Nisswa Women’s Club Turns 100

WRITTEN BY Sheila Helmberger | PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF Members of the Nisswa Women’s Club

The hummingbird has become the official insignia of the Nisswa Women’s Club because legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration.

IN 1920, WOMEN GAINED THE RIGHT TO VOTE. It was also the year that Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis earned acclaim for Main Street, a novel about his hometown of Sauk Centre; and the year that the League of Nations was created.

In Nisswa, Minnesota, a woman named Ruth Henderson gathered fourteen local women to form the Nisswa Sewing Club. Henderson had no clue, at the time, that this humble gathering would eventually swell to over 200 members by 2020. This year, they’re celebrating the club’s 100th Anniversary.

 After a stint as The Busy Bees, in 1935 the group adopted the official title of the Nisswa Women’s Club. Today, annual dues for membership are just twenty dollars. Women of all ages are welcome to join and it’s not necessary to live in Nisswa. Members travel from all across the state of Minnesota, including Merrifield, Blaine, Chanhassen, and Pillager.

Left: Edith Bentley (Suzanne’s grandmother), Right: Esther Girard (Suzanne’s mother)

The Nisswa Women’s Club Mission 

  • To serve the Brainerd Lakes Area with charitable donations.
  • To assist local high school seniors and non-traditional women students at Central Lakes College with scholarships.
  • To encourage the participation of members in club activities.
  • To promote fellowship and support for the members.
Suzanne Sundquist (in the blue dress) and her daughter, Mary Chapp

Suzanne Sundquist has a long history with the Nisswa Women’s Club. She is a two-time board member and is the third generation in her family to belong. Her mother and grandmother both served as presidents. In the 1940s, meetings were hosted in a rotating member’s home.

“I remember in the summers we got to go with and play with the kids at the hostess’ house,” recalls Sundquist. “One time the meeting was held at our house and my mother let me deliver the plates for the coffee and dessert. That was a very big thrill for me.” 

When Sundquist’s daughter recently joined, a fourth generation in the family became part of the club.

 Mary Gibson, Sharon Halliwill, and Sharon Harris have been members of the Nisswa Women’s Club for over fourteen years. Some current members have belonged since the early 70s. Gibson, Halliwill, and Harris say they’re proud to be members of an organization that contributes so much to the area. Monthly meetings include a luncheon and a speaker and are held the third Thursday of each month at various locations such as Madden’s, Grand View Lodge, Cragun’s, and Breezy Point. Meeting attendance fluctuates according to the season, but the women say around one hundred members attend each meeting.

 Helping area communities is the heartbeat of their mission. In the earliest days, membership dues were 25 cents. The women used the funds to sew quilts and layettes for needy families in the area. Throughout the years, schools, parks, The American Red Cross, schools, parks, and other organizations have been gifted with donations throughout the years. During war time, the American United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) was a recipient of the club’s donations and money was used to create comfort kits for soldiers.

In 1985, the Nisswa Women’s Club hosted its first fashion show. It has become a local highlight of the calendar year. Those in attendance delight in the latest fashions, the rapport of the radio DJs that emcee the event, and the chance to win numerous prizes from an auction and raffle.  The President-Elect chooses the theme for each year’s show. The fashion show is the main fundraiser for the club. this past year, five high school seniors and five non-traditional students at Central Lakes College were each awarded $1,500 scholarships because of the event.

 It may be called the Nisswa Women’s Club, but the ladies agree the husbands of club members are always willing to pitch in when they are asked. They serve as escorts for the fashion show, haul props for the event, and assist the models up and down from the stage. Sharon Harris and her husband, Gary Harris, are already creating a video together for the anniversary celebration. One of the husbands even wrote a rap song about the club. 

The Nisswa Women’s Club is a nonprofit organization. Aside from the educational scholarships, money from donations taken at the monthly meetings help to support a lot of other causes in addition to the scholarships. The generosity of club members has benefited The Lakes Area Food Shelf, Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center, area grad blasts, Gillette’s Children Hospital, Central Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, and many more.

“It’s really not just a social club,” Halliwill said. “There is a real element of philanthropy with the group too.”

The group has also created smaller, more activity-centered groups. Cooking clubs, gardening clubs, writing groups, and book clubs have formed from the larger group. 

Harris, Halliwill, Sundquist, and Gibson agree they enjoy welcoming new members. They say it’s always nice to see younger members join to continue the mission of the club that was started so long ago. After all, there’s a 200th anniversary looming somewhere in the future. 

2020 Nisswa Women’s Club Monthly Program Schedule 

7/16 Dennis Drummond Wine Co.
Uncovering the Reality of Becoming a Citizen
– Jessica Turner and Bryan Tollefson 

8/20 Cragun’s Legacy Courses
The Nisswa Women’s Club Centennial Celebration

9/17 Jack’s House Bowl
Experiencing the Arab World through the Eyes of an American Woman from Northern Aitkin County
– Amy Wyant 

10/15 The Woods
Central Lakes College Non-Traditional Scholarship Recipients/Facilitating Equity and Inclusion in the Rural Communities

11/19 Grand View Lodge
Ordinary Women from Extraordinary Times: WWII, Korea, and Vietnam 

12/17 Cragun’s Legacy Courses
Holiday Memories and the Role Music Plays
– Amber Bolstad