Fan Hitch is Key to Success at North House Folk School In Grand Marias, Minnesota

By Vicky Eiben, Ed. D.

This article is based on an interview with Jessa Frost, Program Director at NHFS, in Nov. 2015.

It was a cold, dark December night as about 50 people gathered in a cobblestone courtyard near the shore of Lake Superior. The occasion was the Winter Solstice and the presentation of a shadow puppet play to mark the longest night of the year. The night air was filled with music, laughter and a tangible creativity, all hallmarks of a North House Folk School (NHFS) experience. Their mission is to enrich lives and build community through the teaching of northern crafts in a student-centered learning environment that inspires the hands, the heart, and the mind. On this particular night NHFS brought people together to enjoy an artistic presentation, to laugh, to celebrate the dark and the return of the light, and to share a potluck meal.

History—Vision, Passion, Tenaciousness, Right Timing

Their story began 18 years ago with a Grand Marais boat builder, Mark Hansen, who wanted to help others with an interest in building Inuit skin-on-frame kayaks. He organized a month-long class, and this experience launched the idea of what was to become North House Folk School. When Mark was young, he spent a great deal of time with his grandfathers who were both Lutheran ministers, and one of those grandfathers was a Grundtvigian, inspired by the work of NFS Grundtvig who was a Lutheran minister in Denmark in the 1800s who was the creator of the folk school concept. Mark’s early experiences with his grandfather planted seeds that later took root as he began to teach the boat building class. He realized over the course of the month that while the teaching and learning experience was amazing, the experience was as much or more about the people and the connections that were being made. With the seeds planted by his grandfather years earlier, a vision rooted firmly in Mark’s mind, and within a year, he quit his fulltime job, with gratitude to his wife and her fulltime job, to focus on development of the folk school.

That first summer, they put together a catalog of 23 courses. They had no facility and figured things out as they went along, often teaching classes in someone’s garage. For the first three years, nobody got paid unless there was a paying student in the class, and half the students weren’t paying. In those early days of the school, there was significant personal sacrifice for a lot of people as they worked to figure out what the mission statement and the folk school culture were going to be. Not very far into the folk school venture, the city of Grand Marais, had a piece of property with frontage on Lake Superior and two old buildings that they had received as part of a land swap, and they decided to petition proposals for use of the land. The newly formed folk school group submitted a proposal which was ultimately accepted. NHFS still has a lease from the city, and they have also bought additional adjacent property.

As the school grew, the founders realized that they were spending more and more time doing administrative work and less and less time teaching which was why they had started a folk school This led to the hiring of a director, Greg Wright, who is still the director today. This significant financial commitment was made possible through a variety of grant money and other financial contributions.

For example, some of the first funding came in from the Iron Range Resources and Reclamation Board which is money that the mining companies are required to set aside to reinvest in other ways of diversifying the economy in northern Minnesota. Mark Hansen, the original NHFS visionary, has been described as a person with a great deal of social capital in the community who can be very persuasive; he has been able to get others enthused and on board with their time and money for the folk school in a big way. He convinced a lot of significant people from the business community that there was potential for the school to be a good fit with the tourism economy.

Over the past decade and a half, they have been able to put together the funding to buy a strip of land with two docks on the lake adjacent to the land that is leased from the city. They have also bought the Hjordis, a schooner that is a central part of North House programming each summer. As the school has grown, the staff has grown by about one position every year and a half or so. They now have eight full time staff, four interns, and 3 seasonal staff.

Current Programming

In 2015, NHFS offered 406 courses with 2340 students and involving about 140 instructors from all over the U.S. and around the world. About 30 of the instructors live within about a two hour radius. Their hope is to continue to grow the number of local instructors because that would be good for the local area. As a rural community, they struggle with economic issues and population retention. The school does bring about six million dollars into the local economy.

Interface with the Local Community

Being of service to the local community has always been part of what NHFS strives to do. They have recognized that the needs of locals are different than people who come from outside the community, and they offer programming that engages locals in different ways. They offer a course discount to encourage locals to take classes. Because the closest movie theater is two hours away, they recently started a film series that happens once a week in the months of October, November, February, March and April. They’ve experimented with offering a craft class one night a week for three weeks, but have had only marginal success because it’s hard for people to make an ongoing commitment. The free, low commitment offerings tend to be more successful, and people appreciate them.

Local Schools

Early in the history of NHFS, a grant was secured to help with offering programing for local schools. In collaboration with local third and fourth grade teachers, three programs were developed that are still taught today. One of the programs is a Paddle to the Sea program (based on the book of the same name), one is Winter Travel in which they build a miniature toboggan, and one is a logging history program in which they build little bateaus. They also have a timber framing class with high school students from Grand Marais and Silver Bay that has been going on for eight or nine years. The first year was sponsored by a grant, and they built a building. Then they sold the building, and that money went back into the project to create a self-funded program. The goal is to work with all of the schools in the area as well as homeschoolers.

Advice/Lessons Learned/Keys to Their Success

  • Know Your Roots

Jessa stressed that understanding the roots of folk schools and being very grounded in the history and philosophy really matters, and in fact, she emphasized, “To not understand your history is directly contrary to the idea of the folk school.”

  • Make Use of Social Capital

The founder had a lot of what can be called social capital. In a small, rural community, social connections are what makes things happen.

  • Be Willing To Take Some Risks

One of the cultural pieces in the history of North House is a willingness to take risks, thoughtful risks with a lot of hard work and a commitment to the mission behind them.

  • Be Clear About Your Local Parameters

When North House was founded, there was already an art school in town; the Grand Marais Art Colony is the oldest art colony in the state. They’ve been teaching fine arts, plenair painting, pottery and sculpture for 60 or 70 years.  That offered a defining parameter. Those were things that the art colony was already teaching, and North House needed to offer classes that were distinctly different.

  • Be Thoughtful About Collaborative Partners/Know Who You Are

In the beginning, there were a lot of people at the table who wanted to be involved. There was consideration of involving community education or collaborating with the existing art school for example.  Founder, Mark Hansen, encouraged the group not to be under anyone else’s umbrella, but to create a unique identity. Collaboration could be considered in the future, but in the beginning, they needed to be clear about who they were and what their unique mission was. Jessa commented that this is a challenge that some emerging folk schools face. They don’t want to say no to people in the community. “But, you have to figure out who you are and what you are doing otherwise it just gets spread really thin. Or the risk is that a sense of identity doesn’t really get rooted in the beginning.”

  • Be Nimble

NHFS has also had a nimbleness, a willingness to just say, “Let’s figure it out as we go.” They recognize that they could work and wait forever for all of the conditions to align perfectly and for there to be exactly the right amount of money and other factors. At certain points, they had to take calculated risks or a leap of faith.  As the school grows and changes, their definition of “nimble” is evolving.

Long-term Commitment of a Core Group

Another key to the success of NHFS has been the long-term commitment of a number of people. The founder is still very involved in a variety of ways, a core group of teachers have been involved with the school since the early years, the director has been there 15 years, the program director has been there 7 years.

  • The Fan Hitch Leadership Model

A metaphor used by one of the early board members is that “North House runs on the fan hitch.” Grand Marais is in the Minnesota north woods, and it is dog sledding country in the winter. In dog sledding, there are a couple different ways to hitch dogs. In racing, you have a lead dog and then pairs of dogs behind it. But the other way you can pull very heavy loads, and a more common way traveling long distances, is the fan hitch. With this formation, there are five dogs each in their own harness, each running at the front and pulling, and they each think they’re the lead dog. Jessa commented, “We run on the fan hitch for sure. That has been a big part too of who we are and how we work. It’s not about having one or two people who are excited about the folk school. It’s about having a community.”

Greg Wright, North House director, was quoted by Jessa as saying often, “The world needs more folk schools.” In the U.S., it’s exciting to see interest in folk schools rekindling. North House with their 18 year history is often looked to as a leader in this folk school resurgence. The mission of North House Folk School hasn’t changed since the beginning—to enrich lives and build community through the teaching of northern crafts in a student-centered learning environment that inspires the hands, the heart, and the mind. While the school is very much about craft, the craft carries the stories of the people and places, and that is at the heart of what makes North House a rich and vibrant place.