The Christmas meetings 1969-1980
Between 1969 (when the Ragnarokr leather shop began its back-to-the-land project) and 1980 (when the settlement at the Frostpocket was abandoned), the Christmas meetings were an essential management tool for the leather shop. It was customary for all-hands to congregate at the shop from the middle of November until the end of December for what was known as the “Christmas season”. Wholesale orders were shipped in October and the craftsmen began filling up the store with stock items in November. Custom-orders, that had to be ready before Christmas, started to be booked around mid-November. Sales picked up quickly as Christmas approached. Customers inevitably placed large orders that required one or two person’s exclusive attention just a few days before Christmas. The assembled craftspeople put in longer and longer hours as customers purchased anything and everything on the shelves until finally, on Christmas Eve, all sales abruptly stopped. The shop entered a long sales drought that was broken only by the start of the “sandal season” in April or May. After a frantic Christmas season, a large Christmas dinner was prepared at the leather shop in Toronto involving the entire Ragnarokr family as well as members of the Baldwin Street community and people renting rooms in the building at 33 Baldwin Street. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day a full day was set aside for an annual planning meeting held either in Toronto or at George’s house at the Frostpocket. This was the “Christmas meeting”.
The tradition of the Christmas meeting began in December 1969 when the differences between two factions were aired at a meeting at the rented hotel on Stoney Lake. The results of the 1969 Christmas meeting were far reaching and changed the way the shop did business. It also identified a small core of people who were committed to the back-to-the-land project and who were willing to sacrifice towards that end. The December 1970 Christmas Meeting at Ragnarokr took place soon after the land for the Frostpocket farm had been purchased. The focus of the group shifted from locating land to preparing for the upcoming building season. The full Ragnarokr six-person commune attended that Christmas meeting in addition to the younger brothers of both Randy and Steve Spring.
The departure of George and the marriage of Steve Spring and Simone Bulger overshadowed the December 1971 Christmas Meeting. George’s departure and the decision of Steve Spring to drop out of the back-to-the-land project moved the remaining four participants (Randy, Madelyn, Mary and Philip) to invite individuals who were not a part of the Ragnarokr commune to join them in the back-to-the-land project. This proved to be a wise although ultimately futile decision. Although one of the couples left after two years, Chris Risk lived on the property until 1979 and contributed to all of the work projects at the settlement. Even as early as 1972 it was apparent that the very isolation of the property that made it so attractive was also an obstacle that had to be dealt with and overcome.
In the spring of 1972 three houses were being built at the Frostpocket and by the fall three families were living on the property. The December 1972 Christmas Party at Ragnarokr involved Mary and Randy Rauton, Philip Mullins, Madelyn Averitte, Steve and Simone Spring, Morley Yan and Chris Risk and his son Davin. (Morley Yan was a friend of the co-operative who lived at 31 Baldwin Street with his mother and an uncle.) The other two families spent Christmas at the Frostpocket. In January most of the craftsmen met at George’s house for the annual planning meeting. This meeting dealt with affairs at the Frostpocket. Everyone except Chris Risk was actively participating in the leather shop although most of their time and energy was devoted to improvements at the Frostpocket.
The Christmas meeting of 1973 was held at the Frostpocket as well. On Christmas Day a potluck feast was shared at George and Colleen’s house. Those attending were Philip and Mary, Chris and Caroline, George and Colleen, Skip and Judy and Madelyn Averitte. At the business meeting the following day it was agreed to try to revive the wholesale business and to make a new wholesale catalog. Everyone agreed to build a workshop at the Frostpocket the following spring and to construct a pole-line to bring electricity to the property. The schedule for manning the retail shop in Toronto was agreed on as usual. The previous year Chris Risk had been managing his own wholesale accounts. At the Christmas meeting he agreed to merge his company with Ragnarokr’s wholesale branch, Fourth World Imports. The meeting was marred by a conflict between Skip and Philip over land clearing practices. The result was that a sawmill was purchased and moved to the property and each household was assigned an area of land over which they had control. This was called the ‘Five-Acre Plan’. Unfortunately Skip had been offended and in April he and Judy sold their cabin and left for British Columbia. Skip sold his cabin to Bie Engelen. Bie Engelen became a valued member of the Ragnarokr family and stayed with the leather shop for the next twenty years.
For the next four years, until 1977, the Christmas meetings continued and assumed a certain routine. The meetings were often held at George’s house at the Frostpocket. The previous year’s sales and books were examined, sales strategies were discussed, new products were suggested, comments made about the success of certain designs and changes were made to the shop’s fiscal policies as needed. Improvements to the rural property were also discussed and commitments made. A sheet of paper was passed around and each person selected a few months when they would manage the leather shop. Usually George and Philip each selected three and a half or four months of the year. As the number of co-op members declined, George and Philip began alternating with each other. They were rarely both at either the Frostpocket or the leather shop at the same time. The exception was the Christmas season when everyone gathered in Toronto. Randy Rauton could usually be counted on to remain in Toronto most of the year and Steve Burdick continued to do the co-op’s books.
In 1975 Jeff and Debbie Mullins were in Toronto for the Christmas dinner with Philip and Mary, George and Colleen, their two children Seth and Katie, Madelyn Averitte and her boyfriend Fletcher Starbuck, Brenda Matthias, Randy and Bie. Jeff is the younger brother of George and Philip and he had helped build the community house at the Frostpocket. Jeff and his wife Debbie worked in the leather shop in the mid-1970s and purchased a forest lot near the deserted settlement of Rye, some ten miles west of Frostpocket.
George Mullins and Colleen Anderson married at Toronto City Hall in December 1977. Madelyn Averitte and Mary attended as witnesses. Fletcher Starbuck was the photographer. The wedding party invitees at Ragnarokr included Lisa Steele, Janice Spellerberg, Greg Sperry, Ann Weatherby, Judy Holman, Chuck Wall, Steve and Mary Burdick, Steve and Simone Spring, Brenda Matthias, Stewart and Pat, David Anderson and many others. The only individual to miss the wedding and the Christmas dinner was George’s brother, Philip. He had gone on to a trip to Yuchi Pines, Alabama to evaluate a school for Physician’s Assistants. He decided against attending the school but didn’t return until January and so missed the wedding.
At the time of December 1978 Christmas meeting, Philip was attending school at George Brown College in Toronto. He and Mary spent the winter in Toronto leaving George, Colleen and Chris Risk at the Frostpocket. Chris Risk had begun working at the Seventh-Day Adventist farm at Woodland Park and gradually withdrew from the Ragnarokr co-op. The next year he married June Parrish and left to do missionary work in Alberta. Philip agreed to buy Chris’ house at the Frostpocket when the money became available.
The December 1979 Christmas season was disrupted by the break-up of Mary and Philip. Mary left for the Catholic Worker house in New York City in September to realize a dream she had deferred since 1968 and to distance herself from Philip. Philip too moved out of 33 Baldwin and boarded with Steve and Mary Burdick on D’Arcy Street. When Randy and Bie broke-up, Randy also moved in with the Burdicks. George and Colleen and their three children were in Toronto and Colleen and Bie took charge of the leather shop and the house at 33 Baldwin Street. In the fall of 1979 the core group at the leather shop fell apart. Two of the three couples that formed the management team of the shop had split up. Of the seven craftsmen in the co-op, five had either already left or were soon to leave Canada altogether.
The narrative continues at A parting of ways: Seeking a better wage, February 1978-May 1979