What’s Up at the Ely Folk School?

By Molly Olson

Well, folks it has been quite a year! I recall last winter reading about the new folk school that was just being organized in January 2015 in Ely. At this time I was living in Prairie Farm, WI and just thinking about moving to Ely, MN. My husband and I were dreaming about starting a folk school in Ely. Suddenly, I found this website for the newly created folk school with a limited amount of information and requests for volunteers and thinkers to come together and get this thing started. For those people who worked tirelessly to renovate the space formerly the Fisherman’s Headquarters into an open and inviting learning environment, it was a growing reality.

Since last January, the board members, staff, instructors and volunteers have all played a role in the success of this newly formed non-profit. The spring found the group fundraising with a special mural being painted in the window to record the progress. The school held a grand opening celebration complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony. My husband Mark Olson moved to our property in Winton, MN in the end of May and made it in the photo at that celebration.

Summer brought the first classes being held at the school. Outreach at the local Tuesday night Farmer’s Market served to spread the word to locals and visitors alike about the great learning opportunities available at the Ely Folk School. The first of several contra dances was held in the school with great success.

When I moved with our three children to Winton later in June, I was looking for volunteer opportunities to fulfill my service requirements through the Americorps job I took at the Ely School District as a Math Corps tutor. The folk school seemed a perfect fit. I started volunteering during the Ely Farmer’s Market every Tuesday with the Ely Folk School booth. It was a great way to meet people, and spread the word about the new opportunities available.

The year passed with many wonderful memories being made, and traditions started. Growing pains meant that the board members shifted and changed as new energy came to replace those who had given so much. In September, I asked if there was a way to stay involved, and found that there was room on the board for me. I immediately started working with several committees including the marketing group. In October, Jaime Brennan was hired as our first EFS coordinator, and her contributions to the school have been positive. Our first board chair Greg Heide stepped down due to other commitments, Jo Campe filled in for a couple months, and now we are under the direction of Susan Polege who happens to be Greg’s wife. Our board is a small but dedicated group of individuals who are supported by a larger network of volunteers and members.


Demonstrations in the park during the Harvest Moon Festival, a holiday donor appreciation party and caroling were just some of the events hosted by the Ely Folk School. The Ely Winter Festival was a busy time at the folk school with a class, demo or event being held everyday from Feb. 4-14. Since the goal is to have that type of energy during the summer, it was good practice for our staff and volunteers to see how much it takes to keep the school a hub of activity.

One of the really fun things that happened during the Ely Winter Festival involved six ladies from Spain who came to visit our family for a week. A few years ago we hosted an exchange student from Spain, and she returned to visit us with her mother and several other friends. We planned various outings for them, and decided that a truly American activity would be to take them to the Contra Dance Class offered at the folk school. Their energy and laughter made that evening magical. One of the ladies commented later, “That was the most fun we had!”

Events at the folk school have been organized and staffed primarily by volunteers, and we have experienced positive responses. Our first movie night featured the documentary “North to the Pole” in this year of the 30th anniversary of Will Steger and Paul Schurke’s trip through the arctic. Paul, who is on the EFS board, was the host of the evening and drew a standing room only crowd to hear his stories. Our last movie night on March 4th showed the film, “Numen: The Nature of Plants” with Jaime Brennan (who is also an herbalist) hosting. Our first potluck was well attended, but the second one in February was not. We tried to hold a volunteer meeting following the potluck, but really didn’t get many volunteers. Folks, we really do need volunteers to help with some of the tasks that need to be done weekly, monthly and seasonally. Consider this opportunity if you want to get involved and become part of the energy that is generated at EFS!

All the while, classes continue to be held both at the physical location on East Sheridan, as well as other places as our facility doesn’t fit all classes. Some popular offerings have been “Poticia Making”, “Wet-Felting”, “Black Ash Pack Baskets”, “Snowshoe Making” and “Frost River Portage Packs” among numerous others. Lots of work goes into hosting these classes both by the staff as well as the instructors. We are constantly looking for new classes to be offered, as well as returning instructors to run classes again or teach the next stage in the learning progression.

Participants in the Black Ash Pack Basket class included some friends from North House Folk School in Grand Marais. The students really enjoyed the process and their final product!

Our future looks bright as we move into spring and summer here in Ely. Our course catalog is printed to show our latest offerings – stop in during open office hours to pick up the beautiful brochure done by Ely Design Works! We look forward to more exciting events and classes throughout the next year. Our winter movie nights are done, but we have some fun potluck pairings as well as interesting speakers. March 19th will be our Family Game night with a finger food potluck – bring some snacks to share and play some of the traditional games you might have not played in awhile. Charades, cards, or pictionary anyone?

On April Fool’s Day we’ll host the first Story Hour event at 7 pm. Come and share your stories of fools, tricks, and gags! There will be a 10 minute limit to the stories, but they can also be quick and funny. Participants in the storytelling class held that day from 5-7 pm will be given first option to tell their stories, but others are welcome to share as well! As part of the new Ely Celebration of Arts and Music, our event on April 16th will be a potluck with a performance by the Largemouth Brass Band and jam session following open to any musician who wants to play with others or perform a few songs. Great opportunities for community members looking for something family friendly to do!

One exciting offering is our new “Build A Birchbark Canoe” program that will be offered for FREE all spring and summer! We are partnering with several organizations to bring this opportunity to residents and visitors alike. The class will run for 18 weeks on Tues and Wed evenings as a drop-in opportunity to help create a traditional birchbark canoe. Eric Simula will be the lead instructor, but there will be others helping during the process. From harvesting the materials to building the frame, each stage will available for anyone who wants to participate in a small or big way. What an amazing project to have the chance to participate in! Look for more information on our website and in this blog.

Recently, a small committee of board members met to discuss the future of the Ely Folk School. We celebrated our accomplishments over the past year. We read our mission statement again to remind us what it is we are all about:

Our mission is to build community by providing learning experiences that celebrate the wilderness, art, history, culture and craft of the people of Northern MN.

We looked to 2020, each of us communicating a vision of the Ely Folk School in the future. We see EFS as a busy hub of activity with strong, solid staff and volunteers supporting the activities of the school. Our view included both local instructors and students, as well as people brought here from other areas by our reputation. One phrase became our focus:

“Northwoods skills and crafts next to the wilderness.”

It is now our task to forge a path towards this vision. I am so energized participating in this process, and so exciting to be a part of making history in Ely. Our way is not clear yet, but with each passing month, we move forward and make improvements. This is a journey, and we are all enjoyed the steps along the way.

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