The 1960s were a time of upheaval in the United States. Anti-war protests around the country – dramatized in part in this year’s Oscar-nominated film “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” along with the sexual revolution and civil rights legislation, left few norms unchallenged.
New ideas spawned an interest in communal living. China’s sprawling communes championed by Chairman Mao Zedong in that era received global attention and study. Yet the U.S. had as many as 3,000 smaller communes of its own during the 1960s and 1970s, populated by young idealists in search of an alternative lifestyle.
What’s happened to those communes and their denizens? What’s left of that movement today?
To learn more, I exchanged this month by email with Yvonne Daley, an award-winning writer and author of the 2018 book, “Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks, and Radicals Moved to Vermont.” The small state attracted Northeastern U.S. outsider-transplants such as current U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and was an center of American commune growth in the 1960s and 1970s. At least two of the Chicago 7 –– David Dellinger and John Froines —have ties to the state, whose liberal culture supported the early growth of “Ben & Jerry’s” ice cream before it was sold to conglomerate Unilever in 2000. Interview excerpts with Daley, a retired journalism professor at San Francisco State University now living in Vermont, follow.
Flannery: About how many communes did the U.S. have back in the 1960s and 1970s?
Daley: Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 communes existed in the U.S. in the 1960s and ‘70s with about 75 in the small state of Vermont, making it one of the epicenters of the experiment. It’s hard to establish a hard figure as many people lived in group homes but didn’t call the arrangement a commune. In a 1970 article for Playboy Magazine, John Pollack estimated that there were 35,800 hippies in Vermont, who accounted for roughly 33% of the total 107,527 people in the state between the ages of 18 and 34. Many had experienced living with other young people at camp or in dormitories and so the idea of living together in a commune or group home made sense both economically and made sense in an environment like Vermont in which the realities of heating one’s home (often with wood), shoveling and perhaps growing your own food, easier through joint labor, allowing more time for causes, hobbies or play.
Most differed dramatically from the idea of the Chinese commune as they were generally not highly organized around work or production. Although American communards worked to raise food, shared parenting and household tasks, shared financial responsibility and upkeep, the rules and organization were often lax, leading many to fail simply because there was no governing body, not enough discipline or consequence when someone did not do their part. Also, for some, drugs and sex were more important than work. Some areas in which there were, however, established roles for individuals included Frog Run Commune in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, initially founded by Robert Houriet and his wife, Mary Mathias. Houriet is famous for a book that chronicled the commune movement called Back to the Land, a kind of bible for those touring the country and its communes in the 1960s. When Mathias and Houriet broke up, Mathias and a group of predominantly women ran their farm successfully for a decade.
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Flannery: What was it like living in an American commune?
Daley: There was as much variety as there were communes. In one epicenter of the movement in Vermont’s Brattleboro area where there were a dozen or so communal living situations within miles of one another, the late Peter Simon, brother to the singer Carly Simon and a scion of the Simon & Schuster publishing empire, established Tree Frog Farm, a clothing-optional commune where Jenny Buell, daughter of a CIA national security officer and Elliot Blinder, now a fine-art collector in California, hung out with a cow given to them by Allen Ginsburg. Purchased by radical journalist Andrew Kopkind in 1974, the property is now the Kopkind Colony, a think-tank for today’s journalists and nonfiction writers. In 1967, the anti-Vietnam War activists who had founded The Liberation News Service, a news bulletin with two million followers (at its peak), moved from Washington, DC, to a run-down farm in Guilford, Vermont, where in the next few years poet Verandah Porche, fiction writer Peter Gould, nonfiction writers Ray Mungo and Marty Jezer and many others published dozens of books, chronicling their back to the land escapades and well-researched political histories. Later, Porche and another Total Loss Farm communard, Richard Wizansky, became active in local politics (Porche is a member of the Guilford board of alderman and active in local women’s groups and shelters; Wizansky is on the Guilford Library Board.) Their Total Loss Farm still operates as a home and cultural center for some of the founders and an occasional new resident.
In Vermont as elsewhere, there were communes that offered refuge to international refugees (New Hamburger in Plainfield); free love and a communal family (Quarry Hill, Rochester). Among those who lived at Quarry Hill were Libby Hall of the Hallmark cards’ fortune and Art Spiegelman, author of Maus; for outlaws and draft dodgers and people who generally wanted nothing to do with “society” (Earth People’s Park, Norton, now a state park.) Patricia Whalen lived on a number of communes in Vermont before she decided to become a lawyer so she could work for women and the under-represented. Named a judge by Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin, Whalen has since
established Vermont’s first rape and crisis center, transformed Vermont Family Court, served as a Vermont judge and as an international judge in the War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina , Sen. Bernie Sanders spent time on many Vermont communes but was often more interested in political discussions and debates than in getting stoned, communing with nature, raising crops or just hanging out.
Some communes like Quarry Hill had “leaders” who set the tone if not the rules; there, the founder Irving Fiske often “suggested” sexual arrangements. The Summertown, Tennessee commune simply called The Farm, founded in 1971 by roughly 300 flower children, now has about 200 members whose values continue to be nonviolence and environmental protection. Twin Oaks, founded in 1967 on 450 acres in Louisa, Virginia, is known for its tofu. About 100 residents live there in group houses surrounded by a gathering area, soy production facility, swimming hole, graveyard and greenhouses.
Flannery: Looking back, what most led the number of communes to decline?
Daley: The end of the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement and economic realities are the three major reasons so many communes broke up. During the mid-1970s, especially after the 1974-75 oil embargo, there was a dramatic spike in the cost of food, fuel and other necessities. As economic changes made living on next to nothing more difficult and as some early relationships broke up, many of the young people who had coupled up fell apart. Some moved back to where they had grown up or returned to college to finish degrees or get graduate ones. People with degrees began wanting to use those degrees for both economic and personal reasons. Despite their radical ideas, many people in this post-WWII generation had married, especially those who had children. With the breakup of marriages, some moved off of communes and to cities. Despite the idea of shared parenting, for the most part the children stayed with their mothers. Vermont, for example, had and still had many female-based households at this time. Some women lived together to share costs. Because of the need for childcare, daycare centers became an essential part of the landscape. But all this led to somewhat of a dispersal.
Today, however, older people of all sorts are moving into intentional communities all over the country for shared responsibility, companionship, and entertainment under the general rubric of co-housing. These include dozens if not hundreds of these settings, some for seniors, some for families and singles, including EcoVillage Ithaca, one of 20 intentional sustainable communities worldwide; and at least 10 co-housing properties such as Living Tree Alliance, “a modern Kibbutz-inspired community” in the Mad River Valley of Vermont, Burlington’s Cohousing East Village, which includes private apartments and homes, shared cultural opportunities and resources, a community garden, and large meeting rooms located across from the University of Vermont (UVM) campus and the UVM Medical Center and adjacent to UVM’s 68 acre Centennial Woods nature preserve. Today, there are about 200 co-housing opportunities in the U.S.; in general, they are considered a more independent and formalized form of communal living.
Flannery: What were some of the lasting influences in the U.S. among individuals that lived in American communes back then?
Daley: I’d put food as the number one impact. Hippies and communards ate brown rice, made their own yogurt, grew organic vegetables, raised bees and boiled maple syrup for both economic and nutritional reasons. But Ben & Jerry’s ice cream must top the list. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two college friends, opened their first shop in Burlington in 1978. Although they didn’t live in a commune, they were friends with many and embraced the movement along with the ideas of the day. Their impact on ice cream quality, opposition to hormone-treated dairy products, to connecting food quality to flavor, and their longtime friendship and support of Senator Sanders show the ways in which values can translate into business or political success.
In terms of personal relationships, gays and lesbians in America prior to the 1960s often lived in fear and shame; during the 1960s, many came out and were embraced by members of the counterculture. At Total Loss Farm, where one of the first same-sex marriages was held, the communards became friends with a local man, a sixth-generation Vermonter, Ron Squires, who became Vermont’s first openly gay state legislator. Vermont was the first state in the union to approve civil unions between same-sex partners. In terms of education, the idea of women’s and black, Native American or First People, Latino and other ethnic studies began as small areas of interest at many of the more liberal colleges in America, such as Goddard in Plainfield, Vermont, and are now part of most educational frameworks.
Speaking of Goddard, that school and several other nontradional colleges, changed education dramatically and produced a long list of notable characters from actor William Macy and playwright David Mamet, activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, singer and founder of Phish Trey Anastasio, authors Piers Anthony and Mary Karr. Not only did the early communards value the products of the land but also the land itself. In places where the counterculture and commune movements were strong you will find states with strong environmental laws.
Flannery: Around how many communes are there in the U.S. today?
Daley: The Foundation for Intentional Community’s directory says the number of communes, most referred to as intentional communities, nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016 (the last year the directory was published), to roughly 1,200. Although the number of people living in these communities is hard to pin down — the demographic is often deliberately off the grid — the foundation’s director Sky Blue estimated in 2020 that there are currently around 100,000 individuals residing in them. “There’s an obvious growth trend that you can chart,” he said; millennials “get this intentional community thing more than people in the past.” Elsewhere, I found this: The Fellowship for Intentional Community lists more than 300 such examples of communal living in the United States and thousands worldwide. Only seven of those American sites qualify for recognition by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities.