Fiber artists transform North Dakota schoolhouse into wool house
After spending three years and $4 million turning a derelict school building into a combination fiber-arts center/fiber farm/fiber mill/boutique hotel/events center, Chris Armbrust and Teresa Perleberg might have the last laugh against any skeptics.
NOME, N.D. — A beer salesman is delivering cases of beer and White Claw to the former Nome Schoolhouse, where a major renovation is underway. Contractors' trucks line the front parking lot, a giant blue construction dumpster sits off to the side and many windows are still boarded up.
"What is this place, a museum?" the salesman asks Chris Armbrust as she holds the door open for him. When Armbrust informs him it will be a combination fiber-arts center, event center and boutique hotel, he looks amused. When she tells him they already have reservations from around the world to attend their fiber retreats, he smirks a little.
"So people are going to come all this way to be in Nome, N.D.?" he says, his voice barely hiding the sarcasm.
Armbrust's smile never wavers. She and business partner Teresa Perleberg are used to the doubters. Since the fiber artists/business owners first launched plans to buy the derelict Nome Schoolhouse three years ago and give it new life, they've bumped into skepticism in everyone from lenders to engineers.
The naysayers don't understand that fiber arts have bloomed into big business. Fueled by visual platforms like Instagram, many young DIYers are embracing fiber arts like macrame, weaving and "extreme knitting." The Farm to Table movement has also triggered interest in knowing where our yarn or wool comes from , Perleberg says.
The doubters also underestimated the determination, focus and work ethic of these businesswomen, who each already launched successful fiber-arts businesses, Bear Creek Felting and Dakota Fiber Mill, in their respective communities of Fort Ransom and Kindred, N.D.
After spending $4 million to turn the deteriorating schoolhouse into a combination event center, studio, fiber farm, boutique hotel, fiber mill, education center and personal office space, Armbrust and Perleberg might have the last laugh.
"We had a lot of naysayers at first that didn't have a lot of kind things to say about our ideas and what we wanted to do," Armbrust said in an earlier interview. "Now we're thanking God this plan is coming to fruition."
They say that if a marriage can survive a renovation job, it can survive anything. Apparently, the same applies to a business partnership. The two women bring different but complementary skill sets to their partnership.
Armbrust, tall and gregarious, has worked alongside her contractor husband, Steve, to oversee the hundreds of physical details of the construction. Perleberg, petite and reserved, works behind the scenes, promoting the renovation via videos, social media posts and website updates.
After three years, their partnership seems none the worse for wear. They almost seem like sisters — even finishing each other's sentences when they talk.
Then again, they have known each other for years. Armbrust started Dakota Fiber Mill from her Kindred farm in 2010, where she makes yarn and roving from sheep, alpaca, goat, camel, bison and even angora bunnies.
Perleberg raises sheep and has run Bear Creek Felting from her family's Fort Ransom farm since 2008. She first explored the fiber arts when her daughter, Libbie, asked to learn how to knit. Mom and daughter tried it — and loved it.
Libbie also launched her mom's future as a shepherd when she asked for a lamb for her 8th birthday. Perleberg and husband, Jeff, invested in four Romney ewe lambs. Today, their flock has grown to 130.
Through a local group, Woolly Women, Perleberg learned about needle-felting — a process of repeatedly stabbing wool with a barbed needle in order to stiffen and shape it into a three-dimensional form.
Within two years, Perleberg was selling her felted animal sculptures — known for their lively expressions and realistic details — on Etsy. When she added needle-felting kits to the mix, her business took off.
Armbrust and Perleberg joined forces a few years ago to collaborate on a project making needle-felting pillows. They worked well together and seemed to spark creativity in each other.
In 2018, they formed Shepherd Industries LLC. It is a one-of-a-kind business in which every step of the fiber-art process — from shearing the fiber-animals and processing the wool to selling finished products — would be done in one place.
They just needed to find the place.
The school that Nome built
When the Nome School was built in 1916, Nome was a thriving little community, boasting three grocery stores, two banks and — according to the 1920 Census — a population of 270.
The schoolhouse was an impressive brick edifice, with mission-style woodwork and a graceful half-moon window over the front entrance that added a touch of elegance to a public school building.
During the school's dedication in July of 1916, Deputy State Superintendent of Schools W.E. Parsons gave the dedication address, and the ladies of the town served an estimated 550 during the community supper.
But over time, Nome's population and enrollment dwindled. The high school had to close its doors in 1966, and the grade school followed suit four years later.
The building was sold to local resident Jack Culp who raised Percheron horses and used the school for storage.
After several owners and decades, the structure declined into a decrepit shadow of its former self. An addition behind the building collapsed in on itself. The gym ceiling had so many holes that you could look up and see the sky and look down to find snow on the floor.
Armbrust and Perleberg did their first walk-through of the building in October 2018. Many others might have looked at the collapsing ceilings and buckling floors and figured the school was best left to a wrecking ball.
But they saw possibilities. Underneath the rubble, they saw the beautiful wood, transom windows and doorknobs with filigree details. It still had good bones.
More than casual crafters
Since the renovation started, the partners sat down nearly every week to update their followers on the project's progress via their own "EweTube" channel.
Their delivery is upbeat, even when the project hit the inevitable rough spots. The renovation coincided with COVID-19, which drove up building costs as much as 200%.
Funding became a persistent challenge, Armbrust says. While their businesses are a separate entity, the educational portion of their center qualified them for nonprofit status, which made it possible to apply for grants and hold fundraisers.
In turn, Nome residents were happy to help bring the school back to life. Local folks donated $100 to have their names engraved on commemorative bricks and one alumnus granted them a conventional loan.
"They just embraced it,” Armburst says of the local community.
Another roadblock was less tangible: It was the notion that they were in over their heads and would never complete the project.
Last year, Shepherd Industries brought in $800,000 and has grown steadily every year since its launch, Perleberg says. Even so, she says, they were sometimes treated as "these two crafty women doing their little crafts."
Armbrust nodded, adding: "If it would have strictly been a wedding venue, they would have been all on board with it.”
With the completion of this venture, the partners hope they’ll inspire others to save their historic buildings.
“They build up a steel Morton building and say, ‘Let’s use that instead,'" Armbrust says. "Let’s use what we already have instead of letting it fall apart.”
Getting an old gym into shape
Their first priority was to restore the Quonset-style gym, added in 1949, so they could use it to house their fiber-processing operations and business while the schoolhouse was completed.
Every pine board in the ceiling had to be replaced. The walls needed to be rebricked and grouted — the latter job done by the women themselves. The original tile floor, sloughed away by decades of heavy-equipment storage and repair, was replaced with stained and polished concrete.
“The only thing we haven’t touched are the beams,” Armbrust says.
They built a bar in the gym, along with a mezzanine-level seating area atop the bar. Floor trusses salvaged from the collapsed section of the school were repurposed to support the seating area and to create architectural details like a decorative wall and a fireplace mantle.
The old fire escape was repurposed into steps leading up to the mezzanine. Armbrust and Perleberg added a new handrail, but aged it with a rusty patina, making it the only time during this renovation in which they had to add rust rather than remove it.
Their initial plan was to simply find a space large enough to house their business. But avid community interest in the abandoned school, along with a lack of local event venues and the potential to generate diverse revenue sources, led them to expand their business plans.
This meant they not only needed to give a major overhaul to the school, but also had to build onto it.
The new addition houses offices, a commercial kitchen and a dining room for 110. The dining room is flanked on three sides by large windows, while a brick fireplace forms the heart of the room.
The lower level of the addition will accommodate their wool-processing work, including the nine hulking machines that make up Armbrust’s milling operation and a shipping and assembly area for online orders. Guests will be able to look through a window to see the mill at work.
The top floor of the new addition will house the guest rooms, each with its own bath, architectural details like exposed-brick walls and vintage decor.
The property also includes a very old barn. The fiber-artists plan to keep some of their sheep, llamas and other fiber animals there and in the adjoining pastureland so people can learn about every stage of the process — from lamb to lambswool coat.
The women point out that this complete chain of fiber-processing within one company is so unique that fiber enthusiasts from New Zealand to Kuwait want to visit Nome.
"There's no place in the world where they have all this on one property," Armbrust says.
Classrooms still serve as learning spaces
The owners were determined to save what they could of the hardwood floors. They were able to harvest some replacement flooring from the old Nome theater, which they also purchased from the city for almost nothing and served as handy cold storage for the school’s treasures.
The large, renovated classrooms are pleasant spaces, with high ceilings, light streaming through the windows onto the restored hardwood floors and chalkboards still gracing the walls.
Several classrooms will be used to teach fiber arts, but one has become the gift shop, complete with shelving repurposed from the old Cole Hardware building in Lisbon. There, guests can browse for Nome School T-shirts, felt alpaca insoles from Armbrust's felting machine, Perleberg's popular needle-felting kits or Armbrust's Dakota-grown and processed yarns.
Perleberg's felted animals — Lilliputian elephants, wee zebras and cute camels — stand at attention in display cases. They are petite masterpieces — so lifelike they look like Noah herded his menagerie through a miniaturization machine.
No place like Nome
In the old school building itself, the women found many remnants of the building's past life, including old textbooks and programs from basketball tournaments. These mementos, along with donated items like every issue of "The Nome Flash” school paper from the 1950s, are now displayed in antique glass cases throughout the building.
Nome’s original trophy case will remain, along with the numerous awards won by Nome's championship girls' basketball teams.
Past Nome students might remember the miniature Statue of Liberty that greeted them when they climbed the stairs into the main hallway of the school.
As part of a fundraiser, the statue was purchased in a community auction, then donated back to the school. So Lady Liberty will return to her rightful place in the entry hall, which now receives an extra dash of grandeur from a crystal chandelier overhead.
At last: Nome sweet Nome.