Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of sundaes, wood type & more in Two Rivers November 14, 2022

A strawberry sundae served in a heavy tulip glass at the replica Berners’ Ice Cream Parlor, Two Rivers, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

EVERY DAY IS NATIONAL something or other day, right? Typically I hear or read about a national whatever designation and then promptly forget. But not National Sundae Day, which was Friday, November 11. Not wanting to detract from the really important designation for that date, Veterans Day, I delayed posting about this.

Signage marks the entry to the birthplace of the ice cream sundae in 1881. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

When I heard about National Sundae Day, I was also reminded of the soda fountain owner who invented the sundae in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, back in 1881. I’ve been inside the Washington House, where Edward Berners first topped a dish of ice cream with chocolate sauce in a treat initially sold only on Sundays.

The historic Washington House in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

Today visitors to The Washington House Museum and Visitor Center can still purchase sundaes and other treats inside this former 1850 hotel with replica ice cream parlor. I did in 2011, when Randy, our daughter Miranda, our son Caleb and I visited this charming Lake Michigan side town. At the time, Miranda lived in Appleton about an hour to the west.

The sprawling Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

While the rest of my family headed to the ice cream parlor, I lagged behind at the neighboring Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. The working museum houses the world’s largest collection of type. For someone like me, with a journalism background and past employment at a weekly newspaper that used old typesetting equipment, this museum held great interest. I love old type. I love letterpress. I love the artsy look, the craftsmanship, the hands-on passion in creating. The ice cream sundae could wait.

A glimpse inside the working museum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

Eleven years after my tour of the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, I remember the joy I felt in being there. I remember, too, how the tour guide chided me for taking photos. Apparently he found my photographing intrusive, even though I lingered at the back far from other visitors. Despite his reaction, I still delighted in the smell of ink, the slim drawers holding type, the chunky blocks of wood type, the artsy results inked onto paper.

Beautiful Lake Michigan at Two Rivers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

A snippet of the historic Rogers Street Fishing Village. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

A simply bucolic scene of Two Rivers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

And I delighted, too, in the community of Two Rivers. I recall its quaintness and beautiful natural setting along Lake Michigan. I recall, too, the historic Rogers Street Fishing Village. Just thinking about this eastern Wisconsin community makes me want to return. To view the expansive lake and follow the sandy beach. To take in weathered fishing boats and learn of lake lore. To meander through a museum that smells of ink with camera in hand. And then, finally, to step inside the Washington House ice cream parlor, the birthplace of the sundae, to savor a sundae served on more than just Sundays.

My second daughter and my son order ice cream sundaes at the replica Berners’ Ice Cream Parlor during a 2011 visit to Two Rivers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2011)

TELL ME: Have you been to Two Rivers? What’s your favorite sundae flavor? Do you share my interest in wood type and printing? Yes, lots of questions today.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Montgomery: Featuring the letterpress art of Tin Can Valley Printing February 16, 2022

A promo poster printed by Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

INSIDE AN HISTORIC 1892 BRICK BUILDING in the heart of Minnesota Czech country, a Letterpress Print Show drew me to The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery. The show, continuing until February 26, features the art of Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing Co. in nearby Le Sueur.

The historic Hilltop Hall houses The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery on the right and Posy Floral & Gifts, left. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
Inside the center, Kotasek’s prints plaster walls. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
The artist includes some background info about himself, this sheet focused on his time at The Gaylord Hub. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

As a journalist and an art lover especially appreciative of letterpress printing, I delighted in this exhibit of an art now in revival. Not only that, I hold a connection to Kotasek. We both worked at The Gaylord Hub, me as my first newspaper reporting job straight out of college in 1978 and he as an apprentice printer there in 1999. We learned under the mentorship of Jim Deis, then editor and publisher of the generational family-owned newspaper. I’ve never met Kotasek, yet I feel linked via The Hub.

This shows the steps in creating a multi-hued print. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

To view his art is to gain an appreciation for a past printing process. In letterpress printing, movable raised wood or lead letters/type are pieced together in a frame, then secured before inking onto paper via a printing press. That’s a simplistic explanation. If multiple ink colors are required, the process is layered, longer, more labor intensive. Likewise, art carved from linoleum or wood blocks goes through a similar process in creating fine art prints, gig posters and more.

Volunteer JoAnn Petricka with Kotasek’s prints to the left. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

When I entered the narrow room which houses The Arts & Heritage Center in the small southern Minnesota community of Montgomery and saw Kotasek’s letterpress art, memories rushed back. Memories of the strong scent of ink, the clacking of noisy printing presses, scenes of printers Dale and Bucky laboring in stained printers’ aprons, me trying to hear phone conversations with sources. Me pounding out news stories on an aged manual typewriter against the backdrop of all that noise.

Hand-carved blocks were used to create this art titled “Eight-Pointed Star.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

But on this February morning, quiet prevailed as I studied the work of this craftsman, this visual artist. Letterpress is both craft and art.

Kolacky Days queens in framed photos over prints from Tin Can Valley Printing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
One of his specialties is creating posters for musical gigs. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Beneath professional portraits of Kolacky Days queens, which ring this room near the ceiling, hang examples of Kotasek’s assorted creations. Gig posters for musical groups (including his own Oxbow Boys band). Fine art prints created with hard-carved blocks. A mix of letterpress and block. And on a shelf, a box of his popular letterpress greeting cards. Another display holds his $10 numbered prints.

A hand-carved block for printing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I feel such an appreciation for Kotasek. His love for the letterpress craft shows in his printing skills, his creativity. To get clear, crisp prints takes patience, practice, time, effort. But before that comes the visualization, the creativity, the ability to bring many elements together in hands-on work.

Type in a tray. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
Cans of ink to color his art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
Roller and carved blocks to print. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

A tall enclosed cabinet holds some of Kotasek’s tools of the craft. Letters. Rollers. Ink. Wood-cuts. All offer a glimpse into this artist’s world. He’s gathered abandoned, about-to-be-scrapped printing presses and other printing tools from small town newspapers in Minnesota and set up shop in a renovated granary on the family farm just outside Le Sueur. His studio overlooks the valley, home of the Jolly Green Giant associated with Minnesota Valley Canning Company, later Green Giant.

Kotasek has created numerous Green Giant prints. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Kotasek pays homage to the vegetable canning company in the name of his printing business, Tin Can Valley Printing. On his website, he offers several explanations, one referencing a farmer who fed discarded canned vegetables to his pigs from damaged cans. As the story goes, the pig farmer tossed those empty tin cans into a ravine. During a massive flood of the Minnesota River Valley in 1965, the cans reportedly floated into town, causing an array of issues. The name Tin Can Valley stuck. I like the historic reference, the memorable moniker.

Featured art includes Jolly Green Giant prints, right. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
More food art prints. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)
In the corner of my “Niblets of Corn Sign” print. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I found myself drawn to Kotasek’s Green Giant-themed prints. I purchased No. 38 of his 2019 “Niblets Corn Sign” 8 x 10 card stock print. It’s a reproduction of a metal sign that once marked the Green Giant canning factory in Le Sueur. The four-color print, crafted from wood type and hand-carved wood and linoleum blocks, features the legendary Green Giant hefting a massive ear of sweetcorn. The image is iconic rural Minnesota.

This particular poster has an old style newspaper vibe. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Kotasek represents in many ways the past of newspapers in Minnesota. Early editors printed their papers with letterpress. They also served their communities as print shops. When I worked at The Gaylord Hub, farm auction bills flew off the aged printing presses. Kotasek remembers the endless fundraiser raffle tickets he printed while learning the printing trade.

A poster fitting for the Czech farming community of Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

If you’re interested in meeting Kotasek, visit The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery, 206 First Street North, between 9 am – noon on Saturday, February 26, during an artist’s reception. The center is open limited hours: from 2-5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am-noon on Saturdays. The show closes February 26.

While in Montgomery, be sure to check out the shops (gift, floral, quilt, thrift, drugstore…) and stop at Franke’s Bakery for a sweet treat. You’ll find kolacky there in this self-proclaimed “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The town is also home to Montgomery Brewing and Pizzeria 201 (a popular local eatery with curbside pick-up only currently). I encourage you to check destination hours in advance of a visit to avoid disappointment. Also notice the historic architecture, the photo tributes to veterans and the town mural (across from the bakery). Montgomery rates as one of my favorite area small towns…because of The Arts & Heritage Center and more.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Inside the Hamilton Wood Type Museum & the Target connection August 17, 2011

A picturesque view of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, as seen from the historic Rogers Street Fishing Village.

We treated ourselves to ice cream sundaes after the museum visit.

IF NOT FOR MY SECOND DAUGHTER’S neighbor mentioning a day trip to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, I might never have discovered the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum or its connection to Minnesota-based Target.

The retailing giant collaborated with the museum on a recently-released fall Vintage Varsity collection promoted as “Cool Never Fades.”

With vintage so in vogue right now, Target definitely found the right place for designers to authenticate this new line. Hamilton made wood type from 1880-1985 and boasts a collection of 1.5 million pieces, the largest in the world. Target dipped into that collection to create graphics for the Vintage Varsity line.

The Target connection, however, wasn’t my reason for visiting Two Rivers, a city of 13,000 just south of Door County. Rather, Lake Michigan drew me here on a recent Sunday when my husband, son and I were visiting our daughter Miranda at her Appleton home 50 miles to the west.

My family can assure you that fashion wouldn’t draw me anywhere. But wood type would.

So, when I planned our day trip from Appleton to Two Rivers, Hamilton Wood Type ranked high on my must-see list, right after Lake Michigan. A promise to the teenage son of ice cream afterward at the historic Washington House, just across the street from the museum, kept him from complaining too much about my museum meandering. Interestingly enough, the sundae originated in Two Rivers in 1881.

Had I opted to take the official Hamilton tour, I likely would have learned much more about Hamilton Manufacturing Company and the museum, which also includes a collection of 1930s – 1970s advertising cuts, wood type and Linotype equipment, tools and more. The manufacturing company, which once made medical office furniture, appliances and more, is still in business today producing steel lab equipment.

Hamilton manufactured the first gas-powered clothes dryers.

The museum is a self-supporting, working museum where artists and designers and others get hands-on experience in wood type printing and where custom printing is done, according to a Minneapolis woman who was printing at the museum on the day I visited.

In all honesty, Hamilton’s historical details didn’t interest me. Rather, I was here because of my decades-earlier connection to Linotype and because of my profession. During my first job out of college in 1978, I worked as a reporter at The Gaylord Hub, a small-town weekly newspaper that still used hot metal type to create auction bills and other custom printing. At the time, I failed to appreciate this fading art. Rather, I found the constant clack-clack-clack of the vintage machines bothersome, especially when conducting phone interviews.

Today my attitude has changed. I appreciate printing as an art. I took that perspective to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum and knew, even before I stepped inside the 1927 building, that my focus would be visual.

The Hamilton complex of buildings covers blocks.

The building exterior features aesthetically appealing letters and punctuation.

My eyes swept across the nothing-fancy, industrial space filled with letters in more fonts and sizes than I could ever imagine. Posters. Colors. Graphics. Drawers upon drawers upon drawers that I wished I could pull open. Machines. Cement floors and brick walls. Jumbled pieces of wood and smeared paint cans, and brushes hung on walls.

I felt almost overwhelmed by the photographic possibilities, the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that changed as I circled the room.

Everywhere you'll see letters and numbers in differing sizes and fonts, a visual delight.

One of the many vintage prints you'll see in the museum.

Rows upon rows of tempting drawers, presumably filled with wood type.

An oversized vintage photo anchors the wall you first see upon entering the museum.

John Burnet, an early engraver at Hamilton.

Lines of type.

One of the many graphic cuts you'll see in the museum.

Only when I was in a back room, where the Minneapolis artist was printing and the museum manager/tour guide chastised me for taking his photo without asking, did I think about the Target collection. I had passed by a clothing rack earlier, hadn’t even looked. But then the Minnesotan mentioned Target. So on my way out the door I paused, shot a quick photo and then joined the impatient teen for an ice cream sundae across the street.

A t-shirt I pulled from the rack of clothing at the museum. I don't know whether this is from the Target collection, because I didn't check.

Stacks of paint cans clue you in that this is a working museum.

Prints hang on a wall in one of the back rooms.

This photo shows printers' aprons and, to the back, the wall just inside the museum entry.

The entry provides a sweeping view of the museum.

FYI: For more information about the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, click here. The museum is open from1 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Sunday and from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday from May 1 to October 31. Winter hours are from noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Friday and Saturday by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling