Stephen Gaskin, founder of The Farm, dies at 79
Noah's note: Marine Stephen Gaskin and I were in the same First Marine Division, during the Korean War. Gaskin later bought land near my birth place in Summertown, Tennessee and named it "The Farm."
More than four decades ago, Mr. Gaskin "an ex-combat marine with crystalline blue eyes " led a caravan of nonconformists across the country, taking his band of beatnik brethren deep into the Tennessee woods and establishing what would become The Farm, one of the country's oldest surviving communes.
It was the vision of a man who spoke with pride about the lineage of freethinkers from which he came.
Related: Historical timeline of The Farm in Summertown
In his home, months before his death, Mr. Gaskin rose from his seat at an ornately carved table made of New Mexico white pine, a piece created by the generation before him that stood as a centerpiece in the kitchen his Tennessee home on The Farm.
"Come here," Mr. Gaskin beckoned, a playful eagerness in his eyes, "I want to show you something."
He walked to a sepia-hued photo and gleamed at its smiling subjects. On the right stood his great grandfather, a U.S. Marshal in the Oklahoma Indian territory whose thick mustache is befitting the law men in old Westerns. Born in 1850 he was a drummer-boy in the Union home guard in the Civil War.
"He was also a freethinker and a student of the world's religions," Mr. Gaskin said.
On the left was his grandfather, in the middle his young mother holding Stephen, a toddler who is not much more than 1.
Four generations of free thinkers who once played dominos together in Texas, he said.
Just four of many family members who embraced open thought.
Mr. Gaskin's grandmother, who drove a covered wagon from Tennessee to Texas, was a freethinker and a suffragette who marched in the streets for the right of women to vote, Gaskin wrote in a 1997 opinion piece published in The Tennessean. Her brother, Mr. Gaskin's great-uncle Charles, helped organize the longshoremen's union on the waterfront in San Francisco in the 1930s and '40s, he wrote.
"We have been freethinkers for generations," Gaskin wrote. "And, as is provided for in the Constitution, I have passed my philosophical and religious ways on to my children, who are very proud of their heritage and ancestors."
That philosophy was imparted to more than just his biological kin. Mr. Gaskin was a man whose teachings inspired thousands to follow him across the country.
His vision first evolved in California, where Mr. Gaskin - part of the Fifth Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps - alighted in the late '50s after combat in Korea.
A war-veteran-turned-Beatnik, Mr. Gaskin experienced "revelations" as the G.I. Bill and scholarship beneficiary journeyed through syllabi at San Francisco State College.
He earned his master's in 1964, and spent two years teaching English and creative writing at his alma mater.
In 1967, Mr. Gaskin initiated an informal philosophy seminar that would become known as Monday Night Class. The "hippie guru," discussed religion, politics, sex and drugs. He believed in Tantric thought, telepathy and togetherness — and in an era when youth was disillusioned by the Vietnam War, disturbed by increasing injustice and encouraged by the successes of civil rights, he helped young people feel empowered.
Later, Mr. Gaskin wrote that he became a spiritual leader because "there was a bunch of stuff I wanted to know really bad, and I went out looking to learn it," he said in a early 1970s publication of The Farm Report, "and I found out that it was really hard to answer the questions I wanted answered."
After researching for a while, he wrote, and working with others, he found he could answer those questions - "and that somebody ought to do it, and so I would just do that.
"I also saw that one man, if he was honest and kept the faith and pushed long enough, could move enough of the world to make a difference. ... And that was such a turn-on of an idea that I thought I'd try to do it, and I've been doing it ever since, and so far it's working."
Thousands seeking change attended his classes - many found it.
When the American Academy of Religion sent Mr. Gaskin on a 42-state speaking tour, many of his acolytes followed.
In a convoy of campers, VW vans, trucks and brightly decorated school buses, they crossed the country. When they returned to California, the whole West Coast scene "had gone decadent," Mr. Gaskin recalled in a 2013 interview with The Tennessean. Adrift and searching for something better, he suggested they all "go out to the middle and find some land."
They found it just outside Summertown, where an independent-minded moonshiner sold them 1,000 acres at $70 per acre.
"The rednecks took to us good," Mr. Gaskin recalled to The Tennessean in 2013. "They liked us."
They pooled their money and began making decisions by consensus. On a budget of $1 per person per day with no grants, food stamps or welfare, the 320 original settlers bought the land, erected buildings from salvaged wood, found water supplies and became agriculturally self-sufficient within four years.
They created a motor pool with a parts department, a welding shed and a couple of flatbeds made by torching caravan vehicles.
They communicated first by high-powered CB radio, then by a burgeoning system of interlocking phone lines powered by batteries and connected to about a dozen devices - a hippie party line.
Anyone who became a member of The Farm accepted Mr. Gaskin as his or her spiritual teacher, and a person's inner business became everybody's business.
Mr. Gaskin often addressed his role as a leader by saying this, as quoted in a version of The Farm Report from the early 1970s: "I'm a teacher, not a leader. If you lose your leader, you're leaderless and lost, but if you lose your teacher there's a chance that he taught you something and you can navigate on your own."
Mr. Gaskin worked on community relations, helping the local community accept the "good hippies," many who were college-educated suburban kids.
There were a few hitches.
Early in the years of The Farm, a few men were caught growing marijuana. Though Mr. Gaskin said he was not part of growing, he took equal responsibility.
"The cops said, 'Whose pot is this?'" Mr. Gaskin recalled to The Tennessean in 2013. "And I said, 'We're a collective. What's here is part mine.'"
Mr. Gaskin appealed in court, but in 1974, he and several other men spent nearly a year in the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
When he was released, he married Ina May – a woman who established her own fame as nationally recognized midwife.
They had three children. Eva Gaskin, who was delivered by midwives Gaskin trained herself, and sons Samuel and Paul. Mr. Gaskin also had two other children, Dana and Floyd.
The 1,750-acre spread of land in Summertown on which they settled in 1971 to form their own society was, for some, it was an adolescent experiment; for others, such as the Gaskins, a lifelong commitment.
Mr. Gaskin took pride in being a freethinker — and inspiring his family and Farm kinfolk to feel the same.
"I believe in the Constitution," he wrote in a 1997 opinion piece published in The Tennessean. "I think it is one of the most important documents in history. I think it protects freedom of religion for all Americans, and also freedom from religion.
"I am not a backslider," he continued, "who needs to be roped and tied and turned back in with the rest of the herd. I come from a long and proud American tradition that includes the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and Helen Keller and Lena Horne and Henry David Thoreau and Samuel Clemens and Herman Melville.
"I think the importance of the United States lies in the sincere attempt to live without royalty and with respect for other people's religions.
When I hear someone say that the separation of church and state is a myth, or that the Constitution is only man's law, it makes my blood run cold.
"I consider any attempt to take this country over in the name of any religion to be as repugnant and unconstitutional as a takeover by international communism or fascism."
By 1980, The Farm's population swelled to more than 1,200. But a financial crisis led to a reorganization. The group made some bad investments. Members did not have insurance and faced large medical bills. With The Farm more than $400,000 in debt, a large corporate hospital placed a lien against the land.
In 1983, they took a vote and the communal life lost. In the once-cashless society, members started to pay monthly dues and only The Farm's 1,750 acres were held in common. The debt was paid off in about four years, and the society survived in a new way of life. Mr. Gaskin transitioned from a spiritual leader to another resident of the cooperative. He remained on The Farm until his death.
"I'm just grateful the people around here had a big enough heart to take us in," he said.