Thirty-third in a series of pioneer profiles
The first time Betty Tillotson and her family visited Argenta, she left thinking “Beautiful place, lovely people, but we couldn’t live there. It’s too remote.”
By the time they reached Balfour, however, she started to change her mind.
“We got to the ferry and it came back twice for people left behind. We thought ‘Wow, isn’t that great? That wouldn’t happen anywhere else. This might be a good place to live.’”
This “compassionate, relaxed place” stuck in her mind, and in 1972, Tillotson and her four children, ages 10 to 19, moved to Argenta permanently.
“I spent a while worrying about it, because I said we weren’t going to do it unless they all agreed,” she recalls. “And when they did, I realized I didn’t have to make up my mind. It was great to have all of them want to be on this new adventure.”
They packed everything into their Volkswagen bus — the goldfish tank sat on someone’s lap — and headed out from White Rock. Their arrival on April 1 made her wonder about the wisdom of the move, but it didn’t take her long to conclude it was not foolish.
“We were going to have chickens and cows and do all these country things [the kids] hadn’t done before and were excited about,” she says. “Some of those happened and others didn’t.”
Her neighbours were friendly and helpful, although one privately complained “It’ll just be another single woman with a washing machine we’ll have to help fix.”
“Hearing that made me decide I was going to learn to fix my own things,” Tillotson says. “And I did. I learned some plumbing and some electrical work, which was useful.” (She also helped insulate the ceiling of the community hall when it was built.)
On a previous visit, she took an option on the Wolfe family’s property; they agreed to sell about the same time she decided to make Argenta her home. But she felt 25 acres was more than one family needed and opted to share it with others in a co-op. Today half a dozen people live on the land and divvy up garden space and other amenities. “It’s worked into an extended family,” Tillotson says.
She began teaching her children and others at the Argenta Friends (Quaker) school and soon became involved with a fledgling publication.
THE SMALLHOLDER’S STORY
Not long after her arrival, a local couple hosted a publisher from Mayne Island and discussed launching a magazine about rural life, made up of questions and answers from readers.
Thus The Smallholder — “an exchange of ideas and information of interest to country people” — was born. The following year, the couple went to Papua New Guinea and asked Tillotson if her students would take over some of the tasks. That continued up to issue 49 at which point the publisher opted out. The Argenta Friends Press has handled the printing ever since.
The latest issue — No. 117, comprised of pages 3,118 to 3,148 — contains letters from as near as New Denver and as far away as Kerikeri, New Zealand. It’s delightfully low-tech, produced on a “misbehaving” typewriter. The editorial salutation welcomes a new subscriber in Fairfax, Virginia and laments that for the first time, some items are accompanied by email addresses only, without mailing addresses. (The Smallholder has no email address itself.)
“Part of our resistance to email-only addresses has been wanting to give our readers a choice, thinking that some of you may share our reluctance to assume that everyone in the world should have this expensive piece of equipment,” it says. “[It] seems to be an unrealistic assumption in a world where so many people are in need of life’s basic necessities.”
The press run is 450 and it comes out “at least twice a year,” or approximately whenever the volunteer staff has enough material. You can buy a six-issue subscription — which lasts a few years — or find it at Otter Books in Nelson and the Gray Creek Store.
While it started out with lots of how-to articles on things like building a chicken house, growing a garden, or tanning leather, there aren’t as many today.
“We have fewer people writing to tell us how they did things,” Tillotson says. “People still like it in spite of that. It’s fun to do and there are always people willing to help.”
The Friends Press has indicated it will continue to print The Smallholder as long as Tillotson and others are willing to put in the effort, but at 87, she’s not sure how long that will be.
“I do all the editing and typing and then somebody puts it on a light table and does the layout. Those things require a lot of commitment. But it’s worth it because so many people want it.”
FROM MODESTO TO ARGENTA
Tillotson came to Canada in 1967 from Modesto, Calif., where she was active in the Vietnam war resistance movement, counselling young men to avoid the draft. The last straw was when her eight-year-old son asked: “Daddy, which jail will I go to when I get to be 18?”
“We thought no child should ever have to ask that,” Tillotson says. “We had three sons who would be subject to being drafted.”
In Vancouver, she worked with the Committee to Aid American War Objectors. “That was a good experience. Lots of people helped us find jobs for people or places where they could stay. And the whole Canadian population was sympathetic at that time.”
She stayed in touch with quite a few of those young men, who came to Canada unsure if they would ever go home. When amnesty was declared later, some did return but many remained.
“Canada got a lot of good people in those years,” Tillotson says. “In the early days many came thinking they would go out in the woods with an axe and bag of oats and they’d be all set! It wasn’t quite like that. But the Canadian people were kind and helpful.”
Through Friends connections she heard about Argenta, where Quaker families from California settled in the 1950s. Despite some media reports to the contrary, she says their Friends meetings are not dying.
While the school closed in 1982 and the Friends Press is mostly inactive, more people have joined them in recent years and they’ve raised money to build water systems in Haiti.
At the same time, while it once seemed half the community had some connection to the Friends school or its meetings, Tillotson says that is no longer the case.
Further comparing the community as she first saw it with today, she notes “it still has some of the same good things with people caring about each other.”
Fewer people make their own entertainment — Sunday afternoon soccer games and big Halloween parties don’t happen as much — “but I do think the feeling is still there.”
Forty years on, Tillotson is an Argenta elder (along with Agnes Herbison and Edith Mautner), pleased to see people in their 80s and 90s talking with little kids: “It’s always been a community where age didn’t matter much.”
Previous installments in this series