Michigan Folk School set to expand traditional crafts education through Washtenaw County partnership

The founders of the Michigan Folk School recently turned it over to Washtenaw County's Parks and Recreation Commission, which has worked rapidly to expand on the founders' original vision.
"I'm a talker," Jason Gold says. "I just talk and talk. My wife, Julia, and I have found the most interesting people when you just start to introduce yourself to them. And it doesn't really matter where we are — somehow or another, we get back onto craft."
That talent for talking eventually led Gold and his wife to found the Michigan Folk School, a Superior Township-based nonprofit offering classes in everything from blacksmithing, leather crafting, and archery to jewelry-making, millinery, and homesteading.
In 2012, the Golds traveled the country visiting various schools that taught traditional folk crafts and skills — "and we so badly wanted something close to home," Gold says. "But there really wasn't anything close to home. So if you can't find it, you create it."
Jason Gold at the Michigan Folk School.
They started with only five instructors. By the end of the year, they had 10 and, a few years later, were already up to 20.
"There's not just an interest. There's a thirst and a hunger for this kind of thing," Gold says.
Recently, however, the Golds decided to turn the Michigan Folk School over to Washtenaw County's Parks and Recreation Commission (WCPARC), which has worked rapidly to expand on the Golds' original vision.
The Michigan Folk School is now housed at Staebler Farm County Park, 7734 Plymouth Rd., where a multi-purpose building and a farmhouse are in the process of being restored. Once completed, they'll provide the school with much-needed extra space for classes, workshops, and staff meetings.
A beehive at the Michigan Folk School.
Gold says he and his wife are excited about the changes. 

"We never wanted to own [the Folk School]," he says. "That was never the point. We just wanted to be a part of it."
During this period of transition, Gold has been working closely with Ginny Leikam, WCPARC's superintendent of planning and the Natural Areas Preservation Program. The Golds were introduced to Leikam by a mutual friend.
"It all started at a picnic table, sitting and having a conversation at the Dixboro Farmers' Market," Leikam says.
Ginny Leikam at the Michigan Folk School.
At the picnic table, the Golds shared their vision for the Folk School and Leikam shared her own vision for the Staebler property, which WCPARC had been holding on to for several years at that point.
"County Parks actually purchased this piece of property back in 2001," Leikam says, when the property was owned by Don Staebler, who was 90 years old at the time. "... The Parks Commission gave him a life lease to be able to live out the remainder of his life on the property. But none of us imagined that he would actually live to be 106."
So while WCPARC had owned the property for more than two decades, there had been almost no planning or development.
"We always knew that we wanted to honor the historical nature of the property," Leikam says, but it wasn't immediately clear how to make that happen.
Then that mutual friend introduced her to the Golds and they wound up at a picnic table.
"We kind of had the light bulb go off," Leikam says. "Their mission very much aligned with what we wanted to see here."
The blacksmithing studio at the Michigan Folk School.
Leikam says WCPARC brought land to the Michigan Folk School, but also administrative services, which "kind of allows the Folk School to do what they do best."
"I think that starting to work with [WCPARC] was the best thing that we could have possibly done," Gold says. "We realized that being a part of the county would be an amazing resource for us but also an amazing resource for the county."
Now, on any given Saturday, Gold likes to leave the doors to the studio building open while a blacksmithing class takes place in one room and a soapmaking class in the other. Visitors to the park "can literally walk up and see what's going on," he says.
"But the coolest part is when they learn that they can do it themselves," he says. "And so now, all of a sudden, we're working with park patrons and giving them this self-confidence and a craft that they may have never walked into before."
Gold has noticed a difference in the types of students who sign up for classes. Before the pandemic, he says, the average student was a woman in her mid-50s.
"Now we are getting a much younger crowd," he says, evenly split between men and women. "And the majority of the people come in from the computer industry or the office industry where they're sitting all day. And I guess COVID kind of brought that out in them, like, 'I just need something else in my life.'"
Jason Gold at the Michigan Folk School.
In a typical blacksmithing class, Gold adds, you might find an 18-year-old sitting next to a 70-year-old. 

"I just love that fact that there's these multi-generational conversations that happen," he says.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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