The Invention of the Rural Hipster
On the Gaskins, Going Back to the Land, and Old Time American Wisdom
In the winter of 1971, Stephen Gaskin of San Francisco, who had risen to fame as a teacher and psychedelic shaman, led three hundred-plus bangled and bellbottomed hippies out of Haight-Ashbury, bound for the American South. Gaskin said he wanted more trees, more sane people, more healthy babies. In the woods, they aimed to retrench and rethink, to grow their own food and weed.
Younger Americans flocked to communes and collectives in the 1970s. Their parents had ditched farms for postwar corporate jobs and ranch homes on half-acre lots. Rural life looked more promising to this new generation. The rural South of the 1950s and 1960s had been a place to escape. A decade later, Gaskin and his followers regarded the South as a region to claim, a place to find solace amid the strife.
Gaskin called the place they settled on the Cumberland Ridge in south-central Tennessee, The Farm. Working that agricultural commune, he and his followers drove shifts in American attitudes about whole earth ecology, natural childbirth, and organic, vegetarian, and vegan diets.
Gaskin looked like a longhair. But he didn’t play the part of the outsider. In conversation with locals, he quoted Jesus, swallowed his consonants, and went long on aphorisms. On The Farm, all adopted a vow of poverty lifted from the New Testament book of Acts, “And all that believed were together and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all as every man had need.”
To build a community that would last, Farmies went native. By the spring of 1972, Gaskin and a Church of Christ pastor from Summertown began staging public debates in a hay barn, outfitted with oriental rugs and bleachers made of bales. Bearded young men in overalls took seats alongside buzz cut churchmen in blazers and ties. One night, a Farmie stood and spoke: “It says in there that God preaches to all creatures, not just man, all creatures.” The comment, a defense of The Farm’s vegetarian diet, begged a response from a Church of Christ preacher who stood to ask why, if eating meat was wrong, did Jesus give the multitude fishes as well as loaves? After a slight pause, a dozen people offered the same answer, “Because they were hungry.” In that moment, the two groups began to find common ground.
The Farm shared its message through media. To deliver information about its construction and agricultural work, The Farm paid local newspapers to print single-page “Farm Reports” in which Lewis County readers learned that promiscuity was not tolerated and pregnancy outside of wedlock was not allowed. “We believe in Jesus; we believe in Buddha,” Gaskin wrote to answer questions about polytheism that dogged The Farm. “Some people don’t think you can do that; we think you can.”
Gaskin continued to stage classes, shaping the lives of his members in a way some compared to the Shakers, who had once farmed opium in nearby Kentucky. Detractors, who associated communal living with the murderous rampage of Charles Manson, compared The Farm to a cult. Gaskin confronted those suspicions. “What we’ve done in Tennessee has shown them that our minds ain’t blown,” he wrote. “We’re okay. We can still figure out a tractor. We keep the toilet paper dry most of the time. We’re like a heart transplant, and we ain’t been rejected.”
Local people trusted members of The Farm, Gaskin said, because Farmies told the truth and because their checks to the feed and seed store didn’t bounce. If rain threatened and a neighbor farmer needed to get in his hay, men from The Farm came running. For construction projects, The Farm loaned out laborers. They laid the bricks for a holiness church. Ina May Gaskin, wife of Stephen Gaskin, began a midwife practice that would teach generations of American women the virtues of natural childbirth.
Five years into this rural experiment, The Farm emerged as a kind of laboratory for the American counterculture, where hippie ideals and capitalist ingenuity cross-pollinated. Instead of rebelling against prevailing American ideals, Gaskin and his followers made good on them. Working with efficiency, industry, and thrift, they became more American than the Americans they left behind.
Farmies made for good copy and great television. National Geographic published a photo spread. Mother Earth News did, too. 60 Minutes rolled in with hulking video cameras. Turned on and tuned in to Gaskin’s message, more than one hundred new people settled at The Farm each year. By the late 1970s, the population was well over one thousand. And more than ten thousand visitors passed through the gate each year. Life on The Farm got easier. Tents became “hents,” part tent, part house with windows installed to let the sun shine in. Through the Beatnik Bell phone system, a kind of party line meets intercom, residents learned when the Soy Dairy would have milk to distribute and when the Store would receive the next shipment of matches and toilet paper.
An entrepreneurial spirit flourished. Residents of The Farm developed a Doppler fetal pulse indicator to check the health of unborn children, a radiation detector that grew popular after the Three Mile Island accident, and space heaters powered by passive solar technology. Farmies installed the landscaping at Opryland, where they had camped years before, and helped build a Kmart. Farm businesses made tie-dyed clothing. A leader in alternative energy, The Farm built solar homes, constructed a solar schoolhouse out of reclaimed and recycled materials, and built a walk-in solar food dehydrator.
While other communes like Drop City in Colorado slipped into chaos by the 1970s, Gaskin kept tight reins on The Farm. For the first decade, he brooked no dissent. When you joined The Farm you copped to him. To be a part of the community, residents acknowledged him as their spiritual teacher. Conversations with Gaskin began with a soulful stare and ended with a hug. The guidelines were stringent. No guns. No synthetic psychedelics. Bras were unnatural. Expressions of anger were not tolerated. Gaskin delivered weekly sermons, presided over burials, and performed marriages. If two people had sex, Gaskin considered them engaged. If the woman got pregnant, Gaskin married them. Not all relations were conventional. Unions of two couples, called four marriages, were common. For a time, Gaskin was in a marriage of six.
Life relied on conventions and routines. Men blew conch shells to announce communal meals. Women cooked soybeans for dinner, which they folded into corn tortillas and sprinkled with soy cheese. Prepared communally in a shack that moonshiners had once used for sugar storage, meals were served in a dining tent next door. Mornings began with what the hippies called Farmola or Mellowmeal, hot cereals of cracked wheat, cracked rye, cornmeal, soy flour, and more, sweetened with sorghum. In the evening, Farmies ate bean burgers and nut loaves. Instead of oven-frying chicken, they oven-fried gluten. Most families kept a shaker of nutritional yeast on the table, which they applied like salt.
The Farm maintained a two-way radio, which Farmies used to keep in touch with their touring rock bands, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They encouraged people outside The Farm to radio them for advice on how to talk to their local sheriff or handle the water inspector: “Be in communication. We can all be in cahoots all over the country.” Gaskin didn’t aim to topple the government. To the greater world, he proposed alternatives. “The thing you do about a decadent empire is you don’t try to tear it down, you’ll get caught underneath it,” he explained in Hey Beatnik!, a how-to manual and hippie high school yearbook published in 1974. “Just stand back and learn how to take care of yourself. Learn how to take care of some other people. Don’t take over the government, take over the government’s function.” By 1975, co-ops across America sold that book, and hitchhikers carried dog-eared copies in their duffels.
At times, The Farm seemed like a summer camp. Before they became the memes of design catalogs, Farmies made lamps out of Mason jars and fueled them with kerosene. Farmies salvaged a junked water tower and rigged it up. The bakery turned out hot whatnot bread six days a week. On hikes, they captured rattlesnakes, which they refused to kill and turned over to forest rangers.
Not all went well. During a bitterly cold second winter, tucked into army surplus tents and crammed in buses and vans, Farmies subsisted on wheat berries and not much else. The next spring, after eating watercress that grew downstream from an outhouse, dozens came down with hepatitis. Early into the experiment, after locating a marijuana patch on the property, the county sheriff arrested Gaskin and three others on drug charges. The tip came from a local who said he saw naked commune members playing flutes in the style of Pan.
While the outside world focused interest on sex and drugs, The Farm focused on growing crops to feed its own. Work began with a pair of Belgian mares and a plow. Gaskin and his crews soon added tractors to the mix, working toward a balance between ideals and realities to “have a stoned connection with the dirt and the plant force and at the same time have a sane enough use of the technology that we can feed ourselves.”
Gangs of young workers raised soybeans and corn, sweet potatoes and watermelons. When workers on The Farm recognized a market for sweet potato slips, they planted acres. They grew snap beans and snow peas because they didn’t need shelling. They grew tomatoes by the ton as a cash crop. They contracted out labor to a pimento farmer, who sold to a packer, who sold jars to home makers of pimento cheese. They called their work a yoga and thought of hoeing as meditation.
The second year in Tennessee, Farmies planted 140 acres of sorghum, which they harvested by hand. Work was tougher than expected, but they approached the project with a romantic fervor, swapping stories of how sorghum-making had been a Southern tradition for generations, how communities used to join together for a collective harvest, how mules used to power the mills, and how a hardwood fire was ideal for boiling sorghum juice down into syrup. The Farm went with propane. And they soon built a gravity-fed mill, using a government brochure schematic.
Farmies harvested cane and cooked syrup for their neighbors. And they split the profits. By year three they went commercial, selling bottles of “Old Beatnik Pure Lewis County Sorghum,” affixed with a label that showed a couple dozen bright-faced and long-haired hippies in the midst of a harvest. An advertisement read, “In the South, it’s home, country, mother, apple pie, God, and sorghum.” Locals arrived to ogle their new neighbors and buy sweetener. Soon, health food stores across the South and across the nation stocked their syrup as well as their books.
From soy ice cream to tempeh, The Farm developed or popularized many of the foods that fueled the American counterculture. Under the umbrella of Farm Foods, they managed the Good Tasting Nutritional Yeast Company and a tempeh spore business. Adopting techniques pioneered in Indonesia, Farmies grew spores on sterilized pieces of sweet potatoes. Inoculated in test tubes, the potatoes lent a sweetness to tempeh made from their spores.
Soybeans proved the great sustainer. Early in his experiments with drugs, Gaskin had a psychedelic vision of soybeans in which he saw them as the vegetable that would feed hungry people in the decades ahead. When Gaskin settled his tribe in Tennessee, they planted soybeans. Within a few years, they cultivated 150 acres. By 1972, The Farm produced soy milk for babies and children. Yay Soybeans!, a free recipe booklet, showed how to roast whole soybeans into soy nuts and soy coffee, grind soybeans into flour, stuff soysage, and toast soyola.
There was regional precedent for this innovation as well. Madison College, a Seventh-Day Adventist school, just north of Nashville, had begun producing soy foods under the label Madison Foods by 1918. Soy Bean Meat came first. Four years later, they were canning soybeans and producing two other meat substitutes, Nut Meat and Savory Meat. Like The Farm, they aimed to share their meatless diet with others, opening a Vegetarian Cafeteria and Treatment Room in Nashville.
At the Soy Dairy on The Farm, workers pulverized beans with an electric coffee grinder and cooked them over a gas burner. Using a top-loading washing machine, they extracted soy milk. Cooked milk and bean pulp flowed to a lower level where the milk was bottled for drinking or strained and rendered into tofu. After adopting more modern technology, The Farm developed one of the first commercial soy ice creams, Ice Bean. By the early 1980s, Farm Foods was taking out full-page ads in Vegetarian Times to sell peanut butter-flavored soy ice cream sandwiched between two carob-coated honey wafers.
The back-to-the-land movement inspired a new educational movement, which began in the mountains of north Georgia in the late 1960s and spread through the nation, inspiring more than 200 projects in the United States and abroad. Eliot Wigginton and his eighth grade English students at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in north Georgia practiced what came to be called cultural journalism, and published their interviews in Foxfire, named after the blue green glow of lichen that grows in the damp forest understory. That school journal eventually inspired a Broadway play and a made-for-TV movie.
Beginning in 1966, students interviewed their elders and their parents. The first issue, published the next year, included an interview with the local sheriff, who told of how he captured the bandits after a bank robbery. By 1970, the students hit on the formula that would make the program famous, when they interviewed Arie Carpenter, who lived high on a ridge in nearby Macon County, North Carolina.
A wiry woman with a mischievous glint, Carpenter insisted that Wigginton help prize the eyes from a severed hog head as she prepared souse meat. During her interview, she talked about picking blackberries and strawberries and about raising Irish potatoes, which most Americans now know as white potatoes. Carpenter was a font of food recollections. “You ever eat any corn pones that was raised?” she asked the interviewer, who transcribed her reverie phonetically. “It’s made out a’cornmeal. Now it’s another hard job, and I love it better’n a cat loves sweet milk, I sure do.”
Doubleday published that interview in 1972 in the first Foxfire book. First-month sales topped 100,000 copies as hippies, back-to-the-landers, and voyeuristic middle-class folk read about how to shoe horses, plant crops by the signs, stone-grind corn, and scald bristles from hogs. Over the next decade, Doubleday sold more than two million copies.
Similar projects sprang up as close as Atlanta, where a group of young people collected oral histories of the Appalachian women who lived in a neighborhood called Cabbagetown. Originally built as company housing for the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, and staffed by migrants from Appalachia, the area had begun a long slide toward slum when the mill was sold in 1957.
Two decades later, when the students began to record oral histories, they got to know the women of Cabbagetown by collecting recipes for crackling bread, butterbean dumplings, and black-eyed pea sausage. The resulting 1976 book, Cabbagetown Families, Cabbagetown Food, linked Appalachia past and present.
The Foxfire and Cabbagetown projects tapped the same American hunger for rural ways and farm means that Stephen Gaskin recognized. Saturday Review called Foxfire a “fine example of Emersonian self-reliance and compassionate anthropology that would have charmed James Agee and Oscar Lewis.” By the time Jessica Tandy starred in a made-for-television movie of the same name, a generation of Americans had gained a library of manuals for boiling soap from lard and boiling hominy from corn. And a generation of mountain children had discovered a range of honest ways to connect with their parents and grandparents and neighbors.
From THE POTLIKKER PAPERS: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge, published on May 16, 2017 by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by John T. Edge.