Low-tech and high-touch: Folk schools boom as more crave working with their hands

A person operates a chain mortiser
Martha Williams of Grand Marais, Minn., operates a chain mortiser on Oct. 4 while working on a segment of what will make up the frame of the new welcome center for the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

For three weeks earlier this fall, the campus of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais was abuzz with the whine of whirring saws and the hammering of chisels as dozens of skilled craftworkers painstakingly cut white pine timbers that will be used to support the booming school’s continued growth.

Nearly 50 volunteers — all former students who took timber framing classes at North House — returned to help build the school’s new welcome center, part of $5 million in new investments into the campus along Highway 61 on the shore of Lake Superior.

Timber framing is a traditional building method using wooden pegs instead of screws, joining timbers together with intricate, hand-cut joints to frame a building. They were some of the very first classes offered when North House opened in 1997.

“It’s a really interesting and fun way to construct things. People are immediately passionate about it,” said Martha Williams, a retired yoga teacher who took one of the school’s first timber framing classes 25 years ago, and volunteered this fall to help construct the new building.

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People works on a segment
Scott Uhl of Minneapolis works on a segment of what will make up the frame of the new Welcome Center for the North House Folk School on Oct. 4 in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“You look at it, and you can see exactly the way it was built. It’s just elegant and beautiful.”

The new 3-story, bright yellow welcome center will also serve important practical functions for the growing school, which now offers more than 350 courses in traditional Northern crafts: everything from blacksmithing and basketry to boat building and fiber arts. About 3,000 students travel to the school every year.

The building includes two new classrooms and a school store, and aims to provide a warm welcome for students and community members through “a beautiful front door that when you swing it open, it says, ‘Welcome to North House,’” said Executive Director Greg Wright.

Wright said since North House was founded 26 years ago, it’s grown every year but three: one year during the recession in 2008, and two years during COVID.

Meanwhile, several folk schools have sprouted elsewhere in Minnesota over the past decade, including new schools in Ely, Duluth, Avon, near St. Cloud and in Marine on St. Croix, just east of the Twin Cities metro.

Wright and others attribute the growing interest in folk schools to a desire to learn new skills and work alongside others in an increasingly hectic world, in which more time is often spend staring at a screen that working with your hands.

A person poses for a portrait
Greg Wright, executive director of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn., stands for a portrait on Oct. 4 at the school.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“One of the things we’ve often said is, you know, the world is high-tech, low-touch,” said Wright. “We’re the counter-balance to that. High-touch, low tech. Not that we don’t use technology or tools. It’s about connecting the past and the present and the future.”

North House is inspired by Scandinavian folk schools founded in the 19th century that emphasized the teaching of traditional skills to people of different ages, and the importance of lifelong learning in a supportive environment.

“It’s basically about getting people from various backgrounds together, intergenerational, city folks and country folks and people from all over and in between together to learn together,” explained Tom Healy, who founded the school along with Mark Hansen.

Healy, who is helping lead the work to build the new welcome center, lives in Montana now but returns to North House for several weeks every year to teach timber framing. He said they pulled off 22 classes the first summer they opened, and realized pretty quickly they had hit on something that people were yearning for.

“I think we knew right away that we had a tiger by the tail,” Healy said. “Since we opened the doors to North House, the phone has not stopped ringing.”

Healy said the school began at the same time searching for information on the internet became commonplace.

A person discusses expansion plans
North House Folk School co-founder and instructor Tom Healy discusses expansion plans for the school’s new welcome center on Oct. 4 in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“And people were searching for opportunities like this,” Healy said, including the attorney for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise, who traveled to Grand Marais to take one of the school’s first blacksmithing classes.

“And so it was this odd collision of traditional craft and the World Wide Web,” Healy said.

Former student Martha Williams, who now teaches women and nonbinary timber framing courses at North House, as well as to local high school students, said people are craving making things with their hands.

“Making things that are real, and being together doing it,” Williams said. “That’s what I think really makes this place super special is the craft and the teachers who teach it and want to continue to teach it.”

In a nearby building once used to process fish caught from Lake Superior but now used as a classroom, 15 students are learning how to tan deer hides.

During the 3-day class, students first scrape the hair off the skins. They soften the hides by soaking them in a mixture of pork brains and water.

A person work together on a deer hide
Ben Seaton of Grand Marais, Minn. (right) and Ron Monson of Minneapolis (left) work together on a deer hide on Oct. 4 at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Then they stretch the skins over a wooden frame, and work the fibers by leaning into the skin with hand tools. The final step is to smoke the hides to preserve the softness of the skins.

“It’s learning from others who have gone before and creating a team out of folks that don’t know each other at all,” said Ron Monson, a retired teacher from Minneapolis who’s taking his first class at North House.

“And it’s like so many things, it’s worth what you invest into it, right?” said Monson. “So whether I get a big hunk of hide out of this or not, my biggest value will be creating the opportunities for me to learn and creating new relationships and new friends.”

For Nate Johnson of Itasca County, one of three instructors teaching the hide tanning class, the practice touches a deeper part of how humans evolved.

“We are wired for creativity,” Johnson said. “It feels good for ourselves. This practice of creation, engaging our hands and minds and discovering and learning, it’s endless in the natural world. And when we tap into that process, we are feeding back into our fundamental humanity.”

Two person operates a chain mortiser
Zach Payton of Grand Marais, Minn., operates a chain mortiser resulting in wood chips flying out of a segment of what will make up the frame of the new welcome center for the North House Folk School.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

More schools, overwhelming development

Leaders of other newly created schools across Minnesota share similar theories as to why folk schools seem to be taking off.

“I think people are yearning for a human experience, that’s maybe not digital, that is tactile, and done in person,” said Sarah Erickson, executive director of the Duluth Folk School, which was founded in 2016 and recently reorganized as a nonprofit.

“It feels good to be together, and it feels good to make stuff with your hands. And you realize, like, ‘Oh, this has benefit. That it isn’t always about the product, but it’s about the process. And it’s good for my mental health. And it’s good for de-stressing.’”

What started as an outreach program to teach people how to use tools has grown into a school that has offered more than 500 classes since its founding.

chips and shavings sit in a barrel
Signs of ongoing work, chips and shavings sit in a barrel on Oct. 4 at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Erickson said it’s leaning into its location in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth as an “urban” folk school, offering classes that teach skills that people can use to live a modern life: from canning your own food, to pitch writing, to making bread or a drying rack or personal care products or cleaning products.

“So I think there’s a real opportunity for our organization to think broadly about teaching skills for life,” Erickson said.

A couple hours west of North House, the Ely Folk School has grown steadily since its founding in 2015, adding a blacksmith forge, a kitchen, and a ceramic studio.

Last year the school served about 2,600 people, ages three to 94, said Program Director Lucy Soderstrom, 12 percent more than the year before.

“And so just in the last two to three years we’ve had a ton of growth,” she said.

The school is best known for its community birch bark canoe projects, where anyone can join in building a birch bark canoe on the main street through downtown Ely.

The most popular classes are making beaver fur hats and Slovenian potica, a popular desert in Ely and the Iron Range.

“A lot of people come into that class saying, ‘Wow, I would watch my grandma do this, and I never learned her recipe. I never got to do it with her.’ And this class is a way to kind of reclaim that cultural tradition,” Soderstrom said.

A traditional scarf joint
Here, a traditional scarf joint better known as a French lock, stands as a sign of the progress being made by former students and current instructors.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

North House Folk School’s swelling campus along the shore of Lake Superior will allow for more students and classes, but it also has created tension with the city of Grand Marais.

Last year city officials denied a request for a variance for the school to build a new building near the shoreline. The city council also rejected an offer to purchase a plot of city land the school currently uses as a central part of its campus.

“That harbor means a whole lot to a lot of people. And we want that space for everyone as much as possible,” said Grand Marais Mayor Tracy Benson.

Benson said some residents argue the land is undervalued. North House currently pays less than $400 a month to lease the land. She said others wonder if it’s the best use of the property. As a nonprofit, North House doesn’t pay property taxes to the city.

But Benson said the main concerns she hears are about open space and accessibility to the waterfront, as well as the scale of development on the folk school’s campus in recent years.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Yeah, we love North House. But could you please take some of that development somewhere else?’” Benson said.

An aerial photo
The North House Folk School on Oct. 4 in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Wright said the situation is analogous, on a smaller scale, to a “town and gown” relationship that a college or university can have with its home community, where there is often tension, but also benefits that the school brings.

For example he said economic impact studies suggest that $12 is spent in the community on meals, lodging and other expenses for every $1 spent on tuition.

Wright added that the school and the city have created a working group to hash out how they want their collaboration to evolve in the coming years, including future details on the school’s lease with the city, which expires in about five years.

Meanwhile North House is halfway to an overall fundraising campaign goal of $7 million, which the school plans to also use to bolster its core services, including an intern program that seeks to help grow the next generation of craft instructors.

Wright, who was hired in 2001 as the school’s first full-time paid staffer, is amazed by the school’s growth. But he said it’s ethos hasn’t changed.

“You know, that life is a richer thing, when we stop to connect with the people who are sitting next to us, that life is a richer thing, when we set down our phone and we pick up something with our hands, and we begin to shape beauty and literally shape our lives.”

Past students of the North House Folk School
Past students of the North House Folk School along with current instructors work together to prepare wood segments for the school’s new welcome center on Oct. 4 in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News