Middle River

I stayed in MN’s famed schoolhouse Airbnb

June 2022

It was already dark when I arrived in Middle River on a summer evening. To get there I had traveled over 330 miles from my home in the Twin Cities. The small NW Minnesota town has a population of 303 people and sits just about an hour south of the Manitoba border. When I arrived at my Airbnb for the night, I wasn’t checking into a hotel or a rental home, I was wheeling my luggage into a retired classroom.

The Middle River Legacy Center – formerly the Middle River Elementary School – is the home base for six popular Airbnb rental spaces. The unconventional opportunity to spend the night in an old, northern Minnesota school has attracted the attention of adventure seekers from far and wide. The inside of the building remains garnished with mementos of the school’s long history, plus a few additions. 


Each rental occupies a former classroom, furnished to maintain its authentic charm. Typical throw pillows and full-sized beds meet blackboard backdrops and writing desks turned nightstands. Décor in the form of rotating globes and American flags come standard. In addition to Airbnb rentals, the space hosts Middle Rivers’ City administrative offices, a local coffee company, a church, a clothing design and alteration business, and a regional link library in the former school library.

Flanked by my colleagues from the University of Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs), we paid a visit to the region to check in on our partner projects happening in other parts of Minnesota. Having heard tons of talk about Marshall County’s newest tourist attraction, we were ready for an adventure.

Night school

Exhausted after a long journey, the rental spaces’ property host, Sandra showed us to our rooms and said goodnight. I unpacked my PJ’s near an inviting doll house and brushed my teeth in a sink conveniently located next to a wall-mounted pencil sharpener. After the lights were out, the space shifted before my eyes. What was a familiar, warm classroom transformed into a suddenly daunting and entirely too big space. I sunk into my allotted bed and stared up at the ceiling drop tiles.

Image caption: Memories from yesteryear. Photos and mementos are displayed throughout the Legacy Center.

“Do you think this place is haunted?” I mock-whispered out loud, only half joking.

“Oh, FOR SURE,” replied my travel buddy and work bestie, Shaylyn, from her bed across the room. I scanned my shadowy surroundings and secretly felt grateful to have a classmate for the night.

Despite a lifelong love of learning, from kindergarten to college, I was regularly plagued with school related bad dreams. Everything from zombie lunch ladies to forgotten pants. So, I would be lying if I said that at the time, I wasn’t worried that the excursion would serve as fresh nightmare fuel.

“Too late to turn back,” I thought. And with that, I fell asleep in class.

A beaming community

The next morning, I awoke free of nightmares, well rested, and somehow feeling smarter! (Learning through osmosis, perhaps?) My CERTs colleagues and I started the day with breakfast in a former home economics classroom turned kitchen/dining room/community space. Coffee, pastries, and cereal were provided.

Image caption: While you’re staying in your Airbnb, curl up with a cup of coffee and the latest edition of “The Middle River Honker!”


Next, we took a full tour of the Legacy Center and learned more about the reason for our visit, the center’s massive lighting upgrade. With support from our CERTs Seed Grant program, The Middle River Legacy Program was able to overhaul the building’s dated fluorescent lighting and upgrade the entire place to LEDs. The center expects yearly savings of nearly $7,000. For small towns like Middle River, savings like these can mean the difference between continuing to serve the community and closing the doors for good. 

Image caption: Getting ready for the day in a former school children’s bathroom was awkward, but in a fun way! Not in a horrifying way, like accidentally calling your teacher “mom.”

Building on the momentum from the upgrade, the Legacy Center launched the “Adopt a Light Program.” A devoted following of supporters, ranging from regular community members to alumni of the school, have signed on to contribute $10 a month to keep the center’s lights on. Other fundraising efforts to repair the roof and weight room are also underway.

Before heading home, we tooled around the local community. The town boasts a convenience store, an antique shop, a resident train caboose named Frank, and other noteworthy stops, like Veterans Outdoors, (another CERTs partner!)


On the drive back, my colleagues and I agreed, we were sad to say goodbye to our new favorite small town. So the next time you are in Marshall County in NW Minnesota, consider a stop in Middle River… Top of the class in energy efficient hospitality!

City of Middle River - Legacy Center Energy Efficiency Project 

Clean Energy Focus: LED lighting upgrade (and other efficiency steps from a facility study)

Northwest CERT Seed Grant: $5,000

Other Funds Leveraged: utility rebate, “Adopt-a-Light” community donations, Middle River Legacy Center Fund through the Northwest Minnesota Foundation

Energy Saved Each Year: 28,947 kWh from lighting and 42,708 kWh from heating and cooling setting adjustments

Money Saved Each Year: $5,570

People Involved and Reached: 410


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