North House Folk School

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By Catherine Lundie

Instructor Dennis Chilcote demonstrates how to bind broom corn.

Instructor Dennis Chilcote demonstrates how to bind broom corn.

Against the spare beauty of Grand Marais harbor in northern Minnesota nestles a cluster of brilliantly colored buildings. The historic timber-frame structures hum with activity—boat building or woodcarving, basket weaving or fiber arts. In the central courtyard, noise rings out from a blacksmith’s shop, while an outdoor masonry oven scents the air with the yield of an artisanal bread-baking class. This is the North House Folk School.

North House is modeled on the Scandinavian folkeshoskole, developed in Denmark in the 19th century. The center began with a skin-on-frame kayak-building class in the mid-1990s. It soon evolved into a nonprofit with an initial course catalog of 26 offerings. The current roster is an impressive 350 courses, taught by more than 100 artisans.

The school also offers sailing and navigating classes on Lake Superior.

The school also offers sailing and navigating classes on Lake Superior.

A distinguishing characteristic of North House is that all classes fall under the umbrella of traditional Northern craft. That means courses explore the material and cultural history of the North’s indigenous peoples, as well as its Norwegian and Scandinavian immigrants. Instruction is offered in yurt building, dovetail log cabin construction, building with stone, and straw bale construction. Communications director Kate Watson notes the particular dedication of timber-framing attendees, who “ship home what they’ve built and reassemble it.”

In boat building, recent courses included building classic wooden rowboats and cedar-strip kayak or canoe building. You also can learn to sail or navigate on Lake Superior; one tempting class is a five-day sailing trip through the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Furniture and woodworking classes range from Adirondack and twig chair-making to steam-bending Scandinavian-style containers. There is also a quirky sellout: “Bury Yourself In Your Work: Build Your Own Casket.”

In February, the annual fiber retreat (held in conjunction with the Grand Marais Art Colony, the oldest art colony in the state) will feature Icelandic fiber artists. “Fiber people form communities,” Watson says. “They do everything from felting to knitting to mukluks.”

Norwegian heritage offerings may include rosemaling Christmas ornaments, where participants decorate wooden ornaments with the colorful folk painting. “Birch Bark Boxes: Scandinavian Bark Basketry” teaches the art of finger- and lap-jointed boxes that are both decorative and useful. Students in “Sew Your Own: Scandinavian Work Shirts” use striped fabrics of natural fibers to make heritage garments.

North House holds three major seasonal events to which all are welcome. Activities at the Winterer’s Gathering and Arctic Film Festival (Nov. 20–23) will include winter skills seminars, tent camping, and talks by sea kayakers who recently paddled across southern Baffin Island in Inuit-style kayaks they made themselves. In 2015, the Wooden Boat Show & Summer Solstice Festival (June 19–21) includes a wooden boat display.


Tiny Getaways

When Henry David Thoreau “borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond” in 1845, little did he dream that the resulting cabin would become an icon. So iconic, in fact, that one of North House’s most popular classes is “Build Thoreau’s Cabin.” Designed for those with little or no building experience, it teaches a team of students to use basic hand and power tools to re-create Thoreau’s 10' x 14' frame or “stick” structure. The promise is that “by the end of this class, your tool belt will do much more than simply improve your looks!”

If you’ve always fancied a log cabin for your writing retreat, North House has you covered there, too. “Dovetail Log Cabin: Builder’s Workshop” (April 21–26) teaches students the techniques of classic dovetail log home construction, a technique also known as Appalachian Log or American Heritage. Build an 8' x 8' shelter with a 4' porch. The bonus here is that the timbers stay cool in summer and retain heat in winter, so the cabin can double as a sauna.