Open Focus: Home’s restoration a tribute to peace activists

  • Wally and Juanita Nelson CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • DAVIS

For the Recorder
Published: 10/8/2019 7:07:11 AM

DEERFIELD — It’s been eight years since anyone’s lived in the small, hand-fashioned wooden house set back off the main road at Woolman Hill.

Visitors to the hidden 110-acre Quaker-owned retreat center would be forgiven if they didn’t know it even existed, much less the significance for so many people around the Pioneer Valley and beyond who felt close to Wally and Juanita Nelson.

The simple three-room cabin, with pine walls and floors and a small ladder-accessible bedroom above the main sitting room, was built by the couple and their friends soon after arriving in 1974 to become central to a grassroots movement opposing war and anything that fed it.

Wally Nelson died in May 2002, and Juanita in March 2015, after leaving the house where they’d lived without electricity or running water in 2011.

Now their house — where they operated The Bean Patch market garden and where the Nelsons helped create the Greenfield Farmers Market, the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, the Valley Community Land Trust and later Greenfield’s Harvest Supper — has been restored for use as a “living memorial” to the African-American couple.

An Oct. 27 open house reception is planned from 3 to 6 p.m. to celebrate the Nelsons and the more than 50 volunteers and contributors who worked this summer and last, replacing roofs, support beams, siding, windows, steps and other parts of the house that had fallen into serious disrepair. In the spirit of the Nelsons themselves, everyone is welcome.

The Nelsons — whose hardworking self-sufficiency, simple living, nonpayment of federal “war taxes” and organic gardening was filled with gracious humility — adamantly opposed any notion of being idolized or having their cabin turned into a shrine or museum, say members of Woolman Hill’s Bean Patch Committee.

The 18-month, all-volunteer effort to restore the cabin parallels the cooperative spirit that built the wood-heated house from scrap materials and later added on a food-storage room, a gravity-fed water system with an upstairs cistern filled each week by volunteers from an outdoor well.

“For many of us, they epitomize walking their talk in a most profound, consistent way,” says project coordinator Randy Kehler, the Colrain peace activist who first invited the Nelsons to come to Massachusetts after meeting them in Ojo Caliente, N.M., in 1972 following his own federal prison sentence for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.

“For Wally and Juanita, nonviolence was a philosophy and a way of living, including nonviolent economics, which meant not paying taxes for war and living very simply on the land,” says Kehler, who was about to begin three years of teaching at a new Woolman Hill alternative high school at the time. “Juanita was adamant she wanted to disconnect from the whole system, which she thought was fundamentally exploitative, wasteful and destructive to the environment. They didn’t want to be a part of it, and tried to distance themselves in every way they could, going further in that direction than any of us knew or even heard of. And they did it with total delight.”

The Nelsons had taken part in the civil rights movement as far back as the 1940s, with Wally participating in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation in 1948, the first interracial “Freedom Ride” ever to take place in the nation. As co-founders of the pacifist group The Peacemakers in 1948, they refused to pay income taxes and went on to help found the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters.

Although the Nelsons weren’t Quakers and moved to the Quaker-owned land during the period through 1978 when it was being rented to the independently run school, they “modeled the Quaker values of simplicity, nonviolence and integrity in an applied way,” says Margaret Cooley, Woolman Hill’s executive director. “They were answering the call that was compelling them to live this way intentionally, aligning themselves with their sense of justice, of humanity.”

Kehler helped raise $9,000 from donors for materials and to recruit 20 volunteers, who were supervised in construction by Scott Nielson, Stan McCumber and Gary Seldon of Greenfield.

“What they had to share was very important to us,” Seldon says. “Their commitment to simple living was their commitment to extracting themselves as much as they could from the war economy. They faced billions of challenging notions of how to respond to the system that are useful for all of us to think about today.”

The couple’s respect for life was key to their every decision, says longtime friend and Bean Patch Committee member Mary Link of Ashfield, including using gas lamps rather than connecting the house to the electric grid.

The restoration should remind Woolman Hill visitors with photos and some of Juanita Nelson’s writing to think deeply about how the couple lived and are “continuing to let their lives speak in a way that can still reach people,” she says.

The Oct. 27 event will include a brief memorial to the Nelsons, but will largely be a way of thanking the volunteers and reminding people of a committed life full of self-reflection, Cooley says.

“It’s not a living memorial to ask what Wally and Juanita do,” she emphasizes. “It’s ‘What are we doing now in our lives?’ It’s applying the way Wally and Juanita lived to how we live our lives. So many of us are caught up in the system in such a deep way that extracting any part of ourselves is huge. Their model is simply saying, ‘This is possible.’”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is richie@richiedavis.net.

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