- by Kara Larson - Just a year into existence, Ely Folk School has weaved itself into the community of Ely as if it were built right alongside the town more than 100 years ago. This folk school is impossible to miss, located on the highly traveled Sheridan Street in Ely, attracting locals and visitors traveling by car, bike, or foot.
Stepping inside the main structure of the folk school, the charming space is filled with friendly people, beautiful quilts made by Ely Folk School instructor, Autumn Cole, ample space, and a wonderful little gift shop with things made right here. The space is warm, inviting, and filled with possibility. Ely Folk School Program Coordinator Jaime Brennan was kind enough to show us around a bit, helping us visualize the world of inspiration, growth, and making that Ely Folk School fosters.
As luck would have it, Jaime was only the first of three marvelous hosts we had that day—next on the list was the famed quilt maker herself, Autumn Cole. As an instructor since the folk school’s founding, Autumn teaches many of the quilting and sewing classes and was also in charge of the Ely Folk School booth at the Farmer’s Market that evening. So, as Autumn bid us a adieu, she headed off to Whiteside Park to share birch bark weaved crafts, her own sewing creations, handmade art and goods, and to sell the story of Ely Folk School with locals and visitors alike.
Enter our third host and guide—Molly Olson. Growing up on a small dairy farm powered by draft horses, Molly learned to value the preservation of traditional skills. When she and her husband, along with their three children, considered a move to the North Country in the fall of 2014, she dreamed of starting a folk school on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Molly shares, “My husband enjoys making things with his hands like brain-tanned leather mukluks, birch bark baskets, and wooden flutes. I enjoy folk dancing, cooking, and gardening as well as building community. We were drawn to the idea of a folk school as a way to find other people who enjoy the same things.”
To Molly’s excitement, in January of 2015, the Ely Folk School was already starting. So, when Molly and her family moved to Ely last June, they came with the intent to get involved in the young folk school. As soon as they arrived, Molly started volunteering with the school during the summer months, and became a board member in September. She has a hand in many of the diverse aspects of EFS, serving on the Marketing, Events, Governance, Futures, and Curriculum committees. Impact on Community At the heart of Ely Folk School are the people. The people drawn here are geared to create. But more than that, these individuals have shared experiences through conversation, activities, events, and unique learning experiences here. Their desire to make things and engage with other members of the community is enhanced by the sense of satisfaction that is uncovered along the way—an increasingly precious experience in the world today. Through classes, workshops, and events for people of all ages, individuals eagerly participate in cooperative learning that may no longer be critical for survival, but, as Molly assures, certainly enhances well-being.
“Ely Folk School provides events that bring people together such as our folk dances, potlucks, concerts, and campfires,” Molly begins. “The classes we offer celebrate the culture of the area—from outdoor adventuring to the regional ethnic groups, including the Native American crafts and traditions. Our school connects artisans and experts with excited life-long learners. Even people who have not taken a class here are supportive of our efforts, and follow our story with interest. We are adding to the already rich community in Ely, as well as the extended community of Minnesota.”
We saw the impact on community firsthand as we sat around the campfire in front of Ely Folk School, building s’mores and talking, while just a few feet away, a focused crew of community members worked together to build a birch bark canoe. We watched in awe as they hand stitched the frame of the canoe with spruce root, carefully shaved away pieces of wood to perfect the ribs, and measured their work with precision. Long before this point is reached, Instructor Erik Simula takes students into the forest to harvest spruce root, cedar, and birch bark for the building of this community canoe. Erik has made more than a dozen traditional Ojibway birch bark canoes and his expertise and skill makes this project an especially bonding one for everyone who decides to contribute.
The Promise of Adventure To make, engage, explore, connect—it’s all an adventure at Ely Folk School. We had the pleasure of meeting and talking to the keen individual leading an upcoming adventure at EFS—Paul Schurke, a devoted Ely community member, one of the famed members of the Steger International Polar Expedition, and Ely Folk School board chair. With the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness so near, Paul is excited to lead the August Flotilla to the Lac La Croix Pow Wow, a canoe trip over lakes and portages. The paddlers will make the trek as a group, then arrive to celebrate with the members of the tribe during their end of summer pow wow. In the way of functional, real-world adventure, there is opportunity to learn survival skills in the winter when taking fire-building class, learning to draw an ember from a hand-drill, and cook a meal over the fire that is created. There is also a class on the ancient practice of wild rice harvesting—giving people a taste of what native tribes did every fall long before European settlers arrived in the Americas.
“Other adventures are imaginary, as when participants in the ‘Discovering Your Power Animals’ class travel to the underworld to explore their inner spirit through journeying with the assistance of drumming,” says Molly. “Still more adventures are more joyous, as when community comes together to learn folk dances in the dead of winter, warming their hearts with laughter and music.”
Building a Future Here With a dedicated board planning for the future, there is much on the horizon for Ely Folk School. Beyond a hope to have an annual Birch Bark Canoe Project and host a variety of community events throughout the year, the dedicated team behind Ely Folk School is currently working on a kitchen project that will allow more cooking classes to be held, have future plans to remodel a garage for the potential use of building a brick bread oven and open-air pavilion, and are exploring options for a jewelry studio, pottery, and woodworking spaces. Additionally, they are planning a sauna-building course that will culminate in a raffle for the finished product at the end of next summer.
With anticipation of a budding future, Molly shares, “Our long-range desire is to keep our location on Sheridan Street with its large windows and EFS Mercantile, while expanding to have a lakeside campus for many of our classes.” She adds, “We hope to grow our membership, add more staff, find funding sources, and expand our marketing to other states. Our focus will continue to be on celebrating the wilderness heritage as well as the culture and craft of the people of northern Minnesota.”
As we explored Ely Folk School and met the instructors, board members, and lifelong learners, we saw the impact of traditional craft in this community. Here, in this beautiful little town surrounded by the vast wilderness of Northern Minnesota, we experienced Ely Folk School as a place for interaction and renewal, for inspiration and learning, for personal growth, shared experience, and adventure. And best yet, there’s so much possibility ahead.