|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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
play a vital role in establishing several of the most successful experiments
that later flourished in other areas of the country.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
With few recruits, Shaker numbers dwindled in
the 20th century until only several elders remain, living at their last
community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.