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Back-To-The-Land 1969: The Earthworks Commune

In 1969 I moved from Sebastopol, California to Franklin, VT with my husband Bruce Taub and our five month old daughter Maia. The trip through the South was an adventure in itself, but that is another story! Back in Sebastopol we had met Barbara and Jim Nolfi and their son Dylan. Together we founded the Earthworks Commune on the Canadian border above Burlington and became part of an intercommunal group called Free Vermont.

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Mary Pat driving the horses, Mike and Jim

More about our commune at http://vtcommune.blogspot.com put together by Dylan, now a filmmaker. The article below was written by Robert Houriet Mostly it is a well written and interesting account of our communes and the times.

In February, 1970, when the counter-culture was in full flower and the New Left in retreat, a group of four couples and their children started a commune in northern Vermont, a few miles from the Canadian border.

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Our Mentor, George Truax

Earthworks, located in Franklin, and also called the Franklin Commune, was among the first crop of communes which sprung up throughout Vermont at the close of the 60s. While some members worked to become self-sufficient on the farm others organized in the state and country against the War in Vietnam and later the infra-structure of “the new society”.

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Bruce and Mary Pat plowing

Going even further, they carried on the Revolution within their own lives and relationships. They consciously broke their own monogamous ties and lived as a tribe. In late 1970 the main house was leveled by fire and a new shop-house was built. By the end of 1971, the vision which had energized and sustained them began to wane. There were different visions on how to move to the future. By one and by twos, the founders left. New folks came to join and stayed but split with the older members and those remaining, left. Ultimately the farm reverted to the owner. It was ultimately sold but was deserted for some time.

This base line of events in one commune’s history and demise were followed by many of the first wave of communes across the country. At peak, in 1971, the number of communes was estimated by a research team under grant from the 20th Century fund, to number 30,000 with a population up to 300,000. Today, most of the pioneering communes such as Morningstar, Reality, the Hog Farm have either disbanded or drastically changed.

The political radicals soon followed. After the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the advent of Nixon, and the nominal winding down of the war in Vietnam, the new left groups were stricken by disillusion, weariness, and factional in-fighting. Burnt out by the protracted anti-war effort, many SDS people retreated to the country and became apolitical. Another set of groups and individuals, smaller in number, beat a strategic retreat to rural areas. Following the example of the Chinese Revolution and the North Vietnamese they carved out free zones which could support the blacks and workers in the cities with hideaways, printing presses and food. This mix of hippies at one extreme and radicals on the other converged in groups on certain, seemingly pre-selected enclaves of the country. From urban California, the hub being Berkeley, they spread northward into southern Oregon and southward to Taos County, New Mexico. From both coasts the movement met in Vermont. Historically the haven for New England’s free thinkers, non-conformists, Utopians and trouble-makers, the state is thinly populated with less than 500,000 people.

Between 1963 and 1970, some 200 groups spanning the movement spectrum settled the Green Mountain state. Within 15 miles of Brattleboro there were eight communes comprising a population of 300. The largest was Johnson’s Pastures. Along with Earth People’s Park on the northern border, the Pastures functioned as a resettlement camp for thousands of youthful refugees, many of them runaways and draft resistors and evaders from middle-class society. For a few months they lived in tents, tree houses, and shacks before relocating to more permanent farms in the back country, to communes of anarchists, ex-SDS chapters, organic farmers, free schools, craft collectives, or to ashrams and cults.

Characteristically imperturbable Vermonters were startled, puzzled, and finally offended by what they concluded was an organized invasion of their community. Parents seeking their teenaged daughter believed pregnant and living in a commune drove up in rented cars with out-of-state plates to inquire at general stores.

Federal agents and state police raided communes which they suspected of running an underground railroad for draft resistors to Canada. In Guilford, the Brotherhood of the Spirit, then a young cult led by a former Hell’s Angel who believed he was both Saint Peter and Robert E. Lee reincarnate, dynamited the top of a mountain. This attracted some local notice and local Selectmen later investigated. The commune members explained they were building on high ground in preparation for a colossal flood which would inundate the eastern coastal cities. From the gallery of the State Legislature, a group unfurled a Free Vermont flag and scattered newspapers urging citizens to defend themselves against their imperialist aggressors. Playboy magazine ran a whimsical article projecting how a hip commune could constitutionally take over Vermont or any other sparsely populated state.

In state police barracks, telephones rang with calls that “The hippies are coming! The Hippies are coming!” from natives who had just learned that the abandoned farm down the road had been sold to a commune. The State’s Director of Public Safety, Mr. Corcoran, ordered his state police to conduct a surprise visit to keep tabs on the influx. The census accorded a 1970 summertime peak of 15,000 people and growing.

Meanwhile, communes themselves were preparing for an influx of their own expectations and 1aying the groundwork for a new society. Eco-catastrophe, revolution, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius were impending. When the Old Order broke down, thousands would flee the cities for the country. Free Vermont was the name given the inter-communal network of some ten communes in three issues of the newspaper they subsequently published. Free Vermont allied back-to-the-land hippies were working on changing their own consciousness and lifestyle with the political radicals who were working on changing the power structure. The latter role was taken by members of the Red Clover collective, among who were two former SDS organizers and members of Newsreel, a filmmakers’ collective from New York City. They’d just returned from making a film in Vietnam — the last they vowed; it was time for action not observing.

From a small house on a side hill in Putney, they proceeded to organize the state. They began locally, starting a Free garage, Free Restaurant, and Free Farm. Some traveled from commune to commune urging that extra acres be planted to feed heir brothers and sisters in the city. They showed films of atrocities, interviewed welfare mothers and liberated a portion of Windham College for a garden plot. Most importantly, they developed a comparative analysis that Vermont was like Vietnam, exploited by the same corporations which made napalm. As a result of their organizing stimulus, the communes moved into a loose knit federation and began to meet twice a year on Solstices.

The first Gathering was held the Solstice of 1970 and was hosted by Earthworks in Franklin, a commune which fell roughly in the middle of the spectrum from hippie to radical. The morning of the first day they harvested by hand a field of oats. Then they hunkered in small circles on a meadow high above the complex of farm buildings.

Each group sketched a part of the new society: a cooperative system for buying food; primarily grains such as brown rice; separate children’s’ collective; a medical clinic which would ride circuit between communes to assist at homebirths and treat all the chromic illnesses and infections; a traveling caravan of People’s music and theater: a people’s bank endowed with $5000 from Red Clover; a short wave hook-up for communication and defense alert; a car pool of 62 Fords for standardized exchange of parts and mechanic’s knowledge.

From the first Gatherings, two sometimes opposing approaches were advanced: Red Clovers urban, take-up-a-gun was moderated by the rural communes’ cooler advice to adopt the dress and customs of the natives and be good farmers. These differences were contained in a unifying feeling that we were all on the edge of a growing movement which would transform all of us, personally and collectively into a new people, new families, new tribes, a member of the Woodstock Nations not in a few months, certainly no longer than a few years

The Gathering closed in a huge circle of clasped hands around the meadow and a singing of “Amazing Grace”. On the way out I stopped by the main house which had been declared off-limits to the Gathering — why? I didn’t know then but in a brief conversation, I picked up the tension of heavy personalities in conflict, enough charge being generated, I felt, to lift the small house off its hand-hewn sills. It was one of many contradictions glossed over then. Another was that the oat plants had been pulled up roots and a11 and later had to be chopped one by one before the grain could be threshed. Over and above, how could we rap about inter-communal harmony and building a new society when the very commune which had hosted the gathering was divided against itself?

Now as I write this almost five years after that Gathering it is easy to be pessimistic. Most of the communes which composed Free Vermont have disbanded, and many of the organizers and visionaries have left the state. The rumored 100,000 youths didn’t flock here the summer of ‘7l; neither, for that matter, did the professionals who were going to drop out, sell their fancy home: and sink their savings into communal farms. Rather, the lines of youth who used to line the ramp on 1-91 North to communes have disappeared — one visible index of the youth movements’ slackening.

The revolution didn’t happen. We didn’t quickly become new, fully-liberated people; but we have become humbler, more settled and centered. Though the red, green, and black colors of Free Vermont hasn’t yet been raised over the Capitol dome, communes have developed into a few more structured, economically self-supporting communities, and evolved the beginnings of a potentially broad-based cooperative movement. On both sides of the cultural divide paranoia has given way to social hybridization. Writing on the receding shock wave from the inner struggles and ego conflicts of the movement, it’s difficult to keep perspective on where we came from and where we are going. I think that the need for continuity which I sense in myself is general. We never had the support of history of radicalizing in this country; most was deleted from the standard school texts and we have had few father figures to guide us.

We falsely assumed (how American) that the revolution would be more or less instant. So when it didn’t happen, I began to grasp both as a writer and activist for a strand of continuity. From a hunch that became a compulsion I focused on the story of Franklin Commune. Almost a year ago, I began to track the disintegration and follow up the changes of some of the members.

My life first crossed Jim’s over a year ago. My identification with him was strong, I should be honest about that. From our first meeting, I remember thinking he must have looked then like he did before dropping out; he had cut his hair to a fringe, was clean shaven. His eyes were somewhat distant behind thick glasses in round, wire frames. He is as husky now as then, but has re-grown a bushy red beard. His hair, long again, is beginning to recede a bit beyond a large forehead.

He grew up, the only son of a Taft-Republican family, in a small town in central Ohio. He went to Stanford where he was the merry prankster of his fraternity, and barely graduated. In graduate school at Berkeley, he became academically serious and plodded through to a doctorate in marine biology. As student radicalism swept northern California, he became involved in the free speech at Berkeley and organized his department into a union.

In 1963 he met Barbara, an undergraduate English major, the daughter of two chemists who had grown up in small towns in Oklahoma and California. Barbara looks much like she did before. She is slender with 1ong brown hair enclosing a long face and refined features. She wears horned rimmed glasses, blue jeans, and carries her body easily. Our interviews were somewhat guarded. I felt as if we were replaying some of the conflict between her and Jim. She was very helpful in correcting and amending the narrative of the commune and underscoring my male biased viewpoint.

They were married in 1964, worked at a Marine lab in Northern California, had a son (Dylan) and moved to the country. California was being rapidly developed.

Reagan was governor. They longed to buy a farm in a more rural, politically-open area. Jimmy applied for a teaching job at the experimental college within the University of Vermont.

The land fell into their lap. Jimmy had been asked by a seashell collector to identify some of his specimens. His wife was a Jungian therapist who had just come into an inheritance and wanted to re-invest in land out of sociogical interest. They offered to buy a farm in Vermont, for Jim and Barbara to manage. Soon Jim and Barbara spoke with Bruce and Mary Pat who became, with Jim and Barbara, the core of the four original couples who settled on Franklin commune.

I first met Bruce at the Franklin Gathering and my memory is a faint montage of preconceptions from his reputation as a variously charismatic and powerful figure. Bruce grew up in Brooklyn of Jewish parents and by dint of Intelligence worked his way through Hunter College and on to do graduate work in anthropology at Brandeis. He went abroad to study peasant culture in Yugoslavia. Agonized by the war, anxious of being thought a “good German”, he refused to be a kow-towing graduate student and suspected the professors of being CIA agents. He was married and divorced and fired from three eastern colleges in succession after clashing with the administrations.

Then in 1965 he headed west to a new life. In California, He took a job at the Marine Lab and there met Jim. He also met Mary Pat, then a sculptress who was raised in New York, the daughter in a New York psychiatrist, and she became his wife. Her mother had committed suicide. I remember her as she first walked towards me in a long dress, a solid woman with blond bangs, square shoulders, and clear blue eyes. She’d been driving all day on back roads in an old car holding children on her lap, her face smudged with dust like a young pioneer woman whose beauty shines out of earthly struggle.

She and Bruce lived together idyllically in a cabin (converted chicken coop) not far from Jim and Barbara. Around them, in Sonoma County, the first of the open land, mystical communes were started, and featured in news weeklies. The two couples met and fantasized about what they might do together in Vermont.

They later drew up a proposal for a well-ordered community of separate houses around a common building. The Therapist and her husband were skeptical about its social aspects, but wanting to support the youth movement they decided to back the community as an ecological-sociological experiment.

 

Jim, Barbara and Dylan crossed the country in two vehicles and arrived in Burlington. They took a faculty apartment in a brick duplex. Downstairs lived Charlie Pratt, a young psychology professor and Lou his wife since high school. Charlie, wiry and energetic, had been radicalized while at the University of Madison at Madison. Lou, warmer, had hair falling to her waist and freckles: suggesting she is a lot younger. At the time she was a Cinderella who’d read little and felt captive in a marriage, housekeeping and taking care of her two children, Beth and Adrian.

The winter of 1969, Bruce and Mary Pat with their daughter, Maia, headed east in a Volvo, visiting communes along the way getting progressively higher on the wave of communalism. They stopped at legendary New Buffalo, a commune where residents had tried to blend Indian myths and hip culture and were living off poached beer and cornmeal. There, Bruce changed his name to Cro, suggesting both the bird and ancient Cro-Magnon Man, a name befitting a shaman. When they arrived in Burlington, Cro’s vision was both compelling and more urgent. He now envisaged a self-sufficient commune which would both “off their dependency on the man” ,i.e., the capitalist-corporate system, as well as continuing to fight against the war and prepare for the revolution. Growing and eating your own vegetables wouldn’t stop the bombs from falling he argued. Cro urged that they search for land immediately even with snow still on the ground. He was sure that revolution in one form or another was right around the corner, either an ecological apocalypse, the dawning of the new age and/or interplay of urban terrorism (such as he had seen in Earth People’s Park) and repression that would precipitate the blacks, workers, and students into rebellion.

 

That year the feeling of immanent revolution was pervasive. All over Vermont groups were hurriedly buying hill farms, embracing strangers as tribal brothers and sisters. Our lives seemed like a film showing on an accelerated projector. Nothing else explains the first frenetic months of Earthworks.

The farm was at the end of a town road enclosed on all sides by a steep ridge and wooded hills. They had wanted seclusion. Communes were like islands, due to a degree of paranoia on both sides of the cultural divide. Fantasies were rife that someday government tanks would rumble up the road. At the end of the drive they put sturdy gate posts and attached a heavy chain and padlock as protection against gawkers and vigilantes (a real threat).

Unlike a lot of land bought by communes, Earthworks’ 350 acres contained enough level, tillable land so that they could have been both self-sufficient and produced surplus for sale and supply to the movement in the cities. And the therapist underwrote purchase of machinery and capital improvements.

The farmhouse was the typical two stories, steep roofed clapboard building with an attached wood shed. They knocked down the plaster lathed walls downstairs, ripped out the electrical wiring and replaced the oil furnace with wood stoves. From the start, they intended to live and farm without being dependant on the system’s high-energy technology and used kerosene lamps in place of electric lights and horses, when they could, in place of tractors.

That winter, they cut firewood. When the time came, they hung sap buckets to make maple syrup. They bought a team of horses and did it the traditional way, collecting by hand to a tank on a dray which the horses drew though the woods down to a sugar house. Across the sliding door of weathered boards, Jimmy had painted “VENCEREMOS”, a cry of the Revolutionary Cuban brigades.

That Spring they ploughed, harrowed and seeded over two acres of vegetables, three acres of oats, and five of corn to grow feed for their milk cow, horses, cattle, pigs and chickens, and what little cash could be needed to come from other farm projects — a patch of popcorn, a field of squash and training and selling of work horses.

Meanwhile, unlike most farm communes, they sustained their political activity and perspective.