Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of a long ago challenging Minnesota winter & more March 15, 2019

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I took this photo several years ago on the Minnesota Highway 19 curve just north of Vesta, my southwestern Minnesota hometown. White-out conditions can happen quickly in that wind-swept part of the state. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOME 50 YEARS AGO, getting to school each day during the winter months proved difficult. It was a particularly snowy winter with strong prairie winds drifting snow across and blocking many roadways. I lived a mile from Vesta on a crop and dairy farm. But I lived some 20 miles from the junior high school I attended in Redwood Falls.

In that late 1960s winter to remember, buses stopped driving into the country to pick up students. That pretty much covered everyone from the Vesta area. Nearly all of us lived on farms.

 

A bus I photographed near Morgan, Minnesota, in May 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

If we could get into the cafe in Vesta, we could board a bus that would then travel Minnesota State Highway 19 to our school in Redwood. But getting there took effort and determination. My oldest brother and I climbed onto the John Deere tractor driven by Dad for the ride into town. And just to clarify, that tractor did not have a cab, only a canvas shield of sorts around the seat. And even though girls were banned from wearing pants at school, I slipped a pair of pants on underneath my dress.

I don’t recall additional details of those tractor rides. But I do recall the bus ride to Redwood along a state highway with snowbanks towering well above the bus. Single lanes cut into rock-hard drifts.

And then I recall the reactions of some teachers when all of us Vesta kids arrived two hours late. They were angry and told us so. Really? You try hopping on a tractor in the cold of winter to get to town to catch a bus and then ride another half hour to school. Be thankful we made it to class.

Kids now days certainly don’t face those challenges. And, if they did, they’d be tucked inside a heated tractor cab. More likely a pick-up truck. But Minnesota prairie kids still face canceled rural routes. “Buses on plowed roads only” is not uncommon during the winter in parts of Minnesota. And just yesterday, I read on the KLGR radio website out of Redwood Falls that buses in at least three schools—Lakeview, Echo Charter and, surprisingly, Redwood—would travel on paved roads only.

Muddy gravel roads and flooding can also become a problem as winter transitions toward spring. And right now Minnesota is experiencing plenty of flooding of roadways and streets.

 

The Faribault American Legion and Heritage Place businesses, a block from downtown, are surrounded by flood waters in September 2010. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

And more. In Faribault, the city issued this statement on its Facebook page:

SANDBAGS: The City of Faribault will be providing to city residents sand and bags if, and when, flooding occurs. If sandbags are needed now because of a localized flooding event (like backyard flooding into a door in a walkout basement, for example) contact the Faribault Fire Department at 507-334-8773.

 

A broad view of Wabasso’s Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In the small town of Wabasso (where I attended high school) in my home county of Redwood, the city issued this statement on its Facebook page:

The city of Wabasso recommends turning your sump pump discharge outside. This means either into your yard, the street, or on top of the snow.
The water flowing through the sanitary sewer has been elevated since this afternoon.
When the sewer is overloaded, there is a risk that residents will have sewage back up into their homes.
Please turn your sump pumps to the surface as soon as you are able.

This winter of too much snow and now a too quick snow melt with too much rain is challenging all of us. But eventually conditions will improve. And we can look back and remember the difficult winter of 2019. Like I remember that late 1960s winter of riding the John Deere tractor to catch the school bus.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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First the massive snow, now flooding potential in Minnesota March 13, 2019

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A snow-socked neighborhood in Faribault, photographed on Sunday.

 

AS IF THIS WINTER of excessive snow hasn’t taxed us enough, now Minnesota is dealing with potential flooding. A flood warning is in effect until 8 a.m. Wednesday for my county of Rice, Goodhue County and several counties in Wisconsin. The National Weather Service has also issued a flood watch in other parts of Minnesota.

Expected temps in the 40s, even 50s, coupled with rainfall of several inches and a resulting fast snow melt, set us up for flooding. All of that water must go somewhere.

With the ground still frozen, that water won’t soak into the earth. Where will it go? In cities and small towns, the water should typically run into storm drains. But many are clogged by snow and ice, meaning the water will end up ponding on and flooding streets. And, yes, city crews have been working to open storm drains. But it’s a time-consuming and difficult task.

Many Minnesota riverside communities (like Stillwater and Hastings) have plans in place to sandbag. The Cannon and Straight Rivers run through Faribault. We’ve experienced flooding in the past. Will those rivers flood again? I don’t know.

 

Randy shovels snow from a portion of our house roof during a particularly past snowy winter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Homeowners dealing with massive amounts of snow on their roofs and ice dams (and that includes us) face water leakage issues. Randy has been on our roof thrice this winter to remove snow, including Tuesday afternoon. He worked for hours in the rain to shovel snow, chip at ice dams and run hot water over snowy and icy areas on the roof. The ladder slipped once, with him on it. He rode it down to a lower roof level without falling. Yes, I cajoled/pleaded/begged him not to attempt another climb onto the steep, icy roof. Once he melted the icy section with hot water, he was back up a more stabilized ladder.

 

Ice dams on our house. This is a common problem, especially on older homes like ours. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2019.

Water is leaking under shingles and inside homes. Water is seeping into basements. That likely will get worse. I hope the water prevention system we installed in our basement several years ago continues to work.

This winter is truly challenging all of us. Mentally. Physically. And now in our pocketbooks. I know we’re not alone. Other areas of the country are experiencing similar catastrophic weather. If it wasn’t for the flooding and other water-related issues, I’d embrace the current warm temps.

We are in this together. We’ll get through this. We always do. We just need to get safely through these next several days.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A short drive around Faribault reveals winter’s artistry March 11, 2019

One of the most scenic settings in Faribault–the arched entrance to historic Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, a private college prep school.

 

A MUCH-HYPED WEEKEND winter storm brought more rain than snow to Faribault. Nearly six hours of rainfall followed by about four inches of snow in my southeastern Minnesota community. That’s significantly less than the forecast of up to a foot of the white stuff. For that I am thankful.

 

Randy shovels a path to the grill on the patio because, yes, he still grills in winter.

 

Less snowfall equals less work in clearing heavy wet snow from our driveway and sidewalk and those of our neighbor.

 

 

 

 

The storm also brought spectacular beauty. I awoke early Sunday morning to a winter wonderland of trees layered in white against a backdrop of blue. A blue that only deepened as the morning advanced.

 

 

After brunch, Randy and I took a short drive around town just because it was such a beautiful day with the fresh snow, the blue sky and the sun flooding the landscape with brilliance and a noticeable warmth. We knew any trails in town would prove too icy for safe walking.

 

 

A brief jaunt onto a portion of a slushy/icy/snowdrifted county road reminded us that a drive farther into the countryside would be unwise.

 

A narrow snow-banked sidewalk in southwest Faribault.

 

Driving around town also required a heightened awareness with snow piles blocking visibility at nearly every intersection. Many sidewalks look like trenches.

 

This fairy tale snow house graces the front yard of a home on the corner of Division Street West and Sixth Avenue Southwest.

 

I dodged puddles of melting snow to photograph a snow house along busy Division Street. Traffic passed within feet of me and I hoped I wouldn’t be splashed. I wanted a closer look. But snow and ice prevented me from doing that.

 

The tower of Shumway Hall at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School is stunning no matter the season.

 

All in all, the day proved lovely. Sun shining. Deep blue sky. New snow layering the landscape, transforming winter, for one day, into something artistically beautiful.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When snow piles force you to play chicken March 6, 2019

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I stood in my driveway to show you the height of the snow piled at the end of the drive. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2019.

 

IT’S AKIN TO PLAYING CHICKEN.

That’s the most accurate comparison I can make as we deal with massive snow piles at the ends of driveways and at intersections here in Faribault and throughout Minnesota.

Back out of a snow-banked driveway and you risk hitting a vehicle you may not have seen because of the snow. But even worse, peeking around snow piles at intersections for oncoming traffic.

 

A view of Willow Street, a main arterial street running past my Faribault home. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2019.

 

I live on a corner lot along a heavily-traveled street in Faribault. I am thankful our driveway is on the side street. Most driveways along this arterial route are not. My side street is busy also, serving as a direct route for parents, students and others to get to the Catholic school just blocks away.

I’m surprised I haven’t witnessed a crash at this intersection. I’ve heard vehicles honk warnings. It’s just a matter of time before a collision occurs. That could be serious given the rate at which many vehicles travel. I often wonder at those drivers who exercise no caution when circumstances call for caution.

 

Another snow obscured intersection in Faribault.

 

So what’s the solution? I’d love to see city crews clear the vision-blocking snow piles at the T-intersection by my house. Public safety is at risk. But I also realize crews are overworked and taxed by continual snow removal as storm after storm after winter storm brings record snow to our area. They have done a great job with snow removal during and right after snowfalls.

I’ve observed additional snow clean-up during lulls between snow events. Just last week several blocks around the Catholic school were widened and snow hauled away. I’m OK with that. Those streets needed widening to accommodate on-street parking and room for emergency vehicles.

But my street, a main route through town, could use widening also and removal of vision-blocking snow piles built by city snow removal equipment. Thousands of vehicles, including emergency vehicles, drive this route daily.

For now, drivers continue to nose into the intersection by my house and hope they don’t miss seeing oncoming vehicles.

TELL ME: Are you dealing with vision-blocking snow piles in your community? Have you witnessed or experienced a collision/near-collision because of snow pile issues? What do you suggest as a solution? (Other than fleeing to a warm weather state.)

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beer, conversations & creativity on a winter day in Minnesota March 5, 2019

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

AS I SIPPED my double IPA at Chapel Brewing in Dundas on Sunday afternoon, I snuggled under a fleece throw inside the revamped long ago chapel. I couldn’t shake the brutal cold of the winter day, even inside this cozy, albeit not particularly warm, building. I removed my mittens, keeping my coat zipped over a flannel shirt and hooded sweatshirt.

I perched on a stool next to the wall, next to a window overlooking a snow-covered deck, snow layering locked down tables and chairs. I wondered how many months before the snow melts, before craft beer lovers will sit outdoors on the riverside deck. It’ll be awhile.

For now, they settled for glimpses of spring on a corner TV screen broadcasting a pre-season Twins game. I was in the minority with no interest in baseball. Only a lush flower commercial for Gertens drew my attention and a personal public service announcement of “Hey, look, spring.”

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

They laughed. The mostly men dressed in mostly flannel shirts. Some, like me, kept their stocking caps clamped on their heads. I felt a sense of closeness in this gathering of strangers unknown to Randy and me. There’s something about the craziness of coming out on a bitterly cold March afternoon during a forever winter of too much cold and snow that builds community. We’re all in this together. We’re surviving. We’re trying to make the best of what this winter has handed us.

 

Inside Chapel Brewing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

And then in walked the two guys from Cannon Falls, one dressed in striped bib overalls. I flashed to my farmer dad, who would have celebrated his birthday on Monday. He’s been gone now for nearly 16 years. Dad always wore striped bibs. The stranger’s attire offered me no choice but to comment on his clothing. He’s a farmer, too. Prior to arriving at the brewery, he stopped near Medford to look at a digger dug from the snow by the seller. Now that’s gumption, braving bone-chilling cold to shop for a piece of farm equipment.

 

Kolsch beer served at Chapel Brewing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

The things you learn when you decide to strike up a conversation over a beer. I also learned the bibbed farmer appeared in a campaign commercial for a Minnesota politician. He showed me the clip on his phone.

When another beer drinker overhead me say I grew up in Redwood County near Vesta, he chimed in. He’s familiar with the area, having attended Southwest Minnesota State University in neighboring Marshall back in the 1970s. He knew Vesta then as “the cult town,” a term I’d never heard but which likely traces to a religious sect in my hometown. A Twin Cities area native, he didn’t fit into the ag-oriented college all those decades ago. I also learned he lost his wife a year ago and offered my sympathies.

It amazes me sometimes what I learn by observing, by starting conversations, by reaching out to people. I am, by nature, an introvert. I’d rather listen than talk about myself. But I am, by nature and by educational and professional backgrounds, curious. I notice details. I observe. And by observing and caring about others’ stories, I discover connections that spark my creativity. Even in the depth of a long Minnesota winter.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: Snow art with a message March 4, 2019

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I APPRECIATE MINNESOTANS who see the possibilities in snow. Like Faribault resident Kurt Klett, who crafted a snow sculpture in his front yard at 417 Second Street Northwest.

 

 

It’s not the first time he’s done so and not just for the fun of it. Klett has a cause—to raise awareness about multiple sclerosis. He has the disease.

I first noticed his Irish-themed duck sculpture on Sunday morning. Maybe it’s been there awhile. I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Klett has taken the time to create this snow art. All art holds meaning to its creator and to those who view it. That’s the beauty and joy of the creative process.

 

 

Whether raising awareness or telling a story or portraying beauty or whatever, art is powerful. In the depths of an incredibly long Minnesota winter of too much snow and too much cold, I applaud the efforts of creatives like Klett. He intentionally chose to create outdoor public art in a season when many of us would rather tuck ourselves indoors waiting for spring.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The long Minnesota winter February 26, 2019

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I stood in our driveway to show you the height of the snow piled at the end of the drive, on both sides. The stop sign on the street corner is barely visible from this perspective. Backing out of the driveway and pulling onto the roadway require caution as snow piles block vision lines.

 

I’VE COMPLAINED A LOT about winter recently. Both here and in conversation. I’m not alone. Ask almost any Minnesotan (except my friend Jackie) if they are weary of winter and the answer will be a resounding yes.

 

Clearing snow is a seemingly endless task. Here Randy works to clear the sidewalk.

 

The record-breaking snow of February pushed us all to that brink of winter weariness. The endless snow removal, plans canceled by weather, difficult driving conditions, schools closed, brutal temps and winds, and much more combine to make this a challenging winter.

 

A view of Willow Street, an arterial street running past our Faribault home.

 

We need a break. Not everyone has the ability, financial or otherwise, to escape to a warmer place.

 

Another view of the snow piled at the end of our driveway.

 

If I was 50 years younger, my attitude likely would differ. As a child, I embraced winter on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, playing for endless hours atop mountainous, rock-hard snowdrifts and racing across towering snow piles. Sledding and skating. And in between, farm chores, which were finger-numbing cold in winter. Not fun, really, but necessary for our financial survival.

 

The narrow snow banked pathway to our front door.

 

Randy finally decided just to leave the ladder outside, leaning here against the garage. He’s been on the garage and house roofs twice to shovel off the snow.

 

Time warp to today, to adulthood. Snow no longer represents fun. It represents work. Randy has handled the bulk of snow removal using our ancient (I term it Noah’s ark) snowblower. But some shoveling still needs to be done in areas like the roof, front steps and walk.

 

You can barely see Randy’s head over the snow piled at the end of our sidewalk.

 

Shoveling the snow wall built by the city snowplow at the end of the sidewalk.

 

And when the snowplow pushes snow into the end of the sidewalk or driveway, the snow often needs to be sliced apart for the snowblower to chomp through the snow wall. Randy and I sometimes work in tandem on that task, me working the shovel.

 

Finally, through the snow wall and moving down the sidewalk.

 

The snow piles have reached such a height now that when Randy blows the snow, it won’t even go over the tops of some snow mounds.

 

The sidewalk past our house cleared of snow Sunday afternoon.

 

On Sunday afternoon I grabbed my Canon DSLR and shot some images of my neighborhood, including our home, to try and give you a perspective on the height of the snow. All the while I did this, I remained cognizant of ice. The last thing I need is to slip and break another bone.

 

Another look at my neighborhood Sunday afternoon, February 24, 2019.

 

I’d say enjoy the photos. But that seems a ridiculous statement. Rather, appreciate the documentation of what has been an especially notable and memorable winter in southern Minnesota.

 

FOR ANOTHER photo view of snow in southeastern Minnesota, click here to see images from my friend Greg at Almost Iowa. He’s an incredible writer with a great sense of humor. He lives in the country near the Minnesota-Iowa border.

Then click here to view photos by my friend Jackie from Rochester. She’s the Jackie referenced in my opening paragraph. Jackie loves winter. I mean really really loves winter. She’s a talented photographer and does a great job of documenting the blizzard in Rochester, one of the hardest hit areas.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling