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History of the Commune

ALthough communes are largely assumed to be a product of the 1960s counterculture and the hippie move out of society, the notion of intential community living has actually enjoyed a long history in the United States. The Encyclopedia of American Communes details countless listings between 1663 and 1963 -- 300 years of some sort of "counterculture" in action. The life of the commune has been not only vibrant, but also unique in many ways to America. "[America's] unspoiled and inexpensive land encouraged social experimentation" from the start. As the nation flourished into a "land of opportunity" and equality, those who wished to live outside of traditional society continued to feel that they could do it here. The commune as an entity went through periods of rise and fall, sometimes fading into the background, powering into the forefront at others. Some communes exuded a sort of staying power, and remained even when mainstream culture forgot that there were those who did not fit the mold. However, in times of upheaval and change, more communities would inevitably flourish, gaining the spotlight from a "society in trouble." 


Historical Commune Photos

An early depiction of a community of Shakers

in the Northeast United States entitled

Life of the Diligent Shaker

In many ways the story of America begins with a story of communes. In Oved's Two Hundred Years of American Communes, readers are quickly introduced to the "independent organization of communities" that drove the founding of a new nation. The 1960s countercultural notion that they could form some kind of agrarian utopia was nothing new. Those very Puritans with their city on a hill, who would have so despised hippie behaviors and practices, at least inspired the purpose. Time and again, from the very first Mennonite experiment in 1663 and Shaker communities of the 1700s to Amos Alcott's Fruitlands in 1843, revolutionary thinkers have sought to create an ideal society. When traditional society failed them, they forged their own way -- Puritans and hippies alike finding new settlements and new freedom. 

Indeed, many other substantial parallels can be drawn between the hippie communes of the 1960s and prior settlements. This makes the history of intentional living not only cohesive, but also thematically strong. Across the centuries, "communitarian living [has] needed a group of idealistically motivated people with a capacity to realize their dreams. We found those people in the religious pilgrims of the 1600s; they surfaced as pacifist idealogues during the turmoil of revolution; again, they organized during the industrialization of the mid 1800s; and in the 1960s, caught between an era of promise and a discontent with traditionalism, they gained further ground. Despite some flaws, in many ways it was the counterculture of every era that "being independent of the old system, carr[ied] the message of a social experiment for all of humanity." 

Historical Commune Photos

Members of the Oneida Commune, an radical utopian community founded in the late 1840s and successful until the 1880s

Historical Commune Photos

This historical marker outside at the boundary of New Harmony, Pennsylvania references the attempts at communal living that took place in this area. Most notable of these was the Harmony Society, founded by George Rapp.

An interesting case study and one that has intrigued academics for decades is that of the Ephrata Commune. This 1700s community was one of America's earliest true countercultures. Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between Ephrata and the hippie communes of the 1960s and 1970s. Amidst the strict religion-state unions of the Puritans and Mennonites, Ephrata was uniquely concerned with older ways and Christian nonresistance. They established the "most substantial expression of mysticism in this country's history." The people of Ephrata were drawn to Pennsylvania because William Penn recruited European dissenters for the state. They strongly refused participation of any sort, viewing themselves as both "apart from and above the state." Even some other communes were too political for the Ephrata idealists. Uninterested in the social norms, these early counterculturalists were "ready for an Awakening," refusing to be "hobbled by a dull, flat, unimaginative view of life." Conrad Beissel, a charismatic and independent German, founded and led the Ephrata Commune. It began as a simple congregation drawn to his powerful personality. As his following grew, so did his need to establish a permanent place and share the message of awakening. What started as a small community, then moved to a simple camp, by 1734 was a full blown commune. 

As Ephrata grew, the divisions between its members (called the Solitary) and traditional society deepened. The Solitary was surrounded on all fronts by the "so-called Householders." Although Beissel and his followers were much more concerned with living their own lives, both separate from and supposedly purer than the life to be found in the dominant culture, they were stigmatized as having dangerous ideals and motives. Such has been the case of countercultures throughout time. Their oftentimes revolutionary ideals come across as threats to many of those men and women entrenched in the social patterns they have always known. One account of Ephrata tells us that "course gossip about 'free love' among the Solitary revived, and settlers warned each other about the danger of their wives being seduced by the mystics." Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and gossip ran rampant about the commune amongst mainstream sociey, in much the same way as it did during the era of the hippie counterculture. Symptoms and backlash from these misunderstandings was great. "Several times Brothers [of Ephrata] were attacked at night and severely beaten. Civil officers were prodded into arresting more of the Solitary... Such attacks were repaid by the Solitary in the only way they knew, charity." Thus it is clear that the societal repercussions for those living in communes are nothing new. The history of both alternative communities and hostility towards them is indeed an extensive one. 

After the example set by Ephrata, many communes flourished in America. The idea to live together, share all things and discover spiritual growth would not die. The early 1800s saw the formation of Darby Plains, Whitwater, and New Harmony. By the 1840s Fruitlands, Congregation of Saints, Brookfarm, and Hopedale, among others, had also formed. Hundreds came together throughout the rest of the century, although most never gained the notoriety of Ephrata or some smaller religious communities. During the 1940s, there was another small explosion of commune building. Communities such as Kirkridge and Deerfield formed and are still around today -- albeit in somewhat altered forms. 

Although an extremely rich history of the commune has above been outlined, one must recognize that this only shows that the 1960s counterculture was not entirely new idea. Despite the history, no previous manifestation had ever come close to its depth and breadth. Never before had the commune so expansively become a part of American culture. Despite being a part of the counterculture, the movement was so widespread that it touched in some way the majority of Americans. Almost everyone knew someone that was dropping out of traditional society. Before the bulk of the communes were settled, however, hippies experimented with group housing. One such home was The Castle, a mansion bought by two brothers in 1965 and shared amongst many friends. "Their home was a stopping place for many creative individuals moving in the Los Angeles artistic scene." Many counterculture celebrities passed through their group home including Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. Bob Dylan, in fact, was a guest for an extended period of time and brought to The Castle much of its notoriety.

The Castle is a sort of symbolic marker for the start of the commune obsession. In Los Angeles at The Castle and other group homes, in San Francisco at the Haight-Ashbury intersection, hippies young and old were beginning to experiment with the social system that wasn't supposed to be a system at all. Indeed, "when the hippies revived the American communal movement during the mid-1960s, their first communes were created within the urban areas in which they already lived." Taking cues from as early as the 1700s and Ephrata, they began to respond in what they thought were new and exciting ways, but which, in reality, were "revolutions" as old as society. Despite deep-seated resistance from many in mainstream culture, they found America a uniquely accomodating location for their "countercultural nonresistance." They responded to the social ills they observed, coming together in a mass movement to drop out of society and moving through three of Dawson and Gettys' four stages of a social movement: social unrest, popular assertion of the ideal, formal organization. Eventually, this formal organization required the movement to go back to the land in order to be viable against the typical urban society. Primarily because of the rich history of the commune and the passion behind the hippies' ideas to return to the earth, the intentional communities of the 1960s were wildly successful -- if only for a time. Although some communes have lasted past the era of the counterculture, the drop out movement as a whole was never able to reach the final stage, lasting organization.