Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A bit like the Dust Bowl inside my house June 1, 2022

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I’d encourage you to read this book about The Dust Bowl. It’s riveting and informative, filled with stories.

I AM A THROW the windows open, let fresh air flow into my house kind of person. I dislike stuffiness, feeling closed in by lack of air movement. Randy sometimes calls me “Ida.” He’s referencing my paternal grandmother, who slept with her bedroom window cracked, even in the winter. While I don’t do that, I’ve opened windows on cool-ish days. Hey, I gotta get some fresh air in the house.

Monday was one of those days when I should have kept the windows clamped shut. Why? Because of the wind. Fierce, strong, relentless winds blew all day, even blowing in destructive storms and tornadoes into parts of central Minnesota. And while we avoided that here in Faribault, our lawn is littered with maple leaves, small branches and twigs.

At one point Monday afternoon, Randy and I launched from our lawnchairs upon hearing a loud crack. We convened with our next door neighbor, attempting to determine what cracked and fell in the woods behind our homes. But we couldn’t determine the source in the denseness of greenery and felt thankful a tree or limb did not land on our houses and garages. The woods are littered with dead trees and broken branches from a 2018 tornado. That storm cut a destructive path through our neighborhood with trees falling on vehicles, roadways, houses, garages and, for us, the electrical wire and meter ripped off our house.

I digress. On Memorial Day, winds whipped all day. And our windows were open. Wide open. I should have known better. But, at the time, I was thinking only of keeping the house cool without switching on the air. I’m all about conserving energy and saving money because, you know, everything costs so darned much these days.

By evening meal prep, I realized just how dirty the house had gotten. Grit layered the kitchen counters, the table, the floors, the… I had no desire or energy to clean beyond swiping a rag across surfaces to reveal a line of dirt.

Heavy duty cleaning awaited me Tuesday morning. I spent hours washing surfaces and floors, spraying a layer of visible dirt from the bathtub, vacuuming. I could have prevented this, if only I’d kept the windows closed.

I should have, could have, learned from my Grandma Ida. Over the weekend, I was reading the Kletscher family history compiled by my Uncle Merlin. He included this story:

My family lived through the very dry years of the 30s commonly referred to as The Dust Bowl years. I recall my mother telling how she could wipe off the table in the morning after breakfast and by noon it would be covered with dirt and dust blown into the house by the dry winds. I always wondered why she had the habit of covering everything that was setting out on the table or counter with a dish towel. I also recall my father telling about gathering wind blown tumbleweed from the fence lines so they could have feed for the livestock. He felt sorry for the animals but that was all they could find for feed.

From my own childhood, I recall a Good Friday dust storm which layered our rural southwestern Minnesota farmhouse with dirt. Mom left the windows open a crack before we accompanied her on a shopping trip to nearby Marshall. A dust storm swept through while we were gone. We spent hours thereafter wiping, sweeping and vacuuming dirt from the house, just like I did on Tuesday.

I have not yet finished cleaning following the wild winds of Memorial Day 2022. I have the second level to vacuum and wipe down. But compared to those Minnesotans who lost homes, vehicles and more to tornadoes, a little (OK, a lot) of dirt seems like nothing.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring planting in Minnesota & why I care May 25, 2022

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Seed source, rural Elgin, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

THE 2022 PLANTING SEASON has proven exceedingly challenging for Minnesota farmers. A late spring with unseasonably cold temps, coupled with too much rain, has delayed seeding of corn and soybeans.

A picturesque farm site in southern Minnesota, field in the foreground. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Some areas of our state have experienced widespread flooding, creating muddy conditions and lakes. Not exactly what farmers need in May. To add to that, destructive storms damaged or destroyed farm buildings and equipment, especially in the western region of Minnesota.

Soil type and topography (here on a hillside) affect tilling and planting, along with the biggest factor, weather. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Corn planting data from the United States Department of Agriculture (updated every Monday) shows below average planting progress throughout the Midwest, West and in some states east of Illinois. In Minnesota, only 60 percent of the corn was planted as of May 23. That compares to 98 percent last year and a 5-year average of 86 percent. That puts into perspective the 2022 planting delays.

Equipment, outside a farm outbuilding, ready for spring field work. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Yet, if you farm, you realize a stretch of good weather can quickly change everything for the good. Time will tell how this all plays out.

Following farm equipment on Minnesota State Highway 60. This is a common sight in spring which requires patience and caution by motorists. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I find it interesting that, nearly 50 years removed from the farm, I still pay attention to spring planting, and, later, harvest. I have friends who farm. But, more than that, farming is part of my history, part of who I am, even as an adult decades distanced from living on the land. I am proud of my rural heritage. It shaped me. It grew me. I see that rural influence in my writing, my photography, in the places I value and, I suppose, even in the way I live my life.

A well-kept barn in southern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I am, and always shall be, honored to call myself a farm girl.

Another common sight on Minnesota roadways in the spring–a farmer hauling liquid manure to spread on fields. Not really anything you want to follow and I was thankful when the tractor turned. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

HOW ABOUT YOU? Did place shape you? I’d like to hear.

NOTE: I took these photos on May 14 in Goodhue, Olmsted, Rice and Wabasha counties in southeastern Minnesota. All images were taken through the passenger side windshield or side window while traveling on the roadway.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota weather talk about this non-spring of 2022 April 28, 2022

At the confluence of the Straight and Cannon Rivers in Faribault, the landscape appears more autumn than spring-like. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

MINNESOTANS LOVE to talk weather. And for good reason. Weather shapes our lives—what we do on any given day, how we feel, where we go…

At the April 23 Earth Day Celebration in Northfield, moody grey skies clouded the day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

And right now, when we should be in the throes of spring, we Minnesotans feel like we’re stuck in winter. It’s been an unseasonably cold and rainy April that has truly dampened spirits. We want, OK, need, sunshine and warmth after too many months of winter. That said, I really shouldn’t complain. Up North, snow still layers the ground and ice 20 inches thick freezes some lakes.

Treetops riverside against a grey sky in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)
Autumns leaves remain, not yet replaced by spring growth. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)
Devoid of color, the dock and river at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

Yet, no matter where you live in Minnesota, day after day after day of grey skies coupled with low temps in the 20s and 30s takes a psychological toll. I should be wearing a spring jacket rather than a winter coat. My tulips should be blooming. Heck, the dandelions should be pushing through neighbors’ lawns. Trees should be budding green.

I spotted clam shells among dried leaves in the river bottom at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

Instead, the overall landscape appears, well, pretty darned drab.

Canadian geese swim where the Straight and Cannon Rivers meet in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

But, last Saturday we experienced a one-day reprieve of unseasonable warmth with the temp soaring to nearly 80 degrees. Typical high this time of year is around 60 degrees. It was a get-outside day. Don’t-waste-a-moment-indoors day. So Randy and I didn’t. We attended the Earth Day Celebration in Northfield, enjoyed craft beer at Chapel Brewing along the banks of the Cannon River in Dundas, walked a section of the Straight River Trail in Faribault and later followed part of the trail along the Cannon in North Alexander Park. Strong winds factored into every facet of our time outdoors, though.

An angler makes his way toward the Cannon River in shirt-sleeve weather on April 23. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

But, oh, how glorious to walk in warmth.

I zoomed in on this fungi high in a tree along the recreational trail in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

This feeling of remaining stuck in perpetual winter will end. I need to remind myself of that…even as the forecast for more rain and unseasonably cold temps (highs in the 40s) prevails.

TELL ME: What’s the weather like where you live?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Edging toward spring in Minnesota, sort of March 28, 2022

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Biking at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, on March 19. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

GIVE MINNESOTANS A STRING of warm March days like we experienced briefly around the official first day of spring, and we’ll pop out of hibernation in full force.

Note that as I write this, though, snow globe snowflakes descend, layering the landscape and reminding us that, even if the calendar shows spring, in reality it is not. Temps are back into the 30s and 40s after those few days of 50s and 60s, topping 70 degrees.

During that brief hiatus from winter, I observed lots of people out and about while I was out and about. Walkers. Bikers. Babies in strollers. Kids playing in yards. A teen on a hoverboard. And a teen on a skateboard.

Warm weather multiplies the number of motorcycles on the road, too, as they roar out of storage. Note that some bikers ride even in winter, although not during snowfalls.

On that Monday of 70 degrees, I hung laundry on the line and then threw open windows to air out the house. Within minutes of opening windows, the street sweeper crept by, spinning dust clouds. I raced to close street-side windows.

Spring will come. As a life-long Minnesotan, I realize that. It’s just that as I age, winter seems longer. And colder.

TELL ME: Has spring arrived where you live? How do you define spring’s arrival?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Squiggles in the sky February 3, 2022

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Squiggles in the morning sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2022)

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, on a brutally cold Minnesota winter morning when tires on roadways sound like boots crunching glass, when breathing in outdoor air almost hurts, when brilliant sunshine deceives, I noticed a strange sight in the sky. An endless skinny squiggle.

Alarmed, I wondered at the contrail resembling the attempts of a preschooler free-styling the letter “S.” Was this thin white line revealing an out-of-control aircraft about to crash? It’s interesting where the mind wanders when knowledge lacks. I will be the first to admit I don’t understand much about airplanes. I still don’t understand the physics of flight, not that I’ve even tried to educate myself. It simply does not interest me.

An edited version of the original photo to better show the squiggles. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2022)

With questions racing through my mind, I grabbed my camera to document the scene through my front picture window. Yes, utility wires and dirty glass distracted, but I held no desire to step into the frigid cold to take photos.

Upon discussing the skinny squiggles with Randy many hours later, he suggested the cold, stillness and other “just right” atmospheric weather conditions caused those skinny contrail squiggles. Right? Wrong? What do you think (or know)? I’m listening.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New date for Valley Grove’s Donut Hole Roast January 6, 2022

The gated entry to Valley Grove, rural Nerstrand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Due to extreme cold temps, the first-ever Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast at an historic Minnesota country church grounds has been rescheduled for the second time.

The event at Valley Grove churches is, as of today (Thursday), slated for 2 – 4 pm Saturday, January 8. Weather forecasters predict a temp of around 30 degrees, much warmer than our recent weather. Saturday will also be warmer than the predicted three degrees on Sunday, the first rescheduled date.

If you attend the Saturday gathering in the parking lot of this rural Nerstrand hilltop setting, dress warm. Even 30 degrees can feel cold if the slightest wind blows and you’re not dressed properly. That includes wearing warm winter boots. Organizers also encourage guests to bring blankets, chairs and hot beverages. If you have snowshoes and want to walk the prairie, bring that footwear.

Whether you attend the bonfire and roast or not, I encourage you to visit the Valley Grove website to learn more about these Norwegian churches on the National Register of Historic Places. Valley Grove rates as one of my favorite area rural destinations. It’s a peaceful, quiet and beautiful place with a strong sense of history and heritage.

On bitterly cold January days like today I respect the hardiness of those early Norwegian settlers who endured much to make a new home in America, in rural Rice County. This morning when I shoveled snow from my driveway and sidewalk, I three times returned to the house to warm myself. Even wearing long johns under jeans, a heavy parka over my clothes, boots, a hat, mittens and a scarf wrapped around my neck and face, my fingers and toes began to numb. That’s a warning sign that, if ignored, could lead to frostbite.

So here I am, inside my cozy office, fleece throw tossed across my lap, thankful for the warmth of the overworked furnace. Thankful to have finished that shoveling in, according to the local radio station, a wind chill temp of -31 degrees. No wonder I felt cold.

When the Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast happens on Saturday, the temp will feel some 60 degrees warmer.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So, yeah, it’s cold here in Minnesota January 2, 2022

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Frost on the window pane against the backdrop screen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited & copyrighted photo January 2022)

I CONSIDERED THIS QUESTION: How can I convey just how cold the weather in Minnesota right now via a photo, without stepping outside?

Ah, not so difficult after all.

I headed upstairs to photograph frost layering a bedroom window. Our second level is undeniably cold with only one air duct opening to two bedrooms. Factor in that the duct runs along an exterior wall and the heat which actually reaches the upper story is minimal. That does not provide for a warm and inviting space for guests. But such is the reality of this old house.

This afternoon I found the warmest spot to be in the kitchen—standing next to a heat vent under the south window, bright sunlight streaming into the room. The sunshine can almost fool me in to thinking it’s nice outside.

I thought momentarily about stepping outdoors, but opted not to do so given the current outdoor temp of four degrees. As cold as that may sound to some of you, consider Ada in the northwestern part of Minnesota. That small town broke a January 2 record from 1892, recording a low today of -39 degrees. I have friends who live near that Norman County community. On New Year’s Eve, my friend texted that the air temp was -17 degrees and falling with wind chills in the -40 to -50 degrees range. Now that’s cold. Their family was hunkering indoors and playing board games.

Our entire state has been in either wind chill warnings or advisories. Exposed flesh can freeze within 10 minutes in temps as cold as we’ve experienced in the past several days.

But change is coming. Monday and Tuesday temps are expected to reach into the 20s and possibly 30s. Downright balmy. Comparatively speaking.

TELL ME: What’s the temp like where you live?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bonfires blazing, donut holes toasting December 30, 2021

The Valley Grove churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2021)

UPDATE #2: 1:45 pm Thursday, January 6, 2022. The Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast has been rescheduled for the second time due to cold weather. It’s now set for 2-4 pm Saturday, January 8.

UPDATE #1: 1 pm Friday, December 31, 2021. The Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast has been postponed and rescheduled for 2-4 pm Sunday, January 9, due to the drop in temperatures.

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, an unusual invite landed in my email in-box. The invitation came from the Valley Grove Preservation Society. The board, tasked with overseeing two historic Norwegian churches near Nerstrand, is hosting a Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast from 2-4 pm Sunday, January 2.

Now, I’ve never heard of a Donut Hole Roast. But I could easily warm up to the idea since I like donuts. Plus, warming by a bonfire sounds especially wonderful given our current brutally cold weather here in southern Minnesota.

Come Sunday, temps could struggle to reach double digits for highs from morning lows of well below zero. Wind will also likely factor in to comfort levels. Wind chill warnings are probable. Translate: It will feel much colder than the thermometer reads. Plan accordingly so as not to experience frostbite while outdoors.

A sweeping view of the land surrounding Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2018)

The good folks at Valley Grove promise bonfires ablaze for warming and for toasting donut holes. Still, the two churches, on the National Register of Historic Places, sit atop a hill where the wind whips.

Those attending are advised to dress warm. Bring blankets and warm beverages. Wear winter boots. If you want to sit, bring a chair. And, if you plan to explore the prairie, pack your snowshoes.

The 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church adjoin the church cemetery surrounded by 50 acres of prairie and an oak savanna restoration project. It’s a lovely place, which Randy and I have visited often. But never in the deep cold of winter. We’ve walked the church and cemetery grounds. Attended events here. Picnicked on the 1894 church steps. I love the peacefulness of this spot in rural Rice County near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I love, too, the history, the natural beauty, the art, the sacredness…

A woman demonstrated the art of baking the Norwegian treat Krumkake, available for sampling at a past Fall Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2018)

Typically, Valley Grove hosts an annual Fall Country Social and a Candlelight Christmas Eve Service. But those events were canceled this year and last due to COVID-19.

Now those who care about these aged churches, the land and the Norwegian heritage are trying something new to bring people safely together. To celebrate the new year. With donut holes toasting over bonfires blazing. Dress warm if you plan to attend.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wild December weather in Minnesota December 16, 2021

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Tornado trees” in the Cannon River Wilderness Area Park, used here for illustration only. These trees were damaged in a September 2018 tornado. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

UPDATE: December 21, 2021 11:36 AM The National Weather Service has now confirmed at least 16 tornado touchdowns in Minnesota on December 15.

THE WEATHER OF WEDNESDAY broke December records in Minnesota in warmth, wind and tornadoes. It proved an unsettling day. And evening. And night.

Around 7:30 pm, emergency warning sirens blared in Faribault as a severe thunderstorm rolled through the region. Randy and I sheltered in the basement with our cell phones, flashlights at the ready, and radio tuned to an Owatonna station. We’ve experienced severe weather before. A September 2018 tornado raced through our neighborhood (and other parts of Faribault and beyond), uprooting trees, damaging vehicles and buildings. Winds ripped a power line and conduit from our house then, dropping the line across our driveway. Evidence of that storm remains in a “tornado tree” still standing in the wooded hillside directly behind our garage.

As we waited in the basement Wednesday evening, I braced for the same roaring of the storm, the plunge into darkness. But that never happened, much to my relief. The roaring would come later.

FIRST-EVER LIKELY TORNADOES

Other parts of Minnesota, though, got hit hard. A tornado reportedly touched down in the small town of Hartland 45 minutes to the south of Faribault just off Interstate 35. And an hour to the southeast in the community of Plainview, another twister reportedly struck. If confirmed by the National Weather Service, these will be the first-ever recorded tornadoes in Minnesota in December.

FORCEFUL WINDS

Strong winds also defined Wednesday’s weather with speeds reaching nearly 80 mph in some places, according to multiple media reports. Those high wind reports came from cities like Redwood Falls (my home area) in southwestern Minnesota and Rochester in southeastern Minnesota. Here in Faribault, the wind speed likely reached some 60 mph. That proved unsettling for me as I crawled into bed and heard an intense roar. At first I thought the sound was a train. But it didn’t take long for Randy and me to realize this was the wind. A look through the blinds revealed swaying treetops and our neighbor’s row of evergreens dancing in the strong winds. After viewing that and with the ongoing roar, sleep didn’t come quite as quickly.

Along Interstate 35 just to the south by Owatonna, winds toppled a semi shortly after midnight. The same happened in other locations throughout southern Minnesota.

DENSE FOG

Earlier in the day, we felt the strengthening of the wind as we drove from Belview back home to Faribault. Many hours earlier, fog factored in to our travel. Dense fog. Horrible, awful fog. We thought of turning back. But Randy insisted on continuing, understanding the importance of visiting my mom, probably for the last time, in her long-term care center. I questioned the sensibility of his decision. But we made it the 120 miles safely to Belview. Then back. Despite the dangerous driving conditions, worsened by the failure of too many drivers to switch on their headlights. The farther west we drove, the higher the number of vehicles without lights. West of Redwoods Falls, a semi sat in the ditch along State Highway 19. The driver apparently blew a stop sign on a county road, crossing 19, our route. The semi could have easily T-boned a vehicle in the dense fog along this well-traveled roadway. But that didn’t happen.

Many prayed for our safe travels and, as a woman of faith, I feel gratitude for those prayers. Before leaving the Belview care center, the hospice chaplain prayed for “travel mercies” upon us, a new-to-me phrase recently shared by a dear friend. I love that phrase. It sounds so poetically beautiful and so deeply personal.

The weather of Wednesday also brought warmth. Our temperature monitor showed 62 degrees. Unbelievably warm for December in Minnesota. This morning, the temp is in the 20s with occasional snow bursts. I see no damage from yesterday’s high winds in my neighborhood. Even the “tornado tree” still stands on the wooded hillside. I expect sleep will come more easily tonight.

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TELL ME: I welcome your weather reports from Wednesday and today. Please share in the comments section.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

After the snowstorm in Faribault December 11, 2021

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Randy guides the snowblower down our driveway Saturday morning. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

OUR FIRST MAJOR winter storm of the season dropped about 10 inches of snow in Faribault Friday into the early morning hours of Saturday. But other areas got more. Much more. Double in Woodbury and parts of the metro. Like Lakeville and Eagan.

Each shovel serves a different purpose. The rusty one on the left is used to scrape close to the surface. The scoop shovel works great for tossing snow. And the wide plastic shovel, right, pushes snow. (Minnesota Prairie Roost copyrighted photo December 2021)

Saturday morning I grabbed a cup of coffee, ate a bowl of cereal and then headed outside to help Randy with snow removal. I focus on the places he can’t reach with the snowblower. Like the steps. And around the garage. And then I do clean-up, scraping away residual snow.

A close-up of Randy clearing the driveway with our ancient snowblower. Across the street, our neighbor blows his sidewalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

As I stepped outdoors to a world of white, the sound of scraping shovels and of snowblowers broke any post-storm quiet. Everywhere I looked, neighbors were hard at work clearing sidewalks and driveways of snow.

The sidewalk past our house, cleared of snow. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

There’s something comforting in seeing an entire neighborhood working separately, yet together, on a common mission. To dig out after a snowstorm.

Snowy evergreen boughs. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

I paused, too, to appreciate the beauty of the snow. Layering my neighbor’s evergreen trees.

Seed heads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Topping dried seed heads in my yard. Filling the woods.

Heading into downtown Faribault after lunch Saturday. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Snow pushed into a pile in the parking lot of Ace Hardware. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
City snow removal crews push the snow into the middle of the street near Erickson Furniture before complete removal later. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Saturday unfolded into a day of blue skies and bright sunshine. Sun intense enough to melt snow from roads and other surfaces. That makes it far easier to get around. Friday evening Randy’s drive home from work along snow-packed Minnesota State Highway 3 took 45 minutes rather than the usual 22 minutes. I felt such relief when he finally pulled into the garage.

The snowy scene along Fourth Street Saturday afternoon. Note that Family Video closed several months ago. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Lots of snowplows were out and about. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)
Near the historic Brunswick Hotel building, approaching Buckham Memorial Library, along Central Avenue. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo December 2021)

Last Saturday, our landscape was devoid of snow as we celebrated Winterfest here in Faribault. What a difference seven days can make.

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NOTE: My heart hurts for all those affected by the deadly and devastating tornadoes in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky. That storm makes our major winter storm here in Minnesota seem only a minor inconvenience.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling