Saving the Nome Schoolhouse

By: 
TR Staff
Staff Writer

By Ellie Boese
treditor@times-online
Nome, North Dakota, sits about a 30-mile drive southwest from Valley City in Barnes County. The town got its start in the way most of North Dakota bloomed: the railroad. In 1900, the Northern Pacific Railway built a station in what was to become Nome, eventually incorporated as a village in 1907. Homes, a bank, a school—they all sprang up in a matter of years, and the town grew into a prosperous, vibrant community.
Nome’s two-story school, a brick building of impressive proportions, was built in 1916, serving as the educational hub for children in and around town. This small town’s population reached its peak in 1940 but soon after found itself in hardship as automobile advances promoted growth in larger cities and war, fire, floods and economic depression affected the Midwest’s railroad companies.
As the number of miles of railroad decreased through the 1930s, the communities along less-used or abandoned sections of rail struggled with rapid drops in population. Each small town, including Nome, had established what was necessary to enjoy prosperity in a rural setting for farmers and citizens who did their business close to home, more convenient than traveling to larger cities. As town populations fell, businesses struggled to bring in sufficient profit and the schools had sa too few students—and teachers—to fill their classrooms.
After adding a gym in 1949, the Nome School struggled with enrollment and closed in 1970. It changed hands many times, used for storage and other purposes, and the unkempt lot and building steadily deteriorated.
Even as its ceilings, floors and walls crumbled, the school is an enduring symbol of North Dakota’s early growth and prosperity, though at the same time serving as a somber reminder of a historic building and the many memories it harbors being consumed by the elements.
But there is now hope for its survival. The two people bringing new life to the school and town of Nome are Teresa Perleberg and Chris Armbrust.
Chris founded and operates the only full-service fiber processing mill in the state, Dakota Fiber Mill, and Teresa is the founder of Bear Creek Felting, which offers designed and sculpted 3D felted sculptures, DIY Needle Felting Kits and more.
Both of their businesses were becoming larger than their home-base locations could accommodate, so they chose to form a partnership.
“We had recently worked together on a project and I had also been a long time customer of Dakota Fiber Mill,” Teresa says. “We decided to partner our Businesses into Shepherd Industries, LLC so that we could grow our combined businesses even larger and share our love of the fiber arts with the world.”
Their plan was to build a new facility to house their expanding business, but they had a change of heart in the process.
“We changed our minds and decided we would much rather save an old building, and an abandoned school building seemed ideal,” Teresa says. “So we looked at several school buildings in the area.”
Nome’s derelict brick structure stood out in a way the others didn’t.
“I had admired the school building in Nome for several years and mentioned it to Chris,” Teresa says. “We toured the school and fell in love with it.”
The two were disappointed to learn that the building’s owner had plans to sell to another buyer.
“We found out the destiny for the Nome Schoolhouse—they were going to sell it and tear it down and sell the bricks. That’s what their plan was,” Chris says. “That would be horrible.”
With a goal of changing the owner’s mind, Chris and Teresa shared that their plan was to restore the structure, which earned them the sale.
“We’re totally in love with the school, and we see what it will become,” Chris says. “The setting itself is amazing, so peaceful. You get there and you just don’t want to leave. It just draws you in.”
The extra work in renovating an early-1900s structure versus building something new was clear to the pair, but their dedication to saving the school keeps them pushing forward with the project.
“We knew going in it was going to be more money to renovate such a building than to build new, but you can’t build character and buildings like that have soul,” Chris adds. “All the memories—you can’t build that into a new building.
The pair’s plan is to renovate the school and surrounding property into a Fiber Art Retreat Center, event center, Bed and Breakfast and retail store.
“What it will become,” Teresa shares, “is something that’s needed in the area for events, weddings.”
As they face a hefty task in the school’s restoration, the project far exceeded their initial budget.
“The most challenging part of this whole process has probably been the blown budget,” Chris says. “It’s requiring us to seek out a cosigner for the remaining over-the-original-budge of one million. Now we’re looking at two to three million.”
“We never wanted to ask for money when we started this,” Teresa says. “That was never our plan. We thought we had it covered. We’d gotten the appraisal and the funding. We do hope to bring the budget down to a more manageable level, but we still need a little bit of help with the funding. We hope that people can see our vision and come alongside us and want to save the school as much as we do. It all adds up, but it’s worth it.”
There is no doubt that the community is eager to offer support to an architectural endeavor that will once again bring life to the rooms, stairways and halls of this once-bustling historic school. The building, once rotting and disappearing behind a thick mask of trees, will cease its decline and continue to serve as a tangible relic of the state’s early boomtown days.
“Bringing life back to Nome is pretty amazing,” Teresa says. “It was a thriving city at one time and now it’s a beautiful, quiet setting with wonderful people in the community.”
Though the budget has created extra bumps and hurdles in Chris and Teresa’s plan, the community’s response—from area residents as well as alumni, faculty, and staff who remember the school in its glory day—and the pair’s love for this building and its value that keeps them moving forward.
“The support has shocked us and brought this project to a level that we didn’t even expect,” Chris says. “The memories that folks have come forward with and shared, how much they love their school—the teachers, the staff that taught there and the folks that live in nome, how they’ve welcomed us. It’s been amazing, absolutely amazing.”
“We don’t want to let them down,” Teresa adds. “They’ve supported us so much. We’ve made many new friends through this in the community of Nome, and all over the US with the alumni that went to Nome.”
Both admit that it would be much easier to abandon the Nome project and instead build a new facility, but they’re confident that’s not their calling. They’re dedicated to bringing the building and the town of Nome new life, resurrecting a piece of the once-bustling town.
“If we let it go, it will be torn down,” Chris says. “It’d be a lot easier to just scrap it and build a new building, but it’s not what we’re meant to do.”
Teresa echoed that sentiment: “If we had to abandon the project, we’d be crushed.”
Right now, Chris and Teresa continue to work with architects and engineers to finalize plans for the finished product.
“We’re just about there with our final floor plan, how the school is going to be laid out and how we’re going to use the room,” Chris says. “We can’t get bids from electric, plumbing that we need until we have those final floor plans so they can go off of hem.”
They are optimistic that those architectural plans will be nailed down soon so they share them with the public and move forward with the project.
As part of the now increased costs of the renovation, Chris and Teresa are launching a campaign to raise funds for the project’s completion.
“We have a Kickstarter campaign going until May 31 to give those interested the opportunity to help us save this beautiful school,” Teresa says.
With the intrinsic value of saving an old building so symbolic of our county and state’s past, it’s vital that the community support Teresa and Chris in their work to preserve this part of Nome’s history.
You can check out Chris and Teresa’s video about saving the Nome Schoolhouse on Teresa Perleberg’s YouTube Channel, and donate to the Saving the Nome Schoolhouse Kickstarter Campaign page, which you can get to by visiting kickstarter.com and typing “Nome” in the search bar. There are some neat rewards that come with pledging donations, not only that of being part of saving a historic gem but also bonuses like window decals, hats, ornaments, coffee table photo books, gift certificates, pre-construction tours and more, depending on your pledge. Learn more about Teresa and Chris and the Nome Schoolhouse project at their website, nomeschoolhouse.com.
You can also contact Teresa and Chris at 701-238-4002 or teresa@bearcreekfelting.com.

Category: