The Leather Shop’s open door, August 1969-February 1970

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By the fall of 1969 the Ragnarokr leather shop had outgrown its living quarters at 11 Baldwin Street. Although the most obvious solution would have been to find larger quarters in downtown Toronto, the commune decided to look further afield. In February a landowner from near the village of Killaloe in Renfrew County, Ontario met with about twenty people at 224 McCaul Street to discuss the hippie “back-to-the-land movement”. He offered his property as a temporary place to stay and described the many abandoned farms available for purchase in Renfrew County. Several people from the Baldwin Street community moved to his property (Doyle’s Mountain) and later purchased property of their own in the rural area around Killaloe.

The Ragnarokr commune decided to explore a similar option by renting property in a rural location. Coincidently some friends told them about a large hotel about 150 km from Toronto that was for rent. In August Mary contacted the owner and rented the hotel on the northeast shore of Stoney Lake in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. Between August 1969 and February 1970 members of the Ragnarokr commune rotated between the leather shop in Toronto and the old 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 clothing store in the nearby city of Peterborough and in the leather shop in Toronto.

In September the leather shop rented a booth in the Automotive Building at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), a huge agricultural fair on the lakeshore in Toronto. The sales at the booth at the CNE were very encouraging. Later that month Ragnarokr exhibited several items with the Ontario Craft Foundation at the Christmas Gift Show in Toronto. The leather shop received $600 in wholesale orders from the gift show, which was also considered a success. Ragnarokr continued to exhibit with the Ontario Craft Foundation for several years and built a small wholesale trade with retail stores throughout Ontario.

In the fall of 1969 Ragnarokr employed eight craftspeople. 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 members of the commune met at the hotel to review the progress of the experiment. Frank and Marita Tettemer, both now attending college, joined them for the Thanksgiving school holiday. Within weeks Tom Bonanno, Barry and Sue Woolaver, Dave Woodward and Carol Huebner left the leather shop to return to school or to pursue other interests.

Three new people, Wayne Myers, Helen Gilbert and Judy Wapp, began working in the leather shop in Toronto. When Randy left for Stoney Lake in October to take his turn at the hotel, Helen and Wayne moved into his room on the second floor and Helen began working in the leather shop. Soon Judy Wapp was also working in the leather shop. Steve Spring was left in charge of the business. 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 December two factions had emerged in the leather shop. Those in Toronto refused to provide funds and supplies to those living at the hotel on Stoney Lake. In response, the group at the hotel developed a market for their leather goods in the nearby city of Peterborough. 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 at Stoney Lake.

Although the dispute was about money, the discussion revolved around different visions of the coming “revolution” and its relationship to the “back-to-the land movement”. The two factions had different priorities. Wayne’s faction wanted to focus 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 outcome of the discussion was that each faction agreed to pursue its own goals without compromising those of the other.

In January 1970 Steve Spring, Mary Rauton, Philip Mullins (with help from Carol Huebner) began to draft a proposal for a rural crafts community as an alternative to urban capitalism. They agreed to seek backers and possibly land from the Ontario Government. They hoped to get backing from the Government of Ontario by presenting the project as an educational opportunity for troubled urban youth. Upon their return to Toronto in January, Philip and Mary began a series of weekly meetings at the leather shop at 11 Baldwin Street to discuss their crafts-school proposal. Among those participating in the discussions were Chuck Wall, Lisa Steele, Frank and Marita Tettemer, Steve and Mary Burdick, Carol Huebner, Ed Street, Judy Wapp, Philip Mullins, Mary Rauton, Don Holman, David “Red” Anderson and Jeff Samuels. Carol Huebner returned to the leather shop while she wrote her senior thesis on the design of an alternative school. It soon became obvious that the majority of the Baldwin Street community would not support the idea of a rural-based alternative school and that the staff of Ragnarokr would have to proceed on their own. Without the backing of the Baldwin Street community, the group decided to scale the project back and plans for a school were dropped. They hoped to create a small village centered around a manufacturing facility that would export its products to urban markets.

The conflict with Judy Wapp, Wayne Myers and Helen Gilbert diminished after their project, a co-operative grocery store located on the corner of Henry and Baldwin Streets, failed to materialize. During this time Helen’s collie dog came into heat and attracted an immense following of male dogs. The pack of dogs lounged around the shop entrance, waiting for the collie bitch to emerge. The residents of 11 Baldwin Street fed and cared for Helen’s dog but eventually Philip called the Humane Society and the dog was taken away. The City dogcatchers also nabbed three of the dog’s suitors that were hanging around the front door of the leather shop. It is not until weeks later that Helen, who rarely came to work, realized that her dog was gone.

Ragnarokr decided to regroup in Toronto following the factional conflict and the failure of the craft-school idea. The lease on the hotel at Nepthon was dropped and the shop purchased a 1964 Volkswagon van for $150 to move its equipment back to Toronto. After an examination of the books, the shop’s founders realized that they needed to change their business model as well. The shop’s bank account was empty. The four principals (Mary and Randy Rauton, Phil Mullins and Steve Spring) added some co-operative features to the communal arrangement. The change was designed to encourage increased production by paying each craftsman based upon his or her output of saleable leather goods. In the past every one produced leather goods for sale in the shop and helped run the store. In return everyone received rent and food money and a little pocket change. No individual accounts were kept. Under the new arrangement the commune provided all materials and supplies as well as tools and a workspace and craftsman were paid a percentage of the value of his or her production. Administrative and clerking duties continued to rotate among all the workers as before. This ended the leather shop’s experiment with communism.

Ragnarokr’s new arrangement resulted in the virtual expulsion of Helen Gilbert. She could not come to work on a regular basis and was now living with Dave Zimmerman at 17 Baldwin Street. She angrily demanded that she be given a sewing machine so she could “work at home”. To enforce her demand she sent four men, including Wayne Myers, Doug Wapp and Dave Zimmerman, to get the machine. Philip gave her a sail-maker’s stitching machine that had been donated to the leather shop a short time before.

The narrative continues at The Back-to-the-land Movement, February 1970-September 1970

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