This story originally ran on Almanac in October 2018.
The North House Folk School campus hugs some of the shoreline in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Founded in 1997, the school was fashioned after folkehøjskolers, developed in Denmark during the mid 1800s. The schools promote life-long learning in area traditional craft-making using modern-day tools. The focus is on egalitarian learning across generations. Students learn skills like baking bread, making a broom or how to construct a timber frame for a house.
“There is something incredible about learning how to make things that you can use in your life, ” Jessa Frost, director of programs for the school, said.
It all began when Grand Marais resident Mark Hansen taught students how to make Inuit skin-on-skin frame kayaks. Other early classes included Scandinavian bowl carving and making canoe paddles. By the mid-1990s, a handful of volunteers and students banded together to found the school. Initially they leased the the harbor front land from the city, which had acquired it from the National Forest Service – including two timber buildings from the 1930s.
“Last year 400 plus classes hosted in every month of the year,” Greg Wright, executive director of North House Folk School, said. “One hundred and forty instructors who teach for us; students from the past five years from 48 states, six foreign countries. February programming busier than August,” he ticked off statistics about the school’s growth.
In fact, Wright said the concept of the folk school is taking off in the United States. Since 2010, fifty more folks schools have opened. But it’s not all about craft.
“We use it as a vehicle to remember what it is to be human,” he said. “Remembering what it is to be part of a community that cares – about each other and cares about the world they live in.”
A quick perusal of the school’s website showed a quirky set of offerings. Along with basic timber framing and a class to learn how to build your own Adirondack chair, there is a course to make your own anorak, sausages and a dozen different ways to cook an egg. And artisans come from near and far. In March, the school will offer a class by artisan Masashi Kutsuwa from Japan on making a traditional Japanese wood carving tray, called wagatabon.
And if that’s not enough, there is the daily sail on the school’s 50-foot steel schooner, Hjørdis, named after the mythical Norse goddess of war. But for that you’ll have to wait until 2019; the ship is all tucked in for the winter.
Correction: The North House Folk School owns the property for some of its campus. The harbor front parcel is still leased from the city.