Early in 1903, Anna Quale Fergstad organized seven of her friends into a book club. It was a time of feminine self-improvement, and like many other married women of their era, Mrs. Fergstad and her friends were eager to enjoy friendship and an occasional break from the routines of motherhood and housekeeping.
Similar groups were springing up all around the state, but the Fergstad reading circle was distinctive in two ways. First, the women were all Norwegian immigrants to Minnesota, so the meetings were conducted in the language of the old country. Second, and more important, their leader was the formidable Mrs. Fergstad.
A woman of vision and energy, Fergstad soon persuaded her circle—by now increased to 11 women—to add a worthy charitable project to the agenda of their monthly meetings. She pointed out that there was no shelter available for the many elderly Norwegian emigrants to the area who could no longer care for themselves.
Reminding group members of the system of tidy little houses available to fishermen’s widows in Norway, she urged the group to dedicate themselves to founding an equivalent shelter for old folks in Minnesota.
The group adopted Mrs. Fergstad’s vision with enthusiasm and pledged to raise $30,000 (about $615,000 in modern currency) for the construction of a home for the elderly. It was a daunting task for a group that had collected, according to its minutes, precisely $1.40 in dues at its first meeting.
Still the women persisted, and in February 1906 they incorporated their new project under the name of Norway’s national flower, the blooming heather, known in Norwegian as Lyngblomsten.
A hundred years later, the project they set in motion is still at its original location in Como Park, but it has grown from a simple shelter for 44 indigent Norwegian immigrants to a sophisticated complex that coordinates the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to serve the needs of over 400 residents and many hundreds of additional outreach clients of all faiths and cultures.
The original residence was torn down in 1993 to make way for The Heritage at Lyngblomsten, a senior apartment complex, but the organization prides itself on remaining true to its original mission of “compassionate care and innovative services to older adults.”
This month, the project that got its start in Mrs. Fergstad’s imagination will celebrate a century of service with a special Centennial Celebration Worship Service in the Chapel of the Incarnation at Luther Seminary at 2 p.m. on Feb. 16.
Additional activities are planned throughout the year. They range from the Lyngblomsten Foundation’s Spring Rhapsody Gala, which will feature period costumes and a 1906 State Fair theme, to a community ice cream social in July and the organization’s annual Scandinavian cookie fair on Dec. 1. All are open to the public.
It’s been a long journey from 1906, but Patricia Montgomery, Lyngblomsten’s director of marketing communications, thinks it’s one that Fergstad would approve, if she could somehow return for the centenary.
“I still feel she’s here, watching over us, guiding us along,” says Montgomery of the woman whose portrait hangs in her office. “We think she’d be happy.”
Sadly, Fergstad died shortly before the original Lyngblomsten Home was dedicated in 1912. By then her group of women had put in six years of fundraising. Their methods were traditional. They held bake sales, sold quilts, ran a dining hall at the State Fair and appealed to the generosity of the business and professional leaders of the community.
But traditional methods were put in service of a vision that was anything but conventionally modest. The ladies thought big.
They recruited additional members by setting up “branch” Lyngblomsten fund-raising circles all over the upper Midwest, wherever there were Norwegian immigrant communities.
Montgomery says that when they canvassed railroad tycoon J. J. Hill for a donation, he offered them $500—but only on the condition that they buy more land than they had initially planned for. The women didn’t hesitate. “They thought bigger,” says Montgomery.
Nor was Fergstad a retiring sort in other areas of life. A lifelong temperance advocate, she was born in Norway, a place where women had held the right to vote in some local elections since the 19th century.
“Her group wrote the Minnesota legislature advocating votes for women,” says Montgomery. “We have the letter in the archives.”
A history of Lyngblomsten written in 1936, at the time of the organization’s 30th anniversary, notes that “several weary husbands [found that fund-raising] took a great deal of time away from housewifely duties,” but the women remained adamant advocates for their cause. The same history states proudly, “Lyngblomsten was wholly a woman’s undertaking.”
Nor did the ladies move to the sidelines after the original Lyngblomsten residence opened.
“Until the 1960s,” says marketing communications specialist Sarah Melander, “Lyngblomsten was run by the original women and their daughters. Administration was all volunteer.”
As Lyngblomsten expanded and additional services were added, the administrative demands became more complex. In 1961, the center was given to the precursor of the modern Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In 1985, a separate fund-raising arm, the Lyngblomsten Foundation, was created.
Although Lyngblomsten is now managed by professional staff, volunteers remain crucial to the operation, which, in addition to the residences, now includes a coffee shop, a gift shop, home health nurses, a senior community center, a respite program for caregivers, and a host of supportive and educational services that enable the elderly and infirm to remain in their own homes whenever possible.
“It’s really neat to see how the volunteers can fit in,” says Montgomery, citing the example of the “Fancy Fingers” crew, a group of high school girls who volunteer to paint the nails of residents.
Volunteers help with all aspects of the work of Lyngblomsten, but the need for volunteer van drivers and wheelchair escorts is especially great, she says.
“We have a 100-year tradition of generous donors and volunteers,” says Montgomery. “We couldn’t do it without them.”