These Folk Schools Are Bringing Old Skills to New Audiences

From butchery and gardening to sewing and woodworking, these unique retreats teach century-old homsteading skills.

Feeling a hankering for a simpler day and age? Whether you’re interested in birding, butchering or basket-weaving, Wisconsin’s folk schools teach skills that have been lost over the generations. “To butcher a chicken or make sauerkraut means understanding these things [our] grandparents were doing and hadn’t even been taught,” says Jacob Hundt, co-founder and director of Driftless Folk School in Viroqua. 

Students of all ages go to these rural spots scattered across the state to learn skills of self-sufficiency from the pioneer era to the early 1900s, including sewing, woodworking, soap-making and painting. With six each, Wisconsin and Minnesota are tied for the largest concentration of folk schools in the nation. 

“There’s been an explosion of interest in folk schools over the past 10 to 15 years, especially in the Upper Midwest,” says Hundt. “It tracks closely with the spread of the internet. The time people spend on their screens is inspiring people to seek out things to do with their hands.”

Joan Powers first took a class at The Clearing Folk School in Door County in 1981. “The atmosphere gets ahold of you. You can’t stay away once you’ve been,” she says. She’s continued to attend regularly in the decades since and has made lasting friendships with other repeat visitors. Now, she takes a birding course each May and dabbles in watercolor painting and folk music classes. “I ended up doing things I never thought I could do,” she says. “When you make something with your hands and have something to show for it, that is healing. … People who spend their life in high-pressured jobs come back to The Clearing. It’s like a decompression chamber.” 


Four Folk Schools to Visit:

1. Driftless Folk School

VIROQUA

Founded in 2006, this folk school’s courses include pickling foods, clothing fabrication, foraging and butchery, and range from one day to a weekend. Instructors often hold classes in their own homes or studios. The school offers lodging options, but many students choose to campat nearby state parks or natural areas.

2. Folklore Village

DODGEVILLE

Established in the 1960s by Jane Farwell, who is credited with founding modern folk dancing, Folklore Village offers traditional dance workshops. Courses also cover topics like blacksmithing, turning a gourd into a banjo, chair caning, lace knitting and making fermented beverages. Students can sleep in bunkhouses on site for $15 per person nightly. 

3. The Clearing

ELLISON BAY

Landscape architect Jens Jensen founded this 120-acre campus, one of the nation’s oldest folk schools, in 1935. Many of the school’s offerings draw upon the natural environment (birding, landscape design, landscape and watercolor painting and drawing.) Courses are a week long in high season (May through October), and dormitory-style rooms are available on site.

4. Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts

MINERAL POINT

Besides traditional folk school options, this school offers courses in writing poetry and fiction, as well as paper and book arts. Class topics also touch on blacksmithing and welding, making rugs and even baking the perfect apple pie or fresh tomato galette. Three private rooms are for rent in the Coach House, plus two center-owned apartments a five-minute walk away.

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A seasoned writer, and a former editor at Milwaukee Home & Fine Living, Kristine Hansen launched her wine-writing career in 2003, covering wine tourism, wine and food pairings, wine trends and quirky winemakers. Her wine-related articles have published in Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, Uncorked (an iPad-only magazine), FoodRepublic.com, CNN.com and Whole Living (a Martha Stewart publication). She's trekked through vineyards and chatted up winemakers in many regions, including Chile, Portugal, California (Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast), Canada, Oregon and France (Bordeaux and Burgundy). While picking out her favorite wine is kind of like asking which child you like best, she will admit to being a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and even on a sub-zero winter day won't turn down a glass of zippy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.