We’ve all fantasized about escaping the shackles of modern society and leaving the stresses and demands of the nine-to-five slog far behind. But for individuals in the ’60s and ’70s, breaking free of the system wasn’t just a pipe dream.
These rarely-seen photographs tell the untold story of a people who chose to lead an alternative life on the fringes of American society. Take a step out of the rat race and step back into the world of hippie communes…
During the 1960s, a new strain of thought was taking root among the men and women of North America. Spurred on by the so-called “Beat Generation” writers, this counter-culture fought against the grain of conservative, everyday values.
The emerging social movement grew in opposition to the rise of segregation and militarism in America, and its supporters became known as “hippies.” Specifically, the new counterculture was opposed to the Vietnam War and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. And its members created new identities based on rock music, Eastern philosophy and sexual liberation.
But while many hippies were content to express themselves within the established order of things, others rejected conventional society entirely. This led to the creation of self-sustaining communes throughout the United States, in which like-minded individuals sought to live life on their own terms.
Communes in the United States, however, had actually emerged long before the term “hippie” ever gained media attention. In fact, proto-communities such as Colorado’s Drop City were established as early as 1965, while musician Mel Lyman founded his own Fort Hill community in Boston a year later.
When it came to membership eligibility, these groups preached a policy of openness and acceptance. Academic Timothy Miller noted that commune members generally shared similar beliefs, and that “anyone willing to reject the mainstream culture – to drop out, as the argot had it – was welcome.”
At its peak, communes such as Washington’s Tolstoy Farm attracted as many as 80 residents. And these numbers weren’t just made up of adults eager to lead a new life, they included children brought in by their parents too.
In keeping with the spirit of the hippie movement, many of the counter-culture’s excesses were tolerated within these communities, too. Drug use was understandably rife throughout the colonies, while naturism and free love were common sights.
This behavior, however, often came at odds with the outside world, which looked upon these new societies with suspicion. In 1980 one commune – Tennessee’s Spring Hollow Farm – was raided by paranoid cops who mistook common ragweed growing inside the property as marijuana.
This unusual Farm was established in 1971 by Stephen Gaskin. And while it started with an initial population of just 320, Spring Hollow grew to be the country’s largest commune. At one point, 1,500 individuals were living at the Farm, drawn in by the communal ideals of non-violence and environmentalism.
Communes like the Farm even had their own internal political systems. Decisions were often made by a single leader, or at the behest of a council. Social structures, too, were a feature of the communes and included work details – mainly farm labor – and schools for the children.
The communities were on the whole self-sufficient, with many requiring vows of poverty and prohibiting outside luxuries. Nevertheless, commune members often took outside jobs to pay for items like soap and margarine, while some hippy communities even had laundromats and telephones.
And while these groups were often secular, religion or spirituality did play a part in some of the communes established during this time. For example, the Source Family was founded on the principals of Western esotericism – a doctrine espoused by its spiritual leader, Father Yod.
Father Yod was actually a former health food magnate better known as James Edward Baker, and he used his company earnings to establish a community in the Hollywood Hills. The eccentric figure had a core group of 150 followers and took no fewer than 14 wives during his tenure as leader.
Yod was not without his detractors, however, and some commentators have since criticized the overwhelming influence he had on the otherwise isolated group. Similar families have been received even less favorably in recent times: cult-leaders like Charles Manson and Jim Jones remain particularly notorious to this day.
Despite the shadow of these few individuals, however, communes were actually predominantly peaceful places where individuals were united under shared ideals. Some hippies yearned to create a utopia, while others left their lives behind simply because of a desire to return to the agrarian life of old.
But although these communes offered an alternative to the day’s orthodoxies, life within these closeted communities wasn’t without its downsides. As numbers rose, societies found it harder both to feed and to house their members. In fact, in 2014 former-Farm resident Erika Anderson told Vanity Fair that as many as 50 people could be crammed in to a single dwelling.
Education was another issue within these groups, and children sometimes grew up with hardly any literacy skills at all. And there were more dangerous problems too: open door policies sometimes attracted very unstable individuals. Tolstoy Farm, for example, was almost burned down by one volatile teenager.
But as the hippie movement dwindled in the 1980s, interest in the communal movement began to die down too. Many communes faced falling numbers and some were even forced to close or relocate. Membership at the Farm, for example, had dropped to just 200 residents by the 1980s.
While they may not enjoy the status of yesteryear, however, communes such as the Farm remain active even today and their most ardent supporters continue to call these communities home. These communes still stand as a lasting and loving reminder of what is possible outside mainstream American society.