Colorful gnomes line the roadside leading into Dawson, a whimsical tribute to the local volunteer spirit. Each year during the town’s Riverfest Celebration, gnomes are revealed in the likeness of a citizen or group of citizens who have served the community. The legend of the gnomes states that in Dawson, “People from the country and town work together to make good things happen.”
There was just such a gathering in 1990. Area residents took part in a comprehensive, long-term community self-renewal program called “Project Future” facilitated by the University of Minnesota Extension.
Loren Femrite, Dawson’s resident gnome-maker for the past 20 years or so, was part of those conversations.
“A big group came to brainstorm ideas to promote Dawson and make changes. One was to start a foundation,” said Loren, who remembers the late Gerry Michaelson as a catalyst to launching the foundation.
Gerry was a member of the Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) Board of Directors from 1987 to 1995, and he and his wife, Pat, made the lead gift to the Dawson Community Foundation (DCF).
Dr. Phil Maus also helped connect his town to the local community foundation program. Phil served on SWIF’s board from 2000 to 2006 and was a member of the original DCF advisory board with Gerry and Loren. He and his late wife, Jean, were recognized with their own gnome statues for their service to Dawson.
“The community foundation is a unique, adaptive vehicle for Dawson,” Phil reflected. “People from all backgrounds and vocations can contribute to this broad and ambitious foundation and play a part in what can be accomplished in a small community.”
Its original mission still guides DCF today: to connect the needs of the community to the passion of donors with the goal of enhancing community resources and spirit.
While they had an abundance of spirit, Dawson’s advisory board needed gifts to get started. A community reunion database provided contacts for a fundraising appeal, and the board got to work.
At first, it was a challenge to explain the endowment fund, where gifts are invested to grow the principal and provide future income for long-term impact — sort of like a savings account for the community.
“Because the Dawson Community Foundation is an endowed fund and has a directive to meet the needs of the community, it can be valuable forever,” Loren said.
In addition to its endowment, the DCF started several project funds to have an immediate impact. In 2001 the Dawson-Boyd High School Auditorium was renovated and dedicated as a performing space thanks in part to fundraising efforts by the DCF, which raised $16,929 for the auditorium seats. Memorial Auditorium is located in the Dawson-Boyd High School. In 2005, the community foundation raised another $30,988 for sound and lights in the auditorium.
“It really planted a seed for the foundation and people could see we were getting things done,” Loren said.
DCF helped raise $17,854 for the local swimming pool in 2008, another major accomplishment and a resource for the community.
Over the 18 years Loren served on the board, nearly the life of the DCF so far, he appreciated the administrative support SWIF offered as it processed all the gifts and grants for the local advisory board.
“The other part I found valuable was I would go to SWIF seminars on all topics about communities,” Loren said. “Board development was very valuable. It makes a difference to see how it works for serving on other community boards.”
Today’s DCF Advisory Board includes several long-standing members alongside new faces. Board chair Josh Falness joined the board in 2013.
“I was the youngest (board member) for a while,” said Josh, who grew up in Dawson and is now raising a family there with his wife, Karin.
In 2015, the board published a pamphlet with photos of many young adults and families who’d moved back or never left the community.
“We all came back because we love this community,” Josh said.
“There’s a lot of pride,” said board secretary Karla Perkins.
Since its founding, DCF has granted $276,871 to a wide variety of community projects — children’s theater, high school robotics, senior nutrition meals, hanging flower baskets. DCF started the Dawson–Boyd High School essay contest, where members of the DCF Advisory Board pick a topic and review essays written by seniors. The winner receives a scholarship.
“I like to see the money used for the benefit of so many people. Every one of those organizations are so appreciative,” said board member Sharilyn Bates. “You give a little, and you get a lot back.”
One of the most recent grants helped purchase supplies for the local chapter of Junior Achievement (JA), which fosters work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills in students. DCF has supported JA in the past too.
“I don’t know what Junior Achievement would do without our grants,” Karla said.
And of course, there are grants for the Riverfest Gnomes. The gnome honorees exemplify the spirit of Dawson — exerting a positive influence on the growth and well-being of the community as a whole, as well as each individual member. Gnomes “tend to put service to others before personal gain or comfort and give generously of time, talent, and resources without recompense or recognition.”
“This is such a wonderful community, and our community foundation is a way we can keep it wonderful,” Karla said.
Dawson is one of four pilot communities of Southwest Initiative Foundation’s local community foundation program, celebrating 20 years in 2019. Read more about the history of the local community foundation program.