ELY — The Ely Folk School is celebrating its 5th birthday this summer, and it recently received an early present from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
The IRRRB awarded a $17,000 Culture & Tourism grant to support several upcoming initiatives at the nonprofit school — a do-it-yourself place for learning traditional crafts and skills associated with Ely’s cultural heritage and wilderness legacy.
The EFS, which offers an array of classes — from pine needle basketry to potica-making to herbal first aid — has several new programs in the works.
The school will expand its forge and blacksmithing program with additional classes. “Retired miners in town spearheaded our blacksmithing program,” which has been popular since beginning last fall in an adjoining building, EFS Board Chairman Paul Schurke said by phone. “We will have a full slate of blacksmith and metal working in our new building.”
EFS is also launching a pottery program using a donated kiln in the school’s large, newly remodeled workshop. “We are hoping to get that fired up this summer as well,” Schurke said.
The community will also have the opportunity to help construct a traditional 20-foot Anishinabe birch bark canoe via the school’s annual canoe-building program.
Members of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe will lead a session in June on the cultural and spiritual significance of traditional Anishinabe dance regalia, such as jingle dresses and other clothing associated with drum dances, Schurke said.
There will also be a canoe flotilla across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness up to the Lac La Croix First Nation along the Ontario, Canada-Minnesota border.
EFS participated in a similar overnight paddle trip a couple years ago, which everyone enjoyed, Schurke said. The school’s birch bark canoe will be christened with a Native American blessing and participants will attend a powwow at Lac La Croix.
“We are pleased the folk school has been a bridge connecting our local Native American community here,” Schurke added.
A collaboration with local craftsman Andy Hill will also offer students a chance to learn about building sustainably as he constructs his new, “off-the-grid, green” home.
The folk school will also collaborate with Ely arts groups to bring a “Nature for the Nation” outdoor “walking play” to town. A performance by the Minnesota-based group is slated for August.
“Arts are big in Ely,” Schurke noted, and EFS has been involved in other traveling outdoor performance theaters.
“Nature” is the mythic telling of the mutual love for the natural world by naturalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The original work was collaboratively created with writer/actor Tyson Forbes, the great-great-great-grandson of Emerson.
During the performance, a professional ensemble of actors and musicians will take the audience on a journey through the natural environment as scenes unfold around them. Bagpipes, ancient flutes, drums and choral arrangements are woven into the highly theatrical experience.
The IRRRB grant will additionally support the folk school’s seasonal folk-dance series, expanded marketing and website services, and funds to assist with compensating contracted instructors who teach the school’s short courses.
The Culture & Tourism grant requires a one-to-one match, Schurke said.
“We’re launching our annual spring fund drive to help meet this obligation. EFS friends will find it soon on our website and in their mail boxes, along with an invitation to our birthday party.”
The celebration will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. June 9.
“We are very grateful to Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation for this support,” EFS Board Member Johnnie Hyde said in a press release. “As we launch our fifth season, this is a real vote of confidence for our school’s value to the community as a connecting point and a means of promoting Ely’s cultural legacy.”
Since the school opened in May 2015, it has offered nearly 1,000 classes and events, and has been credited as a catalyst in Ely’s downtown rejuvenation.
The folk school movement “started in Denmark over 100 years ago,” said Schurke, an internationally renowned Arctic explorer who owns Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge and Wintergreen Northern Wear, both of Ely, with his wife Sue.
The earliest schools were started by grassroots groups of local farmers and later labor unions, and then the movement was carried forward by rural townspeople, according to the EFS website.
The goal of the schools was to return education to the community at a time when it was largely restricted to the upper classes.
There are now more than 600 folk schools in Scandinavia and Europe and more than 200 in the United States. Each has an identity linked to its geography.
The North House Folk School in Grand Marais, for instance, features programs and classes on the northwoods and Lake Superior. EFS’s identity is based on its Balkan and Finnish cultural heritage and its internationally noted wilderness.
Each folk school “is independent,” Schurke said. “Each has it own philosophies.”
But EFS is among a growing community of folk schools, including one in Duluth and one being launched in Warroad, Minn., he said. Because of the increasing trend, there is now “an ad hoc national Folk School Alliance.”
“The folk school phenomena is gaining traction nationwide,” EFS Program Coordinator Betty Firth said in a press release. Larger and older schools, like the one in Grand Marais and John C. Campbell in Brasstown, N.C., have become key economic engines for their regions, drawing thousands of visitors annually, she said.
EFS hopes to grow as an economic driver in the Ely community as well, Schurke said. The school is “focused on engaging local instructors and local students.” About half of class participants are from the region. “That keeps the money local and circulating through the school,” he said.
Increasingly, visitors to Ely are also planning their vacations around folk school courses.
More than 60 classes and events have been scheduled for the school’s upcoming season. They are posted on the EFS’ front window at 209 E. Sheridan St., and its website: www.elyfolkschool.org.
Classes include rosemaling, barn quilts, spring edibles, watercolor notecards, weaving, and learning to make Slovenian favorites such as pasties, potica, and strudel.
There will be classes this summer on forest bathing — a popular practice in Japan known for improving mental and physical health; fly fishing and fly tying; landscape photography; and crafting custom-fit moccasins.
New offerings are fish leather wallets, herbal first aid, shoreline plants, embroidery, and night sky photography.
IRRRB’s annual Culture & Tourism grant program serves to “assist non-profits by supporting strong arts, culture, heritage, and recreational activities to enhance the quality of life and economy.”
Last year the program distributed $250,000 to nonprofits in its 50-city service area, which extends from Grand Portage to Duluth and from Orr to Grand Rapids, plus the Crosby-Aitkin area.
Ely-area recipients of those funds included the Babbitt Conservation Club, Veterans on the Lake Resort, Dorothy Molter Museum, Ely Nordic Ski Club, International Wolf Center, and the Northern Lights Music Festival.