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Hippie Communes and Quirky Living
By Julie DiNisio
Peace, love, and communal living: hippie communes didn’t die out with the 1960’s. In fact, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities lists hundreds of communities across the United States, many of which are currently in the process of forming. The term “hippie” has ceased to truly define the majority of these places, though, and most fall under the category of “intentional community.”
A member painted sign, displayed on a storage shed at Twin Oaks Intentional Community.
Just like drug use, communal living wasn’t a novelty in the 1960’s–-it just became a stereotype for the decade. To trace the roots of these communities, one could go back for centuries. European in origin, commune leaders found new possibilities for their radical ideas in the New World. Author Joseph Manzella gave these reasons as to why America has been fertile soil for communes: “the availability of natural resources, the political structures of Europe, the nature of colonial settlement, and the freedom to slip between the cracks of societies in the making.”
Robert Owen, a native of Wales, succeeded in falling “between the cracks” of American society in 1825 when he started New Harmony. An enthusiastic socialist, Owen began this colony of 180 buildings set on 30,000 acres of Indiana land. After putting his son in charge of New Harmony, Owen toured the United States seeking financial backers for his 800 member and growing community. Structural problems caused New Harmony to close in 1828, but Owen’s socially progressive ideas have influenced many of today's labor laws and educational programs.
Twenty years after New Harmony’s dissolution, John Humphrey Noyes began Oneida, a Perfectionist community that, as the name would indicate, focused on self-perfection. Noyes introduced the idea of open heterosexual relationships, a feature that is still affiliated with some communes today. Because outside society was unwilling to accept these “complex marriages,” Oneida endured the same fate as New Harmony.
Through the decades, America saw a variety of other communities form and dissolve. Massachusetts’s Brook Farm attracted famous transcendentalists like Nathaniel Hawthorne; the French Icarians settled in Texas, Illinois, and California; the Amish even constitute an example of communal life--one of the most successful ones, actually. Attempts at utopia exploded in the 1960’s, though, as communes formed under the labels of gay liberation, opposition to war in Vietnam, and occultism. Robert P. Sutton, an expert on secular communities, declared this form of communalism as “drug tolerant protests of the counterculture.” He went on to say, “Young men and women both single and married, ‘dropped out’ to experience a communal psychology of self-actualization.”
Beechside, a Twin Oaksresidence building.
In America today, there’s an unprecedented variety of intentional communes which stretch from Hawaii to the backyard of Richmond, Virginia. Twin Oaks Intentional Community is located in Louisa County and claims 95 residents. Established in 1967, it’s one of the oldest communes in existence, and on Saturdays in March through October, anyone can take a three-hour tour of the sprawling 450 acres.
Wizard, a nine-year resident of the commune and the guide of these informative tours, declared Twin Oaks the “mother ship of all communes.” He went on to speak for himself and his fellow residents when he said, “We choose to live here because it’s so different from the mainstream world.”
Twin Oaks Intentional Community is rustic and quiet, lending a peaceful atmosphere to the wood buildings, dirt paths, and gardens. Residents are expected to work at least forty-two hours a week in any of the commune's many businesses. Twin Oaks generates most of its revenue through making hammocks and tofu. Currently in the process of expanding the tofu business to meet a growing demand, the managers are hoping to soon produce 20,000 pounds of it a day. The product can be found in Whole Foods Markets in Charlottesville and Richmond.
Kitchen in Tupelo, a residence building; meals can be eaten communally or prepared privately.
Though Twin Oaks makes an estimated million dollars a year, money is not its focus. Those earnings go back into the income-sharing community and into a savings account for the aging members. The community members are currently building a hospice for the elderly and sick people. As Wizard said, “We want to take care of everybody when they’re functional, but also when they’re non-functional.”
Twin Oaks interacts very little with the local government and is governed by a planner-manager system. There are managers of each area of the commune who make decisions that can be contested by anyone. A planner is a member that steps up to act as a mediator until an issue is resolved.
Twin Oaks neither discourages nor forbids drug use. According to Wizard, use is not nearly as rampant as the stereotype would suggest due to the lack of money and the personal beliefs of the residents. Though he did add that the community is a “microcosm of the world. Everything that happens in the real world happens here.”
All of the buildings and dormitories on the property are named after former famous communities: Harmony, Oneida, Llano, and Aurora, to name a few. A diverse array of people shares these aptly named buildings. Men, women, children, Christians, atheists, spiritualists–-all inhabit Twin Oaks. The community supports open relationships and a feminist ideal. Perhaps most notably, though, it’s a self-sustaining ecovillage because of its policies on conservation, food production, and energy resources.
East Wind Community, a sister commune to Twin Oaks, was established in 1974 and is located in the Missouri Ozarks. This more rural version of Twin Oaks is non-secular and currently has 45 members, who call mainstream society “Babylon.” Charlie Flatt, a five-year resident, heard about East Wind through National Geographic, visited, and stayed.
Flatt said, “I enjoy never having to commute to work; the Ozark Mountains are beautiful, the food is great, and there are learning opportunities here not generally available to all of mainstream society.” To this, he added, “We want to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the consumer society. In a community [like ours], you must develop relationships with the people you are both living and working with, which is largely absent in Babylon.”
Sandhill Farm is a community that shares a few similarities with East Wind, in that it is also located in Missouri and was also established in 1974. However, Sandhill is diminutive in comparison with only eight members. It’s an egalitarian community (as are Twin Oaks and East Wind) that emphasizes the importance of the environment.
Twin Oaks’ “Playground of Death”; a recreational area created by and reserved for adult commune members.
Laird Schaub has been a member of Sandhill since it opened almost forty years ago. He joined “to recapture the stimulation and support of dormitory living in college.” He went on to say, “I’ve stayed because I am not aware of any lifestyle that provides these things better. I enjoy how work is shared and how each member has a high degree of work they like doing.”
Sandhill is an organically certified farm set on about 120 acres. The residents farm the land, participate in agricultural studies, and keep bees. Schaub attested Sandhill’s principles by saying, “Our values are to provide a high quality of life for each member, steward the land responsibly, and minimize our impact on the environment.”
Twin Oaks, East Wind, and Sandhill are all examples of religiously open, multi-purpose communes, but many are far narrower in focus. Tomorrow’s Bread Today, for example, is a Christian cooperative, in which money is collected and pooled from members to evenly distribute healthcare. Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative is based in Pennsylvania but boasts members from all over North America who create politically and socially radical artwork.
Hammock warehouse at Twin Oaks; all hammocks are hand-crafted by commune members.
Many communities don’t last beyond one generation and end in failure–-overly idealistic worlds unable to sustain themselves. There’s a logical reason for this, as many children of commune dwellers choose to leave the alternative lifestyle. The fact that so many 1960’s communities were abandoned could be because “the baby boomers were the last American generation to be raised with the idea of limitless possibilities,” as Joseph Manzella ascertains. The idealism for alternative lifestyles simply was not passed on to the next generation.
Another reason for failure could be the lack of diversity found in communities. While most promote racial tolerance, the majority of residents are white, middle class, and well-educated. Manzella attributes this to a difference in priorities between members and minorities. On the other hand, Wizard from Twin Oaks believes it to be a difference in family life, saying, “White people are looking for something that many other cultures have with their families: a community.”
Another expert on the intricacies of communal living, Ernest S. Wooster attributes the failure of some communes to a lack of structure and central thought through a charismatic leader or a driving purpose: “A successful non-religious colony must be one which substitutes a religious zeal towards its principles and an intelligent purpose of eliminating personal selfishness.” Careless admittance to a commune–-“half-baked idealists, impractical visionaries, persons seeking an easy life, and those who are unwilling to accept the hard conditions”–-can also be a cause for failure, according to Wooster.
The pattern of generational problems and a lack of racial diversity will probably continue to haunt communes. However, those with a central focus–-as in religion or the environment–-have and will probably continue to find the most success. As the American economy changes and the market for local goods and produce continues to grow, certain types of communal living should flourish and provide a haven for those seeking a radically alternative lifestyle.