eye.

A backdrop of vintage magazine pages create visual interest.

A backdrop of vintage magazine pages create visual interest.

Afghans and quilts brighten walls. Vintage ads and magazine pages make for unique merchandise backdrops. Rows of 45 rpm vinyl records precisely arranged on a wall appear pop art style. A vintage suitcase holds Carolyn Keene’s The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, Zane Grey’s Nevada and other old books. Plastic magnetic letters—the type my kids once plastered to the front of the fridge—provide a visual pop of color in a chest of drawers. I wonder whether my eldest would appreciate one of the maps splayed across the wall.

The back room.

The back room.

There’s so much to take in here that I really needed more than the 20 minutes I wandered through the shop on a recent Saturday afternoon. But Justine and crew (friends are part of the business, too) were already plucking up merchandise that had been hauled out back for an alley garage sale when I arrived late. They are clearing out, making way for new stuff and promise more such sales. I figured I best not linger too long.

Beautiful pairing of colors.

Beautiful setting just makes me want to scoop up these dishes.

Pearl Button Primitives describes itself as “an eclectic mix of antiques and primitives; featuring vintage jewelry & buttons, linens, architectural salvage, furniture, pottery, and other gathered treasures all lovingly displayed.”

A little quirky, a little scary.

Quirky.

In the tight space of this shop, antiques and collectibles abound. Quirky doll heads with open and shut eyes remind me of my favorite childhood doll.

It takes an artist's eye to pair this coat with this afghan.

It takes an artist’s eye to pair this coat with this afghan. Textures and contrast of color make this work.

Milk bottles and vintage jewelry pins and wash tubs and dainty floral hankies and dishes and a lovely coat and so much more draw my interest.

Symmetry and simplicity makes this display work.

Repetition and simplicity. Perfect.

But it is the artsy displays, the attention to detail, the obvious time and care invested here which most impress me.

There's something about this portrait of a determined, defiant woman with an attitude that I love.

There’s something about this portrait of a determined, defiant woman with an attitude that I love.

This shop makes a memorable imprint. Just like the “Woman with an attitude,” as I’ve dubbed the hands-on-hips woman in a portrait showcased at the front of the store. Love that painting.

The narrow space that connects the front of the shop to the back.

The narrow space that connects the front of the shop to the back.

Love this shop.

FYI: Pearl Button Primitives, 206 N. State Street, Waseca, is open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, but not year-round. Best check before you visit. Click here to reach the shop’s website and here to reach the Facebook page. Phone: 507-461-1648.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How the planned attack on a Waseca school impacts me personally May 2, 2014

HOW DOES ONE BEGIN to write about a school tragedy averted?

That is my challenge as I reflect on the events of the past days in which a 17-year-old Waseca High School student allegedly planned to carry out a Columbine type massacre in his southern Minnesota school.

The school where my youngest sister and a friend teach and which my niece attends. The school I just drove past last Sunday while visiting my other sister in Waseca, a rural community of nearly 10,000 only a half hour drive away.

A 17-page court document outlines the charges against John David LaDue, described in media reports as a normal kid, a good kid. Now he faces multiple charges, including first degree premeditated attempted murder, in a plot to kill his family, a school resources officer and others in his school. (Click here to read the charges against LaDue and a Statement of Probable Cause filed in court documents.)

An arsenal of weapons, bombs and bomb-making equipment were found in his bedroom and a storage locker and a journal documented his plans, according to court records.

This could have been another Columbine, another Virginia Tech, another Sandy Hook, another American school tragedy. And this time it impacts those I love.

I’ve found so often in my life that, until an event touches me personally, I cannot fully understand or comprehend. It is something that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Not this time.

And not in the past: a dear friend’s father murdered; a SWAT team sweeping through my neighborhood in search of a murder weapon in a drug deal gone bad; my son struck by a hit-and-run driver; the frantic middle-of-the-night screams of a woman being assaulted across the street from my home; a frantic young man ringing my doorbell seeking protection from a gang of men in pursuit of him; a brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s niece murdered in a case of domestic violence, the son of a high school classmate and hometown neighbor hunkered down at Virginia Tech during the massacre of 32 there in April of 2007…

Now this.

It would be easy to despair, to wonder what this world is coming to. But I’m going to take my cue from Waseca School Superintendent Thomas Lee, who in a May 1 press conference (click here to read his entire statement) said in part: “We can either believe that this (arrest of John LaDue) occurred as a result of a lucky break or, as I do, choose to believe that God was looking out for all of us.”

Furthermore, Lee continues with these words worthy of reflection:

On another note I respectfully submit that these kind of events that have been happening in schools across this country should be a warning sign to us all. These events are like “canaries in the mines” – an indicator that something is deeply wrong in our culture. These kinds of events are unique to our American culture. They are certainly not found anywhere else in the world, except in very few isolated cases. Why are they unique to our American culture? What is it in our culture that fosters these kind of events? There will be many opinions about this – our obsession with violence, our tv shows and movies, lack of parenting, the prevalence of guns, corporate greed and of course, gridlock in our government. I suggest that these are all symptoms of a significantly degraded culture. We all know that nothing is guaranteed in this life but it is time that we collectively look into the mirror with honesty and integrity – that we ask ourselves how our choices are contributing to this degradation, and determine what we can do individually to stem the downward slide. We need to do everything possible to look out for one another – especially our kids.

The superintendent is spot on correct. Nothing is guaranteed in this life. And we need to look out for one another, especially our kids.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting to Rachael Hanel’s “Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” May 9, 2013

gravedigger coverPICKING UP MINNESOTA WRITER Rachael Hanel’s We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down—Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, I wonder how I can possibly relate to a book focused on death.

But I can, in many ways. I am, like Hanel, a native southern Minnesotan. That is telling. We are a people who tend to keep our emotions in check, even in grief.

Hanel’s association with death begins before age three, when her father, Paul Hager, becomes a gravedigger. Hanel grew up frequenting 20 Waseca area cemeteries under her family’s care. Their business motto, “We’ll be the last ones to let you down,” seems the perfect title for a memoir that is at times light-hearted, but mostly serious.

Imagine summers in a cemetery, flitting among gravestones or reading books while your father digs holes to receive the dead and your mom mows lawn. And imagine the day you understand that names, dates and words on tombstones reveal stories. I expect we all experience that epiphany at some point during our childhoods, realizing the numbers and letters on cold stone represent lives lived. But the daughter of the gravedigger wants more, asking her storytelling mother to share the stories of the deceased.

Hanel cites numerous examples of tragedies in the Waseca area—the September 11, 1959, deaths of seven members of the Zimmerman family whose car was struck by a train and the deaths of Busy Bee Cafe waitress Cheryl Tutttle and her young daughter—in sharing the graveyard stories which existed as a natural part of her childhood.

About two-thirds of the way into her 192-page memoir, Hanel writes:

My family went to wakes like some families went to movies.

Despite that familiarity with death, Hanel and her family find themselves reeling at the unexpected loss of her father to cancer when she is only 15. They know death, but not grief. Therein lies a major component of Hanel’s memoir in her personal struggles with grief and the fracturing of her family upon her father’s death.

This then-teen, who always leaned to the artistic—appreciating art in her childhood home, art in cemeteries, art in the rural Minnesota landscape—turns to words for solace. She seeks books that will tell her how to connect to her dead father. She tames her grief, she says, “by writing words on the page.”

Hanel also relies on her strong Catholic faith. Praying the rosary is her constancy.

Ironically, several years later, after she has married at the young age of 19, Hanel starts a job writing obituaries at the Mankato Free Press. It is the same newspaper where I worked as a news reporter, but never as an obit writer (although I did report on tragic deaths), for nearly two years, long before Hanel’s arrival. Eventually she, too, becomes a reporter there.

It is not that professional commonality, though, or Hanel’s general love of writing or her faith that cause me to feel most connected to this reporter turned author. Rather it is her understanding of small-town Minnesota. And her appreciation for the land. Hanel writes of biking near Elysian as farmers work the fields, upturning the earth for planting.

This gravedigger’s daughter writes:

I breathe in the freshly turned soil and that is all I want to breathe, night and day.

That I understand, from the perspective of a farmer’s, not a gravedigger’s, daughter.

Minnesota author Rachael Hanel. Photo by Steve Pottenger.

Minnesota author Rachael Hanel. Photo by Steve Pottenger.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Two Minnesota businessmen pitch vacuums & flowers for Valentine’s Day via poetry February 12, 2013

VACUUM CLEANERS AND ROSES seem an unlikely pair. But for long-time Waseca businessmen and friends, Rick Morris and Charlie Mathern, pairing the two has become a pre-Valentine’s Day tradition that began some 20 years ago when Rick noticed Charlie had vacuum cleaners on sale.

Rick, owner of Waseca Floral, suggested he pitch flowers and Charlie, owner of Charlie’s Hardware, push vacuums in a joint half-page print ad with this long-standing lead-in:

On Valentine’s Day, Charlie & Rick say—Sweep her off her feet! Vacuum Cleaner?…or Roses?

Then the fun began as each tried to persuade potential customers, via poetry, to choose a vacuum over roses or roses over a vacuum. This year’s ad, published February 5 in The Waseca Area Shopper, features these poems, among others:

Charlie:

Thorny roses? Fussy violets?
Wow her with flowers and you’ll be the pilot

Rick:

Roses are the language of Lust
Vacuums are the prattle of so much dust

Valentine's Day ad 2013

This shows all but the bottom portion of the 2013 print ad.

The back-and-forth bantering continues amid photos of vacuums intermixed with red poetry hearts on the left side of the ad and images of floral arrangements interspersed with poetry hearts on the right.

The valentine ad has always been about vacuums and flowers.

And, clearly, it’s also about fun.

“We just get silly with them (the poems),” says Ann Mathern, Charlie’s wife and the author of Charlie’s vacuum cleaner poetry. “The crazier, the better. I don’t know if we can call this poetry.”

Rick concurs: “I write a couple of lines at a time. It’s not exactly poetry.” He pulls out a blank sheet of paper and, in a few hours or less, pens floral-themed couplets like:

She wants roses, there is no doubt
Give her a vacuum and she may throw you out

Ann, a first grade teacher, meanwhile, sits at her computer and, in about 45 minutes, centers her eight rhyming poems around whatever vacuums Charlie is trying to sell:

Come on—admit it—flowers in a vase
Can’t compete with a Sebo, they’ll never keep pace

Rick Morris, owner of Waseca Floral for 40 years. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, February 2012.

Rick Morris, owner of Waseca Floral for 40 years. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, February 2012.

The poetry/sales competition gets exactly the results Rick and Charlie want—attention, laughter and sales. “People look for it (the ad),” Rick says, and will mention the ad when they purchase Valentine’s Day flowers.

Likewise, down at the hardware store, the ad generates sales. But it also sparks the occasional call from female customers angry about suggesting a vacuum cleaner as a Valentine’s Day gift, Ann Mathern says.

Charlie, who fields those sometimes unhappy calls, explains that the Valentine’s Day ad is all in good fun by mutual agreement with his good friend Rick. Occasionally Rick and Charlie need to remind themselves of that, especially when they read some of the barbed poetry.

Rick:

Flowers are beautiful and oh so sublime
Vacuums are ugly and filled with grime

Charlie:

Your honey might settle for a pretty bouquet
But she’d choose a Hoover if she could have her way

Roses pack coolers for Valentine's Day 2012 in this Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Waseca Floral.

Flowers pack a cooler for Valentine’s Day 2012 in this Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Waseca Floral.

No matter what’s written, Rick and Charlie take it all in good humor. After 30-plus years of friendship and eating breakfast together between 6:30 – 7 every morning except Wednesday (when Rick has bible study) at various Waseca cafes, they know each other well, even sharing the same dry sense of humor, Rick says. Their wives, Ann and Sheila, join them for breakfast on Fridays.

Just like the daily breakfast tradition, Rick expects he’ll continue publishing the joint flowers versus vacuums ad with Charlie as long as the two are in business and he and Ann can keep writing their so-called poetry.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Disclaimer: My sister, Lanae, is a floral designer at Waseca Floral. That did not influence my decision to write this post. I know a great story when I see/hear one.