Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My beautiful niece on her wedding day September 9, 2014

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Carlyn and Jared leave the church in the early evening, showered with birdseed.

Showered with birdseed, Carlyn and Jared leave the church in the gorgeous early evening light of a perfect September day.

IT’S SO CLICHE to say that the bride was radiant. But no other word seems fitting for my niece, Carlyn, so in love with her now-husband, Jared, her high school sweetheart whom she married on Saturday at English Lutheran Church in Walnut Grove.

Just a historical note here. The English Lutheran church bell dates back to the late 1800s, when Charles Ingalls, the father of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, donated monies toward its purchase.

Lots and lots of birdseed tossed.

Lots and lots of birdseed tossed at the newlyweds.

The bridal couple, family and guests walked below that bell Saturday before witnessing a beautiful ceremony celebrating faith and family and the beginning of a new life together.

Look at how happy they are...

Look at how happy they are…that loving look Jared is giving his new bride.

Carlyn cried more than any bride I’ve ever seen. Cried walking down the aisle. Cried during the ceremony. Cried when she hugged her parents. So much emotion overwhelming her.

That look, oh, that look on the new groom's face...

That look, oh, that look on the new groom’s face after the ceremony.

And I thought how fortunate she is to live only blocks from her parents, to work side-by-side with her mother in a family-owned daycare. Likewise, Jared works with his father on their nearby farm.

Instead of signing their names in a guestbook, guests signed the leaves on this tree.

Instead of signing their names in a guestbook, guests signed the leaves on this tree.

These newlyweds will be surrounded by those who have loved and nurtured and cared for them their entire lives.

I watched as kids wove freely among adults on the church grounds and at the reception in the Westbrook Community Center. Small town carefree. Connected. Something you wouldn’t see at a wedding reception in a larger community.

Jared and Carlyn await their introduction and entry into the reception hall.

Jared and Carlyn await their introduction and entry into the reception hall.

On one end of the reception venue, kids tossed a toy football back and forth. A boy rumbled a toy truck across the floor. Preschool boys splashed in the drinking fountain.

And in between it all, adults laughed and conversed and danced to the beat of polkas, country line dances, 70s tunes that I once sang as a member of the Wabasso High School choir and more.

As my husband and I passed below street lights outside the community center, past the impressive corner veterans’ memorial and the old brick implement dealership where the bride’s dad (my eldest brother) worked before a new facility was built on the edge of town, I considered what a perfect day it had been. September weather at its best. My mom recovered enough to attend the wedding and reception. And love. Radiant.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Tough tilling in Minnesota farm fields November 9, 2011

A farmer works the field recently in this scene shot in southeastern Minnesota.

HAVE YOU TRIED DIGGING into the ground lately? Takes some effort, doesn’t it? This soil in Minnesota rates as rock hard right now given the lack of moisture.

I’m hesitant to admit it, but I don’t think about soil conditions and moisture nearly as much as I once did, when I was not so long-removed from the farm.

But last week when a carpenter, who is also a farmer, was working on a project at my house, we chatted briefly about crops, soil conditions and weather.

Kenny shared how fall tillage has been especially trying this year. Farmers in his area around Owatonna in southeastern Minnesota have been breaking implement parts with all-too-often frequency in the dry, hard earth. He mentioned shanks, which he claims never break.

Some parts are in short supply, Kenny says, meaning farmers sometimes need to wait. That’s not a good thing when you’re trying to finish fall tillage before the snow flies.

Friends of mine who farm near Dundas finally halted all tillage work for the season, leaving some 300 acres, of 700, untilled. The rock hard dry soil proved too difficult to work and too tough on their equipment.

IN SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA, my brother Doug Kletscher, the parts manager at Westbrook Ag Power in Westbrook, confirms that tillage is tough there, too, and farmers are going through the parts. “We ran out of ripper points and they have been back-ordered for a good month. I have heard of a few farmers that have pulled their rippers in half,” Doug says. “We have sold at least five years’ worth of chisel plow spikes in one year. Bolts have also been in very high demand.”

On the flip, positive side, farmers haven’t had to deal with mud, Doug reports, and the corn has been very dry with 14 percent or less moisture content (a significant cost savings on corn drying).

However, farmers are facing another issue related to moisture-depleted conditions. “The fertilizer companies are not putting on any anhydrous as it is too dry to hold the anhydrous in the ground,” my brother continues. “Anhydrous needs moisture to adhere to keep it in the ground; also it (the soil) is pulling so hard that they would break their anhydrous bars.”

Doug reports the last rain over a half inch fell on July 14 with .78 inch. Since then any rainfall has been .10 inch or less. That makes for extremely dry soil conditions for farmers trying to prep the soil for next spring’s planting season.

LIKEWISE, IF YOU’RE a gardener, digging vegetables has been anything but easy this autumn. Take my friend Virgil Luehrs, who lives along Cedar Lake west of Faribault. Unearthing potatoes proved tough, he says. But then he got to the carrots:

“First I tried the garden spade, then a round-point shovel and then a tiling shovel. I had to dig a trench beside the rows to loosen the soil around the carrots to get them loose enough to pull out.  Finally I resorted to a pick to loosen the soil and that was easier but still a lot more work than normal.”

Tilling the garden, even with a powerful Troybuilt rear tine tiller, proved equally challenging. “I could not get down deep enough,” Virgil reports. “Hopefully next spring.”

When Virgil talks soil and weather, I listen. He’s not just your average Minnesota gardener. He’s also a retired high school science teacher with a Masters in biology, a former interim and assistant director at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, and a volunteer rain gauge reader for the Rice County Soil Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the state Climatology Lab.

In other words, he’s a knowledgeable resource.

So then, exactly how much rainfall has Virgil recorded at his Cedar Lake home (where the lake water level is the lowest in 20 years, but not as low as in the drought years of 1988- 1990). Thus far since April, Virgil has taken these rain gauge readings:

April:  3.14”

May:  4.63”

June:  5.26”

August:  1.38”

September:  1.00”

October:  .58”

TOTAL during the past six months: 15.99”

Says Virgil: “This year we had a much wetter spring and that probably helped to carry us through the dry fall. Recall that last fall we had record rainfalls.”

His 2010 readings were as follows:

April:  1.35”

May:  2.75”

June:  4.76”

July:  5.49”

August:  3.91”

September:  9.13”

October:  1.91”

TOTAL during those six months: 29.3”

According to information Virgil passed along from State Climatologist James Zandlo and University of Minnesota Climatology/Meteorology Professor Dr. Mark Seeley, 2010 was the wettest year in Minnesota modern climate record. The 34.10-inch state average precipitation total was roughly 8 inches more than the historical average.

But here we are in November 2011, desperately short of moisture.

What will winter bring here in Minnesota? A continued shortage of precipitation? Or more snow than we care to shovel?

WHAT’S YOUR PREDICITON for snowfall in Minnesota this season? Submit a comment with a forecast and the reasoning behind your prediction.

IF YOU’RE A FARMER, an implement dealer or a gardener, have you faced any special challenges this year due to dry (or other) weather conditions? Submit a comment. I’d like to hear, whether you live in Minnesota or elsewhere.

CLICK HERE to link to climate.umn.edu for detailed statistics and information about Minnesota weather.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflections, in words and photos, upon graduation June 10, 2010

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A soon-to-be graduate walks down the hallway of Westbrook Walnut Grove High School one last time.

ALL ACROSS THIS COUNTRY, family, friends and faculty gather in hot, stuffy gymnasiums or auditoriums to celebrate high school and college graduations.

The honored students perch on hard folding chairs, fidgeting, sweating in their caps and gowns, some crying, others smiling, most simply wishing the ceremony over.

Speakers speak of friendships and memories, of lessons learned and lessons yet to be learned, of the past and of the future.

Mothers wipe away tears. Cameras flash. Applause rings out and choirs sing.

And then the graduates march, down the aisle, tassels swaying, smiles wide, into the waiting arms of those who love them enough to let them go.

My niece, Carlyn, left, and a classmate prior to graduation from Westbrook Walnut Grove High School.

Graduation gowns await graduates at WWG High School.

The guys hang out one last time before graduation ceremonies at WWG High School.

Family, friends and faculty gather in the WWG gym for graduation ceremonies.

A family member videotapes the WWG High School graduation ceremony Sunday afternoon in Westbrook.

WWG students await their diplomas.

A long line of family and friends forms to greet WWG graduates with flowers and hugs.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Embracing diversity in small-town Minnesota June 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:21 PM
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THREE DECADES AGO, maybe even two decades ago, you never would have seen this in rural southwestern Minnesota.

But of the 54 seniors graduating from Westbrook Walnut Grove High School on Sunday afternoon, 15 students were Asian. That’s remarkable in an area originally settled by primarily Scandinavians and Germans.

Seeing those dark-haired, dark-eyed graduates with olive-toned skin among students with fairer complexions struck me more than any single aspect of the WWG high school graduation ceremony.

Hearing surnames like Yang and Vang among Jensen, Erickson and Schweim, simply put, pleased my ears.

Demographics on the Minnesota prairie certainly have changed in the 36 years since I graduated from nearby Wabasso High School. In my class of 89, all of us were Caucasian. Our only cultural exposure came through the foreign exchange students who attended our school.

Thankfully, that has changed, at least in some rural Minnesota communities like Walnut Grove and Westbrook. Walnut Grove, childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, is home to many Hmong families and boasts a Hmong grocery store. Jobs, primarily in nearby Marshall, and affordable housing apparently drew these immigrants to this rural area.

For young people like my blonde German-Norwegian niece, who graduated with the WWG class of 2010, cultural diversity has always been a natural part of life.

As I sat in the WWG gymnasium Sunday afternoon contemplating this, I watched a Hmong man across the aisle from me videotaping the ceremony. I wondered about his background. Had he fled a war-torn country? What had he endured? Did he feel accepted here? Was this the first generation of his family to graduate from high school? Did he miss his homeland?

A Hmong man videotapes the Westbrook Walnut Grove High School graduation ceremony Sunday afternoo.

Later, when slides of the graduates flashed upon a big screen at the front of the auditorium, I noticed several photos of students in traditional Hmong attire. They are a people proud of their heritage.

When I listened to the WWG High School Choir sing “We Are the World,” I appreciated the appropriateness of the song and pondered how this mixed ethnic group really is the future of our world.

I don’t know how the folks of Westbrook and Walnut Grove welcomed the Hmong. I expect initial adjustments were not always easy for long-time residents or for the newcomers. I expect there are still occasional clashes.

In Faribault, where I live, we still have much to learn as Somali, Sudanese and Hispanic people integrate into the community. Certainly, strides have been taken to bridge differences through efforts like those of the Faribault Diversity Coalition.

But I’ve heard all too many derogatory remarks about minority populations—about the Somali men who hang out on downtown sidewalks, about the Hispanics involved in drug crimes, about the gangs, even about the bright green color painted on a Mexican bakery (which, at the urging of some local businessmen, has since been repainted a subtler green to better fit the historic downtown).

Perhaps if we had, like the WWG class of 2010, grown up together, we would be more accepting of each other.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling