|ONE BIG FAMILY: The Oneida community in up-state New York had its beginning in Putney, VT. Its founder, John Humphrey Noyes believed in complex marriage, a form of polygamy. This one large family is pictured at its utopian community in Oneida, NY. |
A Different Way
Weaved into the fabric of American life, there runs a thread of voluntary co-operation to achieve common goals. It helped early settlers establish both individual and shared purposes. That duality is represented by Vermont's motto, “Freedom and Unity.”
From1760 to 1880, there were a number of communal experiments that, for some, went beyond the prevailing spirit of the times. Whether religious-based or secular, these communities experimented with alternative economics and different ways of living.
They were mostly socialist in nature and utopian in their goals, departing from the traditional methods for improving society. They rejected the world as it was for a world they hoped it would become.
Most of the early experiments in New Hampshire and Vermont were founded on religious belief. They were an outgrowth of the Greet Awakening that swept New England in the first half of the 19th century.
The first of these Vermont experiments was the Dorrillites, established in Guilford in 1798 by one-time British officer William Dorrill. Claiming to be the "mouthpiece of God," he established iron rule over his followers, "with community of property and reputedly of women." They were vegetarians and used neither meat nor leather. He drew to his group some members of respectable local families.
When his claim that no one could harm him was challenged at one of his meetings by a man who knocked him down repeatedly, the group disappeared.
In 1817, a group called the Pilgrims migrated from Lower Canada to South Woodstock under the leadership of Isaac Bullard. Their lifestyle, based on their fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, was characterized by wearing only skins and leather and full beards. Since the Bible did not command them to wash their bodies or bury their dead, they did neither. When with the encouragement of area residents, they moved southward to seek their New Jerusalem, 100 local residents joined them.
Several other Vermont sects shared the extreme conviction that the world's end was near. One such group was founded by Nathaniel Wood of Middletown, VT, who proclaimed that through divine inspiration, he had found that on January 14, 1801 the world would come to an end. It did not.
Vermonters play a vital role in establishing several of the most successful experiments that later flourished in other areas of the country.
A significant example of Vermont's contribution to the utopian movement was that of the Perfectionists. This settlement was established in Putney in 1838 by John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes, a member of a prominent Brattleboro, VT family. Noyes believed that Christ had already come a second time making perfection possible.
Noyes’ ideas came under attack in 1846 when he announced his thoughts on multi-lateral or complex marriage. Rejecting monogamy, the Perfectionists were polygamists. Locals reacted strongly to this licentiousness.
In the face of that opposition, Noyes led his group to up-state New York where they established the Oneida community. There the colony's property was commonly owned, and products were distributed equally. Women were given a full role in the community. The members lived together as one family in a large house known as the Mansion House.
They failed in their attempts to survive exclusively from agriculture. So Noyes took advantage of the artisans in the colony and turned to manufacturing. At first, they manufactured animal traps with numerous other products, including silverware that made the community so famous.
By 1875, one observer commented that Oneida was more like a "large and prosperous manufacturing corporation with a large number of partners all actively engaged in the works, than a commune." Their works were characterized by "industry, thrift and mutual helpfulness."
Had it not been for the complex marriage practices, there would have been less to condemn. As New York made polygamy illegal, the colony disbanded in 1880. The Oneida Corporation continues today.
Another community in which Northern New Englanders played a vital role was the Mormon's State of Deseret, considered to be the most successful of all communes. Prophet Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both born in Vermont.
Though "castigated by the orthodox of Vermont on all occasions," the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints drew both new members and additional leaders from both states. Among the first converts were 27 men and women from Benson, VT. That Yankee influence is reflected in the Mormon symbol of a great beehive, above which is displayed a favorite Yankee word, Industry.
Under Young’s leadership, the Mormons sought refuge in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. A significant feature of the settlement was that the land and major water sources were held in common under the Council of Elders' control. This gave the leaders of the theocracy control over the economy while making provision for the distribution of goods from a common storehouse.
One of the most influential and successful communal experiments established two communities in New Hampshire in the late 18th century. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing was founded in England in 1747 and brought to America in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee. Known as the Shakers because of their use of ecstatic dance in their worship, they established 21 self-contained farming communities from Kentucky to Maine.
The first New Hampshire community was established at Canterbury in 1792. At its height in the 1850s, 300 people lived and worked on the 3,000-acre property. The last sister living there died in 1992 and the community is now operated as a museum.
The second community was established at Enfield in 1793. The South Family that lived there build more than 100 buildings on their farm. Their main building, known as the Great Stone Dwelling, was the largest Shaker building ever built. The community closed in 1923 but parts of the property are now operated as a museum.
Believing that they needed to withdraw from the world and its sinful ways, the Shakers "challenged almost every mainstream idea of the times." They believed in communal ownership, pacifism, celibacy equality of the sexes and simple living. The practice of celibacy meant that the communities grew from converting new members and adopting orphans.
The communities produced not only their own necessities but also a surplus for sale. Mother Ann urged her followers to “do all your work as thought you have 1,000 years to live and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” The Shakers produced craftsmen of the highest skill.
This ingenuity led to the first sale of package seeds and the development of the round barn and circular saw. They invented new farm tools, patent medicines, milk paints and distinct furniture as well as the machines needed to produce these in large quantities.
The Shaker brand was well established by the 1830s. By 1860 there were at least 6,000 Believers living in their communes.
Their lifestyle was not without controversy. There were rumors that orphans and other children were kept against their will. In 1815, Mary Dyer left her husband and children at the Canterbury farm where they had lived for several years. When she was unsuccessful in reclaiming her children, she began a decades-long unsuccessful attempt to besmirch the Shakers with a number of publications.
Shakers were also criticized for their refusal to participate in public life by voting or serving in the military. Some individuals took advantage of the Shakers' charity and arrived in the fall, stayed for the winter and then left. They became known as "winter shakers."
With few recruits, Shaker numbers dwindled in the 20th century until only several elders remain, living at their last community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
By 1880, there were no longer attempts to create utopian societies as a way to solve the problems of the nation's working classes. Instead, workers turned to labor unions and co-operatives for solutions to economic issues.
The earliest co-operatives in Vermont were established to assist dairy and apple farmers in purchasing supplies and the process and market their products. Early labor unions were limited in their appeal in both states, but found some success in the textile and stone industries.
In Vermont after 1930, there two early attempts to create experimental living situations. In 1932, Scott and Helen Nearing purchased a run-down farm near Winhall. For two decades they operated the self-sufficient farm and welcomed an increasing number of guests.
In 1946, Irving Fisk and his daughter Isabelle created an "intentional community" in Rochester, one owned and operated by all who lived there. Offering an alternative lifestyle dedicated to the arts and writing, it became "Vermont oldest and, at times, largest," commune. It recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.
In the mid-1960s, thousands of young urban refugees invaded Vermont and New Hampshire. Disenchanted with their possession-centered upbringing and opposed to government policies such as the Vietnam War, civil rights, and nuclear proliferation, many of them created scores of experimental communes in both states.
It is estimated there were at least 75 communes and other experiments in Vermont, many in rural areas as part of a back-to-the-land movement. They varied in their size, organizing purposes and goals, structure, attitudes toward private ownership and prevailing lifestyles Some had a strong leader; others had none. How long they lasted varied, with disillusionment causing failure in the experiments. No commune was typical.
Accused of nudity, lack of cleanliness, their drain on social services, and being advocates of free love and drugs, these "hippies" shocked many locals. There was concern that they would overrun the state, a situation only heightened by a 1972 Playboy article about the counterculture taking over conservative Vermont.
The following are some of the communities chosen to show the variations among them. They are randomly chosen from communes found in every corner of the two states.
The Wooden Shoe in Canaan NH, founded as part of the peace movement, was "a place for experiment and rewriting the rules." The High View Church Farm Community in Lemster, NH was a conservative Christian community. The Total Loss Farm in Guilford, VT was established and still exists as a cultural community. The Earth People's Park in Norton, VT had a notorious reputation for its resident's behaviors. Huntington Open Women's Land in Huntington, VT continues as a commune for women.
Jimmy’s House, located in South Newbury from 1969 to 1974 came close to being a commune. According to a 1997 article by the late Isabel Whitney, it was created as a safe house for disaffected young men and women from down country, many of whom rejected authority in their lives. There was some negative reactions when the young people used the nearby brook for nude bathing.
In August 1968, the United Opinion Newbury column mentioned that a group of 8 adults with children from Long Island had purchased land “over the Bradford line near Roger’s Hill.” If this was a commune, I could find no other mention of them.
UVM Professor Peter Woolfson concluded that Vermonters were generally accepting of those who seriously tried to survive the challenges of living in the state. “Vermonters, he wrote, “were more concerned about drugs and crime than about people being or thinking differently than they.”
Montpelier attorney Charles Martin, who was part of a commune in the 1960s, wrote, "Some of the locals looked askance at the skinny-dipping and other things we did, but they were basically OK with us because we did not frighten the horses."
Some communes disappeared in the mid-1970s whereas others survived and new ones have been established since. More importantly, many former members moved into the mainstream and became significant contributors to local and state cultures. Their dedication to "alternative energy, alternative schools, art collectives, community gardens, farmers markets, food co-operatives, daycare centers, and women's rights" has significantly transformed northern New England.
They can be found in every profession and liberal movement today. One only has to look at the candidates and issues in the current election to find their lasting impact. From that same examination, one can find the lasting opposition to what Vermont has become due to the counterculture influx. For some, the "Take Back Vermont" attitude is still very much alive.
There have been many retrospective books and newspaper articles on the counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Vermont Historical Society has been especially prolific in documenting it with programs, interviews, and displays.
For those interested in a more in-depth review of specific communes or the movement in general, there are many online sources. In the interest of full disclosure, my social studies students at that time would not have described me as a member of the counterculture. I never lived in a commune.
For 200 years, some experiments have sought a different way. In doing so, especially during the past 50 years, they have caused our states' culture to bend significantly along a somewhat similar path. Perhaps Vermont more so than New Hampshire.