IOWA CITY — A few days before the last full moon, a small group of children, their parents and other adults gathered at Harvest Preserve in Iowa City for a short hike hosted by the Turkeyfoot Folk School.
The free event took the group through the woods of the private preserve to a hilltop field dotted with freshly rolled haystacks and a standing stone sculptural installation. At the top of the hill, the group paused to take in the view, the sounds of birds and sweet smell of the hay, the nearly full moon visible over the treetops.
Sisters Ellie and Maddie Fraga, ages 10 and 8, and their friend Avery Nace, 10, promptly started climbing the tall haystacks. Once the hike ended and the group convened around a campfire back at the Harvest Preserve entrance for roasted marshmallows, they expressed their satisfaction with the experience.
“It’s the kind of stuff you don’t get to do every day,” Ellie Fraga said.
Maddie Fraga jumped in. “It felt like I almost got lost. Which would be interesting,” she said.
Avery Nace nodded enthusiastically.
“I like to have adventures and not always knowing where you’re going,” she said.
All of those reactions are exactly why Iowa City resident Carolyn Buckingham, 38, started Turkeyfoot Folk School in January. Her goals are to help participants connect with the outdoors through community building and teaching traditional skills.
Buckingham grew up in Chicago but spent many weekends with her family at a farm in Wisconsin. The property didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity, and she remembers it as an idyllic place to explore and play as a child.
“I grew up outside,” she said.
Later, she studied environmental law in Vermont before moving to Alaska, which is where she met her husband Mike Biderman, who was originally from the Cedar Rapids area.
“I’ve just always been pretty outdoorsy my entire life,” she said.
After the couple moved to Iowa, she was a stay-at-home mom while her children were small. They are now 6 and 4, and Buckingham has returned to her law career with a job at CRST in Cedar Rapids. The couple have a cabin near Decorah and try to give her children the same outdoor experiences she grew up.
Last year she took an Iowa Master Naturalist course, which trains volunteer naturalists to promote the outdoors and Iowa’s county and state parks. For her capstone project, she incorporated Turkeyfoot Folk School as a nonprofit. The school is named for big bluestem prairie grass — commonly called turkeyfoot grass.
After launching in January, she hosted a few spring events before beefing up the behind-the-scenes of the nonprofit. This fall she plans to ramp events back up.
Events so far have included a camping gear workshop with Fin & Feather, World of Bikes and Big Grove Brewery, and a camp cooking workshop and a collaboration with Pheasants Forever on an archery class, where she taught camp cooking.
Eventually she hopes to have a database of instructors on a range of topics, including archery, camping, canning, baking bread and tying flies for fishing.
“That’s the cool thing about the folk school idea — it’s just sharing your experiences and what you know how to do,” she said. “It’s an informal school.”
In the meantime, moonlight hikes are a way to connect with the memory of her father, who died when she was young.
“As a kid I used to go on moonlight walks with my dad on the farm,” she said. “It’s a way to connect with him and share part of him with other people.”
The national Folk School Alliance identifies dozens of folk schools across North America, including five in Iowa, and says folk schools have been around in the United States since the early 1900s. They teach classes in topics such as music, crafts, natural studies, gardening, cooking and more. They typically seek to pass on traditional skills and keep cultural traditions alive through person-to-person education.
Other folk schools listed in Iowa are the Land Alliance Folk School and Retreat Center in Oxford, the Villages Folk School of Van Buren County, Three Pines Farm in Cedar Falls, and the Folk Art School at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center in Decorah. Other groups with similar aims also exist, such as Edible Outdoors, run by Rachel Vanderweff, who teaches skills such as hunting, fishing and foraging in the Iowa City area. Edible Outdoors will lead a reading, writing and foraging class at Macbride Nature Recreation Area on Aug. 10.
Buckingham was inspired by the Driftless Folk School in La Farge, Wis., which teaches everything from fermenting vegetables to hunting deer.
“I always joke that it’s prepping people for the apocalypse,” Buckingham said.
Some folk schools focus more on cultural traditions, with the Villages of Van Buren folk school offering classes such as blacksmithing, rug weaving and soap making, and classes such as Norwegian food traditions at the Vesterheim Folk Art School.
“Most people have gotten away from things like knowing how to make butter or how to can,” Buckingham said. “We want to teach people how to fish or forage. ... I think it is the whole being self-sustaining thing and wanting to reconnect with those skills and traditions that draw people to this. I do think more people want to reconnect to nature. We sit in front of our screens and computers all day.”
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