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.
(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.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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’.
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.
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).
(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.
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.
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?’
(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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
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.’