Words by Sean McSteen
In Minnesota’s Northeast community, hand-crafted goods and practices are being passed on, person by person, through the lessons and teachings of those who are masters of their craft. Canoe building, meat curing, shoemaking and much, much more. Every person has a different interest and a different reason or intention behind learning to use their hands to build amazing and durable things. North House Folk School is one such outlet for people of all ages to come and learn a craft; many of which have been passed down for generations upon generations. Nestled in the Grand Marais Harbor, the North House campus presents itself as a haven for those who prefer to understand the technique and beauty that goes into building something that may otherwise be overlooked. For instance, when was the last time you looked at a wooden spoon and were able to imagine every single step that turned a simple block of wood into a well-crafted and elegant utensil?
Or, are you able to fathom just how much technical work and time goes into building a canoe with only your hands and some basic tools? At North House Folk School, they offer people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to not only learn and appreciate the art and skill that it takes to create something beautiful out of nothing, but to also create their own piece of work. In the words of North House’s executive director, Greg Wright, “It’s about fueling curiosity, and kind of a hunger to learn through life; to learn and use your hands to create beauty. And it’s about, as you do that, discovering that, actually the people around you have stories and skills to share.”
It is the stories and the skills that make the school great. Students and teachers alike come from all over to teach and learn techniques and crafts that have all but vanished in our modern, bustling culture. Though, seeing the enthusiasm and passion each person has towards what they are learning or teaching makes it very clear that traditional northern crafts and building methods will live on far into the future.
North House Folk School in Grand Marais was created through the efforts of volunteers; both those who lived locally and those who heard about the school and came to help however they could. The school was officially founded in January 1997 and has grown at a steady pace since its creation. Though the school has faced some setbacks over the years, it has always powered through and flourished once more with the help of the committed staff and volunteers as well as the community around them. When the school’s boat building shop was damaged by a fire in 2001, the community rallied around the school to help with a speedy recovery. Or when a semi-truck lost its brakes and crashed into the school’s historic fishing building in 2004, it was rebuilt with a few improvements just over two years later with the help of the local community. North House’s relationship with the community and natural environment that surrounds both the physical school and the ideals it promotes is representative of the larger Northeast Minnesota community. North House weaves themselves into the fabric of the North Shore through the courses and art forms it teaches, but also through community engagement with year-round events like film festivals, concerts, boat shows and much more. Speaking to the goals and larger intentions of the school, Wright says, “If anything, North House, I hope, encourages and inspires this community to make time; to create; and to make time to build and grow together.”
One of the most important aspects of North House Folk School is the idea of inter-generational learning. Creating durable and well-crafted goods does not have an age cap or requirement, and often the differences in age and skill set make the learning experience all the more valuable. It is, as Wright puts it, “That simple joy of remembering how important it is to sit down next to somebody; and it could be your neighbor, or it could be your grandchild.” Being amongst all types of people who are there for a common goal allows both student and teacher to see things from new angles and simultaneously grow as individuals. Too often, we find ourselves closed off and comfortable with not stepping beyond the lines of what we already know and who we already know. But, at North House, the format of classes are specifically designed to promote intergenerational communication and learning; allowing those who come to learn to build something special with their hands while learning and growing from those around them.
Each student brings with them the ability and yearning to learn something that may be a very old practice, but is new and foreign to them. This idea of learning a skill that has been passed through the generations is what the Folk School is all about. But, make no mistake; just because the practices and skills being taught at North House Folk School are from the past does not mean the school as a whole is not looking to the future. As executive director Wright describes the school’s relationship with the past, present and future, he says, “North House is not an institution about going back. We’re about bringing the past forward into the present and into the future. Because we believe our lives will be richer; because we believe there are skills there that are valuable; and because I think it brings perspective to the journey called life.”
Perspective is one of, if not the most, quintessential element of North House Folk School. Everyone has doubts and concerns about their own strengths and weaknesses and what the folk school does is give students the insight that they have a wealth of untapped potential and new abilities to be learned. It is impossible to know if you have a unique ability to carve wood, or that you can make an expertly crafted shoe by hand unless you allow yourself the opportunity to try it. “What does this world teach us? If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all. That’s no way for people to discover new joys in their lives,” says Wright, “That isn’t a door open to the future, that’s a door closed. That’s what North House is here for, to open doors with hopes of sparking a passion for life.”
Walking through the gorgeous North House Folk School campus and seeing the things they are doing to promote and pass on the skills of hand-built craft, it is easy to take in the true character and life that runs through the school. Every person—whether they were felting woolen slippers; learning to cure meats; carving utensils out of a block of wood; or making their very own shoes—was there to better themselves in some way. And the betterment was and is not limited to the specific skill they set out to learn. It is the deep sense of community and camaraderie that flows through North House Folk School, teaching incredible skills and crafts from the past while instilling and promoting an authentic and compassionate outlook to the future.