Far Out – The ‘other’ commune   (2008)

  • The farm

  • The farm house.

Published: 8/19/2016 7:46:59 PM

--- Far Out! The 'Other' Commune (Aug. 23, 2008)

The Renaissance Community story has been told again and again, but the history of the Montague Farm and the communes of Wendell and nearby Guilford, Vt. fascinate me as well. And the 40th anniversary of their founding seemed a perfect time to explore and share them.  

 

'Well, I think we ought to move the news service to a farm, somewhere in the hills, Canada perhaps. A place where people can begin to think clearly, a place to get all those city poisons out of their systems.' - Liberation News Service Co-Founder Marshall Bloom, July 1968

One evening, 40 years ago, New York's Fillmore East filled for a preview showing of "Yellow Submarine" to benefit Liberation News Service. Meanwhile, in Franklin County, movie audiences watched "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Tammy and the Bachelor."

What the New York crowd didn't realize was that the benefit was a pretext: the radical news service's founders planned to use the money raised to move their operation -- lock, stock and printing presses -- to a 60-acre farm they'd secretly bought 3 hours away in Montague, Mass.

That Aug. 11, 1968 "heist" -- the contents of LNS offices were already loaded into a rental truck -- was the birth of the Montague Farm. The commune off North Leverett Road would soon became a pivotal outpost in that era's push to get "back to the land" and became a pioneer in organic agriculture. It also ushered in the grass-roots anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s, in response to Northeast Utilities' plan to build twin reactors on the Montague Plains.

The Greenfield Recorder had been running front-page stories about the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's naming of Spiro Agnew as his vice-presidential running mate at the San Diego GOP Convention. But that Aug. 13, readers also read about the battle that ensued in Montague when the LNS's New York contingent realized their presses and goods had been taken, along with $11,000 in cash.

The explosion of headlines that followed in what had been quiet Franklin County reflected tensions that had been building during the increasingly radical 1960s.

Marshall Bloom, the former editor of The Amherst Student newspaper at Amherst College, and Ray Mungo, the editor of the Boston University News, founded LNS in 1966 to report on the political battles at the time. Bloom was a veteran of the civil rights struggle in Selma, Ala., earlier in the decade. He'd helped lead a walkout of the 1966 commencement speech by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at Amherst, then gotten thrown out of the London School of Economics and had his election to the American Student Press Association presidency rescinded after protesting the group's CIA funding. He'd enlisted Mungo's help setting up the press service to feed as many as 400 alternative papers around the country.

"The service supplies New Left, hippie and student papers with bits and pieces of news that may have been overlooked or misinterpreted' by daily newspapers and magazines," Time magazine reported in March 1968.

Over the next several months, as the nation recoiled from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and braced for confrontations at the Chicago Democratic convention, LNS moved its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to New York. Its own internal struggles reflected the fractious political climate of the times.

Bloom, Mungo and others who considered themselves the "virtuous caucus" were ready to leave behind the "vulgar Marxists" in New York, who'd been rolling over them to make LNS a house organ for the more radical Students for a Democratic Society.

The founders were ready to literally head for the hills for a quieter, more bucolic setting.

"The liberation we tried to force on the world became secondary to the liberation in our own lives," wrote Mungo years later.

Mungo and a group of friends from Boston University, including that college newspaper's former poetry editor, Verandah Porche, had already made their move to a homestead they called Total Loss Farm, just over the Leyden line in Guilford, Vt.

Battle lines

"Liberation News Rocked by Strife," reported The New York Times.

"An internal dispute at Liberation News Service, the left-wing news agency underground' and radical papers, broke into the open yesterday with charges of theft, embezzlement and kidnapping."

Bloom and his friends were charged by LNS staff of taking "virtually everything we had, including a $4,000 offset press, typewriters, files to the Montague farm Bloom had bought using $5,000 in embezzled LNS money," the Times reported.

Armed with baseball bats and with friends who were members of The Children of God rock band and other toughs, the New York contingent beat up Bloom, Mungo and others in the Montague farmhouse through the night. (The night of the post-heist battle, Mungo and Porche had driven down to Montague to welcome Bloom and the others to country living.)

"There were suddenly five of us sitting on the bare floor surrounded by twice that number of armed Marxists," Mungo wrote in his 1970 book, "Famous Long Ago." "Meanwhile, a thorough search-and-destroy mission was sweeping the house and barn. Somebody whom I did not recognize was dismantling the telephone Chairs were overturned, furniture smashed, windows kicked in by zealous boots, items and artifacts were scooped up Three or four guys began to belt (Bloom) across the face, in the stomach, in the groin, while the rest of us watched from our little cell."

The confrontation continued on until morning, with Porche and a member of the black rock band at one point singing "Amazing Grace." The whole night was laced with "a lot of theatrics," recalls Porche.

"One of the very important themes, in addition to ideological purity, was a kind of adventurism aimed at gaining credibility from black people," recalls Porche, who still lives in Guilford. "A critique that black leaders had, which was entirely correct, was that these white folks could get a haircut and make up with their parents and go home. So an important article of faith would be to commit violent acts to show that you couldn't go home either. It was a very long night."

'Walking in wonder'

"I'd never been on a farm before," said founding member Harvey Wasserman, who had written for Liberation News Service from Chicago at the request of his boyhood friend Bloom. "We fell in love with the soil, with farming. It was a lot of work, but it was wonderful work. We were walking in wonder. For a lot of us who'd grown up in the cities and suburbs, we were completely blown away by how beautiful it was, continually, on a day-to-day basis. That was a big part of our (later) opposition to the (proposed Montague Plains) nuclear reactor, that that lump of pure ugliness was going to impose itself on this beautiful town was inconceivable.''

"The phenomenon of this whole movement was the connection to nature," recalls Richard Wizansky, an original founder of the Guilford commune, who visited Montague frequently. "We all felt the gift of being here and the knowledge that here were a bunch of city folks living in nature. We could just look at the trees, and not have neighbors, and be in the healing bosom of the natural world. That was the lesson of the commune, I think: having to live by nature and living in nature."The sense of wonder, though, gave way to the struggle that living in nature would mean for people who'd grown up in cities or suburbia.

Bloom and his friends had bought the Chestnut Hill farm while dedicated to continuing LNS. Then, reality set in: winter was coming, and they were hundreds of miles from the news sources that had been right out the door in New York and Washington. Their only easy contact to the outside world in Montague was the telephone and they needed income to pay the bills while also getting wood ready for winter and figuring out how to farm.

"A lot of dawnings happened that winter," recalls Sam Lovejoy, an Amherst College friend of Bloom's who moved to the farm a year after the commune started up. "We got to figure out how to feed ourselves and support ourselves."

In "What the Trees Said," his 1971 book about "life on a new-age farm," commune co-founder Steve Diamond wrote,

"The main reason I wanted to stop printing Liberation News Service mailings was this: We simply didn't have anything more to say, other than perhaps get some land, get your people together and see what happens. You see, one thing that we really hadn't considered when we planned to move to the country was the effect such a change would render unto our heads. We'd assumed it would be merely a geographic change. Who could have foreseen that our minds would be blown in the process?"

After several more months, the Montague-based LNS service ended that November when the ink in the press froze in the unheated barn. (LNS continued in New York into the next year, led by a crew that included Allen Young, who would go on to become an editor in Athol.)

Help came from Lovejoy, who'd grown up in Wilbraham. He showed the others how to get farm equipment and get it to run. And inspiration came from women commune members who gravitated toward organic agriculture.

Montague Farm began growing cucumbers on a 10-acre patch of south-facing hillside that provided ideal conditions for organic practices. It was even visited by Robert Rodale Jr., who wrote in "Organic Gardening" about "America's new peasantry" in Montague. Bloom would drive a burlap bag of cucumbers to Oxford Pickle's Deerfield plant in his two-seat Triumph sedan to sell for $25 a ton, remembers one former member.

At first, people came from around Franklin County to gawk at these long-haired strangers who looked just like the hippies TV and the national media was depicting as being consumed by "drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll."

At first, locals would drive by the farm to gawk at the hippies and leer at the bra-less women, recalls Keller. Yankee tolerance provided a laconic welcome for the new generation of workers.

"We were like a foreign body plunked down there," recalls Tom Fels, who moved to Montague in his last year at Amherst College and now helps maintain a 1960s-era archive housed at the University of Massachusetts library. "We might have been a tribe of Africans, or Eskimos -- something that was totally different. We were bringing this urban counter-cultural energy to a place that hadn't seen it."

While there were plenty of young people experimenting with drugs and the sexual freedom of the times, they were also trying to connect with the environment and push for political change.

"We were very much experimenting with everything social, with everything political, with everything personal," recalls Susan Mareneck, a Smith College graduate who moved to the farm with her Amherst alumnus husband later in 1968. "We were inventing these lives, not like our parents had led, or led us to believe our lives should be."

Mareneck, who'd grown up in suburban Chicago, said, "Trying to figure out how to live in rural New England was such an education. Until I came to western New England, I never knew there was a white culture in America. In suburbia, I didn't have any connection to people's ethnicity, traditions or ways of living."

She and other commune members tapped into the rhythm of the deeper community, connecting with old timers like Jacob Perkins, who made butter and lived in a house that "smelled like cream and milk." Other neighbors, like Woody Brown, Stanley Podlenski and Charlie Hepburn, befriended the new arrivals despite frequent run-ins from town officials and spying missions by FBI agents, who had been doing surveillance on LNS ever since its Washington days.

"We were rebelling against the status quo, going back to the land and publishing alternative newspapers, but in our hearts, I think we were trying to be good citizens," Mareneck said.

Toward that end, Lovejoy, Mareneck and other members encouraged their friends to reach out to townsfolk more, even setting up a food concession at the Montague Inn for a while.

The arrival of these new-age farmers eager to work the land coincided perfectly with the increasing numbers of aging locals who were watching their own offspring wander off the family farms.

Diamond, who died in 2006, wrote:

"Almost all of Chestnut Hill was settled by the Ripley family, who built this great house and several others around here. But the children and their children moved away, and the farm, the house and the 60-acre piece of land were sold after Lucian Ripley, who lived here all alone, died of a stroke. The children went to the cities in search of homes heated at the flick of a switch, looking for a middle class security that their farmer parents were never quite able to guarantee. And we, who are the children of the secure, find ourselves reclaiming that land, desirous of the poverty that keeps us free."

Lucian Ripley's brother Rob, who had sold off to the commune the Montague farm he'd been raised on, continued to live on his own place next door.

"He saw we were renovating it and were interested in his strawberry patch and his rhubarb," recalls Nina Keller, who moved to the Montague farm from one in Vermont and eventually went on to a spin-off commune in Wendell, where she now lives. "We were his sugaring crew. We were champing at the bit to be with him and soak up his Yankee knowledge, and his experience."

Rob Ripley, who had sugared with horses until five years before Bloom and company arrived, told The Recorder in a 1991 interview, "I got along with them fine. They used to help me with sugaring for 10 or 15 years. It was the only help I had."

'Energized and focused'

Bloom struggled with manic depression, as well as the stresses of being a closeted homosexual at a sexually liberating time when gay culture was just beginning to surface. He committed suicide in the fall of 1969, a blow to friends of the 25-year-old inspirational community co-founder.

Members arrived and left, their focus on farming and making a simple living in their rural outpost. Some, like Lovejoy, painted houses or worked at jobs at area day-care centers or sold vegetables.

Then, in 1973, Northeast Utilities announced plans to build twin nuclear reactors on the Montague Plains, where the town had recently pushed back an effort by the Boston & Maine railroad to build a dump for Eastern Massachusetts garbage. "Don't Upset Montague's Plains," read the bumper stickers, which newly arriving commune members mistook to reflect an environmental movement rather than native community pride, recalls Lovejoy.

Lovejoy, who was 27 at the time, first saw the 500--foot-tall weather-data tower he would later topple while being driven up Route 47 from Sunderland after a visit to the West Coast in early 1964.

"I remember my first words were, "Somebody's going to knock that down."

Lovejoy had been a physics and math major at Amherst College before switching to political science.

"That was half the reason the nuke didn't bother me," he says looking back on his pre-Montague days. "I had just never looked at the negatives."

From the moment that commune members heard about plans for the reactors, they were incensed -- as though the political foes from their urban LNS days had followed them to their rural doorstep.

"It immediately energized and focused us," said Wasserman. "There never was a doubt. From the instant I saw the photograph (a rendering of the plant) in The Recorder, I knew we were going to fight it, and win."

Earlier, Wasserman remembers being a supporter of nuclear power as a "technical fix" to the nation's energy crisis that had reared its head in 1973.

Anna Gyorgy, who had moved to Montague from New York in 1971 for a decade??, remembers reading about the planned reactor the same week she discovered John Goffman's "Poison Power." She brought it home so she could read up on a subject she knew nothing about and discuss it with others around the dinner table.

"It was a new family project," says Gyorgy, who went on to write her own 1979 book, "No Nukes: Everyone's Guide to Nuclear Power," and then head Ralph Nader's Critical Mass Energy Project. "Our focus had been to stay alive and keep this communal thing going. I'd been there three years. We were quite rooted there and felt really secure in our work and the need to protect our community from that threat."

Lovejoy walked onto the Montague Plains the morning of Feb. 22, 1974, and removed the tower's guy wires to topple it. Then, he turned himself into police.

"I thought people would say, Wow, he turned himself in.' So many people got hung up on the fact I'd destroyed property, I thought my (police) statement had sort of cured that problem. People were hung up on property; We were willing to share our property, so we didn't look on it as anything."

Lovejoy, charged with malicious destruction of personal property, defended himself in Franklin County Superior Court, winning on a technicality.

His Washington's Birthday act of civil disobedience -- documented in "Lovejoy's Nuclear War" a Green Mountain Post film made by Light and Dan Keller -- was the chop heard round the world. It led to a chilling of relations between commune members and townspeople, but also to a campaign to educate people in the area about the dangers of nuclear power.

(Light and Keller are working on a documentary, "Far Out: Life on and After the Commune," about Montague and Packer Corner.)

The opposition spearheaded by the Montague Farm became a rallying point that helped give birth to a national anti-nuclear movement.

Locally it included political mobilization, with Gyorgy running for selectman and Keller and Lovejoy running for town meeting member seats on the No (Nuclear Opposition) Party ticket.

Farm members also set up the Alternative Energy Coalition, with offices in Turners Falls and then Greenfield, inspiring the Clamshell Alliance to fight the planned reactor in Seabrook, N.H.

Many of those Seabrook activists came from, or wound up in, the area around Montague.

'A very real family'

Four decades after its founding, the effects of the Montague Farm are still felt by those who lived there, and in the community. In 2005, it was sold to become a spiritual center run by the nonprofit Zen Peacemakers Community to carry on many of the commune's original values. The hand-written sign, "Better active today than radioactive tomorrow" is still there on the barn, which is spruced up beyond any commune member's wildest '60s hallucination.

Some farm members have died; others have moved elsewhere. Still others, like Lovejoy, the Kellers and Tony Matthews in Gill, have become active in municipal affairs.

Less than a mile away from the farm, where North Leverett has also become home to two Buddhist temples, Mareneck still lives in the home that once served as the commune's overflow annex.

Commune members didn't just learn from blacksmith Joe Eberlein, who worked down the road, or from neighbors like Verne and Katy Aiken, recalls Mareneck. "We also learned from our time together. Those people are still my family in the world, a very real family. That experience really altered our lives for many of us. Many of our lives have been devoted to bringing a different consciousness about living to whatever it is we did. I think we're applying to the world some of the lessons we all learned there."

Those lessons, she adds, were about the importance of interdependent community relationships.

"That's especially important as we're jettisoned into this age, as I've found working with my church and nonprofits in New York," says Marenec, who volunteers to work on prison reform there. "Can we really do it if not all together? If we do it, without being together, what will we have accomplished? We can't be OK if everybody isn't OK."

If Bloom and his Liberation New Service friends were able to feel at home here because of a tradition of tolerance and a streak of Daniel Shays-style independence, "it's a mutually reinforcing situation," says Nina Keller, who remains at 62 an active organic gardener at the Wendell farm. She's also a vocal opponent of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. "There's been great political continuity, and it's still moving on."

Her 60-year-old husband, Dan, believes the Montague Farm "brought a level of awareness of nuclear (power) that changed the town forever. LNS opened the community up to lot of different waves of thought that weren't topics for discussion. Having the radical perspective that was being promulgated on Chestnut Hill opened the eyes of people in Franklin County to the problems of the war and the nuclear thing and to organic gardening."

Lovejoy, who at 62, lives on Main Street in Montague Center and has served as a selectman and even as a regional planning board chairman, believes Montague Farm provided a "lightning bolt of idealism" for the town.

"And there's nothing better than to have a little idealism show up," he says. "A lot of issues that we believed in and people thought might be slightly crazy, or at least slightly impractical, came to be. They're now mainstream. America has changed; this community has changed. In many ways they've caught up with us. But in many ways, we had a lot to learn from them, so we had to catch up to the community."

Gyorgy, now 61, who came to Montague from a master's program at Barnard College that "had no relationship to ecology, said, "What appealed to me was living your values without having money as the main concern."

Gyorgy, who now lives in Bonn, Germany, and does organizing around issues of women and ecology, adds, "Here we were really wanting to put our principles into practice. In terms of a new-age family, I think we did it."

Wasserman, the 62-year-old boyhood friend of Montague Farm co-founder Bloom, has written five books on politics and lives in Columbus, Ohio. "Throughout every minute of the 14 years I was at Montague, I was aware it was an incredibly special experience, both personally and historically, that it was a shining moment for all of us that would have a lasting impact on the world," he said.

"And it did, because it continues. Because it shows what's possible."

– RICHIE DAVIS


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