The Community House, 1971

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The Community House: Ragnarokr’s “farm”

When George and Madelyn visited the real estate office of Stan Darling in Burk’s Falls in the fall of 1970, they were looking for acreage, hopefully an abandoned farm, that was priced in the neighborhood of three thousand dollars. A salesman handed them a mimeographed list of properties that were listed for sale in the area. Most of the properties on the list were cottages with lakefront access, homes or building lots but there were a few farms on the list along with some undeveloped land. One undeveloped lot of 100-acres was priced at $3,600.

The 100-acre lot was located three miles west of the village of South River and about thirty miles north of Burk’s Falls. The road out of South River was paved. At a large rock with “McVittie’s” painted on its side the road turned left onto a gravel road and then up a steep hill past an old stone schoolhouse. The property they were interested in was a quarter of a mile down the hill from the schoolhouse. The road down the hill had not been maintained for many years and was overgrown and rutted. They parked their VW sedan at the top of the hill and walked down the old road under a canopy of trees. At the bottom of the hill the road opened onto a clearing in the forest. From the clearing it was evident that the 100-acre lot sat in a small valley formed by the Uplands Ridge to the west and a low hill to the east. The land sloped gently to the south and east and overlooked an immense wilderness area. The side of the ridge was covered with a mature deciduous forest that in October retained gold and yellow-coloured leaves. Further down the slope the deciduous trees blended into a green forest of balsam fir and spruce mixed with aspen and birch. A steam ran through the valley and beavers maintained several ponds north of the old road. The northern end of Lot 19 where the abandoned road turned into the clearing was picture-postcard perfect.

The property was beautiful. The old road was still useable. A mile to the west was Eagle Lake. A few miles further west was a small provincial park and a few miles east Algonquin Provincial Park. Nearby was a small town. The whole region was a wilderness area that was dotted with small farms, deep blue lakes and miles of forest. However, the property was not exactly what the group had been looking for. The nearest electrical service was a quarter of a mile up the hill. There were no cleared fields and no buildings or improvements of any kind. Settling this land was going to be like homesteading on a frontier. Most of the Baldwin Street hippies who moved “back to the land” moved to abandoned farms about 120 east and on the other side of Algonquin Park. Locating the Ragnarokr farm far from the established hippie community around Killaloe in Renfrew County meant that the farm would be cut off from many friends. Nevertheless, after a year of searching, the group decided to purchase the lot. A local lawyer was retained to draw up the paperwork and George and Philip signed the deed in trust for the others.

The Community House: The horse shed

In December a second group from the Ragnarokr leather shop made the trip to Machar Township to inspect the land they had just purchased. This group included Frank Tettemer, Randy Rauton and Philip Mullins. They set up tents in the clearing. The next day a cold front blew in and the temperature dropped to below freezing. Fortunately for the campers, several years before someone had stabled a horse in a small shed in the eastern-end of the clearing. The shed had a plank roof and enclosed walls. The old shed was quickly cleaned out and the sleeping bags moved inside. On this trip the group located the corner of the lot and followed an old blaze that more or less marked the western side of the lot. A site very near the abandoned road and in the shelter of a line of large spruce trees was selected for the first building. The first building was going to be a house the whole group could share.

When the settlers returned in the spring of 1971 they brought some building materials to weather-proof the horse shed. The roof was sealed with composition shingles and the walls with building paper and cardboard. The shed later was outfitted with bunks, a table and some chairs. Until the community house was weather-tight, the horse shed was used as the bunkhouse and then as a place to store interior doors and other perishable materials. The shed was located along an animal trail that was often used by bear and deer traveling along the base of the ridge so it was not unusual to see animals walking through the clearing. The bears sometimes stopped to tear apart rotting logs that had been left by logging crews. The deer kept to the forest edge but the bears walked straight through the clearing and sometimes right through the group of tents to reach the stream on the north side of the road. That first year lynx and moose also came during the night to inspect the people who were intruding on their forest.

The Community House: Building the community house

In the early 1970s real estate developers were knocking down entire city blocks in downtown Toronto and building high-rise apartments or office buildings in their place. This was known as “urban renewal” or “redevelopment”. Hippies from Baldwin Street participated in many demonstrations against the destruction of these old neighborhoods. Eventually the City of Toronto recognized the wisdom of keeping these old mixed residential and commercial neighborhoods intact and set limits on the type of development that was permissible. However, in 1969 and 1970 crews of Portuguese laborers were dismantling the 100-year-old two- and three-story row houses between McCaul and University Avenue board by board. The furnishings and some of the entry windows, doors and trim were sold to antique dealers. The good lumber was cleared of nails and carried to the demolition company’s salvage yard in north Toronto where it was sorted and sold. On the weekends, while the demolition crews rested, George and Philip salvaged building materials from the demolition sites. They strapped the lumber to the roof of George’s Volkswagen sedan and hauled it to the backyard behind the leather shop. By the spring of the year, they had accumulated enough lumber to fill a good sized truck.

Philip drew plans for a two-story building with a full basement, a kitchen/living area on the first floor and a large bedroom on the second floor. He made a list of materials needed to construct the house and items on the list were checked off as the pile of materials in the backyard grew. The pile consisted mostly of rough-cut 2x4 and 2x6 framing material and tongue and groove pine planking. A demolition site at Queen and Soho Streets yielded a set of leaded windows that were eventually installed in the kitchen area of the community house. Madelyn found a set of latticework windows and a pair of French doors in the garbage. An entire staircase including rails and banisters were removed from a house on McCaul Street and stored in wooden boxes for future use. The building at 33 Baldwin Street filled with antique furniture including a dentist’s chair that still had extracted teeth lodged in folds in the upholstery. Many of the antique furniture and material were sold or incorporated into the buildings on the Ragnarokr farm. (insert link to “Floor plan of the community house, upstairs”, file 6.8) (insert link to “Floor plan of the community house, basement”, file 6.9)

In the spring of 1971 George purchased a 1939-model Ford 9N tractor from a gardener in Mississauga. In June the leather shop rented a 6-ton truck to haul the tractor and the pile of building materials to the new property. The truck was rented late in the day and a crew worked until midnight loading the tractor and the lumber into it. That morning Philip, Mary and Randy drove the truck to the building site in Machar Township where George and Madelyn were already camped out. The truck arrived at Machar Township shortly after dawn and took all day to unload. While unloading the tractor at a dirt ramp near the stone school house at the top of the hill, the German couple who lived in a cabin on Lot 21 came over and informed the group from Ragnarokr that the property they had bought was in a valley and was a “frost pocket”. The group from Toronto agreed that was undeniable true so christened the property “Frostpocket”. That evening Mary and Madelyn drove the truck back to Toronto and returned it to the rental agency. The huge truck had ten forward gears and Madelyn could barely touch its pedals. When she and Mary stopped to purchase gas a group of men standing nearby burst into applause at the sight of Madelyn descending from the driver’s seat of the truck. George, Philip and Randy stayed behind at Frostpocket and began digging the basement of the community house. Tom Bonanno, then a student at the University of Western Ontario, soon joined them and “spent a week laying block while studying Shakespeare and fighting off mosquitoes and black flies”. Jeff Mullins hitchhiked from Florida in July and he too joined the construction crew.

In February 1970 Ragnarokr had purchased a 1964 Volkswagen van for $150 in order to move its equipment back to Toronto from the rented hotel at Nepthon. This van was the shop’s principal means of transportation for over a year. In July 1971 Jeff and Philip were hauling a load of windows from Toronto when the van’s transmission failed near Huntsville. They parked the van at a service station and hitchhiked back to Toronto. As luck would have it, the leather shop had received an invitation to sell leather goods at the first Mariposa Folk Festival to be held on Toronto Island. The leather workers from the Ragnarokr store built a little shelter near the festival stage and stocked it with Ragnarokr’s leather goods. In less than a week the booth made sales of about $800. The group decided that the best use of the money was to purchase another van to replace the old VW van. The mechanics of the group, George and Jeff and their advisors, went to a Volkswagen dealer with the intention of buying another Volkswagen. However the dealer had a used Dodge van on his lot that someone had traded in. Compared to the VW vans on sale, the Dodge was huge and the price was right. The men purchased the Dodge instead. On the next trip to Frostpocket, the 1964 Volkswagen van was towed to the Frostpocket where it remains.

In August Carol Huebner and Colleen Anderson drove from California to visit friends in Toronto. Carol worked in the leather shop from October 1969 until June of the following year and had visited Ragnarokr several times before that. Colleen was among the first persons to move into the house at 224 McCaul Street after the Yellow Ford Truck family rented the building in July 1968. Carol and Colleen had both moved to California in June 1970. Both were known and well-liked by the Baldwin Street community. The two women and Colleen’s infant son, Seth, stayed with friends in Toronto and then visited the building site at Frostpocket. As it happened, George and Madelyn were in the process of splitting up as a couple and George and Colleen were attracted to each other. This caused quite a stir and hurt Madelyn deeply. George and Colleen left the leather shop and stayed with the Whole Earth commune in north Toronto for a month. In October George and Colleen left for California where Colleen had taken a leave of absence from her job. After George left, Jeff, Philip and Madelyn continued to work on the building at the farm while Mary, Randy and Steve Spring managed the leather shop in Toronto.

In September George Mullins Junior and his wife Hazel arrived for their fourth annual visit to their sons in Canada. As usual they came prepared to camp out. They set up their tents next to the horse shed and they both began to help on the building project. That fall a constantly changing crew worked on the building. In addition to the five of the Mullins family, Dave Humphries, Tom Bonanno, Frank Tettemer, Madelyn, Randy, Mary and two friends of Mary’s son Tim from Georgia, helped with the work. George Junior had professional experience as a house builder and he took charge of the details. By the time he arrived the exterior walls of the main floor were already in place. Cedar and fir poles had already been carried from the swamp, squared off on the ends and used as ceiling beams. The old pine tongue and groove planking was laid across 2x4s that spanned the space between the log beams. Junior helped build the top floor and the roof. He, his two sons and Madelyn finished off the roof and wrapped the entire building in 30-pound roofing felt. By the time Junior and Hazel left for Louisiana the building was weather-tight and rain-proof.

The basement walls of the community house were constructed of concrete block. The basement walls were twelve feet in height to accommodate a workshop in the basement. The exterior walls were framed in 2x4s, nailed together on the floor and tilted up in the usual way. Fir poles were used as beams to support the kitchen floor and cedar poles to support the bedroom floor. Tree trunks were used as floor beams because the lumber salvaged from Toronto did not include the 2x12s that would have been necessary to span the full width of the house. There were no 2x12s because lumber of that size could not be safely carried on the roof of the VW beetle. The roof of the building was designed with that limitation in mind and the builders had enough 2x6 lumber to frame a mansard or Queen Ann-style roof. There was enough planking to build the first and second floors and to cover the exterior walls. However, the supply of planking ran out before the roof was finished. A quantity of rough-cut hemlock planking had to be purchased from a mill in South River to finish the roof. The entire building was built without power tools and without hired labor. The walls of the building were put together largely with used nails that Mary straightened out one-by-one. As a result not enough nails were used and Junior pronounced that the building “wobbly”. He installed braces in all four corners of the first floor and insisted that nails be purchased to stiffen the building.

The sandy dirt had not been completely removed from the basement before the footings for the basement walls were poured and the walls built. This left a mound of dirt in the basement. George had found an old scoop of the kind that was used to build roads during the horse and buggy days. This, and a blade mounted on the Ford tractor, was used to remove some of the dirt but in the end Junior shoveled most of it out in the early morning and late in the evenings where the rest of the crew were resting. He threw the dirt out the basement windows. In October an electrician who was a friend of the leather shop wired the house for electricity. Philip began negotiating with Ontario Hydro to get the pole line extended to the community house but five years passed before electricity was brought to the property. In 1971 $1,287.45 was spent on the building of which $237.17 was for electrical wiring. The building that was constructed in 1971 was only half of the building Philip had designed. He assumed that the entire group would live together, at least initially, in the community’s only residence. The basement and the west walls of both floors had openings for doors to accommodate the second phase of construction.

Junior and Hazel stayed for about three weeks. After they left the construction stopped for the year. Jeff tried to revive the old van. He bought a used transmission in Toronto but it did not match the original transmission. He finally left without the van and hitchhiked back to Pensacola, Florida where he lived. The Ragnarokr crew moved back to Toronto to concentrate on making leather goods. The leather shop always began to prepare for the Christmas season early in the fall because the Christmas gift trade accounted for about a third of Ragnarokr’s annual sales. Philip and Mary drove to Ottawa in early December to sell leather products at a Christmas Craftsman’s Market sponsored by the Canadian Craftsman’s Association. Ragnarokr was also represented at the Toronto Fall Gift Show by the wholesale vending program of the Ontario Craft Foundation. The Gift Show always resulted in a number of wholesale orders that had to be filled by the end of November.

The Community House: Recruiting new settlers

By the winter of 1971 Steve Spring, Randy Rauton, Mary Rauton and Philip Mullins had been living and working together for almost three years. They had founded the leather shop and stayed united throughout the turmoil that followed. In the first year of the leather shop’s existence an “open-door” policy welcomed anyone to join the commune as long as there was room at the workbench. The result was an unstable and rapidly changing work force. The four founders had managed that chaotic situation as best they could without betraying their communalist ideals. Steve, Randy, Mary and Philip had also closed ranks in their commitment to participate in the “back to the land” movement despite ridicule and opposition from many of the Baldwin Street community and many in the leather shop. They decided on and stuck with a business plan that allowed them to save enough money to purchase the Frostpocket and they continued to build the community house even after George left for California. With the help of Sheila Street, Simone Bulger, Morley Yan, Mary Burdick and Sonya Cunningham in Toronto and Jeff and George Mullins, Madelyn, Junior and Hazel Mullins, Dave Humphries, Tom Bonanno, Frank Tettemer and others at the Frostpocket, they had managed to grow the business in Toronto while working on the building at the community’s farm.

After the purchase of the Frostpocket, the interests of the founding members of the co-operative began to diverge. In December 1971 Steve Spring and Simone Bulge were married. Their first child, Emily, was born in February 1972. By then Steve had left the Ragnarokr co-operative and was working out of his apartment under the name of “Leather Arts by Spring”. Two years later he returned to help run the leather shop but he always kept his business dealings separate from those of the co-operative. Steve took his turn running the retail shop and did his share of the administrative and clerking duties but he purchased his own supplies and sold his leatherwork on consignment. He was not part of the construction crew at the Frostpocket and rarely visited the community's farm. He never sold or gave up his share in the property even though he declined an offer to purchase Skip’s cabin in 1974.

Randy Rauton, who was a teenager in 1971, had little interest in living in the woods of rural Machar Township. His primary interests were working in the leather shop, studying classical guitar and learning European languages. He was often left in charge of the business while the adults busied themselves elsewhere. Even though he was about ten years younger than his co-workers his age was almost never important and rarely a consideration in his role in the leather shop. He assumed the same duties as the adults. He worked on the construction crew during the summer of 1971 but rarely visited Frostpocket thereafter until the fall of 1973. In 1973 he and Philip erected the frame of a small two-story cottage that Randy eventually finished.

Madelyn Averitte continued to work in the leather shop after George’s departure but she soon decided to continue her career as an artist. She chose Greg Sperry to sit as her model and over the next few years produced dozens of drawings of him. In the spring of 1971 Madelyn left Toronto to visit her parents in Miami. When she returned in August, she, Tom Bonanno and Ginny Turcotte moved to Montreal where they rented a storefront on Crescent Street and opened a leather shop called Pickle Lake Leatherworks. In November 1970 she and Mary decided that they would not longer veto George’s return and Philip wrote to invite George and Colleen to return. Madelyn sold her share in the Frostpocket in the fall of 1971.

After the departure of George and when it became evident that neither Randy nor Steve Spring were still committed to the "back-to-the-land" project, Philip and Mary opened up the property to settlers who were not part of the Ragnarokr co-operative. Philip invited Greg Sperry, Don and Judy Holman, Tom Bonanno and Chris Risk to build cottages at Frostpocket. Only Chris Risk accepted the offer. Chris was a Canadian who had grown up in southern Ontario.

In September 1971 John Anderson was voted out of the Whole Earth commune and paid several thousand dollars for his share of the Whole Earth Natural Food Store on McCaul Street. He used that money to purchase clothing in Mexico that he sold on the street and at Rochdale College on Bloor Street. He soon opened a clothing store at 31 Baldwin Street. He initially called the store “Ooshke Noodin” but later changed it to Morningstar Trading Company. He hired a carpenter named Skip O’Dell to build an intricate “barn board” interior for his new store. This store was next door to the leather shop and in January 1972 Skip and his wife Judy began to consign items to the leather shop. He and Judy had been members of the Whole Earth commune. They too were invited to build at the Frostpocket and they also accepted the offer.

When George went to California with Colleen he had not intended to leave Ragnarokr permanently or to abandon his intention to build a homestead at the Frostpocket. He drew up the plans for the house he expected to build at the Frostpocket while he was in California. In February 1972 he, Colleen and Seth returned from California by way of his parent’s home in Louisiana. Once he was back in Toronto, he resumed his work at the leather shop and Colleen found a job at a publishing house doing lay-up and paste-up. They shared an apartment at College and Henry Streets with Janice Spellerberg until they found their own place. By early spring, Chris Risk, Skip O’Dell and George were all cutting and peeling logs for their own houses at the Frostpocket.

The narrative continues at The building boom of 1972

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