The Adirondack Folk School in Lake Luzerne is in the midst of its third summer season of classes, everything from baking bread to building a boat. Housed in the former Town of Lake Luzerne town hall building, the school first opened in 2010, offering 90 classes. This summer the school offers more than 200 courses focusing on the traditional folk arts and crafts of the Adirondacks. Todd Moe spoke with Adirondack Folk School founder Jim Mandle for his thoughts on the notion of lifelong learning.
Last year, the Adirondack Folk School opened an outdoor pavilion and a wood-fired bread oven. This summer, the school has more than doubled the number of classes that it offered when it first opened two years ago. The school’s founder, Jim Mandle, says that the notion of a folk school based on the Scandinavian education philosophy of lifelong learning was part of a master plan to revitalize Lake Luzerne’s historic downtown.
“After several different concepts that we had looked at and worked on, I’d remembered visiting a similar school in Grand Marais, Minnesota called the North House Folk School,” said Mandle. “A folk school is basically a Danish concept of a school primarily for adults, but it also has programs for all generations –we have a lot of children’s programs and senior programs – that teaches through hands-on experience: learning for just the fun of learning. No grades, no competition, small classes.”
According to Mandle, the Danish folk school concept has been regionalized in the United States. North House Folk School offers a variety of Scandinavian-type art. The oldest folk school in the country is in North Carolina, and it has Appalachian art classes.
Mandle had to decide what to do with the old Town Hall building in Lake Luzerne after it was vacated. The building is on the last free-flowing spot on the Hudson River. “I said, ‘Gee, there’s nobody up here in the Adirondacks that’s really trying to keep some of our traditions alive. And we have some things here that are just unique: the Adirondack pack basket, the Adirondack chair, and guide boats and lean-tos, and so much rustic furniture made with twigs and birth bark,” said Mandle. It’s a style which has been part of the Adirondacks beyond the beauty because the people that developed this area used the resources at hand for their home furnishings and transportation, what have you.”
Lifelong learning is a key part of the folk school. Mandle said, “There was such a parallel when we started thinking about the concept of this Danish folk school movement that happened in the 1800s. We’re learning just for the sheer joy of learning and the idea of using our hands. So many people say they’re not creative, or they’ve built something like a toboggan, or what have you.”
The folk school offers small classes that range from four to 10 people, and Mandle says that the instructors are passionate and love their respective crafts. Students work closely with these instructors and get hands-on experience constructing a finished product that they can take with them at the end of the class. The classes range from half-day programs to six-day courses.
“It isn’t necessarily the concept of making a perfect cart, spoon or loon; it is, well, how does that happen, and why does it happen? And just opening up our senses and what we call – we’re trying to inspire the hands, the heart and the mind,” said Mandle.
Mandle says that from children doing blacksmithing and learning how to make hooks and marshmallow roasters to women making fibered satchels, the students taking these courses are all beginners with no prior experience. The school tries to put pictures of the finished products on their Facebook page. He said, “It’s really the best of the best. You’re learning from professionals, you’re learning for fun and you’re doing it in a really neat environment.”
As society advances technologically, many people in this region appreciate what goes into creating traditional arts and crafts. “It’s how much more richer and rewarding it feels when you have, let’s say, tablecloths or a table runner on your table that you made or created yourself,” said Mandle. “It’s the fun of making it, the knowledge that goes with it, but it’s also, there’s true skills that are transferrable.”
Students learn these skills in classes such as the ones offered in organic and raised bed gardening. Mandle said, “They’re learning not only things that will help more of our green environment, but also things that bring joy from having done it oneself.”
Mandle says that the school is pleased with its wide range of classes, and is fortunate to have so many local artisans. He said, “That was one of our goals in setting up the school: to hire as many local artisan craftspeople as we could as the instructors. And we’re very fortunate that we have some of the best of the best. It’s really a lot of fun. It’s fun, and I see, every day I go in, the smiles on the students’ faces.”
Another one of the school’s original goals was to positively influence the local economy. Mandle says organizers of the North House Folk School in Minnesota discovered that every dollar spent for the school, it helped raise approximately $13 for the local businesses. Students who attend the Adirondack Folk School often stay in Lake George and Glens Falls. They stay at local bed and breakfasts and motels, and they purchase food, ice cream, gas and more in the area. Mandle said, “So we’re seeing quite a powerful impact, which is part of our goal. We didn’t want to be in competition with any of the other tourist-type attractions in the park, but another reason to come to the park. And we’ve been really happily successful.”
The school attracts students from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. People have also travelled from as far as Germany and England to take classes. “The Adirondacks is such a unique and such a wonderful area, and to be able to take home with you not just a wonderful flag and pictures or memories of a hike, but also to take home a birch-bark container just as it would have been made here years ago, or a pack-basket only enriches the experience of the Adirondacks.”
The school is currently in its third summer of classes, and has added evening programs. These allow people to gather for refreshments and entertainment that includes music, story-telling and demonstrations.