Michigan Folk School to create educational campus for traditional skills on county property

The wait to see if supporters will come through with enough dollars to complete a crowdfunding campaign can often be a nail-biter. But when Michigan Folk School launched a campaign in late 2017, the suspense was unusually tense. There was a lot more on the line than just the $40,000 the school was hoping to raise to renovate a Superior Township workshop to house its classes in traditional folk skills like metalwork, glassmaking, and homesteading.


If the school reached its crowdfunding goal, that money would be doubled by a Michigan Economic Development Corporation grant. And if that happened, the school would be able to turn the building into a functioning teaching workshop. And that would trigger Washtenaw County to supply water, septic, sidewalks, and a parking lot to the facility, which would give Michigan Folk School something it's never had before: a campus.


Oh, and if all that is achieved, the county will commit to building a 3,000-square-foot, multi-purpose building with flexible classroom spaces and a teaching kitchen. That $40,000 meant everything.


"We gave ourselves 30 days in which to do this, and it was a nerve-wracking time," says Jason Gold, who co-founded the school with his wife Julia in 2010.


The campaign started a little slow. But word got out that the organization was looking to grow into a permanent home – in a location that was a match made in historical preservation heaven – and donors started emerging. Some gave $5. Others gave thousands. By December 15, the school had raised more than 110 percent of its $40,000 goal.


"This was a community effort," says Gold. "This is everyone's folk school."


A growing, changing school


In fact, Michigan Folk School started belonging to the community years ago. Though the organization began as a business, that was simply because the Golds had an idea and wanted to get it started, one way or another.


"It was always our intention to make it a community effort," Gold says. "It's not something we wanted to own. We just wanted to be a part of it."


In keeping with those intentions, Michigan Folk School shut down as an LLC in November 2015 and began operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in January of 2016.


"It was no longer Julia and I sitting around throwing out ideas," Gold says. "It was a board of six people who are throwing around ideas."


At the top of their agenda of ideas – and literally on the agenda of the nonprofit's first meeting – was to establish a campus. Classes are currently taught on various farms, homesteads, colleges, and in a local church. But as the popularity of the school's introductory classes grew, so did its need for a more permanent, central location. Rather than just teaching blacksmithing basics, for example, a campus would allow students to dive into year-round, intermediate and advanced training. New classes could be offered. New crafts could be taught. A campus would be transformational to the growing organization.


The perfect campus


In 2016, Michigan Folk School began its search for a campus by identifying about 10 properties across Washtenaw County, Grand Rapids, and the Grand Traverse area. A 100-acre farm property outside Traverse City looked promising – but costly summertime lodging in the area would be an obstacle for students. A Rotary Club-owned camp was a possibility, but the management of the grounds alone would have cost $100,000 annually.


And then, one of the school's students knew a person who knew of a property just down the road from the Michigan Folk School office on Plymouth Road in Superior Township: Staebler Farm County Park. Washtenaw County owned the 98-acre farm and was looking to repurpose the land in keeping with the wishes of its former owner, Don Staebler, who was then more than 100 years old and still living on the property.


"Don was a historian himself —he was a renaissance man, in many ways — and he had this vision that he wanted to see that the craftsmanship of old never dies," Gold says.


Staebler wanted the county to protect the land and use it for educational purposes. The county could have used the land for soccer and ballfields. That is, after all, what the county does, not teach vintage homesteading skills. But Michigan Folk School gave the county a unique opportunity to serve the public while carrying out Staebler's intentions, according to Ginny Trocchio, superintendent of park planning and natural areas for the county's Parks and Recreation Commission.


"Washtenaw County Parks' vision for Staebler Farm County Park is to offer public recreational opportunities on the site that also honor the historical and cultural history of the site, which also aligns well with the mission of the Michigan Folk School," Trocchio says.


A whole new school (for old-school skills)


Now that Michigan Folk School has secured $40,000 through its Patronicity crowdfunding campaign, the organization's transformation is underway. Gold expects the renovation of the 1947 woodshop and blacksmithing studio to begin this spring, and for classes to begin on the new Staebler County Farms campus in the fall.


"We project we'll hold classes six days a week," Gold says. That's a significant change from the sporadic schedule the school has had previously. New classes will be added. New levels of existing classes will be offered. And then, there's that studio time.


"That's a very important piece," Gold says. "If you're interested in blacksmithing, you're not necessarily going out to invest $10,000 in creating a blacksmith studio in your backyard. Now you can learn, and you can also hone your skills in studio."


It'll be quite the change for the land as well, which will also be busy with other plans the county has in place. While the school will operate on the part of the park that is south of Plymouth Rd., the north side will include trails, a fishing pier, a playground, and a parking lot. Trocchio says the county is "excited about our partnership with the Michigan Folk School to help develop Staebler Farm County Park," as well as the additional recreational amenities for the community on the property.


The school will still offer some remote classes when the subject matter calls for it – perhaps milling classes at a mill, for example. And the school will continue to develop its Mobile Folk School and its educational platform for teachers. But while the school is focused on growing at a manageable pace, big ideas for continued growth on the new campus are already percolating.


"Our goal is to create a whole village of workshops and craft studios," says Gold. "And each will be dedicated to a certain purpose – a leather studio, a fabric studio, a glass studio – as well as music. We haven't touched music yet."


With a campus and new classes on the way, there are plenty of old-timey crafts and skills Michigan Folk School and its students will soon be able to get into for the very first time.


Natalie Burg is Concentrate's senior writer.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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