Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Main Street Wabasso, home of the White Rabbit April 25, 2012

The Roadhouse Bar & Grill is a popular gathering and dining spot in Wabasso. During the summer, old car enthusiasts and motorcyclists gather here for Tuesday evening "Roll-ins" that draw up to 1,000 people. There's plenty of outdoor seating on a sprawling patio where a hamburger bar is set up for the popular event. The Grill also offers an extensive burger and sandwich menu with reasonable prices.

WITH A HALF HOUR wait before we could be seated at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill in Wabasso on a recent Saturday evening, I hit the sidewalk determined to photograph the Main Street of this small southwestern Minnesota town where I attended high school.

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso, which means white rabbit.

I have, through the decades, discovered minimal familiarity among most Minnesotans with Wabasso, a Redwood County farming community of around 650 that links to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”

Longfellow writes in his section on the Four Winds:

“Honor be to Mudjekeewis!”
Cried the warriors, cried the old men,
When he came in triumph homeward
With the sacred Belt of Wampum,
From the regions of the North-Wind,
From the kingdom of Wabasso,
From the land of the White Rabbit.

I’ve always been told that Wabasso is an Indian word meaning “white rabbit.” I never learned of the poetic connection until researching on my own; English teachers at Wabasso High never taught this, that I recall. I doubt many of the locals are aware of Longfellow’s reference.

Wabasso is decidedly proud of its white rabbit namesake, though. You’ll find an oversized rabbit statue along State Highway 68 on the south side of town. The public school mascot is, of course, a white rabbit. And, as I found, even local businesses support the Rabbits via storefront signage.

Wabasso’s downtown business district is typical rural Minnesota with a mix of well-kept and deteriorating buildings that border a broad street. Attempts to modernize once stately brick buildings with wood and metal fail and make you wish for a money bag of gold to restore such structures to their original grandeur.

But for now, in this economy, one must choose to appreciate the imperfections of Main Street as adding character to a community like Wabasso, home of the white rabbit.

A broad view of a block along Wabasso's Main Street on a recent Saturday evening.

Wabasso is a strong agricultural-based community. The outgoing Future Farmers of America Minnesota State President Hillary Kletscher (my niece) graduated from Wabasso High School in 2011.

A sign supporting the high school sports team hangs in a salon window.

Wabasso is fortunate enough to still have a grocery store.

Signage in the window of Salfer's Food Center.

My WHS class of 1974 classmate Marcis owns this combination floral shop and hair salon along Main Street. Marcy was also waiting tables at the Roadhouse the Saturday evening I was in town.

Wabasso is fortunate to also still have a post office, unlike more and more rural communities in Minnesota.

THE PHOTOS IN THIS POST are similar in content to those printed in the just-published spring issue of Minnesota Moments magazine. Photographer Ryan Ware of Chaska and I contributed 16 images from 14 small towns to a photo essay titled “Touring Main Street in Small Town, Minnesota.” The essay is only a small sampling of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of images we have taken of small towns and rural areas. Both natives of southwestern Minnesota, Ryan and I share a passion for photography that connects us to our rural roots. I would encourage you to check out Ryan’s photos at his Fleeting Farms blog by clicking here.

CLICK HERE to reach the Minnesota Moments website.

CLICK HERE for more information about the Roadhouse Bar & Grill.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Wabasso.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reunion stories: A rabbit tale and a tale of murder August 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:23 AM
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THIS WEEKEND my husband, Randy, and I attended mini high school class reunions, albeit impromptu ones.

On Saturday afternoon I met a Wabasso High School graduate while touring Betsy’s house in Mankato. That would be Betsy Ray, as in Maud Hart Lovelace’s main character in her Betsy-Tacy books. Betsy is Maud, who really did live in the restored Center Street house now owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society.

But back to that reunion. Penny, our tour guide, asked where I grew up and I responded, “between Redwood Falls and Marshall” since few people have ever heard of my hometown, Vesta.

Imagine my surprise when Penny says she graduated from Wabasso High School, about 20 miles from my hometown.

“I graduated from Wabasso High School too.”

That led to a bit of reminiscing between me, a 1974 grad, and Penny, a 1964 WHS graduate. Because of our 10-year age span, we didn’t know each other during our school days. Yet, we share that common bond of attending the small-town high school with the white rabbit mascot.

“Another white rabbit,” Penny says several times. Just as an explanation, the town’s name originated in an Indian legend about the creation of the earth. Wabasso, a son of the mighty creator of nations, fled north and was changed into a white rabbit. He was considered a great spirit. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even writes about Wabasso in his The Song of Hiawatha poem.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso.

But I digress. Penny and I enjoyed our new-found white rabbit connection and our shared love for the Betsy-Tacy books. And then we discovered one more link. Penny taught German at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. I attended the college and, at one time, intended to major in German.

Now, flash forward to Sunday afternoon, when Randy and I are at a reunion of The Trinity King’s softball team. It’s been a day of remembering root beer barrels (the team drink), belly bumps (exactly what you think) and an injured leg splinted with softball bats.

Then Jane and Larry show up. Larry subbed a few times with the team, so we never really knew him. But as the conversation ebbs and flows, we learn that Jane graduated in 1969 from Pierz Healy High School, Randy’s alma mater. Randy graduated in 1974 with Jane’s sister, Nancy.

Soon the two are tossing out family names and memories with the ease of those who grew up in the same geographical area.

Then I mention the murder. One day after classes, a school librarian used his necktie to strangle a student in the audio-visual room. Jane tells us her brother was working in the adjoining room at the time of the late 1960s murder, but heard nothing.

Revelation of this horrendous crime to outsiders always draws the same reaction—stunned disbelief. How could this happen in a school? But it did.

As the Pierz Healy High School graduates continue to discuss other common topics, I wonder: What happened to the murderer/librarian? Is he out of prison? Is he still alive?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling