Stephen Floyd Gaskin died Tuesday, July 1, 2014 surrounded by family at his home on Summertown Highway. He was 79.
Gaskin was born February 16, 1935 in Denver to the late E.F. Gaskin and Carolyn Ruth Carter Gaskin.
After his service in the Marine Corps as a combat veteran in the Korean War, he studied creative writing at what is now San Francisco State University before beginning his speaking career. He wrote books including “Amazing Dope Tales,” “Cannabis Spirituality,” and “An Outlaw in My Heart.”
In the late 1960s in San Francisco, Gaskin, a hippie guru, convened weekly seminars called Monday Night Classes. He drew hundreds of attendees, sometimes as many as 1,500, for sessions where he spoke deeply into topics including religion and personal fulfillment. In 1970, a caravan of some 60 school buses carrying several hundred followers traveled with Gaskin on national speaking tours.
In May, 1971, Gaskin led approximately 300 followers in a caravan of psychedelically painted school buses from San Francisco to Tennessee to start The Farm, one of the country’s oldest surviving communes.
They pooled their money and bought a tract of land near Summertown for $70 per acre. According to an article in the May 13, 1971 edition of the Lewis County Herald, the group was in Arkansas about a week hunting for farm land. Prior to that, they had spent about a month in the Nashville area. The Lewis County farm was first leased from a Nashville woman, Mrs. Rose Martin.
Under the leadership of Gaskin, the commune residents worked the land, pursued ecological sustainability, adopted vegan diets and rigorous recycling practices. Contraception was discouraged. Marriage, perhaps to the surprise of many, was encouraged.
Gaskin served as a spiritual guide, preaching a philosophy that combined elements of Christianity with tenets of Eastern faiths. Mr. Gaskin, who became a minister under Tennessee law, decreed that if couples had sex they must be considered engaged, and if the woman became pregnant, they must marry. Men were expected to treat women with “knightly” chivalry, he said.
The community became a nearly self-contained society, with an accredited K-12 school, a clinic with medical doctors, a publishing house, a soy dairy, and, most notably, midwifery. Gaskin and his wife, Ina May, developed a free midwifery service for women. Mrs. Gaskin became a widely known advocate for giving birth outside of hospitals, and has written popular books on the subject.
Under Gaskin’s leadership, the commune did wide-range work through its humanitarian organization, Plenty International. Other projects included volunteers building 3,000 homes and 300 public buildings after an earthquake in Guatemala.
Shortly after the Farm was founded, late August 1971, Gaskin was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for the manufacture of marijuana. Lewis County Sheriff T.C. Carroll confiscated over 1,000 plants. Although he had questioned the wisdom of cultivating the plant, Gaskin was sentenced to three years. He was paroled after serving one year.
Gaskin was married three times before marrying his former wife, Ina May Middleton, who survives him. He is also survived by a daughter from his second marriage, Dana Wenig; a son, Floyd Hagler, from a non-marital relationship; three children from his current marriage, Eva, Samuel and Paul Gaskin; a sister, Sherry Gaskin; and five grandchildren.
His life was honored when hundreds gathered in tree shade outside his home off Summertown Highway on Sunday, July 6. He was buried on The Farm, not in its cemetery, to avoid becoming an attraction, but to be one with the land instead.
“He changed a lot of lives, including mine,” wife Ina May said. “He taught people not to stop learning. He taught them to reach beyond their prejudices. He taught them to listen to each other and speak with respect. He taught them to have a broad vision of what works.” She concluded, “He taught me to be brave.”
To honor Stephen Gaskin, in lieu of flowers, the family asks people to consider a donation to Plenty International.