It had been years since the former students of the only school in Nome, North Dakota had been back in their gymnasium. A mixture of alumni, friends and family visited with each other around circular tables draped with black tablecloths as they waited for the buffet dinner to be unveiled. The shrill tone of a scoreboard buzzer caught their attention, and the conversations slowly quieted. After a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Nome Alumni 37th Biennial Reunion was officially under way. Everything about the event embodied a good ol’ small-town high school reunion—except the transformative adaptive reuse of the school building itself.
Although the Nome Alumni Association hosts the reunion every two years, it has not been in the school building itself since the school closed in 1970. It sat empty for years until new owners Chris Armbrust and Teresa Perleberg purchased it in 2018 with plans for renovations and a new life as a hotel and “fiber arts retreat center.” The alumni booked the date for the 2021 reunion soon after, and over 100 students, family and friends were welcomed back five days before the building’s grand opening on July 1.
“That’s what’s bringing so many people back here, because the school is renovated,” said Barbara Roberts, secretary of the Alumni Association and member of the final graduating class of 1966. “They [Chris and Teresa] are women with a vision.”
Before its transformation, the Nome School appeared on a variety of websites with titles like “Ghosts of North Dakota” and “Abandoned Midwest”, a forgotten relic of a small town. Other entries on the sites chronicle more schools, but also churches, bridges and even entire towns. But around the Midwest—and the country—people have begun to see the value of preserving these old buildings and breathing new life into them as housing, community spaces, art exhibits and, for the Nome Schoolhouse, a fiber arts center, hotel and event space all in one.
Armbrust had a business in fiber processing, making yarn and roving from the fur of a variety of animals. Perleberg’s endeavor was in felting, including making needle-felt sculptures and designing kits for people to make their own. They came together under the umbrella of Shepherd Industries, LLC, and needed a new place to house it, with the added stipulation that it could fit Armbrust’s fiber processing mill.
“I had been thinking of these old schools that are all over North Dakota for a long time,” Perleberg said. “And I always thought that a gym would be a perfect place, and they’re sitting empty everywhere.”
They ran into trouble when it came to funding the project. They went to eight different banks but despite having a plan and successful businesses of their own, they couldn’t get a loan.
Support eventually came from Nome alumnus Ron Anderson. Anderson became a successful manufacturer as one of the founders of A&K Development Co., which specializes in corn husking equipment and other farming machinery. Armbrust and Perleberg presented their business plan, and he agreed to give them a loan to move forward.
“He’s an amazing business man himself, and for him to recognize [our business] and see the value…it’s pretty humbling,” Armbrust said.
The building was given a pretty extensive update. The former elementary school classrooms on the first floor house the company’s retail store and a museum with photos and memorabilia from the school, which features photos and yearbooks for visitors to peruse. The upper floor’s classrooms are now hotel rooms. The back half of the original school building and the old gymnasium are spaces for events. The lower level is the new home of the fiber mill, which visitors can tour.
Still, Armbrust and Perleberg preserved parts of the original school. The gym’s James Storhoff, the Vice President and Program Coordinator of the alumni association, noticed the worn treads left on the stairs. A chemistry sink became a bathroom sink. Sports trophies still occupy a case and a table in a hallway. A felt elephant sits in an old drinking fountain.
“[It’s] spectacular,” said Janice Plecity, who graduated in 1952. “It’s just great that they can renovate something like this and make good use of an old building.”
Armbrust and Perleberg posted updates on the renovation on Facebook. Perleberg’s own business was completely online, so she understands the value of a social media presence. The goal was always to attract people from around the world, and to help them understand what they were trying to do.
Vicki Gipple, who attended the school for grades 4, 5 and 6, saw the story of the renovation on Facebook before she knew there was a reunion planned. When one of her sisters mentioned a “big reunion,” she looked it up and signed up as soon as she could.
“I would recognize the outside of the school, but once I got in here with all the changes they’re doing now, I really did not recognize any of it,” Gipple said. “I’m looking at it through the eyes of an eight-year-old, nine-year-old.”
On the day of the reunion, once Alumni Association official business was settled, the fun started. Former cheerleaders sang school songs and shook red pom poms. Students reminisced about “play days,” where they competed against other schools in the area in field events. They laughed knowingly at the names brought up in stories. They also honored the chosen classes for this year. The representatives from the class of 1961 were two men, both with the last name Johnson, but who were not brothers. The largest group was from the class of 1960. When the association officers tried to get them to speak, they went around repeating the same message: “Glad to be here.”
Armbrust and Perleberg held back tears through their own speech, overwhelmed by the welcome and “in awe” of meeting people they’d seen while studying old yearbooks. Throughout the night, they were affectionately referred to as “the girls.”
A date has already been set for the next reunion in 2023, once again inside the school itself. It’s hard to say how many students will attend, whether that be due to distance or aging or something else entirely. Some, though, have already made their plans to return.
“I will come back next year for next year’s reunion, because I think it’s great,” Gipple said. “I love it.”