The owners of a long-shuttered nursing home and sanitarium near Duluth are cashing in on the dilapidated facility’s spooky qualities.
The former Nopeming nursing home - originally built as a sanitarium to care for people with tuberculosis - will be featured Saturday on an episode of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures.”
A group of local volunteers operating as Orison Inc., a nonprofit organization, continues to pursue a goal of one day transforming the facility into an agriculturally-focused charter school serving children with special needs. Orison assumed ownership of the property in December 2009, but it has not yet been able to raise the money needed to make its vision reality.
The spot on “Ghost Adventures” will help Orison through the costly winter months, said Tanya Graysmark, who serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors.
“It’s just something that paid the bills,” she said.
Graysmark said Riki McManus, director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office, has been shopping Nopeming around as a venue.
“She’s been pretty instrumental in helping us get some funding to pay electric bills, heating bills and alarm system bills,” Graysmark said of McManus.
McManus said she has featured Nopeming and other Duluth sites, including Glensheen Mansion and the S.S. William A. Irvin, as available filming venues on the Minnesota Film Board’s website.
She said there have been other inquiries from people interested either in producing shows about paranormal activity or shooting horror films at Nopeming, which is just off Interstate 35 near the Midway Road exit.
“I’ve been thrilled to help because that organization (Orison) has such a worthy mission and it’s led by a lot of great people. I’d love to do anything I can to build their revenue stream,” McManus said.
Tom Garvey, an Orison board member who lives on-site at Nopeming, where he serves as property manager, said the facility also has hosted military simulations.
“We do what we can to make a couple of thousand dollars here and there,” Graysmark said.
As for the Travel Channel’s interest in the Duluth facility, Scripps Broadcasting issued the following statement:
“The ‘Ghost Adventures’ research team came across the Nopeming (Sanitarium) and was intrigued not just by the location itself, but also the dark history and stories behind it. The new owner was willing to grant ‘Ghost Adventures’ access as the first paranormal investigative team to investigate the massive complex. Coupled with its many reports of paranormal activity, Nopeming (Sanitarium) is a captivating investigation location.”
Among the locations on the property to be featured on the show: A dilapidated structure - that was linked to the original, now-demolished sanitarium building by a tunnel - which housed massive boilers and a few cremation ovens.
Garvey said Nopeming already has problems with thrill seekers trespassing and frequently vandalizing the property. He estimates damage to the facility’s windows alone at $75,000 to $100,000.
“No trespassing” signs festoon the property, 60-70 of them by Garvey’s estimate.
Yet the intruders come, and Garvey has called law enforcement numerous times. He figures that upwards of 70 tickets have been issued to trespassers in the past five years.
In addition to relying on Garvey to watch over the property, Graysmark said Orison has organized an effective citizens patrol to watch out for trouble. She said Orison has made arrangements to secure both the property and the building.
Graysmark remains optimistic that the exposure Nopeming receives on “Ghost Adventures” will have a negligible effect on trespassing problems.
“I don’t think it will bring more people around. If it does, more people are going to get arrested or cited and given a ticket,” she said.
Despite the hype that Graysmark expects from the producers of “Ghost Adventures,” she said she believes there’s nothing to fear at Nopeming.
“I’m real curious how this is going to play out, because we were all over there when they were interviewing, and we said: ‘Are you kidding? There aren’t ghosts here,’ ” she said.
“I don’t think any of us believes it’s haunted,” Graysmark said, but she said Orison will gladly accept money from people who would have Americans believe otherwise.
Although Orison has been working for more than five years to launch a charter school, Graysmark said she’s not discouraged.
“When the timing’s right, something is going to happen,” she said.
Garvey predicts it probably will take an initial investment of about $800,000 to make Nopeming’s Annex building suitable for use as a charter school. One of the biggest expenses will be to get water to the facility, which formerly relied upon a large cistern system that’s no longer deemed acceptable by today’s standards.
Graysmark said it’s tough to get people excited about donating money for basic services that most people take for granted. Still, she said she hopes to see work begin this year and contends the project can and will attract supporters. She laid out plans to launch a Facebook page and online fundraising campaign in the coming weeks.
Starting out as a shoestring operation, Orison faces a daunting task, Graysmark acknowledged.
“The hard part is it’s all volunteer. It’s 100 percent volunteer,” she said. “All the people who are working on this and who are serving on the board don’t make any money. We pay money. We pay a lot of money. All of us have a lot invested in this building and this property.”
Nevertheless, a core group has held together.
“It’s tough just to find the time to do all this, because we all work full-time and have other jobs,” Graysmark said. “But it’s definitely something we’re all passionate about because we’ve stuck it out for quite a few years”.
Right now, however, Orison is operating out of a bit of a financial hole.
The nonprofit owes $25,692 in delinquent taxes on the Nopeming property, according to the St. Louis County Auditor’s Office. If that tax obligation is not addressed in some form, the property could be subject to tax forfeiture by November 2016.
Given the financial challenges Orison faces, Graysmark trusts the public will not judge its decision to host “Ghost Adventures” at Nopeming harshly.
“I think everyone who is mature and of age understands that we’re trying to pay the bills over there and keep the place going, so we do what we need to do,” she said.
Nopeming opened in 1912 as the first of what would be 13 sanitariums in Minnesota to treat the victims of tuberculosis, known at the time as consumption.
The facility’s remote location on the back side of Spirit Mountain isolated patients with the highly communicable disease from Duluth’s general population. And the country setting was thought to provide plenty of fresh air and the prospect of healthy outdoor activities.
Nopeming drew its name from an Ojibwe phrase loosely translated to mean “out in the woods.”
At its peak in the 1940s, Nopeming was home to 200-300 patients, as well as staff who lived on the medical campus.
As medical treatments advanced, America’s tuberculosis crisis abated. The patient base at Nopeming dwindled, and in 1971 the facility became a nursing home.
But Nopeming fell on hard times and began operating in the red. In 2002, St. Louis County closed the facility, transferring most of its 151 residents at the time to the Chris Jensen facility.
The county put Nopeming and 270 acres of surrounding land up for sale, and in 2005 Twin Cities businessman Frank Vennes Jr. agreed to purchase the property for $1.05 million. He discussed plans to make the facility available to Teen Challenge, a Christian faith-based organization dedicated to helping people recover from addiction.
Toward that end, Vennes donated 40 acres of land, including the Nopeming buildings, to the Plymouth, Minn.-based Fidelis Foundation in 2007.
But the foundation and other organizations and individuals who had invested with Vennes encountered financial hardships when it came to light that he had been funneling money into a Ponzi scheme.
Vennes was sentenced in October 2013 to 15 years in prison for his role in the scheme. The kingpin, Twin Cities businessman Tom Petters, also is serving time in prison.
Fidelis had more than $27 million invested in Petters Inc. when the $3.5 billion venture was exposed by federal authorities and began to crumble.
Lacking the resources to do anything with the Nopeming site, Fidelis deeded the property to Orison in December 2009.
Graysmark said she believes better days lay ahead for the facility.
“We definitely still have a lot of hope, and our vision is clear. So we’ll keep plugging away,” she said.
Find more videos and information about the "Ghost Adventures" show on its website.