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Vision: Modern Utopians -- Revisiting the Amazing Communes and Alternative Societies of the '60s and '70s

An excerpt from Fairfield's new book on the living alternatives that helped define the greatest cultural explosion in American history.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the preface and chapter three of The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communes of the '60s and '70s, by Richard Fairfield (Process Media, 2010).

From the foreward by Timothy Miller: The countercultural communes are the quiet giants of the 1960s, receiving far less attention than the politics, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, even though they helped define the era. There were thousands--probably tens of thousands--of them, and hundreds of thousands of young counterculturists lived in one commune or another at some point.

It was a period in which huge numbers of young Americans rejected the traditional American way of greed-based and emotionally isolated living and searched for a new life path that embodied sharing, mutual caring, and openness. Although not all communes achieved their idealistic goals, their very existence represented a yearning of the human spirit for something better than the status quo and a courageousness to act upon these convictions with direct action and sustained efforts.

Communes have a history in the United States much older than the 1960s-era counterculture. One might define a commune as a group of like-minded persons who withdraw from the dominant culture and seek to create a micro-culture in which people live together and share resources while striving for common goals. Groups fitting that definition go back centuries. Many historians identify the first American commune as Plockhoy's Commonwealth, or Swanendael, which was established at what is now Lewes, Delaware, by a group of Dutch Mennonites in 1663. Other similar experiments followed; a century later the Shakers began to develop what became an interconnected group of 20 or so villages that constituted one of the largest and longest-lived communal movements in history. The nineteenth century saw the founding of many substantial communal movements, including the Harmony Society, the Amana Colonies, and the Oneida Perfectionists. The communes of that era were a diverse lot: alongside the many Christianbased ones were enclaves based in Spiritualism (which claims that we can communicate with the dead) and other innovative religious movements. There were also a great many secular communes--socialist and anarchist ones, to name just two of the many varieties. As would be the case in the 1960s era, the communal scene of the nineteenth century was richly varied.

There was no precise beginning to the communes of the 1960s era; they emerged organically from the many communes and communal movements that had gone before. Communes dedicated to radical political activism, to mystical spiritual pursuits, to self-sufficient living, and to liberated sexual behaviors all existed long before the appearance of the 1960s counterculture. But things began to change in the early '60s. Two open-land communes, from which no one would be turned away, had appeared by 1963. Informal communities whose members explored inner space with newly available psychedelic drugs developed on the east and west coasts at about the same time. Interest in Asian religions was beginning to stir among young spiritual seekers in the early '60s, and new ashrams began to show up. In Detroit a commune with its own rock band was combining cuttingedge arts with political activism as early as 1964.

All of these new and tentative probings into innovative social structures were pointing the way toward a new wave of communes by 1965, when Drop City suddenly appeared on the southern Colorado plains and attracted both visitors and publicity. The original Droppers--Clark Richert, Gene Bernofsky, and Jo Ann Bernofsky--were visual artists who met in Lawrence, Kansas, and took their creativity in unconventional directions. Eventually they decided to start their own new civilization, and on a six-acre goat pasture began to build wonderfully unconventional structures--domes constructed from scrap lumber and covered with car tops cut out of junkyard relics. The crazy-quilt domes were pictured in magazines from coast to coast. Something new was clearly going on, whether American society was ready for it or not.

More communes were not far behind. In Southern California the Hog Farm began to take shape when its founders were offered the use of a house and land in return for tending the owner's swine. Later the Hog Farmers took to the road, staging light shows and cultural events; they were catapulted to international renown when they operated as the "please force," feeding the crowds and taking care of the sick and distressed at the Woodstock festival in 1969. Meanwhile, the Diggers were taking shape in San Francisco, practicing "garbage yoga"--gathering food and other necessities of life and providing them, free, to all, and operating several communal residences in the city.

The new culture began to stir in the countryside north of San Francisco about the same time it did in the city. Lou Gottlieb, bassist with the popular folk music group called the Limeliters, bought a 31-acre former chicken farm and apple orchard, and in the spring of 1966 his friends began moving onto the property. Gottlieb refused to turn anyone away, and by the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love, hundreds were living there in makeshift shelters. When local officials directed Gottlieb, as owner, to expel the residents, he tried to deed the land to God. The authorities were not amused, and in due course they bulldozed the nearby Morning Star Ranch commune four times. Many of the open-land communards moved to Bill Wheeler's much larger nearby ranch, where again they lived in simple but happy poverty until the code-enforcement agents brought it all to an end in 1973.

But by then--long before that, really--communes were popping up all over the country. In mid-decade some idealists who were enthralled with B.F. Skinner's utopian novel Walden Two began to experiment with enacting Skinner's vision, and in 1967 some of them moved onto a farm in Virginia that became Twin Oaks, one of the largest countercultural communes and one still thriving more than 40 years later. 1967 also saw the founding of the New Buffalo commune near Taos, where young counterculturists sought self-sufficiency and emulated American Indian culture. Soon Taos became a notable communal magnet, with dozens of such undertakings in the area, and also the scene of some of the worst social conflict surrounding communes, as some of the local residents took offense at what they considered an invasion of undesirables. The New Mexico communal scene eventually waned, although pieces of it have survived, and New Buffalo itself has recently been revived under new leadership.

Meanwhile, another cluster of communes took shape in the late 1960s a hundred miles or so north of Taos, in southern Colorado. Drop City, located just outside Trinidad, was still in its heyday then, but visiting artists Dean and Linda Fleming, who arrived in the area in 1967, wanted a more remote and stable community. They, with Dropper Peter Rabbit, in 1968 ended up founding Libre, where members built domes and other creative structures and pursued their art. Libre, true to its name, was free, but members had to be responsible enough to build their own homes and to survive winters at 9,000 feet. Within a few years around a dozen other communes were in operation within a few miles of Libre; some of them, including Libre, are still very much alive today.

New England also had a strong cluster of communes for several years. In western Massachusetts in the late 1960s a group of young seekers gathered around a young visionary named Michael Metelica, who in turn received guidance from a local trance medium named Ellwood Babbitt. The Brotherhood of the Spirit, as the group was called, quickly grew to perhaps 300 members. Renamed the Renaissance Community, it survived until the 1990s, and some of its descendants continue to live as neighbors. A short distance farther north, in Guilford, Vermont, several veterans of radical journalism dropped out of that frantic scene to settle at Packer Corner, better known (after the title of member Raymond Mungo's bestselling book) as Total Loss Farm. The literary success of Mungo and some of his fellow new settlers helped pay the bills for the farm. Other communes popped up nearby: Red Clover, Montague Farm, Mayday Farm, Tree Frog Farm, and many more.

One important theme of the countercultural 1960s era was spiritual searching. The largest communal manifestation of the quest was what became known as the Jesus Movement, populated by born-again Christians who affected hippie styles (exotic clothing, long hair, disdain for material luxuries). Most conventional churches found the Jesus freaks, as they were known, repulsive, but a few accepted them and, in the spirit of the time, helped them find cheap communal living. One network of Jesus-Movement communes was known as Shiloh; at its peak it had over 175 communal houses as well as extensive property holdings and businesses. It lasted until 1989, when its headquarters land was seized for back taxes. Other Jesus freaks built more stable communities, however. The Children of God, for years the focus of a great deal of controversy for their unconventional sexual practices, among other things, have become a stable network of communes with thousands of members. Meanwhile, the more than 400 members of Jesus People USA, established in Chicago in 1974, continue their common life in an old hotel building.

1965 was a turning point for Asian religions in the United States. Changes in immigration laws in that year meant that Asian spiritual teachers could come to the U.S. much more easily than previously. And come they did, in many cases gathering their followers into intentional communities. Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta, later known as Prabhupada, arrived from India in 1965 and soon was organizing his followers in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness into urban temple communes and rural farm communities. Arriving in the West from India in 1971 at age 13, the Guru Maharaj Ji attracted thousands of followers to his Divine Light Mission, and many of them lived communally in the movement's ashrams. Similarly, Buddhist teachers from Japan and Korea inspired their followers to live communally in dozens of American cities and in many rural enclaves as well. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church embodied a Korean version of Christianity, made a notable American splash in the 1970s, with many of his followers living in communal homes. A group of American Sufis founded an intentional community in an abandoned Shaker village in New York state.

Independent spiritual teachers whose followers lived communally also abounded. Perhaps the most noted of them was Stephen Gaskin, whose message drew on elements of most of the world's major religious traditions. Gaskin, originally an instructor at San Francisco State College, began delivering his hip spiritual teachings in the city in the late 1960s and soon was attracting crowds of thousands to large ballrooms and dance halls. When, in 1970, he announced that he would go on a speaking tour, his eager adherents asked to go along, and eventually a caravan of perhaps 70 vehicles snaked its way across the United States. In 1971 the tour came to an end in southern Tennessee, where the young settlers founded a commune known simply as the Farm. Until a major reorganization in the early 1980s the Farm strove for self-sufficiency and maintained a completely communal economy, its members working hard, having a lot of babies (delivered by Farm midwives), and, occasionally, enhancing the spiritual search with marijuana and other substances. Sometimes calling themselves "Technicolor Amish," the Farm members at their peak numbered some 1,500. The Farm's population is smaller today, but the Farm is very much alive and well.

As had been the case in earlier generations, not all communes were religious in orientation. Many were dedicated to social change, sometimes involving radical political action. Trans-Love Energies, led by the energetic John Sinclair in Ann Arbor and Detroit, combined radical political activism, advocacy of marijuana, underground newspaper publication, and all kinds of cultural work, including a nationally known rock band, MC5. Taking a slightly different tack, Black Bear Ranch was established in a remote area of northern California as a sort of revolutionary redoubt, a place where firearms practice could be conducted out of view (and earshot) of law enforcement and where draft resisters and other political refugees could hide. It soon shifted into a more typical, and less radical, countercultural lifestyle, and as such it has continued ever since.

A different sort of social change was sought by the members of Kerista, a commune that thrived in San Francisco for more than 20 years. Kerista was a group marriage in which one's sleeping partner changed every night. Members supported the group with a series of businesses, especially a successful computer business in the early days of personal computers. Only in the 1990s did it dissolve amid internal discord.

Yet another theme for many communes was healing. Perhaps the largest of the health-and-wholeness-oriented communities was Synanon, which started in California in 1958 as a drug rehabilitation program. In the late 1960s nonaddicts began to move in, and soon Synanon had many communal homes, with private schools, communal kitchens, and dormitories for members. It all lasted into the early 1990s; the crushing final blow was a huge bill for back taxes that the community couldn't pay.

This quick overview barely skims the surface. No one could possibly list all the communes that existed in the 1960s era, or characterize the bewildering variety of purposes they embodied and members who made it all happen. Populated by hippies, radicals, potheads, witches, organic farmers, mystics, eccentrics, dropouts, sexual liberationists, feminists, bikers, artists, clowns, ascetics, spiritual seekers, runaways, and so many more, uncounted thousands of communes came and went leaving few or no traces. But what is undeniable is that they collectively had a huge impact on the culture of the 1960s era, the greatest period of cultural change in recent history.