Communal Life: A Look at The Farm in Summertown

In the early 1970s a group of hippies from San Francisco and spiritual teacher Stephen Gaskin established a settlement in rural Tennessee. Nearly ten years later their experiment in spirituality and communal life was still going strong.

| March/April 1980

  • 062 good look - photo 1, 2, 5, 6
    TOP LEFT: The Farm's new "homebuilt" passive solar schoolhouse. TOP RIGHT: The left side of this house, the main section, shelters more than 20 people. The right side is still under construction . BOTTOM LEFT: A dedicated worker converts household garbage into compost. BOTTOM RIGHT: Some folks, still live in "classic beatnik" accommodations ... like this converted school bus with its plywood addition and protruding woodstove chimney.
  • 062 good look - photo 4 and 7
    LEFT: Stephen Gaskin, the group's spiritual teacher, gives a boost to a young friend. RIGHT: A batch of fresh tofu prepared in the soy dairy.
  • 062 good look - harvesting sweet potatoes
    Farming crew members harvest the community sweet potato crop
  • 062 good look - photo 8, 9, 10
    LEFT: Ina May Gaskin, leader of the Spiritual Midwifery movement. TOP RIGHT: The Summertown group has its own down-home laundromat. BOTTOM RIGHT: Folks at The Farm's entrance talk with everyone who visits the rural Tennessee community

  • 062 good look - photo 1, 2, 5, 6
  • 062 good look - photo 4 and 7
  • 062 good look - harvesting sweet potatoes
  • 062 good look - photo 8, 9, 10

Back in 1970, Stephen Gaskin — a religious teacher in that mecca for the 60's Peace and Love movement, San Francisco — left on a speaking tour of the U.S., trailed by 30 remodeled school buses full of young people. For seven months, the mobile community lived together, grew together, and traveled together over the highways of America. When the tour was done, "The Caravan" was too united in purpose and experience to be willing to split up, so the community looked for some farmland . . . and settled in rural Summertown, Tennessee.   

Today, ten years later, the community is still going strong (it even has treaties with some foreign countries!). In fact, some of the activities the folks in this collective are undertaking are so worthwhile MOTHER EARTH NEWS thought it was time readers had an update on how they've fared living the communal life.   

As you know, a lot of well-intentioned groups who head "back to the land" fall flat on their faces. Inexperienced homesteaders find that grubbing out a rural existence can be a harsh, demanding task ... each winter such communities get smaller and their debts get bigger . . . and, before long, the members all have to flee "back to the city".

And certainly Stephen Gaskin's group of self-professed "peace-loving hippies" was as unlikely a collection of city slickers as ever tried to turn "greenhorns" into green thumbs. After all, the initial conglomeration consisted of 250 men, women, and children — including a couple of newborn babies — and their only "equipment" consisted of some beat-up old schoolbuses!

Yet take a visit to the group's 1,750-acre stand — called, simply enough, The Farm — today, and what will you see? First of all, you'll be surrounded by a great many people: Gaskin's community presently has some 1,200 gaily dressed, longhaired members. Furthermore, a good half of the residents are children (and are among the most self-assured, helpful, and friendly young'uns you'll ever find anywhere).

In addition to the people, you'll see an amazingly complex physical setup. The Farm in Summertown — besides having a 150-acre food-raising operation — includes a dental clinic, medical clinic, and infirmary (with a complete infant intensive care and testing unit) ... a new passively solar-heated school . . . a pen-to-presses book, record, and videotape company ... wood, machine, and electronics workshops . . . entire buildings devoted to baking, milling, canning/freezing, motor repair, and preparing tasty soy food products . . . its own bank, laundry, architect's office, greenhouse, and radio station ... and more projects are on the way.

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