Ely Folk School creates and maintains small town culture on the edge of the Boundary Waters

Ely Folk School students show off their completed fur caps. All photos courtesy of the Ely Folk School.

Ely Folk School creates and maintains small town culture on the edge of the Boundary Waters

By Ada Igoe, Contributor

From its convenient perch at 209 E. Sheridan St. on Ely’s main drag, the Ely Folk School is drawing people from near and far to learn traditional crafts in a wilderness setting. As you pass by the school on a summer evening, you might be called into the yard to help build a birch bark canoe. On Christmas Day, the Folk School is where you bring a potluck dish to share with community members.

It all began when the Ott family bought the property next door to Wintergreen Northern Wear and began looking for a tenant. To Paul Schurke, Susan Polege, and other interested parties, it seemed like the perfect space for Ely’s long desired folk school and they formed a mission to “build community by providing learning experiences that celebrate the wilderness heritage, art, history, culture and craft of the people of northern Minnesota.” The campus includes a classroom building – including a kitchen for cooking classes – a store, garage, side yard, a woodshop for canoe building, and soon, a blacksmith shop.

Although Ely has always had residents skilled in all manners of arts and traditional crafts, “there really wasn’t a place or organization with the structure needed for community education,” said Program Coordinator Betty Firth.

In just four years, the Folk School has grown into a place where people connect with skills fading from modern society, and also with each other. In September 2015, the non-profit endeavor hired its first staff member and last year, Ely Folk School offered 271 classes to 800 students. That’s approximately a 200% increase from the 86 classes offered to 250 students in 2015.


Birch bark canoe building.


“We see a real yearning for people to use their hands and connect to art,” Firth said. “For example, when people see a birch bark canoe made without power tools or any purchased materials, they’re astounded.”

Firth said there’s about a 50/50 split among the Folk School’s students between residents and tourists. One factor she contributes to Folk School’s success is its low class cancellation rate. Each individual instructor at the Folk School gets to decide if they want to continue with a class even if the student minimum for enrollment isn’t met. As a result, it’s not unusual to have class sizes of three-five individuals and sometimes even two students, she said.

“People enjoy getting together and learning,” Firth said. “It’s a very different experience than learning from YouTube.”

Student working on a pine needle basket.

The classes offered at the Ely Folk School include everything from photography to ethnic cooking to a major birch bark canoe building project that takes place every summer. “Folk schools generally tend to reflect the area they’re in,” Firth explained.

As a result, the Ely Folk School offers many classes that reflect the community’s Anishinaabe, Finnish, and Slovenian heritage. In one such class, students learn to make the Slovakian delicacy, potica. “The class often appeals to people of Slovenian descent who have lost the recipes or the knowledge of how to make it,” Firth said. “That class is always filled with people telling stories of how their Grandma used to make potica.”

As the school moves into its fifth season, Firth is working to get a blacksmith shop up and running, as well as develop a ceramics program. The popular Save the Bees weekend will be repeated on March 30-31, with some new bee-focused offerings this year including honey-fruit tarts and puff pastry. Other new initiatives in 2019 include a series of classes over the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May focused on the night sky phenomenon and photography and the Dark Sky movement, aimed at reducing light pollution and preserving dark places on the planet. And for the first time since the Folk School opened, students who have already gained some experience in a particular craft can return for intermediate and advanced classes in drawing and painting, woodworking, fiber arts, stained glass, ceramics, and metalworks.

Students and visitors are encouraged to suggest classes they would like to see offered. “We can even arrange a custom-made class for a group of friends or family who want to gather in Ely,” Firth said. In addition to classes, the Folk School also offers lectures, folk dances, and potlucks.

“We aim to build community by helping people connect with others in a friendly, supportive learning environment and have fun while they’re gaining new skills,” Firth said.

Find out more at https://elyfolkschool.org/


A student with his completed bent willow chair at the Ely Folk School.
Ely Folk School students work together to complete a bent willow chair.


Finished birch bark canoe project, all photos courtesy Ely Folk School.

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