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James Lawrence’s tidy, buttoned-down appearance surprised visitors to Harrowsmith who expected a hippy homesteader vibe. Circa. 1981.Handout

While many idealists of the 1970s quit their city careers to pursue modest back-to-the-land dreams, 29-year-old James M. Lawrence took a more ambitious tack. Instead of converting a chicken coop into a drafty solar house, he and his wife Elinor Campbell-Lawrence, a teacher, launched Harrowsmith magazine, the periodical destined to become Canada’s rural lifestyle bible. Mr. Lawrence recently died of congestive heart failure in Burlington, Vermont. He was 76.

The magazine’s 1976 seat-of-the-pants launch was well-known to its loyal readers: frustrated newspaper reporter recruits 707 subscribers through a low-cost ad in an American gardening magazine and uses a $3,500 bank loan to print 25,000 black-and-white copies of Issue One.

For months, a small crew of unpaid colleagues from The Kingston Whig-Standard joined Lawrence’s neighbours around the kitchen table of his rented farmhouse to prepare the first 64-page issue.

From the very beginning, Harrowsmith (named after a nearby village) was an eclectic mix of practical “how-to” stories about gardening, animal husbandry and cooking, accompanied by ambitious environmental reporting. An experienced investigative journalist, Mr. Lawrence regularly assigned hard-hitting stories about threats from such large-scale villains as forestry companies, chemical manufacturers, and the nuclear industry. His mild-mannered, bookish appearance masked a fervent belief in social justice.

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The Harrowsmith cover for the 32nd issue in 1980.Handout

Issue One’s lead story, Give My Regards to Loblaws, chronicled how families could escape the tyranny of $50/week grocery bills by planting a garden.

The first copies were hand-labelled and mailed at the counter of the local general store in Camden East (population 256), a village 35 kms west of Kingston. Within weeks of the launch, elderly postmistress Hope Hartman was handling tens of thousands of reply-envelopes from rural dreamers willing to pay $6 annually for six issues.

While Ms. Hartman staggered under the load of each day’s mail bags, the local township council offered rent-free office space across the street in its small library. Washroom facilities were available at the neighbouring Texaco station. By the end of 1977, circulation had risen to 75,000 and the following year Harrowsmith was declared Canada’s Magazine of the Year by the National Magazine Awards Foundation.

Mr. Lawrence’s folksy, self-deprecating editorials won the loyalty of his readers despite a subscription process that was always on the brink of collapse. For every reader who threatened to quit over missed issues, a dozen more wrote letters in support of the enterprise. Harrowsmith’s Letters Page was an artful assemblage of huffy indignation and lavish praise. Homesteading purists – always on the lookout for editorial compromises – often complained about truck ads, glossy paper, and even scrutinized the colour illustrations for subliminal messages. Mr. Lawrence gleefully published their most ludicrous complaints.

The growing readership spawned an avalanche of 100 unsolicited manuscripts a week, including the occasional gem. Vermont subscriber E. Annie Proulx submitted a couple of stories in 1981 prior to publication of her acclaimed novel, The Shipping News.

Gradually, it became obvious that more editorial staff were needed.

Former CBC producer Jennifer Bennett joined up in 1977 but was unprepared for the James-Lawrence editing machine.

“I was shocked when I saw my first story in print,” recalls Ms Bennett. “I didn’t recognize a single word and felt embarrassed to see my byline.” Such heavy rewrites were common then; Mr. Lawrence rolled every story through his IBM Selectric typewriter to give the magazine its signature mix of punchy ledes, solid facts and playful humour.

Ms Bennett eventually mastered the Harrowsmith style and spent almost 20 years writing and editing for the magazine – unlike an unemployed music critic who only lasted a few issues as alternative energy editor.

Mr. Lawrence, born in Binghamton, NY on November 11, 1946, grew up with an interest in gardening and food. His father, Merton, worked in a local greenhouse; his mother Anne (Spernyak) was a cook. While Mr. Lawrence intended to become a veterinarian, he switched to journalism at Cornell University. After graduation, he, and his Canadian wife, Elinor, spent two years in Putumayo, Colombia with the U.S. Peace Corps. Upon their return, Mr. Lawrence earned a master’s degree in magazine publishing at University of Syracuse then worked as a reporter at the Kingston Whig-Standard until starting Harrowsmith.

Anxious to improve cash flow in 1979, Mr. Lawrence started publishing books under the Camden House imprint, focusing at first on cookbooks and do-it-yourself titles. Then, buoyed by the editorial success of Harrowsmith, he launched Equinox – Canada’s answer to National Geographic – in 1981. But it only created a host of new financial problems.

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The Equinox cover for the November/December issue in 1982.Handout

Editorial and printing costs were high, as was the cost of paying the 50 staffers who filled two heritage buildings in Camden East. Most devastating though was a rancorous dispute with Ms Campbell-Lawrence over ownership of the new enterprises. After a high-profile court case, the couple divorced, and the company was saddled with an expensive buyout.

“James was a genius,” recalls Equinox’s first advertising director Al Zikovitz, who later founded Cottage Life magazine. “He produced outstanding editorial and design. But he wasn’t good at business.”

While multiple categories of easy-money ads were banned, including tobacco and guns, James didn’t cut back on editorial content, flying photographers and writers around the globe regularly.

Adventurer Patrick Morrow photographed dozens of stories. “Equinox was a showcase for my work and many others who gave readers a rare Canadian perspective of the world.”

In 1985, Mr. Lawrence moved to Vermont with his second wife Alice (one of Harrowsmith’s founding staffers) to launch an American version of Harrowsmith, but a third periodical only put more strain on the company. In April 1987, he sold the Canadian operation to Toronto-based Telemedia Publishing, publisher of Canadian Living.

In a guest Harrowsmith editorial in 1991, Mr. Lawrence wrote that he hoped he would be judged, “for having attempted to make a difference… and most of all, for sticking to the simple country ethic of honesty and love for the land…”

By then, Telemedia executives had already begun to stray from that editorial path and, shortly after, closed the Camden East offices. It sold the company in 1996.

Mr. Lawrence died May 7, after several years of poor health. He is survived by his partner of 16 years Judy Billard, his three daughters, Jessica, a conservation biologist, Kerry, a veterinarian, and Bayley, a communications manager for an organic spice start-up, and their mother Alice Z. Lawrence.

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