Homegrown in Nova Scotia

Imagine you are on a summer vacation with your family, maybe on the east coast of Nova Scotia. You visit Halifax, (click here to follow this trail on a map) walking the hills, touring the Commons. Following the coastline, you visit Peggy’s Cove, taking in its rugged beauty. Carrying on, you pass through Lunenburg, birthplace of the Bluenose, which you’d recognize from the backside of a dime. A little while later, you might stop into the quaint town of Lahave for lunch at a bakery, housed inside an old warehouse at the waters edge. While your parents take in the view with lunch, you are drawn upstairs from the bakery by familiar noises. Once up there, you are confronted with an operation you’d have never expected on this family vacation to “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” Skateboards are being pressed, graphics are being screened, and people are skating a bowl. You’ve just walked into Homegrown Skateboards headquarters, and now you are about to meet Jesse Watson, the founder. —Jeff Thorburn

All photos by Curtis Rothney

How did you get into skateboarding and when did you start Homegrown? Let me try to hone in on it to make it less words, since it’s really my whole life. Basically, I was enabled to even get going with anything here because of this building that my parents started a bakery in back in 1985. It’s a 100-year-old warehouse from the shipping days. It was pretty decrepit, but the front of the building was in good enough shape to start their business. So I kind of grew up with access to three floors, just this space with a roof over it, pigeons everywhere, that sort of thing. I got into skating myself through friends when I was 15, around 1992. The Questionable video was the main influence for us. That quickly led to building ramps in the space we had. By ’95, when I graduated high school, I just knew that I was going to be more involved with skateboarding. So while I was finishing up exams, I was secretly building a board press. I just winged it with car jacks and all sorts of things. I actually still have it and it’s a great reality check to look back on. I also have my “master plan”, written with a ballpoint pen. So I had the press, but to avoid people shitting on me, which would happen a lot back then at that age, I kept it quiet. I’d put stickers on the boards, or try to make them just look like Pro Skates blanks. I won a contest or two on the prototypes but nobody knew that they were pressed locally. I gave some of the boards to 10 really trustworthy friends who were traveling, and told the guys to just skate the shit out of them and tell me what they thought.

What did you friends think of your initial offering? I started getting word back from them that the boards were really good. Some of them would suggest things I could try differently, but the consensus was that I was onto something good. That gave me the confidence to start getting more material and start building a real press. From there, sections of my skate area started to get cordoned off for paint booths and areas to make things. All the while, mini-ramps were being built, and I was the go-to guy for punk shows, hosting bands here for each skate event. Those types of events really started to take off and get a reputation of their own. So a number of things all really started happening at the same time. There was no business plan, it was just for the stoke of making things. I’d learned to silk-screen in high school art class, so screening shirts started to be a way to not really have to get another job. I’d screen a bit through the week, while figuring out the board manufacturing equipment on the side.

What motivated you to actually make skateboards? In ’96, it became really clear to me that the skateboard industry’s best wood was coming from the northeastern provinces and states. All this wood was being shipped back to us shrink wrapped, having been taken right out from under our noses. So it just struck at that age, being young and full of principle, that we should try to do something. It made sense to me then to register the name “Homegrown”. It was a pretty honest choice for a name, but not a very brand-y kind of name, it turns out now. In some ways, it’s maybe too honest for industry or business, but it’s kept me grounded. So that’s why the name stuck, it was just meant to be true and roots-y. I’m making boards in Nova Scotia with wood from Nova Scotia. I can drive four-and-a-half hours to the mill, I know the guys on a first name basis, get the wood, and while I’m there, I see pallets sitting beside mine going out to all kinds of companies in California, way before they get produced. I found that really telling, especially in my early 20s. I was at the beginning of the process, and not many people know that’s where it starts.

Were you ever tempted to move into the city? No, I never wanted to move my operation into the city, and that has helped. I find that over-awareness can really fuck up projects. You kind of need to block yourself out a little bit. Be aware, obviously, but don’t try to do anything besides what you have control over. I’ve seen a lot of great projects come and go because people stack themselves up to some bigger thing.

There seems to be a real disconnect now between where boards are made and where they are used. It’s that separation that enables the corporate element to suck the life out of our culture. That’s what I see happening. When you come into my space, you can literally walk up the stairs, and just go freely between where the boards are being made and where the bowl is. That openness can be such stoker, especially when teenage kids come in. They really don’t expect it.

I like the idea, which is before my time, of skateboarders and surfers going right to the shaper’s workspace, making suggestions and adjusting shapes right there on the spot. That’s something that isn’t available for many people anymore. It’s become rare and elusive. Of course it’s getting more and more interesting out there right now. I’ve never seen a time that’s more ready for small-scale brands to come up. I just wish our country was full of smaller manufacturers. There wouldn’t be competition, ever, if they were small. It was just be badass, everything would be different and have more variety.

There really could be more small-scale operations out there. There’s room. I’m aware of a few, but they are hard to find. I found this one shop while in New Zealand called Nelson Creek Skateboards. It’s on the southwest coast, in a more rural area than Lahave, and I couldn’t believe it. I was like that kid in the candy shop. It was run by this old vert-dog from Ireland named Dave North. He was using the same veneer as me, and I knew because I recognized the wood. He was like, “Nah, you never heard of it brah, it’s from some hole in the wall town in eastern Canada.” I just said, “Try me. Do you contact Hilda for it?” He was pretty surprised. It was cool to be that far away and see that it was the exact same wood we were both working with. It’s funny how the founding principles I started with seem to have really come around. We are in a time of extreme apathy. We are all starting to understand that how we spend our money is really important, but how do you really nail it, where are you supposed to spend it? I think we are in those years of figuring it out. But it’s still those that can yell the loudest, those who advertise the most that are making the fat cash. On the other hand, there’s this underlying thing going on, which is where skateboarding came from. There’s a lot of talent and cool shit going on with brands, but when it comes to the manufacturing sector, it’s really thin.

With that change in the air, do you expect to start producing more? I suppose, but my bottom line has always been that I’ll only produce at a scale that I can continue to make the quality I’ve achieved, because it’s really hard to get back to. I’ve seen how slippery that slope is. You agree to one wrong job and you never get back to where you were. I’ve been rigid on a few things. I’ve never done press-offs for people. I’ll only collaborate and share my label. So it has to be a sweet idea if I’m going to put my time into it. I’ve got a couple of guys that work with me, but I’m still the main shaper, main painter, and main silk screener. So it’s my labour going into the project. As long as my wrists are the ones being worn out and it’s my life here, I’m really picky about what I’ll run. I’ve done collaborations, but only with people that recognize that the Homegrown label stays on the board. This whole unknown producer is something I’ve never gone for. I try to make the boards have value, at a time when they are pretty much being churned out like toilet paper. It’s very easy to go in that direction. In which case, why even micromanage it on this continent? You can make the order, have it shipped in a box from China, and you’re done. There’s no gray area is what I’ve realized. It’s either pretty crafty on the one end, or it’s large scale on the other. It’s extremely hard to be a successful mid-scale producer. Which is crazy, considering that all the raw materials are right here.

So you source all of the materials and do the pressing with a couple of other people. Do you do a lot of the artwork yourself? I did for years, just my own drawings cooked up out of my head. After awhile, I started recognizing that my strength seemed to be more in organizing things and making the boards. So I’ve found friends who’s art I think is even more representative of my interests than my own art. I think that was just an honest step, to recognize that I can’t do it all. I’m open with sharing and it’s been better for the project. It can be a challenge to find people with a similar vision to work with, but it’s really rad when it works.

What’s the skate scene like in the Lahave area? We are sort of surrounded by a few small towns: Lunenburg, Mahone Bay, and Bridgewater are all nearby, and each has their own small scene. The fun part beyond manufacturing, why I’ve stuck with this, is to be able to help local talent get on the map. A kid like Johnny Purcell, he’s a direct result of my peers and I sticking it out to battle it out with town councils on getting parks made. In an area that’s not so progressive at times, we’ve made headway. As kids, we had parking lots, and now kids here have skateparks. Population wise, there maybe aren’t a ton of skateboarders here, but they are all really good. The bar seems really high, which is rad. I’d like to think that we are partially to thank for that, because we gave’r pretty hard when we were younger.

It definitely helps to have the older guys still active in a scene. Yeah, it’s great; we’ve all grown up in a pretty nurturing environment out here. You can’t afford to be too picky or jocky about it out here. It’s really refreshing. It’s rugged out here, but everyone is on the same page. It’s taken a couple of generations to develop and really be able to call it a scene, but it’s tight now.

Are you still skating a lot yourself? Yeah, I’m still skating all the time. After building this bowl here at the shop, I’m starting to understand that a bit. I put a lot of time into mini-ramps, and now I understand corners.

It’s not linear anymore. Exactly. It took awhile to get my head around it, but now I love it. We finally have enough concrete parks out here that it’s worth putting the time into learning. It’s essential to keep involved and try to skate everyday. I think it would be weird if it didn’t anymore.

Check out Homegrown online.

Check out Curtis Rothey online.

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