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Boreal Community Media

The Gifts of North House Folk School, a piece by Jim Boyd

Jan 02, 2024 08:01AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: North House founder Mark Hansen and Grand Marais Mayor Gail Englund display the new sign for the folk school campus in the school's early days. Credit: Cook County News Herald via the Cook County Historical Society

By Jim Boyd - December 29, 2023

As the new year begins and a new timber frame goes up where 61 meets 5th, let us pause to celebrate North House Folk School. Its harbor campus, now focused on the construction of an awesome new timber frame center, is a place for learning, gatherings, and inspiration, an iconic emblem of this North Shore and North Woods community.  

Let us express gratitude and praise, too, for those who nurtured North House from its tenuous birth to its robust global stature today. Great credit goes to the Grand Marais City Council and the Grand Portage Tribal Council for embracing the vision of a folk school and providing the resources it needed in its earliest years.


It all started with a man and an idea. The man was jolly, irrepressible Mark Hansen, a social worker by profession, a boat builder by avocation, a crafter of community by passion. The idea: To create a gathering place in the tradition of Scandinavian folk schools, where “learning is valued for its own sake,” competition and grades are avoided, teachers are viewed as resources rather than experts who judge, and emphasis is on promoting and preserving the “knowledge, skills, crafts and stories” of the North.

The Forest Service warehouses before they became part of the North House campus. Credit: US Forest Service

 The Forest Service warehouses before they became part of the North House campus. Credit: US Forest Service

Inspiration met opportunity in surplus U.S. Forest Service land and buildings on the harbor.  The two long buildings with crumbling floors “occupied” more than “graced” the land. But such potential: Sturdy skeletons built by CCC guys in the 1930s, used for decades as the Forest Service’s Gunflint District Ranger Station, given to Grand Marais, awaiting transformation from lonely, dark warehouses/garages/workspaces into a school where multitudes might immerse themselves in the crafts and culture of the North.

Others also caught inspiration from the vacant buildings: The Art Colony and Historical Society made proposals, too. Surely either would have been grand.

Substantial community discussion followed. In the end, the council moved past the two well-established organizations and made a large bet on the man with the idea. 

Grand Portage also bet big on North House. Early on, Mark Hansen traveled to Grand Portage and spoke with the tribal council about his folk-school dream. Council Chair Norman Deschampe asked what he needed. Hansen told him and left with a substantial check, the first large gift to the new folk school.

The Grand Marais City Council was not playing games or indulging flights of fancy. The city was not thriving, and the council wanted its project on the harbor, with its emphasis on new and exciting activities, to help bring renewed energy and vitality to the town. It wrote those yearnings into the North House lease. The city required North House to show:

  • “Financial vitality and health” by maintaining a positive balance sheet and an endowment of at least $250,000.

  • Growth of “user-day” (“User-days” included enrollment in catalog courses plus participants in school programs and “custom-designed instruction) levels to 300 percent in 2003, at least one year of the lease, and maintenance of 200 percent user-day growth during the final year of the lease, or three of the final five years. 

  • Demonstration of “care and respect for the campus as a public resource” by day-to-day and annual maintenance duties that the city detailed.

Some serious lifting and growth envisioned there. Early on, North House and the city made a joint statement: “The North House Folk School Board of Directors and the Grand Marais City Council are dedicated to the mission of expanding educational opportunities while kindling the potential for increased tourism. The City of Grand Marais contends that the investment of prime waterfront real estate in a community-supported project such as North House, brings positive economic change from limited capital resources. With a heritage built on its Great Lakes harbor, investment in the North House project fosters the concept of prosperity while maintaining the integrity of the waterfront.”

The board charged with bringing those hopes alive included Philis Anderson, Betsy Bowen, Tim Cochrane, Graham Butler, Norman Deschampe, Bill Hansen, Mark Hansen, Tom Healy, Beverly Johnson, Joann Krause, Charles Mayo, Jon Ofjord, Harley Refsal, Dennis Rysdahl, Will Steger and John Wood.

How spectacularly that board and its successors succeeded. When the 25-year lease initially was written in 2003, this was the situation at North House:

  • Endowment: $8,000

  • Assets: $250,252

  • Liabilities: $169,512

  • Budget: $449,692

  • Student days measuring just catalog course enrollment: 2,366.

For 2022, these were the comparable figures:

  • Endowment: $407,815

  • Assets: $6,282,572

  • Liabilities: $765,221

  • Budget: $2,461,419

  • Student days (2018 pre-COVID figure): 7058

As time ticks on and momentary dissensions fade, those early bets on North House will be honored as among the wisest and most consequential decisions the Grand Marais City Council and Grand Portage Tribal Council ever made.


Greg Wright, the only executive director North House has known, and his staff members, past and present, deserve large credit for all they have done to bring this wonderful folk school to such a level of excellence. 

Greg expresses strong affection for Grand Marais as the mother of North House. In many communities the folk school would not have thrived, he says. It developed here because there was rich soil in which it could grow.  As a consequence, he says, “Grand Marais and North House now are places the world looks to for inspiration.”

 Red building in 2023. Photo credit Jim Boyd

 Blue building in 2023. Photo credit Jim Boyd

As North House enters its second quarter century, Greg and his North House crew are building an impressive new timber-frame structure where the North House campus meets Highway 61 – the timbers crafted in a blitz of activity by 50 volunteer timber framers, most graduates of the folk school framing program.

While it will be physically beautiful, the new building can only be appreciated fully through the vision that informs its creation: Building a campus that better serves a broad, lively, and diverse community of teachers and learners, to whom will be entrusted the folk arts and culture of the north, both indigenous and European. 

That vision for the future, Greg says, involves efforts like “getting more kids on campus, because it is good for the community if more kids know how to build boats.”

It includes creating space for local makers to teach their crafts and meet people “who will be supporters and patrons and customers.”

For students of all ages, Greg says the folk school campus seeks to be a place “in a world filled with plenty of troubles, where you can see that there in your hands you have the tools for shaping the values that you believe in.” 

“There’s a saying that has been around North House a long time,” Greg says, “a saying that asks simply, ‘How can we be useful to our community?’ “

Two years ago, North House intended to answer that question by raising a different building down the hill closer to the lake. But that required a city variance plus moving the Scott Fish House and entrusting it to the Cook County Historical Society. Following some unfortunate confusion and major changes to several boards, the community declined to endorse the plan.

The episode was painful, but it offered important silver linings: a more pragmatic and forward-looking relationship with the City Council, plus a closer relationship with the Anishinaabe community, for whom the fish house has special significance.

That relationship also was deepened by the process North House followed in purchasing the
wooded lot to the west of the Green Building. The lot and other nearby parcels are part of an area the Anishinaabe community long has regarded as historically significant. When the lot came up for sale, North House approached the Grand Portage Tribal Council to ask its views on the school potentially purchasing the property. The Grand Portage council thought about the issue and then expressed a desire to move forward, with North House purchasing the property and then working together with Grand Portage on investigating the land’s history and artifacts.   

The effort now has yielded an exceptional 8-point agreement of cooperation between Grand Portage, North House, and the Grand Portage National Monument. The agreement, for example, requires the folk school and the national monument to collaborate on developing, planning, and scheduling educational opportunities focused on Anishinaabe heritage. The current chair of the Grand Portage council, Robert Deschampe, has also joined the North House board, taking the seat his Uncle Norman held in the folk school’s earliest days.

 New timber frame campus center under construction. Photo by Jim Boyd

The benefits and opportunities that will flow from the new yellow, gabled building will be large: welcoming center, enlarged store, classrooms, elevator to make the campus more accessible, linkage to the red building where the staff will relocate, leaving the green building to improved intern housing. 

The benefits and opportunities that will flow from the unprecedented agreement between North House, the Anishinaabe of Grand Portage, and the Grand Portage National Monument will be just as significant.


While the North House staff and board undertake this work to make the next 25 years as successful as the last 26, it would be helpful for all who have been enriched by the school to express their appreciation and enduring support: 

  • The timber framers and knife makers, fiber artists and bowl turners, bakers and birders and sausage makers, mukluk crafters, and boat builders.

  • All those who have enjoyed the Wooden Boat Show, Winterer’s Gathering, Unplugged and Solstice pageants, the dances and pizza dinners and cookies.

  • The businesses whose bottom lines are enhanced by providing supplies and services for North House or by offering accommodations and meals for visiting students and teachers.

  • Those who own the impressive timber-frame buildings scattered across Grand Marais and Cook County, buildings that exist because of the significant role North House has played in the revival of timber framing in the United States.

  • The parents, educators, and young people who have enjoyed the North House classes and events.

  • The many interns who came and never left, building homes, raising families, and establishing careers here, enriching our community in the process.

So many communities, so many lives touched, so much to inspire gratitude. 

* If you have comments of appreciation you would like to share, you can send them to me at [email protected].

** The USFS Superior National Forest headquarters in Duluth and the Cook County Historical Society in Grand Marais provided assistance in preparing this article.

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here