Monthly archive

January 2019

Dirk van Loon

Dirk van Loon

Dirk van Loon of East Port L’Hebert didn’t know what the heck he was getting into when in the mid-1970s he came up with the idea for “a classified ad exchange for old farm and country kitchen stuff.” Even from the start, when the first edition of Rural Delivery was published and sent out into the world in June 1976, it was much more than a classified ad exchange. At just eight pages, including the front and back covers, “Numero Uno” included an introduction by way of an editorial, an article on buying piglets, garden notes, thumbnail reviews of how-to books that didn’t pull any punches, several of Dirk’s distinctive illustrations and more. All for 35 cents.

Almost 43 years later, Rural Delivery is glossier and bulkier, but it’s a publication that has remained true to its roots and continues to be enjoyed 10 times a year by thousands of readers across rural Atlantic Canada and beyond. Legions of freelancers and regular columnists such as Frank Macdonald, Anne Gray and Fred Isenor have ensured its pages have been filled with practical, entertaining and thought-provoking content. DvL Publishing of Liverpool N.S. eventually launched other magazines, such as Atlantic Forestry Review, Atlantic Horse & Pony and Beef & Sheep.

A couple of years ago, at the age of 78, Dirk announced that he’d sold the business to longtime employee Chassity Allison. However, he remains on the Rural Delivery masthead as “publisher emeritus,” and continues to contribute his Pot Luck editorial and delightful drawings to the magazine.

Dirk did a lot of living before he started Rural Delivery at the age of 38. He recounts the early days in his family’s Vermont orchard before it was “hammered” by a hailstorm, memories of his famous grandfather, a rocky college career, an eye-opening stint in the Peace Corps in Colombia that ended badly, getting into the newspaper business in Missouri and Colorado, and writing a children’s book that he jokes “sold 10 copies.” And that was all before he drifted to Nova Scotia’s South Shore in 1969.

He later wrote The Family Cow, which he refers to as “the cow book,” and Small-Scale Pig Raising, which he calls “the pig book.” Nowadays, among other things, he’s active helping out at the nearby Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre, which he helped establish in 2007.

If you want to learn more about Dirk, you could do worse than read his Pot Luck editorials. Or sit down and talk to him. He’s someone not afraid to call “bullshit” when he sees it, all the time with a twinkle in his eye.

(Is it Vermont you’re from originally?) Both Connecticut and Vermont. I like to say that my parents were sort of part of the 1930s back-to-the-land movement. Back at a time when Scott and Helen Nearing went to Vermont. The Nearings, they wrote a book—several books—but one book that really captured the imagination of lots of people in the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s. That was Living the Good Life. He was a professor, I think of economics. I’m not sure that Helen was his student or what. She was quite a bit younger. There were a hell of a lot of people at that time (1930s) interested in returning to looking after yourself with gardening and all.

Anyway, it was all this back-to-the-land stuff and I think my parents were part of it. They had gotten quite a large apple orchard in southern Vermont and they raised apples for 15 years. And then World War II came along. My father went off to take part in that. My mother ran the orchard. It was an old orchard and I was told that it probably needed rejuvenation. But anyway, there was a hailstorm just at a very critical time of year which hammered the orchard and put it back in debt. So she sold it.

(What year would that have been?) Something around ’45. (Your father, would he still have been away?) He was still away. You’d hear so many times, ‘Oh, I think your mother did the right thing. Well, Janet did the right thing.’ He said it so often about selling the place that I think he was trying to convince himself.

Dirk as a toddler.

(What were their names?) Hank and Janet. Anyway, my father really was interested in the whole thing about looking after himself. His father couldn’t do a damn thing for himself, but he was a writer and he was all over the world—all over hell and gone—writing. My father and his brother were sort of put off here and there. His father was married three times. (Dirk laughs). So Dad had a kind of a crazy, tumultuous childhood. And he was put away to boarding school for high school, and he met one of the teachers there who taught manual arts of different sorts. They had a blacksmith’s shop and stuff like that. He took to my father and my father took to him. That’s how Dad got introduced to Vermont. He could do everything for himself—leatherwork, carpentry, design work, pomology … fruit culture. He just picked up all that stuff and loved it. But it all came to nought when the hailstorm struck.

(He went to boarding school in Vermont?) He went to Deerfield in Massachusetts, a boarding school very different from what it is today. It was there that he picked up all kinds of abilities to work with his hands. Came vacation time, this teacher would take him off to Vermont because there was no going back home because there was nobody home. So he would go to Vermont with this teacher.

And I was saying, it was this back-to-the-land thing in the ’30s. I think it happens about every generation. It goes through a period of kind of looking back and trying to figure out where you’re coming from and where you’re going.

Dad grew up in Connecticut mostly, but lots of places. My mother was from New York. (What was her last name?) Hall. (Janet?) Yes, and Hank or Henry. Henry van Loon.

(And his father—your grandfather—was a well-known writer?) Yeah. (What did he write?) He made a big splash for himself with a book called The Story of Mankind, which he wrote and illustrated. It made a big hit and became a best-seller. And you know, if you get your name out there and have one really popular title, then it just went on. He published that in about 1920 and he died in the early ’40s. He had essentially a 20-year hellish (good) career—published well over 30 books.

(Do you remember him?) Just a little bit. I was born in ’38. (Can you say what kind of personality he was?) Oh, he was bigger than life. He was a big, big presence in my family. I think it was awful hard for my Dad and his brother to grow up under that man. It’s got to be tough. We hear those stories of how tough it can be. I think my father always hoped that he might make a hit with some of his writing, but he never did. He should have stuck to farming. No, stuck to all the things he was so good at that my grandfather couldn’t do for a damn. My grandfather, he came over from the Netherlands in the turn of the last century and went to college here. Went to Cornell. He was the only reason I got into Cornell—because my marks weren’t that super.

Dirk’s grandfather, Hendrik Willem van Loon, was a famous writer in his day.

(Would he have been fairly wealthy?) Yeah, I think. Comfortable, anyway. The story I got was he made lots of money and he spent lots of money. He made a good living but he never put much aside or accumulated anything. And then he died at age 62. But he lived well, he lived hard, he lived fast. Big man—6-3 or something, 300 pounds at one point. And very outgoing, really good at promotion, self-promotion. My father was very, very different. Dad couldn’t promote himself if he had to. He went the other extreme.

(And you say he was married three times. Was he divorced? Or his wives died?) Christ no, he didn’t kill them, no! (Dirk laughs). No, he was divorced. Divorced the mother of his two children. She went out to Reno, Nevada to get a divorce because it was back when it wasn’t so easy. Then he married another woman, and when that marriage was on the rocks, my father took her out to Reno because he knew the territory. So then he would marry a third time to a woman—an actress—and that marriage lasted not very long at all. Very, very short thing. And then he ended up living the remainder of his life with his second wife. They got back together. (It was your father that took her to Nevada?) Yeah. Escorted her. That’s another family story.

(When your father was in the War, where was he?) England. He didn’t see action, you would say. My grandfather did. He was on a boat that got torpedoed out from under him. He was a war correspondent for Associated Press. This is before he had his success writing histories and geographies. (And do you know where that was, where he was torpedoed?) Off the English Channel. I can’t remember where.

(Dirk shows a biography about his grandfather by Cornelis van Minnen titled Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant). My mother probably got to know Eleanor Roosevelt better than my grandfather got to know FDR because Mom got on really well with Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, they stayed at the White House a few times.

Hendrik was one who really wanted the U.S. to get involved in the War. His hometown, Rotterdam, had been flattened by the Nazis. And so he was one of those who was really anxious to see the U.S. assist the Allies. And he’d broadcast by shortwave into the Netherlands as Oom Henk (Uncle Hank) encouraging messages to the folks back home. So anyway, he had a great run.

Pages from a Christmas book that Hendrik van Loon wrote and illustrated. Dirk and his brothers were the models for the three boys in this picture. Dirk’s the one wearing the “hoodie.”

I know my father really had hoped to move to Vermont, live in Vermont. But then the War came, the hailstorm came, Grandfather died. And I think Grandfather was probably a great help financially when it came to buying an orchard in Vermont and getting started and all these things. So that period of the early ’40s was dramatic for them. They had three kids, Opa dies, the orchard gets hammered, he came back from the War. But he had a degree in architecture and so he just put aside all the ideas about farming and raising apples, and went to work for various corporations in New York.

(When the family had the orchard in Vermont, were you living in Vermont?) Well, in my memory, by the time I came along, it was back and forth. We would be in Vermont part of the year and back living somewhere in Connecticut. By the time the War broke out, I think the idea of living full-time in Vermont had taken a back seat.

(Do you remember the orchard?) Oh yeah, oh yeah. I have not a hell of a lot of memories. But I certainly remember—probably happened the one time but it made such a mark—riding in an apple box in the grading shed, where they were grading apples, and they would have these long conveyor belts on all the little wheels, you know. There’d be boxes of apples going down, and they’d plop me in a box, keep me out of trouble. Memories like that. I remember places in the orchard, but that’s the only situation I really strongly remember.

I do remember—I think of him every year—one of the men who worked in the orchard. His name was Hud Carpenter. He came to the house where we lived, the farmhouse. It was right next to the orchard, and we had a big garden. My mother had a garden and Hud came out to help plant, set poles for beans. And I was just so amazed at how high Hud could take that crowbar and he could strike that hole in the same place—that heavy old bar—and drive it, make a hole. And every time I pick up a crowbar, I think, ‘There’s Hud Carpenter.’

It’s a funny thing—I’ve gone on about this probably in Pot Luck—but when I go gardening especially, there are other people with me who taught me this, that and the other thing. Two or three or four people. There was one neighbour, George Heinrich, who used to use an old wooden hay rake for the final grading of his garden. No raised beds for him. It was all going to be just beautiful flat. And that wooden hay rake—wide teeth and light—oh, you could just work that soil so nicely. (With the wooden teeth?) With the wooden teeth. And it’s nice and big and long and wide and light so you can reach way out. But it just tickled the ground. So that fellow’s always there gardening with me.

Dirk as a young boy at the controls of the family orchard’s Cletrac.

(And there was four in your family?) Yeah. There were three boys born within five years. There was my oldest brother Piet, and then the second one was Jan, and then Dirk. You see my grandfather’s influence. And then after the War, my sister was born, seven years after me. And she was given the name of Jane.

(Do you know what year Piet was born?) I was born November 3rd ’38, he was born November 3rd five years earlier. Same day. My other brother Jan was born three years prior, and he was born November 1. We laughed and called in planned parenthood.

(You wouldn’t have seen your father for the whole War?) No. And then he practised architecture some, but he also did economic studies. He worked for a company doing economic studies and would go out and do the consulting work. So he worked in Hawaii, he worked in Minnesota, he worked here, there. So he was away quite a bit. He was away during the War, then he was away on these other projects. But when he was home, he was always fixing something. There was no playing. I never remember him throwing a ball. That, no. When he was home, there was always something to build, something to fix, something to make, something to whatever. Always projects.

(Would you be involved in that?) I was somewhat, but I was probably the least. We had an old hay barn in Vermont. Hay barn blew down. Big wind storm. Well, Dad decided they’re gonna save the timbers, save the boards. Stack it properly and use the leftovers. I wanted to help—my brothers were helping—and I wanted to get involved. But Dad put me sitting on a beam, straightening nails. Jeez! Oh man, I think that coloured my thinking forever. That’s all I was good for, straightening nails. Can you imagine that? Oh Lord. Which I probably did for a day and then that was it.

My next older brother was not a finish carpenter but certainly a carpenter builder—could build anything—and a mechanic. My oldest brother was somewhat of those things. I probably had the least going for me in those respects. And I blame it all on that straightening nails episode!

(Did you have certain interests?) I always liked animals and the woods and the country more than the towns or cities. I had a pet robin once, I had a pet barn swallow, I had pet squirrels, I had a pet skunk. These were always important. I didn’t like cities. There was another thing that was coloured. My mother was from Manhattan. And we lived only in Connecticut. We were only an hour outside of Manhattan. It’s funny how I live an hour from Bridgewater, I’ll think nothing of popping up to Bridgewater. Back then, it was a big deal to go to the city. It was also a big deal to go to New York City because when we went my mother just wanted to shine us up. Oh my God, you had to clean everything. You were cleaned and brushed and you’d feel so damn awkward and out of place. So I never cared much for it. And also there’s the smells of things, the stink of things. There’s something metallic in the air, to my mind, in the big cities. Didn’t care for it.

Dirk’s mother introduced him to the natural world.

So we lived out in various towns outside of the city. We moved a lot, oh God, we moved a lot, right up until ’46 or ’47. Dad came home from the War and he designed and had a house built. And there we settled down for a number of years. But prior to that, we moved. One of my brothers made a list of the places we lived. Crazy, crazy business.

(Why was that do you think?) I think in part because some of those might have been the War years. It was an unsettled time. We lived in four different houses in Vermont, and I remember four in Connecticut. There were a couple of others that my brothers knew about. There wasn’t much money, so oftentimes we were staying where someone would give my parents a place inexpensively to live. Just as I think about it, I can think of two places in Connecticut that were probably provided just about rent-free if not rent-free. Same thing in one of the places we lived in in Vermont, but it was one of my favourite places. We called it the Little Red House—and it was a little red house—and it was right on a brook where my brother Jan and I played. And I remember we moved from there in November, not more than a mile, two miles. But we moved by horse team and sleigh, a freight sleigh maybe. We’d had a snowstorm and there wasn’t much moving in the way of cars, trucks, whatever. So a fella came with a team, Siley Streeter, who worked for my parents in the orchard. I remember piling onto that and going. I just have the vaguest memory of that.

They just didn’t have much money. We weren’t poor but there wasn’t much money around. And, actually, my father oftentimes dipped into royalties from my grandfather’s books. When Dad died, we were looking through some of the correspondence and there were a lot of letters that would go to the publishing house and ask if it wasn’t possible to scare up a little of that royalty money that was accumulating. Dad had good jobs but he had three kids and I think Mom expected … it was kind of an odd situation. Odd situation because I think sometimes they were better off than other times. So it’s hard to tell.

Dirk, in the “hoodie,” and his brother Jan playing in the brook behind the Little Red House in Dorset, Vermont. Jan is crushing wild cucumber pods with a slab of marble.

(You say your mother knew Eleanor Roosevelt?) Yes. (Were they from similar circles?) No, just when my grandfather got to know FDR. That’s when they had the apple orchard. And my mother, I remember her sending a box of apples—like coals to Newcastle—to Princess Juliana (of the Netherlands) in Ottawa. But Mom was an interesting person and just hit it off with Eleanor.

(Now, you went to Cornell right out of high school?) Yeah, unfortunately. Wasted everybody’s time. (Is that right?) Oh Christ, yes.

(What was the plan?) The big idea was that I’d liked biology when I was in high school—I really loved biology—so the notion was that maybe medicine was my future. My great-grandfather (Henry Pickering Bowditch) was a physician and had a good run. He became the dean of the medical school at Harvard, and so I think my mother always thought that that may be nice if one of her boys would become a doctor.

Well, I went off to Cornell and took my first zoology course and it was a disaster. I didn’t like Cornell. Cornell was the wrong place. I should have gone to a teaching college. It was big. It was about the size of Dalhousie now. I’ve talked to students here at Dalhousie and I think the same situation happens. In fact, it’s worse now. You’ll have these professors who really only teach because they have to take a little bit of a teaching role. They really want to do their research. And I really hit it wrong, too, because there were two professors that alternated on the Zoology 101. One was a very interesting fellow and the other was a grey, dull individual who wanted to study starfish and echinoderms of different sorts, and wrote the textbook. Oh man, he was a drag. I did OK in zoology, but it was really a disappointment.

The whole experience was not so great. Stayed off-campus initially. Because my grandfather taught there. He went there to Cornell, then he went to Harvard. And after he got a PhD in Germany, then he came back and he got a job teaching at Cornell. So my father was there at Cornell in his early teens. And he had a best friend. And when it came time that I got into Cornell, it would be really good if I could stay at this professor’s home and look after the professor’s wife, actually, because the professor was in a nursing home by then—the friend of my father’s, the kid he’d grown up with. So I lived off-campus in a little room in the professor’s house, looked after his wife and daughter. Shovelling snow and driving her here and there, and just be there to look after her.

Dirk made a barrel of hard cider and distilled off some applejack with the help of some other students.

(You would have been working toward a science degree?) Yeah, a general science degree. I just wasn’t going anywhere. I could not handle mathematics. Whenever I came up against math—anything that had to do with math—it was a disaster. Oh God, it was awful. So physics was a beast.

Funny though, I finally did get through physics my second year because (of) a real hotshot professor—a nuclear physicist—who ordinarily never saw the undergraduates. He was the kind of guy who would be teaching graduate seminars. He had been at Los Alamos (birthplace of the atomic bomb), part of that group. And he looked around and he said, ‘There’s too many of these arts and science students who are flunking physics. Something’s wrong here.’ So he started a course. He wrote the whole damn course—Physics for Non-Scientists—and I happened to be there on the ground floor when he started that. And I was prime target because I think I’d flunked physics twice. Boy, that was a hell of a course. That was amazing. That man was brilliant and interesting. He’d teach us about levers by having us make mobiles. And he just taught you in various ways that was just exciting and interesting and fascinating.

(Do you remember his name?) Oh yeah. Philip Morrison. He went to MIT after he left Cornell. He had had polio as child and he had a bad curvature of the spine. The closest I think I ever came to what I would call a Renaissance man. His intellect was just enormous. His range of interest and curiosity was wonderful.

Philip Morrison teaching at Cornell in 1963.

(That’s while you were still in the general science and arts?) I was still there, yeah. I hadn’t left for the Ag College at that point. I took a battery of tests to try to figure out where the hell I belonged in the whole educational system. And I came out a farmer.

(How old would you have been when you took that test and it said you should be a farmer?) Roughly 20. And I called my parents. They were anxious to hear what the outcome was when I got the results back. Because this was quite a battery. It wasn’t a one-day thing. Essentially, it just sort of coupled all of your interests with various professions. Anyway, I called home and they had two phones at home. My mother answered, then my father got on the other phone. And I told them. Oh my goodness, it was so disappointing to my mother. And my father had to back her up. And I remember his comment: ‘Oh jeez, you don’t want to be pulling tits the rest of your life!’ (Laughter). Oh my God. It was just prejudice on their part. They had no idea of all the ramifications or all the ways you could be a farmer. Or all of where farming was going or could go. Anyway, my mother still had it in mind, I guess, she was going to have a physician for a son and it would be fun to tell all her friends.

So I did switch to the Ag College and enrolled in wildlife management. And at that time, it was still a requirement that if you didn’t come from a farm, you had to have so much experience working on farms. And that was pretty wonderful. I took a semester off immediately. I didn’t go back to college right away. Worked on a dairy farm in New York state, and then the next summer I worked on a dairy farm in Vermont. It didn’t matter if you were going into wildlife management, Cornell Ag required that background, which I think was a very good idea and was wonderful.

(How would you get jobs on these farms? Would that be through the university?) Yeah, the New York state one was. They were both through the university, but I guess I looked around for a farm in Vermont, and there was one not too far from the town that we lived in. I was able to get on there.

(Would they be still milking by hand?) No. The farm in New York state had a pipeline milker. And the farm in Vermont had cans. You milk with machines. You had to do a lot of hauling milk. They were dairies with 50, 60 milking cows. Fairly good-sized farms at that time.

(Was that your first experience working around cattle?) Well, working, yeah. We had this farm that adjoined the orchard that my dad bought and wanted to farm. That’s when the War frigged him up. But kept the farm and we used to go up there. All the pastures were rented out to dairy farms, and (they) made all the hay there. I remember the first year they brought John Deere tractors on to make hay, replacing horses. Horses were still there for raking hay and picking up loose hay because that was before balers. I didn’t see any balers at that early time.

Dirk, left, and his brothers Jan and Piet bonding with heifers on land his father rented to a neighbouring dairy farmer in Dorset, Vermont.

(They made it all loose, forked it by hand?) Well, you’d make up windrows with a dump rake or a side-delivery rake. And then you come along with a hay-loader—lift the hay—and then you stand on the back of a wagon and fork the hay around, make a load. But on the farms where I worked, they were all small square bales.

(Anything stand out about your time on those farms?) There were certain times. Oh yeah, had lots of good times on those farms. And hard work. I like hard work. I could not stand the idea of working out in a gym, lifting weights or any of that. No.

I had an opportunity when I was in high school to work in a medical research lab. They were doing cancer research. And because of a family connection, I was able to get on there at age 16, 17 maybe. Anyway, I worked there for maybe a month of the summer and I didn’t connect with it. I hated the idea that I was indoors, not getting any kind of physical exercise. I quit there and went to work for a lumberyard. (Laughter). What an opportunity. It was a hell of an opportunity working in that lab, I’m sure. I must have disappointed Mother a whole lot.

But on the farms … I’ve talked sometimes in my Pot Luck about the time we used to have to spread the manure every day. Back then, that was the practice if you could possibly get out there on the fields. So that was one of my jobs was to take the old International (tractor) and spread manure. The old International, you had to start it with a crank. And when it was cold, it just didn’t want to start. Oh God, you’d crank and crank and crank to get the goddamn thing going. It was not fun. So one night, it was going to go down really cold. I says, ‘Oh Jesus, I’ll never get it started in the morning.’ But there was an exhaust fan from the dairy barn that blew warm air. I said, ‘Smart me, I’ll park the tractor under there’. And when I came out in the morning, it looked like a glacier, cause it was all that moist air. It was warm and moist, and it hit that tractor and it was encased in ice. (Laughter).

And another time I remember … a bad experience. I was coming back from spreading manure one morning. And maybe I was driving a little too fast or something, but I excited the pigs. There was a pigsty, three pigs in there or so. As I came along and came right by the pigsty, the pigs went nuts. Well, every once in a while pigs go nuts. (Dirk squeals like a pig). I looked over. And if you look a direction, you’ve got to go a direction. I pulled the tractor over just enough and nicked—I don’t know what the hell I hit—maybe it was a piece of equipment or something with the rear tire, a loaded tire. Blew it. And the farmer was not happy with me. (That’s a big deal.) Was not good.

Another time, I came out one morning and the heifers had broke free from their corral. He had registered Ayrshires with beautiful horns, just before polled (non-horned) Ayrshires. Actually, the horns were a point of pride. Anyway, so the heifers got out. Ah, bastards. I don’t know if I was fixing a fence when they got out or what the hell it was, but I had a hammer in my hand. The heifers decided to go up the road and I tried to run and head them off and I couldn’t get there in time. And I just took the hammer and I flung it—to throw it in front of the heifers and maybe turn them. I didn’t know. And damned if it didn’t hit the driveway, flipped up and caught the lead heifer in the mouth. Well here’s this prize heifer bleeding. Oh no. Fortunately, it didn’t bleed for long and nobody had noticed it. But oh my God, that scared hell out of me.

(So you would have went to the agricultural college how many years?) I was there two and a half years. (What did that give you?) It was a BSc. But I never went to work in it. (In the wildlife management?) Yeah. I worked the summers. I worked for the Wildlife Service at Patuxent Refuge down outside of Washington, D.C. I worked there one summer but I didn’t find that much fun. I found a whole lot of people who were not happy with their work. They were just doing the job. They couldn’t wait until lunch hour—they could drop whatever they were doing, pick up their butterfly net and go do what they wanted to do.

Banding blackbirds at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge near Washington, D.C.

Some few people really had a job that they loved. It was the star performers, you know. But a lot of people weren’t happy with it. And the project that I was working on had been going for about six or seven years, studying blackbirds—grackles and starlings and cow birds and the whole bunch—trying to learn as much as they could about the life history of these birds so that they could control them. Because they were devastating crops in some places, flocks of blackbirds were.

The interesting thing to me was that most of the people working on the project didn’t give a damn about the blackbird project. It was just a job. The other thing was that Congress—or somebody—decided to cut the funding at a point. They were just at a point where they really might understand enough about the blackbird to do some kind of meaningful control, you might say, and they just cut funding. So that was a lesson: the government can pull the rug from under you anytime. It’s like the Harper government. I mean, look at all the projects that were just totally undercut. Look at the Avro Arrow. Look at all the things government does. Get into something and then somebody changes their mind.

(Did you take from that to avoid working for the government?) I’m sure that stuck in my mind. But the main thing that happened was just before I was to graduate, we had what was called the Berlin Crisis (in 1961). The Soviets cut the access to Berlin. So the U.S. and Britain and France put on an airlift. This was known as the Berlin Crisis in the Cold War. And I was called up for the draft and had to go for a physical. But I was still in college. So fine, I went for my physical, continued on in college fully expecting then as soon as I graduated in June I’d be into the army. But by that time the crisis was over and I was not called up. Had I not been expecting to go in the army, would I have made an effort to get a job in wildlife management somewhere? Maybe I would. But I wasn’t thrilled by wildlife management or about government work.

(What year did you graduate?) Sixty-two. I should have graduated in ’61 but I delayed there because of going to work on farms, took some extra time. So I didn’t go to war. Nobody went to war at that time. And I went to work in the Yale medical school in research. It was a research laboratory where they were essentially mapping the brain of cats. I worked there for I forget how long, and then from there went into the Peace Corps.

(Can you explain that? I guess I have a general sense of what the Peace Corps is.) Well it was started by Kennedy—in the Kennedy years—and Kennedy caught the imagination of a lot of people. There was a famous line in his inaugural speech: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ An interesting saying. If you heard it from anybody else, you might say, ‘Oh screw off,’ you know. But it was that time and there was a lot of exciting people in the administration.

Sargent Shriver—Kennedy’s brother-in-law—took control of the Peace Corps. It was an exciting idea to go around the world and help people better their life, their lot. And so I was part of the second group to go to Colombia. It was an agricultural group going to help them grow more vegetables and raise rabbits and so on. It was a two-year stint ordinarily. You go to training. I went for training in Nebraska—University of Nebraska—and then went home for a week or 10 days prior to getting on a plane in New York and shipping off to Colombia.

During Peace Corps training in Lincoln, Nebraska.

And while I was home and doing my shopping, getting ready for my stint in Colombia—and buying workboots—the news came over the radio that Kennedy had been shot. You can imagine—that was quite something. And by the time I had got on that plane and left for Colombia, Oswald had been shot. That was quite something. For us, that was our 9-11 moment. I remember seeing on television—the little television—the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Anyway, I went off to Colombia and I was there for a year. I was there as a volunteer initially, like anybody else. How many volunteers there were, I don’t know. Colombia was a big project. There came an opportunity—they had something called volunteer leaders. From the volunteer ranks, they would take a volunteer in each state who would be designated the volunteer leader, who was sort of in a support role. I put in for that and I was accepted for that.

I moved into Popayan, in Cauca, Colombia from out in the country. And not long after I got that opportunity, there was a change amongst the staff at the paid staff level. We had regional directors, and (in) our region, the fellow brought in to be the regional director was somebody that I couldn’t abide and he couldn’t abide me. It wasn’t long before there was a regional meeting. And the director of Colombia—the overall director from Bogota—came to Cali where we had a meeting with the volunteer leaders from that region.

So, probably six to eight people sitting around a table. And the director, as I recall, started off the discussion. He wanted to hear around the table on how things are going. ‘Is everything going alright?’ And my boss (said), ‘Pretty well, with exception of … well (we’ve) got to get on the case of these two volunteers from such and such a place.’ Well, I’d been working with the volunteers and I thought they were doing OK. But I felt that there were another couple that really were screwing off. And if there were any volunteers in Cauca that might need a little bit of pull-up-their-shorts, get-their-act-together, it was this other couple.

Well, stupid me said right there in front of everybody, ‘Well, in fact, I think really the main problem is not that couple, it’s this other couple.’ So this regional director that I couldn’t abide—he couldn’t abide me—he just took that as the most insulting thing that had ever happened to him. I was contradicting him right in front of the boss. And I was so naive, I didn’t even realize. What a damn fool thing. Anybody who knows me would say, ‘Yeah, that’s Dirk’. Anyway, that was it. It was just downhill from there. So I left the Peace Corps after a little bit more than a year.

Neighbours extracting sugar cane juice using a horse-powered press which when fermented made their moonshine called guarapo.

(What was your impression of Colombia when you first went there?) Great disparity. I think it probably hasn’t changed a hell of a lot. Lots and lots of poor people, and a few wealthy people that really ran the show. When I was out in the country, one place we worked with a priest who was marvellous. He was a Swiss priest—missionary—living in the mountains in Colombia. He was a delightful man and was forever working to pry land out of the hands of the wealthy and get it into the hands of the peasants. He was always involved with housebuilding and just all kinds of good works. He was great.

I also saw another government example. My partner and I were housed in what had been a breeding farm. Some government prior to when we were there had decided that what they really needed out in the country was better genes. So they had this place where there was a boar and a ram, a stud and a bull. It was a breeding farm. So if you had some animal that needed breeding, here was some better-quality stock. By the time we got there, the place was shut down. What a shame. What a hell of a good program.

And then I found that our work was—in some respects—nuts. We were living in the Andes and we had been given lots and lots of instructions on how to raise rabbits. So you go over to the Andes and you had to teach them what a rabbit was. They didn’t know rabbits. It was a foreign idea to braise one, eat one. A lot of our time and training had been on how to not only raise rabbits but how to help people get used to the idea of eating rabbits. Well, we get up to the Andes and the protein source for them equivalent to the rabbit was the guinea pig. We were working with these peasants out there who had guinea pigs running around the kitchen. We could have done a better job of helping them raise more and fatter and quicker guinea pigs. We’d have been way ahead of the game. We spent our time teaching them how to raise rabbits. Well, bullshit. Their choice was guinea pigs. How bizarre. How could we be so arrogant? Amazing, amazing.

I’m still in touch with some of the people I was in the Peace Corps with. One of them, Roger Soles, went to work for the Smithsonian, and he was probably the key individual for setting up the Biosphere reserves. Lives in Virginia. Hotshot administrator, I would say. A real nice guy, and he has spent a lot of his time trying to keep the Peace Corps group together.

Dirk trying to make doughnuts at 8,000 feet.

(So would you have been a hippie?) No, I don’t think so. Certainly not then. I remember being down there in Colombia and kids would start talking about the ‘Be-at-les’—those ‘Be-at-les’—they had the long hair. And I thought that was freaky. I thought their music was freaky. We were certainly an informal bunch. We were progressive.

(So what would have been after the Peace Corps?) Well, I came home. And I went into quite a depressed state, fighting to keep my job or stay in the Peace Corps. I should have known it was a useless battle. I didn’t. I fought to stay in there.

Then I was offered an opportunity. The guy who had chosen me for the volunteer leader job had moved on to Honduras, and he invited me to come to Honduras. I don’t know if you’ve ever known depression? I knew it then. I didn’t know what it was, but I couldn’t make up my mind. I could not decide something. I could decide, but then five minutes later, no.

(You mean any decisions?) Yeah. I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I was just in a state. That fellow with whom I got along so well—he had been the director in that area—that’s who I thought I was going to be working for and with. He was just a guy I got along so well with. He was a delightful guy. He was the epitome of the Peace Corps mentality. Despite the fact he taught us how to raise rabbits. Anyway, he invited me to come to Tegucigalpa. I could have gone. I was made an offer to do that. I could go to another state (in Colombia). But I had this in mind that, no, I had been wronged, by God, that man had wronged me.

A demonstration garden in Paispamba, Colombia.

(But at that age everything is so black and white sometimes.) It was for me. Anyway, I came back and then I went to work for the Post Office for a while. And I did work for my brother for a while who had a house construction business. And then I decided that I thought I’d like to go get into the newspaper business. I had an elderly distant cousin who—I didn’t know this at the time—had been in the newspaper business himself and had a lot of connections. And I said to my mother something about that I thought I’d like to be a reporter. And I thought I’d get started as a copy boy. I didn’t know. What do I know?

(It was just maybe an off-the-cuff thing?) Yeah, kind of. I guess I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really don’t know why. That’s the interesting thing. And at the time, I certainly didn’t know about this cousin’s background in journalism. Neither did I know my grandfather’s background in journalism. I’d known nothing about that. It was much, much later that I found out about Opa’s experience as a correspondent and such.

But anyway, this cousin had worked with a fellow who had a newspaper in Missouri. And so I went out there to Missouri on a daily paper, St. Joe—St. Joseph—Missouri. It was a morning paper. Got a job there not knowing a damn thing. But they had their own training program, which newspapers did because this was pre-journalism school. There were some journalism schools—I think Columbia’s been going for a long time—but generally people learned on the job. And it was fantastic. It was just super. I didn’t know how to type. I didn’t know nuttin’.

Dirk’s parents and Susan with their Malamute Took on a trip into the Rockies west of Denver.

One of the first things was the city editor came down to my desk—it wasn’t a huge newsroom, but it was probably a dozen desks or more—came down, standing over me. ‘Can you type?’ ‘No.’ Took Time magazine, opened it up, plopped it down next to me. ‘Type.’ I had to just sit there and look at that copy and type.

(That’s how you learned to type?) That’s how I learned to type. Then I went from there to assignments like obituaries. Totally formatted. You didn’t have to be creative at all. There was a tight format. Then from that you had a beat. I had downtown. Twice a week or so I would have to walk the streets, downtown St. Joe, Missouri—not a big town—and stop in at the Red Cross office and the military recruiting office. The navy would have an office and the air force and chamber of commerce. Whoever had an office downtown, I’d have to go do the rounds, chat people up, talk to them. ‘Any news?’ Generally they’d say, ‘No, there’s nothing going on.’ And then in the course of talking to them, they’d say, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little item,’ you know?

Fantastic training. It was just super. Then I had a chance there to write editorials and I had a chance to write features. It was great training. Just wonderful. (What was the name of the paper?) St. Joe Gazette.

(After having worked at the Gazette, did you think this is my life’s work in some form?) I liked it. And then I met a young woman there in St. Joe who was from St. Joe, but she was teaching school in Denver, and not far from Columbine. So I fell in love with that young woman. I wanted to go to Denver. And Denver had a couple of newspapers out there. There was the Rocky Mountain News, which was a Scripps-Howard paper, and the Denver Post. The Denver Post was a broadsheet afternoon paper. And the Rocky Mountain News was a tabloid. I applied to both papers and I got hired on at the Rocky Mountain News as a general assignment reporter. I never really had a beat, although I did the science and medical writing there because I did have the background in sciences. And I liked that a lot. But Scripps-Howard itself was very pro-war—pro-Vietnam—and I was having some difficulty with that.

(Around what year would this have been?) Sixty-three, ’64. And also, I was getting kind of uncomfortable with the fact that I was forever writing about what other people were doing. And I didn’t feel that I was myself. I wasn’t comfortable in the reporting role—in the scribe or the chronicler of what others were doing. I don’t know. This wonderful position and it’s a great place to be, but somehow or other at that point it was bugging me.

Dirk the writer.

I had the wherewithal because Susan had a good teaching job—and we didn’t have any children—that I could just quit there and go write. I had a book—a story—I wanted to write. So I quit. And then shortly we came East. And I applied for the Iowa Writers’ (Workshop) and came damn close to getting accepted. But the director of the school apologized. He said, ‘Dirk, I’ve used up all my favours.’ The grade point average from Cornell was not what the graduate school wanted. Not the Iowa Writers’ school, necessarily, but they had a policy. You had to have a certain level of grades. I didn’t have it. He said, ‘I’ve called in all my chips. I can’t get you in here.’

And the interesting thing was that right within—it seemed to me like within days—J. B. Lippincott (publishing house) accepted my children’s story for publication. So I was saved from despair. I would have liked that writers’ school, I think. It’s a really interesting place to hone the craft … but anyway.

And then my wife and I came East. I was going to just live on the Maine coast and write books. And couldn’t find any place on the Maine coast that we could afford that we were interested in. And we happened to see a car go by us with Nova Scotia plates. We were on our way to northwest Maine—settling up there—but saw that and said, ‘Let’s go see Nova Scotia. Let’s go check it out.’ (What year was that?) Fall ’69.

(You had a children’s book published. What was that called?) Papeek. I don’t know why Papeek. It was a fable about the first sled dog. I sold 10 copies. (Dirk laughs).

A children’s book that Dirk wrote.

(Were you thinking about a novel at the same time?) No, I had other stories in my mind. And when I came here to Nova Scotia, I worked at it. But I never pulled one off. There were two that I worked quite hard at and they just didn’t come together. Then I did all the odd jobs around. I ran a canteen one summer. I tried a property management thing, looking after people’s homes in the wintertime and stuff, drainpipes and so on. Then I worked at the local newspaper a little bit. Had a milk cow, Gladys, and pigs and chickens. And then I got it in mind in 1976 to start that classified ad exchange.

Oh, I had gone back to Vermont and at some point I went to Garden Way Publishing because we knew one of the editors there had been an editor of a magazine called Vermont Life, and his family was from Manchester, Vermont, which was just down the road from where we lived. Anyway, interesting to go and see what Garden Way Publishing’s doing and did they need any help. Well, I couldn’t get a job at Garden Way Publishing, but they needed somebody to write copy for them—advertising copy. I didn’t want to do that. So then I suggested (doing) a bunch of book reviews for them because they had a library and they really didn’t know what they had. So I did a whole bunch of thumbnail reviews of their how-to books.

And then from there, I pitched the idea of doing a book about raising a family cow. And I had a family cow here. And so I wrote The Family Cow for Garden Way.

And after that, I wrote Small-Scale Pig Raising for Garden Way. I was wrangling for a contract for the pig book, get a little bit better deal than I had with the cow book because I really got a very, very low royalty rate for that first book. It was fine, but I wanted a little better deal for the pig book. Negotiations didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I got the idea of starting this classified ad exchange. I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into.

(What was the need, why did you start it?) Well, a couple of things. One was that I knew a guy in Vermont who had a classified ad publication that was doing a very nice … fantastic job. It became, in his hands, the bible of antique car restorers called Hemmings Motor News. And Hemmings Motor News was started by a fellow in the Midwest. It started out as just a mimeographed few-page thing. And it became a magazine in the hands of this fellow who we all knew, Terry Ehrich. And Terry Ehrich (who purchased it from founder Ernest Hemmings) built it up into a hell of a publication based in Bennington, Vermont.

And I thought (of a) classified ad exchange for old farm and country kitchen stuff, old farm equipment. We had the use of the newspaper office in Shelburne for setting type. And the cheapest way to print anything was on one sheet of broadsheet folded twice and then trimmed to make a little ‘pony tab.’ So that’s what we did. And we couldn’t fill it with all the classifieds. Well, we scrabbled together about $70 and sent a flyer out looking for subscribers. It was going to be 12 times a year for four bucks. Free classifieds.

Anyway, got enough of a response to that to pay for a print run with this one sheet of newspaper folded twice and trimmed. But that was a lot of space to fill and we didn’t have enough classifieds to fill it, so we went everywhere looking for classifieds. We just took them from any place because we weren’t charging anything. So we’d see a classified in the Chronicle Herald or there was something called Uncle Henry’s exchange over in Maine—it still exists—and we took ads from there. So we filled it up. Oh, and I took one or two of my reviews—book reviews—that I’d done for Garden Way. They said I could do that. So I printed those. And then I had started the pig book at that point. They had given me a contract. So I had committed to the pig book and this magazine or whatever this thing was going to be.

“Numero Uno” was issued in June 1976.

It was horrendous. It was a crazy, crazy time. (What do you mean, just so much work?) So much work. And then I had a third thing, too, because I had no money. There was no amount of money that came as an advance on the book. And the Rural Delivery, if it got enough money to pay a print run, that was that. So then I took a job. A friend of mine worked for Co-op Atlantic in Moncton, and he hired me to illustrate a history of Co-op Atlantic that he was writing.

So between Rural Delivery, write a book about pigs, raising pigs—continued to raise pigs—and illustrations, it was crazy. I had volunteer help, a lot of volunteer help. We had no money.

Harrowsmith started at the same time. Damnedest thing, didn’t even know Harrowsmith, didn’t know about it. (Harrowsmith founder) James Lawrence went around and scared up $500,000. And we had $70 and volunteer help. Gee whiz. But it was nuts. I would work on an editorial for two weeks and go to try and scare up ads for two weeks for the first two years. That’s really what we did.

(Was it Rural Delivery from the start?) Yeah. But it was going to be just classified ads essentially. That’s all. It was going to be simple. It was going to be real easy.

(So you really couldn’t even fill the first one with the classifieds?) Oh God, no. Well, it was very much an amateur job because we didn’t know what we were doing. One woman—now Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson—who was working with me drew the Rural Delivery banner that we used for maybe a year. We had the use of the typesetting equipment at the Shelburne Coast Guard. And a friend there—Jill Smith—also volunteered to do the typesetting. You waxed your copy and you had galleys and trim and wax and spooned the copy down. Crazy business. You had one machine for doing the type and the other machine for doing the headlines. How did we address the damn things? I forget, but I guess we were using an addressograph machine, using little metal plates. But that was later.

And, I don’t know, we had to make the decision: Is it going to be three columns, four columns, how many columns is it going to be? How’s this going to be, that going to be? How’s it going to be mailed? The first one, I went to the post office. If they knew, they weren’t going to tell me about the fact that there was anything but first-class mailing. But there was and that’s the wonderful thing. There was an opportunity there which wouldn’t be there today at all because back then there was third-class mailing. Very cheap. There was unaddressed mailing. You could just put down a postal code—you wanted to send so many magazines to a postal code—and it was cheap. And what we did was, say we had 150 subscribers sent $4, that gave us enough money for a press run.

Elizabeth Underwood and Dirk anguishing over layout decisions for an early issue of the magazine.

Where were we doing it initially? I think we were printing down in Yarmouth. Anyway, so then you had the press run of 1,000 maybe and you only had 150 subscribers. So you go and send it out as a free copy—‘please subscribe’—to various places around the Maritimes and hope the hell that people will respond to it so that you’d have enough money to do another press run. It makes you tired to think of it.

(Did you right from the get-go cover the entire Maritimes?) Tried to. We worked in Liverpool. But we had to fight, in my mind, the natural idea of people that if they saw something coming from Liverpool, Nova Scotia that it was a South Shore Nova Scotia publication. We knew that we wanted to be a regional Maritime publication.

If we had stories looking like they were of equal importance and interest, one in the Valley and one in Liverpool or Queens (County) or the South Shore, we’d take the one in the Valley. And it’s not because we didn’t like Liverpool or the South Shore necessarily, but it was to avoid being labelled right away quick. You know, national publications can come out of Ontario or B.C. maybe, but try to do a national publication out of Winnipeg or down here in the Maritimes and it’s an uphill battle.

(Rural Delivery goes far afield now, well beyond the Maritimes as far as subscribers. But it’s probably right that the base is in the Maritimes. Was that always the plan? Did you ever see it as a national publication?) I played with the idea. But the fact was that it was the local people and local businesses that paid the shot. We didn’t have national advertising. So if some business here was kind enough to throw their money at us to advertise their stuff and they’re selling in the local area, and we go and work at developing circulation in the New England states or Quebec or something, did the person here no good at all. So we had to keep in mind that we had this local base of support.

I thought about it. But it’s difficult, especially I suppose once you’ve started off in an area and established yourself as a Maritime publication. Quebec’s a barrier in a way. I mean, we’re not French. You’d have pockets of Anglos who might be happy in the Eastern Townships to have an English publication. But we always seemed to have a kind of a blip in Ontario and another blip in B.C. and then a smattering elsewhere.

(Was the idea for the Maritimes just so you would have enough of a subscriber base to keep it afloat?) We were always trying to build it. And if I still owned it, I’d still be toying with the idea of how could we break into the New England market. Because culturally—in so many ways—New England and here are so similar. There’s a natural commonality. But postal rates made it difficult. Not that it couldn’t be got around. But I just never did pull it off. But as I say, I’d probably still be playing with the idea, saying, ‘How could we do this?’

The Odd Lobster canteen in Summerville, Queens County in 1971. Before launching his magazine, Dirk tried his hand at a number of jobs, including operating the canteen.

(How many people would have been involved with it initially when you started, the first edition, the first year?) Well, there was Elizabeth Underwood who was a key individual. Her name’s Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson now. She was very, very much involved in many, many ways. But then there were other friends in the area. There was Jill Smith. She lives in Shelburne County now. Chris Curry, who lives in Shelburne County. Then there was Renee Davis. She lives in Fredericton now. Then in the immediate community, there were people who helped with a number of chores, mailing and other things. And volunteers—Gail Wolfe and Erna Stuart. Both those women have died now. Gail and her mother Erna. And Cathey Cranton.

(Were these basically friends?) Yeah.

You know, the classified ad exchange was a non-starter. It wasn’t going to work. I mean, people put big money behind advertising for restoring Model As, Model Ts, all those old cars. It was a popular hobby pursued by people with discretionary income. Well, old farm equipment, no. You bought it because you could afford it. Right now, there’s those who restore tractors and restore one-lunger engines and stuff like that. But there’s not too many. It’s not going to support a publication and not down here in the Maritimes. So it was not a sound idea. I just thought it was going to be something I was going to do while I wrote how-to books.

The editor at Garden Way said, ‘Dirk, if you get 10 publications under your belt, you’ll be making a pretty decent income.’ The cow book continues to sell—not much now—but the pig book actually sold about 100,000 and then they dropped it. But I had a clause in my contract that if they ever decided not to publish, that rights would return to me. And now it’s being published—a little bit of an updated version—by Echo Point Books, a print-on-demand company in Vermont. And I’m doing better than I ever did the last years it was sold by Storey Books, which bought out Garden Way. They’re selling a lot of it by Amazon and such. Pretty nice. I get, I don’t, know $300, $400, $500 a year. That’s OK. Something I wrote back in ’78.

(And the cow book, how many copies would that have sold?) I forget what it is. I don’t know. I know the pig book—they made something of the fact when they passed the 100,000-mark. I don’t know, maybe we didn’t pass 100,000 with the cow. But for everybody who’s going to raise a pig for the summer, there’s probably 100 of those people to anybody who’s going to consider a cow.

The cow book, that was because I had the advantage of running into an absolutely brilliant man with a fantastic library to help me. That became a more substantial book than the pig book, I would say. It was the first one. And in a lot of ways, I don’t think anybody that I know of has written the equivalent. I’m sure in a number of respects there are better books. But for the history of cattle and some of the other stuff … I had just marvellous support.

(Who was that?) His name was Craig Wheaton-Smith. He was a fellow who happened to retire to Dorset, Vermont, where my parents eventually returned after years in Connecticut. They went back to Vermont and retired. My Dad, well I don’t know if he ever retired. But I went down to Vermont one time visiting and told them that I got this contract to write the cow book. And they said, ‘Oh, you should talk to this man.’ I went to visit him. And by this point, I thought I’d written the history of dairy breeds. I had used sources that I thought were legitimate sources to do that, which was the breed associations themselves and Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dirk’s father, who always appreciated suspension bridges, put his architectural skills to work designing this house in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived until his death in 1994.

So I went to see Craig Wheaton-Smith, sat down in his kitchen and talking to him. He was an Englishman. And I told him what I’d done and what I knew. And he was very, very nice. But he said, ‘You don’t have it. You’re not going to get the history from the breed associations because they all are promoting the notion that their breed goes back to Methuselah and it’s been a closed book for all those years.’ Well, it’s bullshit.

So he took me into his library. He had a beautiful dark library with books all around and he just walked around and he said, ‘Well, you’ll have to read this and you’ll have to read that.’ And he filled my arms with books. There was a guy named Parmalee Prentice (1863-1955, son-in-law of John D. Rockefeller) who had written a history of the dairy cattle. And there was, oh God, just numbers of books from the U.S. and the U.K. (Robert) Bakewell (1725-1795), (William) Youatt (1776-1847), early people on the breeds of cattle. And with those, then I had a handle on something. I found out so much about how that all works.

Craig Wheaton-Smith had had a champion dairy herd in England that was both production and conformation. I don’t know if there was family money or whatever, but when he wanted to create this herd that was going to be knocking the judges eyes out, he hired a couple of illustrators—or at least one illustrator—from Walt Disney, saying, ‘What makes a pretty cow? What makes a cow attractive to people?’

He was a lawyer and bovine geneticist. He was one of these guys with multiple degrees. He was part of a team hired by the French government to come in and look at all of their breeds. The French government was supporting some incredible number of breeds of cattle—beef breeds essentially we’re talking about—and they felt that there were perhaps redundancies. Was there really the need for the government to support all of these breeds, and if so, why? So they brought a team of people together. And it was good. He was part of this team that looked at the qualities of these cattle and suggested that, ‘This, this, this and this breed, yeah, you want to support them. But maybe if you’re going to pull the rug from under a breed, you might look at this one because it really doesn’t have that much different to offer.’

(But he was based in Vermont at some point?) At that point he was retired to Vermont. He was just cooling out there. That was an amazing thing. What a wonderful chance when I was writing this because I would have written this book with a stupid repetition of whatever poppycock the breed associations wanted to create. And I wouldn’t have known anything about the early work in breeding and selection of beef cattle. That just gave me such a grounding. It was fantastic. It was wonderful.

(Now Rural Delivery, it’s kind of amazing to see what it’s become. It must have been a pile of work for probably the whole time.) It was a pile of work. Sometimes I look back through the early copies and I can get tired just looking, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what a grind.’ I mean, it was an amazing grind. But I didn’t know any better. The thing that I think was good and important for me was that I was kind of floating around, going from this to that to the other, trying to find what I was going to settle on, what I was going to do with my life and all. And I sent out that flyer saying, ‘Here I am.’ And I’m saying, ‘You send me four bucks and I’m going to send you a magazine for a year.’ And then all these people—not a huge amount but 150 or whatever the number was—I’ve made a bargain. I guess I’d better stick to it. Sometimes the deadlines were just deadly, deadly, but they kept me going. I didn’t have time to think about whether, ‘Am I happy doing this? Do I want to do this? No, no, you silly bugger, you said you were going to do it.’

(And you would have been in your late 30s when you started?) True. I think I was 38. It was time. Yeah, I’d had quite a bit of life experience. Another thing, too, I was married when I came here, and my wife’s father—Susan’s father—was half-owner, partner in a packing plant, Seitz Packing, in St. Joe, Missouri. An abattoir. St. Joe was where there used to be a big packing industry. Swift and Armour, some of these big companies, were there. And then there was this other company, two in fact—Seitz and Lovers Lane Meats—cranking out hotdogs, salami and so forth. It was a fairly small company that Susan’s father and friend, who were school chums, purchased after World War II. It was a bankrupt company and they purchased it. The two of them—one being management and people-oriented, and one being an engineer—pulled this thing together and both made it happen. Built up a nice business.

Then about the time that I met Susan and we were married, these two guys were approached by a bunch of beef farmers—feedlot operators—out in Sterling, Colorado, who said they wanted to go it together and co-operatively set up their own packing plant. And so Susan’s father and his partner said, ‘Sure, we can do that. That sounds like an interesting project.’ And so they shook hands on an agreement with these farmers for 10 percent of the profits or something. They would give them all the help they could to design and build and set up this packing plant. They set up a company called Packers Advisors who would advise these guys in Sterling.

Well, anyway, after one year, they had so much money rolling in, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was an embarrassment. They went back to the ranchers and feedlot operators and they said, ‘This is crazy. It’s too much.’ So they rewrote the deal for a smaller percentage. Still, there was a pile of money coming in. And Susan’s father and partner didn’t need that money, so they put all the children and their spouses as stockholders in this company. And there was one year when there was much more money came into our hands from Packers Advisors than I made, and maybe Susan, I don’t know. And that was stultifying. That was not good for Dirk. I did break up with Susan—which was too bad—but we did break up. We had one child, our son Wim in ’71. Anyway, Susan went back to the States and there I was.

Dirk with his infant son Wim in 1971.

That’s when I ran the canteen. I did this, I did that. But I was drifting. It was after that summer with the canteen, I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ It was about then I went back to Vermont, wrote The Family Cow, made a pitch for a pig book. And while that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, decided that I’d do this magazine. It didn’t seem like a big decision at the time, but it was.

And then I decided that having made that decision and made that obligation—that contractual arrangement for so much money—I’m going to give you a magazine. In a way, it was all very good. And then I had no money. I mean, I had no big debts because we bought this place really cheap at that time and sold off a hundred acres to help pay for it. It was a very different world. So, though I was rolling my own cigarettes with cigarette butts and my penny collection was important to me, that was it. That’s what I was doing. And yes, sometimes I’d get real tired. But I remember my first capital expense. I went out and bought a fluorescent lamp to go over the layout table—$42. Boy oh boy. But it was good for me mentally and emotionally to know that I had an obligation. And keep your nose to the grindstone, you know, that type of thing. And I liked the work and I liked the people and I liked the challenge, obviously. No, I could’ve walked away.

(Was it always fairly enjoyable?) No, no. There were times … just so tired, absolutely tired, and tired beyond what sleep would do anything about. Just really worn out. But there were always things that made it really fun to do. A story would come in unsolicited from somebody—you don’t know who it is—and it’s a lovely, lovely story. And here you are in this fantastic, enviable position of giving that thing life and sending that story out to a whole bunch of readers. That was always so satisfying. Some of those writers probably really hadn’t had much in the way of markets. Well, some people had never written, didn’t see themselves as professional writers.

If somebody came to me with a story about something that excited and interested them—pow!—that’s got power. That’s good. But if it’s just being written just to make a buck—and, ‘Oh well, yeah, I guess I can get interested in this’—well it’s not fun. When I had stories from people who were writing about what they were doing and what they loved, that was great. That’s the stuff that keeps you going.

(When you look back on Rural Delivery—the flagship—do you feel a sense of pride about the thing?) I think … yeah. I feel a sense of … yeah, it was OK. I’m pleased that it kept on and we made it happen. There were certainly doubters in the early years. The publisher of the Liverpool Advance back then, he had a good flair. He was a real old-fashioned newspaperman. I met him in the IGA parking lot one day and handed him a copy of the magazine. This was the very first or second issue or something. I was pretty happy that … here we are. And he was very, very unencouraging. ‘Many are called and few are chosen,’ he said, and he handed the magazine back. Oh yeah, and there were others. I think of the advertisers, hotshot people with businesses who would just sort of treat you like you’re some kind of a joke. And they’re gone. They were full of themselves. And I was just this crazy person with an idea that you were going to sell advertising and do a magazine. And they thought I was full of shit and maybe they were right. But still and all, it was kind of fun to watch them go.

There were wonderful things, too. There were wonderful people. There was one guy who was the manager, CEO—whatever you might called it—of the Lunenburg Foundry. Big company at the time. And he was on my list to talk about advertising. Maybe he’d advertise their stoves or something. And I met with him so many times. I called him and I met with him. And he’d always say, ‘Well, no, I don’t think so.’ And I had three-by-five cards for everybody, the name and a record of everything. And I would go through my little file box. One time I was down and I’d gone through my file box. I’d tried every damn thing. Now prior to this, I had written ‘SHITHEAD’ (on the Lunenburg Foundry card). (Laughter). But I didn’t throw the card away. I put the card back in there. So then I’d been through my card file too many times. OK, so I pulled SHITHEAD out of the box and I gave him a call. And he’s all pleasantness—generally was pleasant. And he said, ‘How are things going?’ I said, ‘Well, not very well. I’ve got to get another page of advertising.’ ‘Well, sign me up!’ What a way to sell advertising. Jesus.

The biggest boost so far as advertising was from Dick Melanson in Moncton. He had the Maritime Farm Supply company there and sold farm equipment. He was on the board of the co-op that runs the Atlantic Farm Mechanization Show that was maybe in its second year when we came along. There was no way to pay for a booth but he said I could bring a pallet of Rural Deliveries in the back door of the Coliseum. From there I ran back and forth and just about slathered the place with copies. The thing is, someone with his reputation in the business, if he thought what we were doing was worthwhile, well that was like a pass. We had a chance.

But that was it, you know. That was the thing I think that was really important. It wasn’t a question of did I want to do it. If I didn’t do it, I was losing face with all these people. I said I was going to do this thing and so it was really important to make it happen. No, this might not be what you want to do, you’d really like to go back to bed or whatever. I liked writing for our readers. So many of them were really hard-working people, and terrific people. You know, I couldn’t have probably put that energy in or stuck to it if it were, say, Golfing Digest or something. I had to appreciate, and I do appreciate, what the people that we were writing for were up to.

Dirk the typist hamming it up in his home office.

(How does Pot Luck work?) I really don’t know. Does it? How do you mean? (Are you always thinking about it or would you work on it throughout the month or do you procrastinate?) I think about it. I think about ideas, about things that I would want to go on about. I wish that it were lighter. I really love Frank Macdonald’s columns and writing because he can say things that are very pointed and meaningful, but he keeps a sense of humour. I appreciate that so much. I sometimes get tired of myself being such a grouch. But there it is.

(You mean when you get into political stuff?) Political stuff and just seemingly always seeing the negative of side of things. And I do. I don’t know, as you get older maybe just the world changes around you, and things don’t work quite the way they used to. The music isn’t so satisfying. And then you’ve got political wingnuts like Trump and company. And then in our own government, people doing things that I just think are wrong-headed.

My own ability with business is abysmal. I’m not a businessman. But I really get upset, as I’ve gone on in Rural Delivery in the Pot Luck, about our devotion to short-sighted means of keeping the economic engines going. It’s through extraction, extraction, extraction. Making our living through mining and fracking and clearcutting, and just eating up raw resources and not building stuff. All of the Amish people that I visited in the trip that I took to Ohio a number of years ago—every Amish family—they’d have their string of cattle. And then they have some enterprise on the side. I just think that’s a marvellous way to go. They’re building quality stuff. The mindset seems appropriate.

When I am working on ideas for Pot Luck, I never know, when I sit down, what ideas are going to end up on the page. I just don’t know. I could start out in one direction and end up going another. Sometimes they’re simple and roll off quite easily, and other times I sweat over them. The interesting thing I think—it’s a kind of a trick and fun to accomplish—that you give people the impression that it just was the easiest thing in the world to write what you wrote. They won’t know that you struggled and sweat bullets to get there.

(What about the illustrations, were you always artistic in that way?) No. That was something that happened initially when we didn’t know anything about layout and how the hell you fill the space.

A page from Dirk’s sketchpad reveals that it takes work to get his illustrations just right.

(But the illustrations really work. How did you do them initially? What did you use?) I use rapidograph pens, and just pen and ink. I probably was messing with a rapidograph. You remember those? (No.) They were quite popular at the time. They’re still available. It’s a pen that takes India ink. It’s just a very intense ink and these fine points. And I sometimes use a crow quill nib dipped in my bottle of ink.

I did take one or two short scientific illustration courses—not full credit courses—at Cornell. Scientific illustration is a marvellous, marvellous thing. But I was never good at it. It was fun, interesting and good training as far as it went. But I could never draw anything the way it was supposed to look. And I was plagued by the fact I would try to do an illustration—make a dog like a dog and a person like a person—and they never quite made it. And I sent an early copy or two of Rural Delivery to James Lawrence at Harrowsmith magazine. He wrote back saying, ‘I love your cartoons.’ And this was the interesting thing because I hadn’t twigged that (they were) cartoons.

And I thought, ‘Wow!’ It was a great weight lifted because I no longer had to make things look just like they were. Say like the cows on this cover, the most recent issue there. Those crazy, freehand, sketchy cow-like things. Perhaps they suggest a cow at the best. But I thank you, Mr. Lawrence. That was a wonderful thing to do. It was super. And I do like illustrating. I like it when they work. Sometimes, boy, I really work on them and they just don’t come and it’s a hell of a thing. But I love it when they work.

Dirk’s “crazy, freehand, sketchy cow-like things.”

Elizabeth Underwood—or Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson—who worked with me, she says that I was thinking of The New Yorker when I did those first little scribbles. And maybe that was it. But I know that I did scribbles to fill space. And certainly I thought of The New Yorker for the way they do have their little illustrations throughout. Another thing, too, about The New Yorker was—and why I wanted to live on the Maine coast and then ended up here—E.B. White had a series in The New Yorker called Letters from Down East from his saltwater farm in Maine. I was enchanted by those essays. And I still love them. So when I found this place, I thought, ‘I’ve found my own little saltwater farm.’

Dirk and his sidekick Tank in the farmhouse on his “saltwater farm.”

Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald is a warm and welcoming human being. She’s genuine and wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s a champion of her many family members and friends, and their dreams. She has friends all around the world but she has that quality that makes the person she’s talking to in the moment feel important.

Though you don’t hear about it from her­—at least not in casual conversation—she must also be extremely hard-working and disciplined. She’s a wife, a mother of seven and a grandmother of 10. She’s also spent most of her life since graduating from high school in 1969 working outside the home, including more than 30 years with the school board in Port Hood “between maternity leaves” and about eight years travelling back and forth between her western Cape Breton home and the Alberta oilsands. She’s “retired” more than once and, at the age of 66, now travels to Halifax to work in homecare.

Mary Janet is also the consummate volunteer and organizer. For instance, during a stint managing the Strathspey Place performing arts centre in Mabou, she also volunteered to manage the high school musical ensemble Celtic Crew, made up of students attending Dalbrae Academy, which shares a space with Strathspey Place. Today, she co-chairs the charitable group 100 Women Who Care Rural Cape Breton.

She has a lovely singing voice. And she and her husband Cecil have passed on their musical abilities, with their children being involved in bands from Kilt to Company Road. Their youngest child Mitch created a bit of a stir in Inverness County and beyond in 2008 when he competed in the reality series Canadian Idol, eventually becoming the runner-up.

However, Mary Janet herself is best known in Nova Scotia and around the world as one of the top practitioners and teachers of the highly engaging style of step dancing that the Scottish Gaels brought to northeastern Nova Scotia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and fostered in the New World. Some researchers question whether the dance style that Mary Janet performs is of Scottish Gaelic origin, although others—such as Scottish musician, bagpipe maker and researcher Hamish Moore—vigorously defend the connection.

Mary Janet has appeared countless times on stage over more than 60 years and many times on television. She also produced two step dancing instructional videos.

There’s a direct line from the dancing of Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron—born almost 170 years ago—to her own dancing. The link in that chain was her grandaunt Margaret Ann (Cameron) Beaton, the woman who raised Mary Janet after her mother Margie died and the woman she called Mama. Margaret Ann’s daughter Minnie—who is Natalie MacMaster’s mother—was also instrumental in Mary Janet becoming a dancer. The two consider themselves sisters.

Mary Janet knew a lot of loss at a young age. She also received a lot of love. You’ll notice in her story that she doesn’t use euphemisms for death such as “passed away.” One gets the impression that she lives each day to the fullest because she knows tomorrow is never guaranteed. And, reassuringly, living life to the fullest means she’s still dancing …

Mary Janet MacDonald: I was born February 17th, 1952 to Margie and Donald MacDonald. Margie was a MacDonell from Glengarry near Mabou. She was one of the older ones of a family of 17. And my father was one of four children and he grew up in Mabou. Actually, the tract of land that my parents lived on at that time dates back to 1835 when it was originally purchased by my (ancestor) MacDonald that came from the Highlands of Scotland. On both sides, my family are all the way back to the Highlands. The Lochaber area of Scotland.

The MacDonald side—my paternal side—is actually from the Spean Bridge area. Very small little place. And they kind of coloured our MacDonalds as the Cross MacDonalds. Not meaning angered. (Mary Janet chuckles). But according to the Mabou Pioneers (genealogical book by A.D. MacDonald), they came from a place where there was a crossing or a bridge and that’s how they were defined.

(And they carried that name through?) All through. That’s how they were identified. If somebody asks me, ‘Who are you?,’ I’m Mary Janet Donald Alex Donald Cross. Donald, that’s my father; Alex, my grandfather; Donald, my great-grandfather.

Mary Janet’s parents Donald and Margie (MacDonell) MacDonald on their wedding day with Margie’s parents.

(And whereabouts in Mabou were you?) Well, do you know where the church is? That picturesque scene of the church? Well, right down to the water and up over the hill behind it, that was our tract of land. I think there was 250 acres. A lot of the land on the lower end (was) parcelled out (for) the church and the convent. The convent that just recently sold, my grandmother sold or gave that (land) to the Sisters of Notre Dame to build a convent up there. (Your father’s mother?) Yes. I still have 25 acres up there in a clearing up on the hill. There’s a cleared part with a little cabin. It’s beautiful up there.

I was born in Inverness Hospital in 1952. And I lived in that home up behind the church in Mabou pretty much until my mother died. She had cervical carcinoma. I was born in ’52. In early ’53, she was pregnant again. And she had to give birth early in May of ’53 to my baby brother. They took him early. (Because she had cancer?) Because they found that she had cervical cancer. They treated her with radiation while pregnant and then took the baby. So that was in May of ’53 that he was born. And from ’53 to ’55 she dealt with the cancer and was hospitalized with TB.

(She had TB as well?) Yes. So from the time I was one up until she died when I was three and a half, I would go back and forth to the Beaton home where I was raised. They were just in Southwest Mabou. And so they would keep me. One day, (my mother) drove over with the horse and wagon and she told Mama, ‘I am going to die’—you’re going to make me cry—‘Will you keep her? For Donald, because he can’t look after them right now, the little ones.’

My little baby brother … there was an aunt that took him for a while. And then he ended up with a sister of the grandaunt that took me, who was living at Mabou Harbour. There was two grandaunts married to two brothers. So we were very lucky that we were all still in a big circle there of being very close. And I would go home to my father’s at different times. That was my birth and early caring.

(How many were there altogether?) Well, there were six in total. There was Alex Roderick, the oldest, and then my sister Bernice. And then there was my brother John Donald. He died at 28 in 1977. And then there was an infant child that lived a month. His name was Francis Lawrence. He had a blockage in his esophagus—which is a minor surgery today—but basically, he pretty much starved to death, I suppose, without that. Then I was born, and then my brother Bernie.

The MacDonald siblings the day after their mother’s funeral in 1955. From left, Bernie, Mary Janet, John Donald, Bernice and Alex Roddie.

I remember my mother—at least three distinct memories. They were probably of the time when I was three. I don’t remember her face … ever. My earliest memory—she was sick in a bed—her hand is reaching out to me and there’s two yellow candy in the palm of her hand, and she’s passing that to me. I’ve always remembered that. There was white sheets—I remember that. I don’t think you were allowed to go into the hospital in those days, so it must have been at home, but I can’t say that for sure.

The second memory, I guess at the height that I would have been, I would have been two or three. That was my line of vision. I remember—it must have been Mama and Papa behind me—opening the door to my home—my parents’ home—and (my mother) must have probably gotten home from the hospital. So they were returning me to be back home with the family. And I can see my mother standing at the stove. But I’m seeing her from the knees down. And she’s got red fluffy slippers on … they’re tramped down. And she’s just standing there and I think she has a housecoat on. And there are people there. But I remember her there.

But my favourite memory is at the Beatons’—at Margaret Ann’s house. I am sitting on my real mother’s lap, just sitting in front of the window, and she’s got a navy blue coat on, and every button is (covered) with the same fabric (as) the coat. Big round buttons and they’re right close together. Over across the room, Mama—Margaret Ann, who raised me—is in the pantry. I don’t know if she’s washing dishes or kneading bread. And I’m going back and forth between the two of them. But when I’m sitting on my mother’s lap—again, I can’t see her face—I remember saying, ‘One, two, three,’ and counting the buttons. So I remember that.

And I remember being up in Mama’s arms … that’s the only part of the wake I remember. The wake was in the house. Mama was standing at the bottom of the stairs in my real parents’ house and I’m up in her arms. And I can see my hand wiping her tears away, underneath her glasses, and I’m asking her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I guess then I walk over with her to the casket. I can’t see my mother. I still don’t see my mother’s face. But I can remember … I can see my hand reaching down to a very light-coloured fabric that she had on—it was silky smooth—and I was feeling that. That was the casket in the living room. But again, don’t remember much else. I was three and a half.

Mary Janet’s mother Margie as a young woman.

(You had been going over to Maggie Ann’s. Moving there permanently, did that make it easier? Was it just a comfortable thing?) Very. Just natural.

I remember I had a little brown suitcase. I can remember packing it one time. The railroad tracks were kind of below the Beaton house. And I remember saying, ‘I’m going to walk down to the woods, get on the track and walk home.’ So I must have been not allowed to do something or whatever. God knows what. I was putting a few things in the suitcase. And I remember Minnie saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re leaving, are you?’ I don’t know how old I was. I must have been like five or six. Very young.

(What children were in the Beaton home?) Mama and Papa would have been in their 50s. I moved there then. They already had their own six children, right? There was A.J., Jeanette, Mamie, Alexander, Minnie, Donald Alex.

Donald Alex, the youngest, he still lives in the home in Mabou where I was raised. His two daughters are Dawn and Margie Beaton, the redheaded fiddle players. I call them my nieces and I’m so close to them. And Minnie is Natalie MacMaster’s mum. So the music continues. Minnie is 10 years older than me. We’re really close. Her memory is just of having this little doll, you know, kind of having this little sister. That’s how they share that memory with me. Minnie, of course, was already step dancing in little concerts and stuff around. When I was four—she would have been a teenager—that was my first concert. Dancing on the stage in the Mabou Hall at four years old with her holding my hand. Between Mama and her, that’s where I learned everything.

A cherished photo of Mary Janet at the age of five with Maggie Ann (Mama) and Red John (Papa) Beaton in 1957.

(If your mother hadn’t been sick, would there have been dancing in your own house?) My mother was a very talented woman. They say she was a lovely dancer and she was a beautiful Gaelic singer. And loved singing English songs as well. I don’t know if it would’ve … been stage material. I don’t know. It’s amazing the path that it’s taken.

(And how did it work in the Beaton house? Maggie Ann, did she dance?) Yes. Well, let me tell you about Maggie Ann. So Maggie Ann was a Cameron. On the land where our house was, across the road was also part of the original tract, and that’s where she was raised. Her parents lived up there. Donald Cameron was her father and Mary was her mother. Donald was—the Gaelic term—was Dòmhnall Mór. In English, that translated into Big Donald. But most people would call him Big Dan Cameron. And he was born … I believe it was 1850.

But Big Dan Cameron was a noted step dancer. One of my favourite images that I conjure up in my head is based on a story that another grandaunt—another daughter of Big Dan—was telling me. She’s the one that raised my brother. Sarah Ann was her name.

Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron was a noted step dancer.

(Mary Janet points to a photograph of Margaret Ann as a young woman using a knitting machine.) That’s a knitting machine and Mama would turn the handle. There were little needles that would come up and they would knit the tube of the sock.

(Dan Cameron) was a big man. He was about 250 pounds, I’d say, but a tall man. And he was a really good dancer. And so Mama was sitting in the kitchen (using the knitting machine). She never had a fiddle. She was a woman. I don’t know if there was just that kind of thing … the men maybe got the fiddles. But it’s been said that she knew the tunes even better than some of the fiddlers, and all the twists and turns. And once she would get into the rhythm, she would turn the wheel to the rhythm of how she sang the tune, which she called jigging the tunes.

So she’s in the middle of doing that. I guess she must have been in a reel or something like that. And Sarah Ann said that her father had worked all day long and had gone out to use the outdoor toilet before he went to bed. He came back in. A farmer—big man—workboots on. And she said he had bib overalls on and one of (the straps was) undone. So I’m seeing this big man … coming in a door at the old farmhouse. He comes in and he’s tired after work, after the long day. He puts his head back and he’s listening. And Sarah Ann said, ‘He just came back on ’er!’ (started step dancing vigorously). Came back on ’er! Isn’t that a great image? She just kept on going. He was listening to her and he loved the tune that she was singing.

(She might have had some percussion from the machine.) She no doubt did because I remember it. It clicked, like ‘tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.’ Little stainless steel needles clicking like a really nice little percussive beat, no doubt about it.

A young Maggie Ann (Cameron) Beaton with the knitting machine she was using when her father Big Dan Cameron step danced as she jigged the tunes.

(Would you actually see her dance?) Mama? Oh my God, yes. You know, when she chose to dance, she would hold the back of the chair and she would dance. (Was that because she was older?) Older and heavier. She’d jig the tune. She’d say, ‘Do it this way.’

(Was that usually how it was done or was there a fiddler in the family?) There was no fiddler in the family. At the Beaton home—my home—regularly there would be ceilidhs. We didn’t call them ceilidhs. People adopted that name. In my youth, I don’t remember that word being used. It was like a party … and we’re going to have a few friends in. A lot of Gaelic singing, right? I’m going to add another family member. One of these siblings (of Maggie Ann) was Finlay. The house that I grew up in as a child originally was Finlay’s house. And Mama and Papa—that’s Margaret Ann and John Beaton—bought (it) for very little. Because Finlay was working with the CNR and he got moved to Boisdale. So Finlay and Sadie, his wife, moved to Boisdale. And there you might know of Father Francis Cameron (Finlay’s son). He played fiddle, Father Francis did, and Janet, his sister, played piano. They still live on the old home over in Boisdale. So that’s another connection.

Anyway, when Mama wanted to have a gathering at the house, besides her neighbours and friends that sang together, often it was centred around Finlay coming back home for a visit. He was an amazing storyteller and Gaelic singer. I can remember being sent to bed where I was raised. I’d be upstairs and I’d be looking through the grate—there was a grate on the floor—and he’d be telling a story. They referred to it as sgeulachd. And I knew when the funny line would be coming, you know? I’m saying, ‘OK, they’re going to laugh soon.’ I’ve heard it a million times. It was always the same story. I think it was about a pig.

We always had visitors at the house, singers at the house, fiddle players would come. There was always music. And I think we were one of the first homes in the area that got a reel-to-reel (recorder). And that was amazing. Donald Alex—Dawn and Margie Beaton’s father who still lives in the home—he was so good. He would record everything that happened (including Finlay singing). On one of Natalie’s earlier CDs, Mama’s talking on it. And she’s saying something like—she called it a violin, not a fiddle—‘If I had a violin, boy oh boy, I would have been a violin player.’ And then Natalie goes into a swing of tunes. So she lives on. Her voice and Finlay’s voice are there.

(Do you know much about her early life?) Mama didn’t get married till she was 32. She only got Grade 3. She could barely write. I do have a couple of cards … she tried hard to write. She worked at home and on the farm with her parents until—I don’t know how old she was—she went to Boston. She worked for a family there and she made the desserts for the family. Oh, she would tell us funny stories. She said, ‘I remember there was all these little clear bowls with just water in it at every place setting.’ She remembered taking a drink of it, but it was for them to wash their hands in or whatever. They lived in the attic and she had to learn a lot.

When she came home, I think she might have had one or two dates with Papa, and they decided to marry. And her younger sister Sarah Ann married the brother.

(What did Red John do?) Red John was a lobster fisherman. In my memory, he fished lobster, he had an oyster bed, he fished smelts. And he had odd jobs. He would cut Christmas trees, you know. Very quiet man. Probably in my lifetime, I would never meet another man who was so kind. Oh my God, what a gentleman. Just a true gentleman. She was the boss! (Mary Janet hits the table and laughs).

Red John Beaton of Southwest Mabou.

(He would have been fishing when you were there?) Oh yes. Well, I’ll tell you a story—1963, June 21st. We were headfirst into the lobster season then. There was a thunderstorm that broke out that night. Mama was terrified of thunder and lightning. The farm had been hit a couple of times by lightning prior to this. I was 11. So anyway, very Catholic. I was raised Catholic with (the Beatons) and my parents were very devout Catholics as well.

When you came upstairs in the old home, you came to quite a large landing. And at the landing, there was a window facing the road. Well, this is what Mama did when there was a lightning storm. She put the Lady of Olives statue in the window. She had St. Anne’s beads—rosary beads. She would put (them) around her neck and they would hang down to her ankles. And she had the bottle of holy water. So she would go around into every room, sprinkle the holy water—we wouldn’t be waking up—and she’d put the sign of the cross. (But) she was surprised because I had the woollen blanket over my head. She knows that I’m claustrophobic and she was so surprised that I had to pull the blanket over my head.

And she went into the boys’ room to sprinkle the holy water and walked back along the landing into the archway almost into her own room when the crash came. She turned around and she looked and the (attic) hatch came down, bricks came down and a big ball of lightning hit the floor and it shot into my room. And it went under the bed and it ‘ding-ding-ding-ding’ on the steel things. And the lightning went through the blanket that was covering my head. It didn’t miss me by much. So anyway, it set the bed on fire and the attic was on fire.

(Then) it went through the wall. On the outside of the house, the telephone box was right behind my head. The lightning went out onto that thing and came back in downstairs. You know the stoves where you would put the cover in the chimney when you weren’t using the pipe and you take it down for the summer? That little circle thing was in the chimney in the living room, and (from) the lightning, that was fired out right across the room. There was a circle on the other side of the room. And (the lightning) then went through the sink, bent the tap in the sink in the downstairs, and I don’t know where it exited from down there.

But anyway, Papa, of course, when he was (working) as a fisherman, he lived down in Mabou Coal Mines in the shanty for fishing season. He’d stay there, come home Saturday nights and for church, and go back Sunday night to be up early on Monday.

So Mama was all by herself. The boys got up and they couldn’t get the water running, I guess, (so they) went to the well and (were) kind of running back in with water. All the lightbulbs burst in the house, so some of the bottoms of their feet got cut and stuff with that. And then they remembered, ‘Papa has a fire extinguisher in the porch.’ They got it and so they were able to stop the flames. Whatever the Bible was doing in the attic, that’s where it was—it had records of births and stuff—but that was just singed along the edges.

So anyway, I woke at some point and then they put my mattress out the window because my mattress was on fire. Somehow, I escaped all that.

I have to tell you this, whether you believe in visions or not, why I had the blanket over my head. One week before that, I woke up in the middle of the night and I was screaming. I felt I had to turn around. There was this big white shape on the wall. I leaned over the bed—and I was screaming for Mama—and opened my eyes and there was white flashes underneath the bed going back and forth. Mama came over and she took me over into her bed—because Papa was down at the shore—so I could sleep with her. And I wouldn’t say anything to her.

When we woke up in the morning, she wanted to know what happened and what did I see. I explained everything to her. So, of course, her being the devout Catholic, said, ‘You saw something and it’s got to be something wrong here.’ So she took me to the priest. I could tell he didn’t believe me, but he said, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a special blessing anyway and everything will be OK.’ And I wouldn’t go back into that room for that whole week. So that was my first night back in the room. When she went in—and I’m claustrophobic to this day, I can’t stand not being able to breathe—she was surprised that I was able to sleep with the blanket over my head, because I hated that.

(But you were that scared.) I was that scared that I did it. And it saved me. So she thinks I saw a forerunner. And maybe I did!

Mary Janet holding the woolen blanket that she had over her head on the night the Beaton house was struck by lightning.

(The dancing, would you kind of absorb that or were you taught?) You know, I believe that it’s in you in many ways because you’re surrounded by it. You’re hearing, you’re feeling the rhythm. You’re familiar with the timing and the tunes, and they’re in your head.

It’s proven that you can learn anything like that—you have to have timing of course—but for me, Minnie would teach me as a young child, and she said I was feeling the rhythm when she would hold my hand. I was feeling the rhythms and the body movement through her hand. She said that’s how she felt that it was transferring into me. I wasn’t really ever formally taught. It was just, you had timing and you loved the music and it was very much a part of your upbringing.

(But at the same time, Margaret Ann, she’d hold the back of the chair, they would still show you individual steps.) Oh my God, yes. And take you to concerts. What I would do is stand at the bottom of the stage, watch Willie Fraser, Harvey MacKinnon, Thomas MacDonnell, then there was a priest, Father Angus Alex MacDonnell. Amazing. All of those men, it seemed I really took to their style. More than anything, I loved watching them and I would commit a step I liked to memory. I would remember it when I got home and just practise that. And you’d get together in the music rooms before you’d go on stage—backstage—you’d go back and forth with the steps there.

(So you’d have jig steps and strathspey and reel?) Not so much the jig steps. The jig steps were for square dancing. In Inverness County, for example, when you’re going to dance a square set, there are three (figures). The first and the second figure are done to jigs, and there’s two or three main steps that you would see there. They were really never taught. You’d just do them. The third figure was a reel and that’s where you would step dance. But if you are going to solo dance, you would dance a strathspey and a reel, which really identifies our style of dancing in eastern Nova Scotia. The strathspey and the reel, since years and years and years, that’s the tunes that you would dance to.

(Any idea how many individual steps you would have for the strathspey or for the reel?) Oh my goodness, I named all of my steps in order to teach them. I would say maybe 40 strathspey steps and maybe 50 reel steps. I separated them out into beginner, intermediate and advanced. I learned a few new steps as I was teaching, but I kind of stuck with a lot of the plain old ones which might not be as exciting as some of the newer ones.

(Would you have made up any yourself?) Yeah, a few I made up myself. And then especially when the children started dancing, they were just eager to, ‘Oh, let’s do it this way and add that to it.’ Just little things like that. They all have the same basic principle, but you’re just adding a heel and a toe or tap here or there.

(But the meat and potatoes is the steps …) That were passed down originally. Definitely. And they were ones that Mama knew that I was teaching. That was very important to her. And she said, ‘Now make sure that you teach that one. That’s a good old one that my father used to do.’ So you took care and caution.

Mary Janet and Maggie Ann with a wonderful snowman in 1960.

Sometimes, when you’re younger, you don’t realize how important it is. As we grew up through the music, in our early years, you didn’t have a lot of external influences. We were pretty intact where we grew up in the music and all that. So it pretty much stayed pure, I would say, from Big Dan’s generation. And then you got into the ’60s, and the Don Messer show and televisions came into the homes. It opened you up to different styles. Tap shoes came in. I wanted a pair, Minnie wanted a pair, you know, so you had that. You were dancing with that, dancing concerts. People could hear the actual beats. And then you were asked to teach after The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler (documentary) got everybody’s back up—‘We can prove them wrong.’ It brought a need for lessons. So Joey Beaton asked me to teach a class in Mabou. Never taught in my life.

(That would have been in the ’70s some time?) Yeah, it was in the ’70s. Oh my God, I went to the Mabou Hall, was like 30 kids there. A bunch of the Rankins from Back Street—like the Rankin Family kids—were in that class. And I had to learn how to teach.

I found that I changed how I danced after that. I was more careful of what I did, where before that it was spontaneity—you just got up and you danced. I was more comfortable dancing in a house setting. You did the concert thing. But I had that feeling—of course, people were supportive and loved it and all of that—you were being analyzed or something? I don’t know. There was something that I felt. That was just me. My comfort zone was just, OK, feel the tune, and let’s jump up and do a few steps.

When I had to perform on stage after that, maybe students were watching. So I was very careful. I always started the first beat with my left foot to start you off on your right foot. And I would make sure I was doing equal amounts of each step, so that it worked with the phrase, and that sort of thing. And when I starting teaching away, people who were musicians and who broke down music—in California or whatever—they would take it apart, you know, ask me these things. I just step dance. I don’t know that I’m doing this and that, you know.

But I would like to say, before I went on my first journey, I was teaching around all over Inverness County on this side of the island. And the others were busy on the other side, like Father Eugene Morris, Betty Matheson, Kaye Handrahan, Margaret Gillis. They were all over on that side of the island, wonderful dancers starting it. I was starting over here, and there were some others. Minnie was teaching a little bit, and Geraldine MacIsaac, and oh, I’m forgetting people. Some of the Frasers were teaching. But anyway, I was teaching wearing taps at that time. What happens? Those students want taps too. Parents are buying those shoes. What am I doing? I’m changing the tradition.

Father John Angus Rankin, he knew that I was going to go to Barra Festival in 1983. And he said, ‘If you are going to bring this back to the homeland, you better do it right.’ And I cried. I cried because at that moment it all made sense to me. You’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m passing on tradition from Mama.’ And it all came piling down on me, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ kind of thing. That was my worry. I went to the shoe shop and got them to take the taps off my shoes. And I went to Barra and it was the first time that I truly danced like I danced up into the ’60s, with a hard-sole leather shoe. And I can’t explain to you what it meant to me at that time—that this is what’s so right. Then, in my classes going forward, I advocated for that: ‘If you’re wearing your taps, that’s fine, but I’m just saying what I want to share with you is what was passed down to me.’ People have to wear them sometimes just for sound and whatever on stage. But I thank Father John Angus for that to this day, you know, that he thought so much about it. That it was important.

Allister MacGillivray took this photo of Mary Janet prior to her first trip to Scotland in 1983.

Traditions change. And step dancing changes a bit, you know. There’s flashier steps. Flashier steps get the bigger audience applause, right? So anybody coming up, oh well, ‘I need to learn that step because that’s going to wow them and they’re going to like me more.’ So I’d probably be considered a plain dancer more than anything.

I have actually found a couple of my routines, which is something else that has changed the tradition of dancing. Instead of being spontaneous, when you add another dancer, we make it a performance. You and that dancer want to be doing the same thing synchronized, which changes the tradition again, right? It’s not spontaneous like it was probably meant to be in the old days.

(You have to work together.) Exactly. And of course, one of the things I want to do is teach my own children. So the first one was the oldest, Tammy, and when we would dance together, that started the routines. Then as the children went along, we had to keep it really simple for the youngest one to keep up. Then again, with all of these classes that were happening, you’d have like a recital at the end. They’d want to dance together, so they would do things together.

The first time all seven MacDonald children danced with their mother publicly in 1999.

(Would you change steps as the tune changes?) Sometimes. If you knew what turn was coming … you’d try to be percussive to that little turn. Yes, I would do that.

(Someone in the audience, say at a concert at Broad Cove, you don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes. But would you actually talk about the individual tunes that would be played?) Not I. Unless I was requesting something specifically. When I was dancing individually, I would just let the fiddler start playing and I would get into the strathspey … and dance until I wanted to finish. When I was dancing with my family, I’d say to the fiddler, ‘Play an intro into the strathspey so that we can all start together.’ So he would start (Mary Janet jigs a snippet of a tune). We would have started at that little eight-count intro into the strathspey so that we could all be together and synchronized at that same time. And I would always ask for the strathspey to be played through twice. Nowadays, probably once.

(And were there certain fiddlers that you really enjoyed dancing for?) In my youth, it was between Donald Angus Beaton and Buddy MacMaster. Buddy used to pick me up to go to concerts here and there. I don’t even know how those things were arranged, but they were. I danced my very first square set with Buddy MacMaster.

(You mean he danced?) Yeah, I danced with him. I think I was 12. There was a concert at the legion in Whycocomagh and Buddy picked me up. Raymond Ellis was playing for the dance after the concert. We were to keep right on home (after the concert) because I was young. Buddy wanted to make sure I got home. (But) there wasn’t a lot right around at the beginning and they were having trouble getting the set started. They asked Buddy if he’d come in the set, and he turned to me and he says, ‘Will you dance? Will you dance a set?’ And I said, ‘I’ve never danced a set. I watched them lots, but I never danced a set.’ So I danced my very first square set with Buddy MacMaster. And my corner partner was somebody that everybody was so familiar with over here. His name is Ginger Campbell. He was from going up the Glencoe Station Road. And every time when he was in a square set and he’d meet someone, he’d go ‘Baaaaa!’ (Laughter). I really didn’t know him then, but this man was saying ‘Baaaaa!’ and he was my corner partner. It was just hilarious because he was in every square set. He was a gem of a person, but that was his thing. He was one of those people I call characters. And he’s long since dead.

Donald Angus Beaton, I would dance for him. He actually drove taxi as well, and it’s he who drove the car the night my mother went into labour. He took my mother and father to the hospital in Inverness the night I was born. My (MacDonald) siblings—they can’t really dance or they don’t sing or whatever—and they blame it on that taxi driver, that I got the music because Donald Angus Beaton drove taxi that night. (Mary Janet chuckles). He was my fiddle player at my wedding reception as well, and Joey (his son) on piano. And as years went by in my dancing, I grew to gravitate to Kinnon (another son), his impeccable timing as a fiddle player. If we’re square dancing and step dancing, I loved his timing. Certainly, I have danced lots to Natalie and to Dawn and Margie, my pets. Love them all. And now we’ve got Joe MacMaster. (He’d be Natalie’s nephew?) Yes. Minnie’s grandson.

(You mentioned going to Barra in ’83. Was that your first trip to Scotland?) That was my first trip to Scotland. Many, many trips since then. I’ve toured a few times at the Ceòlas festival in South Uist and as well I taught at the first North Atlantic Fiddle conference in Aberdeen. Taught in Denmark with Kinnon and Betty (Beaton). We went over and did a workshop there.

Probably several times teaching at VOM in California—Valley of the Moon. The fiddle player was Alasdair Fraser. Started going there in 1989, I think it was, and then ’91, ’92, ’93. Besides doing that, actually flew for weekend workshops in San Francisco with the dancing groups there. So I’d get there on Friday, and I’d teach Saturday, Sunday, and fly home Monday kind of thing. Taught at the Seattle Fèis in Seattle, Washington. Taught in Chicago.

Actually, Buddy and I went to Utah to Robert Redford’s Sundance camp. Not at the time that they were at the film festival there. There’s a family in Utah that are musical that we met at VOM, and they then had fiddle and dance in this environment, and they were personal friends with Robert Redford. They would go and entertain at his home, this family—the Bigneys—with roots in New Glasgow actually. And so he gave them that space to utilize for some workshops. I still keep in touch with them from time to time. And then various things, you know. We went to Whitehorse. Brian Doyle and I, Janine Randall, Buddy MacMaster. Taught the lessons there.

Buddy MacMaster and Mary Janet rapping at the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in northern California.

And taught in Alberta. The family that I went to teach for out there, they started coming then to Cape Breton. And then they’ve moved here permanently. They’ve been here for about 10 years now. David and Michelle Greenwell. She had a dance school out there, and a child that had been visiting Cape Breton saw the dancing. (Michelle) brought me out there a couple of times. (Then) three van loads (of students and parents) came from Alberta to tour the island. And (the Greenwells) moved here. They’re living on the Brook Village road, down near Hillsborough, and have been great. It’s just wonderful what dance and music does to people, you know?

(You say ’71 you were married?) Yes, married in ’71. When we first got married, we rented—for $25 a month—a large home down in Port Hood. And then we moved two or three times until 1980. I think we were in three different places from ’71 to ’80. Then there was an old house on this property and that’s where we lived. But it was just not worth fixing up. We started and then we gave up, and in the late ’80s, we built this house.

Mary Janet and Cecil MacDonald on their wedding day in 1971.

(You had seven in your family?) Seven children. Four girls and three boys. The oldest is Tammy. She lives in Fort McMurray. And then Brennan. He lives in Halifax. Then Margie. She lives in Fort McMurray. Her and my daughter Tammy are both at the same school. Margie is a high school math teacher there and Tammy is the librarian. And then Gordie. He works January to May and September to December on the Suncor site (in northern Alberta) in quality control. He’s a welding inspector. And then my twins, Kelly and Krista, they live in Halifax. And then Mitchell. He’s the only one on the island … and Gordie lives with us when he’s not working in the West. (And did Cecil work close to home?) Yeah, he’s retired since about 10 years now. He was a school teacher.

When I graduated from high school in 1969, I came to work for the school board here in Port Hood. When my children were little, I stayed home, from ’72 to ’77. And I went back to work in ’77. Cecil was working at the pulp mill at the time but he had his bachelor of arts degree. And he went back to university in ’77 and got his education degree, and then started working. Between maternity leaves, I still worked at the school board, and then after I finished with the school board I stayed home for a couple of years. I felt I worked all my life to that point, but I was in my early 50s I suppose by then.

So, 2002, I think I finished with the school board. Then I stayed home for a couple of years. And then I did a little bit of work around here with the museum. I worked for a summer at the museum—the Chestico Museum—and then with the community cable channel. I worked with that for a bit. And then got a call this day from Francis Moloney. He was a lawyer that practised out of his own home down in Port Hood. It was at the time when the land registration system was coming in for Nova Scotia. He needed somebody who would search titles so that they could be registered and lands could be migrated. So I worked for him for maybe two years or something. He ended up dying from pancreatic cancer. Then I went to work for another law firm in Port Hawkesbury—Evans MacIsaac MacMillan. I worked for them maybe for a couple of years until my daughter called from out West. She was working on the oilsands site. That was in 2009.

(Which daughter?) Kelly. She had gone and gotten work out there as an admin on site out there. They were short. Two people, I think, had quit. She called and said, ‘Mum, you could do this, you know. You just need to know Excel inside out and book the flights and make sure they’re paid and whatever.’ I handed the phone to Cecil, and she talked to Cecil, and he said, ‘I think you should do that.’ So I went to work the next day, put my notice in. I was out there a week later working, and so began that journey until June of 2017.

I worked steady with a few weeks off in between each project. I did admin work but then I moved into document control. You’re working with the plans, you know, all of the drawings that are done by the engineers for a specific project or expansion or whatever. And you work with the turnover books and stuff like that for the life of the project. (In 2017), I turned 65 in February. And I started in March, that last project. And they were stopping paying flights when the oil downturn came in. I just said, ‘You know what, I’m done.’

The MacDonald clan of East Street in Port Hood.

(You mentioned your great-grandfather, Big Dan. He would go back to the early 1850s. There’s talk about whether the step dancing has changed. Is your feeling that it was pretty close to how it came from Scotland?) I have nothing to base that on entirely. He was born in 1850. He was dancing from the time he was a young man. It filtered through his family somehow. Mama was born in 1902. Within that span of time, the only thing we know for sure is that Big Dan would have danced lots of times within the family and in the community, and that he did go to a couple of dance schools. Travelling dance masters came around. I know one of them was in Judique for sure. And so did it change? How do we know for sure?

There’s differences of opinion even in Scotland. When I went there in 1983, I did not go prepared to argue that it was from there. And there were people that were questioning me about the authenticity of it being something that came from Scotland. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what to tell you. I just know that this was passed on to me by somebody was born in 1902 who learned from her father who was born in 1850.’ People came here in the 1830s, so I think it’s pretty pure.

But I understand, too, that there are other influences that can come—cross-cultural. Some of these people were saying that it was Irish. And there are definitely similarities with a dance in Ireland that you don’t so much see. I’m not talking about Riverdance. No, no, no, no. They identified the dance as sean-nós (old style) dancing. And you know, when I see that, I can understand how the people from Scotland at that time would think that it was Irish because it’s so close to this style of dancing. More percussiveness and not high stepping or anything like that. So many similarities I find through our dancing, you know?

But people came from Ireland and settled in Scotland. Maybe where they settled, the dancing started there. Who knows? But Hamish (Moore) really believes with all of his heart that our dancing comes from there, from Scotland, you know. And he lectures on that. He’s investigated it and done interviews.

Mary Janet step dancing to the singing of Angus Cu MacDonald.

(Would you call it Cape Breton step dancing or Scottish step dancing or does it matter?) I guess I’ve been calling it Cape Breton step dancing. Many times I refer to us as a people as Scottish. But I was corrected recently on that—not me personally. But Frances MacEachen—who I know really well, I taught her step dancing when she was little—she’s got some connection with (the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia). She’s from here in Port Hood. But she said, ‘Many people refer to ourselves as Scottish, you know, of Scottish descent. But we are Gaels.’ Not that that should be the handle for step dancing either.

It’s almost like saying, you know, how the Protestants used to feel in school when they were referred to as the non-Catholics. How awful we were—it’s Catholics and everyone else is a non-Catholic. I hate to marginalize or whatever you want to call it. So when I refer to it as step dancing, I want to refer to it just as step dancing because we have people who are step dancers from Antigonish that are incredible, and to almost leave them out of that, it’s not true. Because where did the ships come and drop the people (immigrant Gaels) off? Pictou. So they settled all along there.

(If somebody was playing and it wasn’t an organized thing—you just felt like getting up and dancing—can you explain what you’re feeling there?) That’s my absolutely favourite thing to do. And that’s where I am most comfortable. So, you’re sitting there and tunes can be playing. But you hear a tune that you absolutely connect with as a dancer. A strathspey—that is the call to a dancer. That’s the call. You turn on. It’s like, ‘OK, who’s going to get up first?’ Because it’s such a short period of time before they break out into the reels. You have to get in there if you want to dance. Now I have to wait my time and maybe get up and do a 20-second bit or whatever. It’s that house atmosphere comfort of just being spontaneous. I just can’t explain it more than that. But in that environment, that’s where the love affair is, absolutely, without a doubt.

(Is there a certain strathspey?) Not particularly, no. Just the timing. No, just the strathspey. (You don’t have favourite tunes?) No, I never really did. But the old ones, you know, like King George, well that’s the king. I’m not good at naming tunes. I know them when they’re played. But that of course, King George, and I love the King’s Reel, you know.

(What would you say the health of step dancing is right now?) Oh my God, I think it’s great. There are so many wonderful people that are involved and teaching it. And wholesomely teaching in group environments and in homes. Cheryl MacQuarrie, she started like jam sessions for the kids. She’s already teaching them dancing in square sets, but creating the environment where the young musicians come and they’re playing for the young ones to dance. Melody Cameron, she’s married to my cousin, and she lives in West Mabou. They run a farm there. She’s taking the teaching to a whole new level.

(Are there things you think you should do when you’re dancing?) I guess the style was just feet close together, neat, close to the floor. But that comes naturally. And our arms are just loose and down by our sides. I don’t lift my arms. Some may. But that’s just that kind of style that was in our family and are in a lot of the dancers, too, to this day.

The hardest thing that I’ve ever done is smile up there on the stage. I look back at maybe something that I’ve seen of my own self and I’m not smiling. I’m only thinking of my feet and I’m thinking that everybody else is looking at my feet. But when you look at other dance styles or whatever, it’s a performance. And you have to project that you’re loving what you’re doing. You’re loving what you’re doing but you’re not smiling. But I try to do that to make it pleasant looking. You don’t want to have a frown.

Mary Janet and Father Eugene Morris step dancing together at a concert.

(If you’re looking at the younger generation, if somebody’s doing something a little different, do you have to kind of grin and bear it?) Yes. As you know, you open yourself up. People coming to visit Cape Breton—there’s more exposure. There’s television and there’s other styles. It changes.

The ankle bends or kicks or whatever might wow an audience, but it’s probably not traditional. But it gets the biggest wow. So that goes out to other younger dancers and they all want to do that one. Those little influences come in and they do change things for some dancers. It’s not that I cringe, you know? They’re very talented, what they can do. I guess we have to be open to change.

Mac Morin (pianist, step dancer and step dance teacher), he’ll come now and again, and we’ll have a visit. We have some really in-depth chats about that. That’s one of his big things. He wants to keep it as traditional as possible.

A tune composed for Mary Janet by her niece Dawn Beaton during her time managing Strathspey Place in Mabou. A number of composers, from Dan R. MacDonald to Kinnon Beaton, have made tunes in honour of Mary Janet and her family.

(Was there a high school group, Celtic Crew?) Yes, yes. (Can you tell me a little bit about that?) Oh my gosh, when I went to Strathspey Place in Mabou, you’re in the middle of Dalbrae Academy and kids are there. And I wondered if we couldn’t work with some of the kids. Some were playing fiddle, some could sing, some played the piano and all that. I started gathering them together until I had a group of 10.

I had little Rankin MacInnis from the time he was in Grade 8. He was part of the group, and now he’s in music pretty much full-time. He’s a piper, anyway, but sings as well. Tara Rankin from Mabou, she lives in Scotland full-time now. She came on a trip to Scotland with me. I had the group over there—we performed—and she fell in love with Scotland. She said, ‘I’m definitely coming back here.’ And so she went back there to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (a college where instruction is in Scottish Gaelic) in Skye, and she took the program over there, Gaelic studies I think. Beautiful Gaelic singer, lovely piano player and she can step dance as well. She’s still there.

Mitch was in that group. He would sing like Celtic songs. We adapted it so that he could sing some Jimmy Rankin songs. Then Margie Beaton was a big part of that group, my niece. And Kenneth MacKenzie. His brother Calum was a big part of that group. He stayed with it more than Kenneth, who was only in it for one year before he graduated, I guess. Calum was piano and fiddle. Kimberly Gillis—she lives out West now—beautiful fiddle player. Many were transitioning through there. Kerri-Jeanne MacLellan from Judique. She is now the keyboard (player) and backup vocalist for Alvvays. Molly (Rankin) was also in Celtic Crew for a very short time. Molly being John Morris’s daughter and the singer behind Alvvays. Stephanie MacDonald, from Whycocomagh, and she’s now a teacher at Dalbrae. The members came and went as they left school, but I only had them for three years I guess.

Members of Celtic Crew. In front, from left, Tara Rankin, Margie Beaton, Kimberly Gillis, Shoneth MacInnis and Stephanie MacDonald. In back, from left, Rankin MacInnis, Kerri-Jeanne MacLellan, Mitch MacDonald, Calum MacKenzie and Peter MacInnis. Other members of the group included Tiffany Beks, Sheena Boucher, Carolyn MacArthur, Blair MacDonald, Keith MacDonald, Kyle MacDonald, Kolten MacDonell, Kenneth MacKenzie, John Clayton Rankin, Molly Rankin, Sara Rankin and Rachael Ryan.

My role was, say, the manager. Every week, we would gather and practise. I applied for some funding. So I got them some additional instruments like flutes, and recording devices so that they could record and practice. Just kind of got them together and got them thinking about how we could do a concert, and make everybody strong in getting up in front of a mic and being self-sufficient.

They would all be MCs. And some of them were so shy. It was amazing what they did. (Did you insist on that?) Yes.

After polishing up their performances and their singing, I would get some mentors in to say, ‘Here’s a group of tunes that you guys can learn.’ And then they would put it together and they would practise and practise that. Then they would step dance to one of the others playing for them. And they would change seats on the piano. It was usually Calum MacKenzie on the piano or Tara Rankin or her brother John Clayton. He was in it for a little bit.

They got asked to be an opening act for Natalie MacMaster’s show for Celtic Colours over in Whycocomagh at the new school. So we had a half-hour performance ready. Those kids were so nervous. This was a sold-out show. I don’t know how many people they could fit in there. I’m thinking it was around 600 or 700. Once they got on stage, they were on their own. I was at the back and we had the whole show scheduled. They each were taking turns speaking.

And Calum MacKenzie, he played a solo piano piece, right from a march, through strathspey, through the reel. And whole time just sombre, head down. That was Calum, because he was really shy. And he played it perfectly. Perfectly. And got a standing ovation from that audience. Oh my God, that makes me tear up just remembering that moment. And Margie Beaton was the one to introduce the next number. I can still see her standing there. She’s looking and Calum looks up. And Margie says, ‘Well now, Calum,’—just like having that spontaneity—‘I think they would like to hear another one.’ Which was not in the program! And people sat down. Calum played another number and the audience clapped. Then they went to the next number and it was a song. And then there was the pipes. We had a nice mix.

And then somebody came over to me—I think it was Burton MacIntyre—and says, ‘OK, we just got word, Natalie’s plane was delayed. She’s not going to be here for another half an hour.’

So I go up and around and I ended up talking to Margie, my niece, and said, ‘Margie, you guys are going to have to wing it from here. Don’t do the finale. Just work on stuff that we’ve done before that you have in your head.’ Ian McNeil, I think, was the MC. So he came up. And our kids are furiously chatting amongst themselves. They’ll figure it out. I knew that they would but they were nervous too. And Ian said, ‘How would you like to listen to these folks for another 20 minutes or so?’

Brad Davidge was Natalie’s guitar player. Natalie’s clothes didn’t come and neither did Brad’s guitar. So Burton MacIntyre gave his black socks to Natalie to put on and Mitchell had to give his guitar to Brad Davidge to play for the show—the whole show—because the equipment didn’t come. They managed to put on an amazing show regardless. Natalie borrowed somebody else’s clothes or whatever.

But anyway, that Celtic Crew, they wowed the audience that night. And they got a standing ovation at the end for entertaining for that period of time. Mitchell had to end up singing some extra songs too. He was on for two songs and I think he ended up singing four that he could take from different things we’d done before. It was really enriching for them. I think they were a pretty tight little group by the time we finished. I didn’t have the musical ability, but I could manage them and say, ‘You know, this would be a nice mix. OK, you guys figure out what you want to play and hear.’ Just give them confidence.

(And would you have tips for them?) Yeah, suggestions on how to perform. They had a little tribute for me a couple of years ago down here during Chestico Days (Port Hood’s summer festival). And they wanted to know … anybody I wanted. I said, ‘I would love to see some of the Celtic Crew.’

Anyway, they came and they roasted me. You don’t even know what you’re saying or doing. One of the things that they would do, some of them would wear white socks and they had black pants on. And I would say, ‘For God’s sakes, will you wear black socks?’ And then a couple of times they would chew on gum, and I ate the head off them. You don’t do that! (Laughter). But you know, just smile, don’t chew gum, don’t wear white socks. All I did was picked up on a few things like that. Just managing a performance group, I guess, and what I’d be looking at as an audience member. And if we got paid for anything, the money went to every one of them. And they performed a few little places.

It’s great memories for them. And we kept it up a little bit after I left (Strathspey Place). But it just kind of dwindled out because the majority of them that were so talented had graduated by that point, and there wasn’t a new crop coming up.

Mary Janet’s son Mitch, right, during his time performing on Canadian Idol in 2008. He was runner-up. He’s pictured with Mariah Carey and the show’s winner, Theo Tams.

(When Natalie started to get kind of big, what did that mean to the family?) Oh my God, just a feeling of such pride. And a lot of the time it was pride for Mama. We were so proud that Mama could see that this was continuing into the next generation. Dawn and Margie weren’t there yet, but Natalie had just accelerated quickly to the world stage, really. Mama was so proud of that.

(What was it about her?) She was such a dancer from such a young age. And it wasn’t step dancing, it was Highland dancing. She was a Highland dancer. That was her thing and she just excelled at that. Medals galore. Minnie would teach her a little bit of step dancing at the time. So she had that Highland dance-like flavour in her step dancing. Maybe a little bit of higher stepping and stuff like that. And then she picked up the fiddle. It was her father, really, who started her off on that. A fiddle came into her possession from an uncle. I think it was Charlie MacMaster. And of course, Alex, he’s a closet fiddler—Minnie’s husband and Buddy’s brother. He started her on a few little tunes and she just got it. And the rest is absolute history.

(Is there any explanation for that?) It’s natural ability. I would say it’s just completely ingrained in her. She would get that from both sides of the family. But the thing is, it’s an incubator, you’re surrounded by it. You play the music in the house, and you may not think that you’re taking in those tunes, but she obviously was. Minnie, she’s got fiddle music on all the time. All the time. And Uncle Buddy bringing the fiddle into the house. The tunes, she didn’t have to learn that. She knew them by ear. And then she started (lessons) with Stan Chapman in Antigonish. That’s it.

(But there had to be some real work ethic?) Oh totally. Practising, practising all the time. And didn’t have to be pushed to it. She just absolutely loved it. Minnie would tell you that herself. Didn’t have to push her to do anything. And she didn’t want to make mistakes. I think that that’s why she practised and just got the sound. She had such a good ear.

I think she was 10 and that was at Mabou Ceilidh concert. I think that was her first public performance. Minnie was nervous about it. God, nobody could believe that this 10-year-old was that good.

Two sisters dancing with their daughters. From left, Tammy and Mary Janet MacDonald and Natalie and Minnie MacMaster.

Again, you wonder if there’s such things as forerunners. I went to Sunday mass this one day in November of ’95 and I saw a lady in church that takes pictures. Janet van Zutphen. And I said, ‘Now that would be a nice thing to do for my kids for Christmas … is have a nice picture of both of their grandmothers.’ Because the grandfathers were gone. So after church I came home and called Janet van Zutphen and said, ‘Janet, would you make a house call?’ I told her what for. I said, ‘I’ll take Cecil’s mother down and Mama—if Mama will do this—but I’m going to ask you first.’ She said absolutely.

So we made a date for Thursday afternoon. Mama agreed. And Marie, Cecil’s mother, I knew she would anyway, but Mama didn’t like people taking her picture. Anyway, we got there on that Thursday afternoon and Mama had a top which isn’t on her there. She couldn’t close the buttons that day. The tips of her fingers were bothering her and she couldn’t close them. So she changed and we got the picture taken. And, oh my God, all the laughing we did, oh my dear God. Because Janet had the umbrellas and the lights and everything to make it perfect.

That was Thursday. And on the following Monday, I had to take Mama down to outpatients because this was worse on her fingers. I took her down and they said it was gout and gave her medication. And I stayed with her that day and then she didn’t get better. The following Monday, she was admitted to the hospital, and that night she went into a coma. Dawn and Margie came with their fiddles. They sat at the end of the bed, and we were all there, and they were playing the tunes. And like her feet—her toes—were keeping time to the music. And her in a coma.

Then she died on the 25th, the following Saturday. And the day before she died, I came home to shower and to get changed because we were in the hospital the whole time with her. And the pictures were on the table from Janet. I’m so thankful when I look at that picture that we had it done. She was 93 in that picture. Born in 1902 and died in 1995. So that’s a favourite picture.

A treasured photo of Maggie Ann Beaton at the age of 93 taken by Janet van Zutphen.

(Your father, you never went back with him?) I never went back. And I only found out as an adult that—once we were to start school—he wanted us back, and Mama or Sarah Ann couldn’t part with us. And he just said, you know, ‘That’s OK.’ I would go back for two to three weeks every summer, Christmas, my birthday and that sort of thing. And I absolutely adored him. He was so sweet. And when we went into the new school, Mabou Consolidated, in the early ’60s, he became the new janitor there. I saw him every day. And then in 1968—he was 54—he died in his sleep. I was in Grade 11.

(Did he take a heart attack?) It was a heart attack. And it was horrid. It was really sad. It was very, very, very sad. Of course, all the women were saying he died of a broken heart, you know, he just pined away for her for many years. And we all thought he was a healthy man. But my brother was still at home at that time. He had finished school, John Donald, the fellow that got killed (in an industrial accident) when he was 28. But he got up—he was working in Port Hood—and he noticed that Daddy’s truck was still home. He went downstairs and Daddy hadn’t made the porridge that morning and the stove was out. He thought that was really strange. He went back upstairs to see if Daddy was home and he walked in the bedroom. He was dead in the bed.

(How did it work out with the other siblings?) My father kept the three oldest because they were in school, and he could work and not have to get a babysitter. And his sister lived there too. She was single. She didn’t get married until she was like 38 or 39. He would go away to work in Elliot Lake (in Ontario). (Was he a miner?) Yeah, he worked in the mines. He moved home because she was getting married, and found work at home. That’s when he was janitor.

The MacDonald siblings with their father Donald in 1958.

(You mentioned you were four when you danced with Minnie. Did you ever suffer from stage fright?) That concert when she had me up on the stage when I was four. I remember it. I went up on the stage holding her hand and we danced together. I had my finger in my mouth and I danced.

I’m thinking my mother would have died just probably six months before that. Everybody in that audience was from Mabou. They’re looking at this little girl whose mother had died. So there’s that kind of empathy that’s going on there. And they went crazy clapping when I was done. Mama was in the front row. And when I got off the stage, I just ran and I bawled my eyes out in Mama’s lap because it just frightened me—this reaction—and didn’t understand that.

But looking back at it now, I think that feeling must have been there from the audience that, ‘Oh my God, wouldn’t Margie—my mother—be so proud.’

Mary Janet’s daughter Margie took this photo of her mother looking over the water in her childhood community of Mabou in the summer of 2018.
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