Roots of Communal Revival 1962-1966
Timothy Miller


Some of the member communities of CSI had features that anticipated the hip model and made them, in effect, links between the earlier communitarians and the hippies. One good example is the Glen Gardner Cooperative Community, also known as St. Francis Acres, founded in 1947 in New Jersey. Its anarchist/pacifist members operated a radical publishing house (many hip "underground" publications would be produced by communes); they also farmed and operated a preschool. Glen Gardner's members declared themselves opposed to land ownership, and announced that the community's land belonged to God. The concept was not original; Peter Armstrong had deeded the 600 acres of his Celestia community to God in the 1860s. But it was to crop up again in the hip communes, when Lou Gottlieb, after protracted battles with the local authorities over occupancy and sanitation, signed over the 30 acres of his Morning Star commune in California to God.

The most tangible link between Glen Gardner and the radicals of the 1960s was its leader, David Dellinger, who later became widely known for his pacifist activism and literary polemics, especially against the war in Vietnam. Dellinger eventually was one of the Chicago Seven who were tried for conspiracy for organizing demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was only one of several sixties radicals who had earlier been involved in communal living; another was Stoughton Lynd, who was a member of the Macedonia Cooperative Community in Georgia for several years in the 1950s.

Some communities established on the eve of the hip era eventually drew fair numbers of followers from the hippies. A good example here is the Himalayan Academy, founded in 1962 in Virginia City, Nevada. Virginia City was an early countercultural outpost; Subramuniya, an Eastern master of Western origin, bought an old brewery building and set out to form a spiritual community that would combine the best of Hindu and Christian spirituality. By the early 1970s the movement had grown so much that it began forming satellite centers. Meanwhile, other communities of various Eastern religionists sprang up, often in small communities so far from the mainstream of society that they were hardly noticed. How many students of communal history, for example, know of the Ahimsa Community of Parsons, Kansas (founded in 1965), or of the Yashodhara Ashram of Kootenay Bay, British Columbia (1959)?

Yet another movement with feet in both earlier and 1960s communitarianism was the School of Living. In 1934 social critic Ralph Borsodi founded the School as an organization that would help people learn the skills needed to move back to the land; two years later a School community was established at Suffern, New York, with, eventually, sixteen resident families. It closed during World War II, but the School of Living was taken over by Mildred Loomis who, with her husband John, re-established it in Ohio, whence it expanded. By 1966 the School was holding its classes and seminars at its new Heathcote Center, Maryland, and there a residential community was established. Unlike some older communitarians, Loomis was sympathetic to the hippies, whom she saw as perhaps the best hope for the ongoing communitarian movement and for the revival of rural self-sufficiency, her life goal. In the late 1960s Heathcote seems to have become very much like other hip communes; Elia Katz, in a generally pejorative account of a visit there about 1971, reported that the physical community consisted of a "cluster of shacks and trailers" as well as tents, and that quite a few members used marijuana (although not the major psychedelics), led fairly freewheeling sexual lives, and were concerned with healthy eating, subsistence farming, and rejecting the values of mainstream America. The hip era dawns

Just when and where did the first commune emerge that could properly be called "hip"? The form seems to have evolved in scattered locations between about 1962 and 1966 as a series of communes, each more hip than the last, began to crop up independently. The first, or one of the first, was Gorda Mountain, reportedly founded in 1962 near Big Sur, California. Its nature and role is difficult to assess, however, because information about it is so sparse. Libraries in the area have no information on it, and Big Sur history buffs, while they remember the community, tend to know few details. Richard Fairfield, who devoted two paragraphs to Gorda Mountain in his Communes USA, called it "the first open- land commune," saying it began when Amelia Newell, who operated an art gallery on the coast highway, decided to make her rural acreage open to anyone who would settle there. She apparently had few takers at first, but after the hip communal movement reached full steam there seem to have been more. Fairfield reports that 200 were there in the summer of 1967, and that clashes between the hippies and the authorities were intense, leading to a forced shutdown of the community in 1968. Gorda's chief contribution to hip communalism was its open-door policy; it may have had other hip features--free sex, drug use--in its early years, but documentation is lacking.

Another proto-hip commune was Kerista, established by John Presmont, who took the name Brother Jud, in the early 1960s. The Keristans were uninhibited practicing existentialists, especially noted for their practice of wide-open free love, but also pioneers in smoking marijuana and proclaiming an unabashed pursuit of hedonism. Although they later found it necessary to put some limits on their exuberance, in their early years they stretched the limits of a not-yet-very-permissive society a long way. There were bouts with venereal diseases, and as early as 1964 Jud and eleven others were arrested for possession of marijuana. But the Keristans were among the earliest exponents of anything goes, the first of the Do It! people. With its more or less open use of drugs and freewheeling sex, Kerista even more than Gorda portended what was coming with the hip communes.

Meanwhile, a different approach to community was unfolding in the far West. Tolstoy Farm, more like the rural hippie communes to come than any of its predecessors had been, was established in 1963 outside Davenport, Washington. Tolstoy in some ways resembled a less organized version of Glen Gardner, with a radical political orientation and aversion to private land ownership. But it also reflected what would become known as hippie ideals. Its members espoused peace and love and noncoercive behavior. Rejecting all regulations, they tolerated drugs, sex of all kinds, nudity, and just about any imaginable thought and behavior. Huw "Piper" Williams, the founder, in the early 1960s took part in peace marches, including some organized by the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action, which had a rural, somewhat communal farm in Connecticut from which its activies emanated. He decided to return home to Washington and start a similar farm there. Setting up shop on land owned by his mother and his grandparents, he invited friends from the peace movement, including some from the Catholic Worker, to join him and "attempt to live in a way that would not require violent acts, being in the military, courts, jail, or police." Early on they adopted as the sole rule of the community the principle that no one could be forced to leave, so that "We would have to work out our differences in the right way." With no rules restricting sexual activity or drug use and with wide-open membership, Tolstoy Farm lurched closer to hip than anything that had gone before.

Many were attracted to Tolstoy--Robert Houriet says there were fifty the first summer--and the community focused mainly on living at a near-subsistence level. With a cash flow of less than $100 per month, Williams recalls, "We were pretty poor, trying to grow our own food, build our own shelter, use old tools and equipment. It occupied us and challenged us." After some shifts and land acquisition during the first two years, Tolstoy Farm ended up consisting of two separate parcels of land, one of 80 acres in a large canyon and another of 120 acres two miles to the south. An existing farmhouse, known as Hart House, became the communal center. A diverse crowd took up residence there, especially as hippie interest in communes boomed in 1966 and 1967. More than a few of the newcomers, whose numbers included runaways and mental patients, created problems for the longer-term residents. In the spring of 1968 Hart House burned to the ground as a result of a fire set by a teenage girl Williams describes as "kind of off balance." Many of the earlier settlers had already built simple homes elsewhere on the two pieces of land and were reportedly not entirely sad to see the chaotic Hart House scene come to an end. After the fire the community consisted of private households, although cooperative features endured. Population estimates vary, but it appears that at its late-sixties peak the community had perhaps as many as 80 residents, including a healthy contingent of children in the cooperative alternative school, and several cooperative work projects. In 1970 a journalist wrote of a community of "serious, straightforward people who, with calculated bluntness, say they are dropouts, social misfits, unable or unwilling to cope with the world `outside.'"

Life was never easy at Tolstoy Farm; many contemporary newspaper accounts of life there commented on the farm's run-down physical plant. "Dotted with shacks and makeshift abodes, it is reminiscent of a Hooverville of the 1930s," one reporter wrote. But the residents had a sense that those who had learned to live without technological support systems would be the better off for it when, as many believed, the time would come when world crisis might remove such systems.

Eventually things took a downhill turn. "Things got wild and different," Williams says. He left and later gathered another community, the Earth Cyclers, on land owned by his parents 25 miles from Tolstoy; at this writing it consists of nine persons living simply and carrying out organic farming and forestry projects. At last report about 40 persons were at Tolstoy, living independently as families but still retaining some sense of community. The old school building is now a communal library; the residents have potluck meals every Sunday and keep a cooperative milk cow. In the fall of 1990 residents were building a communal sweat lodge and, many of them having become interested in goddess religion, celebrating neopagan holidays together. In many ways little has changed in a quarter century.

While Tolstoy Farm was trying to map its communal route another influential variation on the communal theme began to take shape in California. Ken Kesey, one of the main pivots between beat and hip culture, and a circle of bohemian friends who became known as the Merry Pranksters soon became prominent promoters of taking LSD. Their 1964 bus trip became legend in countercultural history after its depiction in Tom Wolfe's best-seller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. After the trip the Pranksters lived in a loose, rather disorganized communal setup south of San Francisco and later, after 1967, on the Kesey farm in Oregon. Eventually Kesey tired of it all; in 1969 he shut it down. But for several years Kesey and the Pranksters had one of the liveliest communal scenes anywhere.

There was, in short, a good deal of communal activity going on by 1965. It drew from earlier communitarianism, utopianism, and radical politics in many and basic ways; but it also pushed at the boundaries, looking for new options, trying to find new and better ways to live than mainstream America presented. Meanwhile, back in America. . . .

The ongoing communitarian tradition did not by itself cause the 1960s communal revival. Other forces were stirring, portending cultural upheavals to come. One thing that would have a great deal of influence on the hippies and their communes was the changing nature of the beat movement, the predecessor of hippiedom, where by the middle to late 1950s new themes were resonating.

One important harbinger of things to come was the emergence of the new psychedelic drugs, especially LSD. Drugs were nothing new to the beats; bohemians had been smoking marijuana for much of the twentieth century, and some of them, at least by the late 1950s, had dabbled in a fair number of other substances. But LSD was something else. Its visions were fantastic, urgent, profound. By the cusp between beat and hip it was making rapid strides in popularity. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had much to do with that, of course; so did the Harvard Psychedelic Research Project of 1960-61, which got Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert fired for administering LSD to undergraduates. The hippies soon made LSD the single most important symbol of what their movement was all about. Of course marijuana was not neglected; its low cost and less intense effects made it the subcultural drug of choice by mid- decade.

Monday Night Class Meanwhile, things were not quiet on the cultural front. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," published in 1956, was a new blast of poetic wind, a stunning challenge to the formal, academic style that dominated American poetry and that even the earlier beat poets had been unable to dislodge. At the same time, new and daring entertainment began to emerge. Lenny Bruce, to pick a prominent performer, devastated nightclub audiences with a new type of standup comedy, a savage assault on American icons with shocking swear words, heretofore never heard outside of private conversation.

New magazines were also pushing at the cultural boundaries. In 1958 Paul Krassner founded The Realist, a little newsprint journal which engaged in uninhibited social criticism and displayed freewheeling graphics. In the early 1960s Krassner was marketing, through his magazine, such artifacts as the "Mother Poster," which consisted of the words "Fuck Communism" done up in a stars-and- stripes motif. Another new periodical, this one begun in 1962, was Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, put out in a mimeographed and stapled format by Ed Sanders, the proprietor of a radical bookstore in the East Village. (Sanders would later gain prominence as leader of one of the farthest-out hip musical groups, the Fugs, and as a historian of the Charles Manson family.) Much of the magazine's content consisted of experimental poetry and the works of leading beat literati, but Sanders also ran polemics (advocating the legalization of psychedelic drugs, he asked, "Why should a bunch of psychologists hog all the highs?") and sexually explicit graphics.

There was, in short, an evolution from beat to hip which took place over a decade or so, from the mid-fifties until the mid- sixties. Beyond that, the changing nature of mainstream society and of popular culture also sowed seeds of hip. The new post-World War II prosperity put cash into the hands of the nonproductive young, and that certainly changed their way of thinking about the relationship of work and wealth. Higher education mushroomed; now a great portion of a generation could be isolated from its elders, ghettoized, and given a chance to try new experiments in living. New contraceptives and treatments of sexually transmitted diseases made for relatively hassle-free casual sex. A new music with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley was, compared to its immediate predecessors, primitive and sexual.

The political world was changing as well, on campus and off. The civil rights movement brought to the fore a new politics of moral passion. John Kennedy and some of his programs, notably the Peace Corps, furthered the idealism of the young. The founding of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 and the sudden emergence of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 inaugurated a new radicalism on campuses. Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam in early 1965 engendered increasingly tumultuous protests.

The ongoing presence of utopian and visionary literature in America also promoted the communal vision. In 1948 B. F. Skinner published Walden Two, which became a perennial best seller and eventually directly inspired several intentional communities, including Twin Oaks in Virginia and East Wind in Missouri. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land became a hip literary favorite, and in due course communes devoted to its ideas emerged, including Sunrise Hill in western Massachusetts. The communal vision certainly received a boost from the dozens of utopian fantasy novels appearing annually.

All of these rather diverse currents combined into a powerful stream. The rise of the hippie alternative, like that of the New Left, was the embodiment of a culture of rejection. Establishment culture seemed cold, empty, closed-minded, unable to change and to tolerate new insights. The countercultural vision as it emerged in the mid-sixties, naive as it may have been, was a seductive one: Don't work, get stoned and be mystical and happy, have sex at will, listen to lots of music, think great thoughts, live in warm communities with other mellow people.

Bringing it all together: Drop City

In May of 1965 these strands of communal exploration and cultural paradigm shift came together in the settlement that turned the corner, that can plausibly be called the first full-blown hippie commune: Drop City, located near Trinidad, Colorado. Drop City brought together most of the themes of its predecessor communities--anarchy, pacifism, sexual freedom, drugs, open membership, art--and wrapped them in an exuberance and an architecture that trumpeted the coming of a new communal era.

Drop City's founders were influenced by a number of communal and collective traditions. One was of Mennonite stock and thus familiar with the close-knit, world-rejecting search for community conducted by the Anabaptists. Two were from leftist families in New York, raised with the collective ideals of Marxism was all about them. All three were artists and familiar with the concept of bohemian artists' collectives. The fourth person to settle at Drop City, and the one who lived there the longest of anyone, was raised by parents who had lived in the Jewish colonies of southern New Jersey.

The immediate impetus for Drop City, however, was art. Clark Richert met Gene and Jo Ann Bernofsky in 1961 in Lawrence, Kansas, where Richert and Jo Ann were studying painting and Gene was pursuing his own artistry, especially film. A year or two later Richert and Gene began creating what they called Drop Art, which began when they painted rocks and dropped them from a loft window onto the sidewalk on town's main drag, watching the reactions of passersby. From there the genre became more elaborate.

By 1965 Richert and the Bernofskys found themselves trying to escape the system altogether by pursuing a communal alternative. They wanted to find land, build houses, and live rent free while doing art. Richert and Gene Bernofsky found six acres of scrubby goat pasture outside Trinidad and bought it for $450 on May 3, 1965. There was never a question about the name; Drop City would be the communal settlement of the Drop artists. (Accounts in years to come would say that the commune's name stemmed from the fact that its members were dropouts, or from their liking to drop acid; they were simply wrong.)

The three Droppers moved in immediately. Shortly before the land purchase Richert had attended a lecture by Buckminster Fuller in Boulder and come away with visions of geodesic domes. With only the vaguest ideas of what they were doing they began to build. Without money--Drop City was always broke--they had to scrounge building materials; they planted old telephone poles for foundation piles and collected mill ends, pieces of 2x4 too short to sell, from a lumber mill scrap pile. Amazingly, two domes were soon erected, and a big third one was begun.

Before the third dome's outer covering was started in the spring of 1966, Steve Baer, an established dome-builder from Albuquerque, had begun to visit the Droppers. Baer startled junkyard owners by walking in and offering them a nickel or a dime apiece for car tops; then he and the Droppers would take big double-bladed axes and chop the tops from the cars. Attached to the facets of the domes, they produced a hamlet of crazy quilts.

The Droppers had the kind of visionary optimism that would soon characterize the entire hippie movement. Jo Ann Bernofsky says, "We knew that we wanted to do something outrageous and we knew we wanted to do it with other people, because it was more exciting to be with a group than to be just one or two or three people. . . . It was full of vitality, and it was extremely exciting and wonderful. You had the sense that anything was possible." They also had the beat-hippie disdain for money, material comfort, and work. As Gene Bernofsky puts it,

Living on a few donations, and, briefly, food stamps, the Droppers pursued their art vigorously. Slides taken during the first year show dozens of paintings, sculptures, pieces of decorated furniture, and assemblages, as well as the monumental artworks, the domes themselves. One innovative piece was The Being Bag, a hand- made black-and-white comic book cooperatively written and illustrated; it would be a strong contender for the title of first underground comic book. Gene Bernofsky also shot a great deal of film at Drop City. Literature was produced at the commune as well; the most prominent writer was Peter Douthit, who arrived a year after the founding. Under his Dropper name Peter Rabbit he published a book entitled Drop City, a mix of factual history, fiction, and prose poetry which, despite its limitations as a historical document, remains the most substantial work to date on the community.

There was much that was good about Drop City. Richert remembers it as the best part of his life. The Bernofskys talk of it with considerable pride. But eventually the edges began to fray, and Drop City began a long slide toward oblivion, finally closing in 1973. Before that, however, it helped inspire a whole new generation of communitarians, thanks to visits by thousands of hippies who dropped in, illustrated feature stories in both underground and mainstream publications, and the occasional presence of countercultural celebrities, Timothy Leary and perhaps Bob Dylan among them. Drop City had raised the flag of the city in the wilderness and became a defiant center of rejection of the culture of Babylon.

The End of the Beginning

It is at this point that most accounts of 1960s communes start. In the spring of 1966 musician Lou Gottlieb opened his Morning Star Ranch in Sonoma County, California, to all comers, and quickly got into a long-running conflict with local authorities over matters of overcrowding and sanitation on the 30-acre spread. Here again was an important link to the American communal past: Gottlieb's co-founder of Morning Star, Ramon Sender, had lived in the Bruderhof and knew something of American communal history. By the following year hippie communes were springing up all over the country. Most were short-lived, but some endure even yet--the Farm, for example, in Tennessee, New Buffalo in New Mexico, and the pioneer Tolstoy Farm. A new and different chapter in the history of American communitarianism was under way.

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