When Stephen Gaskin took a good, hard look in the early 1970s at the San Francisco he loved, he knew he couldn’t stay.
“It was going decadent,” he said years later. “We started seeing guys in long dark overcoats and brimmed hats who were heroin people. We started seeing meth – that was skinny guys sleeping in doorways – you could tell the meth. And we were into natural foods and like that.”
For Gaskin, a Marine who fought in Korea and a former writing instructor at San Francisco State, there was a better way and it had to do with Jesus, Confucius, Zen, peace, love, tofu, the universe, happiness, organic pot, rock ‘n’ roll, and 1,000 acres in backwoods Tennessee.
With some 300 wanderers seeking a vegetarian slice of rural paradise, Gaskin founded The Farm – a community near Summertown, Tenn., that became one of the world’s largest and longest-lived hippie communes – though he hated the term.
“We never let anybody call it a commune because people who live on communes are communist,” he told interviewers for the Journal for the Study of Radicalism in 2010. “We were a collective, which is scary enough for some people.”
Forty-three years after he bought The Farm, Gaskin died on it. He was 79.
His death on Tuesday after a lengthy illness was confirmed by Douglas Stevenson, a longtime resident of The Farm and the author of two books about it.
At its population peak in the late 1970s, about 1,500 people called The Farm home, living in tents, buses and ramshackle houses with as many as 60 people sharing close quarters. There were no rules. However, there were unwritten “agreements” that often began with a nod to their source: “Stephen says …”
No guns. No liquor. No synthetic psychedelics. Don’t work at something you hate but work at something. All for one, one for all, love thy neighbor, and meditate frequently. At Sunday gatherings, Gaskin sermonized about the well-lived life, presided over burials and performed marriages. Unions of two or three couples were not unheard of, and Gaskin was for a time involved in a marriage of six.
It was all part of life in what he called “liberated territory.”
“We have our own school, bank, motor pool, medical clinic and ambulance service,” Gaskin told Mother Earth News in 1977. “We hold all property in common. … There ain’t nothing devious about it: Right upfront, we’re trying to build an alternative culture.”
Purchased for $70 an acre, the fledgling community endured trials that were practically biblical. There was hepatitis from a polluted stream, and hunger during a harsh time that came to be called the “wheatberry winter.” In 1974, Gaskin spent nearly a year in jail for growing marijuana. By 1980, The Farm was more than $600,000 in debt. A few years later, Gaskin’s disillusioned followers stripped him of his leadership.
Older than most residents, he blamed the generation gap.
“I’m not a baby boomer; I’m a beatnik,” he told a reporter. “I honestly liked it better when it was a circus.”
Even so, he was recognized with a 1980 “Right Livelihood” Award – a kind of alternative Nobel Prize presented in the Swedish Parliament – for starting The Farm’s charity branch, Plenty International. The group marshaled volunteers and built 1,200 prefab homes in Guatemala after a 1976 earthquake. It also established an ambulance service in New York’s impoverished South Bronx.
Unlike so many of its hippie-era brethren, The Farm is still alive. With about 175 members, it’s smaller and more consumer-friendly; it hosts group retreats and sells souvenir tote bags at www.thefarm.org. Most residents, who pay The Farm a monthly fee, have jobs elsewhere and, unlike their early counterparts, manage their own money. Businesses on The Farm include a publishing company and a firm that makes radiation detectors used by law enforcement agencies worldwide.
“Homeland Security’s been good to us,” Gaskin told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “We’re high-tech hippies now.”
Born in Denver on Feb. 16, 1935, Gaskin grew up around the Southwest and California, following his father, a cowboy and construction worker, from job to job. He dropped out of high school to join the Marines in 1952.
Drawn to San Francisco after his military service, he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in language arts from San Francisco State University. His teaching job ended in 1967, but for the next three years he packed auditoriums and ballrooms with his “Monday Night Class.” As many as 1,500 “pure hippies,” as The New York Times described them in 1970, would show up for Gaskin’s spiritual insights.
“You can’t define God,” said Gaskin, who had tried to do so in the course of a couple of hundred acid trips. “It’s easier to be God than to see God.”
Taking his class on the road with the blessing of the American Academy of Religion, he traveled to churches in 42 states over four months – as did several hundred supporters in colorfully painted buses, vans and campers. Nine babies were born en route and delivered by a midwife named Ina May Middleton.
In 1976, Gaskin married Middleton, who became nationally known through her 1977 book “Spiritual Midwifery,” which sold more than 600,000 copies. She and other midwives delivered 2,300 babies on The Farm, with many expectant mothers coming from outside the community.
In addition to his wife, Gaskin’s survivors include two daughters, three sons and five grandchildren. Three previous marriages ended in divorce.
In 2000, Gaskin unsuccessfully sought the Green Party’s presidential nomination, losing to Ralph Nader by a wide margin.
He also became a kind of elder statesman for the legalization of marijuana. In 2004, he was inducted into High Times magazine’s Counterculture Hall of Fame. Middleton was inducted four years earlier.
Among the dreams Gaskin never quite realized was a 100-acre retirement community aimed at aging hippies. He called it Rocinante.
“It’s the name of Don Quixote’s horse and John Steinbeck’s pickup truck,” he said, “so it’s a vehicle for an incurable idealist.”