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50 Years: True Grit

50 Years: True Grit

It took a one-eyed photographer with a vision for a national potato magazine to create Spudman magazine 50 years ago. The fact that Dan Crawford wasn't a very good farmer, by his own estimation, probably played a role in the creation of this magazine in Tulelake, Calif.

Eighty-nine years young, today Crawford lives in an assisted-living apartment in Klamath Falls, Ore., just 30 miles north of Tulelake. His wife of 68 years, Ardina, died in the fall of 2010.

Despite the infirmities of time Crawford still enjoys talking about starting up the magazine while making self-deprecatory asides about his own lack of experience in the publishing business when he began Spudman.
Crawford's tale of Spudman's origin is one of grit, determination and perseverance, from a concept to reality and then to the successful enterprise that continues to this day.

Crawford describes himself as "just an old spud boy from Tulelake." His grandfather and father grew potatoes in the Bakersfield area before his father won a homestead lottery in 1938 and the family moved up to Tulelake to farm the 85-acre homestead.

After graduating from high school Crawford and another man, with help from Crawford's father, started their own farm operation.

"We had 50 acres of potatoes," he said. "It was always potatoes at first for me. That was the cash crop, you see, here in Tulelake."

He kept at it for 11 or 12 years by his estimation.

"I was a pathetic farmer," Crawford said with a chuckle. "I dream when I should be thinking. I've got a five-minute attention span. I just never made it as a farmer. I was just slowly going broke and driving my father crazy."

So he gave up farming and took up photography, something he had learned from a doctor during a year he spent in a clinic as a young child to cure his severe asthma.
He was a freelance photographer taking pictures of weddings and farm events. When that didn't prove profitable he took a job with a weekly newspaper and in six months with the departure of the managing editor assumed that position.

Crawford said that his big break came when T.J. Lockwood died and he "wrote this glowing eulogy, really made him sound like Jesus Christ." Lockwood Graders was one of the newspaper's main advertisers at the time.

Shortly afterward one of Lockwood's executives came out to Tulelake and asked Crawford if he would be interested in overseeing a new publication by Lockwood about potatoes.

"I said, ‘oh, yeah, I do stuff like that all the time.' I didn't know a damn thing about magazines," said Crawford laughing at the memory of his prevarication.
"I worked for them for five years. I put out this magazine called Potato Horizons, which went out once a month and I just learned by guessing by God. I didn't have the foggiest idea what the hell I was doing," said Crawford.

The idea for a national magazine devoted to the potato industry began to percolate in Crawford's mind while he was working for Lockwood in Omaha, Neb.

"It was my opinion that potatoes were one of the major factors in the food chain and that I could make it with a potato magazine that would concentrate on that," Crawford said.

Yet every person in the potato and publishing industry he discussed his idea with discouraged him from pursuing it.

Only one magazine in 30 made it through the first year they told him.

His job with Lockwood required him to be traveling constantly. His wife, Ardina, had grown weary of raising their two children, Charley and Stephanie, with him gone so much of the time. So they decided to move back to Tulelake.

"I'd decided that I was some kind of hot-shot ag journalist," he said. "I'll just come back and get a job on the West Coast."

They returned to Tulelake, but the economy had turned sour in 1961 and he couldn't find work for almost a year.

It was during the drive home from a job interview in San Francisco during the Columbus Day storm on Oct. 12, 1962 that Crawford decided to start Spudman.

At the same time that he was looking for a job he had been picking up material for a magazine and when he left Lockwood they had given him the mailing list for Potato Horizons subscribers.

"I thought, ‘well, the heck with it, I'm going home and give her a whirl,'" he said. "I just reached the end of my rope, I couldn't find work."

He rented an office above the grocery store in Tulelake, hired a secretary and had one person who came from Nebraska to help him put the magazine out.

The premiere issue came out on Jan. 1, 1963, and a one-year subscription cost $1. Despite his best efforts the magazine was far from a success and by 1965 Crawford was ready to throw in the towel.

He went to his father seeking a loan of $8,000 to put out a final issue, convinced that he was on the cusp of success but frustrated and financially broke at the effort. All he needed was for one of the major companies to finally decide to advertise in the magazine.

His father signed the note for the loan and told Crawford that he didn't think he was trying hard enough and to get back in there and try even harder.

According to Crawford after publishing that issue he had enough money remaining to put out one more issue. While he was working on that issue a national advertiser called and paid to have a four-page supplement inserted in the magazine. It was the break he had been waiting for.

To this day Crawford is amazed at his good fortune.
"I was the luckiest bum that breathed air," Crawford said. "It's just like I told you, it wasn't me that made the company suddenly decide to advertise, it wasn't me that did any of this stuff, I just happened to be there."
Yes, he may have just been there and luck may have played a role in his good fortune in 1965 but life's successes don't hinge on mere luck. If it hadn't been for his own hard work and his belief in a national magazine for the potato industry we would not be starting the 50th year of Spudman's publication.

When pushed to explain his good fortune Crawford said: "Attitude. A guy's attitude is all that counts. Life is 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you react to it. If you've got a good attitude, you just see the good stuff when it comes along, you can take advantage of it."

Pretty good vision for a one-eyed, old spud-boy from Tulelake.

—By Bill Schaefer, managing editor

Originally posted Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012

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