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Powered by the people: Bemidji’s Rail River Folk School shows progress in first three years of existence

Owners of River Rail Folk School, Jessica Saucedo, left, and Rochell Carpenter map out their day as they plan a series of events at the folk school on the weekend. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

The co-founders of the Rail River Folk School can rattle off a number of accomplishments reached in their first few years of operation.

From holding more classes in gardening and carpentry to becoming somewhat of a cultural center for artists and musicians, they’ve progressed from their official opening in 2010.

But when asked about those accomplishments, Rochell Carpenter has another one in mind.

“You mean other than just existing?” she said with a laugh.

The school, which opened in 2010, isn’t a school in the traditional sense. Carpenter and co-founder Jessica Saucedo started it as a means to bring together artists, craftspeople, gardeners and others for classes and workshops. They began with a hope that people would become more dependent on each other and themselves by learning skills been passed down through generations.

Through classes and other partnerships with non-profits throughout the community, Carpenter and Saucedo said they are already seeing results.

But the road hasn’t always been smooth. Personal challenges have sprung up, and the July 2, 2012 windstorm took off part of their roof.

But Carpenter, a licensed contractor who teaches carpentry at Leech Lake Tribal College, said they do much of the upkeep at the building, which saves them money. That self-reliance is the same thing she and Saucedo want to bestow onto people visiting and learning at the school.

“It’s not about the dollars,” Carpenter said. “But it’s definitely about what it’s done in the hearts and minds of people; I think has been a tremendous success.


Saucedo grew up in the area and graduated from Bemidji High School. She said she’s always been a proponent of protecting the environment.

“I was the kid who was an activist, I tried to get the lunch ladies to stop using Styrofoam,” Saucedo said.

She then moved to the Twin Cities and became friends with Carpenter, a fellow BHS graduate. But after getting married, Saucedo wanted to get back to her roots, and moved back here about six years ago.

She also wanted to teach her first child some of the same skills she learned growing up.

“I realized some of my most rich memories and strongest foundations come from the time I spent with my grandparents on the farm,” Saucedo said.

She met with Carpenter, who had since also moved back to the area. They began renting some space within what would become the Rail River Folk School building at 303 Railroad St. SW.

“We came together because we’re kind of like the two sides of a coin,” Saucedo said. “I’m big ideas, she’s well-rooted into the logistics and the how-to.”

They bought the building about a year ago, a milestone has been met with some struggle. Since the Rail River has been open, Saucedo has experienced the accidental death of her mother.

“There’s been a number of things that could have really stalled this project out,” Saucedo said. “And it is because it is grassroots and it’s community-based that it … relies on its own momentum.”

‘People potential’

Saucedo and Carpenter tend to measure their success with how many connections they’ve made in the community and how many people they’re bringing together under the folk school’s roof.

To that end, Saucedo was recently named the executive director of the local non-profit B-Well, a health education initiative.  

There are several weekly or monthly events happening at the school, including a weekly meeting to discuss, among other topics, green and environmental initiatives called “Sustainable Tuesdays.”

But some people also rent the space to hold their own classes, touching on topics such as bike safety and mechanics, how to determine what wild foods are edible and violin lessons.  

Saucedo said giving those people a means to engage with others is what the Rail River Folk School is all about.

“That’s the bottom line,” she said. “Rail River is a hub, it’s a physical place. The rest is just people potential.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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