Back to School

Posted: March 1, 2020 at 5:32 pm
Mortensen family at Halloween
Heather, Troy and two of their children—Naomi and Elizabeth—greet visitors at the Haunted Mansions of Albion.

Albion State Normal School was heading toward demolishment, but Troy and Heather Mortensen saw a potential community center.

By Dianna Troyer

About 100 residents and alumni gathered in 2007 to watch the auction, worried that their local landmark would be demolished.

On the block was the Albion State Normal School. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the school with six stately red brick buildings was established in 1893 as a teachers college. Among its 6,500 alumni is Terrel Bell, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education. Enrollment eventually declined, and the state closed the school in 1951. In 1970, with no prospective tenants, the state gave the 35-acre campus to the city of Albion.

Troy Mortensen is president of System Tech Inc., a company that designs and installs customized telecommunications infrastructure throughout the Northwest. He was working on a job at Idaho State University in Pocatello when he read a front-page newspaper article about the auction. Intrigued by the school’s history and seeing a potential business investment, Troy drove 80 miles to Albion to take a look at the boarded-up campus.

“When I saw Mount Harrison towering over the valley, I felt drawn to it and felt like I’d come home,” Troy says. “All I could think about was how it could once again be vital to the community.”

Miller Hall hallway with rugs and artwork
Hallways are adorned with oil paintings.

He rounded up two other investors—his brother and his accountant—and braced himself to bid against others during a Saturday morning auction at the campus. After the three-hour auction closed, Troy’s bid of $810,000 plus an $81,000 auctioneer’s fee won.

“I’ll always remember the crowd cheering when the auctioneer said we’d won and planned to renovate the campus,” Troy says.

Troy and his wife, Heather, saved a landmark from destruction. Now they had to restore its luster. Aided by a $250,000 grant through the city, the Boise couple and their five children renovated the men’s dorm, Miller Hall, into a family reunion center. The Mortensens retained the 8,000-square-foot dorm’s wood floors and brick walls, while adding modern amenities to accommodate 75 people. They built a swimming pool, volleyball court, horseshoe pits, disc golf course and half basketball court.

“That summer, our kids thought they were living in one great adventure,” Heather says. “We decided to enroll them in school and stay awhile. Buying the campus has taken us on a wild roller coaster ride ever since.”

The Mortensens named their business venture the Albion Campus Retreat, and have worked on the rest of the campus over the past 12 years. Part of the girls’ dormitory, Comish Hall, was remodeled into an event center that seats 250. The cozy president’s cottage was updated and sleeps 15. The versatile venues on campus have not only been reserved for family reunions but also for corporate meetings, proms and weddings. The center has bolstered Albion’s economy, bringing people to town and providing employment to residents who work at events. The retreat employs the Mortensens’ own five children, as well as local youth, in their maintenance and cleanup staffs.

“Our reunion business has really grown,” Heather says. “It fills up in the summer about a year in advance. We’re taking reservations for 2021.”

To expand programming, the Mortensens are building escape rooms. Their signature event is the Haunted Mansions of Albion—the largest indoor/outdoor haunted production of its kind in the Northwest. On weekends during October, the event attracts thousands of Halloween celebrants who hope to catch a glimpse of numerous lingering ghosts featured on the TV show Ghost Adventures.

Heather had her own ghostly experience. After a Halloween event, she heard a woman shout, “Wait, come back.”

She turned toward the voice.

“I thought it was one of our workers,” Heather says, “but no one was there.”

The Mortensens envision more for the campus.

“We would love to someday host youth camps and educational programs,” Heather says. “We also have a dream to provide a summer and spring break camp experience for foster children, giving them an opportunity to learn and experience something new while giving their foster families a break.

“Twelve years ago, we didn’t realize what a special place this was with all of its history,” Heather says. “We’ve grown to love this campus and the valley.”