Communities Magazine, Fall 2017
By Melvyn Stiriss
The ’60s spawned widespread pockets and tribes of people attempting to break away from the military-industrial complex, materialistic, conformist society to get back to the land to create a better lifestyle based on spirituality, simplicity, and sharing. Collective communities and hippie communes popped up all over. The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee was “the ultimate hippie commune.”
The Farm was an amazing tribute to the power of human spirit and human energy working in harmony to manifest what we thought would be the best of all possible worlds—affordable Paradise on Earth, a gracious, fun, peaceful lifestyle the whole world can afford. At The Farm’s peak in the late ’70s, 1,450 people enjoyed Zero Unemployment, Universal Healthcare, and all necessities on a little more than $100/person a month!
Over the collective’s 13 years, a total of 5,000 people lived and worked together as “voluntary peasants” sharing labor, life, and friendship—living a path with heart—working labor of love without pay, manifesting a grassroots, 24/7 peace demonstration.
We built our own town nestled deep in Tennessee woods—a village complete with an FM radio station, solar-heated school, crews of people dedicated to farming, construction, and infrastructure. We had a soy dairy, clinic, doctors, midwives, bakery, cottage industries, a dozen satellite communities around the country, and our own hippie Peace Corps working humanitarian outreach projects around the world.
First, I hasten to make clear: The Farm did not fail, completely. The Farm is still around. It was only the original collective phase that proved unsustainable. First there was The Farm collective, the community’s original incarnation—the “Stephen Gaskin as spiritual teacher” version—which existed between May 1971 and October 1983, when The Farm collective community threw in the towel, conceding the collective experiment was not sustainable.
Next came The Farm Cooperative which still exists to this day on the same land. People now pay dues, have their own money, own their houses, but not the land those houses sit on, because the land is still held in its original trust.
In 1980, Plenty International, our own hippie Peace Corps, was awarded “the alternative Nobel Peace Prize,” the Swedish Right Livelihood Award—“For caring, sharing and acting with and on behalf of those in need at home and abroad.” I myself worked as a volunteer with Mayans and a crew from the community in remote indigenous villages after a devastating earthquake in Guatemala. We built schools, clinics, houses, and a clinic for Mother Teresa in a Guatemala City slum.
We did some good, helped some people; even saved lives. We made a difference in the world, shared great adventures, made dear friends, and demonstrated that we can escape the humdrum pedestrian. We learned people can get “out of the box,” leave behind soul-sucking jobs and lifestyles to live out dreams and be happy. So, what happened?
Why did the collective fail? It was certainly not for lack of trying. Typical residents were dedicated, hard-working people who contributed their blood, sweat, and tears in a labor of love. There is a concatenation of causes as to why it failed, but it boils down to:
- The Cult Effect
- Terrible Money Management
- Hierarchy and Denial of Hierarchy
- Lack of Intergenerational Continuity
- The Living-in-a-Bubble Effect
The Farm guru, Stephen Gaskin, was a charismatic, six-foot-five, longhaired, marijuana-smoking, magic-mushroom-and-peyote-eating, self-proclaimed tripping guide and spiritual teacher, who held free “tripping, energy, and telepathy” classes in San Francisco and Sunday morning meditations. A hundred colorful buses followed Gaskin on a ’round-the-country-save-the-world bus caravan/speaking tour. Over time, the former college teacher and US Marine Corps combat veteran became an adored life coach and guru to hundreds of hippies. In the beginning of The Farm, everyone was Stephen’s devoted, enlightenment-seeking, out-to-save-the-world spiritual student, and The Farm was Stephen’s ashram, school, and monastery.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it seems The Farm could have made it financially if we were not supporting Stephen’s expensive travel and celebrity habits, all done in the name of “getting the word out.” There never would have been a Farm without Stephen, but, in the end, Stephen unwittingly undermined the whole experiment with his ego and bad financial decisions.
While the community struggled to stay afloat—everyone working overtime to keep the community covered for food, medical, housing, and clothes, Stephen spent thousands of dollars of community money to buy a used Greyhound Scenicruiser, retrofit it, take 25 talented people out of our workforce and go out on national and international tours with our band, to give free concerts and for him to speak, recruiting additional community members, overtaxing all our systems, especially housing.
Another major flaw was the existence of hierarchy. Though we agreed in the beginning to create a “classless society,” Stephen not only allowed hierarchy, but he himself created a class system that had him and his immediate family at the top, followed by his inner circle who traveled with him on tour. Next on the ladder came married couples. Singles made up our low class. Hierarchy was counter-0unity, and it got to be like George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “On the farm, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
About the cult effect: Groupthink is rampant all over, not just in cults. Groupthink is that situation in which we overlook flaws in our leaders. We make excuses for them and rationalize all negativity. And, over time, we sacrifice judgment and critical thinking. Groupthink took its toll and also led to the end of our collective agreements. Once proud of our group intelligence, we were stumped on how to right our ship.
About marijuana: Though marijuana slowed us down at work, at the same time, marijuana kept our spirits high and often gave carpenters and farmers a “second wind.” So, it was a tradeoff, and I don’t think marijuana use cut into production significantly.
However, I think using marijuana engenders contentment and a pleasurable feeling that “all is right with the world.” Sometimes, we need a little relief from everyday stress, but everything was not all right with our world on The Farm, and the populace was lulled into a false sense of security and failed to act appropriately to deal with real problems that were taking a cumulative negative toll on the very underpinnings of our community.
Other contributing factors that weakened the community and undermined success include the 1981 election for the Council of Elders. Exercising Farm-style all-inclusiveness, the election was open to everyone, regardless of age. You could vote for anyone you thought was an elder, meaning a rock solid citizen, a pillar of the community, a wise, exemplary Farmie.
What happened was that the burgeoning, juicy teen population, feeling its collective power, conspired to organize and vote as a bloc, and the teens won 16 seats on the council. Our clever, rebellious teenagers hijacked the election, got some power, had their joke, and effectively shortchanged the community of a basic ingredient in any successful, sustainable society—elder power.
About living in a bubble: We were living a big, beautiful energy bubble—a bubble we consciously created and sustained with synergy, the combined energy of our daily shared labor of love.
We loved our bubble—our beautiful land, our beautiful people, our beautiful ideals and spiritual intentions. We were having an ongoing, mostly good time in our bubble. But there is a downside to living in a bubble, remote and insulated from the outside world. Precious little information gets in. For example, we totally missed out on Watergate and other major national and world events. I learned of Watergate years later. Most of what we knew about the outside world was what we heard from Stephen at services. Also by living in our bubble, content with homegrown entertainment, we missed out on experiencing art, theater, classical music, opera, Shakespeare, and popular culture like TV.
What are my qualifications to offer an educated opinion on why The Farm collective failed? I am a founder of The Farm. I was there Day One. I lived and worked on The Farm the entire twelve-and-a-half-year collective period. Before The Farm in San Francisco, I was a member of the community of followers of Stephen Gaskin at Monday Night Class and on the great, ’round-the-country, save-the-world, hippie school bus caravan.
I am a journalist. Before my hippie days, I worked as a newspaper reporter and as a reporter, editor, and announcer for United Press International. For the past 30 years, I have been writing Voluntary Peasants—anecdotes, vignettes, and objective reflection about the community—and this process of writing has helped me better understand what really happened back there.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Voluntary Peasants—A Psychedelic Journey to the Ultimate Hippie Commune, Sharing Life, Land and Love at The Farm in Tennessee, available in ebook and print editions. Visit www.voluntarypeasants.com.
Now 74, Melvyn Stiriss lives in upstate New York, enjoying his “senior career” as an author, publisher, storyteller, and aspiring movie maker. He loves hiking, playing keyboard, photography, travel, movies, and great literature.