Written by Alexia Springer

How has the year 2022 already come and gone? Upon reflection, this year somehow feels like the longest year that so quickly flew by. Much has happened, both in our collective world and in my personal circle. The Ely Folk School has been a major part of my year and it would be remiss of me not to spend some time reflecting on some of those lessons and memories.

Although Thursday Makers Morning officially started in late 2021, it has really taken off this year. A handful of consistent makers gather each week to work on various projects from collaging, writing, drawing, painting, or jewelry making. It has been fun to get to know these folks a little better and see what they are inspired to work on each week. We’ve shared personal stories, advice, and tasty treats. Anyone is welcome to join us Thursday mornings year-round.  

The Ely Winter Festival was full of interesting classes as usual with highlights being stained glass, pottery date night, beaver hide hat making, and the Mystery Tracks Challenge. Board Member Rick Anderson spent a few hours at Whiteside Park teaching interested folks how to play the classic indigenous game of snow snakes. Teams took turns throwing a wooden “snow snake” to see who could make it the farthest down a long track of snow. 

In March, we saw a huge response to the Anishinaabe Storytelling and Anishinaabe foods potluck. Our community is hungry to learn more about the native people of this region and the Ely Folk School is the perfect place to facilitate this learning. Ojibwe language signs have been placed in select locations around the building to increase awareness. Jiibaakwewigamig (kitchen), wiigwaasi-Jiimaan (birch bark canoe), and Zaaga’am (exit) are some examples. In July, Instructor Jess Anderson led the first Ojibwemowin Basics class and taught folks how to say a few words in the Ojibwe language. Later in the month Rick Anderson taught how to make your own wild rice knockers, used for harvesting, after students first learned about the cultural significance, biology, and conservation, and traditional harvest of manoomin (wild rice) from Darren Vogt of the 1854 Treaty Authority. One of our most publicized accomplishments this year was without a doubt the Bois Forte Native Names Map, which includes a 100-mile expanse of boreal forest from Lake Vermilion to Nett Lake and entails over 100 original names and meanings. This was a collaboration with the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and volunteer artists. In November, the map was unveiled to a crowd of over 100 people at the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum.

In April, over a dozen instructors gathered to socialize, learn new skills, and of course, eat potica. Some of us learned about fiber arts and made a colorful weaving card. The rest of the instructors in attendance got their hands wet and played with clay. A few of us ended our day together with a hike out to Kawishiwi Falls. As instructors, we have much in common with one another but don’t always have the time to craft together, let alone learn a new medium together. 

The best way to end a long winter is to come together in community to celebrate the coming of spring. The Ely community came together in May to enjoy free food, drinks, and live music at our second annual Spring Bonfire. The spring and winter bonfires have easily become one of my favorite events of the year. The evening would not have been the same without the hard work of board member Lacey Squier and her team of volunteers that made delicious pasties to share. 

We kicked off summer by launching Kids Makers Morning, a weekly opportunity for kids to come to the Ely Folk School and participate in facilitated crafts for a few hours. Partnering with the Ely Community Resource Center was essential in making this a success. Each week we worked together with ECR staff and EFS volunteers to come up with a day of crafts, suitable for a variety of ages ranging from 3-15. Projects varied significantly each week with about 20 kids on average in attendance. One week we made “blueberry” pinatas and another week corn husk dolls. The day always included a snack kids could help prepare. There was a LOT of coloring, weaving, sidewalk chalk obstacle courses, and running around that happened inside and outside EFS this summer. What a joy to see the Ely Folk School filled with so much young, vibrant energy. This summer we hosted a total of 13 Kids Makers Mornings and 279 kids. 

Also this past June, the Birch Bark Canoe Project launched its final season of working on the infamous 20 foot canoe with Master Canoe Builder Erik Simula. Volunteers worked hard all summer and the canoe, “Burntside” finally hit the water in August! This labor of love took over 5 years to complete and I look forward to more opportunities for the community to paddle it. 

If you have not been to the Ely Folk School this year, I highly recommend you stop in to take a look around. The Forge and the Ceramics Studio finally got proper signage outside this summer thanks to dedicated volunteer, Seth Huntington. Along with viewing the latest birch bark canoe and native name signs inside EFS, we have now reopened the Mercantile. Items for sale include things made by instructors AND items that support local makers such as a carving knife or a book on gelli printing. People are always walking into the folk school looking for a way to interact with whatever we have to offer. We finally have something for them to look at and take home. Many folks that come in don’t have time to take a class and are thrilled to be able to purchase something unique and handmade. 

The last week of September was the first time volunteers met to start working on the Mittens for Ukraine Project. Each week since volunteers have met for 2-3 hours on Thursday morning to cut and sew mittens for children in Ukraine. Wintergreen Northern Wear has consistently donated leftover fleece suitable for the project. Many other volunteers have donated time, money, and/or supplies to the project. As I write this, we are about 12 mittens away from reaching our goal of 500 pairs total. The first shipment of 300 mittens has already made its way to Lutsk and was distributed to children who are socially unprotected or disadvantaged. Board member Ozzie Reif and volunteers Bert Hyde and Tatiana Riaboken have been essential in the idea and follow through of this project. Ozzie has taught at least a dozen people how to sew mittens using the new sewing machines that were graciously donated specifically for this project. 

It really feels like I could keep on going and going with things to talk about. There are way too many great classes, instructors, and volunteers to mention and I’m sorry I can’t mention everything. The whole Ely Folk School team is invigorated by creating a healthy future for the school. To that end, board member Johnnie Hyde wrote a grant application for strategic consulting from Propel Nonprofits in late 2021. Her successful application gave our team the chance to work with a Propel Nonprofits consultant and over the course of 8 months we drafted, redrafted, and finalized a new strategic plan and vision. 

Our second Meat Raffle fundraiser at Zaverl’s Bar was a success, held in November thanks to board member Chris Clemens for organizing. About 50 people joined the Ely Folk School for a community potluck on Thanksgiving Day. There has been a great turnout so far to the Makers’ Market & Mixer events that we are hosting in collaboration with Northern Lakes Art Association. In 2022, we served 1,214 students! Way up from 2021’s 886! This is likely due to the new programs – Anishinaabe Storytelling and the Community Dances – being included in this number, given those are ticketed events. Another 1,467 joined us for free, community events.

How was all of this possible in one year? Increased staff hours. Increased board member participation. And continued community support and buy-in. It takes a village! The Ely Folk School made an investment into staffing hours this year and it has paid off. Ozzie Reif, Sarah Paro, and Steve Klar have joined the Ely Folk School board and have contributed a lot to the success of this year. Undoubtedly the greatest contributing factor this year was Lucy Soderstorm being promoted to full-time, as the Program Director. Lucy is the driving force behind the new events and wears all of the hats in order to keep the school running smoothly. 

If you would like to become more involved with EFS or have any questions about the Ely Folk School, our mission, and our operations, please reach out.