Prairie Mountain Folk School - Greg Hennes

Photos: Greg Hennes via  Prairie Mountain Folk School

Photos: Greg Hennes via Prairie Mountain Folk School

You can take people who have virtually no experience, and at the end of it you have a building or a chair or a basket or a weaving ... There’s a beautiful thing at the end of it which has a story.
— Greg Hennes

My interview today is with Greg Hennes, the brainchild behind the newly launched Prairie Mountain Folk School, a center for folk education and traditional craft set amidst the breathtaking natural landscape of Joseph, Oregon. In this tiny, remote town (population: 1,089) tucked into the vast wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains and the Zumwalt Prairie, Hennes hopes to foster a community where people from all over the world can relearn the traditional crafts of our ancestors that are on the brink of extinction -- blacksmithing, weaving, spoon carving, even cabin building -- from the actual local craftspeople and artisans preserving this heritage.

In this episode, Greg guides us through the history of folk education and the makings of Prairie Mountain Folk School along with his other no-less-ambitious project, the Kickstarter-funded and artist-powered restoration of Joseph’s historic Jennings Hotel (warning: one click and you’ll be planning your next vacation). I for, one, loved hearing more about life in this stunning little-known corner of America, but was particularly moved by what Greg had to say about what is really driving the renewed interest (some might say fervor) toward traditional skills: namely, the deeply human need for real human interaction and community that’s missing from our modern world. 

Here’s the breakdown of our conversation: 

  • How Greg first came to folk and traditional craft education via Minnesota’s North House Folk School

  • The near 200-year-old history behind folk schools and N.F.S. Grundtvig

  • A childhood of tinkering: Building treehouses, igloos and BMX bike ramps

  • The path to Prairie Mountain Folk School

  • “Three really impressive and special ecosystems come together in this place”: Hell’s Canyon, the Wallowa Mountains and Zumwalt Prairie

  • The local folks of Joseph, OR: Self-sufficiency and a bootstraps attitude with a tightly knit community

  • “The skills were here”: ceramists, blacksmiths, saddle-makers and leather workers, loggers and sawyers and bowyers

  • The first round of Prairie Mountain Folk School classes: natural dyeing, blacksmithing, weaving, Japanese-style timber framing

  • Why Greg chose the nonprofit route: “I didn’t want to have any profit motive associated with giving people these opportunities”

  • From zero skills to learning to build a cabin

  • Creating something that has a story

  • Why folk education is important at this point in time: “It’s not just about stepping away from our screens”

  • The Prairie Mountain Folk School teachers

  • “You literally dig your face in the dirt”: Making wilderness perfume with Hall Newbigen

  • The romantic idea of living in a small town in the mountains versus the reality

  • The Kickstarter-funded Jennings Hotel: hotel + hostel + sauna + artist residency

  • Advice for learning about folk education / starting a folk school

  • Greg’s vision for the future

You can learn more about Greg’s work (or plan a visit) on the Prairie Mountain Folk School and Jennings Hotel websites. You can also connect with Greg via his gorgeous Instagram accounts: @greghennes, @thejenningshotel and @prairiemountainschool. Want to support Greg’s mission and learn more about the future of folk education? Subscribe to Greg's newsletter here

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Learn more about folk schools:

North House Folk School (MN)
John C. Campbell Folk School (NC)
Yestermorrow Design/Build School (VT)

Some of the teachers/artists mentioned on the show:

Tom Bonamici
Amber Jensen
Juniper Ridge wild harvested fragrance
Robert Maddox and Karie Reinertson of Shelter Collective in Asheville, OR