A long-gone gnome comes home at last

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by Dennis Dalman


It was an ordinary October day for Jack and Suzanne Toftey of Sartell. They had just had a bite to eat at Arby’s in St. Cloud. Back at their car in the parking lot, Suzanne happened to glance across the street to a strip mall, and the ordinary day turned extraordinary.

Suzanne became instantly flabbergasted, tongue-tied, nearly paralyzed in a state of disbelief.

“There!” she said, pointing, eyes wide with astonishment. “There’s my gnome!”

Jack, skeptical, looked across the street.

“What?!” he asked.

Then he looked again.

“It is!” he exclaimed. “It’s the gnome!”

It’s as if they were seeing a long-lost child, one who had run away 40 years ago and then suddenly found his way back home again, out of the blue, standing in front of the Uff-Da Vinyl Records shop in St. Cloud.

They crossed the street and gazed with awe and wonder at the wooden figurine. It took a few long seconds for them to realize that yes, it really truly sure-enough is their long-gone gnome. Jack walked into the shop and asked the owner, “Where did you get that gnome?”

The owner, flustered by Jack’s abrupt question, explained he’d bought it from a woman who was selling objects that had accumulated for years in storage at her home. The Tofteys told them their story, and the owner, amazed, quickly offered to give it to them.

They politely declined. Both the Tofteys, though glad to see their old gnome again, decided he looked just fine and happy, their gnome back home holding his Welcome sign in front of a vinyl-records shop.

Gnome appears

Once upon a time, about 45 years ago, when the Tofteys lived in St. Cloud, Jack cut out the shape of a gnome from a piece of plywood about 4.5 feet high.

Then Suzanne, an expert artist, used oil paints to paint it: winter boots, green coat, rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes, huge flowing white beard, tall pointy red hat and its wide yellow sign that says “Welcome” in Norwegian (Velkommen).

They christened their new creation “Nisse,” the Norwegian name (pronounced Niss-uh) for gnome.

Suzanne has long been an award-winning rosemaling artist. Rosemaling is a style of decorative folk-art painting that originated hundreds of years ago in the valleys of Norway. It’s often used as colorful, often floral decorations on plates, cups, chairs, cupboards, boxes and – yes – gnomes.

In fact, she painted the gnome to use as a welcome sign for a rosemaling arts-and-craft show near Glenwood. It was the first of many uses for the wooden figure in the coming years.

Images and stories about gnomes originated in the 1500s, when magic and alchemy were all the rage. They are mythical figures, “little people” with mystical powers who were believed to move through solid earth as easily as people move through air. They supposedly often guarded mines and underground treasures. Eventually, gnomes became staples of folk tales and story books, spritely elf-like fantasy figures, sometimes acting mischievously. Stone or wooden versions of them are often placed in garden beds.

For five years, the Tofteys used Nisse as a whimsical, welcoming figure at yard parties, special occasions, Christmas and at Suzanne’s or other artists’ arts-and-crafts sales, often with balloons tied to it. It had, quite literally, become part of the Toftey family’s lives.

At Christmases, its name became Yulenisse, Norwegian for “Christmas gnome” because gnomes in Norway are often bearers of gifts, like Santa’s elf helpers.

Gnome disappears

One Christmas season 40 years ago, at their home in St. Cloud, the Tofteys placed Nisse in their front yard, and Jack created a huge snow-and-ice bear.

Then, one winter morning, Suzanne looked out a window. She was stunned to see the gnome was gone.

She called the police to say her gnome was missing. The officer, confused, asked her to describe the missing person. She said he is about five feet tall, with a flowing white beard and a very tall pointy red hat. The cop, puzzled, must have thought she was describing some kind of alien as he repeated her description.

Then the police dispatcher, standing nearby and overhearing, said, “Oh, I know! It’s a gnome! Somebody must have stolen her gnome.”

“What’s a gnome?” the officer asked.

She explained.

Then he told Suzanne, “Well, sorry to say this, but you’ll probably never get it back. It’s probably in some college dorm room by now.”

Jack and Suzanne gave up all hope of finding Nisse. They knew they would never see him again.

And then, one ordinary October day 40 years later, after stopping for a bite at Arby’s in St. Cloud, the Tofteys looked across the street and, lo and behold: Welkommen!

Ah yes, Nisse the long-gone gnome is home, and so the story ends – happily ever after.

contributed photo
This is the long-missing gnome with his sign that says “Welcome” in Norwegian. The decorative figurine was created 45 years ago in St. Cloud by Jack and Suzanne Toftey, who are now Sartell residents. The gnome was stolen 40 years ago, and the Tofteys were sure they’d never see it again. Then, one October day, surprise, surprise. Gnomes, after all, are known to be mischievous.

contributed photo
Suzanne Toftey works at painting one of her Norwegian-style bowls. She is a gold-medal award-winning rosemaling painter as evidenced by her creations on the wall behind her.

Author: Dennis Dalman


Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.

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