On a winter day in picturesque Grand Marais, all is quiet. Overworked boats sit empty on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Cafes and gift shops stand subdued. A lonely seagull is perched atop a pile of rocks. Only the cold wind whooshes about—a present from nearby Canada. From the outside, the colorful buildings of North House Folk School appear as tranquil as the rest of the hibernating city. But inside, the school is alive with students learning traditional Northern crafts through any of the 400 courses taught throughout the year.
North House Folk School was founded 20 years ago by community members who were interested in handcrafting skills and sustainability, but the idea of folk schools has existed since the 1830s. Danish philosopher and pastor Nikolai Grundtvig is best known for pioneering the idea of an alternative style of school with no exams and opened the first folk school in Rødding, Southern Denmark in 1844.
“I like to joke that Grundtvig was a bad boy bishop,” laughs Greg Wright, the charismatic executive director of North House, who came on board in the school’s fourth year. “He grew up in a very hierarchical world. Peasants got the short end of the stick, even though they were the ones who carried on traditions which were the fabric of the culture. They knew blacksmithing, traditional woodworking, painting.” Grundtvig felt that classical education created a split between real life and learning. He wanted to create a place where cultural traditions were celebrated, and where people came together. “The idea was that anybody who had skills and a story of their life to tell was welcomed to teach.”
The spiritual founder of North House Folk School was Mark Hansen, both of whose grandparents had strong roots in Scandinavia. Hansen’s father was a pastor, so from a very early age Mark was familiar with Grundtvig’s folk schools. Hansen was passionate about the idea of listening to people’s stories. He had been a social worker before creating North House, a project that allowed him to combine his passions for building things with his hands, his love of the North, and the people who made it their home. Hansen and the original founders mainly wanted to teach—eventually they needed someone to run the school. Wright knew a number of them from the times that he came to Grand Marais to ski or paddle, and they would often talk about North House over beers.
“They looked around and tried to find somebody who was stupid enough to run a folk school,” Wright jokes. But he finally made a leap of faith, even though it proved to be one where he initially encountered times when he didn’t cash his paychecks. “They sat on top of the dresser for more than a couple of weeks,” Wright confesses. “But eventually I’ve cashed every one.
“I grew up in Carleton College,” Wright says proudly. “My dad was in the administration there. It’s a very good institution, and a great place to kind of get your sense of: ‘wow, what can nonprofits make happen for the world!'” Prior to North House, Wright was an executive director of River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Before that, he was a program director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, a wilderness adventures program.
“I wanted to live up north,” he recalls. “I wanted the real things in life: the dirt we dig in to grow food for our families, the shelters we create, the beautiful traditional wooden bowls we make to put on our table, where we celebrate with our friends and family.”
The courses from the original core curriculum still remain the most popular—woodworking, timber framing, making hide mukluks and snowshoes, felting, greenwood bow making, wood-fired baking, and spoon carving. “Who doesn’t want to make mukluks and go dance in the snow?” Wright says, “or to build a sauna?” Other classes have been added over the years, including basketry, blacksmithing and tool making, boat building, clothing, foods, jewelry, Northern ecology, sailing, shelter, sustainable living, and furniture craft.
North House has drawn students from 48 states and six countries. In 2016, there were 2,400 participants in their core catalog coursework. In a typical year, 25,000 participants get involved with events, group programs, and public speakers. Wright acknowledges that the school is part of the broader do-it-yourself movement. “People come here to connect to the real world through working with their hands and hearts,” Wright says. “Just because I have a smartphone and can buy anything from anywhere, it doesn’t give it any meaning. […] The smartphone is a tool, just like a hammer, a knife, a spinning wheel. No single tool has been the answer ever. We need all the tools.”
Photos by Tanya Starinets
The hallmark of North House Folk School is its intimacy. The first two timbered buildings were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp for the Forest Service. Working in partnership with the city, North House secured funding to restore them, and later expanded to adjacent property of historic fishing buildings and two large docks. Now the school is comprised of seven buildings, and most of North House’s classes have an eight-to-one student-teacher ratio. There’s a woodworking and boat building space in the milling shop, a lofted living space for the internship program, a blacksmith shop, a teaching kitchen, an outdoor masonry oven, and a community fire ring. A 50-foot sailing schooner offers day outings during the sailing season. As the school continues to grow, the challenge will be how to maintain that sense of intimacy that has drawn students and visitors alike to Grand Marais.
Inside the bright yellow bookstore and main office building, Andrew Beavers greets visitors with the unmistakable enthusiasm of someone who is passionate about his work. Beavers is the store and intern program manager. He describes North House as a big family. Students and visitors also arrive seeking a sense of community. “You may feel like an outcast sitting in St. Paul, thinking that you are the only one who is interested in carving spoons,” Beavers says. “But you come here and you meet another person who also loves it, and he may also be from St. Paul. And you realize there are people out there who are like you. ‘These are my people; this is my tribe’ people exclaim.” Many stay connected after they leave, and many return “as if to a school reunion,” says Beavers.
Photos by Tanya Starinets
At 2pm every Saturday a tour takes place. In a birch bark ornament class students are embellishing their ornaments with beads. “The big draw for the students is the comfort, lakeshore, and the noncompetitive learning environment,” says Jack Sneve, the instructor. “Students help teachers and teachers help students.” Todd Reynolds is one of the students, who has made the trip from Ashland, Wisconsin, 10 times. His first class was in fly fishing, which he attended with his son and niece. His favorite was a timbered bench making class. “I also loved making snowshoes.”
In the red building, Randy Schnobrich is teaching a class on kick sled building. He has been at the school for 18 years, and his very first class was “Build Thoreau’s Cabin.” “Some of my students have a woodshop at home, others have never held a tool,” Schnobrich says.
Scott Graden from the New Scenic Café just north of Duluth is making cardamom rusks with his students in the kitchen. One of the students is a former intern and a current office and development assistant Erin Swenson-Klatt. “We have the lake plus the woods. Many classes go out and harvest material for basketry, dye, herbalism,” she says. “And the internship program cultivates leaders in the world of craft.”
North House Folk School is busier than ever these days. Back in the office building Andrew Beavers offers up his explanation of what’s drawing students to Grand Marais. “People long for a connection to tools and materials,” he says. “They realize that for things to have meaning they must have stories. And stories originate from things that humans have touched and helped create. It’s a transferring of stories between people and hands.”
Even after 20 years of students telling their stories through handcrafting, there are many more stories yet to be told.