Fifty Years of Communes in America

Twin Oaks fiftieth anniversary was last week.  I didn’t go.

My friend, Aurora, who was there told me that Rudy, one of the Twin Oaks founders, spoke and said that when Twin Oaks was founded (in 1967), they thought a revolution was possible in their lifetime and one of the purposes of Twin Oaks was to show how people could live after the revolution.

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Rudy speaking

Another founder, Kat Kinkade, wrote (in her book, A Walden Two Experiment): “When we first came here we knew nothing of farming or any other way of making a living, other than working for wages in the city.  Some of us had never even done that.  What we did know is what kind of world we wanted to live in.

“…the central idea of the Community has not changed.  We are still after the big dream–a better world, here and now, for as many people as we can manage to support.  More, a new kind of human to live in that world: happy, productive, open-minded people who understand that in the long run, human good is a cooperative and not a competitive sort of thing.”

Dinner on Zk deck.
Dinner at Twin Oaks

And, slowly, the influence of Twin Oaks began to create that kind of world, at least on a communal level.

In 1974, two more communes started.

In a piece in Communities magazine’s most recent issue (Summer, 2017), Laird Schaub wrote about the founding of Sandhill community:  “In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today.  It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment.  It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community, and it changed my life.  …

“Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled.”

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Around the same time, at Twin Oaks, they were having problems with getting more people than they thought they could support.  Kat Kinkade tells the rest of the story in her book, Is It Utopia Yet?

“Twin Oaks closed its doors.  It had as many people as it could comfortably hold.  …

“I would gladly have lived in a tent, eaten in shifts, and built sewage treatment on borrowed money, in order to see Twin Oaks answer the challenge of that supply of potential members.  I saw that lineup at our front door, people people eager to join, possibly hundreds of them but certainly dozens, and my response was a whole-hearted welcome–more than that, an excitement, a sense of grabbing history by the tail, a promise of a future community on a scale approaching Walden Two.

“… The rest of that story is the history of East Wind.  I left Twin Oaks, taking two members and some visitors with me, and we set out to form another community which would be like Twin Oaks in every way except one: we would never close our doors!”

East Wind, like Twin Oaks and Sandhill, continues to this day.  But Kat left East Wind after five years, spent four years working in Boston, and then returned to Twin Oaks.

 

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REIM, one of the original structures at East Wind

In 1993, Twin Oaks was faced with another long waiting list.  Kat Kinkade wrote (again from Is It Utopia Yet?):  “In some ways it feels like 1972 all over again.  The big difference is that this time I’m not alone in feeling the urgency of the problem. …

“The only politically practical solution I could see was to start another community, the same conclusion that had, years ago, resulted in the founding of East Wind. …

“It took eight months to accomplish this.  Two other communitarians, Gordon and Ira, joined me in an informal committee to get the new group off the ground.

“… Gordon’s untiring research eventually netted us a rundown but potentially beautiful farm about seven miles from Twin Oaks.  Thanks to Ira’s efforts, Twin Oaks consented to let the potential members have two gatherings…

“Acorn Community was founded April 1, 1993…”

Acorn Land
Acorn land

 

I’ve quoted a lot from Kat Kinkade, and she might have exaggerated her importance in the founding of all these communities, but it seems clear that Twin Oaks directly influenced East Wind and Acorn, and indirectly Sandhill.

When I was at Acorn, I found out things did not go smoothly from the founding.  Apparently, at one point they were down to six members and later went down to two members.  (Acorn currently has almost thirty members and is thriving.) When I asked someone who had been a long time member at both Twin Oaks and Acorn how Acorn had survived, I was told: “Two things: Ira and Twin Oaks.”  Ira Wallace is amazing and determined, but Twin Oaks, having been instrumental in founding Acorn, was not going to let it die.

There are now three newer communes near Twin Oaks and Acorn and, although each of them has been struggling at times, I feel confident that they will make it, because they all have the support of both Twin Oaks and Acorn.

Not all communities make it.  Two of the newer communities that were featured this past year in Commune Life haven’t succeeded.  Quercus is gone and Sycamore Farm is no longer in southern Virginia.  The founders of both of these communities have told me that they’d be interested in writing the story of what happened, when they get time.  (A line that I’ve heard from many busy communards.)

Then there was the Dandelion community in Kingston, Ontario, which was influenced by Twin Oaks, and founded in the 1970s and disbanded around 1990.  I would love to have the story of what happened there.  Nevertheless, Commune Life has been able to have pieces on two current Canadian income sharing communities, The Common Unity Project and le Manoir.

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Photo from Dandelion Community

And there are a bunch of new income sharing communities in the US.

There’s Oran Mór, which is near East Wind in southern Missouri, and the Stillwater Sanctuary/Possibility Alliance, near Sandhill Farm in northern Missouri.  And there is Compersia, in Washington, DC, which just celebrated its one year anniversary in March.  It is the first community spun out of Point A, which is a project that was founded by some Acorn and Twin Oaks members.

And all this traces back to the founding of Twin Oaks, fifty years ago.  Yes, there is a longer, wider world communal history, which the folks at las Indias sent us some of.  And, yes, there were income sharing communities in the US long before Twin Oaks.  (Though, sadly, Oneida and Amana have been gone for many years.)

But Twin Oaks is now fifty, has a hundred members, and is going strong.  For the people who question whether another world is truly possible, I say, “Yes. Look at Twin Oaks.”

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Twin Oaks fiftieth anniversary photo

 

 

Fifty Years of Communes in America

Allowance versus Box of Money

There are not very many places that do secular income sharing.  But those that do come in two broad flavors.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about income sharing, these two different approaches are sometimes given the shorthand “Box of Money” and “Allowance”.

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All full income sharing systems are in agreement about communalizing the vast majority of expenses:  Medical expenses, food, housing, clothing, education, transportation, costs connected with children, pets, various emergencies – these are all covered.  Everything that falls solidly onto the “needs” side of the sometimes vague needs vs wants divide is covered. It is the small things and the things at the needs/wants margin where we struggle.

Should i be paying for your beer (especially when i don’t drink)?  Should i be paying for your vacation to the beach?  At Twin Oaks we have “solved” this problem by giving our members an allowance which is typically around $100 per month.  You want to smoke cigarettes, you can have up to a $100 habit.  You have to be at the premier of the latest Marvel superhero movie, that is your discretionary call.  By giving people allowances, the commune avoids having to agree on a whole bunch of small, and oft divisive issues.

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The more radical solution is the infamous “box of money”.  In a number of European communes, including some of the larger ones, there is a physical box of money and when you need some, you go take it.  Sometimes you need to write down what you took it for, in other places there is less concern about this.  But if you are using this approach, you are agreeing to have whatever conversations and consensus is necessary for everyone to trust each other enough to let them spend the money they need to spend to live the life they want to lead.

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In the US, the existing “box of money” communes are smaller.  Compersia in DC, Sandhill in Missouri.  Allowance based communes include Twin Oaks, East Wind and Acorn, the largest three members of the FEC.  Although Acorn, with its anarchist orientation, straddles the boundary by empowering any member to spend up to $50 on anything for the community that they think is a good deal.  In the three years i lived there i did not hear anyone complain at a meeting that someone had misused this privilege.

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Some of the trade offs between the “allowance” and “box of money” systems are obvious, but many we are still exploring. We know that using an “allowance” system makes room for differences of opinion to exist without being resolved or even seriously addressed. Is that a good thing because it saves time and preserves privacy or a bad thing because it doesn’t drive us towards mutual understanding and critical reflection? We know that using “box of money” system allows for a greater diversity of spending patterns and priorities among members. Is that a good thing because it more easily makes room for people from diverse backgrounds and in diverse situations or a bad thing because it doesn’t drive us always back into the communal economy, looking for ways to meet our needs with each other rather than with money? As more examples are created here in the States and as we build better bridges of communication across the Atlantic our understanding of the dynamics of egalitarian, cooperative economies can only flourish.

Allowance versus Box of Money

A Cornucopia of Communes

Pictures of most of the communities featured in Commune Life over the last year.  (All communes are in US states unless otherwise noted.)

Acorn, Mineral, VA:

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Baltimore Free Farm, Baltimore, MD:

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Cambia, Louisa, VA:

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Compersia, Washington, DC:

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East Wind, Tecumseh, MO:

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las Indias, Madrid, Spain:

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Living Energy Farm, Louisa, VA:

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Oran MórSquires, MO:

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Quercus (disbanded), Richmond, VA:

Porch music jam on our snazy palette-finished porch

Rainforest Lab, Forks, WA:

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Sandhill Farm, Rutledge, MO:

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Sycamore Farm, Arcadia, VA:

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The Common Unity Project (TCUP),  Gitxsan Territory, Hazelton, BC (Canada):

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Twin Oaks, Louisa, VA:

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A Cornucopia of Communes

A Brief Communal History

by Raven

When I was in eighth grade (it was probably 1965), one of the nuns teaching us declared that the Apostles were the first communists.  I doubt (as I’ll show) they were the first, but it seems that they really did try to live communally.  From Acts of the Apostles (4:32,34-35): “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. … Nor was there anyone among them that lacked, for all who were possessors of land or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the feet of apostles’ feet; and they were distributed to each as anyone had need.” (Gideons International, New King James Version)  It sounds pretty communal to me.

However, Marx and Engles reference hunter-gatherer tribes as Primitive Communism, citing Lewis Henry Morgan’s discussion of the communal living arrangements of the Haudenosaunee (or ‘Five Nations’ also called the Iroquois).  Wikipedia points out that “Egalitarian and communist-like hunter gatherer societies have been studied and described by many well-known social anthropologists including James Woodburn, Richard Lee, Alan Barnard and, more recently, Jerome Lewis.”  Human beings are tribal animals.  I’ve written about this on my personal blog.  I think that communal living is an attempt to recreate tribal societies, where everyone shared what they had.

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The grounds of the Oneida Community

The nineteenth century was filled with attempts at creating “Utopian Communities” and many of them were rather communal.  The Oneida Community (according to Wikipedia) “…practiced communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions)…”  It lasted thirty-one years (from 1848 to 1879).  The Amana Colonies were founded in 1856 and (again according to Wikipedia) “They lived a communal life until the mid-1930s.”  Wikipedia also notes, “The Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres (105 km²) of farm, pasture and forest land. … Because the land was not divided up with the end of communalism, the landscape of Amana still reflects its communal heritage.”

Las Indias has given us a bit of communal history in their essay on “Communal Postcards“, starting with Fourierism and going onto the early Kibbutz movement.

The Bruderhof  is a group of Christian communities, founded in 1920, in Germany, and currently comprised of “more than 2,700 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents.” They take biblical sharing very seriously.  “…at the Bruderhof, we believe that sharing our lives and finances in Christian community is the answer to all that is wrong with society today. Here we are building a life where there are no rich or poor. Where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs, and everyone can contribute.”

In the US, a second wave of communalism occurred with the commune movement of the nineteen sixties and seventies.  (Probably starting just about the time that that nun was pointing out apostolic communism.)  While many of these attempts were communes in name only and most of them are long gone, at least four of them are around in one form or another.

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The Oneida residence at Twin Oaks

Twin Oaks was founded in 1967 and turns fifty this year. They have been sharing income since their beginning. Unlike many of the communes of the sixties, it is around and going strong.  The Farm, in Tennesee, was founded in 1971.  While at its beginning “…Farm members took vows of poverty and owned no personal possessions other than clothing and tools…”, this changed.  “In 1983, due to financial difficulties … the Farm changed its residential community agreement and began requiring members to support themselves with their own income rather than to donate all income to The Foundation central corporation. This decollectivization was called the Changeover, or the Exodus.” (Quotes from Wikipedia.)  While The Farm is still around, it is no longer communal.  East Wind community was founded in 1973 by some folks from Twin Oaks.  As they say on their website: “We hold our land, labor, and resources in common.” It continues strong and communal.  And, finally, there’s Sandhill Farm, a small community founded in 1974, where they are still farming and living communally. (Here’s a brief history of Sandhill.)

And communes (income sharing communities) are still being formed.  Compersia, a new commune in Washington, DC, just had its first birthday.  Communal history is old, at least if you believe that tribal societies were communal, but it is still being written.  You can read the latest dispatches from those living communally on this blog.

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A scene from Compersia
A Brief Communal History

Sandhill Farm

from MoonRaven’s Social Alchemy Blog, Saturday, June 8, 2013

There once was a small village in northeast Missouri called Sandhill.  In the 1960s it disappeared as it was incorporated in the town of Rutledge.  In the 1970s, four people (two couples) were searching for land to start a commune and purchased a plot in Rutledge very near the Sandhill Cemetery (which is still there).  They named the place Sandhill Farm.

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It’s still there nearly forty years later.  On Tuesday night last week, there was a ‘tri-community’ dinner at Sandhill Farm and along with that, we visitors to Dancing Rabbit, got a tour of the Sandhill community.  Of the three communities here in Rutledge, this is the only one that’s an income sharing community.  Unlike Twin Oaks or Acorn, it sounds like the income sharing procedure at Sandhill is rather informal.

Sandhill makes its income on what our tour guide called ‘value-added products’.   He mentioned honey and salsa and other products like that but their biggest money maker is sorghum–which is used to make Sorghum Syrup, a natural sweetener popular in the midwest.  They produce about 800 gallons of the syrup a year  and sell it in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The Sandhill community has never gotten very large.  They currently have around six adults (and one child) and have had at most twelve adult members.  They also (like the other two communities here) have a bunch of interns and work exchangers.  Sandhill also participates in a lot of interactions with Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth Farms.  To give one small example, there are a bunch of maple trees at Dancing Rabbit and last year someone tapped some of them and collected the sap.  Since there wasn’t a facility at DR to boil it down, they brought it to Sandhill which has a ‘sugar shack’ which they use mainly for the sorghum, but they also boil down maple syrup.  Sandhill was glad to boil the syrup down for DR (and they got paid in a small amount of the maple syrup).

A bigger example is that the very reason Dancing Rabbit is in Rutledge is because Sandhill was here.  It’s fascinating to watch the interactions of the three communities and see how much they depend on each other. There’s another way of living going on in Rutledge, MO, and Louisa County, VA.

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Quote of the Day: “We envision Sandhill Farm as a stable, progressive, fluid and vibrant community thriving in abundance. We prioritize building and maintaining the health of our members, systems and facilities. We hope to integrate more alternative energy, natural building, empowered health care and self sufficiency in our lives. Sandhill Farm, in cooperation with our friends and neighbors, will continue to expand and network a culture
of sustainable living in northeastern Missouri.” – Sandhill’s Vision Statement

 

New add note from the author:  For a more complete history of Sandhill, check out Laird’s post on this blog: 40 Years in the Wilderness

 

 

Sandhill Farm

40 Years in the Wilderness

by Laird Schaub, excerpted from his post on Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus, Friday, May 2, 2014

Tomorrow, Sandhill will celebrate it’s 40th anniversary. While not quite a feat of biblical proportions, it’s still a big deal.

The phrase “40 years in the wilderness” comes from the book of Numbers (while that seems an odd name for a chapter in the Good Book, think of it as a precursor to Sesame Street, “Today’s religious story, boys and girls, is brought to you by the number 40… “), and recounts the wanderings of the Israelites after Charlton Heston led them in their just-in-time escape from Egypt (remember the cool trick with the Red Sea where he washed away pharaoh’s army?).

 Moses

After peregrinating at length (enough to conduct the Olympics 10 times) and surviving a series of single elimination competitions with unhappy landowners whose property they’d drifted onto, the wandering Jews* finally settled in Canaan, the Promised Land. Now that’s taking the long view.

* [Not to be confused with ornamental spiderworts, or the apocryphal dude who is reputed to have taunted Jesus en route to the cross and was cursed to traverse the world without respite until the Second Coming.]

Sandhill’s story is a little different. We’ve actually been on the same piece of land the entire time, and our work has been to transform it into our version of Canaan—something we promised ourselves we’d attempt to do. The wilderness in our case has been mainstream society, with its competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial dynamics. Most Sandhillians had been wandering through that desert for decades before accreting in little regarded northeast Missouri to terraform cooperative culture.

Against long odds, we’ve pretty much succeeded. And that’s what we’re celebrating tomorrow (along with Beltane), cheered on by 75-100 of our closest friends.

Today—on anniversary eve—it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on some of Sandhill’s major markers along the way. While the selections are somewhat arbitrary, bear with me.

1975—We lost two of the original four members, and it dawned on Annie and me that we’d have to open up our group to people we didn’t already know if we were going to survive. Though that seems normal today, that was a disillusioning shock at the time. In fact, no one we knew from outside of Sandhill ever joined the community. All of our growth came from visitors attracted by the dream and our description in Communities Directory.

1977—We started making sorghum. After two year’s of apprenticing with Jo Pearl & Eva Grover (septuagenarians who lived about 10 miles north of us), we bought our own mill, had stainless steel pans custom made, and started cooking Sandhill sorghum—something we’re still doing 37 years later. That first year we sold a quart for $2.50 and a gallon for $9. Today we offer quarts of unadulterated sweetness at the bargain price of $12 (and you can order it online).

1979 —In December we completed the paperwork to become officially recognized by the state of Missouri as Sandhill Farm, Inc. Even though we were only three people at the time (Ann Shrader, Tim Jost, and me) it became apparent that we needed the group to own the land instead of Laird & Ann.

1980 —Stan Hildebrand joined us, marking the first time we had a bona fide farmer in our number, and we gelled into a group of five that was stable for five years. During that stretch the only turnover we experienced was one person leaving for Twin Oaks (Thea Page), and another from Twin Oaks joining us (Clarissa Gyorgy). Reaching this level of grounded coherence was crucial for us a fledgling group. Up until then it was never quite clear if we were going to last.

Also that year, Sandhill joined the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a network of secular, income-sharing communities that we’re still associated with today.

1981—Ceilee was born to Annie and me. He was the first child at Sandhill, and I caught him myself in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold, sunny morning in late January. He became the first kid born at an FEC community that was raised there until he left for college.

1991—Sandhill representatives went on local radio to speak against the first Gulf War. This was a highly unpopular thing to do and tested our local relations (would we get a brick through the window?) even though we were being true to our pacifist ideals. Fortunately our 17 years of careful spadework building personal connections in the local community proved strong enough to withstand the strain, and no bad thing happened. Whew.

1995—Stan became trained as an organic inspector, starting down a path that has defined much of his last two decades and created an income stream that developed into the linchpin of the community’s finances. It has turned out that inspecting farms pays much better than farming.

1997—Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away. Attracted by affordable property values, minimal zoning, and neighbors who wanted them, the founding group took over the old Petitjean place. Today Dancing Rabbit is by far the larger and better-known group, strengthening immeasurably the foundation for our beachhead of cooperative culture. Today our combined population (counting Sandhill, Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth, and the outliers living in Rutledge who want to be near us) approaches 100 and we almost certainly have the largest number of communitarians as a percentage of registered voters of any county in the US—somewhere in the vicinity of three percent.

1998—We began experimenting with having summer interns. Today it’s automatic that we interview interns to join us during the growing season (April-October), and they are a well-integrated part of our life, but it all began with Lindsey Jones from Berkeley 18 years ago.

 2001—This was the year of too many interns. After a few years of stellar results, we figured if a little was good then perhaps a lot would be great. We were wrong. After being inundated by the dynamics of trying to manage eight at once, we learned to keep the number of interns lower than that of the members. Today our rule of thumb is no more than three at a time, which is far easier to integrate into the flow of life on the farm.

2005—Red Earth Farms was launched on 76 acres adjoining Dancing Rabbit. Now we were the tri-communities. Today REF has close to 20 members and Sandhill, while still the oldest community, is now the smallest of the three.

2013—We started construction on a high tunnel greenhouse to expand our growing season on a commercial scale. This represented a deepening of our agricultural commitment, and was an initiative of the younger generation of members—the folks who are taking over from Stan and me.

40 Years in the Wilderness