Gwen Archut steps cheerfully over the bat droppings on the gymnasium floor. The room is dark and icy, and crowded with splintery, gray bleachers. But thanks to an impulse buy on...
GAYLORD, Kan. — Gwen Archut steps cheerfully over the bat droppings on the gymnasium floor. The room is dark and icy, and crowded with splintery, gray bleachers.
But thanks to an impulse buy on eBay, this is home.
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Not just this gym — the entire Gaylord Rural Elementary and High School. Gwen and her husband, Oliver, own 30,000 square feet of leaky classrooms, dented lockers and rust-streaked urinals. And they are ecstatic.
They stride the gloomy halls, under burned-out bulbs, and remind themselves that they own it all: The sixth-grade classroom, which they’ve filled with firewood. The first-grade cubbies Gwen uses as a closet. The blackboards Oliver scribbles full of business calculations. The girls’ locker room, painted lilac, where they wash in the communal shower.
Never did they dream of buying so much space for $25,000. Their entire house in Seattle would fit in two classrooms.
True, they’re on the prairie now, one hour from the nearest McDonald’s, in a town of 97. Gaylord’s streets are rutted dirt. There’s not much to do on an autumn night except go skunk hunting. But the Archuts find life fuller here.
“There’s a difference between living and existing,” said Oliver, 35, who builds recording equipment. “In Seattle, we were just existing. Here, we can live.”
That same calculation is drawing others to fading towns across the heartland.
In the past year, at least a dozen communities have turned to eBay to sell schools shuttered for lack of kids. They have attracted tremendous interest from entrepreneurs seeking a bargain and an escape.
The schools are cheap, generally priced at $1 to $3 a square foot. They’re big, too, and some are beautiful — solid brick with hardwood floors and quaint cupolas. In most small towns, there are no zoning ordinances to limit commercial or industrial activity. And the communities offer a refuge from the anxious anonymity of urban life.
“Not only do you know your neighbors, but everybody really does drop by for a cup of sugar,” said Suzanne Azzarella, 33.
She and her business partner moved their engine-sales business from Phoenix to McCracken, Kan. (population 210) in May and can’t get over how much costs have dropped. They haven’t lost a single item to theft. They own three times as much space as they rented in Phoenix, for half the cost. They have so much room, in fact, that they’re thinking of opening a microbrewery in the elementary school and confining their engine business to the middle school.
They bought both buildings on eBay for $49,500, astounding the local school district, which had tried for more than a year to give the buildings to charity but found no takers.
Civic leaders in Paradise were equally surprised when an eBay posting for their grade school drew 37,000 hits in a few weeks. None of the council members in the town of 65 owns a computer, so a local cattle rancher had to sort the bids.
In Morland, Kan., more than 100 serious inquiries came in for a complex of seven school buildings. They sold for $125,000 to two Florida real-estate agents who plan to turn the property into the Bison America Institute, complete with a buffalo museum.
Like so many of the farm towns that once anchored the Great Plains, communities such as McCracken or Gaylord have long since lost their young families — their futures — to big cities.
It is harder and harder for Gaylord to round up enough children to put on the Angel Choir concert at Christmas. There are six children left in town, a few more on surrounding farms.
Erin Abbott, a high-school senior, sums up her dreams in five words: “Someplace bigger. With paved streets.”
“I sincerely doubt there will be any town left here in 10 or 15 years,” said Jean Gedney, 84, who has lived in town for six decades.
“All you have to do is look around,” said Kaid Dannenberg, 45, whose family runs the local fertilizer plant. “There’s nobody here. There’s nothing to bring anyone here.”
Or, rather, there wasn’t — until eBay.
Now, Gwen Archut strides around town in her high-heeled boots, blond hair swinging, so full of energy that locals smile at the mention of her name. Oliver, a burly 6-foot-8 with a rough German accent and a rollicking laugh, has thrown himself into rural life so completely that he butchered a hog this fall and pickled 95 pounds of sauerkraut.
Katherine Lehmann, the town clerk, admits she can’t quite understand their passion: “We’re amazed Gwen and Oliver are even happy here.”
But they are. And that’s given Gaylord cautious hope.
Before the eBay sale, retired teacher Jim Muck, 64, never dared expect a future for Gaylord. Now he finds himself dreaming. If this couple from Seattle likes it here, maybe others will, too. Maybe someone will open a grocery. Or a little cafe. Maybe a family will move here, bringing children who will fidget in the church pews that have too long sat empty.
“We’re not expecting to be a town of 1,000 people,” said Muck, who serves on the Town Council. “All we’re looking for is some small progress.”
Muck wasn’t expecting even that much when he and a friend came up with the idea of listing the school on eBay in the summer of 2003.
Vacant for more than a decade, the building had become a liability and an eyesore. The trouble was, the town couldn’t afford to tear it down. Demolition would cost more than $100,000 — almost as much as Gaylord’s operating budget for an entire year.
On a whim, Muck and his friend Dave Rose decided to list the school through Rose’s company, Midwest e-Services. The council approved the idea and picked a price almost at random: $25,000.
To their astonishment, the phone began ringing.
As word spread about Gaylord’s eBay posting, towns in Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma hired Rose to list their schools online.
Rose wrote glowing profiles of each community, touting the good hunting, the scenic vistas, the friendly neighbors.
The Archuts needed little convincing.
Oliver was desperate to get out of Seattle, where rents were so high he couldn’t afford the space he needed to run his business. Too stressed to sleep one night, he had come across a TV documentary on the heartland’s long decline. The footage of towns filled with vacant buildings spoke to him of potential.
He asked Gwen to find him a Midwest town with room to spare. When she found Gaylord’s advertisement on eBay in August 2003, she thought it was a hoax.
“I called three times to make sure that $25,000 wasn’t just the down payment,” she said. “I thought I was being bamboozled.” Muck convinced her that was the total price, and she flew out to take a look.
Up against the Nebraska border, 200 miles northwest of Wichita, Gaylord wasn’t much to see. All Main Street had to offer was a bank, a post office, a tiny part-time library and a few teetering, half-rotted buildings. One resident was using several vacant lots as a personal dump.
The school was a wreck as well; it had shut down in 1990, and no one had maintained it since. The front door was boarded. The blue paint had flaked off. Even the bricks looked dilapidated.
Inside was worse: The roof leaked. The boiler pipes had ruptured. Little glow-in-the-dark eyes glowered from the lockers. Icy air blew in through broken windows.
To Gwen, it looked wonderful.
For years, she and Oliver had been making sound equipment for top-40 rock and country bands from their 1,600-square-foot house. Their machinery took up every inch of floor space, the whole back yard and a neighbor’s garage. Here, they would have space to spread out. The Archuts closed on the property in October 2003 — the town used the cash to fix its dilapidated sewer system — and moved in a few months later.
When he walks through the school these days, Muck nods approvingly. The science lab looks much as it always did: scuffed linoleum floor, avocado-and-mustard paint, silver clock forever stuck at 11:50. But it’s Oliver’s office now; shipping boxes from customers in Japan and Australia clutter the floor.
The seventh-grade classroom next door gleams with fresh white paint. It’s now the main production room for the Archuts’ company, TAB-Funkenwerk.
Oliver has moved a bed into the old fourth-grade classroom. Gwen has turned the first-grade room into a den, with a big-screen TV, easy chairs and sticky flypaper dangling from the fluorescent lights to catch the mosquitoes that bedevil them in summer. They cook in the cafeteria, on the industrial-size griddle.
“It’s perfect,” Oliver says. “Like camping.”
Also, doing business is easier. In Seattle, when Oliver wanted to hook up his machines, he had to first bring in a building inspector and a certified electrician. Here, he just plugs them in. When he needs a forklift, he doesn’t have to pay $500 a day to rent one. He borrows from a neighbor.
The Archuts have had some hardships in Gaylord. Shortly after moving in last winter, Oliver had emergency open-heart surgery to replace leaking valves. An electrical fire destroyed one of the classrooms. The leaky roof will be expensive to repair, and they’ve already spent about $30,000 to make the school habitable.
And there are small, unexpected inconveniences. Oliver never seems to be able to get all 900 light bulbs working at once. Every week or two it seems one of the school’s 250 windows breaks. Sweeping the hallways takes hours.
Still, the Archuts burst with optimism.
They have hired three neighbors for part-time work; their custodian refurbishes floorboards in the fourth-grade classroom. Already, the Archuts are looking to fill three more jobs. Gwen expects to have a payroll of 15 within a year or two.
Oliver dreams his biggest dreams in the brick-walled auditorium, with the cracked stage floor that creaks alarmingly under his weight.
As soon as he renovates the auditorium, he says, he will invite his musician friends to Gaylord. He imagines the school as the perfect spot to record an album or prepare for a tour, away from the frenzy of the coasts.
For now, though, Gwen and Oliver have done Gaylord proud just by calling it home.