It is a gnome of a good time in Dawson, Minnesota
For going on 35 years, Dawson has been known for its smallest residents, its gnomes. Created as a fun mascot for the western Minnesota community, the Dawson gnomes are still going strong, with 2022 marking a return to the city's Riverfest celebration following the coronavirus pandemic pause.
DAWSON — Once upon a time, in the county of Lac qui Parle in the hamlet of Dawson, there lived a community of gnomes. There are doctors, teachers, a photographer, minister, garbage man and a farmer among many others. The small and jolly creatures began moving into the city park in days long past, and have made the community their home, to the glee of residents and visitors alike.
"Dawson gnomes have two unique features. They have a bent hat because they voted and they have a heart on their sleeve because they care," said Sharilyn Bates, who probably knows more about the gnomes than most, because she has written most of the legends about them.
The real story of the Dawson gnomes began in 1987 when the city began looking for something to identify with the community — a mascot of sorts. Sisters Alta Roesch and Ruth Solem came up with the idea of the gnome. In a write-up about the gnome, Solem said pretty much every culture that had settled in Dawson — Scandinavian, German, Irish, Korean and more — all had their own legends of little people.
The city approved the idea of adopting a friendly gnome as its mascot, even though for some it took a little bit of convincing. Bates shared a story of one woman who needed a minister to tell her the gnomes were not satanic before she would be OK with them.
"Eventually she came around," Bates said. "And she became a gnome."
Every year, as part of Dawson's Riverfest celebration at the end of June, a gnome of the year is chosen. That person, couple or organization is then immortalized with their very own gnome statue that is placed in the city park, a gnome legend of their very own and an art drawing of their gnome. Nominations are sent to the gnome committee, which then picks the annual honoree.
"We are looking for people that are not looking for the spotlight. They are just trying to make Dawson a better place," said Diane Nevins, a gnome committee member for many years.
Since 1988, when Helmer "Daws" Carlson and Clyde "Fat" Bohnsack were named the first two Dawson gnomes, there have been 43 gnomes named and created. Loren Femrite has created quite a few of the gnomes, including carving the very first gnome, Daws. Today, the gnomes are made out of concrete, which lasts longer than wood. The original wooden gnomes can be found in the Dawson Public Library.
"They're all gnomes, you can't go wrong," Femrite said.
Amongst all the gnomes in the park, there is one outlier. Hiding under a bridge near the park sign is Covidius P. Evilson, a troll. Created in 2021, Covidius illustrates the 2020-2021 pandemic years, when Riverfest was canceled and there were no new gnomes. Instead of a heart on his sleeve, he has the coronavirus molecule.
"We kind of don't care too much for him; we scorn him a bit," Nevins said.
"He is banned to that bridge," Bates added."
The gnome of the year is usually announced by the first week of June, though people start asking committee members who it is by May. When it comes to sculpting this year's gnome, Femrite is quite familiar with the person. He was chosen as this year's gnome.
"It is quite a surprise," Femrite said.
There will be an unveiling ceremony for Femrite's gnome sculpture during the 2022 Riverfest in Dawson, which runs June 22-26. "The Gnometown Tale of Loren Femrite" will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Riverside Park.
There has been a passing of the baton when it comes to who writes the gnome legend for the gnome of the year. This year Jesi Martinson has written it. Martinson has a long history with gnomes, since she is the granddaughter and niece of the two original creators.
"The gnomes were ingrained in my life before it was even a Dawson thing," Martinson said, remembering all the stories, toys and movies she had as a child.
Since the gnomes started popping up in Dawson, they have become nearly synonymous with the city, and that is perfectly fine for those involved in their creation and upkeep.
"It shows the heart of our community, the people who are doing everything they can to make it a better place and keep it the great community it is," Martinson said. "If we are going to be known for anything, I think that is a good way for our town to be known."
Dawson gnomes have gotten some attention outside of the city. The Minnesota Lottery did a television ad with them and there have been other media stories done on them. And today, gnomes have become a popular garden and home decor piece and people travel from miles around to come see the Dawson gnomes.
However, the people of Dawson take pride in having welcomed the gnome long before it became a fad and for being known as Gnometown, USA.
"We had gnomes before it was cool," Martinson said.
"And they all have hearts," concluded Bates.