A few hundred idealistic, mostly baby boomer souls leave San Francisco in brightly-painted school buses and vans on a caravan quest across America, searching for a spot to establish an utopian community. In 1971, after 7 months, the group plops on the promised land in the wilderness of Tennessee. It’s the height of the Viet-Nam war and youth rebellion.
Over the years, The Farm became a counterculture mecca, with over 4000 official members at one time or another. Some 100,000 were overnight visitors in the 1970s. It was the largest hippie establishment of its kind in North America. The Wall St. Journal called it the “General Motors of American Communes.”
Stephen Gaskin talking to his followers in San Francisco, 1970
Charismatic founder Stephen Gaskin’s vision was a mix of old and new. Believe it or not, baby boomers didn’t invent the commune or utopia. Special enclaves, usually in rural areas far from the maddening urban crowd, had long been a tradition in American culture, from Romantics to religious sects to socialists. Born in the rise and decline of the San Francisco hippie scene, Gaskin emerged as a new age prophet who was once described as “the Gandhi of the American Counterculture.”
Back to land was his clarion call, away from the distractions and corruptions of cities. It seemed to him “the natural progression of the whole hippy movement.” It represented nothing less than the creation a new, progressive human soul with heightened consciousness, or as one early member described it, “to decondition ourselves from our capitalist condition and recondition ourselves for a better society.”
The Farm required vows of poverty and selfless discipline to a clear code of conduct. It was a tribe,” a follower said. “That body is our church, or group soul.”
In 1983, financial problems and challenges to Gaskin’s leadership led to the “Changeover” or “Exodus.” Members left in droves and survivors were required to support themselves rather than donate all income to a central bank. Today, there are about 175 members, many of whom run their own small businesses at the Farm.
Stephen Gaskin’s last venture was a “Not-for-Profit Development and Intelligence Corporation” called Rocinante, a new age hippie retirement home, named after Don Quixote’s horse. Gaskin died in 2014.
In 2000, Gaskin ran for President in Green Party primaries, but lost the nomination. He describes his politics as “Beatnik” and his religion as “Hippy.”
The Farm was a cult whose members were controlled by Stephen Gaskin. The community enforced its vision of paradise rigidly, including dress codes, work rules, recreation restrictions, even regulation of sex and living conditions, which smacked of sexism. Gaskin and his chosen few lived apart and better. The proof is in the pudding and this pudding didn’t last very long.
The Farm brought out the best in people who wanted to change. It had an acclaimed outreach program to poor and indigenous people around the world, which still exists. Pioneer farming and other green technologies were developed there. Gaskin was a benign leader who never coerced anyone to stay. There is a large “alumni” who continues to change society for the better.
►Boomers in Common: What do they all share?
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
♫ What’s the last line of this song?
Green acres is the place for me
Farm livin’ is the life for me
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide…
Answers at end of post
►Boomers in Common: All were arrested for marijuana possession.
♫ The last line of the Green Acres television theme: …Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.