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Folk school to open in Ely this summer

Ely vacationers and residents will be able to learn new skills in canoeing, cheese making, sauna etiquette and first aid, among dozens of other subjects, when the Ely Folk School kicks off its inaugural summer of classes.

The new school will open its doors after months of planning and a fundraising campaign that brought in $15,000 in donations. Once open, the folk school plans to offer classes year-round in the textile arts, food making, wood crafts, folk music and outdoor skills.

“We look forward to being part of the downtown revitalization that’s taking shape. The novel activities and foot traffic at the school will mesh nicely with the buzz created by the various new business openings and efforts of groups like Incredible Ely and the Minnesota Design Team,” Board Chairman Greg Heide said in a statement.

A grand opening with live music is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. June 6 at the Ely Folk School, 209 E. Sheridan St.

A group of Ely residents have been interested in starting a folk school based on the model of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais. North House offered 23 classes in its first year and has increased to 402 classes offered last year. Folk schools can draw visitors to a community — creating an economic boost — and attendees have started small businesses in shoemaking and timber framing after learning the skills at the North House, according to Heide.

The Ely Folk School’s creation was put into motion when Missouri developer John Ott, who has a cabin near Ely, donated a rent-free year at the Fisherman’s Headquarters building on Sheridan Street.

The building’s office and class space has been filled with donated furniture. They’ll be hiring a class coordinator in the coming weeks.

The Ely Folk School and North House will complement each other rather than compete because they’ll each serve a different tourist population, according to Heide. North House hosts music and film fests in addition to its classes and the Ely Folk School plans to do the same, including folk dances this summer.

Folk schools have existed for a century. Danish philosopher Nikolaj Grundtvig proposed the idea to bring people together across economic classes to learn skills as equals.

The board has created a five-year business plan that plans for growth at the Ely Folk School. Memberships and donations are expected to provide a majority of the revenue in the school’s first few years and class fees are expected to become its revenue source as it expands its class lineup. This summer’s course tuition averages about $50.  

“We’re excited. All the pieces are in place. We’ve got a facility, funding, classes and instructors. Now we just need more participants,” Heide said in a statement. “With summer course options like cheese making, crafting birch bark boxes, spindle spinning, glassblowing, Kevlar canoe repair, Voyageur sash weaving, log construction and canoeing with kids, we’ve got something for everyone.”