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The Nome Schoolhouse: From schoolhouse to fiber arts center and more

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor 3/8/2022 1:08:24 PM

When Teresa Perleberg and Chris Armbrust teamed up on a fiber arts project in 2018, it became the catalyst for a partnership that led to the renovation and expansion of the Nome Schoolhouse in Barnes County in southeast North Dakota. Opened in 2021, the schoolhouse is now home to a fiber arts center, boutique hotel, community events center, and one of a handful of fiber mills in the nation.

Finding Fiber Arts

Perleberg and Armbrust found their way to the fiber arts on separate paths. Perleberg began raising sheep in 2006 when she and her husband purchased a lamb for their daughter’s eighth birthday. “We bought one lamb and that has now grown to 300,” she notes of the registered Romney sheep her family now raises, along with cattle, on their farm near Fort Ransom. 

That same year, she began needle felting and, in 2008, started her business and Etsy shop, Bear Creek Felting.

In 2010, Armbrust started her business, Dakota Fiber Mill, while raising four alpacas on her farm near Kindred. “I was hand spinning my own yarn and my alpaca sheerer encouraged me to start a fiber mill because there were so few in the nation. I told him I would pray on it and six months later I was running a fiber mill from my farm.”

She was soon processing yarn and roving from sheep, alpaca, goat, camel, bison, and more, and processing a line of yarn called Dakota Spun. Perleberg became a regular customer of Dakota Fiber Mill. “We then collaborated on a project to make a 100% wool felting cushion,” says Armbrust, noting this was a request of many of Perleberg’s customers.

“Chris was working with North Dakota State University Engineering students to build a felting machine that would make thicker wool, up to 1.5 inches, which would be perfect for the wool felting pillow,” says Perleberg.

The machine was successful in developing the wool for the felting pillow, which remains a very popular item today. “We can’t keep it in stock and the felting machine is almost solely used to make these pillows,” notes Perleberg. “This was the first time we worked together, and we decided it could grow both of our businesses.” 

 

Creating A “Fiber Arts Mecca”

Armbrust says she always had dreams of creating a large building on her property to house a creative space for events and education. When she partnered in business with Perleberg to form Shepherd Industries, LLC, she knew she had met another dreamer. “We said, ‘Let’s go big and build a mecca for fiber arts and creators of all,’” she says.

While on a trip to Montana to buy lambs and wool, they decided to pursue renovating an old schoolhouse. “We had looked at many schoolhouses in the area, but we weren’t sure they were what we were looking for,” says Perleberg. “We looked at the Nome Schoolhouse, did the research to find out who owned it and bought it the same week.”

The Nome Schoolhouse was built in 1916 and the Quonset-style gym was added in 1949. In the coming decades, there was a marked decline in rural school populations. The high school was closed in 1966, and the elementary school in 1970. The school building was sold and used for storage, and the school district dissolved in 1972.

Shepherd Industries purchased the building and surrounding land in October 2018 and work began with engineers and architects to plan the renovation and addition. The project then came to a standstill for a year while the business partners worked to secure funding for the renovations. “Many, many banks turned us down, because we weren’t an established business and too much of a risk,” says Perleberg. 

 

Community Support

Nome School alum Ron Anderson first heard about Perleberg and Armbrust’s plans for the schoolhouse at an all-school reunion in the summer of 2018. “Teresa and Chris put on a presentation of what their intention was for the school,” he notes. “I could tell they were really focused and had a really good chance of making this work.”

After meeting with the two a few times, he knew he wanted to help get the project underway, but also realized the risk of such a project. “I said I would do the financing, but they would need to use everything they owned as security. I told them to think about, and to check with their families, and everyone was onboard,” says Anderson.

He agreed to provide financing for the project long enough for the business to develop a history and qualify for business funding. “The help they needed from me was the risk capital,” says Anderson. “I saw and had enough confidence in these ladies and their families to help them get over that hump. They sacrificed everything to make this happen.”

“To start, it was just us here and our families working,” says Perleberg, adding they worked together to clear brush outside of the school and any additional projects they could start in the building. Construction then moved forward on the project in 2019 with an $800,000 starting budget. “We had started the project and the budget kept going up, but we couldn’t stop, we had to just roll with it,” she says.

Construction first focused on completing the gym for event space. “We worked really hard to get the gym finished in 2020,” says Armbrust. “Teresa and I single-handedly grouted the brick in the gym. We were doing anything we could do ourselves to save money.” 

“Then COVID hit, and nothing was happening,” Perleberg continued, adding the cost of construction materials skyrocketed. “There were so many times we were saying, ‘What are we doing?’”

The business partners forged ahead with the help of their families and the community. “We weren’t sure how the community of Nome would accept us and welcome us. They were very supportive of what we were doing and so many people volunteered and continue to help us,” says Perleberg.

The first event held at the renovated schoolhouse was the Nome All-School Reunion in June 2021. More than 150 people from across the country attended the event. “It was amazing,” says Perleberg. “They had planned this to be the first event scheduled at the schoolhouse. You could just tell how dear this school was to all of them.” 

 

Open for Business

The Nome Schoolhouse is now a venue for fiber arts retreats, corporate and community events and weddings, with 11 guest rooms and camping on-site. On-site and online stores also boast Nome Schoolhouse attire as well as fiber arts kits and supplies, and the fiber mill is spinning fibers for products distributed across the globe. Two additional members have also been added to the team, with Perleberg’s daughter, Libbie, serving as the on-site chef and Armbrust’s daughter, Katie, serving as the events coordinator.

With fiber arts retreats underway, attendees are also praising the facility and classes, often returning to learn and explore their crafts. Kalle Godel first attended a felting retreat in November 2021. “I was researching felting projects and came across Ewe Tube (see sidebar). I was so excited about what they were doing with the Nome Schoolhouse and felting.”

She says the experience was more than she expected, and she was equally impressed with the facility. “It was really calm and peaceful and a great place to get away,” says Godel. “There was room to craft and to eat, but what impressed me most was they kept the feel of the old schoolhouse, but it was modernized.”

“The retreat felt very personal,” she continues. “Whether it was your first time felting or you have been doing it for years, everyone was willing to help. There were people from all over and all different walks of life and we are now connected and have stayed in touch after the retreat.” 

Carlee McLeod was drawn to the Nome Schoolhouse through her varied interests in fiber arts. “I’ve always wanted to learn to make baskets because my great-grandfather did,” she notes, adding she also ventured into spinning wool into yarn after purchasing an antique spinning wheel.

McLeod attended three retreats in 2021 and says she is impressed with the instructors. “The basket weaving instructor was fantastic. She really understands the way people learn and focuses on various skills that go into it and how you can move forward on your own,” she notes. “At the fiber arts retreat, the instructors were able to maneuver our personalities, so we didn’t get discouraged. It was unique to be in a room with some many people excited about the same craft.” 

She says she has continued to focus on the fiber arts crafts. “Rarely does a day go by where I don’t do something with what I have learned there,” McLeod says. “We’re getting further and further removed from seeing where things are made. There is a certain satisfaction in making something from North Dakota raw materials into something used in North Dakota.”   

 

The Future

Nome Eweniversity is a 501(c)3 non-profit focused on bringing fiber artists together through educational components. One of those components is providing visitors with the opportunity to learn more about the animals that provide the fibers used in the many projects taught at the schoolhouse. Plans are now in place to refurbish the site’s barn and bring animals to the schoolhouse. “There is so much education that needs to be done,” notes Armbrust.

“We want to show the different fiber animals and be able to tour the mill and then work with the fibers in the end,” says Perleberg, noting it is hoped the project is underway by the spring. “There is so much interest in the animals being on site.” 

The Nome Schoolhouse has welcomed fiber artists from across the country and Perleberg says she is proud of the facility they have created for artists and visitors to the region. “This is something they are interested in, and they will come here,” she notes. “It’s a really cozy place. It feels like home. It’s the perfect place to get away for a project, girl’s weekend or family reunion.” 

“People thought we were crazy to do what we were doing,” adds Armbrust. “This is really a destination for fiber arts lovers.”  

For additional information on the Nome Schoolhouse, visit https://nomeschoolhouse.com/, call 701-850-7764,

or email info@nomeschoolhouse.com.

 

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