From the Ashland Folk School to Circle Pines Center: A Legacy of Progressive Education in Michigan

The Ashland Folk School in Grant, Michigan was created by a distinct immigrant group -Danish immigrants- in the 1880s under Grundtvigian ideals and with a goal of the preservation of Danish identity. In time, though, it evolved into a space for folks much less culturally homogeneous. Concern for the preservation of Danish culture lessened as the concerns over social and political issues in America became the guiding force in the lives of Danish immigrant families. After closing for a time because of anti-immigrant sentiments after World War I, Ashland reopened in the late 1920s no longer exclusively Danish. Commonality among participants was no longer chiefly ties to life in the old country, but rather, commonality was found in life in America. As such, Ashland came under decidedly non-Danish leadership in 1927. The next two directors, John Kirkpatrick and Chester Graham, would serve to steer Ashland in a progressive and American direction. Progressive ideas in education, society and politics now poured into the school. It became a place not just for Danish Americans to feel comfortable but for individuals from other groups to feel comfortable as well. The traditional folk school program of singing, dancing, recreation, and discussion was being carried out at Ashland now amongst a racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse body of participants. Its Grundtvigian past attracted American progressives throughout the late 1920s until its close in 1938 with such figures as John Dewey and Arthur E Morgan – who lent their endorsement in Ashland promotional literature, and the unionizing work of folks like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers. In its last decade Ashland had become a part of the American progressive circles that later would become the Civil Rights Movement.

In his autobiography Chester Graham relates that Ashland outgrew its building by the spring of 1938 and needed more space to accommodate the number of participants it was attracting. Feeling that its growth was being hindered, Graham found the recently built Civilian Conservation Corps’ Chief Noonday Camp in Middleville, Michigan and pursued renting it for the 1938 summer season. By late spring the Ashland building had been condemned by the local fire marshal and programming was never to resume there again. In the course of the move from Grant to Chief Noonday, the folks from Ashland became a cooperative, decided to call themselves Circle Pines Center, and leadership was transferred from Chester Graham to David Sonquist. After renting Chief Noonday camp for a few summers, the newly created Circle Pines Center cooperative had purchased its permanent home in nearby Delton, Michigan. It has enjoyed this Civil War era farm of nearly 300 acres as home ever since.

As safe places for the experimentation of radical ideas both late Ashland and early Circle Pines had the distinction of being “a home away from home” to many. The progressive social and political ideas of Ashland carried to Circle Pines with the many significant social, cultural and political organizations, figures and ideas that came to and through the early Circle Pines, such as Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, James Farmer, and many others who were a part of a weeklong conference of the progressive National Council of Methodist Youth at Circle Pines in 1941. (One of the efforts of the National Council of Methodist Youth was putting an end to conscription.) David Sonquist, Chester Graham, and others, tapped into the Danish tradition of cooperation to foster and promote the cooperative movement in the American Midwest, in the form of consumer, farmer, and recreation cooperatives, by conducting week long camps on cooperation at Ashland throughout the 1930s. These efforts, too, carried from Ashland to Circle Pines with the decision to establish the project that would become Circle Pines Center as a cooperative the moment it left Ashland and began at Chief Noonday Camp. An integrated and inclusive safe place to learn, enjoy and grow, as both individuals and members of a society, in a noncompetitive and cooperative way seems to be what the leaders and participants involved with Ashland sought to continue in Circle Pines.

Nearly 80 years in, Circle Pines Center has a long history of cooperative education with its youth summer camp which has been operating since its first summer at Chief Noonday Camp in 1938. Among other long running programs are the maple syrup weekends, apple cider weekends, Spanish immersion weekends, and the more recently created weeklong People’s Institute and the three day Buttermilk Jamboree. The People’s Institute seeks to revive an old tradition at Circle Pines of extended adult discussion with a call to action around difficult issues like climate change, immigration policies, and human and animal rights. The Buttermilk Jamboree is both a music festival and a folk school experience for about 1600 people of all ages, young and old. June saw Buttermilk’s 7th year.

Work projects in the garden, trail building, maintenance, and construction, as well as experiences in animal care, food preservation and many other traditional arts are an ongoing part of life at Circle Pines. Programming is always enjoyed by both the membership and the larger public from all over the United States and beyond. In addition to all the learning and sharing that participants experience there is also a good deal of rest, relaxation and physical recreation to be had on the beautiful grounds with walks in the woods, berry picking, plein air drawing and painting, swimming and boating, folk dancing, group sing-a-longs, poetry readings and winter skiing and snow shoeing. Throughout the decades progressive thinkers have come to Circle Pines Center to experience cooperative learning in a relaxed, rural setting with an amazing and important history. Learn more about Circle Pines Center at circlepinescenter.org.

Christyl Burnett has been a friend and neighbor to Circle Pines Center since 2001. This article is part of a larger paper she working about the early history of Circle Pines.