GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — In a timber-framed building that smelled of freshly sawed wood and pine tar, Robb Rutledge and Pete Dulak were hammering brass rivets into their handmade Norse pram, a small rowboat of Scandinavian heritage.
A wood stove crackled in the background, adding warmth to the brisk afternoon. A deepening fog shrouded the Lake Superior shoreline just outside the big windows.
"We took our wives to Norway for a vacation and we fell in love with Viking ships. That's how we ended up at North House taking a boat-building class in January," Rutledge said during a break between hammering and sawing.
Where else can you learn how to build a Norse pram? Or weave birchbark baskets, sew moosehide mukluks, bake artisan breads in an outdoor brick oven or forge a handmade axe on an anvil?
North House Folk School is entering its 21st year bursting at the hand-sewn seams. What started in 1997 with a couple of local woodworkers deciding to pass on their skills of building timber frame cabins and small wooden boats has grown beyond anyone's expectations.
Last year some 2,500 students participated in 407 courses offered by 140 artisan teachers at North House. An estimated 25,000 people visited the harborfront campus, including for special events like a wooden-boat show and concerts.
Nonprofit North House has ridden the "crest of the wave" of popularity for local food, local craft beers, local art and an increased emphasis on shared and learned experiences, said Greg Wright, North House executive director.
"Having a big beautiful wooden bowl you made with your own two hands ... that has a joy that strikes a lot closer to the heart than buying one," Wright said while walking across campus. "It's not about cheap or fast. It's about what you can learn, what you can do when you try, what you can produce ... and about the journey getting there."
The school thrives thanks to an eclectic arts and crafts heritage in a community known for its eccentric, skilled artisans long before North House formed. Add the mystique of the Lake Superior waterfront — in a quaint village with a lighthouse and gulls and Cape Cod charm — and it may be the perfect place for a folk school to blossom.
"There's no doubt our success has been in large part based on the community we're in and the people who have settled here ... We were planted in rich soil," Wright said. "Could we have succeeded in some other location than the harbor? Maybe. But the poetry of this place, this waterfront, this lake, is part of the fabric of what we are."
Buying property next door
The school that teaches 19th century arts and crafts skills in a world surrounded by 21st century technology and pressures isn't just thriving with more teachers and students. Its campus is growing, too.
School officials last week signed a purchase agreement to buy the next-door parcel owned by commercial fisherman Harley Tofte and his wife, Shele. The parcel, which now includes Tofte's fish-processing warehouse and the Dockside Fish Market restaurant, will add 50 percent to the North House campus footprint.
The property — which fronts on state Highway 61 and backs to the harborfront — is estimated to cost about $1.4 million. North House has penciled in another $400,000 to build on the lot, although officials aren't sure yet what will happen with the property. The Toftes are retiring from fishing and restaurateuring, but the site may still house two of Harley's protegees who would carry on the herring and trout netting tradition even after North House buys the land.
"We weren't out there looking to expand again. But we also can't afford to pass up this potential. It might not come up again in our lifetime," said Wright, who has served as the school's executive director since 2001.
North House will conduct fundraising to cover the cost. Last week the project received a $200,000 grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board through the Cook County Economic Development Authority. The school has penciled in a $800,000 grant from the Margaret Cargill Foundation and $50,000 form the Blandin Foundation.
It's the fourth major growth phase of the campus that started holding classes in city-owned, 1930s-vintage Forest Service garages next door to the municipal campground. The school continues to lease the former garages from the city, although they have been totally refurbished by teachers and students.
The school also operates an "artists in development" program that provides a living stipend and housing for a two-year stint for artists to develop their crafts.
"If we don't develop the instructors of the future, who will?" Wright notes.
Intern, teacher, mayor
North House strives to offer lifelong learning "that inspires the hands, the heart and the mind," learning for the sake of learning with no grades, no credits and no tests. It's a concept inspired by Scandinavian folkehøjskolers, or folk high schools.
"We didn't invent folk schools. But we brought the idea to northern Minnesota and have adopted the concept to the heritage of this place," Wright said, noting new folk schools have sprouted in Ely, Duluth and the Upper Peninsula's Porcupine Mountains in recent years.
The school takes special pride in its internship program. Several interns have stayed in town, become instructors, started small business and built a lifestyle off what they learned and taught at the school.
Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, owner of the Arthouse B&B and Fireweed Bike Co-Op in Grand Marais, is the city's mayor. A native of southern Minnesota and a graduate of St. Olaf College, he came to Grand Marais in 2005 to serve as an intern for North House Folk School and then returned to stay when he and his wife had the chance to be part of the North Shore lifestyle.
"I think the school becomes such a big part of people not so much for the items they produce — a knife or an axe or a bowl — but for the experience in getting there," he said. "It's a life lesson on how to run your business and relate with people."
As with many people in the community, the mayor also fits time into his busy work schedule to teach classes at North House. Arrowsmith Decoux is the school's "meat man," teaching classes in preserving and curing meats and fish.
The mayor called North House an integral part of the community's standard of living and a key player in the city's formal "Creative Economy" initiative to build on its regional reputation as an arts and crafts tourist destination.
"Along with the Grand Marais Art Colony, North House is a key part of our economy now," Arrowsmith Decoux said, noting students fill rental rooms, restaurants and shops.
North House students Dulak and Rutledge, the retired Red Wing, Minn. friends building the wooden pram, called their two-week class at North House "amazing," "awesome" and "transformative."
"I've been a woodworker for a while, but my skills are getting a lot better here," Dulak said, noting measurements for the boat were all being done by eye, without actually measuring. "It's down to the very basics, mostly with hand tools."
"I was an orthopedic surgeon and I've used a lot of tools on people and, let me tell you, this is harder," Rutledge said of wooden-boat building
The pram class started with five guys for the first week. But three left after learning how-to basics. Rutledge and Dulak stayed to finish their boat in the school shop. They praised John Beltman, the longtime North House instructor who was guiding them through the effort.
"We started with single board. Now it actually looks like a boat," Dulak noted. "It's amazing what you can accomplish with a little help and the right tools."
North House Folk School facts
Average class size: 7.5 students
Class length: From two hours to two weeks; average is 2.5 days.
In recent years student have come from: 48 different states and 6 foreign countries. About 70 percent are Minnesotans.
Began: In 1997 with just a few classes, centering on how to build timber frame cabins and small wooden boats.
Now: The school has a $1.5 million annual budget with 140 instructors, 407 classes offered and more than 2,500 students.
For more information: Go to northhouse.org or call (218) 387-9762.