The Central Minnesota
Sustainable Development Plan



Our Story

Population:  1,971                   

Median Age:  50.6

Median Income:  $54,403

Area:  18.34 square miles

Most Common Industry:  Tourism; Retail trade; Manufacturing



Smiley Township was organized on August 21, 1900 and was one of the first townships to be settled in what is now Crow Wing County.  Local resident Leon Lum convinced other residents to rename it Nisswa, from the Ojibwe word "nessawae" (which means "in the middle" or "three"), when the town was incorporated as a village in 1908. On December 4, 1946, Nisswa became a municipality.

Main Street of Nisswa was the old Highway 371. This highway was built by upgrading what was known as the Leech Lake Military Road, created by the Amy Corps of Engineers in 1855. That road was simply a widening of what was known as the Leech Lake Trail used for centuries by Native Americans to travel from the southern part of the state through the area. Smiley was first located at Lake Cullen but because of the railroad gradings, it was moved to what is now Nisswa.   

Smiley Township from very early days was the headquarters for the Mississippi Chippewa, and was the home of Chief Bug-O-Nay-Ger-Shig (Hole in the Day).  He was so named because he was born during an eclipse of the sun. 

The census of 1860 revealed that three white and 37 mixed bloods were living at Gull Lake.  Gull Lake at this time was also commonly called Fish Trap Lake. One of the earliest settlers was John Bishop, who owned what was known as the “Half Way House”, called such because it was about half way between Brainerd and the Jenkins ranch.  His place was a large log house and barn, with room for 50 horses. 

Early in the 1880’s Webb Hill established a stopping place at what is now Nisswa.  Game of all kind could be had by stepping outside the yard.  Wild fruit and berries were in abundance in season.

On May 27, 1898, the Smiley Post Office was established.  William Murray operated a store on the east side of the railroad tracks. Murray’s was a general store where one could buy anything from a set of harness to a needle.  When he ventured to Brainerd for supplies, in places the sand was deeper than the hubs of the wagon wheels.  Travel was slow going; one needed to twist and turn around the stumps and logs left by the logging operations.

In 1897 and 1898 lumbering was still the most important occupation in the township. The logs were tied in a circle when moved and floated across lakes. Then they were floated to a bay where they were “boomed out”.  The logs were run from Nisswa Lake to Gull Lake, then down the GullRiver into the Crow Wing River and thru the Mississippi River.  The laborers lived in camps for the most part. The railroad was built through Nisswa in 1899.  Railroad tracks were built parallel to the Trail and used to transport lumber between Nisswa and Brainerd.  In 1905 the first telephone line was run through Nisswa following the railroad tracks.

In 1901 the first summer cottage was built on Nisswa Lake by Judd LaMoure, a senator from Pembina, North Dakota.  Not long after a second cottage was built just south of the LaMoure cottage.  The small public access between these two cottages was donated by W.H. Hill so that in the future all might have access to the lake.  This was rather farsighted thinking since in those days anyone could go to almost any lake at any place.



The Paul Bunyan Trail now replaced the railroad tracks that once drove through town.  Nisswa is just one stop on this popular 100 mile multi-use trail that runs from Camp Ripley in the south to Bemidji in the north. 

The city of Nisswa Minnesota has seen great change since its early days as a tiny logging settlement.  Its resident population of 1,900 is enlarged seasonally by a wave of visitors and summer residents. Although the city can count some industrial operations in its makeup, commercial services and tourism provide most of its economic base.  Downtown Nisswa and the nearby highway commercial area contain nearly all of the goods and services desired by visitors and residents alike. Twenty-one area motels contain nearly 600 motel units. As a popular Gull Lake area vacation spot for many years, Nisswa has seen its tourism market grow to a multi-million dollar business. Many of the state's major resorts are in the immediate area. Historic Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake was built in 1921 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The service groups in Nisswa are very active and provide visitors and residents alike with celebrations and events throughout the year.   The largest ice fishing contest in Minnesota is held by the Jaycee’s on Gull Lake each year with thousands of dollars in prizes awarded.  Organizations such as the Lions, Sertoma, American Legion, area churches and Women of Today to name a few are all committed to making Nisswa a great place to live. 

Nisswa still retains a small town quality and it can be a relaxing place to live.  The Post Office is still a place where residents meet daily to catch up on news. This is a community that puts itself out there, volunteers are plentiful and supportive; they enjoy working together and it shows.  

Residents identified these specific assets in Nisswa

Natural Assets:

Community built within nature

Several lakes in immediate area

Woodlands surrounding town

“Venice of the North” with lakes all navigable


Cultural Assets:

Northern European heritage

Historical center preserving pioneer history

Disciplines obedience to the law

Enjoys a small town feel

Historic Downtown


Human Assets:

Educators:  elementary school

Wide range of volunteers-civic involvement

Great police & volunteer fire department

Balance between secular & religious values

“Can do” attitude



Social Assets:

Several festivals year round involving community, visitors, and engaging volunteers

Celebrating heritage

Service Clubs:  Lion’s club strong, American Legion, Women of Today

Several churches

Safe town for children

Black Bear 4-H

Post Office-meeting place

 Turtle Races

Ye Old Pickle Factory


Political Assets:

Women of Today

Good leadership from city hall

Chamber of Commerce

Leadership that is free to fail (take risks)

County Commissioners

State Representatives


Financial Assets:

Service oriented businesses

Financial institutions in town

Lion’s Club scholarships



Built Assets:

The Community center

City sewer system

Paul Bunyan Trail

Parks/rec department

Pioneer village

Numerous golf courses with national standing

Community Children’s Library

Elementary school


4 lane highway into town



Participants at this workshop feel their community is on the right track and with the right leadership to help their community to grow.  They want to continue seeing festivals celebrating their past and present, which helps to promote and further the community spirit of volunteering. 

Community Goals

1. Preserve Natural Assets for Youth

2. The community wants to engage the youth more and feel a good match would be in helping to preserve the natural assets that surround Nisswa. 

3. Maintain small town flavor.

4. The community values its small town feel and would like to maintain this flavor without   becoming obsolete or stagnant.  Residents understand the value of life cycles of a town and do not want to halt growth, yet want to keep an eye on the small town charm that is Nisswa.


For more information about Nisswa and all it has to offer, go to or

the Chamber at: