MAXWELL’S HOUSE 30 years ago, while many of his big city classmates were taking jobs with prestigious corporations, our tools editor Steve Maxwell, then 22, bought a chunk of wild farmland on Manitoulin Island and lived out of a tent. He wanted to build a stone house and raise a family there. Here’s how he made his dream come true. Steve Maxwell has been Canadian Contractor tools editor since 2002, but he does more than just test tools and write about them from his shop on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Steve is also a carpenter, cabinetmaker and stonemason with an audience of a million people in print and online. Back in 1986, Steve moved from the suburbs of Toronto to a 90-acre piece of farmland and forest in a quiet corner of Ontario. He and his wife, Mary, are now at the tail end of raising five kids in the stone house they built themselves on their Manitoulin homestead. Normally the journalist asking the questions in our pages, Steve agreed to be on the other side of the interview this time and tell us about his homesteading experiences. Steve, you’ve recently started writing about your homesteading journey on Manitoulin Island (see excerpt from Steve’s Bailey Line Road Chronicles, page 18). At first, you were tempted to give up? For Mary and I, buying that 90-acre piece of Manitoulin Island was a dream that came true after four years of searching across Ontario for the right area that was also inexpensive. But after investing all my money on this piece of land, the enormity of the project ahead of me discouraged me like nothing else had before or since. This was an emotional thing, but emotions are often deceiving. There were two things that kept me going in the beginning. First, I kept reminding myself that from a logical point of view, it was a good idea. Just because I was cold and lonely and poor didn’t mean my initial idea was bad. I needed some place to live, and it might as well be a big and beautiful place. The second thing that kept me going was the most powerful. I shortened my mental timeline. Instead of thinking of the years of work ahead of me, I shortened my area of focus to just one day: “What do I need to do to make the best use of this one day?” I wouldn’t let myself think beyond this short perspective. A few weeks of “one-day living” during my first summer on Manitoulin helped kill the monster of despair. You actually started your dream house by gathering rocks from your property. Yet the only experience you’d had in stone building was from books? I had a vivid dream once when I was about 10 years old. I dreamed I was building something from stone using mortar and a trowel. This was a strange dream since I’d never seen anyone working with stone in my life. At the time I didn’t even know people did that sort of thing. A few years later I remember finding an old cold chisel and hammer. I used it to break stones and old bricks and concrete blocks – anything masonry I could find. Looking back now I must have been a pretty weird kid to amuse myself for hours breaking stone and shaping it. The thing that got me going with serious stonework was a book my dad gave me for Christmas 1985. Manitoulin is a limestone island and he gave me the book the first Christmas after I bought my property. It got me started, but only in the most basic of ways. I struggled for many years since traditional stone working is almost a completely dead trade. You can’t buy the tools easily and there’s almost no one that knows how to do it. The learning curve is very long. In my case, building with stone started by collecting stone on and around my property. I’d drive my old tractor and wagon onto an area of flat bedrock, then gather whatever rock looked good for building. Trouble was, I didn’t know what a good building stone looked like at first. I spent one summer gathering rocks like this by hand – probably 100 tons or so – only to discover that almost none of them were useful for building. It was a complete waste of time, but I still wanted to work with stone. I have ancestors who were stonemasons, so that must be part of it. Some things run deep. The internet has changed everything. You used to write about home improvements for big newspapers like the Toronto Star, National Post and Ottawa Citizen. Now you reach a million people on the internet. In addition to building, I love to teach through writing, photos and video. I started this work in 1988 by reaching out to the editor of Canadian Workshop magazine. She gave me the go-ahead to write my first article, and things evolved from there. The internet has taken a lot of money out of the print publishing industry over the last 10 years, but this same change has also allowed me to connect with my audience directly online. I still have a print audience, but more and more I’m acting as my own publisher creating articles, video courses, and stories for an online audience. My online audience generates about 500,000 page views per month in all venues and my newsletter subscriber list has doubled in the last year. I’m thankful that people find my content worthwhile. Your technical videos are, in fact, a family production, we hear? My wife, Mary, and I have five children, and our oldest has decided to make his home on our property here on Manitoulin Island in a house we built together. I’ve taught Robert everything I know about earning money remotely on the internet, and this includes videos we make together. Right now we’re working on a series of training videos for technicians who repair barbecues, as well as videos for online courses I create and sell to my audience. We also work together on building projects as they come up.
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