From hippie commune to smaller, thriving collective community
By Tim Ghianni, October 21, 2016
THE FARM – Marijuana smoking used to be considered a sacrament for the original 320 hippie refugees whose gypsy caravan of white school buses pulled onto this Lewis County acreage 45 years ago, giving birth to a commune that continues to go by the simple name “The Farm.”
They all were led here by a shaggy shaman, Stephen Gaskin, who they called their “teacher.” The Korean War combat veteran preached peace and love – principles he had nurtured in San Francisco, where some called him the Acid Guru, because LSD also was highly regarded. But they were urged to stay away from pharmaceuticals, meaning all drugs other than acid or pot.
Families were important, but not necessarily traditional. For example, Gaskin himself, with his wife Ina May, for a time were part of a family consisting of three couples who lived together in a single dwelling and would swap bedmates by consent within that family.
And newcomers lived in tents stretched across the little prairie or tucked into the thick woods until they could perhaps be “promoted” to living in one of the 80 buses that had carried Gaskin’s followers until perhaps building more suitable structures. Or they could hire the ace craftsmen, the carpenters of the nearby Amish and Mennonite communities, to use their skills and make proper homes.
Additional Articles in The Ledger: Farm Outreach, from midwifery to foreign aid and Former residents return home.
Most of that has changed with the times. By way of illustration, pot use no longer is regarded as spiritual. It’s just a part of life, if folks choose it.
“We leave (marijuana use) up to the individuals, just like everybody else does (out there in the material world),” says Douglas (“sometimes I go by Doug, sometimes by Douglas, it depends” he adds), reintroducing himself to me as Douglas Stevenson, who since 1973 has lived on these fertile, rolling 2,000-or-so acres of Lewis County farmland and woodland just outside Summertown.
He and his young wife came here as a 19-year-old married couple, trying to have a child. “Our parents thought that maybe it would last a summer,” says Douglas, whose mother now lives in a house he owns not far from his own.
He points to that fairly substantial (by Farm standards) building that had served as his personal office for his multi-faceted company. “Now I do most of my work at home. But I spend my nights with her. She has a little dementia.”
Soon, the large deck behind that house would be alive with older residents. “It’s Seniors Day,” explains Douglas, noting those gatherings are lively and loving.
All generations of families are living here. The older and ailing ones, like Douglas’ mom, are tended to by their children and grandchildren.
“We want (our children) to see how we take care of older family members,” Douglas says, noting a selfish reason. The original Farm family – not too many are left here – as well as other early arrivals like himself eventually will need that same nurturing.
He and his wife, Deborah Flowers, have raised their two children here. And now their grandchildren are a part of the community.
Times have changed, mellowed the few remainders of that band of mostly Haight-Ashbury hippies he and Deborah joined here 43 years ago.
Gaskin, who had been a teacher at San Francisco State when not preaching and philosophizing and emanating spirituality and love of the sacraments, died a couple of years ago.
He no longer was the leader at that point, surrendering that role in 1983, when The Farm reached an economic crisis point and turned to personal earnings and collective contributions as part of what is called “the changeover.”
Gaskin, who had brought them in 1971 to this community built on living off and for the land, and his wife remained residents. She still lives near The Farm.
Douglas and his wife, like hundreds before them, learned of this intentional community and happily enlisted. Others still make the pilgrimage, drawn by the principles of The Farm – described on “company” literature as “A Spiritual Community based on the principles of nonviolence and respect for the earth.”
It is the same sort of idealistic pursuit that in 1969 drew a half-million young people to a farm in Upstate New York.
In fact, a day spent here, visiting with residents or just watching old hippies working out in the fields or in the various shops, trips memories of that generation-defining gathering on Max Yasgur’s farm.
By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere was a song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies across our nation….
Joni Mitchell’s anthem – made popular by then-new folk-rock super-group Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) – to a generation and their motivation could be applied, somewhat, to this old hippie commune-turned-mellow-collective.
No, Jimi Hendrix never shook them with a dizzying take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Country Joe wasn’t here to lead “The Fish Cheer.” But the original settlers at The Farm shared the “butterflies in the sky” idealism. The population here has diminished, but those ideals still are nurtured by the dozen original settlers here, as well as by the nearly 200 late-comers to this intentional community built on living in concert with the earth.
As evidence, check out the abbreviated form of their history as demonstrated on The Farm Community web pages: “In 1971, a caravan of 80 white school buses and assorted other vehicles carrying 320 hippie idealists landed on an abandoned farm in central Tennessee. They had a mission: to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to follow a peaceful and spiritual path, and to make a difference in the world.”
This particular bus trip, its goals and methods, should not be confused with another legendary cross-country bus journey of the era, that of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. That bus “Furthur” – immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as in song by “house band” by The Grateful Dead – was primarily devoted to amusement and shock value and drawing attention in that Vietnam War era.
The folks on the white school buses were deadly serious. This was no gimmick, no elongated practical joke on society. They were coming here for life. As noted, some remain four-decades-plus later.
Their destiny, well, their eventual destination at least, was this large patch of land at the edge of Summertown, about 75 miles southwest of Nashville.
That the population once grew to about 1,000 but now is down to 200 is partly due to attrition – some moved to other communes, some likely put on ties and re-entered “society,” a few died of old age.
“It’s at that point in life where people who were here early are passing away,” Douglas says. Kind of like the bees in the hives near his own home.
“The bees are dying off,” he explains. He’s had up to five hives. Now down to three. “I had seven gallons of honey this year.”
The cases of the dead people and the bees prove that the circle of life – I am told later by a young woman who runs the Ecovillage Training Center that it is “the nitrogen cycle” – is true whether you smoke pot and pound on drums in the night or not.
The Farm has grown in dimension from its original 1,750 acres. There now are 650 more acres “in the land trust,” and then there is the fact many – including Douglas’ own daughter – have ventured to the community outside this hippie nirvana, spreading the ideals on their own private property.
“We have lots of little pockets around here,” Douglas adds. There also is plenty of wildlife. “We have tons of deer and foxes and possums.’’ Coyotes. Armadillos, the newest menace. A few cougar sightings. No black bears, yet. That’s not counting the horses grazing in the pastures. At the edge of one field, I watch as a hippie in a straw hat fills a water trough.
There have been plenty of adjustments over the years. As noted earlier, after about a decade, The Farm went from an “all-for-one commune” to being a collective. Instead of giving all their earnings and labor to The Farm and having proceeds split equally, residents began keeping money for their own families and paying $105 a month to the board for necessities – water, electricity and the like. Think of it as the hippie equivalent of HOA fees at your typical high-rise, urban Nashville condo.
“Stephen used to say we are a gated community for not-rich people,” jokes Douglas. There indeed is a guard gate that monitors comings and goings to this property.
While many of those who live here work out in the world, and the residents of The Farm mix easily with most of their neighbors, they are encouraged to practice capitalism here, to start businesses like one that makes Geiger counters. Another that makes and exports tofu. It means jobs and more money for the greater community.
The need to live life as fully as possible on The Farm is evidenced by the asphalt road leading away from the security gate.
“We kept our roads private,” explains Douglas, noting that they could have allowed Lewis County to take them over and maintain them.
“We decided to pave the roads all by ourselves. We wanted to know who is driving up and down the roads. We didn’t want the drunks to drive in here on Friday night. We wanted our kids and women to feel safe walking around outside.”
If Lewis County had taken over care of the roads, well, they’d be as public as the roads in any less-eccentric subdivision.
“We didn’t want that,” Douglas says. “We know every car, every person’s walk. The gate is open during the day. We are opened for business.”
In addition to the little entrepreneurial businesses, the Farm has a grocery, appropriately named “The Farm Store.”
“It’s sort of a mini Whole Foods,” Douglas says. Trucked-in organic foods help keep it stocked.
“It’s not like we are trying to separate ourselves,” he adds. Instead they are just being wary. Oh, and the children go to county schools or the 25-student K-12 on The Farm or are homeschooled. “It depends on what parents want for their children,” says Douglas. Children from the surrounding community also come to The Farm School as a private-school option.
The residents also rely on trips outside Summertown, perhaps venture as far away as Lawrenceburg and Columbia for their material needs, groceries, clothing and banking.
And they’ve made a lot of friends.
“Over 40 years you build a lot of relationships, whether at the bank or with the people at Walmart,” Douglas says.
“Right now we don’t have anyone in our community who does masonry,” Douglas adds. “So if someone was wanting to build a brick house, he might hire a local contractor.”
Douglas who is 62, works with the outside world through Village Media, his growing website design and hosting and video-production business, writing books and speaking engagements. The basic dream of Gaskin was what led Douglas and wife Deborah to desert their middle-class roots in Louisville, Kentucky.
And they’ve never given up on that dream, although they did for a time leave to establish a Farm satellite in Kentucky and to participate in regular Farm mission trips to Guatemala.
“The caravan actually moved onto the land in August 1971,” Douglas says.
“My wife and I arrive in August, 1973. It had been going a couple of years by the time we got here.” By that point they were beginning to move out of the school buses – which had served as the community’s “subdivision”– and into Army tents.
“Those were kinda the boot-camp days,” Douglas explains. While his family originally lived in a tent with no running water, no electricity and a wood stove for warmth, he began working on a more substantial shelter.
“I made a 10-by-16 cabin with a loft” attached to a box truck, he said.
“Our first child was born in the back of a Railway Express box truck. It had been a standalone little unit, then we built the cabin onto it, so the cabin became the kitchen, etc., and the box truck became the bedroom, with a little, tiny stove in it,” he adds.
Though he and his mates now firmly live in the material world by necessity and for survival, his voice smiles with fondness when he talks about that first solid “home” he built for his family.
“The bed was up in the front by the driver’s seat (of the box truck). So we had windows on three sides. Pretty nice really, we didn’t mind it a bit.”
Deborah is one of the instructors at the recently christened College of Traditional Midwifery on The Farm, which has been acclaimed for its midwives and natural birth methods.
It’s a practice that has always been important to The Farm.
“The midwife thing actually started on the buses in the caravan,” says Douglas Stevenson, an author and speaker and the official spokesman for The Farm. “Women were giving birth and everyone was helping.”
“I was expecting our first baby and I wanted help at The Farm,” Deborah says, talking of their pilgrimage. “I didn’t want to be drugged in a hospital. We sought out The Farm first to have a baby. We liked it and we stayed.” That pregnancy was unsuccessful, but they had found their home.
She says others began seeking out the midwives (Gaskin’s wife, Ina May, was among them) and The Farm as a place to go to give birth. Some stay. Some are here as customers, as the midwifery expertise is known worldwide.
“Now most of the deliveries we do are people who come from around Tennessee and around the U.S. and sometimes other countries,” she points out.
“Last year I took care of two women who came from Turkey, another that came from Senegal. We’ve had people come from Brazil, Haiti, South Africa, Germany, Canada …. We have houses on The Farm that we use just for birth and they stay there…. They have their own places while they are here.”
People from Nashville or nearer can come here for the labor and delivery. From farther away, they generally stay two weeks or longer, leading up to the labor and then getting used to being a new family.
If there are complications, though, the mother is rushed to the hospital via a 911-summoned county ambulance.
“Both of my children were born on The Farm with the midwives,” says Deborah. “And now I have delivered all four of my grandchildren on The Farm. I felt very honored that my daughter and my daughter-in-law both wanted me as their midwife. And it was very great.”
Her husband admits that old farmers are, in essence, hippies, as they live for and off the land.
“We show how you live in cooperation with nature rather than bulldozing it,” says Douglas, noting that “The Farm is a megaphone” from which those ideals are broadcast to the world.
“We can send messages out into the greater culture, offer hope, let people know there are alternatives,” he says. “You can live your dreams and you don’t need to be afraid to step outside the box.”
He pauses, then adds one other requirement: “You have to be bold.”
A yellow butterfly, one of many seen during this visit to The Farm, floats through the sky in front of us.