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Old northwest Minnesota school turned into Airbnb

The 1950s school house, renamed the Middle River Legacy Center, serves up nostalgia to guests, who sleep in classrooms, have access to the library and can play in the gym and on the playground outside the school.

Middle River Airbnb.jpg
A night in a former classroom at the Middle River Legacy Center starts at $55, with access to the gymnasium, library and shared lounge included.
Contributed / Airbnb
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MIDDLE RIVER, Minn. — In Middle River, Minnesota, a $1 purchase turned into an unexpected community destination.

After the Middle River School closed in 2018, the Middle River City Council bought the building from the Greenbush Middle River School District for $1. Now, the 1950s school house, renamed the Middle River Legacy Center, serves up nostalgia to guests, who sleep in classrooms, have access to the library and can play in the gym and on the playground outside the school.

“Really unexpectedly, it’s been bringing a lot of people into town,” said Sandra Melby, who runs the service. “There are a lot of people that really like the idea of coming to stay in a school house with their families.”

Classrooms turned guest rooms are rented out to guests through the website Airbnb , with Melby serving as the host.

The building was not intended to become an Airbnb initially, said Melby. The City Council vote to purchase the school in 2018 was nearly unanimous, but at the time of purchase, city leaders did not have a plan for how the building would be used . One of the conditions on the $1 sale was that the building could not be used to house a school that would be in competition with the district that sold it.

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The city put together a committee of residents, called the Middle River Legacy Committee, to be in charge of upkeep and fundraising for the building.

“I was there for the first couple of years just kind of looking at the costs and trying to get ideas from alumni and citizens on how they would like to see the space being used,” said Melby.

The biggest fundraising event was Skipperpalooza, an all-class reunion in July 2019. The event had live music, a dance, parade and bonfire. To end the weekend-long reunion, generations of Skippers gathered at a church service, and by the end, $100,000 had been raised toward the building.

For the first year, money went into paying bills and keeping the building heated. Melby said whenever they could, the Legacy Committee tried to get the community into the building with community events like movie nights, book club and dodgeball tournaments.

“It wasn’t used on a daily basis, and that was really the problem,” said Melby. “When a building isn’t used every day, stuff happens. Maybe there’s moisture somewhere that isn’t noticed right away or maybe a musty smell, just the things that happen.”

Then, about a year ago, the City Council and Legacy Committee heard about people in the area looking for long term, temporary housing, which is where the idea to create an Airbnb started. The Legacy Committee purchased furniture and converted the elementary wing into an Airbnb. It opened for guests in March 2020.

Six classrooms were converted for guests, with three serving as short-term rentals, popular during the summer and hunting season, and three serving as long term rentals, which are used by people coming to work in the area for weeks at a time. There are shared bathrooms near the rooms, with original foot-pedal sinks, as well a private shower, added by the city. Guests also have access to a shared lounge with stoves, refrigerators and a washer and dryer. The dormitory-style accommodations cost $55 a night, with a two-night minimum stay.

Middle River Airbnb Lounge.jpg
The shared lounge has stoves, refrigerators and a washer and dryer.
Contributed / Airbnb

“We said from the beginning that we can’t afford to do huge renovations, what we have is desks and tables and things that were left behind,” said Melby. “That’s what’s in the school and that’s what people get to experience when they come to stay.”

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Middle River Airbnb 4.jpg
Guests have access to the gymnasium, library and playground.
Contributed / Aribnb

Melby thinks guests like the small town experience they get when they stay at the schoolhouse. In the summer, guests can go to the community garden and attend games at the nearby baseball diamond. In the winter, an ice skating rink and sledding hill are a short walk away.

“You’re not getting anything fancy, but people do seem to like to come and experience a small town atmosphere.”

While the elementary wing now houses guests, the rest of the building still serves as a community space.

A church called Open Door Ministries holds services in the former music room. A local repair shop rents out the garage, and Miss North Star Pageant rents out office space in the high school wing. People can rent out the cafeteria and gymnasium for events like parties or family get-togethers, and the city sells gym memberships. A book club is run out of the library, and the Legacy Committee is working with the Northwest Regional Library to set up a satellite library in the space.

“We’ve had big concerts and pageants, we’ve had people renew their vows this year, which was really exciting, and family get-togethers,” said Melby. “It really is a spot where people want to get together and do something.”

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Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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