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‘Turtle Lady’ brings signature reptile to Perham celebration

Perham's Lynette Henderson with some of the fabric turtles she has made for the Turtle Fest celebration. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Kelcee Newton

Money is not the reason that Lynnette Henderson, AKA “the Turtle Lady,” toils away at her sewing machine all year long making fabric turtles. It’s seeing the kids every year as they choose a new turtle to add to their collection that brings her the most joy.

And because everyone who comes to Turtle Fest week has different tastes, she said, she makes sure the turtles are unique from year to year.

“I have hauled fabric home from either coast when I’m on vacation,” she said. “I’m always looking (for fabric).”

Henderson loves kids and loves making the various-sized turtles each year. She started making them about 32 years ago, when she was asked to be the “Turtle Lady.” Back then, she made about 10 to 12 turtles for the Perham Chamber of Commerce, which sold out right away, she said. She now makes about 1,500 turtles for the summer season.

Since she began making the turtles, she estimates she has made approximately 26,000 to 30,000 turtles.

Depending on the size, prices range from $5, $7, $10, and all the way up to $30.

These days, she makes more of the $5 sizes because the smaller-sized turtles travel better, she said.

And she has kept the original turtle prices for more than three decades.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the kids,” Henderson said. “I like to see kids and if it was about the money I would be charging more...but I like to see them happy.”

Being from a family of 10, Henderson gets lots of help from her nieces, nephews and other family members to help her during Turtle Fest week.

“A grandpa that volunteers here, he came up last year and told me that his grandchildren now have 96 turtles,” said Henderson.

She has noticed customers from past summers come up and look very thoroughly through the totes for a unique turtle to add to their collection. Henderson found out that some of the customers have turtles from when they were babies, she said.

“A 19-year-old girl came looking through the totes last year, and said, ‘well I got one from each year, and I am trying to find my 19th one’,” said Henderson.

In the past, Henderson has sewn many different things, from clown costumes to pontoon covers, and replaced zippers. An industrial machine allows her to make several hundred sets at a time, making the project quick and easy. She fashions the turtles from rectangular or triangular shaped fabric swatches.

“I love sewing so if I feel like sewing I just sit down (at my machine),” she said. “I always have boxes of stuff ready to go.”

After sewing the major parts of the turtle, she starts to sew by hand, using what she calls a “whip stitching” to attach the head of the turtle to its body.

Rain or shine Henderson plans to be at the turtle races a couple days during Turtle Fest, which opens today (Wednesday) and continues through Sunday, June 19 in Perham.

When it’s raining, people come knocking on her window wearing rain boots and slickers, she said.

“They ask if I’m the turtle lady, and so I let them dig through the totes” said Henderson.

On pleasant days she will have turtles on racks at City Park, the official turtle race location, near the Chamber of Commerce building.

“I like to have 200 of them on the rack so (people) have enough choices,” Henderson said.

Since the early days of making the first turtles, constructed using 28 pieces, she has “modernized the process and pieces” down to nine, she said, adding “It would have taken thousands of hand stitches” to pull the little reptiles together.

In 32 years of making the turtles, Henderson has kept only four, one being an original made with 28 pieces.

Kelsee Newton

Graduated from Perham High School in 2009 and graduate from Minnesota State University of Moorhead in 2015 with a  degree in English and Mass Communications. Newton covers the city beat and feature writer for the Perham Focus.

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