Recharge Your Spirit at a Midwest Folk School
Modern folk schools are forging a movement built on timeless craft and shared experience—packaged up in a single day or weekend away.
A string of epic snowstorms has white-washed the landscape along Wagner Road in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
I focus on the few bits of color: a dark curve of road, the green smudges of a distant tree grove and the splashes of red barns that make up Three Pines Farm. A rooster crows from a nearby building as I dart through French doors into a tidy brick-walled barn, shedding my coat and shaking off the deep chill of sleet. Our host, Kara Grupp, is a petite, contagiously energetic mother of two young boys and six dwarf goats. She bustles about, greeting a dozen guests and getting us settled into an airy, modern kitchen with a work station. The fifth-generation farm and this very barn opened as a folk school in late 2014. We’ve gathered for an afternoon class on making chocolate babka, a swirled loaf that’s a Jewish deli staple. Tying on vintage aprons sparks conversation among strangers. We trade memories of making holiday cookie cutouts and snatching bits of Grandma’s cinnamon sugar-dusted dough. Today’s bread lesson will come soon enough, but these unscripted moments of sharing and connecting are what sustain Kara.
“We are more fragmented and distracted than we have ever been,” she says of our tech-riddled age. So she built her family farm-turned-folk school as a hands-on sanctuary. “Happiness and well-being come down to connection.”
Three Pines Farm fits into an explosion of folk schools across the nation and worldwide. There were about nine known “folk” schools in the United States in the 1970s, says Dawn Jackman Murphy, with the Folk Education Association of America. That number has now climbed beyond 80, with 70-plus opening since 2011.
“There’s been a second wave,” Kara says. “They call it the modern folk school movement.” She muses that technology and the nonstop pace of modern life create a longing for spaces to slow down and focus on creative activities. Internet tutorials make learning new skills at home easy, but they lack the intimacy of face-to-face instruction and the camaraderie of classmates.
A Folk What?
Folk schools emerged in 19th-century Denmark. These grassroots schools channeled life skills, cultural identity and the natural world to dignify rural life and farmers. Scandinavian heritage still anchors many Midwest folk schools, with daylong and weekend workshops on rosemaling, woodworking, metalsmithing or fiber arts.
Some people purchase folk school classes as a holiday gift—a chance for couples, mother-daughter duos and friends to spend time together learning a new skill. Others come as individuals, seeking a way to loosen the soul when the pressures of life (and the frozen winter) constrict it. “January and February are two of our biggest months around here,” Kara says.
The concept of a folk school dates to the 1830s, when Danish philosopher and educator Nikolai Grundtvig encouraged schools designed for everyone, not just moneyed aristocracy. He pictured hives of activity that would teach handcrafts and song and dance, instill a sense of cultural pride, and connect informed citizens as democracies began to replace monarchies. More than 50 folk schools launched in Denmark after 1850, and several appeared in the United States in the early 1900s. John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, has been going strong since 1925.
Modern American folk schools preserve and showcase skills that were once passed on from parents and elders. Each has a unique curriculum, shaped by seasonality, landscape, and local history and ethnic traditions. But self-sufficiency and sustainability are common threads. Classes might cover building a brick bread oven, canning garden produce or handcrafting snowshoes.
At Minnesota’s North House Folk School, which opened in 1997 in Grand Marais, you’ll hear the clacking rhythm of looms and pounding of hammers year round. The soundtrack mingles with smells of sawdust and wood shavings from handmade paddles, skis, even coffins. Last year, North House expanded its campus on the North Shore of Lake Superior to meet the demand of 3,000-plus students attending 400 classes each year. Weekend and weeklong festivals celebrate the changing seasons and showcase fiber art, acoustic music or wooden boats. North House’s popularity recently inspired folk schools to open in Duluth and Ely, each a two-hour drive away.
“The Midwest has the highest density of folk schools,” explains Dawn with the Folk Education Association of America. The region also has the best track record for success. “People come together for the craft,” she says, “and stay for the community.”
Reinventing the family farm
Kara didn’t have folk schools on her radar six years ago when she was working a science and research job at Iowa State University. But in 2013, the caretakers of her family’s farm relocated, and she had the opportunity to take their place. Kara’s great-great-grandparents moved into a log cabin on the land in 1856. The name, Three Pines, comes from seedlings her great-great-grandfather brought back from logging trees in Wisconsin to build a barn. He planted them in memory of his three daughters who died while he was gone in the winter of 1865. Kara sensed she could sow something here, too.
In the pig barn her granddad built in the 1960s, she pictured taking out part of the hayloft for a vaulted entry and dining area and replacing stalls with a kitchen. “I could see this place,” she says. The vision became reality—as have others. A second barn is getting touched up for weddings and event rentals. A third houses chickens.
Her dwarf goats live in the big family barn. The animals attract visitors to Three Pines in summer for goat yoga and baby goat “cuddlefests.” Cooking classes and craft workshops ramp up in the fall, led by local artisans and out-of-state or international specialists. Some classes tap family history, such as making soap or whisk brooms like Kara’s pioneering ancestors did. A diverse schedule encourages repeat visitors. And last winter she launched the Small Boat Supper Club, gatherings of eight people to share soup, bread and thoughtful conversation, often guided by a reading—what Kara dubs big talk, rather than small talk. “Everything falls under the umbrella of connection and happiness,” she says.
As we pull the babkas from the oven, some people grab phones for photos, but the tech break is brief. Showing off our handiwork can wait: The sharing is happening here. We settle in around the dining table to savor the sweet, chewy bread. Chatter meanders through Dutch oven cooking, trailer camping, and the joys and challenges of parenting. Storytelling bookends our three hours together. Then we bundle up and venture back into the stormy afternoon, warmed by conversation, connection and the cradled loaves in our hands.
Explore Folk Schools in Winter
In the scenic northeast corner of the state, The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center teaches rosemaling, weaving, fiber arts, chip carving, woodworking, forging and silversmithing. Cooking classes explore traditional dishes like kransekake, a towering celebration cake, and lefse, a potato flatbread.
With its new home at Staebler Farm County Park, this school has a blacksmith studio, a woodshop and a classroom (with a teaching kitchen in the works). The class lineup includes leatherworking, forging, bread baking, shoe-smithing and organic food production.
A newcomer to the Midwest folk scene, this school was established in 2016 and is located in the Lincoln Park Craft District. Course offerings include making soft-soled leather shoes, carving wooden faces, blade sharpening, eco-printing silk scarves and foraging to make tea. The school also hosts live music at its Dovetail Cafe and Marketplace.
Thousands of people have taken classes at this popular destination, housed in colorful timber-frame buildings on the shore of Lake Superior. In addition to a vast curriculum, the 22-year-old school hosts seasonal festivals and has a vintage schooner for day and evening trips onto the lake.
Location is everything at this four-year-old school. A small town on the Iron Range, Ely is a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the area was once home to immigrant miners. Class topics draw inspiration from the setting: sewing with beaver hides, chainmaille jewelry, foraging, canoe building, pine-needle basketry, and making pasties, a traditional miner’s lunch.
Jens Jensen started The Clearing in 1935, making it one of the country’s oldest folk schools. Historic buildings host weeklong residential workshops during the warmer months, one- to two-day workshops from June into November and day classes in January and February.
The hills of southwest Wisconsin surround this 13-year-old school near Viroqua. Courses cover hard cider, cheese and fermented beverages; butchery and sausage making; hammered copper bowls; and even off-grid living.
Coming Up on the Farm
When it’s frozen outside, here’s what you can learn inside at Three Pines Farm (for as little as $50).
Herbal Lotions and Potions
Find your perfect scent in plant-based materials and essential oils with Ann Staudt of Siberian Soap Company.
Sourdough Bread Making
Vicky Dunn of C’Est la V Bakery in Waterloo, Iowa, teaches the magic behind the perfect sourdough loaf, from starter to finish.
Cooking with Miso
Tomie Sasaki-Hesselink shares traditional and modern recipes featuring Miso, the fermented soybean paste central to Japanese cuisine.
Choose-Your-Own Private Class
Book a date for a group (or gift an outing for the holidays). options include making scones, sushi and French crepes.