For those who were too young or weren’t born yet, have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be in the first wave of hippies that crested in the late 1960s and early 70s? So have I.
The trilogy is the first comprehensive, inside story of The Farm, the biggest, most successful hippie commune in United States history, located at Summertown, Tennessee.
The Farm won the “alternative Nobel Peace Price,” the Swedish-based Right Livelihood Award, “for caring, sharing and acting with and on behalf of those in need at home and abroad.”
The place really was a haven of good vibes; I visited several times during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and got a warm welcome each time. I remember being struck by the fact that the sentries at the front gate of The Farm didn’t shake your hand — they hugged you.
The story of this bold experiment in community and lifestyle is told by former wire service reporter Stiriss, who became a cofounder of The Farm and lived the adventure for 12 years in Tennessee and another year as a volunteer carpenter after an earthquake in Guatemala.
“Voluntary peasants are everyday people, from all walks of life, who choose to live simply, close to the earth, self-reliant, growing food — for the sake of the planet, their families and their own souls,” Stiriss tells us.
|Photo: Gerald Wheeler
|Stephen Gaskin leads the Monday Night Class at the Family Dog in 1970
The Beginning: Monday Night Class
Book Two of the Voluntary Peasants Trilogy, Holy Hippies, includes stories of The Farm’s beginning out of an unprecedented San Francisco smorgasbord of spiritual trips which began as the Monday Night Class at The Family Dog.
|Photo: Gerald Wheeler
“Monday Night Class was a free, open-to-all, fun, high-energy, hip, town meeting and tripping workshop — that drew a thousand people or more each week,” Stiriss writes. “Monday Night Class was the genesis of The Farm community and, for many, a lifeboat.”
Monday Night Class was led by teacher Stephen Gaskin, a combat Marine veteran of Korea, college-English-professor-turned hippie and spiritual revolutionary. Gaskin cut a striking figure, almost 6’5″, with long, dark blond hair and a wispy beard.
“To say Stephen was an effective speaker would be a gross understatement,” Stiriss tells us.
“Stephen’s spellbinding tales of telepathy, amazing trips, realizations and apparent quantum leap in spiritual development — encouraged me to trip,” Stiriss writes. “Now, I believed I was tripping not just for myself, but for all Mankind. I was tripping to get enlightened, to save the world from ignorance, poverty and war.”
The Bus Caravan
But just when many of the throng thought they had found a home in Monday Night Class, Gaskin announced he was going to recess the class to go on a speaking tour.
“No way were these adoring students, fans and tribe going to let Stephen go easily,” Stiriss writes. “Stephen laughed and said that any of his students who could manifest a bus and gas money, keep it together and keep up with him, could join him on this revolutionary caper.”
Gaskin’s most committed students sold their worldly possessions, buying and retrofitting old school buses and delivery vans. They were going to be part of this caravan.
After the last class, Stephen and his students boarded a fleet of 23 colorfully painted, retrofitted school buses. Up front on Gaskin’s bus, in the “destination” window, it said Out to Save the World.
Thing is, 23 busloads of hippies tend to attract attention, including some of the unwelcome kind.
“Sure enough, just over the California-Oregon state line, at Grants Pass, all hell broke loose,” Stiriss writes. “Red lights! Blue lights! White lights! Cop cars everywhere! They knew we were coming, and it was an ambush.”
“Red Alert! Lids of top-of-the-line, Acapulco gold, Panama red, Colombian and Jamaican grass flew from bus windows, like doves — disappearing into the darkness as the Caravan pulled over onto the shoulder, was boarded and searched,” Stiriss writes.
Gaskin and four other men were arrested and spent a few days in jail. Stephen eventually convinced the judge the group was “out to spread a peaceful message” and the judge let them go, promising to follow their progress across the U.S.
Coming In For A Landing In Tennessee
After a seven-month, 12,000-mile sojourn, those in the bus caravan felt it was time to get off the road.
|Photo: Gerald Wheeler
|The Caravan comes to rest at Martin Farm in Tennessee, which became The Farm
“One day, as if by magic, caravaners were in one of Nashville’s many guitar stores and got to talking with a woman they met,” Stiriss writes. “Mrs. Martin said she owns land, 70 miles south of Nashville, and would like to help us. She offered to lease us the land — for a dollar a year! A gift from the universe!”
The Caravan convoyed for the last time into the boondocks of southern, middle Tennessee and arrived at what immediately became The Farm, near Summertown on May 10, 1971.
“We were up for adventure, and the world looked full of wonder,” Stiriss said. “Everything was groovy, and unbeknownst to us, were were being watched by the FBI.”
The tale will be continued in the upcoming Book Three of the Voluntary Peasants Trilogy, New Life Together, Labor of Love, which will tell the story of life at The Farm. Book Three is coming soon.
|Photo: Melvyn Stiriss
|Melvyn Stiriss: “The Farm collective was our attempt to create a utopia.”
Looking Back: Toke of the Town Interviews Melvyn Stiriss
“We were totally collective the whole time I lived there from 1971 to the fall of 1983,” Stiriss told Toke of the Town. “What happened was everybody started tripping out on things like money. They were all hippies, and nobody knew what the hell they were doing, really. Nobody knew how to handle money, to budget, to plan, or anything.”
Toke: What would you do differently if you started another commune?
Mel: There seems to be a pretty universal agreement — don’t build it around one charismatic person. Build it instead around the principles of it being both good for the planet and good for yourself. I don’t have to tell you all the good reasons for having a commune.
I should say, too, that The Farm still exists in a different form. There are a couple of hundred people there to this day who are still figuring it out, doing it the best way that they can. Stephen Gaskin is not part of the equation anymore; they don’t turn to him for advice or anything.
Another thing is that for the first several years, the majority of the population were people that had been with Stephen in San Francisco and on the caravan, and had a lot of understanding about what the teachings were.
I say avoid having a charismatic leader, but Stephen’s teachings were right on. Unfortunately, it seems through time, power corrupted.
Towards the end, there were a lot of new people who had never heard Stephen speak. For the first few years, in order to live there, you had to take Stephen Gaskin to be your spiritual teacher and life coach; you would be receptive to his feedback, to possibly change.
Towards the end, most of the new people who came there did not come with that agreement. They wanted to live at The Farm. They had heard about it, but Stephen had no particular appeal to them. They were no longer required to say that Stephen was their teacher.
Now you had a population that, in a way, had diluted teachings and diluted commitments. The pioneers like myself actually suffered some hardships in order to continue to live there. We made it through some very tough winters when food was scarce and housing was chilly, to say the least. But we were dedicated, and we hung in.
We all, in the old days, agreed to a vow of poverty. Seeing the beauty and wisdom in being happy with less. That’s a good thing. But since then, several people have observed we should have said “vow of simplicity” rather than “vow of poverty.” Because since then, I’ve learned that money itself is not evil if you don’t sell your soul for it. It’s good to have money; you can do some good things with it.
Toke: How did cannabis fit in, in the early years of The Farm?
Mel: As much as we could [laughter]. We see it just like the Rastas and other people around the world see it, spiritually.
We put a lot of respect into its use and saw marijuana not just as a recreational, fun thing but it raised consciousness and made people more sensitive to each other, more compassionate, and more telepathic.
We realized we grew up in a culture that didn’t even recognize telepathy as real. We saw compassion as a form of telepathy. If you can feel the other person, you are telepathic with them.
Marijuana enhanced compassion, consciousness and empathy, and tended to keep people mellow.
We over-practiced the thing of giving each other feedback for helping each other grow and change. Some people were good at it, and some people were brutal. Sometimes you’d wind up in what we’d call a big “sort-out.” It could get pretty tense.
Marijuana would lubricate the action, and keep the warmth in it. It would bring in humor and relax people. It made you realize people loved you and were not out to get you. It generally helped.
Construction is exhausting work in the merciless, humid Tennessee heat. Sometimes we were just exhausted building a house. We’d take a break, share a joint or two and then we’d be refreshed and ready to work again.
We had this big truck, and the neighbors would see about 50 hippies pouring into the truck, then get out with smoke pouring out, all laughing and slapping each other on the back.
The plants were near our property, out by a railroad track. The hippies liked to dance naked by them to give them good life energy. A train conductor saw naked hippies dancing and reported it.
We got busted, and Stephen and a couple more people ended up doing prison time. The Supreme Court refused to hear our case that we were a church and that marijuana is a sacrament of our church, that government does not have the right to legislate states of consciousness, and that we have the right to pursue consciousness however the fuck we want.
In 1980, there was the ragweed fiasco, where a Tennessee Highway Patrol pilot named Mike Dover flew over (we wrote a song about “Mike Dover flew over”). It was a watermelon patch. It looked like tall marijuana growing in a straight row, but it was ragweed.
The Ragweed Festival is now a hippie holiday that was celebrated just recently on The Farm. We have an annual big party and reunion, also called 7-11 because it happened on July 11.
Twenty-six police vehicles raided The Farm that day; they came charging in. We had a friend in the media who told us they were coming.
We had our lawyer and Stephen up at the gate when they came. They had permission to search that field and the land adjacent to it. They didn’t search any houses, and they didn’t find anything on The Farm.
We sued them for $10 million. We didn’t get anything but a bunch of crushed watermelons.
Back in the original bust, Stephen had developed a close personal relationship with the local sheriff. He promised the sheriff that we would never again grow marijuana in his county. And we didn’t ever again grow in his county.
Stephen was a Marine Corps veteran of Korea. And he knew how to talk to cops and military.
Toke: Tell us how Book Two of the Voluntary Peasants Trilogy will lead into Book Three.
Mel: In the second book, Holy Hippies, we get to see my developing relationship with my spiritual teacher, Stephen Gaskin. And in some ways, it was classic, not unique to me. Anybody who’s had someone they consider their spiritual master, their guru, can relate to what it’s like to be totally awed by someone and ready to give up your own judgment, to favor what this person says.
To have the belief that they can see you better than you can see yourself — that’s part of the process, but there comes a point…
Book Two lays the groundwork for Book Three — what we believed in and what we were trying to accomplish by going back to the land.
We were trying to create a good, sane, peaceful lifestyle that made sense to us, and did not insult our intelligence. Also to remove ourselves from the military-industrial complex, also known as The Establishment, and not be reliant on them for anything; to be self-reliant.
And to get back to a more natural state of consciousness — we felt that we had been shaped by the culture we grew up in, and that not all of it was good, and we wanted to decondition ourselves, un-condition ourselves from all the conditioning we had grown up with.
We observed that marijuana did help. Marijuana helps to dissolve the conditioning and illusion and be able to perceive reality more with beginner’s eyes. Like the zen master Suzuki Roshi wrote, to maintain beginner’s mind — getting back to Square One and building our own town, based on everything we believed in.
To purchase the ebook, Voluntary Peasants, Book Two: Holy Hippies and the Great, Round-the-Country, Save-the-World, School Bus Caravan
from Amazon, click here