From cooking with cranberries to Scandinavian troll carving, students at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn., have no trouble finding something to help ward off the winter doldrums.
With some 140 regional artisans instructing 400 classes per year, the school, along the shores of Lake Superior, is intent on keeping traditional northern crafts alive in the modern day.
In a fast-paced, “high-tech and low-touch” world, North House is “low-tech and high-touch,” providing an excuse to slow down and “create something real,” according to Greg Wright, executive director.
“The only thing we touch is the keyboard of our smartphones,” he said. “North House is the counterpoint to that. … We can rediscover what it is to move slowly, remember what our hands are for, sit in a circle of people we don’t know and just be curious and be open to wherever the path may lead. We don’t give ourselves permission to do that very often.”
North House courses ranging from bread-baking to boat-building reach an estimated 15,000 participants each year through various venues such as speaker series, signature events and community events.
“We have something for everybody,” Wright said.
On-site classes, which can range in length from two hours to two weeks, attract about 2,800 students annually.
North House’s quiet, natural setting along the lake helps make it special, says Carolyn Fritz, communications and outreach manager. Adults can, quite literally, unplug from daily life and immerse themselves in the craft at hand — a welcome distraction for most.
“People get up here and can feel that expanse of the lake, the forest, the horizon, and it just kind of seeps into them,” Fritz said.
North House Folk School was started in 1997 by community leaders, Wright said. Their first catalog included 23 classes and a line on the back that the classroom was yet to be determined.
“The logic was great,” Wright said. “There are a lot of garages and community centers in this world.”
The original campus consisted of a pair of old Forest Service buildings constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and owned by the city. The first class, on kayaks, was taught at the Coast Guard station.
North House has since expanded to include eight classrooms, allowing for numerous classes to be offered at once. The character of the campus varies from week to week, depending on coursework, which might include fiber spinning, sausage-making, basketry and more, Fritz said.
“The campus resets every weekend into different flavors,” she said.
Among their most popular courses are those on moosehide mukluk-making and basic timber framing. Timber framing classes are available two or three times a year and always fill up quickly.
Among their most well-attended events is the Northern Fiber Retreat held the second weekend in February. Bringing in several hundred students, the retreat features 16 classes held over six days.
Learners come mostly from the Upper Midwest, but many travel from other parts of the U.S. for the experience of trying their hand at woodworking or rosemaling in this tranquil setting.
Fritz said they recently hosted a group of women from San Antonio, Texas, who flew in for the weekend for a cranberry cooking class.
About a quarter of all instructors are from the local area, but teachers also are brought in from other parts of the U.S. and even other countries. One fiber retreat instructor will be coming from Norway, and a Japanese woodcarver is scheduled to share a new technique during a weeklong woodworking course in early-March.
Interest in North House and other folk schools has grown in recent years, according to Wright.
“Some of it has to do with a great vision,” he said. “A lot of people love the North, whether it’s the endless line of shore, the birch trees, the soaring white pines, the water.”
“We try to bring alive the story of this place,” Fritz added.
Folk schools maintain a strong connection to the landscape in which they’re placed, she said. For example, in northern Minnesota, it makes more sense to teach birch bark canoe-building than to ship in mahogany logs from the Amazon.
Also, people relish the chance to create something that serves a purpose in their own lives. There’s nothing like walking down the street in a pair of shoes one crafted themselves or living in a yurt one built, he said.
“We see people passing on these traditions, baking for their family or giving spoons they’ve carved,” Fritz said.
Wright said they often see repeat students, and with the North House campus open to the town, local residents often drift through during classes. Classes are non-competitive and welcoming.
“The world suddenly comes alive,” he said. “It’s a place where everybody comes and grabs onto whatever part of the adventure they want.”
Wright said they continue to add new courses each year.
“The story of craft really is endless,” he said. “Not that long ago, we didn’t get anything from Target. Anything you needed was in your backyard, quite literally, or came to the neighborhood in somebody else’s canoe.”
As course offerings have expanded, so has the size of the campus. North House recently bought some adjoining property near the harbor and is working on a master plan for the future.
“The goal is to continue to be a really inspiring destination for people to grab on to life, literally, with both hands,” Wright said. “Also, we want to expand and enhance the quality of the classrooms.”
Although many of the skills taught at North House no longer are necessities for daily survival, Wright said the school has succeeded in its mission — satisfying the curiosity of lifelong learners while keeping alive beloved crafts that may have skipped a generation or two.
“Your hands are made to do things,” he said. “The world’s a rich place. Do, go.”