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A Tiny MN Town Bought its Old School for $1 and Turned it Into an Airbnb

Yes, guests can use the gym, library, and playground.

Katie Sandum; Airbnb; Google

From 1951 until 2018, the schoolhouse served as the beating heart of the tiny northwestern Minnesota city of Middle River, population 304.

Following much local acrimony, the Greenbush-Middle River School District voted 5-2 to close the building and consolidate students in nearby Greenbush, as reported in the town's local paper, The Honker. (Middle River is our state’s goose capital.). Polling from 2015 suggested the community didn’t support the district’s decision, the Thief River Falls Times reported.

“It was pretty heartbreaking for the town,” says Sandra Melby, whose daughter was one of 27 students that final year at the Middle River schoolhouse. “It was really tough, the school was a big employer, and it’s still kind of the center of our town life.”

The residents of Middle River were determined to save the building; following a nearly unanimous vote, they bought it from the school district for $1. It would sit mostly vacant for two years, Melby says, while the city brainstormed ways to cover its substantial upkeep costs. 

Sitting between the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and the Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area, Middle River attracts hunters from around the state as well as seasonal workers. The nearest hotel, however, is 20 miles away. So last year the city council cooked up an “absolutely bonkers” idea for the ol’ schoolhouse, Melby says. It’d become an Airbnb—complete with a gymnasium, library, cafeteria, and playground for guests to enjoy. 

“We’ve never heard of anyone doing this before,” Melby, who manages the listing for the city, says with a laugh. “But we were willing to try it. It’s been working out really well.”

Active since last march, the schoolhouse Airbnb includes four converted classrooms that function as bedrooms. Melby describes the layout as a family-style hostel.

A private-ish communal shower room was installed for guests, though the locker rooms remain open. The former home ec space—featuring three ovens, three fridges, a smart TV, and piano—has been transformed into a kitchen/lounge. Guests are welcome to shoot hoops in the gym, browse the library selection, and even get nostalgic over those throwback shared sinks that operate with a foot pedal–’member those? 

Out back, where the grounds abut the city’s eponymous river, you’ll find the playground, baseball diamond, and community garden. 

“This past summer, guests would come out, buy a hot dog, and watch the baseball games.” Melby says. “Guests could pick tomatoes and Brussel sprouts; I’d find ‘em watering the garden or weeding.” 

The only “kerfuffle” came from large hunting parties who tracked blood speckles and mud through the halls, Melby reports, but “that’s to be expected.” Family and class reunions have been gentler on the property; a writer is currently booked for multiple weeks as they finish a book. With rates starting at just $55 per night, the schoolhouse has earned rave reviews so far on Airbnb. 

"This was so much fun!" writes guest Angie. "We had a blast playing in the gym and with the toys in the family room. I cooked for Thanksgiving in the lounge."

"Sandra was a perfect hostess for our family quilting get-together," writes Lois. "Reasonably priced and the accommodations were perfect!"

The city has discovered creative ways to utilize the schoolhouse for itself. Affordable gym memberships are offered, a church holds weekly services inside, and a repair shop rents out the former bus garage. The football field was converted into an off-road track that caters to baja racing enthusiasts.

“It’s a big building, there’s a lot of worry about how to pay the bills,” Melby says. “It’s a great resource for the town, we want to keep it going. I would love to see other small towns with old buildings use them like this.” 

Should guests fall in love with Middle River, the city has a lucrative incentive program to lure new residents. You get a free .7-acre lot, building permit, two years of utilities, and, among other perks, a year-long subscription to The Honker.

Click here to read a 2019 City Pages cover story I wrote on the 10 coolest vacation rentals in Minnesota. Middle River's certainly would've made the list.

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