Bringing a Historic Building Back to Life

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Memory lane has Neil Slater excitedly walking down the sidewalk for the first day of school at Arnolds Park. A "park rat" from Kindergarten through sixth grade, he considers his favorite class PE or maybe the one he didn't create havoc for the teacher. When he was in seventh grade, the school combined with Milford and the building became Okoboji Middle School. When the building came up for sale in 2020, now a successful businessman, Neil and his wife Katie were drawn to its potential.

The front of the old school, now named Old School Mercantile, has been transformed into an eclectic haven for unique gifts, antiques, and artistic creations, currently featuring 12 different vendors. From treasured albums from Red Truck Records to antique furniture and beautiful creations, the three rooms are bursting with treasures.

“Our desire is to bring this school back to life, while showcasing the history found throughout its walls,” said Old School Mercantile manager Shar Schmidt.

The long shelves located in the middle room were originally made during an Arnolds Park shop class. The 1914 Arnolds Park School yearbook can be found at the register, featuring the school’s first students, Vivan Butler and Earl Miguel, who eventually married.

“These treasures are what gave us the idea for Old School Mercantile,” Schmidt said. “We want to pay homage to the history of both Arnolds Park and Okoboji schools, alongside the other wonderful items our vendors bring for purchase.”

Renovation at the old middle school began in July under the direction of Shar's husband, a local contractor. One of the ladies’ favorite memories is being able to assist in knocking down a wall to open a room. Over time, spaces have been cleaned and walls have been painted. Some of the old lockers have been brought back into the antique store to hold the treasures.

“We want to breathe fresh air into this building and freshen it up,” owner Katie Slater said. “I never imagined I would ever break down a wall!”

Over the next year, their goal is to put together more creative spaces for people to showcase their creative skills or entrepreneur ideas. They are working in the rooms along the long hallway on the east side of the building, with many having windows and an outside entrance. Shar dreams of art workshops in the old chemistry lab or luncheons held in the lunchroom, with access to the commercial kitchen.

“People have been supportive and excited about how the building is being transformed,” Katie said. “They are especially excited that it will be year-round, giving another option for them in this area. This building has so much potential for retail spaces.”

The excitement is brewing, and the holidays are coming! Make sure to visit Old School Mercantile throughout the Christmas season, especially on Dec. 10, from 1-3 p.m. Santa and Mrs. Claus will be waiting for pictures, carolers will be singing and the smells of holiday treats will be filling the air.

For more information on Old School Mercantile’s latest news, follow the store on Facebook. If anyone is interested in leasing retail space, talk to Katie Slater at katie@nexthomeatthelakes.com.

Celebrate the Holidays at the Old School Mercantile

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The beauty of the holiday season will be showcased at Old School Mercantile this year. The once lively atrium in the old Okoboji Middle School has been brought back to life and transformed into a winter wonderland. On December 10, from 1-3 p.m., Santa and Mrs. Claus will be greeting children of all ages. Carolers will be sharing Christmas music and holiday treats, and cider will be available for a freewill donation.

“We are bringing this 1914 building back to life and love that our Christmas party will be located in the heart of this beautiful building,” said Old School Mercantile manager Shar Schmidt. “There will be specials throughout the store, caroling around the beautiful piano, and Santa and Mrs. Claus will be welcoming our guests. It will be a joyous time celebrating the season!”

Local artists associated with the blossoming enterprise will have their work featured along the walls of the atrium and are available for sale. The freewill donation for the holiday treats will go towards the Dickinson County Humane Society.

“It will be one of our first big events in this space and we are excited for the year-round potential this building provides to the community,” said owner Katie Slater. “In the atrium, we desire to bring in a coffee shop and develop the courtyard for the summer, providing another place for people to gather and meet. We are quickly remodeling and filling spaces with interested artists and entrepreneurs.”

The common area will continually host different local artists, with some using rooms throughout the historic building as workspace.

Sandy McCarthy: Sandy and her husband Will live in Spencer and have two grown daughters. This past spring, Sandy was looking for a way to use her passion for creating things and her love of antiques. She started a booth early summer and later connected with OS Mercantile as one of their newest members. She has a flair for the bohemian, mixed with modern and old collectibles. She designs a lot of what she sells and is always hunting for just the right items for her booth.

Larry Gjerde: Larry is a local well-known businessman who has been collecting for over 50 years. A keeper of many treasures and a great eye for amazing antiques and collections, Larry is always ready to share what he finds with others.

Tootie Steward Powers: Tootie is a novelty artist, who has lived in Arnolds Park since 1972. Raised on a farm between Waukee and Des Moines, she attended public school in Des Moines and studied at Drake University. She worked in downtown Des Moines for many years for a display and party shop, as well as a window designer for other stores located on Walnut Street. She later became a corporate presentation merchandiser for a department store, before opening her own business. Her parents were instrumental in her love of antiquing, often traveling on the weekends to antique shows and auctions. Well-versed in Arnolds Park and the Iowa Great Lakes, she adores its memorabilia and loves to design pieces that reflect the area’s beauty.

Gene Halling: Gene is a local artist who’s lived in the area since 1968. Growing up in Storm Lake, he received his art degree from Drake University. He taught art for 33 years at Spencer Middle School. He enjoys painting on canvas and barn doors. Also, an avid hunter and fisherman, he became a well-known wildlife artist and sells his work throughout the United States and Europe. Gene had a shop in the Emporium in the mid-1970s for seven years, where he made countless contacts. He has gone into sculpture, making tractors out of old sewing machines and mock-up motorcycles. Having a distinct look of creativity, Gene has won many awards throughout the Midwest, including earning “Best of Show.” A few years ago, Gene showcased 20 of his mock-up motorcycles at the Pearson Lakes Art Center in an exhibit entitled, “The Art of the Motorcycle.” His bikes were also in the great company of Steve McQueen’s. In recent years, he’s gained a great interest in antiques and has a certain eye for what interests him and his buyers.

Kathy Barth: As a child, Kathy loved going to her great grandma’s. She loved her quilts, the old cook stove, and iron beds. She was drawn into the antique world at an early age. At age 10, she first designed her bedroom with all antiques. Now, she has a booth filled with items that represent her past and present love for unique memory building treasures.