A sign outside Nome, N.D., a few years back displayed the quiet sense of humor shown by those who live in this hamlet southeast of Valley City: “Drive slowly. We’re still here.”

As of 2019, the most recent estimate available, 56 people called Nome home. The town never amounted to much, but it had an impressive brick school with a half-moon window over the entrance that was the pride of the community.

The school fell victim to falling enrollment as the surrounding population dwindled and closed decades ago. In the years since, the former schoolyard became overgrown with trees and bushes as nature began to reclaim the site.

The building became a dilapidated ruin and seemed beyond salvage when it caught the eyes of Chris Armbrust and Teresa Perleberg, a pair of fiber manufacturers and artists.

What began as hobbies grew and flourished. The two joined forces, bringing together Bear Creek Felting and Dakota Fiber Mill under one roof — a roof that leaked before receiving a $4 million restoration that took three years of work.

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The former schoolhouse now is an amalgam that manages to include a fiber-arts center, fiber farm, fiber mill, boutique hotel and events center. The fiber, made into yarn, comes from sheep, alpaca, goat, camel, bison and even angora rabbits.

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It’s an understatement to say that raising money for the transformation of the ramshackle school was a challenge. But people from the area, eager to give new life to the old school, chipped in with $100 donations. A school graduate came through with a conventional loan.

The renovated Nome Schoolhouse is home to Shepherd Industries, which encompasses the full spectrum, shearing to the sale of finished wool products. The business has grown steadily and last year brought in $800,000 in revenues. That’s an impressive amount of fleece.

Restoration of the Nome Schoolhouse is an unusual blend of the commercial and social. It’s real accomplishment goes far beyond an ambitious do-it-yourself remodeling project.

It has created a gathering place that serves as a community hub. It’s a place for people to come together, for connections to be made, for ideas to flourish. It’s a source of community pride for the area.

The work of Chris Armbrust and Teresa Perleberg and their many helpers shows what a spark of creativity and a lot of hard work can accomplish. Too often, stories about rural communities are about decline and loss.

The story of the Nome Schoolhouse is a story about rebirth and new beginnings. It’s an inspiring example of what cooperation and dedication can achieve. It should serve as a model for other rural communities.

The project is a testament that big things can still happen in the tiniest of towns. So when you’re driving by Nome, slow down. They’re still there.