Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Park art August 8, 2017

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THE POSTCARD STYLE MURAL pops color in to the mini shelterhouse at Lions Park in Waterville.

But it’s more than that. The painting by Kimberly Baerg also provides a snapshot glimpse of this southeastern Minnesota resort and farming community.

 

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Examine the details and you will see a tractor, a canoe, a buggy, a train. All important in the history of this town.

 

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This mini mural is an example of how a little artistic ingenuity, effort and paint can transform an otherwise plain cement block wall in to a canvas that promotes a place, shares history and pops with community pride.

Well done, Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A place of peace for the faithful in Waterville September 30, 2016

 

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I AM NOT of the Catholic faith.

 

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Still I appreciate the strong, artistic visuals that hold great symbolism for those who are Catholic.

 

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On a recent visit to Waterville, I discovered the grotto at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. While there’s no comparison to the renowned Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, this southern Minnesota grotto is worth appreciating.

 

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Here, in this farming community, field stones were harvested and crafted into a religious shrine in 1929 that honors Christ, Mary and the archangel Michael. One can only imagine the labor and love invested in creating this quiet space of prayer and peace.

 

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Nearly 90 years later, this parish still cares for this place. Plants ring the shrine. Stones remain secure. And in 1992, the walls and floors were constructed and a time capsule installed.

 

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Faithful devotion endures through the generations at Holy Trinity Grotto in Waterville. I see that in this shrine.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Up on the housetop in Waterville September 29, 2016

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THERE ARE VIKINGS fans and then there are Vikings fans.

 

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When I spotted this ginormous Vikings helmet atop a roof recently in Waterville, just a half block off Main Street, I thought it marked a bar. Waterville seems to have a sizable number of drinking establishments.

But, upon closer inspection, I determined this building is a residence.

There’s a story here.

What story would you spin from these photo prompts?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The place to be on a fall Friday evening in Waterville September 28, 2016

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VISIT THE HOMEPAGE of the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown School District and you’ll see team sports photos front and center.

 

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Sports are big in these southern Minnesota communities, as they are in most small towns.

 

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WEM is the home of the Buccaneers, a fitting mascot for Waterville situated on two lakes. Resorts, campgrounds and cabins ring the lakes, drawing locals and vacationers to Sakatah and Tetonka lakes and the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail.

 

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But on Friday evenings in the fall, it’s football that brings folks into town to cheer on the champion Buccaneers. Nine seems to be the team’s good luck number with state championships claimed in 1989, 1999 and 2009.

 

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I’ve never attended a football game here, but my husband did years ago when his alma mater, Healy High School, played here. He remembers an uneven playing surface and muck.

 

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Last week, when heavy rain fell and flooded this area of southern Minnesota, the Buccaneers moved their game against Le Sueur-Henderson to neighboring New Prague. But that didn’t deter them. Pirates are, after all, transient, extremely resourceful and not easily intimidated away from their home turf. They defeated the Giants 38-14.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A picture story from small town Minnesota September 27, 2016

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SMALL TOWNS SOMETIMES present images of time standing still.

 

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History lingers.

 

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The past writes in to the future.

 

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Long-time grassroots businesses maintain a presence, some strong, others struggling against the consumer pull to regional shopping centers, to discount and chain stores.

 

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Watering holes still lure in the locals with icy beer and plenty of BS, enough to crank up the town rumor mill.

 

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Signs of change creep in. An aging populace. Technology. New needs.

 

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But always the community webs together, lines interconnecting those who call this place, this small town, home.

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(All of these images were taken recently along two side streets and an alley off Main Street in Waterville, Minnesota.)

FYI: Please click here to read my first post from Waterville. And check back for more photos from this southern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In appreciation of the Sunday afternoon drive: Snapshots from Main Street Waterville September 26, 2016

A recent street scene from small town Waterville, Minnesota.

A man and his dog in a recent street scene from small town Waterville, Minnesota.

SOME MIGHT LAUGH. Others may consider it an activity for old fogies. But I don’t care. I appreciate the Sunday afternoon drive. We all should.

I grew up with the occasional Sunday afternoon drive as a rare diversion from southwestern Minnesota farm life. My siblings and I would pile into the Chevy, Dad behind the wheel, Mom in the front passenger seat. My farmer father would steer the car along rugged township gravel roads, tires kicking a trail of dust. His drive had purpose, focus—to look at the crops.

Today I still study farm fields. But not with the same assessing eye as my dad. My livelihood doesn’t depend on yields from the land.

Still, those semi-leisurely drives taught me something important. They taught me the value of looking and truly seeing, of noticing the details. And they taught me the value of going for a drive.

In the past several years, since we became empty nesters, my husband and I have taken to Sunday (or Saturday) afternoon drives like moths to porch lights. We choose a general direction we want to travel and just go.

A snippet of Waterville's Main Street, including Ron's Hardware, jam-packed with merchandise.

A snippet of Waterville’s Main Street, including Ron’s Hardware Hank, jam-packed with merchandise. You have to see this place to believe it.

A Labor Day drive took us west to the small towns of Elysian and Waterville. We’ve explored both before. But, still there were new details awaiting discovery. I like nothing better than to park the van along the Main Street of a rural community and then walk, camera in hand, documenting the nuances that define a place.

Waterville is the self-proclaimed Bullhead Capitol of the World and celebrates Bullhead Days every June.

Waterville is the self-proclaimed Bullhead Capital of the World and celebrates Bullhead Days every June.

On this day, it was Waterville.

Bullheads Bar & Grill, one of several bars in Waterville.

This low-slung building along Main Street houses Bullhead’s Bar & Grill, one of several bars in Waterville. The name pays tribute to the bullhead, a fish abundant in area lakes.

The food sounds enticing and the prices really reasonable.

The food sounds enticing and the prices reasonable. If I hadn’t just eaten a Sticky Burger (burger with peanut butter and bacon) at Tucker’s Tavern in Elysian…

I appreciate vintage signage like this spotted on a downtown building.

I appreciate vintage signage like this spotted on a downtown building.

Madden's Orchard occupies this corner building next to a community park.

Madden’s Orchard occupies this corner building next to a community park.

And next to the mini park sits this mini building, which is for sale. I peered inside to see a popcorn machine, making this a former popcorn stand.

And next to the mini park sits this mini building, which is for sale. I peered inside to see a popcorn machine, making this a former popcorn stand. What possibilities could you see for this building besides reopening a popcorn stand?

Signage always catches my eyes, especially the vintage signs I often find in small towns.

Signage always catches my eyes, especially the vintage signs I often find in small towns.

Some lovely aged buildings occupy downtown Waterville. This one, left, houses a law office.

Many aged buildings occupy downtown Waterville. This one, left, houses a law office.

I love this simple, bold graphic marking The Cafe.

I love this simple, bold graphic marking The Cafe.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop anchors the corner building next to JC Ryan's Art Gallery. The coffee shop, which I blogged about four years ago, is available for lease. It's named after the

Singing Hills Coffee Shop anchors the corner building next to JC Ryan’s Art Gallery. The coffee shop, which I blogged about four years ago, is available for lease. It’s an inviting shop named after the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, a recreational trail that runs through town from Faribault to Mankato. Waterville is a popular southeastern Minnesota lakeside resort community.

I had a maple bacon sundae when I visited the coffee shop in September 2016. It was closed when I was there this year and, I believe, is closed for the season.

I had a maple bacon sundae when I visited the coffee shop in September 2014. It was closed when I was there this year and, I believe, is closed for the season.

Just walking the dog...

Just walking the dog in downtown Waterville…

You can learn a lot about a small town simply by reading the posters, signs and notices on storefront windows and doors.

You can learn a lot about a small town simply by reading the posters, signs and notices on storefront windows and doors.

TELL ME: Do you take Sunday afternoon drives? If so, why? If not, why not?

FYI: Check back for more photos from Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Camp counselors July 24, 2015

Portrait #32: Counselors at Camp Omega, rural Waterville, Minnesota

Camp Omega counselors at July Fourth North Morristown celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013

Camp Omega counselors at July Fourth North Morristown celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013

They are the faces of enthusiasm, of adventure, of leadership, energy and a passion for the outdoors. They are summer camp counselors in Minnesota. Friends, surrogate moms/dads, teachers—they are all of these and none of these. They are young people. Who care.

I never had the opportunity to attend summer camp while growing up—there was no money for such extras. But my younger siblings did. When I had children of my own, I determined they would go to summer bible camp no matter the financial sacrifice.

My girls, from kindergarten age on, every summer, went to Camp Omega near Waterville. The first time I sent my eldest away for a weekend, I wondered how I would make it through camp. Me. Not her. I survived her absence and she thrived in the serene setting of woods and water in the care of faith-focused counselors.

Amber loved Camp Omega so much that she eventually volunteered there during high school and then worked two summers as a counselor. The friendships she forged and the confidence and faith-growth she experienced were immeasurable.

Some things cannot be taught by parents at home. Some must be learned in a canoe, in a raucous competition, on a climbing wall, around a campfire roasting marshmallows, in a circle of new friends with a counselor strumming a guitar, in the top bunk of a lumpy bed with whispers in the dark and the brush of branches against roof.

Mosquito bites and sunburn. Raccoon eyes and bounce of a flashlight. Rousting out of bed and falling asleep exhausted from a day of running and screaming and breathing in all that fresh air.

Camp. Counselors. Summertime in Minnesota.

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Minnesota Faces is a series featured nearly every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The little brick house in Waterville September 14, 2012

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YOUR HOUSE NEEDN’T BE a mansion to impress me.

Just look at this sweet little brick house along Main Street in downtown Waterville.

I’ve never seen a house sandwiched like this, wall-to-wall, between two buildings and tucked into a totally unexpected place.

The owner ducked out of the scene just before I shot this single photo. She loves her home, she said, and that was about it. I didn’t want to overstay my “Can I take a picture of your house?” welcome since she clearly was entertaining guests.

But I really wanted to walk around the fence, right up the brick path and through the front door, just so I could see if the little brick house is as quaint inside as it is outside. And how dark, or light, is it inside that house anyway?

I counted at least four benches where I could sit a spell and chat. Maybe ask about that horse by the fence, the bear bench by the brick wall, how this house came to be, if patrons from the neighboring Corner Bar and Main Street Lounge ever cause problems. You know, stuff like that.

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FYI: This ends, for now, my stories from Waterville. To read my first post about this southern Minnesota lakeside community, click here.

To read my second post about a quaint coffee shop, which also serves as a place for local artisans to sell their creations, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A maple bacon sundae & other delights at a Waterville coffee shop September 13, 2012

Singing Hills Coffee Shop, at the corner of Main and Third Streets in downtown Waterville in southern Minnesota.

KATHY GREW UP in Detroit, worked 20 years as a deck officer on a freighter for the Merchant Marine, met her husband at a Halloween party, birthed two daughters in her 40s and then, with no business experience, opened a coffee shop in December 2010.

That’s the life synopsis of the woman behind Singing Hills Coffee Shop in the southern Minnesota lakeside community of Waterville, best known for its bullheads and Buccaneers—as in the local high school champion football and basketball teams.

Inviting outside dining at the Singing Hills Coffee Shop.

One-third of a stately, anchor brick building on a corner of Waterville’s Main Street houses the coffee shop. It’s as inviting on the outside—with bistro tables and a bench and window baskets popping with hot pink petunias and luscious ivy spilling from pots—as it is inside.

The bright, cozy dining area of the coffee shop with local arts and crafts displayed on shelves to the right and on walls.

Kathy’s daughter, Marina, waits on customers.

On an early Sunday afternoon, 45 minutes before the 2 p.m. closing, Kathy hustles to prepare sandwiches and ice cream treats while her 10-year-old daughter, Marina (yes, her name is a nod to Kathy’s time on the water), takes orders, accepts payment and makes change.

Kathy hurries back to the kitchen to prepare orders while customer and friend, Kari, relaxes in a back coffee shop corner. Tim Foster’s “American lures” painting (oil paint, oil pastels and graphite on canvas) anchors the wall. It was inspired, he says, by old fishing lures. Kathy would like to purchase the $450 painting as a permanent installment in her shop. I suggested she collect tips to help her buy it. Foster sells his mostly abstract and surreal paintings through his website and studio, at Hogan Brothers in Northfield and via art shows. Kathy saw “American lures” at the 2012 Sakatah Arts Experience in Waterville and invited Foster to bring his painting to her coffee shop.

In a comfy corner chair, Kathy’s friend, Kari, is reading her bible, seeking comfort at the recent, unexpected loss of her 36-year-old cousin. Light floods the homey space warmed by walls the hue of honey on two sides and a contrasting robin’s egg blue on the other.

A printed sign on a slim spot between two towering windows reads:

Conduct Code—Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat other people the way you want to be treated!

Owatonna resident John Muellerleile’s fine art photography on display and for sale.

Kathy welcomes customers and artists here, into this corner haven in a town that thrives on summer-time business from resort guests, cabin dwellers and users of the recreational Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail.

Her customers come here for the ever-popular smoothies and the favorite turkey avocado sandwich, for the coffee and the espressos and other beverages, for the breakfast and soup and sandwiches and salads and baked goods and ice cream treats.

On this Sunday, my husband and I have driven 15 miles for an ice cream treat upon the recommendation of our friend, Joy, who raves about the maple bacon sundae.

As Randy places our order with Marina, I chat with Kari in the corner, take photos and admire a focal point, 6-foot by 4-foot oil painting by Tim Foster of Northfield. His fish-themed art piece, titled “American lures,” is “so Watervillian,” Kathy tells me later, fitting this lakeside town which celebrates bullheads at an annual June festival. There’s a deeper meaning to the painting in which words like “love” and “prove it” and “Federal Reserve Bank” are hidden, Kathy says, but we don’t get into details.

An example of the handcrafted work of local artisans for sale in the coffee shop.

Kathy works with the nonprofit Waterville Local Cooperative Outlet to provide a marketplace for some 8-10 local artisans and crafters. Their creations—from woodcrafts to crocheted caps, paintings, photos and more—are displayed on walls and on shelves through-out the coffee shop.

Donald Kelm of Waterville, a custom woodworker, created this mug.

Engaging the arts community exemplifies Kathy’s efforts at community development. That extends to the food aspect of her business, too. She wanted, she says, more dining options than bar food burgers and fries for the town she and her family now call home. And Kathy offers that with a sandwich menu which doesn’t include a single burger. The closest thing to fries are the chips accompanying sandwich orders.

On her sandwich menu, you’ll find choices like egg salad on a croissant; veggie wrap with hummus, provolone, red onion, red pepper and spinach; and cherrywood smoke ham with garlic cheddar, tomato and mustard sauce. You can build your own sandwich, order a cup of soup.

Hungry for a bakery treat? Kathy has selections from cupcakes to pie to traditional Upper Peninsula style pasties, a tribute to her native Michigan.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop’s delicious maple bacon sundae.

But, on this Sunday, I’ve come only to sample the maple bacon sundae with spicy maple-glazed pecans, homemade maple caramel and bacon, yes, bacon, on vanilla ice cream. My husband questions my choice. I don’t, and find the sweet and salty mix a perfect complement to the ice cream. I’d give the maple bacon sundae a five-star recommendation.

An equally tasty blueberry sundae.

My less daring spouse orders a blueberry sundae and is equally pleased with his selection.

These two boys came with their moms, and a sister of one, for ice cream treats. The boy on the right told the boy on the left that he had a mustache. Then I told the boy on the right that he had an ice cream mustache, too.

A retired couple who spend their summers at a Waterville resort rave about the sandwiches while two moms ordering ice cream for themselves and their kids endorse the ice cream.

Kathy, though, admits that business growth was slow during her first year and that she’s still learning, given her inexperience as a businesswoman. With summer winding down, she’s cutting back on hours. Singing Hills Coffee Shop is closed now on Mondays and Tuesdays, but open from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday and from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Sunday.

On October 14, the coffee shop will close for the season and then reopen in mid-April.

So, if you want to try that maple bacon sundae…

FYI: For more information about Singing Hills Coffee Shop in Waterville, click here to reach the shop’s website.

To learn more about the arts scene in Waterville, specifically the annual Sakatah Arts Experience, click here.

For more info about Northfield artist T. Andrew Foster, click here to visit his Creative Space Art Studio website. 

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Sunday afternoon drive to Waterville, Minnesota, Bullhead Capital of the World September 12, 2012

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Main Street Waterville, Minnesota, on a Sunday afternoon in September.

THE THING ABOUT SMALL TOWNS is this. They’re not boring cookie cutter places with chain stores and look-alike subdivision houses occupying space in the middle of nowhere. I know, I know, you likely disagree about that “boring and middle of nowhere” if you live in a sizable city.

But these small towns possess individuality and character. And by small town, I mean a community of 5,000 or fewer residents. Just want to be clear on the definition.

Exploring small towns is something I enjoy, probably because I grew up on a dairy and crop farm near Vesta, current population around 330 or so, among the corn and soybean fields of southwestern Minnesota.

I’m intrigued by these communities which are most often ignored as simply, sigh, another place to slow us down as we rush from one destination to the next. I’m as guilty as the next traveler in feeling that way.

But sometimes I intentionally slow down. In recent years my husband and I have embraced Sunday afternoon drives, not unlike the Sunday drives of my youth. Dad would guide the family car along the washboard gravel roads of Redwood County, sometimes venturing into neighboring Yellow Medicine County, so we could look at the crops.

While Randy and I sometimes take gravel roads, our ultimate destination is typically Main Street.  We meander to a nearby small town, park our vehicle, get out and walk. It is then that we discover the quirks, the character, the feeling of community and closeness which define a given town.

Our most recent Sunday jaunt took us to Waterville, only 15 miles from Faribault. I’ve been into this lakeside town of nearly 1,900 perhaps half a dozen times, just to drive through it, tour Ron’s Hardware (a story in itself, but it was closed the Sunday we were there), enjoy an ice cream treat and, many years ago, to grab a burger and beer at the Corner Bar.

Mostly, though, Waterville has been a town my family zips past along Minnesota Highway 60 en route west. By doing that, I’ve missed out, missed out on the defining details. And the easiest way to notice those details, when Main Street businesses are mostly closed on a Sunday, is to check out the signage.

Welcome to Waterville, Minnesota, Bullhead Capital of the World, where signs hint at this community’s individuality and character.

CHECK BACK FOR A FUTURE post featuring one of Waterville’s newest businesses.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling