The wage rate in the Ragnarokr Leather Shop declined steadily between 1970 and 1980 despite efforts to increase productivity and sales. While troublesome, the declining wage rate did not discourage the members of the Ragnarokr co-operative because the leather shop was never intended to be a permanent institution. The shop’s founders chose to start a leather goods manufacturing business because in 1969 they had access to the necessary skills and a ready market for leather goods. This made the leather shop a viable business for the commune’s formative years. Philip always anticipated that the leather shop would be closed at some point and that the commune would leave Toronto entirely. He originally thought that the commune would eventually relocate to British Columbia after some years in a rural location in Ontario.
However by the middle 1970s it was apparent that some members of the Ragnarokr group had other ideas. Not only had they become permanently attached to Toronto, they were equally attached to Baldwin Street and to the leather shop itself. As the decade wore on it became obvious they were unwilling to close or even relocate the leather shop. However Philip and George continued to plan for the long term survival of the enterprise. In early 1978 Philip thought he had a plan that would work. The following is a transcript of a letter that was circulated among the Ragnarokr group in February 1978. The letter was an attempt to lay the groundwork for a new business that could substitute for or supplement the leather shop.
George and Colleen accepted the plan. Everyone else was non-committal at first. As the plan unfolded their opposition firmed and by 1979 even Mary had decided against it. Rather than continue to fight about it with Philip, Mary went to New York City for a short visit. She ended up staying in New York for five years. Philip persisted with the plan and left by himself in the summer of 1980. His intention was to work in Houston, Texas for a couple of years until he saved enough money to finance the new business. He never intended to leave the Ragnarokr family forever. However, he ended up working in Texas until he retired some twenty-five years later.
1980 was a pivotal year for the Ragnarokr family. Most of the core group left Toronto at about the same time. After their departure, the shop was kept going by Bie Engelen and Steve Spring. Randy returned shortly after and Mary returned five years later. They continued to operate the leather shop even as the economic outlook for small, leather-based manufacturing businesses worsened. The leather shop finally closed in 1996 and what was left of the Ragnarokr commune dispersed. The Mullins brothers and Colleen stayed in Texas until they retired from the work force.
The following is a transcript of the proposal that was written and distributed to the ten people who were actively involved with the Ragnarokr leather shop in February 1978.
Machar Township Energetics: Energy for the future
During the last few years there was been some thought and discussion among our group about what direction we as a group should move in. This letter is an attempt to suggest a new direction and a new source of income for all of us, as well as to briefly review our current situation.
For a number of reasons the leather shop has become less and less attractive as a source of income. Some of these reasons are beyond our control but many of them have to do with our own attitudes and preferences about earning a living and our changing lifestyles. Briefly these reasons can be enumerated thusly: (1) a decline in the popularity of leather and leather goods throughout North America, (2) a drop in earning ability (due to unemployment and inflation) among the particular social group(s) that comprise most of our customers, (3) a decline in the awareness among our potential customers that Baldwin Street exists as an (alternative) shopping area, (4) a change in the styles and types of leather goods in demand and our inability to respond to these changes, (5) an increase in costs and the failure of our prices to keep up with inflation, (6) a static total output by the leather co-operative in the face of increasing overhead costs, (7) increasing unwillingness to work in Toronto for all or part of the year, (8) continuing inability to get production of leather goods underway in South River, (9) a rise in salary expectations, (10) a constant loss of capital by Ragnarokr for many years and the resultant severe capital shortage and the increase in the shop’s indebtedness, (11) and increasing personal dissatisfaction with operating this type of manufacturing operation at 33 Baldwin Street and in downtown Toronto.
I am not going to attempt to deal with any of these problems here. These problems are given here only for the purpose of showing that alternative arrangement should be considered even if we decide, in the short run, to continue to operate the leather shop in Toronto with or without major reforms.
Section I: Our assets, interests and skills.
Before considering alternatives to Ragnarokr, we should assess our current situation and how this situation might change within the next few years. We can begin by listing some basis requirements that any alternative will have to meet.
We need an arrangement that can (1) employ a number of people, (2) at a reasonable wage, (3) under somewhat interesting working conditions, (4) in the South River area. It has to require (5) limited capital, (6) a variety of skills, and, preferably, (7) not all of us, every day, eight hours a day. Ideally the arrangement will make use of our existing skills and interests as well as our lands and machines. If possible the business should be of the kind that does not depend solely upon our labour but should be (8) of the type that can grow as the years go by so that we could eventually sell the business and retire.
With this in mind we can assess our skills, interests and needs in the light of our location (South River) and developments in the foreseeable future. First I’ll list a few of our most obvious personal assests: (1) nine years experience operating a manufacturing/retail business in Ontario, (2) reasonable competence in auto/diesel mechanics and welding (but lacking Ontario certification), (3) reasonable competence in building construction including plumbing and electrical (but lacking Ontario certification), (4) reasonable competence in all clerical functions relating to small businesses, (5) some knowledge of the lumber-making trades, (6) some knowledge of farming and market gardening, (7) many years experience in design and commercial art, (8) and willing and ability to do both mental and manual labour.
Secondly, we can list some of the problems and/or opportunities presented by our location in the South River area. The PROBLEMS include (1) low income permanent population but with a high proportion of high-income seasonal residents, (2) no exploitable natural resources other than timber and land, (3) no large retail centres or manufacturing establishments within forty miles, (4) early frosts and poor soil conditions, (5) relatively high unemployment and a surplus of unskilled labour, (6) decline in birth rate couple with immigration of young people to the cities results in an increasingly aged, childless population, (7) increasingly stringent regulations such as licensing of tradesmen, marketing boards, inspections of vehicles, housing, etc, (8) decrease in demand for live Christmas trees with a consistently low wholesale price, (9) our lands are difficult of access and do not front on an all-weather road, (10) and the Town of South River is rapidly declining in commercial importance and employment opportunities and its residents are turning to North Bay for employment and major purchase.
OPPORTUNITIES include (1) expanding number of permanent and seasonal residents with rapidly increasing number of seasonal residents retiring to the area, (2) increasing numbers of tourists and campers with no increases in Provincial Park facilities and escalating Park Fees, (3) decline in the population making their living from the land, (4) increased facilities for selling local produce through Woodland Park’s fruit stands, etc. (5) retirement of the local sign painter, (6) the beginnings of a local interest in health foods, organic gardening, better diet, (7) increasing fuel, electric and fertilizer costs, (8) and increasing demand and higher prices for certain agricultural products such as maple syrup and succulent vegetables.
Thirdly, there are several national and international trends that will affect our choice of a new business. These include (1) energy costs will increase relative to everything else, (2) unskilled labour will become less and less in demand while the demand for highly trained technicians will become even more pressing than they are today, (3) the over-all economic picture will remain depressing for the rest of this century with increasing unemployment and/or inflation (barring a BIG WAR), (4) government aid to poor people will not keep pace with inflation (barring a REVOLUTION), (5) the population will become increasingly aged, i.e. less children, (6) and the long-term trend is for increasing urbanization and depopulation of the countryside.
Finally, we have to consider our own interests and needs. These include (1) those of us with children will not want to be away from home for even short periods of time and will not want to be moving our families back and forth to Toronto one or twice a year, (2) we do not want boring or repetitive work in unhealthy or dangerous conditions, (3) we want to earn an adequate income, (4) we would prefer a business that would allow extended absences for those of us who wish to travel or live elsewhere temporarily, (5) we need to prepare for old age and/or retirement by accumulating capital, (6) we prefer outdoor work, (7) and we want to be our own boss.
We have to consider our major physical assets. These include (1) well-timbered land consisting of maple trees, softwood sawlogs, abundant firewood but with only a few cleared acres, (2) mostly finished residences with some workshop space, (3) and a few tools and machines including vehicles and constructions tools.
Section II: Some Alternatives.
In Section I we reviewed our assets, interests, skills as well as local and world-wide problems and trends. In this section we will list some possible reactions to this set of circumstances as regards finding an alternative to Ragnarokr. There are several alternatives that have been presented and discussed as possible business ventures for us. These include: (1) further development of the sugar bush, (2) manufacturing maple sugar and maple products such as candy, jam, (3) development of a market garden growing field crops (such as artichokes, chicory, etc.) and/or using a greenhouse or mushroom cellar or hydroponics, (4) manufacturing furniture or wooden toys, etc., (5) selling Christmas trees, wholesale or retail, (6) manufacturing leather goods for wholesale and local trade, (7) a seasonal sandal manufacturing/retail operation in Toronto for three-months of the year in the spring, (8) school bus driving, (9) contracting or sub-contracting construction or building maintenance, (10) speculative construction of cottages or housing for sale, (11) rebuilding and sale of small tractors or similar equipment that is in short supply in the area, such as wood heaters, (12) and operating a retail establishment in South River or on Eagle Lake Road selling health food or leather goods.
Some of these alternatives have been discussed in quite some detail and some have been actualized. For this reason I will not attempt to discuss each of them in detail. Instead I will try to integrate a few of them into a scheme or plan which I feel can work in the short run and which will, in the long run, produce a viable business or combination of businesses for us.
First, however, I want to introduce another alternative. Since this new alternative has not been presented previously I will explain it in detail and then integrate it into the overall plan.
Section III: wood, wind and sun = renewable energy sources.
The business I have in mind would be a manufacturing/retail operation involving, as well, contracting and design of heating systems. On one level (a) we could design, fabricate, assemble and install gas/oil/wood heating equipment. This might involve becoming local/regional distributors of a line or so of stoves, furnaces, space heaters, etc. On another level (b) we could try to introduce hydroponics and solar heating and greenhouses in the area. On a third level (c) we could be collectors and restorers of stoves, heaters, etc. Perhaps on a fourth level (d) we could be suppliers of firewood. Thus we might be (a) building contractors or sub-contractors, (b) farmers, (c) second-hand equipment dealers and restorers and (d) woodcutters.
As the price of oil and hydro increases, solar and wood-heating and energy-saving devices will become more practical. The possibility (even probability) of black outs, oil embargoes, pipe line disruptions, etc, will create a demand (perhaps a panic demand) for alternative energy sources. This is a growth industry with almost unlimited potential.
It is worthwhile to note that the Univ. of Guelph (Guelph, Ontario) is using animal wastes to heat greenhouses, hydroponics and improved greenhouse systems are being sold in Ontario, several companies are already marketing solar water heaters, the upturn in sales of wood-heating appliances shows no sign of slacking off and several companies in Ontario are manufacturing new wood-burning stoves and are selling them as fast as they can be produced. We know from our own experience that there has been a renewed interest in burning wood for heat in the South River area. Nor should we forget about the possibilities inherent in steam engines, wind-driven generators and home-made hydro-electric power, gasogens, etc.
I suggest that the business I have outlined above can satisfy a number of our requirements for a new source of income. Some of these are: (1) it has manufacturing/retailing aspects, (2) it is basically a free-lance type of operation involving a number of differing skills and self-starting individuals, (3) it can pay well, (4) it has a real future in both the long and the short run, (5) it can be done in the South River area, (6) it can be done on a shoe-string but has opportunities for capital accumulation and wind-fall profits, (7) it is a new field of technology in which new developments are common and to which we might contribute, (8) and it deals with a basic necessity of life, i.e. energy.
Some of the difficulties include (1) to install gas or oil furnaces requires an Ontario license, (2) the demand for energy saving devices and solar or wood-heating appliances might be very small at present, (3) much research work might be necessary in some aspects of this business, (4) too much capital might be required to become local/regional dealers of heating appliances, (5) we would need to reeducate ourselves to achieve the technical know-how to compete in this field, (6) our location in South River might make it difficult to find work as heating sub-contractors, (7) our lack of road frontage and our relative inaccessibility might make it difficult to attract retail customers, (8) and the construction of new buildings and the purchase of new equipment might slack off if the economy continues to worsen.
Section IV: Machar Township Energetics
In the following scheme or plan I am suggesting ways to overcome some of these difficulties and to integrate this business with our present businesses and our future dreams.
There are certain essentials that might be undertaken. These include: (1) We should aim to keep Ragnarokr for at least three or four more years as our primary source of income. To this end we must devote some energy to overcoming its problems and leaving it in good enough shape so that we might sell it for a profit. (2) We should seek to retrain ourselves as heating, air conditioning, refrigeration technicians. There is Government aid available to us for this purpose. (3) We should seek to find ways of generating funds to support ourselves after we give up Ragnarokr and before the energy business starts making sufficient sales. These might include: (a) continuing and expanding the maple syrup business, (b) expanding the maple confections business, (c) beginning a market garden and greenhouse, (d) wholesaling and/or retailing Christmas trees, (e) operating a sandal manufacturing/retailing business in Toronto for three months in the spring, (f) wholesaling leather goods, (g) buying, repairing and reselling wood-heating appliances, (h) sign painting, (i) sub-contracting small construction jobs or doing maintenance work for cottagers, etc. (4) We should build the facilities necessary to operate the energy business. This would include: (a) a shed for storing old equipment prior to rebuilding, (b) a winter-tight building for working on the old stoves, etc, with an attached (?) display/retail area, (c) and a demonstration greenhouse.
Section IV: A proposed time schedule.
Summer 1978: Construction of storage/implement shed, construction of greenhouse, attempt to market garden, sign painting and regular operation of Ragnarokr leather shop
Winter 1978-9: Begin school for heating technician, expand maple confection sales, expand Christmas tree sales and regular operation of Ragnarokr leather shop
Summer 1979: Construction of workshop and retail area, construction of sugar house, attempt to market garden, sign painting, attempt to begin selling renovated/new stoves and regular operation of Ragnarokr leather shop
Winter 1979-1980: Continuation of two-year school for heating tech, continue maple confection sales, continue Christmas tree sales and regular operation of Ragnarokr
Summer 1980: Attempt to begin heating contracting, attempt to retail heating equipment, continuation of market garden, sign painting and maple confection sales and sale or closure of Ragnarokr leather shop in Toronto
Thereafter: Continue maple confection sales, sign painting, continue Christmas tree sales, renovation of old heating equipment, attempt to wholesale leather goods, seasonal sandal sales and expansion of energy business
Section VI: Epilogue
This letter outlines yet another in a long line of “plans” relative to our earning our living as a group. Naturally it presents only one of many alternatives. Although it has assumed that we would be giving up the Ragnarokr leather shop this may not be necessary. I for one feel that we can overcome its many problems. In addition I don’t mind working in Toronto half the year. Nevertheless I am prepared for its eventual dissolution when that becomes necessary.
I think that an alternative such as outlined in this “plan” can work for us. It incorporates many of our interests and most of the projects that we are currently working on. In addition it goes beyond these to a new area that shows promise of being both interesting and a money maker. Everyone should give some thought to how they might fit into this scheme and should be prepared to discuss it in the spring or whenever we get together again.
Copies are being sent to George in South River, Colleen in South River, Randy in Belgium, Bie in Belgium, Jeff in Florida, Debbie in Florida, Bill in South River and Chris in South River. The original goes to Philip in Toronto and Mary in Toronto.
“The words of the mouth of the wise one mean favor, but the lips of the stupid one swallow him up. The start of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end afterward of his mouth is calamitous madness. And the foolish one speaks many words. Man does not know what will come to be; and that which will come to be after him, who can tell him?” Ecclesiastes 10:12-14
“Wise utterance wins favour; the fool that opens his mouth does but ruin himself, his preface idle talk, his conclusion madness. Of words a fool has no stint…What went before, is lost to man’s view, and what shall befall when he is gone, none can tell him.” Ecclesiastes 10:12-14
February 22, 1978