Stoney Lake 1969

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In August 1969 the Ragnarokr Leather Shop was doing well and was growing in both sales and staff. Steve Blossom returned to his parent’s home in Boston but a number of other people joined the roster of shop personnel. The idea of moving to the country as part of the hippie “back-to-the-land” movement excited the group and when two friends of the leather shop told them about an old hotel that was for rent in a rural location, the commune decided to explore the idea of renting it as an alternative, rural location. They wanted to relieve overcrowding at the house on Baldwin Street.

In August Mary contacted the hotel’s owner in Barrie and he agreed to rent the 14-room hotel to her for $85 a month. The hotel was located on the northeast shore of Stoney Lake in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario in the tiny village of Nepton. The nearest town was Lakefield. The hotel was about eighty miles from Toronto. The hotel was a wooden two-story building that was built to house workers employed at a nearby open-pit mine. The mine extracted an alumina mineral called cynanite nepheline. The material was formed into marble-sized pellets at the mine and sold for use as a refractory. Between August 1969 and February 1970 members of the Ragnarokr commune rotated between the leather shop in Toronto and the hotel at Stoney Lake. A small workshop was built in that had been the lobby of the hotel and the leather goods made there were sold to a gift store in Peterborough and in the leather shop in Toronto.

When Ragnarokr rented the hotel the leather shop employed eight craftspeople. In September Tom Bonanno, Steve Spring and Randy Rauton lived and worked at 11 Baldwin Street and Philip, Mary, Dave Woodward, Carol Huebner and Barry and Sue Woolaver lived at the hotel on Stoney Lake. In October 1969 the entire Ragnarokr family met at the hotel for the Thanksgiving holiday and to review the progress of the experiment. Frank and Marita Tettemer, both now attending college, joined their friends for the holiday.

The Thanksgiving meeting was friendly. The group spent the day before Thanksgiving preparing for the Thanksgiving dinner. On Thanksgiving Day, everyone woke early for breakfast and left as a group for a walk to the site of the mine. The mine was still in operation but was closed for the holiday. The mine was located on a hill that was also the highest point in the immediate area. A large game reserve and the Petroglyphs Provincial Park is located immediately north of the village. In 1969 the park was undeveloped with nothing more than a sign pointing in the direction of the drawings. The petroglyphs had been sketched into a stone outcropping by the indigenous people who once inhabited the area. The residents of the hotel were by then familiar with the area, having developed the habit of taking long walks along the lakeshore and into the surrounding game preserve. They were also acquainted with their neighbors, many of whom were employed in the nepheline cynanite mine and who routinely pouched deer from the nearby game reserve.

A few weeks after the Thanksgiving meeting, Tom Bonanno left the leather shop to enroll in the University of Western Ontario and Barry and Sue Woolaver inherited $3,000 from Sue’s grandparents. Sue had just given birth to a child and her parents and siblings came from Pennsylvania for a visit and to see the new baby. A short time later Barry and Sue left the shop and purchased a cabin in Renfrew County near Golden Lake. Dave and Carol also left. Dave returned to Toronto and Carol returned to Antioch College to finish student teaching. Randy Rauton moved from the leather shop in Toronto and joined those living at the hotel.

Three new people, Wayne Myers, Helen Gilbert and Judy Wapp, began working in the leather shop in Toronto just before Thanksgiving. Wayne Myers was a friend of Randy Rauton and Helen was Wayne’s girlfriend. Doug and Judy Wapp were housemates of Wayne Myers on McCaul Street. When Randy left for Lakefield in October, Helen and Wayne moved into his room on the second floor at 11 Baldwin Street and Helen began working in the leather shop. Soon Judy Wapp was also working there. Steve Spring was left in charge of the shop with this group of new people who barely knew the rest of the Ragnarokr commune. Helen brought with her a young collie bitch that was not yet housetrained. Judy Wapp’s two-year old daughter, similarly untrained, added to the confusion in the already overcrowded and volatile household. The inexperienced group failed to make adequate provision for the Christmas selling season and, with only Steve Spring, Helen Gilbert and Judy Wapp watching the store, sales declined.

By November problems arose between the two groups and by December two factions had emerged in the leather shop. Those in Toronto (Judy Wapp, Wayne Myers and Helen Gilbert) refused to provide funds and supplies to those living at the hotel on Stoney Lake. In response, the group living in the hotel developed a market for their leather goods in the nearby city of Peterborough. In fact the leather workers at Nephton were kept busy supplying the gift shop in Peterborough with Ragnarokr-style leather goods. The gift store in Peterborough remained a valued wholesale customer for years afterward. There was little communication or coordination between the two factions in the leather shop. After Steve Spring left the shop in Toronto and moved to join the group at Stoney Lake, the differences between the factions were aired at a Christmas meeting held at the hotel on Stoney Lake. In attendance were Judy and Doug Wapp, Wayne Myers, Mary Rauton, Philip Mullins, Randy Rauton, Frank Tettermer and Marita DeGive, Helen Gilbert, Steve Spring, Michael and Paula Letki, a stranger who arrived by motorcycle and a television film crew filming a program about a “draft dodger” Christmas.

Although the film crew and the crasher complicated matters, the meeting proceeded without incident. A large area of ice on the frozen lake close the hotel was cleared of snow so the film crew could film the group ice skating. Most of the commune’s members were Americans and only a few had ever skated on ice before. The crew buttonholed some of the group for interviews but mainly contented themselves with filming the Christmas dinner. The film crew left before the Christmas meeting got underway.

Although the dispute was probably about money, the discussion at the meeting revolved around different visions of the “revolution” (that most everyone at the meeting felt was immanent) and its relationship to the “back-to-the land movement”. The discussion pitted the majority (which could be loosely described as agrarian-utopian-hippie-communalists) against the minority (which could be loosely described as urban-activist-hippie-communists). The two factions had different priorities. Wayne’s Baldwin Street faction wanted to focus exclusively on organizing co-operatives in the city while the original Ragnarokr folks wanted to split their attention between the city and developing a rural community inspired by the hippie “back-to-the-land movement”. The split within the leather shop reflected a wider split between the two wings of the New Left-hippie alliance. The utopian “elitist” hippies wanted to create an intentional community of craftsmen who lived and worked in a rural environment. The urban “activist” hippies had a more traditional socialist outlook on “the revolution”. The outcome of the discussion was that each faction agreed to pursue its own goals without compromising those of the other.

After the Christmas meeting Philip, Mary and Randy returned to the leather shop. Judy Wapp had assumed the task of maintaining the shop’s accounts and neither she nor Randy could not say what the bank balance might be. When Philip visited the Bank of Nova Scotia, where the shop had its bank account, he told that the account was empty. He knew that the winter months were difficult months for retailers and everyone realized that the shop was in financial trouble. Nevertheless he, Mary and Steve Spring continued to support the move “back-to-the-country.” After a series of community meetings in Toronto, the decision was made to move the group back to Toronto and work out the shop’s problems before proceeding.

Mary purchased an old Volkswagon van from someone on Baldwin Street and the hotel was emptied out and the lease was terminated. About a month later Philip discovered that the bank had made a mistake and that there was indeed money in the shop’s account although the shop owed it suppliers $500. Despite mismanagement and inattention the leather shop had survived its first winter. Despite the disruption caused by its first factional fight, the Ragnarokr commune remained committed to the “back-to-the-land” movement.

The following is letter written from the hotel on Stoney Lake to Carol Huebner’s family, dated November 1969.

Dear All,

I have just finished wrapping and will send the two birthday presents. I made the one for Liz myself and Mary (Rauton) and I worked together on the one for Dad. It is an original creation and Mary loves it so much I had to promise to make another for her so we could send this one off. Feel free to request something if you don’t just love it. I was thinking if anyone really loves leather vest, skirts, belts, let me know now because it would be easy for me to whip something up. If it would be a large item (larger than a purse) you might have to pay the cost of leather which would still be considerably below store prices. We have an outlet in Peterborough who doubles our wholesale prices and still has no trouble selling our goods.

I will tell you the details of my trip to Yellow Springs. I arrived by bus to Springfield faced with that old Antioch problem of how to get the fifteen miles to Yellow Springs. Finally I called the community government office who sent out a campus taxi service which cost me three dollars. My first move was to the housing office where they told me I did not have a room although I had written them in April from Lebanon telling them I would be on campus Fall. Since I didn’t know what I had to register for. I registrar and I quickly discovered that I had done so much academic work while in Beirut that I could easily finish with just Winter and Spring Quarters. From there I went to see my job adviser to discover that I still need 30 job credits out of the 90 required for graduation. So there it is, I work this quarter and may have to work part-time one of the times I am on campus. My address is the same and the telephone is 705-877-2813.

We had our first snow up here a few days ago and the neighbors say that indicates a long, cold winter. One neighbor has been bringing us ducks regularly and promises some venison when it is in season. Last weekend Susan (Woolaver) returned with her baby, mother, mother-in-law and sisters so it was quite an occasion. It is strange having a baby around after so many years of a steady diet of college-age people. The mothers were so excited at their first grandchild that the place was filled with baby clothes, padded car seats, cribs, air vaporizers and all the other equipment that goes along with a baby. We already celebrated Thanksgiving up here with a big turkey dinner with cornbread stuffing, cranberries, potatoes and mincemeat and pumpkin pie. The folks from the shop in town came out which made ten of us, we all got up early that morning and took a hike to the mine which is the highest point around and were all ready for a big dinner when we returned. They celebrate it early up here because the harvest comes earlier.

I found the enclosed article in the “Village Voice” and I thought you would enjoy reading it because I found it spoke quite truly of the “group” encounters I have had. They don’t help people who are insecure to begin with but make those people convinced that they have problems. Mary (Rauton) was saying that she was in a couple of Catholic retreat sessions which ended up being much like “T” groups and she too found it very difficult to bring these changes inside herself into the family. She said there is a kind of jealousy of the experience that is not unusual, especially between husband and wife. It was interested to hear my AEA advisor, Mr. Spoer, say almost exactly the same thing when I was talking to her about my year and my concern over what my future will involve. At that point I was considering the merits of committing myself to another for a lifetime. Most of my experience and knowledge of other such commitments does not encourage it. Tomorrow night we are having a capon dinner grown by one of our farmer neighbors, Mr. McArthur. He’s an old Scotsman and reminds me a bit of Mr. Perman. He has a little pony that he hitches up to his sleigh and gives his wife a ride to the store once a winter. I’m keeping my eye on the news about Lebanon. It doesn’t sound good at all. The fight between Syria and Lebanon has been a long and historic one. I was also interested in the numbers that turned out for the moratorium. I feel it is all a bit too late, especially considering the Government’s response or rather lack of response. I can’t really figure out what he is up to.

Love to all. Hope all the schools, the University, Shingle Creek, and Edison High School are running all right. My whole family is one big institution of higher learning. Carol

Use this link to return to the narrative, The Leather Shop’s open door, August 1969-February 1970

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