A parting of ways: Seeking a better wage, February 1978-May 1979

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As the sales at the leather shop in Toronto declined, George and Philip looked for an alternative way of earning a living. They did not want to disband the Ragnarokr community or close the leather shop. This meant that the new business would have to mesh with the co-op’s personnel and resources. Between 1976 and 1978 they discussed many ideas. Of those, twelve (listed below) were considered to be viable.

  • 1. Further development of the sugar bush,
  • 2. Manufacturing maple sugar and maple products such as candy and jam,
  • 3. Development of a market garden to grow field crops (such as artichokes, chicory, etc.) and/or building a greenhouse or mushroom cellar using natural soil or hydroponics,
  • 4. Manufacturing furniture or wooden toys from locally available wood,
  • 5. Selling Christmas trees, wholesale and/or retail,
  • 6. Manufacturing leather goods for wholesale and the local tourist trade,
  • 7. A seasonal sandal manufacturing/retail operation in Toronto for three months of the year each Spring,
  • 8. School bus driving,
  • 9. Contracting or sub-contracting construction or building maintenance,
  • 10. Speculative construction of cottages or housing in the South River area,
  • 11. Rebuilding and sale of small tractors or similar equipment that is in short supply in the South River area, such as wood heaters and stoves,
  • 12. Operating a retail establishment in South River or on Eagle Lake Road selling health food and/or leather goods.

By 1978 they had begun work on about half of the twelve ideas. George enlarged the sugar bush each year and sold both the syrup and candy to grocery stores in Toronto and in the leather shop. He also grew market crops on a small piece of land that had been reclaimed from the beaver marsh and marketed them through the Baldwin Street Natural Foods Store. He had been selling Christmas trees in Toronto since 1975. Several of the ideas had been thoroughly investigated and rejected and others were still being studied when in February 1978 Philip suggested that they go into the firewood business.

The idea was not original to him. Everyone at the Frostpocket burned firewood to heat their homes and George had already sold some firewood. In the spring of 1974 Philip towed an old pick-up truck belonging to Chris Risk to Frostpocket from Toronto and the following December George modified the engine and drive train of the truck to drive the sawmill. In August 1977 George purchased a 1969 International Harvester station wagon with a tailor hitch and fabricated a single axle trailer from the bed of Chris’ old pick up truck. That fall he used the trailer to carry a load of firewood to Toronto where it was sold. However, the idea Philip proposed involved more than selling firewood. He wanted to build and sell wood-burning appliances as well.

George was willing to give the idea a try. Philip recognized that he knew very little about the business and proposed to return to school to learn the mechanics of wood burning and to qualify for the Ontario licenses needed to install wood-burning appliances. He prepared an eight-page proposal and circulated it to the ten people involved in the leather shop and/or the settlement at the Frostpocket. The recipients of the letter included Randy and Bie (who were living in Belgium) and Jeff and Debbie (who were living in Florida). The proposal included a detailed schedule that would begin in the summer of 1978 and end with the sale of the leather shop in 1980. Since the proposed sale of the leather shop was two years in the future, no one objected to the plan and Philip and George began to implement it.

In August 1978 Philip enrolled in a two-year full-time program at George Brown College in Toronto to learn about residential heating technology. He and Mary stayed in Toronto all that winter while Philip went to school and worked in the leather shop. In October 1978 the leather shop purchased a 1963 Ford stake truck for $275 from Woodland Park and George placed an advertisement in a Toronto newspaper offering firewood by the quarter-cord. When there were enough orders to fill the truck he drove to Toronto and delivered the firewood to the customer’s homes. If he did not have orders for the entire load, he placed a sign on the truck’s tail-gate advertising the wood and prospective buyers flagged him down as he made his deliveries.

In January 1979 a realtor friend of Mary approached the shop about purchasing a storefront. By then the rent on the building at 33 Baldwin Street was $500 per month and the realtor explained how the leather shop could purchase a building for only a few hundred dollars more each month. She showed Philip and Mary a two-story house with a storefront on Queen Street East in the Beaches area of Toronto priced at $57,000. The building had ample space for the Ragnarokr leather shop and its workers and another family so Steve Spring was invited to join in the purchase. In a fateful decision, the group decided against the purchase partly because it was so far from Baldwin Street and the shop’s customer base. Ironically within a few years the area had become the focus of a small community of craft shops and property values (and rents) in Toronto increased dramatically.

This was not the first time the leather shop had declined an opportunity to leave the rented storefront at 33 Baldwin Street. In May 1977 Ragnarokr was offered a long-term lease on the storefront at 32 Baldwin Street by the Ontario Housing Corporation but declined it. John Lastraca eventually signed the lease and opened the Bodega Restaurant in the building. The refusal of the group to even consider a move from 33 Baldwin Street was a bad omen for the future of both the leather shop and the Ragnarokr family itself.

In May Philip and Mary moved back to the Frostpocket and George and Colleen moved to Toronto. In the fall George enrolled in George Brown College to qualify for the welder’s certification that he would need to fabricate heating appliances. Philip returned to continue the second year of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Technician’s program. George and Philip both worked part-time at the leather shop. Philip and a classmate, Stephen Bone, were elected to the Casa Loma Campus Student Government. The position came with a small honorarium of $25 a week. Philip arranged for George to manage the Student Council’s film program so he too received the honorarium. The honorarium, while considered small by most people, was a significant help to George and Philip, both of whom were accustomed to living with very little cash income.

The narrative continues at The Rautons and the Mullins take a leave of absence, 1978-1984

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