Back to the Land: Communes in Vermont, 1968
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Vermont acquired a reputation for being a haven for hippies and a hotbed of counter-cultural communal living. There was some truth to that. But the communes and alternative life-styles of that generation had a deeper history than most outsiders—and most of the commune residents themselves—knew. And, like their predecessors in the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the often colorful, sometimes controversial, and much-discussed communal experiments of the late twentieth century ended up having a profound impact on the next generation of Vermonters. (Photo: French Hill Commune, St. Albans, Vt., by Jim Collins.)
Vermont has a long tradition as the home of utopian, perfectionist, and millenarian communities. Especially in the period 1830 to 1850, Vermont was the scene of many new and radical social, economic, and religious movements such as John Humphrey Noyes’s perfectionists in Putney, who eventually moved to Oneida, New York; the Millerites, who, throughout the state, awaited the Second Coming on March 21, 1844; Mormons; Swedenborgians; Fourierists, who were particularly concerned about the evils of industrial society and formed “Associative communities” where skills, labor, and capital would be shared and combined to create productive, just communities; and Garrisonites, who advocated a communal response and commitment to abolitionism.
During the 1930s and 40s, Scott and Helen Nearing, who later became famous for their 1954 book, Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World, lived on a farm in Winhall, Vermont, where they lived a largely self-reliant life, growing their own food, selling their own maple syrup, and earning income from Scott’s lectures. Their farm attracted others interested in their self-reliant life style and the farm became a mecca for a new generation of pioneers. The Nearings stayed in Vermont until the mid 1950s, when they moved to Maine.
It was somehow fitting, therefore, when in the mid to late 1960s large numbers of disaffected young people in their late teens and early twenties “dropped out” of mainstream American life and migrated to rural Vermont to establish a new generation of experiments in communal life. Reaction to the influx of “hippies” was mixed. There was predictable distrust and misunderstanding. even a brief flirtation with vigilante-like tactics; but there was also some tolerance for the newcomers. Reporter Yvonne Daley, writing in the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus in 1983 stated that Vermonters in the 1960s and ‘70s were mostly accepting of the hippies because Vermonters are anti-authoritarian by nature and traditionally accepting of radical groups and free thinkers. Although probably not drawn to Vermont by its history of radical social and religious communities, the people who lived in Earth People’s Park in Norton, Total Loss Farm in Guilford, Quarry Hill in Rochester, New Hamburger in Plainfield, and many other communes throughout the state, contributed a rich chapter to that history.
In an article for Playboy in 1970, John Pollack estimated that there were 35,800 hippies in Vermont, who accounted for roughly 33 percent of the total 107,527 people in the state between the ages of 18 and 34. Daley counted seventy-five communes in Vermont between 1968 and 1974.
The New Hamburger Commune in Plainfield formed in 1970 from two separate communes. It achieved some notoriety by establishing a cooking and catering business. In 1975, when an article appeared about them in the food section of the Free Press, the commune consisted of seven men, four women, and two children. Located outside Plainfield village, the commune owned 85 acres of land on which were four dwellings and a main house. Members of the commune raised their own fruits and vegetables, did cooking and catering of vegetarian foods, had recently set up a cannery that produced unsweetened apple sauce and apple butter, and even taught a course on “the politics of food” at Goddard College during the summer of 1975.
Total Loss Farm in Guilford is one of the enduring communes and perhaps the most successful. Established in 1968, the commune survived the difficult early years with money earned from writing. Home Comfort: Stories and Scenes of Life on Total Loss Farm, (1973) was a compilation of poems, vignettes, autobiographical sketches, practical advice, recipes, and literary miscellany written by twenty-five permanent and occasional members of the commune. The Body’s Symmetry (1970) by Veranda Porche, was a collection of her poems. Ray Mungo’s book, Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life (1970) was yet another book that brought notoriety and income to the commune.
Quarry Hill in Rochester was one of the first communes where men were actively involved in child rearing. A home study course at Quarry Hill, run by Sue Geller, became a model for other alternative schools. The Acorn School in E. Middlebury was formed in 1973 by eight couples. Coming to life late in the history of the counter-culture movement, the school suffered from the disintegration of marriages and by the ebbing energy of the commune movement. The school broke up during the summer of 1974.
Tail of the Tiger Commune in Barnet was established as a Tibetan Buddhist community, organized according to the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, known as Rinpoche or “Precious Jewel.” Rinpoche had escaped from Tibet ahead of the Chinese invasion and fled first to Scotland and then, quite appropriately, to Barnet, which had been settled by Scots in the late eighteenth century. The governing principle at Tail of the Tiger was non-violence. The commune had few rules (other than banning drugs) and few connections with the neighboring community. It was primarily a combination study center and retreat, where participants immersed themselves in meditation and Buddhist teaching. Members paid a monthly fee, tried to raise much of the own food, and developed a craft business along with a therapeutic center for mentally disturbed people.
None of the communes of the 1960s and ‘70s was as controversial as Earth People’s Park in Norton. Established in 1971 by “Hog Farm Commune” in California, which raised the money for a down payment on a 55-acre tract at the edge of the town, Earth People’s Park’s charter stipulated that no individual would own it, anyone who wished to could camp or settle on the land, and no one would be permitted to make rules for or police the behavior of its residents. It was the “Woodstock nation” on a permanent basis.
The park was unusual even by the standards of the 1970s, arousing curiosity and concern in about equal measure. Unlike other settlements, Earth People’s Park was not a commune. It had no common ideology or guiding principles; each resident or family lived independently of all the others; there were no pooled resources other than the funds provided by Hog Farm for the down payment on the property; there was no source of income and no plan for developing one. During its first summer of operation, in 1971, Governor Deane Davis toured the park. He was concerned about sanitary conditions but not alarmed and stayed for tea with some of the residents.
After Hog Farm pulled out of the park, at the end of 1971, division between homesteaders and transients exacerbated problems at the site. Relations with resident of the Town of Norton also disintegrated over the years and in May 1975 there was an armed confrontation which ended when state troopers were called in to keep the peace.
The number of radical communes in Vermont began to decline in the mid-1970s, reflecting changes taking place nationwide among young people. With the end of the Vietnam War, the focal point of much radical dissent disintegrated and people began drifting back to the middle-class life many of them had abandoned during the troubling years of the mid 1960s to early 1970s. Yvonne Daley estimated that twelve communes were still operating in Vermont in the late 1970s and she counted only eight in 1983. Although the flood of communes had subsided, what it left behind was a legacy of commitments to alternative energy, alternative schools, art collectives, community gardens, farmers markets, food coops, day care centers, and women’s networks. And while many of the original residents of the commune have moved away, a significant number—more men than women—stayed behind, put down some permanent roots, and found new ways of living and working in Vermont that often combined ideas and ideologies of the 1960s with realities of subsequent decades.
Yvonne Daley, “The Hippie Legacy,” Sunday Rutland Herald/Times Argus (10 October, 1983).
Adelaide W. Minott and Verandah Porche, “Life on Total Loss Farm: Or Back to the land again in 1968.” Published for the Guilford Historical Society’s exhibit at the 2010 Vermont History Expo. Guilford Historical Society, 236 School Road, Guilford, VT 05301.
Dona Brown, Back to the Land : The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America. (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).
Barry Laffan, Communal Organization and Social Transition: A Case Study from the Counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997).
Raymond Mungo, Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life (New York: Dutton, 1970)
Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life: Being a Plain Practical Account of a Twenty Year Project in a Self-Subsistent Homestead in Vermont, Together with Remarks on How to Live Sanely & Simply in a Troubled World (Harborside, Me., Social Science Institute, 1954).
Richard Pollak, “Taking over Vermont,” Playboy (April 1972): 147 et seq.
Rebecca Lepkoff (photographs) and Greg Joly (text), Almost Utopia: Residents and Radicals of Pikes Falls, Vermont 1950 (Barre, Vt.: Vermont Historical Society, 2008).
Citation for this page
Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “Back to the Land: Communes in Vermont,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89. https://vermonthistory.org/back-to-the-land-communes-in-vt-1968