San Francisco Chronicle, 1981

A citadel of the counterculture

Ten years ago a ragtag group of 250 flower children left San Francisco for a patch of Tennessee soil. They put down roots and grew into a community of 1500.


THIS rolling hill country 65 miles south of Nashville seems an unlikely place to go looking for the spirit of the 1960s. But the word is that you can find it here, the whole peace and love and hippie psychedelic trip that faded elsewhere in the early ’70s like a tie-dyed banner left out in the rain.

Ten years ago a ragtag caravan of 250 flower children from San Francisco migrated to Tennessee in 60 school buses to put down roots among the white oaks and the stands of hickory and dogwood, to bear children and get high and grow their own food on a dirt farm off Highway 20. They refused to believe the summer of love died with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, with the gunfire at Kent State and the savagery of the Manson family.

stephen service

Stephen Gaskin, the spiritual leader under whom The Farm was founded,
still holds forth on Sunday mornings on a grassy hillside dubbed the Meditation Meadow.

You’d guess a bunch of marijuana-smoking hippies living on a commune would be about as welcome in Tennessee as the rattlesnakes and the biting no-see-’em bugs that lurk in the deep green forests beyond the tobacco fields.

For one thing, this piece of the Old South isn’t exactly an island of tolerance. One branch of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, about 25 miles to the southeast, and the resurgent Klan has lately been making the rounds of local farms, hunting recruits.

Yet despite a marijuana bust that sent their leader and two other commune members to state prison for a year, and the initial suspicion with which the country folks cast narrowed eyes on these self-described freaks from the big city, he hippies have not only survived but also flourished and multiplied, one of the few 60s communes to do so.

A decade after the pilgrims pooled heir money to buy land at $70 an acre, pitching tents and lean-to for shelter, there are 1500 people, including 650 children, living communally on 1,750 acres known simply as The Farm.

Farm folks have remained faithful to what they call “our ways,” taking vows of poverty, throwing all personal wealth into the communal pot and pursuing a spiritual life that mixes an inner quest for enlightenment with a missionary compassion for the poor. The Internal Revenue Service considers The Farm a monastery and exempts it from federal taxes.

Anywhere from 20 to 40 people per household live in hand-hewn dwellings fashioned in various shapes and sizes from scavenged material. Each house has electricity, running water, a communal kitchen and an outhouse. Color television sets and stereos, once unthinkable luxuries, are now commonplace.


While most of the so—called ’60s radicals have long since given up long hair as a form of rebellion, Farm dwellers don’t cut hair or beards as a symbol of identity, they say, with peasants throughout the world.

They are pacifists who kill only selectively the pesky insects that infest this humid climate, making daily living an often stinging affair. Farm folks do not use alcohol. or tobacco, but they shocked fellow organics by indulging in refined white sugar. They are strict vegetarians whose diet, relying heavily on soybeans for protein, consists of vegetables and fruit grown in their fields.

Members either work on The Farm without pay or in outside jobs, primarily in the building trades, turning over their earnings to help support their community.

Along the dusty roads that meander through the property, funky structures and  simple trailers house a soybean processing plant, a medical clinic, an ambulance service for The Farm and the community of Summertown (population 1,000), a school, a bakery, an electronics and solar-research center and a lucrative publishing company, complete with computerized typesetting equipment.

The commune is particularly proud of its midwife project, which offers free home  childbirth not only to Farm residents but also to outside women.

The Farm operates an ambulance service in New York’s devastated South Bronx and an international relief agency called Plenty, a kind of hippie Peace Corps that dispatches communards to Central America, Africa, Haiti and Bangladesh.

dairy 1981The Farm’s soybean-processing plant prepares one of the staples of residents’ diets.Photo by Robert W. Pillo

The place has become so well-known that anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year pass through its brick gatehouse on guided tours. “In Tennessee,” one commune member said, “the principal attractions are the Grand Ole Opry, Davy Crockett and The Farm.”

Hollywood hasn’t failed to notice all this. A host of producers has been bidding for the rights to The Farm’s story to make into a television movie. ‘

From the beginning, the guru and spiritual leader of The Farm has been Stephen Gaskin, a lanky 46-year-old ex-Marine who dropped out as S. I. Hayakawa’s assistant at San Francisco State to pursue the dreams of the ’60s.
Gaskin dropped his share of acid in the old days, studied Eastern and Western religions and preached a mishmash of mysticism and ideas for cooperative-living for five years to searching hipsters at a weekly gathering in San Francisco called Monday Night Class, sometimes attracting as many as 2,000 people.

“Stephen could hold a meeting together and bring that meeting to a communion,” said Leigh Kahan, 34, a former producer for an Oakland television station who left the city with the caravan of school buses that wandered 15,000 miles around the country before landing in Tennessee, lured by the promise of cheap land.

Gaskin still tours the country several months a year in a rebuilt Greyhound bus, keeping a tight schedule of speaking engagements. While at home, he holds forth at Sunday mornings on a grassy dubbed Metatation Meadow, talking to his flock in a homespun hip patois about helping others through what he calls “right vocations” gently delivering a basic tenet of The Farm ideology: “Don’t goof off.”

A prominent figure in the counterculture, with followers throughout the country and in England, Gaskin is not
without his detractors. Kathleen Platz, who went to Tennessee on the school-bus caravan, had been a midwife and a member of the commune’s elected governing body before she left The Farm in 1978, disgusted by what she calls  nsanitary living conditions and poor diet and health care under Gaskin’s “authoritarian” regime.

Ms. Platz, 32, now a resident of Grass Valley, Calif., accuses Gaskin of using commune money to finance expensive promotional tours in the United States and Europe while Farm residents often went without toilet paper, bar soap, juice for the children and other living essentials.

“We were voluntary peasants,” she said. “We weren’t supposed to complain. Stephen would say on Sundays that we had it better than peasants in Guatemala and Bangladesh. Sanitation and health are not priorities on The Farm. Getting Stephen’s word out is.

She charges that Gaskin uses his charismatic personality  to exploit his followers. “It‘s not like Jim Jones,” she said, “but, people are turning over their  free will. We believed Stephen was a messenger from God. That’s what he told us.”

Gaskin and other Farm spokesmen do not deny that residents had to make sacrifices in the: communes early years, but they say that Farm folks now enjoy a decent standard of living.

Kahan, who acts as the commune’s press liaison dismisses the charges leveled at Gaskin, saying that as The
Farm’s spiritual leader he is’certainly respected, but not worshiped.

For an interview, Gaskin padded into The Farm’s video workshop on rubber thongs, wearing a crushed hat, long pigtails braided with tie—dyed strips, wire rimmed glasses, a blue T-shirt celebrating the American Indians’ “Longest Walk” and cutoff jeans with a marijuana roach clip hooked to the pocket.

“When we first came here, not only was the greater society decadent but the hippie scene was, too,” he said.
“But we couldn’t afford to be isolated here. One way we thought we could get out in the world and move around was if we helped people. If you help, you should be welcome.”

Asked about the danger in a cult blindly following a charismatic leader, given the lessons of Jim Jones and
People’s Temple, Gaskin smirked.

“It’s amusing about Jim Jones. He don‘t belong to me and the hippies. He belongs to Jerry Falwell and them
guys. It’s interesting that the cults that crashed all got massive state and federal aid. We don’t. We have had to
live by our wits and work hard. We’ve been broke a bunch. That may have kept us honest.”

Gaskin claims he purposely takes no part in the commune’s council of elders, a 60-member elected governing body, and has no say in the distribution of Farm finances. “It seems healthier that I don’t have an official position,” he said, describing his role as that of “coach.”

If only by example, at one point Gaskin advocated group marriage. He was a part of “a four marriage”
involving himself, two women and another man. That grew into “a six marriage” involving three couples living together with full sexual privileges all around. That experiment doesn’t appear to have worked very well, and
now Gaskin says he confines his attention to his legal wife, Ina May, the Farm’s head midwife. ‘

“We brought a sample of everything San Francisco had to offer,“ he said, somewhat reluctantly discussing the
Farm’s personal and sexual life. “We didn’t all come here in couples. What we’ve come down to is being more
monogamous and being more hands-off about single folks.”

The Farm’s passion for marijuana has been a sensitive subject since authorities raided the property in the
early ’70s and found a patch of marijuana growing. Gaskin argued then that pot was a religious sacrament
and appealed his conviction on drug charges to the US. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. He and
two others served a year in prison.

Now, like millions of parents around the country who smoke a joint or two a day, Farm people have to think about
how they will approach the question of drugs with their children.

“We don‘t allow the children to smoke pot until they’re 18 and can make their own peace with the law,” Gaskin said. “Before that, if they get in trouble, we have to stand up for them. That isn‘t fair.”

At Dunn’s Grooery in Summertown, a question or two about the hippies sparked a lively discussion among a
group of locals, who said they are offended by the hippies’ use of marijuana, their communal lifestyle and
their saturation of the area’s job market.

“They‘re cutting everybody‘s throat financially,” a house painter complained. “They can do a job for $100 less than anybody else. I’ve got to run 30 miles to make a buck. . . . The only ones I can get to hire me are the people who don’t like the hippies’ looks.” But there was general agreement ‘ that the Farm ambulance service had saved lives, and that the hippies exhibited Christian charity when they nursed an ailing widow back to health.

Unlike some ’60s leaders who look back at that decade with some despair over their arrogant belief that the
alone knew the answers and what was right for the world, Gaskin has no such regrets, remembering the ’60s as “the
most noble movement I‘ve seen in my life.” .

Gaskin admits that The Farm has lost a few people to “big-city ways,” mostly students the commune sends off to universities to study medicine.

And there is some irony in the impatience some of the teenagers harbor over the laid-back lifestyle of their parents. “I see some young people who are going to take off,” he said. “They are going to go out and see the world, and my blessings to them. The new genera- tion has to see for itself the reasons we came here.”
1981 San Francisco Chronicle

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