One of the great flowerings of communitarianism in America came with the era of the hippies in the 1960s and early 1970s. The rural hippie communes were media attention-grabbers, full of photo opportunities, wild anecdotes, and the weirdest-looking people most Americans had ever seen. Press coverage was massive from about 1969 through 1972, and a string of popular books soon emerged, most of them travelogues of the authors' visits to communes. A fair body of scholarship eventually developed as well.
One standard theme in all of that coverage and scholarship, however, was oddly misguided. In case after case, observers of the new communalism seeking to explain the origins of the communes concluded that they were products of the decay of urban hippie life in the Haight-Ashbury, the East Village, and other enclaves. The hip urban centers, so the thesis ran, might have briefly been joyous centers of peace and love and expanded consciousness, but they soon devolved into cesspools of hard drugs, street crime, and official repression of dissident lifestyles. The hippies at that point fled for the friendly precincts of the countryside, where they built communes as new places for working out the hip vision.
Examples of this explanation of the origins of hippie communalism abound in both popular and scholarly writings. Maren Lockwood Carden, for example, writing in 1976, says matter-of- factly that the hippies' "first communes were created within the urban areas in which they already lived," and that beginning in 1966 "and especially during 1967 and 1968, such community-oriented hippies left the city." Helen Constas and Kenneth Westhues purport to trace the history of the counterculture "from its charismatic beginnings in the old urban bohemias to its current locale in rural communes," concluding that "communes signify the routinization of hippiedom."
Actually, however, the new communes began to appear before there was a clearly recognizable overall hippie culture, much less a decaying one; they represented a new outcropping of the much larger venerable American tradition of alternative culture, a part of which has involved communal living. Catalyzed by shifts in American culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the hip communes were not, in the beginning, products of hippiedom, but crucibles that played a major role in shaping and defining hip culture. In other words, the urban hippies did not create the first hip communes; it would be closer to the truth to say that the earliest communes helped create the hippies. While communes were indeed founded by hippies who fled the cities, they were johnnies- come-lately to the hip communal scene. When did the hippies first appear?
An argument that the new wave of rural communes predates the rise of the urban hippies depends on the proposition that hippies were not present as a recognizable movement in American cities until the second half of the 1960s. Of course no one can point to an exact moment at which the first hippie appeared at the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets. The hippies evolved from the beats of the 1950s and the bohemians of the decades before that, but it would be hard to see them as coalescing into anything that amounted to a distinct social movement before about 1966. The Diggers of San Francisco, the altruists who helped penurious hippies survive and whose abodes were sometimes more or less communal themselves, began to take clear shape in that year. Although LSD, whose use became a pivot of the hip experience, had been discovered by a few cultural pioneers (among them Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey) some years earlier, it did not become a symbol of and vehicle for rejecting the dominant culture until mid-decade, when Kesey staged a year of Acid Tests from November, 1965, to October, 1966.
The term "hippie," which seems to have been coined in late 1965, was quite obscure even into 1967; it does not appear in such pioneering books on the new dissident culture as J. L. Simmons and Barry Winograd's It's Happening and John Gruen's The New Bohemia (both published in 1966). By mid-1967, however, everyone knew who hippies were. The 1966-67 Reader's Guide has no entry for "hippie"; the 1967-68 volume has over a column of them. In sum, it would seem fair to conclude that the cultural phenomenon of the hippies began to take on clear, distinguishing characteristics about 1966 and was widely familiar to the general public by the following year.
But communes that were hip already existed by then. Drop City, a full-blown prototype of hip communalism, was established in May, 1965; another community with a notably hip orientation, Tolstoy Farm, was two years older. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters took their famous bus trip in 1964 and thereafter settled down to a freewheeling communal existence in California and later Oregon. Mel Lyman's Fort Hill community adopted communal living in 1966 in Boston, and had been moving toward that model since Lyman had first begun attracting followers in the Boston area about 1963. These communes had been developing new subcultural mores and were helping shape the emerging hip movement.
Moreover, other communes that were not "hip" but that in some cases influenced the hippies were also well established at the time. Religious communalism, a staple theme in American history, was a part of the context, with groups dedicated to such diverse centerpoints as Catholicism, various Eastern religions, and the Anabaptist tradition all thriving in the early 1960s. There were also secular communities devoted to radical politics, anarchism, sexual freedom, the sharing of labor, creation of arts and crafts, land development, ethnicity, and a dazzling array of visions of assorted seers and cranks. While American communitarianism has historically had stronger and weaker periods, it has been an ongoing theme in American life for over three centuries, and it was very much there when a new generation of dissenters decided to give it a whirl.
That is not to say that every new commune deliberately studies the historic communal tradition and tries to build on it. As recent scholarship has pointed out, most communal groups have some independent reason for existence and adopt communal living as a vehicle for the achievement of specific goals. Nevertheless, communes have had a more substantial and consistent presence in the United States than many have realized. That ongoing presence has often been overlooked by American historians, who typically see a great surge of colony building in the first half of the nineteenth century, with such groups as the Shakers, the Oneida Community, the Fourierists, the Owenites, and many others, but then a near-void until the hippies came along. Indeed, several historians working just prior to the sixties communal revival pronounced communitarianism essentially dead as of about the time of the Civil War.
The hippies by and large disdained the study of history, so they were unaware that what they were doing had long before ceased to exist and in fact had become impossible. Nevertheless, their communes owed a debt to the American tradition of social radicalism and in some cases had distinct ties to communes of earlier times. One could argue that the hippie communal era, like earlier waves of communitarianism before it, represented one of the frequent outbreaks of the hubris that began with the Puritans, the belief that mortal humans could actually create perfect communities in which heaven would virtually be achieved on earth, and thus was but a new manifestation of a longstanding cultural motif. Less grandly, it at least represented the kind of dissatisfaction with the institutions of mainstream culture that has frequently been manifested not only in the founding of communes but in other kinds of radicalism and bohemianism as well. In short, the communes were more closely related to the tradition of cultural dissent than they were to the breakdown of the hip urban centers.
Moreover, some hip communes did have distinct ancestry in earlier American communalism in that their founders and key members had been involved, directly or indirectly, with communitarianism before becoming hippies. Tolstoy Farm, for example, deliberately built on its founder's affinity for the community-oriented ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi; the first residents of Drop City all had family ties to communal or collective traditions and deliberately built an art colony, thus becoming part of another pathway in communal history. More on that in a few pages.
The earlier part of the communal tradition, until 1860 or so, has been well recorded and will not be recapitulated it here. Robert Fogarty has recently provided an excellent overview of the period from 1860 to 1914, demonstrating that communitarianism was quite active during that part of the period of supposed communal declension, so that period will be avoided here as well. This minichronicle begins roughly where Fogarty quits, describing a few of the many communities that were active after 1914 and showing that the communal tradition was still alive and well when the hippies joined it.
Christianity, Judaism, and other religions provided important centers of communalism in the years preceding the hip era. The largest group of independent communitarians in North America, the Hutterites, grew enormously after their arrival in the United States in 1874, from a few hundred members to perhaps 40,000 on over 400 colonies today. Despite their isolation, the Hutterites have influenced many other communal groups--most notably the Bruderhof, a communal movement founded in 1920 in Germany in explicit imitation of the classic Hutterite model, but also such other groups as Koinonia Farm, the interracial community founded in Georgia in 1942. The Bruderhof, settling in the U. S. in the 1950s, has ever since continued to develop its own version of Hutterism, complete with Anabaptist theology, patriarchal leadership, and a completely communal economy. Koinonia was founded by the Southern Baptist preacher Clarence Jordan as a place where blacks and whites could live together harmoniously, and Jordan soon became interested in exploring the beliefs and lifestyles of other communal groups. Soon he forged links with the Hutterites (and later with the Bruderhof); extended visits between Hutterites and Koinonians soon followed, and in fact Hutterite guests at Koinonia provided crucial support for the Georgia colony when it was severely endangered by KKK-inspired economic and physical threats. Koinonia, in turn, helped link the older communal traditions with the hippies; many would-be hippie communards flocked to the Georgia farm, which received sympathetic coverage in many of the surveys of hippie communes. Meanwhile, other Protestants have also founded communes. One of many such groups operating in mid-century was Reba Place Fellowship of Evanston, Illinois, founded in 1957 by Mennonites as a socially radical evangelical Christian community.
Catholic communitarianism historically has been centered in the religious orders, and as the larger culture shifted in midcentury the winds of change blew through many of them. Changes accelerated under the influence of the reformist Second Vatican Council, which was convened in 1962. Among many new directions being tested was an openness to the East; the Benedictine community in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for example, became widely known for its prior's experiments in what he termed Zen Catholicism. There was also important Catholic communitarianism outside the orders, the best-known such phenomenon being the Catholic Worker movement, which from the 1930s operated an extensive string of communal houses and farms in carrying out its mission of serving and enabling the poor.
Jews as well as Christians were active in creating new communities. The greatest wave of Jewish communitarianism came in the late nineteenth century as impoverished immigrants from Eastern Europe were settled in rural colonies, but experiments continued thereafter. Closer to the hip era the Havurah movement, which began to take shape in the 1950s, spawned a number of communal living groups as young Jews sought warmer fellowship in what they perceived to be sterile synagogues. Moreover, the moving of Hasidic communities from Europe to America in the twentieth century provided intriguing models of close Jewish community, even though the urban Hasidic settlements were not economically communal.
Eastern religions were also well represented among the pre- hip communes. Indian religions opened monasteries in America as early as 1895. Buddhist communities began appearing in the 1930s. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness opened its American phase with the arrival of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami from India in 1965, and it quickly became largely communal, drawing much of its initial constituency from the hippies. Other Eastern religions also developed communal presences about the same time.
Some religious communes grew up independently of the major world traditions. Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement, for example, which focused on a leader who claimed to be God incarnate, grew rapidly during the Depression and was still alive, if dwindling, by the time the hippies arrived on the scene. A few years later, in 1945, Lloyd Meeker and a group of his followers founded Sunrise Ranch near Loveland, Colorado, the first of what has become a network of a dozen communities in the U. S., Canada, and elsewhere. Emphasizing mind/body healing and other disciplines that today would be called New Age practices, these Emissary Communities received a flood of inquirers in the late 1960s when thousands of the young hip sought communities in which to settle.
While the longest-lived American communes have generally been religious in orientation, the nation has had no shortage of secular communities. Society has always had those who have gathered in intentional communities as they advanced political causes, promoted social reform, created artwork, homesteaded new land, and pursued any number of common goals.
Many socialists frustrated at their inability to gain a major foothold in the national political arena have turned to commune- building as the only conceivable way to put socialism into practice in America. In the twentieth century one of the most prominent socialist communes was Llano del Rio, founded in California in 1914 by Job Harriman. Llano moved to Louisiana in 1918; there, as Newllano, the colony survived for two decades before sucumbing to its ongoing financial crisis. Similarly anarchists, in their resistance to structured governments, have often turned to cooperative communities as models for human interaction. The Ferrer Colony at Stelton, New Jersey, for example, operated an alternative school over a lifespan which covered roughly the period between the world wars.
Still others have turned to communitarianism, in one form or another, to prove a social theory. In one prominent case, disciples of single-tax advocate Henry George, despairing of political victory, decided to test their theories in collective settlements that would reallocate the tax bill for the settlement according to Georgist theory, in effect assessing land and not buildings. The most successful of the single-tax enclaves, Fairhope, in Alabama, still operates today.
Quite a few of the mid-century communal settlements were devoted to a charismatic leader or some particular point of view. Alfred Lawson, a onetime baseball pitcher and self-proclaimed inventor of the airliner, founded a communal "university" in Des Moines in 1943 where his disciples steeped themselves in his wide- ranging theories and cultivated communal gardens. In the 1930s and 1940s a novel group called Mankind United, one wing of which was communal, attracted thousands of Californians with its claim that it would soon establish an earthly paradise for its members. The list goes on and on.
Artists' colonies, virtually by definition centers of bohemianism, provided, collectively, constituted a bridge between earlier communitarianism and the hippies. The earliest colonies were simply towns--including Provincetown, Massachusetts, Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Taos, New Mexico--where artists congregated. By the turn of the century, however, new colonies with communal features began to appear. The Roycrofters, founded by Elbert Hubbard at East Aurora, New York, in 1893, produced fine books (many of them consisting of Hubbard's writings), furniture, and other craftworks for a nationwide clientele. Hubbard like to speak of a common purse as well as shared living facilities, although some critics have found Roycroft's communitarianism less than perfect, and Hubbard rather more equal than his fellows. Nevertheless, this colony, deliberately based on the artists' community founded by William Morris then operating in England, pointed the way to a new chapter in American communal history. Byrdcliffe, founded through the largesse of the English millionaire Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead in 1903, was never very productive artistically, but it attracted a host of artists and bohemians whose enduring presence turned the obscure New York village of Woodstock into an important center of the arts. 1903 also saw the founding of Rose Valley outside Philadelphia, where a diverse band of artists, architects, and writers labored together for several years. Other similar communities followed, and a decade or two later variations on the theme began to appear, especially with the opening of the semicommunal Black Mountain College, an extraordinary center of the literary and visual arts, in North Carolina in 1933. Here we have communities with some of the strongest links to the communes of the 1960s, the latter also having been populated to a large extent with would-be artists and writers. The art colonies prefigured the hippies in being centers of free expression; they also tended to accept relatively liberated sexuality (heterosex outside of marriage was not uncommon; neither was homosexuality). Hippies who had attended art schools often had had art-colony veterans as teachers; the founders of Drop City, the prototypical hippie commune that had a strong artistic flair, were guided in significant part by their admiration for the bohemian art colonial tradition.
In sum, intentional communities were as alive and well as ever when the hippies began creating communes. The notion that the communal tradition essentially died out before the Civil War is clearly erroneous; there may well have been more North Americans living communally in 1940 than there were in 1840.
Continuities and discontinuities
The point of all this is that the hippies, although some of them thought they were inventing communal living, in fact were merely writing a new chapter in a venerable tome. On the other hand, there was something new about the communes of the hippies. While it is hazardous to generalize too extensively about hip communal styles (the communes were a diverse lot, with a wide variety of purposes and attitudes), a few features tended to define the genre. For example, many communes, unlike most of their predecessors, subscribed to the concept of open membership. Openness was basic to the hip ethos; hippies tended to have a naive optimism about human nature, a belief that if one could simply be rescued from the nightmare of American culture and placed in a supportive setting, one would respond in kind and contribute to group harmony and achievement. So anyone willing to reject mainstream culture--to drop out, as the argot had it--was welcome.
A second hip innovation, in the communes as elsewhere in hip culture, was the use of drugs. Perhaps the hippies were not the first communal druggies; the Shakers, after all, had been major producers of opium. But by hippie times most mood-altering substances except alcohol were illegal, and illegality put a new patina on the use of those substances. The hippies were deeply convinced that certain drugs were valuable in a great many ways: They made you feel good, they provided glorious mystical visions, they increased your ability to live harmoniously with others and with nature. The fact that marijuana could often be grown in some obscure corner of a rural farmstead was a nice side benefit. Thus hippie communes were natural centers of drug production, use, and advocacy, and as a result were frequently raided by the police.
A third innovation was a flamboyant outrageousness that thumbed its nose at the rest of society. Mainstream culture was dead; the hippies embodied a breathtakingly new civilization, or so they thought. In their clothes, architecture, graphic designs, music, and many other externals of life the self-described freaks saw themselves as utterly different from what had gone before, and advertised that difference as vigorously as possible.
Somewhat new, but less completely so, was the hippie belief in abolishing all restrictions on sexual behavior. The standard hip theory was one of total sexual freedom: multiple partners, multilateral relationships or no commitment at all, homosexuality- -there were no boundaries. Of course some earlier communes had experimented with unusual sexual mores; the Oneida Community, for example, had a group marriage involving hundreds of members that lasted for over 30 years, from roughly 1850 to 1880. The hippie contribution thus was to take an idea earlier promulgated by a few isolated radical communards and make a variant of it the standard for large numbers of communes throughout the country.
In other ways the hippies were much like many of their communal predecessors. Many of the hippie communes had a back-to- the-land flavor, a rural romanticism about raising crops from the good earth that had been very much a part of many earlier American communal ventures. Most of the hippies who had not been raised on farms found agriculture less rewarding and less productive than they had expected, just as many of their predecessors had. They also reflected the experience of their forebears in that they tended to attract members who were ill-suited to communal living. The communal ideal is one of strong, self-motivated altruists pooling their money and energy for the common good. The reality is that a reliable commune is seemingly a cradle-to-grave welfare system, and as such is attractive to persons lacking motivation and ability to contribute. The Shakers perennially had "Winter Shakers" who would show up in the fall and live the communal life during the cold months, only to leave in the spring when the workload increased and life became easier elsewhere. The hippies also had problems with freeloaders and misfits.
Toward the sixties
No single chain of occurrences connected earlier American communitarianism to the hippies. Nevertheless, the communal form evolved, not necessarily consciously, over several decades toward the hip model. Any beginning point is bound to be arbitrary, but looking back about a quarter-century before hip days--a sociological generation--is useful. One can discern seeds of hip themes in one of the most important community-minded movements of the century, the Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day, its founder, was an early twentieth century Greenwich Village bohemian who was converted to Catholicism without losing her radicalism. Communal living was an important part of the movement from its inception in the 1930s. In cities the Workers established Houses of Hospitality, places where the poorest of the poor could get coffee, bread, and a place to sleep. Eventually several communal farms were developed, providing refuges from the problems of the city and food for the urban houses. While the Catholic Workers were (and are) hardly hippies, their movement did provide new directions for communalism. They were devoted to serving the destitute, something that was not a central precept of most of the more famous nineteenth-century communities. They lived lives of service around the clock and threw their doors open to all, sharing their physical space as well as their food and clothing with those they served. While they did not invent voluntary poverty, they lived it more truly than most communitarians have before or since. The center of their movement was religious, most Catholic Workers being as devoted to their religious path as hippies would be to their own diverse brands of mystical spirituality. And the Catholic Workers were full of political radicalism: they fed the poor, but they also worked to change the wealthy nation's political and social system that left many people hungry. It should not be surprising that some early pioneers of 1960s communalism were Catholic Worker veterans; their presence was especially strong in the early days of Tolstoy Farm, founded in 1963.
The founding of Community Service, Inc., by Arthur Morgan in 1940 also helped point new directions in communitarianism. Morgan, onetime chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and later President of Antioch College in Ohio, used CSI to help keep the communal flame burning at a time when Red-baiting and McCarthyism made life difficult for collective enterprises. In 1954 CSI established the Homer Morris Fund, a source of financing for communal enterprises. When the hippies came along, the Morris Fund, although its resources were never large, helped their communes--at least some of the more stable ones--just as it had those of the previous generation.