Brothers Eli and Ira Ferro, 14 and 11, of Tunbridge take a peek inside the gnome house they built. (Herald / Emily Ballou)

Tunbridge Family Brought Fairy Tale to School


Submitted 3 months ago

Nestled under the trees and hidden away in the hills of Tunbridge, a small village has emerged.

Not an enclosed, utopian community built for 20,000 people, but one for just a few families of gnomes, all thanks to one family, some recycled building materials, and a whole lot of hot glue.

This past winter and spring, a gnome house was seen nearby the entrance walkway to the Tunbridge Central School.

For months, students kept tabs on the gnome family said to be living there, not only sending, but also receiving, notes from the “gnomes” each week.

Brothers Eli and Ira Ferro, 14 and 11, were the only two students who did not engage in the enterprise.

A few years ago, the two siblings watched a documentary with their mother, Emily Howe, about a family searching for a sense of community as they moved around to different places.

To find a sense of belonging, the family in the video secretly made a fairy and gnome village in a public park, bringing magic and joy to many, as well as to themselves.


Howe explained that growing up, her sons were always interested in gnomes, elves, and other mythical creatures.

Thus, out of nostalgia and in search of a new challenge, the two brothers got to work and built their own gnome house this past fall. A plywood box, split sapling sides, and a waterproofed birchbark roof make up the building’s structure.

Fitted with dollhouse store windows and many personal touches, the handcrafted gnome home, about the size of a dollhouse, was a family affair. While Eli and Ira spearheaded the project, Howe and her husband, John O’Brien, assisted.

Eli and O’Brien were in charge of the building and more took care of the outside work, while Ira and Emily Howe were in charge of making and planning the furnishings and tended to the finer details of the inside.

An Avid Fanbase

With the administration’s blessing, the gnome home was placed at Tunbridge Central School on Valentine’s Day.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we first put it there,” Eli said.

It was a hit with students and faculty alike, and the brothers Ferro kept their involvement secret, making subtle changes by night to keep the magic alive.

“There are a lot of kids and people around here who don’t really have any magic in their lives, so we thought the school would be a perfect place for gnomes,” Emily Howe said.

“I was shocked to see how many older kids were really into it too,” she added.

At least once a week, the family would visit the school at 10 or 11 o’clock at night to update the house. Whenever a car drove by or a janitor appeared, they would jump in the bushes or hide in the shadows, so their identities were not revealed.

“We only had a couple of close calls,” Howe said with a laugh. “One time, I definitely yelled when a light came on inside and surprised us!”

Eli and Ira Ferro, John O’Brien, and Emily Howe read aloud some of their favorite letters to the gnomes.


“I was surprised at how much traffic there was on [Route] 110,” O’Brien added.

“It was funny watching all of my friends look at [the gnome house], every day but I just acted normal and walked by,” Ira said.

He continued, “My cousin almost figured it out, but I wasn’t going to tell her … I kept it a secret the whole time!”

Nighttime Notes

Outfitted with headlamps and superglue, each person was given a specific role in the undercover mission before they exited the car each night.

The “gnome pit crew” always aimed to finish their job in under five minutes without getting caught.

Each mission, they would collect notes from students, and faculty, that were stashed in a small knothole on the side of the house designed for that purpose. Letters ranged from well-wishes for the gnome family to questions regarding gnomes’ favorite foods and other facts.

Eli and Ira did extensive research on both Norway and gnome folklore, so letters could be answered appropriately.

Through their studying, the brothers also found that families of gnomes were “vaguely Norwegian” and that when gnomes had children, they only had pairs of twins.

“It went sort of viral at the school,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien, with the “neatest handwriting in the family,” was in charge of the hand-drawn lettering on all of the signs seen outside the house and on the reply letters.

At the beginning, students would leave notes on large, regular sized pieces of paper. After the “gnomes” started leaving replies on tiny slips of paper, O’Brien said the young pen pals quickly caught on to correspond via gnome-sized paper, some even making tiny envelopes for their letters to go in.

The third and fourth graders were especially dedicated note-writers.

Each note left for the students was signed, “Med Vennlig Hilsen, Små Venner,” Norwegian for “with friendly regards, small friends,” a typical letter closing that a gnome might use.

“One of the best parts was reading all of the letters,” Eli said.

‘Family Game Night’

Inspirational and positive quotes such as “Luck is believing you’re lucky” and Roald Dahl’s “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it,” were left on a miniature signpost near the gnome house.

“The signs and notes did take a while to letter each time,” O’Brien said, “but it was so worth it.”

Tiny jars and different foods were also standard updates each week, as well as different decoration themes for various special occasions such as holidays, or school spirit colors for big games.

For Easter, they even made miniature boxes of marshmallow Peeps made of foam. Eli would also oftentimes whittle tiny items out of balsa wood such as woodworking tools and a pair of small wooden skis, complete with leather bindings.

Originally a gnome family of four—two parents and two children—one week’s update saw diapers, leftover pizza boxes, and a strewn-about house—evidence of newborn baby twins, a major addition to the family.

While the end of the school year was busy, as they usually tend to be, Howe and O’Brien did not always want to go down to the school late at night to update the gnome’s lives, but Eli and Ira remained consistent in their loyalty to the gnome fans.

“The boys’ commitment to this sometimes drove us crazy when we were tired and didn’t feel like going down to the school at 11 p.m. with miniature Easter eggs,” Howe said. “It certainly kept us busy.”

Howe explained that taking care of the gnome house replaced much of her family’s screen time and occupied their winter evenings for the better.

“This was our family game night,” Ira said.

Future of the Gnomes

During the last week of school, students likely spied moving boxes being packed inside the gnomes’ home.

After classes were released for the summer, a “friendly neighborhood eagle” airlifted the building for repairs due to the year’s weathering to its new, permanent spot in a fairy and gnome village at Landgoes Farm in Tunbridge.

While the backyard secret garden is now set up, and the family is hoping to build a few additional tiny homes to accompany the one from the school, and the four others already there. Their plans are to hold open hours for their magical neighborhood on a few Sunday afternoons each month.

The gnomes would like to request those reading this avoid spilling their secrets to young Tunbridge Central School students to “keep the magic alive a little while longer.”

-- EMILY BALLOU
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