After nearly 70 years of giving, it was no surprise that the final official acts of the Augustana Homes Auxiliary in Litchfield were to donate more than $18,000 to more than 30 nonprofit organizations throughout the area.
The mid-February gesture came during a bittersweet period for the volunteer organization, which for decades had run the Emmaus Place Gift Shop in the Ecumen senior housing complex.
The auxiliary’s membership had decided in November that the gift shop, which was founded in 1953, would not reopen, and their mission of supporting residents of the home through gift shop proceeds had come to an end.
“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t thank, you know, the community for their support over the 67 years,” auxiliary co-president Connie Meyer said. “We’re donating over $18,000 back to the community, and I think that’s special.
“We want to spread it around the community,” Meyer continued. “We feel with COVID, there were so many organizations that were not able to do any fundraising. They need some help. We wanted to give back to them so they could still prosper.”
The coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions were what forced the auxiliary’s decision to close the gift shop, Meyer said, though changing trends in shopping and gifting also played a role in the shop’s demise.
The gift shop closed a year ago this week, March 12, 2020, as the state went into lockdown in response to the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota. As a senior facility with its residents among the most vulnerable population, Ecumen closed to outsiders. That included auxiliary members who normally would have run the gift shop. Of course, even if the volunteers would have been permitted inside, their clientele would have been extremely limited, since no other outside visitors were permitted.
“They (Ecumen staff) came into the gift shop and said, ‘I’m sorry, you’re done,” auxiliary co-president Ruth Massingham said. “Ecumen kind of determined when we could be there. We were at the mercy of their decision. And they couldn’t really give us a definite time, you know, when we could come back.”
They never did come back.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, the uncertainty of a reopening left auxiliary leadership with little choice but to begin contemplating closing the shop, Meyer said. Finally, the membership decided that it was best to sell its remaining inventory, along with some of the shop’s furniture, during a couple of holiday sales that took place at the Litchfield Chamber of Commerce office.
“I heard Judy talking about Oktoberfest (on the radio) and having displays out in the street, and I asked her, ‘Could we set up a table in front of the Chamber office?’” Meyer said. “Of course, she said, ‘yes.’”
With the success of that event, the shop’s merchandise then moved into the Chamber office for sales that stretched over five weekends leading up to the holidays, ending with a final sale day on Dec. 19.
“It was a sad day,” Massingham said. “Connie and I were both here that day, and we just said, ‘OK, we can go home now. We’re done selling.’”
It was the end of an era that started Nov. 11, 1952, during a meeting of women from Lutheran churches in the Willmar and Cokato districts of the Lutheran Augustana Synod, when the Augustana Homes Auxiliary was founded. The Emmaus Gift Shop was an “outgrowth” of the auxiliary, according to a history of the organization.
Opened in January 1953, the first shop saw volunteers making handmade items and selling them in the basement of the Emmaus Board and Care facility in the old Litchfield hospital. Later, the shop began selling Scandinavian imports. All profits went to the auxiliary, which used the money to purchase items for residents of Augustana Homes. As popularity of the gift shop grew, so did its profits, which allowed for even larger purchases through the years including physical therapy equipment, tables, tubs and decorating.
Later, the gift shop added a small coffee shop, which featured treats such as scones and bars.
For years it was a shopping destination, not just for Litchfield residents, but for many outside the area, some traveling great distances to shop the wide variety of Scandinavian gifts, books, cards and trinkets. Engaged couples eagerly added their names to the wedding gift registry. At times, as many as 10 couples would be registered, each with their own table in the shop upon which brides placed gift items they were interested in.
The shop was staffed by a team of about 30 volunteers each assigned different areas of inventory.
“We had one person who bought the books, one person who was in charge of candles, another one who just strictly purchased greeting cards. Somebody else was in charge of kitchenware,” Meyer said. “We had a faith center (with) someone doing the religious items for baptisms, confirmations … any of that.”
Fine china and glassware were extremely popular items for many years, as well, Meyer said.
While the fancy items were sought, probably the most popular item in the gift shop through the years were the embroidered “flour sack” dish towels created by volunteers.
“The dish towels were very special,” said Judy Hulterstrum, who worked at Ecumen for many years before becoming executive director at the Chamber of Commerce, and who also served as auxiliary president in the early 2000s. “That was almost from the beginning of the shop, and they would have volunteers that would come in and they had quite a system. There was one person that would buy the flour sack dish towel, then there’s one person who would wash them, iron them, and then they would stamp a design on there, and volunteers came and got them and embroidered them.”
But as time passed, interests changed. And so did shopping habits.
“I think that’s one of the main reasons we’ve felt it necessary to close, because buying trends changed,” Meyer said. “The millennials, the X, Y, Z generation, or whatever they are … they were not as interested in their heritage. Brides no longer wanted the glassware, the china, the candlestick holders.”
Those changing interests meant a decline in sales at the gift shop, but volunteers continued to serve the original mission of the auxiliary and the gift shop, Meyer said, to “render service to benefit the residents and programs of Ecumen of Litchfield.”
But after the pandemic forced the shop to be closed for nearly a year, leadership thought it would be too difficult to re-establish a gift shop that already was struggling with changing times. So they opted to close the shop — but with one more widespread show of generosity.