By Katie Roiger

Gnome-matter what else is going on in the world, art has a way of lifting spirits. The artisans of New Ulm’s GnomeMade Market firmly believe this.

In 1984, a group of young mothers wanted to use their talents to make a little extra money during the holiday season. The women were used to having friends and family ask them for custom pieces and thought that there might be a market for handcrafted goods. They met in the basement of a New Ulm Home and spun an idea for a craft fair.

“We decided to try to sell some of our things because we liked making stuff and we didn’t need it all,” said Kathy Covington, one of the Market’s original founders.

The founders called their event the “Holiday Opener,” and held it on the same weekend as the Minnesota DNR deer hunting firearms opener to give non-shoppers something fun to do. It turns out the market was ready and willing. After 36 years, what began as a seasonal craft fair has blossomed into a weekend-long arts and crafts exhibition and marketplace that attracts visitors from South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois as well as all over Minnesota.

Submitted Photo - New Ulm Gnome Festival
Submitted Photo – New Ulm Gnome Festival

Promoting local art

From the beginning, the Holiday Opener was designed to be a cozy shopping experience. A group of directors would be chosen to host a four-day exclusive “boutique,” mainly in their own homes. Usually the homeowner would showcase his or her wares and often invite other artists to display their goods as well. A single venue could have up to 30 vendors.
Regulations for choosing which vendors will exhibit their items are simple: The bulk of what they sell must be handcrafted.

“We wanted to make sure that we were unique,” said Mary Jane Glawe, one of the event’s executive directors.

Ten years after the first holiday opener, Glawe was serving on the New Ulm Council for the Arts’ Board of Directors. She had slowly become aware of the November craft fair and recognized it as an opportunity to promote the arts.

I wanted to do something locally that would showcase artisans. Mary Jane Glawe

“I wanted to do something locally that would showcase artisans,” Glawe said.

She began by working with the Holiday Opener’s directors to have them feature the Council in that year’s event, and she soon became a director herself, selling hand-carved whistles and walking sticks.

In very little time, the arts and crafts fair had gathered an annual following so large that other businesses in town began to capitalize on the extra traffic by offering Holiday-Opener-related specials. Glawe said that the directors were delighted by the extra publicity, but they ultimately chose to change the event’s name to distinguish themselves from other holiday promotions. They chose to dub their annual event the GnomeMade Market as a tongue-in-cheek nod to New Ulm’s German heritage.

Submitted Photo - New Ulm Gnome Festival
Submitted Photo – New Ulm Gnome Festival

Preparing for market

Preparations for each Market begin shortly after the last market ends. Vendors often spend all year making pieces to sell during the three to four days that they participate in the arts and crafts fair. Covington said that the race to produce enough items can be almost feverish.

“You don’t do it for the money; you do it for them,” she said, referring to the shoppers. “My theory is, don’t ever make something that you don’t want to take back home!”

Covington produces stained and fused glass, knitted goods, and lots and lots of gnomes.

“We used to get grief from people because we were called the GnomeMade Market and there weren’t any gnomes!” Covington said.

You don’t do it for the money; you do it for [the customers]. My theory is, don’t ever make something that you don’t want to take back home! Kathy Covington

She filled in the gap by cranking out ornament gnomes, cloth gnomes and ceramic gnomes. The little German-folklore-inspired creatures have been very popular in recent years.

Covington’s four daughters also contribute photography, painted ceramics and wood-burned décor items, to name a few. Even her 91-year-old mother pitches in to create merchandise, knitting almost every day and creating several knitted hats for the sale.

“She’s very particular,” Covington said. “She tries to figure out the color trends for the year and she makes the girls [Covington’s daughters] try them on. It’s fun!”

Submitted Photo - New Ulm Gnome Festival
Submitted Photo – New Ulm Gnome Festival

Growing and changing

During most years, the GnomeMade Market hosts hundreds of artisans selling home décor, knitted goods, pottery, jewelry, clothes, accessories, photography, paintings, woodblock printing, quilts, fair trade candies and more, all from a handful of private residences and historic sites. The atmosphere feels like a holiday open house. Visitors come and go, singly and with friends or family, browsing the handcrafted items. Often, homeowners burn scented candles or play music to make the experience even more festive.

In the early days, the Market would consist of about four to five individual houses, but it has since grown to feature as many as 20 residences and historic sites from Thursday through Sunday.

“We kind of limit it at 20 because we feel that people can get around to 20 houses in a weekend,” Glawe said.

Every year, the GnomeMade Market coordinators create a map to guide visitors to each featured home. Historic buildings around New Ulm also join in the fun. The John Lind House Association allows vendors to showcase their wares in the former home of Minnesota’s 14th governor. The Lind House and New Ulm Armory are always popular locations, especially because they can hold several vendors. This year’s GnomeMade Market is also adding the historic Turner Hall to its roster of residences.

We kind of wrestled back and forth whether or not to have the market this year. In the end, we have a commitment to the artists, but we also want to keep our community safe. Mary Jane Glawe

The GnomeMade Market is usually able to pair with the Women’s Expo that is frequently held on the same weekend in the Jefferson Elementary school building. However, this year, the Expo was cancelled due to COVID-19.

The Coronavirus has not left the Market unaffected. The executive directors decided to limit marketing outside of a 50-mile radius and cut the roster of houses in half to limit crowds.

“We kind of wrestled back and forth whether or not to have the market this year,” Glawe said, adding that she and the other executive directors voted against canceling the event. “In the end, we have a commitment to the artists, but we also want to keep our community safe.”

The Market worked with a former Brown County nurse to make sure it would conform with public health guidelines. All vendors and attendees will be required to wear masks, hand sanitizer pumps will be placed at each house, and each venue will have contact tracing.

Submitted Photo - New Ulm Gnome Festival
Submitted Photo – New Ulm Gnome Festival

A vast variety

Despite the unusual circumstances, new vendor Lori Moldan said she is excited to share her wares at this year’s Market. Moldan and her fiancé Tyler Zollner run an artisan food business called Sugar Shanty. They began making maple syrup and expanded to feature fruit preserves, pickles, salsas, spaghetti sauces and sauerkraut, as well as specialty items like wine jelly and chocolate jam.

“We always like to consider ourselves old-school,” said Moldan. “We always look for something fun and unique that other people don’t have.”

She and Zollner will also host a handful of other vendors who are selling holiday wall art and other home décor pieces.

I think people are intimidated to go into an art gallery. We have a lot of fine art, and we also have the arts and crafts items. It just kind of shows you how we can work that all in together. Mary Jane Glawe

A long-time Market shopper herself, Moldan said she has great memories of past years’ shopping.

“It’s fun to get together with some of your friends and family and shop with some coffee or hot chocolate,” she said. “I like the variety.”

To Glawe, variety is the sign of a successful GnomeMade Market. During her years on the New Ulm Council for the Arts, she noticed that often people were nervous about purchasing fine art, especially because they weren’t sure how those pieces would look in their homes.

“I think people are intimidated to go into an art gallery,” Glawe said. “This gives us more exposure. We have a lot of fine art, and we also have the arts and crafts items. It just kind of shows you how we can work that all in together.”

Author


  • is a freelance writer who works out of the Greater Mankato Area. She enjoys exploring every town she visits and knowing where to find the best Mexican restaurant in any 40-mile radius.

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