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Low-tech handcraft has never been more popular at North House Folk School

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Timber frame
Tim Schwiebert (left) of Osceola, Minn. and Brian Belanger of Edina, Minn. (right) work on a timber frame Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012 at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Inside a cheery, red building on the shore of Lake Superior, a couple dozen students are learning the centuries-old art of timber framing.

Without power saws they work the old-fashioned way, with hand tools. They hammer away at chisels, shaping mortise and tenon joinery at the ends of enormous white pine logs.

"It's very satisfying to work with something this massive," said Brian Belanger of Edina, Minn.

Berlanger, who recently lost his job as an electrical engineer, is in his fifth class at the North House Folk School, one of the oldest of a growing number of folk schools in the Upper Midwest. It marks its 15th anniversary this year.

People from around the country travel to the tip of the Arrowhead to learn traditional Northern crafts — everything from Scandinavian boat building to birch bark weaving to blacksmithing. In the age of iPads and Twitter, the center of low-tech handcraft has never been more popular.

"After 18 years of ... working on invisible bits on a computer, it's kind of nice to get a 10-by-10 timber, that outweighs you by hundreds of pounds, and shape it into the shape it needs to be, and put it together with a team into a big structure," Berlanger said.

The chance to work with their hands, learn from peers and create something lasting draws a growing number of people like Belanger to North House, and to other folk schools sprouting up around the region: from the Driftless Folk School in southwestern Wisconsin, to the Milan Village Arts School in southwestern Minnesota.

North House started with 14 students taking a single kayak-building class 15 years ago. Last year the school hosted 13,000 participants from 36 states.

Mark Hansen, a founder of the school who taught its first class, said the reason for the school's growth is simple: people are born to create.

"People like to do for themselves," Hansen said. "We live in such a high-tech world that I think people are really looking for low-tech and high-touch."

Low tech and high touch is a mantra often heard at North House. But Executive Director Greg Wright is quick to say the school isn't romanticizing more primitive times.

"I'm not trying to paint an idyllic picture of yesteryear," Wright said. "People worked their behinds off to make a living, and sometimes didn't make it. But, you have to be concerned that there's something maybe we've lost, something we've left behind."

Crafting things by hand is no longer a necessity in everyday life. But Wright believes human beings are programmed to work with their hands, in ways they don't fully understand.

"The idea that digging in the dirt to grow your own vegetables, in carving a wooden spoon for your child to eat their dinner with to cutting the timbers to build a home," he said. "This speaks to our heart, and from that comes meaning in life."

That leads to another phrase frequently said at North House: "The healing power of craft." It's actually the title of a book, written by instructor Harley Refsal, who teaches Scandinavian-style wood carving.

A retired Luther College professor, Refsal travels to Scandinavia to teach carving at folk schools there. He said the benefits are the same for people everywhere.

"The contemplative nature of sitting here, working on a handwork skill, and developing that, gives an enormous feeling of satisfaction," he said.

Refsal said that's when people can lose themselves in time — that's increasingly rare in modern fast-paced lives.

Some of the classes at North House also allow students to expend energy.

In the timber framing class, two participants slide a huge crosscut saw back and forth across a giant pine log.

Belanger can't help but notice another timber, an old one the school has salvaged and put on display.

"What's really cool is you can still see the tool marks from the guy who made it," he said. "That was something somebody did by hand in 1870 or 1880 or something. So it's kind of fun to imagine that the tool marks we're making today will also last like that."

In an era when computers and information technology are accelerating the rate of change, Belanger finds solace in building something that will likely last for generations.