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STEVE ELLIOTT

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The Hippie. Emerging from the ruins of the Beat Generation, the Hippie had a brief shining moment at the apex of the popular imagination, encapsulating both the highest hopes and darkest fears of the post-Kennedy world.

Melvyn Stiriss and baby Jordan at The Farm, early 1970s
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Melvyn Stiriss and baby Jordan at The Farm, early 1970s

That archetype of societal rebellion, of consciousness expansion, and of generational schism has outlasted the era from which it sprang, and has become an essential part of the American mythos. But behind the archetypes and beyond the myths was a real social phenomenon, a game-changing explosion of art and music and awareness that changed American society and the world forever.

In 1970, hundreds of hippies followed guru Stephen Gaskin on a journey from San Francisco to the hills of Summertown, Tennessee, where they founded on May 10, 1971, an archetypal commune known as The Farm. Within this self-sustaining society based on non-violence, vegetarianism and respect for the Earth, members willingly took a vow of poverty, lived in converted buses, grew their own food and home-delivered babies.

Communal living was one of the purest expressions of hippie culture, and The Farm became the biggest, longest-lived, and most successful hippie commune of them all. To outsiders, The Farm could be a mysterious place, and of course that means people projected hopes and fears onto the commune, the same way they did onto the hippie culture at large.

Monday Night Class in San Francisco was the genesis of the group which founded The Farm [60s & Further]
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Monday Night Class in San Francisco was the genesis of the group which founded The Farm
[60s & Further]

For the first 40 years after its founding, there was no real inside look at the early days of The Farm. Stiriss’ excellent — nay, indispensable — Voluntary Peasants series is nicely filling that gap, at last.

The ragtag group of hippies — veterans of psychedelic guru and former Marine Stephen Gaskin’s “Monday Night Class” who left San Francisco in a bus caravan looking for their Promised Land — might as well have been a group of aliens arriving in flying saucers, as far as their new neighbors in the Tennessee hills were concerned. And the differences in lifestyle between the hippies and the old-timers meant that residents of The Farm were necessarily cautious, since their sacraments of marijuana and peyote were quite illegal.

Stephen Gaskin leads the Monday Night Class at the Family Dog in 1970 [Gerald Wheeler]
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Stephen Gaskin leads the Monday Night Class at the Family Dog in 1970
[Gerald Wheeler]

The even-keeled, easy-going nature of former UPI reporter Melvyn Stiriss shines through almost every line of Voluntary Peasants Part Two: The Farm Commune Year One. (Part One of Voluntary Peasants covered the genesis of the group which formed The Farm.) In fact, one comes to admire Melvyn’s saintly tolerance of faults, not only in his fellow hippies on The Farm, but in Farm leader Stephen Gaskin himself. When Gaskin puts the meek-and-mild Stiriss on a “vow of chastity” — even while enjoying three wives in his own “six-marriage” — the reader cannot help but wonder just how many narrators would have taken it so calmly.

Gaskin leads the faithful at The Farm in Tennessee [American Commune]
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Gaskin leads the faithful at The Farm in Tennessee
[American Commune]

I discovered another Farm-related truth for myself in reading this book. I had persistently entertained the thought, as a young man, of joining The Farm in its idealistic quest for utopia. But I can see now that would have been a big mistake; I no longer have to worry about the road not taken.

Gaskin and I would inevitably have locked horns, because when someone preaches equality yet enjoys privilege, I can’t keep my mouth shut about that. I wouldn’t have cut the leader nearly as much slack on that point as did Stiriss, and, apparently, almost everyone else on The Farm. Of course, their acquiescence becomes a little more understandable in light of the fact that anyone who displeased Gaskin could be sent on a “Thirty Dayer” — an assigned banishment, “intended for the student’s own good,” “with the intention of getting a person’s full attention to go through positive changes.”

The hippie bus caravan arrives in Tennessee, 1971 [Recollections of a Vagabonde]
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The hippie bus caravan arrives at the Martin Farm in Tennessee, 1971
[Recollections of a Vagabonde]

What a “Thirty Dayer” meant in the real world in 1970s Tennessee, of course — as noted even by Stiriss — was that it “demonstrated that Stephen had the power to control your world. Stephen could throw you out, at a moment’s notice — out on your own, in a potentially dangerous situation, where you find yourself suddenly a broke, homeless, vulnerable, lone hippie, hitchhiking in the Deep South — abruptly stripped of the comfort, sanctuary and support of community — out into a strange world — with low self esteem, feeling like you blew it, big time.”

Ina May Gaskin and Stephen Gaskin at The Farm, 1971 [Gerald Wheeler]
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Ina May Gaskin and Stephen Gaskin at The Farm, 1971
[Gerald Wheeler]

It’s no wonder that Stephen said at one Farm church service, “A smart horse runs at the shadow of the whip.” Unquestioning obedience was rewarded.

The communal living arrangement practiced on The Farm dictated that new arrivals give up their belongings upon joining; everyone on the commune then got the things they needed from a central distribution point.

That’s a great theory, but in reality things would happen like the drummer who arrived with his trap kit; it of course was given up as common property, and guess who ended up playing the set? Yeah, Stephen Gaskin.

‘Were We A Cult?’

Stiriss displays laudable objectivity when examining the innate cultishness of a commune like The Farm.

“We were a cult?” he asks.

At that point, most of us did not think so. We believed we were something else, something brand-new and so special—it could not be labeled simply “a cult.” But, now, with the advantage of forty-plus years of hindsight, I must say—Yes! Yes, indeed.

The Farm did start out as a cult—a spiritual, hippie cult—complete with charismatic leader, jargon, dress code, and dietary laws. Stephen often spoke about and called attention to our “telepathic group mind.” We cherished group mind, but, over time, group mind slid into group think, a horse of another color.

As Stiriss points out, “Feeling included in a group of people is very cool — right, natural, like how people are intended to live […] We all enjoyed the comfort of feeling — I belong! Thank God. I finally belong.”

‘What A Summer!’

Voluntary Peasants author Melvyn Stiriss in his days as head baker at The Farm in the 1970s
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Voluntary Peasants author Melvyn Stiriss in his days as head baker at The Farm in the 1970s
[Voluntary Peasants]

Remember, Melvyn Stiriss — before he became a resident of a hippie commune — had been a journalist back in the straight world.

His verbal skills serve him well as he takes us into the glorious summer of 1971 at The Farm, as the transplanted hippies set about fashioning a new world for themselves.

What a setting! What a summer! Each day a hallelujah, come-and-get-it, first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life day. The summer of 1971 was the most amazing, beautiful, fun summer of my life—magical. Living the dream— living free, close-to-the-elements; bonding with new friends and enjoying new discoveries. The air was always filled with pleasant aromas of the woods and a wonderful, pervasive sense of peace. Nights were enchanted, and every sunrise felt like the beginning of time.

Ahhh! To just relax, smoke a joint and observe nature—a hovering, darting, brilliant green, ruby-throated hummingbird; a rabbit, with which I eye-vibe a surprisingly long time. Dragonflies, butterflies and birds. Each and every morning—WOW! Beauty everywhere. Nature, life—all around, and here I am, part of it. This is truly Heaven on Earth. Living in the country, close to nature, never going any faster than 10 miles per hour, changes a person.

What a scene. Day after day, high energy, good vibes, and everything looked just the way you might imagine a genuine, hippie commune ought to look. Hippies, hippies everywhere—working, sharing and caring for each other. This was a brand-new experience, and it felt wonderful. And, the children! Beautiful, happy, longhaired children—running free; playing like forest fairies, wood nymphs, sprites and elves. Awesome. Beautiful energy. Our own scene—away from civilization. We celebrated freedom; smoked pot, swam naked and let it all hang out.

Our consciousness was changing. People who work and live together bond in ways and on levels that was brand new to most of us. When people bond on psychedelics, people get telepathic with each other. Barriers dissolve. Pretenses drop. Real people emerge. Time, itself, felt different—eternal. Days and weeks went by—no clocks, no calendars, no newspapers, no TV. The sun, moon and stars—our only reference to the flow.

Trouble Comes To Paradise

Of course, since marijuana was considered a spiritual sacrament by the hippies, they weren’t going to do without if they could help it.

Stephen Gaskin leaves a Tennessee courtroom on November 10, 1971. Gaskin and three other Farm residents were on trial for growing marijuana. [The Tennessean]
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Stephen Gaskin leaves a Tennessee courtroom on November 10, 1971. Gaskin and three other Farm residents were on trial for growing marijuana.
[The Tennessean]

The transplanted utopians soon planted a patch of weed, for self sufficiency — but that resulted in the arrest of leader Gaskin. (His religious defense proved unsuccessful, and he ended up serving a few months in county jail.)

We heard the pot crew went off the land and found a spot across the railroad tracks, they thought was just perfect. With the intention of supplying the whole community with grass, the happy gardeners had quite a nice crop going.

What happened? One story was a train engineer spotted naked hippies dancing around pot plants to help them grow. Another version was that the pot crew was growing right in the middle of a popular deer hunting area, and hunters discovered the grass. Another story was there was a paid informant in our midst.

Facing the possibility of going to jail and our whole experiment falling apart, Stephen consulted with community member, Bruce Fortin, the lawyer who had represented Stephen et al in the Grants Pass, Oregon bust. They decided to turn the apparent bummer into a high-profile, test case to legalize marijuana. We would fight the system on the grounds of religious freedom. Stephen said — “We are a church, called — The Church, and marijuana is the sacrament of our church.”

‘Quite The Attraction’

Lots of people visited the Farm during its heyday in the 1970s; I was one of those people, visiting with my Mom and Dad, who wanted to see the place after hearing me talk so much about it.

I still remember the hugs (rather than handshakes) which greeted me at the front gate, and the gentle hippie vibe of the lady who gave us our guided tour. As we drove farther into the compound on what I learned from Melvyn’s book was called a “Disneyland tour” by the hippies, we actually met another vehicle, containing Gaskin, but I could tell from the vibe of our guide that it wouldn’t have been cool to ask to meet him.

“In fact, once the general public learned we were harmless, hard-working and honest, The Farm got to be quite the attraction,” Stiriss writes. “Carloads of people came from miles around, from Nashville to the north and Alabama to the south. They stopped at the gate. A gateman would get in their car, and give them what we called the ‘Disneyland tour.’ ”

‘Stephen Smoked A Lot Of Marijuana’

Gaskin, as the spiritual leader of a commune full of pot-loving hippies, had quite a capacity for the ganja.

Marijuana was an integral part of The Farm’s church services, and Gaskin often extolled its virtues. His writings on the subject were later gathered by Steven Hager in the collection Cannabis Spirituality.

Stephen projected that he knows where it’s at; that he has clear vision and speaks truth. Stephen also projected that he was having a good time and had a hint of bad ass. He lit up; took a deep drag; closed his eyes; passed the joint; exhaled with obvious pleasure and looked supremely content. He opened his eyes and addressed the dozen of us in the room— “You know, I love to get high on reefer, and I love what pot does for me. I tell you what though, I think if they ever legalize grass and there are billboards selling marijuana, I think I would have to quit. One reason I love smoking pot is it makes me an outlaw.” We laughed, and Stephen lit up another one. Fun room.

Stephen said marijuana kept him operating at his optimum. And, so the joints kept coming, and the room filled with smoke, and the whole scene began to resemble a Cheech and Chong movie without the zaniness.

Stephen smoked a lot of marijuana, more than anyone else I have ever known. Stephen was, in his own words, a hard charger. This meant he could smoke anybody under the table, (if there is such a thing,) and everyone in the room smoked a lot of marijuana trying to keep up with the king.

‘Rock And Roll Was Our Church Music’

Melvyn’s sweet, tolerant, forgiving nature is on display throughout the book, but even he couldn’t overlook the egregious drum-grab Gaskin made from an arriving musician.

He, of course, tells the story in an endearingly gentle, hippie way.

Rock and roll was our church music and Stephen wanted to create a good-vibes rock band to go out on tour, to spread the word about what we were doing. Stephen found some of The Farm’s best musicians and formed The Farm Band, a band that would always play for free.

Stephen and his band liked The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and some vintage Beatles, so our band sometimes sounded like those bands.

A guy from Cleveland arrived at The Farm, with a beautiful set of drums— the young man’s cherished bar mitzvah gift. When Stephen got wind of the drums, he commandeered the kit for the cause, ‘cause Stephen wanted to be a drummer in the rock and roll band.

Stephen was brilliant at many things, but drumming was clearly not one of them. Truth be told — Stephen sucked as a drummer, and the band’s real drummer, David C, struggled to teach his teacher diplomatically and, in concerts, cover for Stephen’s lack of drumming talent.

‘She Had Been Sent Away For Relativity’

Even Melvyn, with his gentle and tolerant nature, was sometimes disquieted by the way some Farm residents were “sent away for relativity” when they fell afoul of commune rules or somehow displeased Stephen.

Residents were often sent to “the Rock Tumbler” when they were deemed in need of an attitude adjustment, the theory being that Tumbler residents would wear off each others’ rough edges much as rocks do in a tumbler.

Along the way, I was surprised to find a woman doubled over, obviously in distress. I went to her side to see if I could be of assistance. It was Carol, the lady who straightened up my van for me. Between gasps for air, she explained she was having an asthma attack, and she had been sent away for “relativity.”

I walked Carol to my van, where we hung out while she caught her breath. I thought—“This doesn’t look right,” and brought her to a neighbor’s bus, James and Claire, a nice mellow couple from Georgia, who agreed she could stay with them.

‘Stephen Said You Should Go Live In The Rock Tumbler’

Symptomatic of what — to this reader, from this distance — feels like the overbearing nature of enforced conformism on The Farm is the fact that even Stiriss, as gentle natured and uncontroversial as he was, was sent to the Tumbler for some re-education.

“Some simply did not like the rules or thought Stephen was too in charge,” Stiriss drily notes. “Many did not like people getting ‘up in their thing,’ giving ‘constructive feedback,’ Stephen style. Some felt more criticized than appreciated. I know I did at times, but I thought that was my karma and vowed to hang in there — keeping the faith that things will get better.”

After having already been sent on a “Thirty Dayer,” Melvyn joyously returns home to The Farm, only to find things aren’t as he left them. He, of course, uncomplainingly accepts his new station in life.

Home! Free at last! Road-weary, ready to flop—I made a bee-line for my van and was quite surprised and taken aback to find a guy living in it. He had a message for me—

“Stephen said you should go live in The Rock Tumbler and mix it up.” “What’s The Rock Tumbler,” I asked. He said the Tumbler was a new men’s tent, down Second Road. Apprehensive, attached to my pretty, Caravan van, I walked down Second Road, carrying all my worldly possessions on my back and in my arms.

Perhaps, it was the reporter in me maintaining objective distance. Perhaps, it was just ego attempting survival. Probably, both. For the past year, I had manifested my own private space, but that was about to change.

A rock or agate tumbler is a rotating chamber that turns 24/7, for days. Rocks bump into each other, continuously knocking off rough edges. Throw in rough agates, and the process gradually transforms rough rocks into beautiful, smooth gems. Stephen had a theory this could work with “crusty,” slow-to-change men, and he created the Tumbler as an experiment. Its inhabitants, the tumbled men, were his reluctant guinea pigs. But all believed it was for their own good, and so went along with it.

‘They Would Be At Stephen’s House’

The disquieting “some are more equal than others” paradigm seems to have been the case with gender dynamics and sexual politics, as well.

Stephen encouraged a form of group marriages, “four-marriages,” where two husbands and two wives would form a family unit. Gaskin himself soon entered into a “six-marriage,” with three couples sharing a household.

Gaskin also seemed to have a way of getting the most attractive women on the compound into his household for domestic duties.

Observation. Though I was on a vow of chastity, I was free to enter into relationships with women, just not physically. I met a new woman. She was JUICY. She really had it. I thought we had a connection, and the next thing I know—she is living out at Stephen’s.

That happened two more times, with two more juicy women. Living at Stephen’s took them out of circulation. I hardly ever saw them again, not even at services, because they would be at Stephen’s house—baby sitting, cleaning, baking and preparing nice meals for the royal family.

The Series Will Continue

Since Voluntary Peasants Part 2: The Farm Commune Year One by definition only covers the first year of The Farm’s existence, there will be more installments in the book series.

Note: The Farm is no longer a true commune; private property now exists on the compound, as well as 10 nonprofits and more than 20 private businesses.

Life in our brave new world demanded constant bravery. That first year was full of challenges, but we were hanging in there. We ended year one with confidence earned, but facing daunting questions—Are we transplants being accepted or rejected by our neighbors? Can we learn country ways fast enough to survive? Will Stephen and the others have to go to jail? Can The Farm survive without Stephen? And, is one of us an undercover FBI agent?

These and other questions will be answered in Part Three—Almost Paradise—where we fight the marijuana case, see the community double in size and go through remarkable changes.

Far more happened that first year, May, 1971-May, 1972, than fits here. More reports, observations and far-out stories of that first, naïve year will be included in Voluntary Peasants Companion Reader, due to be published in 2015.

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