Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road along Wisconsin Highway 21 April 21, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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TRAVELING THE 100 MILES or so between Tomah and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, can get downright tedious.

My husband and I have driven that stretch of narrow Wisconsin State Highway 21 numerous times in the past three years en route to and from Appleton, where our second eldest daughter lives.

With lots of small towns to filter through—and you know how much I appreciate small towns, unless I’m on a schedule, which we typically are—and a roadway that rates as heavily traveled and usually impossible to pass slow moving vehicles, this section of the trip is often taxing.

So we divert ourselves by trying to appreciate the sites around us, although not always pleasant. The shoulders and ditches of Highway 21 are often littered with deer carcases. Better a dead deer than one walking/running into the path of our van.

Sometimes we play a game, seeing how many dead deer we can spot. Yes, I know. Whatever works to pass the time.

I typically rest my camera in my lap, too, ready to capture whatever I find intriguing, in other words potential blog material.

My single Wisconsin Amish photo during our most recent trip shows and Amish buggy in a farmyard and an Amish teen standing next to a small outbuilding.

My single Wisconsin Amish photo during our most recent trip shows an Amish buggy in a farmyard and an Amish teen standing next to a small outbuilding.

Typically I am on shutter button alert around the Coloma area, home to many Amish.

But anything out of the ordinary can cause me to raise my camera and shoot.

Photographed just east of Coloma.

Photographed just east of Coloma.

How often do you see a pink semi cab?

The weaving truck in Wautoma.

The weaving truck, right, in Wautoma.

Or a truck with boats aboard weaving through traffic in Wautoma like some some speed boat on an area lake?

I really should have photographed the crazy multi-lane roundabouts near Oshkosh. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation seems to fancy these traffic intersectors with more than 200 constructed in the state, many in the Fox Valley area where we travel. In contrast, Minnesota has about 120.

While I understand how roundabouts enhance safety, that does not make them any less scary, especially during rush hour. Suffice to say, you best know which lane you need to be in, something not in the knowledge bank of out-of-state drivers like us encountering a particular roundabout for the first time.

In summary, though Highway 21 proves a long drive through central Wisconsin, I manage to keep it semi interesting by scouting for blog material.

FYI: These photos were shot during a March trip, thus the snow you see in some of the images. Check back for additional posts this week from that visit to eastern Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


On the road in Wisconsin: Duo country churches near Shennington October 20, 2013

NUMEROUS TIMES I’VE PHOTOGRAPHED these side-by-side country churches along Wisconsin State Highway 21 just west of Shennington:

Photographed while driving by in the winter of 2010.

Photographed while driving by in the winter of 2010.

Photographed while traveling by in the spring of 2011.

Photographed while traveling by in the spring of 2011.

Another shot of the two churches taken in spring 2011.

Another shot of the two churches taken in spring 2011.

Several months later, in December 2011, I snapped this image.

Several months later, in December 2011, I snapped this image.

My most recent photo, shot on Sunday afternoon, October 13, 2013.

My most recent photo, shot on Sunday afternoon, October 13, 2013.

Beautiful, aren’t they? St. John’s and St. Peter’s Lutheran. German and Danish.

Not once have I stopped to investigate why two houses of worship, seemingly from the same time period, are separated only by a cement parking lot.

I should stop, shouldn’t I?

For now, though, I must rely on information published on Waymarking.com. Because that info is copyrighted, you’ll need to click here to read what I learned.

Every place has a story.

If you know anything about these two churches, please submit a comment so that we can all learn more. I’m certain there are stories to be told.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Minnesota prairie native discovers a ship docked in the Wisconsin woods January 26, 2012

I GREW UP on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, a mostly flat land vertically-interrupted only by small-town grain elevators and water towers, by silos and groves of trees hugging farm sites.

I never felt hemmed in. How could I feel confined under an endless sky in a land that stretches into forever, nearly unbroken before your eyes?

Perhaps that will help you understand why I sometimes struggle with trees. I’m not talking a tree here, a tree there, but trees packed so tight that they become a forest. Dense. Black. Blocking views. I need to, have to, see the land spreading wide before me if I’m exposed for too long to miles of thick woods.

Likewise, I prefer my land flat.

All of that said, time and age and exposure to geography beyond the prairie have resolved some of those space and landscape issues for me. I can, within limits, appreciate terrain that rolls and rises, trees that clump into more than a shelter belt around a farmhouse.

I can appreciate, too, geological anomalies like Ship Rock, a natural formation jutting out of seemingly nowhere from the trees that crowd State Highway 21 in Adams County near Coloma in central Wisconsin.

Ship Rock is located next to Wisconsin Highway 21 in the central part of the state.

Whenever I pass by Ship Rock, which has been numerous times since my second daughter moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, in December 2010, I am awestruck by this isolated pinnacle of Cambrian sandstone. Finally, this past summer, my husband, teenaged son and I stopped to climb around the base of the rock cropping and to photograph it (me mostly photographing rather than climbing).

Ship Rock rises from the flat landscape, a surprise in the Wisconsin woods.

My husband walks across the rocks below the looming Ship Rock.

If you can ignore the distracting graffiti, then you can appreciate the nuances of the mottled stone, the ferns that tuck into crevices, the surprise of this Ship Rock docked in the most unexpected of places. The rock formation truly does resemble a ship.

I am surprised by the ferns that grow in the tight spaces between rocks.

Grass sweeps between rocks in this August 2011 image taken at Ship Rock.

A month ago while traveling past Ship Rock, I snapped a photo. The ship seemed forlorn and exposed among the deciduous trees stripped of their summer greenery. Yet she also appeared threatening, a looming presence rising dark and foreboding above the land awash in snow.

I could appreciate her, even if she wasn’t a grain elevator or a water tower, a silo or a cluster of trees breaking a prairie vista.

Ship Rock, photographed from the passenger window of our van at highway speeds in December.

CLICK HERE for more information about Adams County, Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Preserving central Wisconsin’s rural heritage via on-the-road photography January 5, 2012

Each time I see this Wisconsin barn, I think of the biblical story of Joseph's coat of many colors.

ON OUR FOURTH TRIP through central Wisconsin in a year along the same route—Interstate 90 to Interstate 94 in Tomah then on Wisconsin Highway 21 to Oshkosh, up U.S. Highway 41 to Appleton—I’m getting to know the Dairyland state from her western to near eastern borders.

She’s a beautiful state of rolling hills, flat marsh land, stands of packed pencil-thin pines, too many towns whose names end in “ville,” infinite piles of stacked firewood, cranberry bogs and potato patches, muskrat mounds, cheese stores, Packers fans, small-town bars and barns—oh, the barns that I love to photograph.

One of my favorite barns along Wisconsin Highway 21 because of the stone walls.

As I’ve done on every 600-mile round trip to and from our second daughter’s Appleton home, I capture the scenery via on-the-road photography, meaning I photograph through the passenger side window or windshield of our vehicle at highway speeds. Sometimes I manage to snap a well-composed image. Other times I fail to lift my camera, compose and click in time and miss the photo op.

Journey after journey, I find my eyes drawn to the many old barns that are so much a part of Wisconsin’s landscape and heritage. And mine. Only in Minnesota.

I’ve seen every type of barn, from the well-preserved to the crumbling, pieced-together-with-tin structure. I know that any barn, once left to fall into a rotting pile of boards, will never be replaced by an equally grand structure.

A pieced together weathered barn blends into the gray landscape on a dreary winter afternoon.

A once grand barn shows the first signs of falling into disrepair.

The occasional white barn pops up among the characteristically red barns.

Majestic barns, rising sturdy and proud above the land, are seldom crafted anymore. Instead, mundane metal rectangles sprawl, without any character or beauty, across the landscape. Such structures hold no artistic, but only practical, value on the farm.

Via my barn photography, I am documenting for future generations a way of life—the family farm—which, in many places, has already vanished.

If my photos inspire you to appreciate barns and rural life and the land and our agricultural heritage and the men and women who work the soil and their importance in this great country of ours, then I will have passed along to you something of great worth.

An especially picturesque farm site along Wisconsin Highway 21.

The muted blue-grey of this old farmhouse blends seamlessly with the dreamy landscape on a snowy New Year's Day afternoon in central Wisconsin.

Contrasted against snow, red barns are particularly visually appealing.

NOTE: The above photos were taken on December 30, 2011, and January 1, 2012, along Wisconsin Highway 21 in the central part of the state primarily between Wautoma and Oshkosh.

I have applied a canvas style editing technique to most of the images, creating a quality that is more painting than photo.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Bottled apple pie and Amish butter in Tomah November 2, 2011

UP UNTIL SUNDAY, Tomah, Wisconsin, meant little to me except as the half-way point between my home 2 ½ hours away in southeastern Minnesota and my daughter Miranda’s home 2 ½ hours away in eastern Wisconsin.

Located near the intersection of Interstates 90 and 94, this town of around 10,000 has been the ideal place to stop and stretch before jumping onto two-lane, wood-edged Wisconsin State Highway 21 which runs through umpteen mostly tiny towns all the way to Oshkosh. Not that I have an issue with small towns and woods and such. But if you want to make time and avoid deer, this highway is not the one to take.

Sorry, I got sidetracked there for a minute thinking of the long stretches of woods without a home in sight, miles and miles without cell phone service, cranberry bogs hugging the roadway, dead muskrats and dead deer.

Oh, and one other tidbit you should know about Highway 21. Amish travel this narrow and busy state highway. In their buggies. Day or night. And especially on Sundays.

But back to Tomah, which, by the way, also happens to have a fabulous cheese shop, Humbird Cheese, conveniently positioned right off I-94 at its intersection with Highway 21.

Humbird Cheese, a popular tourist stop at Tomah, Wisconsin.

On Sunday, I wasn’t looking for a cheese shop, but rather a place where my husband and I could meet our daughter and her friend Gerardo for lunch and a car swap. That’s how we ended up at Burnstad’s European Restaurant, Village and Pub. I found information about this shopping and eating complex online and determined it would be the ideal place to connect. If one or the other of us had to wait, we’d have something to do.

Burnstad’s, as it turns out, offers plenty of time-killing shopping options. I was most happy to see Amish products sold here as I am fascinated by the Amish. Not that I bought anything Amish, like a log of Amish butter or cheese or chocolate candy or egg noodles or preserves.

Amish Country Roll Butter from ALCAM Creamery Co. and sold at Burnstad's.

But…I could have…if my husband hadn’t dropped money on a bottle of semi-sweet cranberry wine from Three Lakes Winery; Travis Hasse’s Original Apple Pie Liqueur produced by Drink Pie Company in Temperance, Michigan, but originating from the Missouri Tavern near Madison (and which we may serve to our Thanksgiving dinner guests if there’s any left by then); and blueberry craisins, which I thought were dried blueberries (they’re not; they’re dried cranberries with grape and blueberry juice concentrate). Lesson learned here—read ingredient lists and know the definition of “craisin.”

Wisconsin cranberry wine displayed in, of all things, a high-heeled shoe. Huh?

"People are looking at you," my husband said when I asked him to hold this bottle of Apple Pie Liqueur so I could photograph it. I replied: "I don't care. I'll never see them again."

All that aside, Burnstad’s rates as one impressive place. Impresssive to me primarily because of the atmosphere—including a cobblestone pathway meandering past the restaurant and pub and gift shops—and cleanliness. Honestly, in the European market/grocery store, the spotless, shiny floor reflected like a lake surface on a calm and sunny summer afternoon. I’ve never seen such a clean floor in a grocery store, or maybe anywhere.

I didn't photograph the floor of the grocery store, because shoppers really would have stared at me. But I did photograph this sign, which so impressed me with its support of Wisconsin farmers.

Then there’s the pie. Oh, the pie. Typically my family doesn’t order dessert in a restaurant. But the pie in the rotating display case proved too tempting, especially when I inquired and learned that the pies are made fresh daily. So Miranda and Gerardo each selected a piece—Door County cherry and rhubarb/raspberry—which the four of us promptly devoured. We were celebrating Gerardo’s October 29 birthday and Miranda’s soon-to-be birthday. If you like pie, Burnstad’s pie is the pie to try. I wonder if it’s made by the Amish?

Speaking of which, right outside the gift shop entrance you’ll see an Amish buggy. I wanted Miranda and Gerardo to pose for a photo. My daughter was having none of that. Since I’m the one semi-possessed by all things Amish, she insisted I climb into the buggy for a photo op. I refused to wedge myself inside the close confines of that buggy. So instead, I stood next to it and smiled a tourist smile like any good Minnesotan would.

I put on my tourist face for this Amish buggy photo. Just down Highway 21 you'll see authentic Amish buggies.

Packers fans will find Packers fans for sale in Burnstad's gift shop, in the Packers section.

A particularly amusing sign I spotted in the gift shop and suitable for either a Minnesotan or a Wisconsinite.

SORRY FOR FAILING to photograph exterior and interior shots of Burnstad’s. I was just too excited about seeing my daughter for the first time in three months that I didn’t get carried away with photo-taking like I typically do.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Oh, Wisconsin, I do love thee April 27, 2011

I was expecting downtown Appleton to look like historic Faribault with a pedestrian-friendly two-lane central street. Instead I found big city bustle and a busy four-lane running through the heart of downtown.

My husband and I, along with our son, spent Easter weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin, with our second oldest daughter.

IF YOU READ my Monday blog post, you know about the “Guess that state” contest that offers no prize. The prize is knowing you could (maybe) figure out where I celebrated Easter.

That would be in Wisconsin.

Yes, my husband, son and I spent the Easter weekend just east of Minnesota, in the Dairyland state, the home of the Green Bay Packers.

Specifically, we were in Appleton, the birthplace of Harry Houdini and the current home of my second oldest daughter. It is a 5 – 5 ½- hour drive from Faribault depending on how fast you drive and how many bathroom breaks are taken.

It is interesting how, when you travel in another state, you feel kind of like a foreigner. My husband and I tend to notice the details that distinguish regions. Of course, in Wisconsin, cheese and Packers’ green and gold stand out above all else.

But we also noticed, in the central area of the state where we drove along Wisconsin Highway 21, all of the small-town taverns and unincorporated towns, the buggy tracks and horse poop along the shoulders of the highway, the deer stands, the areas for growing potatoes and cranberries, many “for sale” signs on wooded properties, and lots and lots and lots of deer carcasses in the ditches and along the roadway. Oh, and for one short section, the dead muskrat may have outnumbered the total dead deer count for 100 miles.

Aside from those observations, we saw some interesting signage. For example, in school zones, “when children are present,” the speed limit is 15 mph.

The Willow Creek Cheese Factory Outlet was shut, not closed, according to this sign.

One particular business was not “closed,” it was “shut.”

A parcel of rural real estate, what we would term a “hobby farm” in Minnesota, was dubbed a “Farmette for sale.”

Dead-end streets in Appleton were posted as “No outlet.” It took me awhile to figure out that meant dead-end.

Brat fries were the big weekend fundraiser at Appleton grocery stores. The term “brat fry” was new to us. It means grilling.

We were especially amused by this sign in a field: “Certified weed-free hay.” Now, I wonder what the farmer was smoking when he wrote that sign. Cheddar cheese?

Oh, Wisconsinites, I really do like your state so I hope you take this post in humor, as it’s meant. If you want to cross the border and poke some fun at us Minnesotans, feel free. You’re always welcome here. Just leave the green and gold attire at home.

If you’d like to bring some cheese, do. I love Wisconsin cheese.

A small sampling of the cheeses available at Simon's Specialty Cheese in Little Chute. I'll take you inside this can't miss store in a future post.

NOW FOR THOSE READERS who are wondering where I shot the images in my “Guess that state” post published on Monday, here are the answers:

1.  HELICOPTER:  On the outskirts of Tomah just off I-94

2.  SHIP ROCK:  Near Coloma in Adams County

3.  BRAU HOUSE:  Downtown Appleton

4.  WE SALUTE OUR DAIRY FARMERS:  Simon’s Specialty Cheese Retail Store, Little Chute

5.  NEON ORANGE BUILDING:  A Mexican restaurant (sorry, didn’t get the name) in Wautoma

6.  STONE BUILDING:  The History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton. Magician Harry Houdini claims Appleton as his birthplace.

7.  AMISH FARM:  Near Coloma

8.  BRAT FRY SIGN:  Along an Appleton street

9.  GOLD FIRE HYDRANT:  Appleton

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Traveling Wisconsin State Highway 21 December 10, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:04 AM
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THIS PAST WEEKEND my husband and I moved our second-born to eastern Wisconsin, where she just started a job as a Spanish medical interpreter. Our mission focused primarily on transporting her possessions, carrying them into her second floor apartment, helping her settle in and then leaving the next morning.

That, of course, left no time for exploring the Dairyland state, much to my dismay. I had to settle for viewing the attractions and oddities from the passenger seat of our van.

I settled in for the 300-mile trip with my legs snuggled under a fleece throw and my camera resting in my lap. Whenever I saw something interesting, different or unusual, I clicked away, shooting photos through the side window and windshield which were specked with salt residue.

It didn’t take long before I started seeing roadside cheese signs and fiberglass cows and business names that I found downright intriguing and often amusing.


Wisconsin is, rightfully so, proud of its cheese as promoted in this highway billboard.

Join me for a photographic journey along Wisconsin’s State Highway 21, which slices through the south central part of the state. I didn’t take notes, so I can’t tell you where most of these images were shot. After awhile the towns blend together.

Be assured, though, that the next time we travel Highway 21, we’ll stop and explore. I saw plenty of places—cranberry bogs, an Amish quilt shop, country churches, antique stores, cheese shops, even bars with interesting names—some of which I want to check out. Meanwhile, enjoy this armchair tour, the first in my on-the-road in Wisconsin travel installments.


You can't miss these cows and cheese sign right next to Highway 21 in Omro, west of Oshkosh. A sign by the stop sign said we didn't have to stop if we were turning right, crossing over the bridge. It was the oddest stop sign sign I've ever seen. No, I was not quick enough to photograph the stop sign sign. Next trip.

Piggly Wiggly grocery stores are popular in towns along Wisconsin Highway 21. I love the cute, vintage sound of that name. For some reason, I found it humorous that the sign on the right advertises pork chops on special with that smiling pig logo looming overhead. I also hear, via a friend whose brother lives in Wisconsin, that Wisconsinites simply call these grocery stores "The Pig."

Hunting is big in Wisconsin as evidenced by the many "Welcome hunters" signs I saw. And then I spotted this sign in Wautoma, our one brief stop to have lunch with my cousin Bev..

I wondered...are gals welcome too at Guy's Discount Grocery & Liquor? Wisconsin seems more lax with its liquor laws than Minnesota. Grocery and liquor stores are housed together with no dividing walls or doors between them. In Appleton, a sign inside a grocery store advertised the city's new ordinance allowing liquor sales from 8 a.m. to midnight. From the produce department, you could walk right into the liquor department. Oh, and all the store employees were wearing Green Bay Packers jerseys.


Hands down, here's the funniest bar name I saw on signage along Wisconsin Highway 21--the Stumble Inn

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling