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‘Kiss & Tell’ on the Farm

Author Tom Fels takes a hard look at conflict on a ’60s commune

Vermont author Tom Fels, who wrote a book four years ago called “Farm Friends” about some of the communal buddies he made during his four years living at the Montague Farm from 1969 to 1973, is back with a history of the Chestnut Hill commune that might be read by some as “Farm Enemies.”

But the new tome, “Buying the Farm: Peace and War on a Sixties Commune” (University of Massachusetts Press, 220 pages) is, according to Fels, more of “a straight history” of the commune, which was founded by Amherst College alumna Marshall Bloom and friends as the home of Liberation News Service. Later, it became the birthplace of the nation’s anti-nuclear movement.

Fels’ “Farm Friends: From the Late ’60s to the Early ’70s and Beyond” explores what became of the “rebellious, anti-establishment members” of a commune often forgotten in the shadow of the much larger, raucous Renaissance Community. This more recent book by the Bennington, Vt-based archivist was written at the request of people who wanted an understanding of how the farm started, what living there was like and how it came apart over time.

Therein lies the “kiss-and-tell” element that’s sure to irk many of the former “farm friends” involved.

Trustees of the farm sold the property in 2002 to Zen Peacemakers, a socially-engaged Buddhist organization that converted the large barn on the property into a meditation center, that, after the farm’s re-purchase 10 years later, become the Montague Retreat Center and continues to be used for, yoga, dances and private events.

Fels said this was a work he had started earlier as a short account of the farm. But, a different, more entangled, story emerged when he picked up the project again to work on over the past couple of years and began to pore over the collected materials that were available,

“I just found there was a different story there,” said Fels. “I was as surprised as anybody.”

The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the story of the rural experiment founded by Bloom and Ray Mungo, Steve Diamond and other founders of a news service that was to the ’60s counterculture what the Associated Press was to mainstream media. Most of those who bought the 26-acre farm in 1968 had no experience with farming, but the large garden took on an important role in the life of its members as they tried to figure out how to make a living off the land within the first five years of existence.

Fels says that most of the farm’s original members had moved on by 1973. After which, member Sam Lovejoy’s toppling of the Montague Plains meteorological tower for a planned twin nuclear plant set the tone for the eight years that followed, during which Montague helped fuel a national “no nukes” movement.

“The way I look at it now, the first half (of the book) is about the first 25 years of the farm, which is largely a positive story” about its commitment to organic agriculture, environmental activism and — thanks to its women members who set the direction — feminism.”

But after taking note, at the conclusion of a chapter on a pivotal 25th annual reunion in 1993, of a photo taken of an embrace of Lovejoy and Harvey Wasserman, the remaining half of the book focuses on how members of the trust set up to oversee the farm failed to overcome their differences to allow it continue to be farmed.

“I know it seems like a lot of the focus was on that, but I feel there was a lot at stake,” says Fels, who adds, “I’m not anticipating these people are going to enjoy being written about, but if they didn’t want the story to come out like this, why did they behave like that? These are intelligent people, but intelligence isn’t always all that it’s about.”

Fels says he regrets that the group of friends, who had come together as young people with good intentions, failed to reconcile their differences.

“I consider it a great loss, both to the people involved over the years, and as kind of a flagship of idealism,” says, Fels, who feels it is a great irony that people let their differences get in the way of that idealism.

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 269.

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