A look back at living off the land
In late fall 1970, Ross Klatte and wife April were driving from his parents’ golf course outside Minneapolis, where they’d been living and working, to B.C. to winter in Queens Bay.
They were considering staying there with April’s older sister, husband, and two children from a previous marriage and going back to the land together.
“As an ex-farm boy, I was anything but sentimental about life on the land,” says Klatte, who recently recounted the experience for the Learning in Retirement group. “To live communally unless you have religious or deeply philosophical common ground is pretty difficult.”
He knew to expect hard physical labour, and that nature could nurture or destroy in equal, fickle measure. Nevertheless, by spring, he and April decided to stay.
Her sister was receiving child support payments, while everyone else contributed with whatever part-time work they could find. Household duties, including cooking and child care, were shared. Major decisions, financial and otherwise, were made together.
“Our ultimate goal was to find land we could afford and settle on it,” Klatte says.
He and his wife went tree planting while April’s sister and husband stayed home to plant a garden.
“Our garden produced vegetables. We acquired a pair of goats to supply milk. Otherwise we ate a lot of beans and rice and shopped as little as possible in Nelson.”
That summer, they returned to Minnesota to fetch the rest of their belongings, including a Winchester rifle, and “feasted on venison... after I shot a deer in the cedar swamp below the Queens Bay townsite.”
Klatte was not a draft dodger — in fact, he served in the U.S. Navy — but the couple became provisional Canadian immigrants. Meanwhile, “other dropouts, dissidents, and wandering hippies drifted in, until there were as many as ten people and their kids living in and around the house.”
They were all refugees, Klatte says, escaping the “straight, striving world” of their parents.
Theirs was just one of several back-to-the-land communes in the area. Others in the Slocan Valley got help from the Doukhobors, who once lived communally themselves. While these collectives are long gone, many of their founders remain in the area.
Klatte’s communal family lasted until spring 1972, when April’s sister’s marriage broke up and she and her new partner set out on their own. Ross and April, meanwhile, had “gotten somewhat tenuously back together after our ‘open marriage’ experiments, and now we recommitted to each other.”
He cut his hair, trimmed his beard, put on a tie, and went job-hunting in Nelson, where he applied for the assistant registrar’s position at Notre Dame University. The registrar was fellow Queens Bay resident Ed Baravelle — a former MGM composer who emigrated to Canada after being blacklisted in the U.S. during the McCarthy era.
“Ross, my God, I didn’t know you were going to apply,” he said. “I just hired somebody. But wait! Maybe I can get out of it.”
That night Baravelle stopped by to tell Klatte the job was his.
Ross and April moved into town for a year, then bought ten acres of cleared land near Balfour and started homesteading.
“We planted a garden, finished the one-room cabin on the place, [and] hired a draft resister turned carpenter to build a one-room addition with a sleeping loft before the snow flew.”
In 1977, they became Canadian citizens, built a second addition that included indoor plumbing to replace their outhouse, and adopted a son.
Klatte put his newfound practical skills to good use.
“I learned to use a chainsaw, without cutting my toes or a leg off, and to gather enough firewood for the winters,” he says. “I acquired enough building skills to put the siding up on our house and shake the roof. I managed, albeit rather funkily, to do the plumbing for our bathroom.”
They still live on the land, he says, “though we never lived entirely off it.” They kept chickens until their dog got into the coop one day, and had bees until they discovered April was allergic to stings and Ross got tired of chasing bears away.
“We continue to keep a garden and have a small orchard. I don’t hunt anymore, but I could again, if I had to. We could live, in short, as we once did and may have to again.”
Their son and some of his friends, he notes, are now attracted to the back-to-the-land idea.
Klatte, who worked at David Thompson University Centre and Selkirk College until retiring in 1998, is writing a novel based on his experiences tentatively titled Waiting for the Revolution. He previously chronicled his Minnesota upbringing in Leaving the Farm.