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Published October 04 2013

A hunter’s haven: Women turn Verona school rooms into hunters' get-away

VERONA, N.D. - Marlene Dahl recently recalled memories while standing on the stage in the old Verona school gymnasium.

One class donated the cardinal mascot painting at half court. A flag on the wall was given by the class of 1989. Another was donated by a former teacher.

“Verona’s always been a homey school,” said Dahl, who used to teach music there.

When the school closed in 2005, the building could have gone to waste, but Dahl and fellow Verona school alums Jan Ballinger, Kristy Maley, Janice Cropp and Eldean Plessner worked hard so that wouldn’t happen. They wanted to preserve it as a community center and resource.

But that takes money.

“And new money, not community money, because you can go to the community only so much,” Maley said.

What they created was the Bear Creek Lodge, a hunter’s get-away about 100 miles southwest of Fargo. Funds produced by the lodge, which is located in a portion of the former school building, help support Verona’s community center, housed on the other side of the building.

Pins mark locations on a map of the U.S. that hangs near the door of the old school. They represent visitors to the hunting lodge in this town of 85 people: from California and Maine, to Florida and Montana, and Hawaii and Alaska.

“It was too good a building to just let it fall apart,” Dahl said.

History and help

The city of Verona purchased the building for a nominal fee shortly after it closed.

“We said, ‘Will you let us try and make this a viable business so that we can make this part of the school pay for when we use the gym area for community events and such?’ ” Maley said. “They said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

Doing that meant a lot of work. The women set out to build a lodge on a shoestring, budget, taking on do-it-yourself projects, going bargain shopping at rummage sales, and more.

“We took chalkboards off and we painted. We scrounged for paint,” Ballinger said.

A big challenge early on was keeping the facility from freezing up.

Dahl remembers a meeting they had on Oct. 1, 2005, when the treasurer said they had $900 and some leftover fuel.

“Nine hundred dollars to go into a winter in North Dakota” with a large building, Dahl said.

“Well, that first winter was not so cold and then we had another winter that was not so cold,” Dahl said. “I mean, we all believe that the good Lord is here helping us get through this because there are things that happen and there’s no other way to explain it, how it happened, unless you have somebody of a higher power that’s helping us through this.”

They did their best to milk the fuel for all it was worth that first year.

When the temperature in the gym dropped to about 37 “we’d fire the boiler,” Maley said. When they thought it was good, they’d shut it off.

“And then when the gym went down to 37 again, we’d fire up the boiler,” she said.

In 2011, the group was awarded a federal grant for $100,000 to purchase a money-saving electric boiler, and another $50,000 for lighting.

Help also came at the regional level, and from the community.

“They listened to what we needed,” Maley said. “They’d call us up and say, ‘We’re getting a new couch, could you use a couch?’ Yeah. ‘We’re getting new carpet. Do you want to come look at the carpet and see if that will work?’ Yeah, we’ll do that.”

One day Dahl was at AgCountry Farm Credit Services in Lisbon. FCS was remodeling and had some carpet free for the taking.

“So I brought the trailer down there,” Dahl said, “and, next thing, they said, ‘Well, do you want these chairs too?’ because it matched the carpet they were taking out.”

They also picked up some blinds. They got beds that came out of the Wingate in Fargo. They got tables and chairs from the Subway restaurant in Lisbon.

The lodge today

Plessner is no longer directly involved with the lodge. She’s 88 years old and moved to Oakes, about 16 miles from Verona. But she still helps get the word out and sends referrals, Maley said. And her heart is still there too.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Plessner said. “It makes me so proud that I was part of it at the very beginning.”

Named for a creek near town, the Bear Creek Lodge has nine large rooms and one smaller room the four ladies refer to as the “honeymoon suite.”

In addition to renting rooms, Bear Creek Lodge brings in money by renting out the community area for events. There’s also an annual gun show, which is Nov. 2 and 3 this year.

Anyone can stay at the lodge, but it’s clearly designed to be hunter friendly. Dogs are allowed in the rooms. The walls are graced with images of wild game. There’s a heated hut for cleaning animals. And there are racks designed specifically for hunters’ waders.

“That’s our wader hanger upper,” Maley said.

The rack was built by custodial/maintenance/special projects man Jack Rourke, whose been helping at the lodge for years.

Maley said having the community center helps the Verona community preserve its identity. It also provides the community with a place for local functions.

Cropp believes having a place where people come together and work on events helps “cement the community.”

“If you don’t work together, you’re just on your own merry way,” she said.

Bear Creek Lodge prices are reasonable: $35 per head, with a discount rate available for customers who want to rent other space in the facility. Despite the multibed layout in most of the rooms, Bear Creek can accommodate individuals and small families.

Maley said the lodge is financially self-sustaining. She, Ballinger, Dahl and Cropp donate their time.

“So we have to work at the budget harder because at some point someone will have to be hired to do what we do,” Maley said.

Keeping the facility alive so Verona has a community center is a labor of love.

“This project’s been in our heart from day one,” Maley said. “And it still is.”

And the plan is working.

“We said at our first meeting, instead of just letting it go, we’ll try. And if we fail, we at least tried,” Dahl said. “Well, this is our eighth year.”

BUSINESS INFO

What: Bear Creek Lodge

Where: 205 7th St., Verona, N.D.

Info: (701) 432-5812; www.facebook.com/bearcreek.lodge.3


Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734