It was 40 years ago today...the "forever young" generation reflects on life in Vermont's first communes
A revival of Hair is giving audiences in New York’s Central Park a vicarious contact high these days, but memories of the bygone Age of Aquarius in Vermont have sparked an upcoming commune reunion and a new book.
The young idealists who launched Guilford’s Total Loss Farm in 1968 found wisdom in 19th-century paeans to nature by Henry David Thoreau, such as his suggestion that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” They were among the estimated thousands of countercultural types who trekked to the Green Mountain State four decades ago, hoping not just to preserve the world but to make it better. Many had already tried to do that elsewhere, working to end racism, inequality and the Vietnam War, until the movement for social change began to self-destruct.
“We felt it was our responsibility to save the country, but we were worn out by the divisions and the bitterness,” recalls noted poet Verandah Porche, who came north back then. “The goal was to start over.”
She and nine other city dwellers who shared a common vision moved into a five-room Guilford house on 90-plus acres where dairy cows had formerly grazed. Their homestead, called Packer Corners, soon became known as Total Loss Farm. About 100 former and current communards are expected to gather there for a 40th-anniversary reunion this weekend.
One of the people planning to attend, author Tom Fels of North Bennington, has just published Farm Friends , a memoir about his four years at a commune in nearby Montague, Massachusetts. He recalls those times with mixed feelings.
“Montague was a place where you could become a new person and, we thought, create a real opening in the social fabric,” Fels says during a recent phone interview. “Chalk it up to naiveté, altruism and optimism.”
The only “original pioneer’ still living at Packer Corners, Porche wonders if her group’s progressive ideas were unconsciously rooted in ancient notions of community.
“We sort of made a shtetl,” she says, referring to the Jewish enclaves once prevalent in Eastern Europe. “The future turned retro. But what a time, taking care of each other the way we did.”
That nurturing spirit wasn’t necessarily universal, of course, and even the most placid communes often had trouble withstanding the vicissitudes of subsequent years.
Some say Vermont — with its legacy of cantankerous independence dating back to Ethan Allen — is where the 1960s went. Lured by cheap real estate and an off-the-beaten-path lifestyle, about 75 communes once dotted the landscape, with monikers such as New Morning, Wooden Shoe, Toad Hall, Mullein Hill and Pie in the Sky.
Porche calls Guilford, a kind of epicenter for the earliest back-to-the-landers, “a freak neighborhood.” But before long, other areas also witnessed urban and suburban youngsters adapting to an agricultural existence.
The more revolutionary Red Clover Collective shot a 1971 documentary about how local police thwarted their efforts to harvest vegetables planted on the grounds of Putney’s Windham College. Entitled Free Farm, it starts with a brief manifesto on obliterating the cruelty of capitalism: “We will make Vermont a free territory,” an unseen narrator vows. “We will build a society that loves life.”
The neighboring and neighborly Packer Corners and Montague communes were largely formed by a nexus of students who continued their activism beyond the campus.
Fels attended Amherst College in the Bay State. So did fellow Montague occupant Marshall Bloom, who had befriended Porche and her then-boyfriend Ray Mungo, both from Boston University. This trio left New England in 1967 to establish the Liberation News Service (LNS) in Washington, D.C.
Mungo went on to write two books, which both came out in 1970: Famous Long Ago is about the news service, which he describes as “an uneasy coalition” of alternative-journalism factions. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated Total Loss Farm chronicles his experience at Packer Corners.
Porche dropped out of BU before graduating to participate in the LNS endeavor. “It felt like a state of emergency; we couldn’t go on with our lives as planned,” she explains. “We had a world to change.”
Eventual “divisions between blacks and whites meant that some of the guys in the movement as a whole tried to show their solidarity through ideological purity,” Porche says. “They felt compelled to commit radical acts.”
For her, the defining events were the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in early April 1968, and the ensuing riots. As D.C. burned, poignant exchanges occurred: “We’d typically ask our black friends, ‘What can we do?’ They would say, ‘Get us guns.’” Our reaction was, ‘Well, gee whiz, I don’t think so.’ Their response: ‘If you won’t get us guns, why don’t you go home and work in your own communities?’”
Easier said than done for Porche. “I wasn’t going back to Teaneck, New Jersey,” she says. Indeed, the Garden State was not her intended destination when she told Mungo, “I want to go home.”
His immediate reply: “Don’t worry. I know the place.”
In a recent email, Mungo — who now lives in California — writes that he was thinking of Guilford at that time: A college friend had “bought a small vacation cabin down the road from [Packer Corners] and thus became aware that the farmer had died and his widow was selling” the property.
“By Memorial Day, we had gathered our friends and come to look,” Porche says. That moment was captured in a photograph by Peter Simon, brother of Carly and “kissing cousin” of the soon-to-be Total Loss family. “The house was locked, so we peered in the window.”
Porche later evoked that scene in a poem: “Remember before we signed the deed, / we posed for our future — / ‘American Gothic’ for seven: / If you lived here you’d be / home now in heaven . . .”
Heaven would prove a bit elusive, although Mungo says Packer Corners was mostly harmonious. “There were no rules and we never took a vote on anything,” he declares. “We operated by magic. Really.”
Not so over at Montague, which Marshall Bloom began with several other people in January 1969. He had commandeered the LNS presses and files to rekindle the enterprise, which folded after only two issues.
The commune itself was always chaotic, according to Fels. “We were highly disorganized,” he notes. “We had no system whatsoever. It was catch as catch can. Someone would buy chickens and cows. Others said, ‘I didn’t know we wanted a cow.’ A hay baler would just appear, or someone started taking down a wall. I’d think, ‘Wait a minute, did we all agree on this?’”
The numbers at Montague fluctuated. “We had fewer in winter, maybe four, then up to 12 in the summer,” Fels says, adding, “We fit in with our neighbors, once they got over our beards and long hair.”
Local people taught the hippies how to make butter and maple syrup, Fels points out, “but they must have asked themselves, ‘Where does their money come from?’”
To buy the $25,000 farm, Bloom had secured a loan; other Montague inhabitants, some taking odd jobs around town, chipped in. “Part of the strangeness of all this was that we disavowed money,” Fels observes.
For the Packer Corners kids to cover the down payment on their own $25,000 purchase, Marty Jezer cashed in the Israel bonds he’d gotten as a bar mitzvah gift. “Our situation was ‘from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs,’” Porche says, quoting Karl Marx. “In general, Total Loss Farm worked better than most communes did. Vermont’s ‘Freedom and Unity’ would certainly do as the motto for our farm.”
But the first winter was “an eye-opener,” she concedes, and the bucolic surroundings were a revelation. “I had never been outdoors,” Porche confesses, with some exaggeration. “Marty had at least gone outdoors before. We weren’t sure what a commune was supposed to be. But a lot of us had lived together during college, so it didn’t seem much different here. Sharing a kitchen — we knew how to do that.”
Porche sees a clear distinction between the Vermonters and their Massachusetts counterparts. “Packer Corners had a greater tolerance of artists; many of us were writers. We valued conversation and exchange of ideas. Montague was always sort of go-go-go. They were much more industrious,” she surmises.
Peter Simon had branched out a short distance away with Tree Frog Farm, an 80-acre Mecca that, by one account, was dedicated to “nudity, psychedelic drugs and free love.”
Mayday was an all-women’s domicile “just a stone’s throw over the hill” from Total Loss, says Porche.
Other clusters of ’60s vagabonds didn’t fare as well.
A former Hell’s Angel was behind Brotherhood of the Spirit just across the Massachusetts border. “They thought they were descended from Atlantis,” Porche says.
Johnson Pasture in Guilford was rather “medieval” and muddy, according to filmmaker John Douglas, now of Charlotte, who then lived at Red Clover. “In February, they were wrapped in blankets. It was very primitive.”
“They [Johnson Pasture] were much bigger than Packer Corners,” Porche reports. “They’d accept anybody. There was a small core surrounded by many drifters. That was a hard-luck commune.” The worst luck: An April 1970 fire there killed four people.
The impoverished Johnson Pasture disdained hierarchy, as did the relatively comfortable Red Clover, Montague, Total Loss and most other communes. “We didn’t have a leader,” Porche says. “Neighbors would ask, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ We said we were each in charge of ourselves.”
Many of the Packer Corners neighbors treated the shaggy newcomers with kindness, Porche recalls. “They told us how to avoid chimney fires. They taught us how to make sap beer. There was a certain amount of ostracism at the beginning, but it didn’t last.”
Red Clover, a self-designated collective about 20 miles northeast, had a somewhat contentious relationship with the townspeople — though that may have been based more on politics than appearances.
“We were not hippie farmers,” says Roz Payne, now a Richmond resident and then one of the people who flocked to Red Clover in 1969 and ’70. “We were activists who had a vegetable garden in Putney.”
Two years earlier in New York City, this group of friends had formed the filmmakers’ collective Newsreel, turning out documentaries about labor strikes, student revolts, the war, the Black Panthers and other wrenching issues of the day.
Newsreel member John Douglas had, in 1965, plunked down $18,000 to buy the 150-acre Putney farm that would become Red Clover. “I wanted to live a nice country life while making films,” he says.
By 1969, he and pal Robert Kramer were editing footage they had shot in Vietnam. “Robert began to think how great it would be to organize from [Vermont]. At that point, just three or four people were living on the property. Another friend had arrived, Carl Oglesby [the former president of Students for a Democratic Society]. In the winter, a bunch of us sat around the table talking about communal stuff.”
The name was chosen when Kramer’s wife Jane (now a Burlington resident) discovered that red clover is the official state flower. “We thought, ‘Ah, it’s red, red, red,’” Douglas says with a laugh.
Left-wing beliefs ruled in a loose-knit, overarching association dubbed “Free Vermont,” which tried to coordinate joint projects throughout the state. Some of its best accomplishments were a People’s Bank for rich communes to help poorer ones; Vermont Railroad, a newspaper published at Franklin County’s Earthworks commune; and, in Brattleboro, a restaurant called Common Ground and an auto shop where women learned how to fix cars to keep the counterculture fleet going at no cost.
Vermont historian Faith Pepe of Westminster West moved to Windham County in 1965 and later joined a women’s consciousness-raising group that included Red Clover radicals. “We started the first real daycare center in Vermont as a cooperative,” she says. “Some of us marched into the Brattleboro Reformer to demand a women’s column. The editor said, ‘If we do that, we might have to start a column on . . . birds.’”
(The newspaper never did add a women’s column, Pepe notes, but now has one about birds.)
Advancing Red Clover’s dogma was not without its challenges. To promote unanimity, Douglas says, “Everybody slept in the same room for months. That was supposed to be part of getting our shit together. There was an enormous amount of self-criticism; we’d sometimes spend all day at it.”
Yet, he concludes, “It all worked remarkably well. I don’t remember much conflict within the group.”
Outside the group was another matter. One day, a vanload of women from Boston pulled in to the commune. “They were militant lesbians who wanted to use our land for target practice,” Douglas recounts. “We said it was OK to set up tents, but they began leaving notes on trees and on our door with messages like ‘Male dominance sucks!’”
Much worse, irate local citizens “shot at us and set off firecrackers,” Douglas says. “They thought we were commies.”
The FBI raided Red Clover in the late fall of 1970 looking for Weather Underground fugitive Bernadine Dohrn, who wasn’t there at the time. “They lined us all up, searched the house and left empty-handed,” Douglas remembers. “It began to feel like the end of the road.”
He recalls looking up at a big sunflower framed by a bright blue sky and thinking, “‘Will I ever see this again?’ It seemed as if we would all be killed.”
Filmmaker Robert Kramer assessed Red Clover almost two decades later in an interview during the 1984 Free Vermont Recollective, a multi-commune gathering in South Hero. “We functioned at an enormous level of intensity. We thought the revolution was about to happen at any moment. We had a short-range, apocalyptic perspective . . . which was completely wrong.”
Despite some negative experiences at the commune, Douglas has a more positive take in retrospect. “Those were the days,” he says. “Those were definitely the days. Amazing times.”
Those times, however, did not always include cross-commune respect. Douglas had dismissed the Total Loss Farm people as “burned-out hippies.” Mungo now says the place had “elitist aesthetics.”
Porche disagrees, explaining that her group actually identified more with traditional Vermonters than with hippie chic: “We had a romantic attachment to our [local] mentors,” she says. “Ray wore flannel shirts and overalls. His first nickname was ‘Gramps.’”
Mungo reached even further back in rural lore during a 1969 canoe trip with friends; they were retracing Thoreau’s 1839 expedition on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in New Hampshire.
But while people pursued old-fashioned aspirations at Total Loss Farm, harrowing 20th-century dilemmas occasionally surfaced. The FBI periodically visited because Mungo and Jezer were draft resisters, Porche says.
Another Weather Underground refugee, Patricia Swinton, lived there using a pseudonym until her 1975 arrest in Brattleboro. Her Total Loss Farm supporters managed to post bail. She was eventually acquitted.
A little farther south, the Montague commune faced tragedy when Marshall Bloom committed suicide in the fall of 1969. “Nobody saw it coming,” Fels remembers. “He must have been an isolated person, even in the midst of a commune. It probably soured some people. This was an ideal life we were supposed to be living, and Marshall was the main keeper of the ideals. I think [we] realized you can’t just declare the future.”
The immediate future at many Vermont communes saw original couples separating; gay people finally coming out of the closet; careers and marriages — those previously unfathomable bourgeois institutions — gaining favor; and children being born. Along the way, most of those ’60s aggregations disbanded or were transformed.
“The times changed. People grew up. People got tired of the poverty and isolation,” Mungo suggests.
With Porche as its longstanding matriarch, Packer Corners continues in a less populous but more multigenerational mode under the Monteverdi Artists Collaborative, a trust that Mungo set up before his 1971 departure.
Montague was finally sold after maintaining “some sort of commune life for 35 years,” says Fels. “I left all my record albums there when I moved out in 1971. It seemed antisocial to take them.”
Even in the ensuing age of rampant materialism, the utopian experiment arguably helped shape Vermont’s maverick mystique. And, for most of its survivors, the moment never stopped resonating.
A Porche poem affectionately sums up the essence of Total Loss Farm as “Famous, formless, flaky, together . . .”
“I’m really glad we were those people,” Robert Kramer — who relocated to France in 1980 and died of meningitis nine years ago — once mused. “We both are and aren’t those people anymore. We can never be as naïve as we were then, but it is a heroic past.”