What started as the Lighting of the Luminaries featuring white bags with candles lining the sidewalks of downtown Nisswa has evolved 40 years later into an annual tradition for families from both near and far.
Always held the day after Thanksgiving, the Nisswa City of Lights attracts local residents as well as tourists who frequent Nisswa in the summer and then come back for the winter festival.
"At one time we had two big trees down on the highway and one big tree in the chamber block, and Crow Wing Power would use a lift truck to help put the lights on those trees. When those three trees came on in town it was totally impressive."
— Mark Ulm, former City of Lights event chair
The 40th annual event will take place all day Friday, Nov. 26, and will include hay rides around town, bonfires along the Paul Bunyan Trail, visits from Santa Claus, fireworks and more.
"When I was a little kid, Carl Boberg would donate trees and Jim and Ted Dullum would have guys at the marina make wood stands. They’d put trees around town and put lights on them," said Deb Cruz, owner of Adirondack Coffee in downtown Nisswa and daughter of the late Jim Dullum. "We’ve always been doing that here, but it wasn’t necessarily a festival."
Cruz is a former chair of the Festival of Lights committee. Mark Ulm, who with his wife, Kay, bought Zaiser's in downtown Nisswa in 1989, chaired the event for 13 years.
Ulm said that spring after he arrived, Bill Ruhl, from Town & Lakes retail store that was next to Zaiser’s at the time, and Bob Sheplee, from Nisswa Insurance, approached him about hanging lights.
"That fall, Bob and Bill were out with a box of lights and they came into Zaiser's and said, 'We’re getting kind of old to get up on the ladder, can you come out and help us?' So I said sure, I'd help," Ulm said.
Back then the Nisswa Business Council - not the chamber - sponsored the event. All the downtown businesses were decorated and they did a countdown over KLKS Radio so everyone turned the lights on at the same time.
"When I was a little kid, Carl Boberg would donate trees and Jim and Ted Dullum would have guys at the marina make wood stands. They’d put trees around town and put lights on them. We’ve always been doing that here, but it wasn’t necessarily a festival."
— Deb Cruz, former City of Lights event chair
"We decided to start adding some things to the event," Ulm said.
First, they brought Santa Claus to town. Then they added horse-drawn hay rides.
"Well, we outgrew that really quick and we kept adding hay wagons," Ulm said.
There was a contest among businesses for a number of years where teachers from Nisswa Elementary School judged the lighting and a traveling plaque was awarded. Nature's Touch won that plaque many times, Ulm said.
"At one time we had two big trees down on the highway and one big tree in the chamber block, and Crow Wing Power would use a lift truck to help put the lights on those trees," Ulm said. "When those three trees came on in town it was totally impressive. They had big incandescent bulbs on those and an unbelievable number of strands."
They served doughnut holes from Schaefer's Foods and hot apple cider. The festival was originally done on the chamber block. As it got bigger, the horse-drawn wagons were moved to Nisswa Square and the doughnut holes and apple cider moved to the Nisswa Pioneer Village.
The luminaries also moved to the Pioneer Village where they line a sidewalk, carrying on the tradition of the event's origin.
In nearly 40 years, Ulm cited two years where nasty weather - freezing rain one year and an ice storm another year - made the festival a nonevent.
Eventually the business council dissolved and City of Lights became a chamber event. They started selling blinky lights, which was a good moneymaker and allowed the chamber to have more funds to put into the next year's event, Ulm said.
The next big attraction was adding fireworks. Ulm said that idea came from George Holtan, a former shop owner.
"That just took the event to the whole next level," Ulm said. "The event grew so much."
He called it a "Hallmark Christmas experience." Other event chairs through the years besides Ulm and Cruz included Mark Richards and Diane Pogatchnik.
Ulm said Cruz also took the event to the next level, having families and businesses adopt a tree in town for lighting.
Cruz, who lived out of state for several years, described the first year her children experienced the City of Lights, going on wagon rides and getting their faces painted. As evening came, they saw Santa. Then just before the fireworks, snow started falling.
"They were grinning and it was incredible," she said.
"Everybody has brought things to the festival and it changes over time, but it's an investment and a community thing," Cruz said.
Cruz has the event's mission statement on the wall, and the event's purpose includes businesses giving back to the community and saying "thanks" to patrons; showing Nisswa as the ideal of small-town America; introducing the holiday season; providing a venue for local nonprofit civic organizations to promote themselves and raise fund; and promoting the community and not being self-serving to any particular business.
"After all of the kids' smiles and memories are made - the satisfaction of a job well done for all the many volunteers that made this event possible," the statement reads.
Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.