After nearly 70 years of giving, it was no surprise that the final official acts of the Augustana Homes Auxiliary 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, as well.
“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 gift giving 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 arriving about a week before.
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 to run the gift shop, 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 to difficult to re-establsih 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.
Nearly 18 percent of Meeker County residents had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination as of Monday morning.
It’s a good start, according to Meeker County Public Health Director Diane Winter, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Among the best strategies for those still awaiting a vaccination are patience and vigilance.
“I guess what I look at is what is happening around the state,” Winter said in regard to the pace of vaccinations in Meeker County. “Are we in line with what other counties are doing? And looking at other counties around us, it appears we are on par.”
When it comes to giving vaccinations, the county public health department as well as medical facilities such as Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics, are at the mercy of the vaccine supply chain.
“It is really out of our hands,” Winter explained. “We give the vaccine when we get it.”
As of Monday morning, Minnesota Department of Health reported that 1.046 million people statewide — 18.8% — had received at least one vaccine dose, with about 570,000 having received two doses. In Meeker County, 4,116 people, or 17.8%, had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
The majority of the people statewide who have received at least one dose — 548,380 people – are in the 65-plus age group. In Meeker County 58.8 percent of residents 65-plus had received at least one dose.
Meeker County Public Health followed the state plan and concentrated its vaccination clinics on the “1A” group, which included seniors in long-term care facilities and those in the health care field. They also have vaccinated teachers, child-care providers and others who work in the education system with face-to-face contact with students.
Having completed that group, the department moved to the 65-and-older age group with a clinic at the end of last week.
“We know they are very anxious to get the vaccine,” Winter said of the 65-plus group.
Public Health received 100 vaccine doses for the clinic at the end of last week, and requests “filled up very quickly,” Winter said.
That’s likely to be the case for a while – and that’s where the patience and vigilance comes in. Winter suggested that people make use of the state’s “Vaccine Connector” system at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/connector/.
For those who register for the online system, after it collections personal information including contact information, the system sends information about vaccine eligibility and where one can receive a vaccination as it becomes available.
“That’s a really good option to stay informed,” Winter said.
Meeker County Public Health finds out on Fridays if it will receive vaccinations the following week. The department won’t post local clinic dates until it knows the vaccine is in hand, she said.
As far as the clinics themselves, Winter said, “they have gone well.”
Public Health is accustomed to organizing vaccine clinics, she said, and staff is “enthusiastic” about doing the COVID-19 vaccination clinics when the opportunity arises.
As people wait their turn in front of the needle, Winter urged them to continue with typical precautions of masking, hand washing and social distancing.
First District Association will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding later this year, and it’s making plans for some public ways to celebrate.
Two of those ideas received support from Litchfield City Council last week.
The bigger of the plans is creation of a dairy-themed playground in South Park, located just across West Ripley Street to the south of First District’s campus.
Troy Gassman, engineering project manager at First District, explained the idea for the playground at last week’s City Council meeting, saying that the cooperative wanted to make an initial contact with the City Council before moving ahead.
Initial plans call for the playground to be constructed in the southeast corner of South Park.
Parts and construction would cost $115,714.84, according to an estimate from Flagship Recreation of Lake Elmo, which was included in the council’s agenda packet
Playground structures would include one that resembles a milk truck and another that resembles a barn. Other play items would be swings, and seesaws and rocking features shaped like farm implements and cattle.
“I’m impressed with it,” Council member Betty Allen said after seeing drawings of the features and playground location.
Gassman said that First District planned to finance construction, but welcomed input from the city. He also indicated an interest in a kind of “community build,” similar to other playground construction in the city.
In the case of the South Park playground, Gassman said, the playground equipment company would come in an put up the main support posts, and First District employees would then walk over and work on the construction.
Depending on how quickly planning moves forward, Gassman said, the playground could be completed by September.
City Administrator Dave Cziok told the City Council that city staff saw no conflict with the playground construction at South Park.
The playground would be the latest upgrade at the park, which saw construction of a pickleball complex last summer. First District Association was one of several businesses that contributed to that project, as well.
Until the cows come home
Gassman and Council members Darlene Kotelnicki and Betty Allen — who represented the Litchfield Downtown Council — also received approval from the City Council for a project aimed at promoting First District, as well as raising funds for nonprofit organizations in the area.
First District will purchase 17 fiberglass cows — eight adults and nine calves — which will be given to nonprofit organizations, who will decorate them. The cows then will be position throughout downtown and other areas and displayed through the summer. As summer comes to an end, on Aug. 26, the cows will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the nonprofits who decorated the cows.
The so-called “Downtown Cow Town” project is a collaboration between the Litchfield Downtown Council and First District, Kotelnicki said. She said it’s hoped people will use maps created by the Downtown Council to find each of the cows and that it will be a community activity, as well as a kind of tourist attraction, similar to the Snoopy statues that dotted St. Paul several years ago, or decorated buffalo that can be found in Buffalo.