The History of Countryside and Small Stock Journal
Founder Jd Belanger Shares His Thoughts about Countryside's Homestead Heritage
Editor’s Note: This is a piece from Jd Belanger, who created the modern version of Countryside and Small Stock Journal in 1973. Specifically, this is from his column, “Beyond the Sidewalks,” published in January 1976 (Vol. 60 No. 1).
I’ve always held that the only people interested in the problems of magazine editors are other editors, so I try to talk about our homesteading magazine as little as possible. I don’t know if that applies to the joys of editing though, and since this is something of a special occasion, I’m going to take a chance.
This is number one of volume 60…our 60th year of publishing. And as we look back over the thousands of pages that have already been printed by us and our predecessors, it’s interesting to speculate on the future of the publication.
Today’s Countryside and Small Stock Journal traces its beginning back to January, 1917, when Wallace H. Blair founded the Pet Stock Journal. (Actually, Edward Stahl told me we could claim an even earlier beginning, because Countryside also contains his Journal of Outdoor Enterprises which was begun in Kansas City in 1916.) The cover proclaimed that the magazine was “Devoted to more and better pet stock” and the 34-page, digest-size journal had articles on bantams, pigeons, Persian cats, rabbits, cavies and skunks. (There was an organization called the “Skunk Development Bureau” which promoted skunks, not only for fur farming and show, but as a natural control for mice, grubs, beetles, grasshoppers, and other insects.) Incidentally, Ed Stahl wrote an article in that first issue even though he owned a competitive magazine, and he was still writing for us 50 years later.
The name was changed to Rabbitcraft & Small Stock Journal in April, 1919, and in October, 1921, to Rabbitcraft & American Breeders Review. In November, 1925, the name became Small Stock Magazine and the cover proclaimed that it was “Devoted to Rabbits, Cavies, Pigeons and Milk Goats.” In his editorial explaining the name change, Blair said his magazine was for “people interested in small stock breeding as a hobby and as a means of adding to the family income.”
During this period every country printer was capable of starting a journal of one kind or another, and many did. Oscar Hanke, who with John Skinner and James Florea wrote and edited “American Poultry History, 1823-1973” stopped in our office the other day. He’s a native of Waterloo, Wis. (Countryside’s home), graduated with a degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Wisconsin in 1926, and he’s been writing about poultry ever since. He estimates that during the early 20’s there were 60 different magazines just on poultry. Small Stock Magazine was one that covered poultry, and more, and while most of the others fell by the wayside in 1930, at the beginning of the depression, Small Stock had 20,000 subscribers, a very respectable figure for that day.
During the 30’s and as the depression took its toll on magazine publishers, Blair took over such magazines as Successful Rabbit Breeding, Rabbit Fanciers Guide, Reliable Rabbit Journal, The Rex Magazine, American Fur Animal, Weidman’s Rabbit Farmer, American Rabbit Record, The Breeders Standard, and many others. By the 1950’s, rabbits and cavies were the sole editorial fare and the cover proclaimed Small Stock Magazine to be “America’s most read rabbit magazine.”
Wallace Blair died on Jan. 8, 1954, in the magazine’s pressroom. In one of the eulogies printed in the February 1954 issue, John C. Fehr (one of the truly outstanding rabbit breeders for most of the first half of this century and an SSM columnist) recalled that the various rabbit magazines had been severely criticized for their editorial policies. When he asked Blair why he didn’t “open up on them with both barrels,” the editor replied, “This is their fight. I am only the publisher. This magazine belongs to the public, and they are entitled to know the opinions of others even though I may disagree. But John, I assure you that I will not let the discussion continue unless it be done in a gentlemanly way.”
“That, my friends,” Fehr wrote, “was the editorial policy of Wallace.”
In the same issue, Ed Stahl wrote, “As long as magazines devoted to rabbits are published, W. H. Blair will not be forgotten.”
Vincent Hunter, a railroad publications man, had been working with Blair and he took over the editorial duties with Mrs. Blair remaining as publisher. Hunter became publisher in November, 1960. Don Guthrie, a journalist who had been raising rabbits for meat since the 40’s, started with the magazine in 1956, and the team of Hunter and Guthrie continued the tradition of “America’s most read rabbit magazine” introducing staff-written feature stories and a new emphasis on commercial rabbitries.
In July, 1969, Hunter wrote his last editorial. “Magazines come and magazines go, but SMM has been around a long time and it is fitting that it continue under a concept that will please its readers and win new loyal followers. The success of any magazine lies in the support of its readers and advertisers.” The magazine was sold to Everett Shilliday, of Lyndhurst, Ohio. His first issue was published in January, 1970.
Ev Shilliday died on June 8 of that same year.
I bought Small Stock Magazine from Kay Shilliday in August of 1970. Circulation was 2,000.
In spite of its age and its fine reputation, the magazine was obviously sagging. Don Guthrie told me he didn’t think there was any hope for it, because rabbit raisers just didn’t support the magazine any more. Goodness knows he tried his best and it seemed to me, at least, that he was somewhat bitter. The magazine had always catered to rabbit fanciers, and Guthrie thought it might draw more interest if it treated commercial rabbitries, but that didn’t do anything either. What else was there?
At that time, I was also publishing and editing and setting type for and printing Countryside and Dairy Goat Guide. I knew there was interest in rabbits among homesteaders, a group that really didn’t have much identity or cohesion at that time. But before completely changing an established, respected publication like SSM, I decided to see what I could do with it on the old terms.
We doubled, and even tripled, the number of pages. We used pictures, and color, and the best rabbit articles available. So many people subscribed to Small Stock Magazine expecting articles on hogs, sheep and poultry — and even small stocks in the Wall Street sense — (and then wanting their money back), that in April, 1971, the name was changed to Rabbit World.
But nothing helped. Don Guthrie has been right. A good rabbit magazine just couldn’t survive in the 1970’s on a businesslike basis.
In September, 1972, Countryside, Rabbit World, and Dairy Goat Guide were consolidated into one magazine. I had been printing all three myself, as well as being the editor and publisher, and it became humanly and economically impossible to continue that kind of schedule. Each section of the “new” magazine had as many pages as the magazine the section sprang from had, so anybody who was interested in all three really got three for the price of one. The name was changed to Countryside and Small Stock Journal.
Success was not instantaneous. There were, in fact, many disgruntled readers, especially rabbit raisers, who simply couldn’t understand that a “pure” rabbit magazine simply couldn’t survive. But as time went on and reader reaction started to shape and mold the “new” magazine, it evolved to meet the needs and expectations of that whole new group of readers, whom we called homesteaders.
Note that earlier quote from Wallace Blair: “I am only the publisher. This magazine belongs to the public.” That hasn’t changed.
So when we started to get reader feedback on hogs, sheep, poultry, cows, cooking, crafts, and even machinery and small farm tillage practices, pages or sections (or at least intermittent articles) on those topics appeared. They took the place of rabbit material which originally had been half the magazine, but which drew little attention in comparison with other topics.
I think it’s significant to see how Blair began by feeling out certain alternatives, finally settling in with a formula that worked. If the Skunk Development Bureau had been more successful, he might have ended up with a magazine devoted entirely to skunks, because that’s how the publishing business works. Hunter, Guthrie, Shilliday and I all tried various facets of rabbit raising, but the demand wasn’t there. When we evolved into the kind of publication c&ssj is today, circulation soared (“soar” being a relative term) from 2,000 to 25,000.
The important part is that this evolution is an ongoing process: a magazine like this really is planned and designed by you, the reader. Total agreement is impossible, of course, but the editors are merely masters of ceremonies. They sort of tie things together based on the feedback they get from you.
Today, Countryside and Small Stock Journal embodies a rich heritage of the agricultural journalism pioneered and promoted by the several dozen publications from which it sprang. It includes many different lines in its genealogy, including American Small Stock Farmer, which we bought in 1971, and which traces its history back to Stahl’s Journal of Outdoor Enterprises begun in 1916, as well as several other publications.
We’re 60 years old. But we’re as new as tomorrow, because we are a living, changing, adaptable organism. Our forte is, as it has been for 60 years, small stock, and since a world without our animal friends and benefactors would be pretty barren and dull, I suspect that we’ll never stray very far from that major focus. But as for the details…that’s up to you.
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As for the present, Countryside and Small Stock Journal is a lively and growing organization that has moved from my living room to our own office building in Waterloo (with several pauses in increasingly larger quarters along the way) in less than three years. Diane and I own it, so there are no bankers or outside investors to tell us how to run things. Heather Tischbein is the managing editor and Marge Davel and Pat Weber take care of circulation. Carole Wiley is in charge of advertising, and a couple of high school girls help out with various chores. We no longer do our own printing, but we do have a modern typesetting department which also does work for other organizations. This is run by Paul and Lea Landmann and Susan Jensen. And of course, we also have the Countryside Store which is an outgrowth of the magazine: our readers said they needed certain items, we couldn’t induce the manufacturers of most of them to advertise in our pages, so we started buying at wholesale and doing the retailing ourselves. Handling this end of the operation are Ron Grosz, Chuck Reynolds, Jim Davel, Mary Ellen Krueger and Cathy Blaschka.
Virtually all of us here are homesteaders. We have gardens, goats, chickens and other fowl, cows and steers, rabbits, horses and earthworms. We have among us spinners and weavers, we make butter and cheese and we do much of our own butchering, we grind our own grains and bake our own bread. We’re interested in what we do at work because we do it at home, ourselves. We know what your questions and problems and goals are, because they’re ours, too.
Yes, all of us here have personal ideas and ideals. From time to time, they change, as we gain experience and discover new information or as outside forces change. All of this helps us produce a more meaningful magazine. But in the final analysis, we wouldn’t have lasted 60 years without being open to suggestions from readers. We wouldn’t be here without you, our readers.
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I want to footnote this by saying I never intended to become a magazine publisher, even when I started Countryside. In fact, I had given up working on a magazine just a few years before, to be a homesteader. We were almost totally self-sufficient in food, and I ran a small printing press a few hours a week for the cash income we needed. But there was a lot I needed to know about my chosen lifestyle. There was no Mother Earth News or anything like it at the time. It seemed logical to try to locate kindred souls through a little newsletter that would help us all. Things just sort of got away from me after that.
But I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. You’d never get me back to a “regular” job…but I doubt if I’d stay happy being just a homesteader, either. The rewards, pleasures and challenges of working with and for the kind of readers we’ve attracted are just too great. I’d hate to have to make a choice between the homesteading today and the business.
But on the other hand, as you can see from this brief history, this is no ordinary business. It too, really, is beyond the sidewalks.
Originally published in 1976