CULTURE CLUB: The Powerful Tradition of Volunteering at The Clearing

by MIKE SCHNEIDER, Executive Director
The Clearing Folk School

It’s no secret that many – probably most – not-for-profit organizations rely on volunteers, at least to some degree, to help fulfill their mission. The time, talent and passion that volunteers devote to not-for-profits contribute immensely to the quality of life in their communities, and I believe this is as true in Door County as it is anywhere. 

Among the many reasons why Door County is unique and wonderful is the many programs and services that Door County’s not-for-profit organizations provide, and their volunteers play a key role in this. This is certainly true at The Clearing, 12171 Garrett Bay Road in Ellison Bay, where we rely on volunteers in many ways, every week of the year. Much of what we do is done – and done well – because of them.

At The Clearing, volunteers serve on the board of directors and as trustees of The Clearing Endowment Trust; help get the place ready for weeklong classes in the spring and for winter in the fall; assist with staffing the bookstore; act as docents for weekend tours; maintain the hiking trails; serve as stewards for the weaving program and shop disciplines such as woodworking, wood turning and glass craft; help at special events; and share their time and skills to work on various facility-related projects. 

And then there’s The Clearing’s Winter Program: the series of day classes in January and February that began in 1976 and has become a Door County institution. All of these classes are taught by volunteers, which is a testimony not only to the incredible range of talent in Door County, but also to the willingness to share that talent with others. Per capita, there just might be more talent in Door County than anywhere else.

There’s a long history of volunteering at The Clearing, starting soon after our founder, Jens Jensen, started buying property in 1919, but before he opened the folk school in 1935. During those early days, his family and friends came up from Chicago to help construct log buildings; build stone walls and other landscape features, including the council ring; and do whatever else Jensen thought needed doing. 

Their “payment” was getting to enjoy a week or two at a place that must have been such a delightful contrast to the big city (and still is). Then, after Jensen died in 1951, his longtime assistant, Mertha Fulkerson, relied heavily on volunteers to help her keep The Clearing going. Their work and dedication, along with Fulkerson’s determination, are the reasons why The Clearing survived and is still here today. She bore the bulk of the burden during those difficult years following Jensen’s death, but volunteers were certainly critical to The Clearing then, just as they are now.

Recently, a group of local volunteers has been helping The Clearing in several ways. The group was organized in May 2021, in large part because of the efforts and urging of Mark Glasser, The Clearing’s trail steward. 

Because of him, I finally moved forward with an idea that the staff had talked about for many years: forming a group of local volunteers to help with such tasks as controlling invasive species, maintaining the hiking trails and facility, managing the meadow, building stone landscape features, and constructing Emma’s Chairs: the Adirondack chairs patterned after a chair that Emma Toft once owned and that found its way to The Clearing during the early 1980s, after her death. 

This spring, after The Clearing’s central campus was disturbed (that’s putting it mildly) by a major flagstone-walk installation project and water-line and gas-line repairs, volunteers from this group were – and still are – a big help in “healing” the landscape in this area, which is on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Between the family and friends Jens Jensen brought to The Clearing to “volunteer” during the 1920s and the dedicated group that volunteers 100 years later, there have been thousands of volunteers, contributing tens of thousands of hours, in every conceivable capacity, to help The Clearing carry on Jensen’s mission, which is stated so well in this Jensen quote: “Everyone is entitled to a home where the sun, the stars, open fields, giant trees and smiling flowers are free to teach an undisturbed lesson of life. Herein lies my task.” 

Volunteers at The Clearing have helped to achieve Jensen’s task throughout the years, and they will no doubt continue to do so going forward.

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