Gaskin In San Francisco

Stephen Gaskin, seated on stage, is shown in 1970 addressing a crowd at one of his Monday night presentations in San Francisco. Eventually Gaskin and a group of devotees moved to Tennessee and created a commune that continues to exist today.

Growing up in Middle Tennessee, the television stations I saw as a kid came out of Nashville. And because my dad was a preacher in rural churches too small to have an office for their ministers, he was home much of the time on weekdays.

In the summer, when school was out and my only jobs were picking blackberries to sell in the neighborhood and mowing the lawn of the widow next door for something like $2, I was home with Dad quite a bit. He had a habit, on weekdays, of almost always tuning in to “Noon,” a live talk/variety show on WSM-TV.

An occasional visitor to the program was a man who was as utterly different from my father as he could be in most ways, yet whom I could tell my 1913-born, straight-laced, Southern Baptist dad seemed to view at least somewhat acceptingly.

The man’s name was Stephen Gaskin, and he was an authentic scraggly-haired hippy (though he often called himself by the older term “beatnik”) who headed up a commune in Lawrence County’s Summertown community, a small place I don’t think I’ve ever been.

Communes weren’t particularly rare across the United States in the early 1970s, but Gaskin’s commune, called simply The Farm, did something most communes did not: it lasted. On and on and on it lasted … and in fact it is still there, though Gaskin died in 2014 at age 79, still exemplifying the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to the end of his days.

His counterculture views, though, were more nuanced than those of some of his peers. He was basically okay with natural drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms but less so regarding man-made psychedelics such as LSD (even though, according to a New York Times story about him published after his death, Gaskin had said the Farm sprang in part from revelations he had experienced while using LSD, “the details of which he described to thousands of disciples, who gathered in halls around San Francisco to hear his meditations on Buddhism, Jesus and whatever else entered his mind.”)

Those who lived on the Tennessee commune he established had to practice vegetarianism, do physical work, not use alcohol or tobacco, and pool their resources. Like monks, they had to take a vow of poverty.

My theory is that what made my old-school preacher dad tolerant toward Gaskin was that 1) Dad was a gentle, non-combative kind of man, not the sort to look for someone to blame, denigrate or hate, and 2) Stephen Gaskin certainly seemed to be gentle and non-combative too.

Further, Gaskin, despite his counterculture style, maintained some classic American values of the sort my dad appreciated. Gaskin believed in hard work and encouraged his “farmies” to be entrepreneurial. Over time, the Farm created a publishing house, a store or two and other small enterprises.

Some of the Farm’s females even developed a midwifery program and became adept at delivering babies not only among their fellow farmies, but in surrounding communities.

If a man in the group impregnated a woman, the couple were considered engaged. Personal responsibility was part of Gaskin’s philosophy.

On the Farm, he conducted Sunday morning sermons. He wrote and published, and did such things as heading north to Nashville sometimes to appear on “Noon.”

Gaskin hadn’t always lived in a flower-child world. The New York Times story quoted above gave some details of his background: “Mr. Gaskin was born in Denver on Feb. 16, 1935. His father was a builder. Lying about his age, Stephen joined the Marines at 17 and saw combat in Korea. He dropped out of junior college, drank heavily and ran coffee houses.”

The long-haired, bearded fellow I saw on the “Noon” program certainly did not look like a veteran of Korean War combat. He was 100 percent mellow hippy-dippy in manner and style. Even so, he somehow never came across as a mere counterculture cliché. I’m not sure how he managed that.

And he clearly had an unusual skill at making a reasonable degree of positive impression even on people quite different than he, such as my decidedly un-hip dad, whose world view was thoroughly Baptist and a far cry from Gaskin’s.

In short, Gaskin had charisma that crossed human boundaries.

ORIGINS OF THE FARM

Gaskin, post-military counterculture version, was shaped within the world of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the cultural greenhouse in which mid-20th century America’s counterculture sprouted and flourished.

After the Marines, he became first a teaching assistant at San Francisco State University, then an instructor in various esoteric subjects. The NYT article says: “After the literature department declined to renew his contract, he began ‘Monday Night Classes’ around San Francisco to delve more deeply into spiritual exotica.”

Sometimes drugs fueled Gaskin’s presentations. The Times article also states that Gaskin said his best skill was “an ability to talk intelligently while stoned longer than most people.”

It was during this period that Gaskin gained a strong following in the hippy culture and came into demand as a speaker. His presentation at a conference in San Francisco gained attention from clergy in liberal churches, and in the fall of 1970, Gaskin hit the road on a tour of 42 states, his followers coming along in 25 or more old school buses, the number of people and vehicles growing as they went.

In Tennessee, they encountered impressive hospitality, and once they were back in California, the idea arose of returning to Tennessee and creating a communal farm. Long story short, they did just that, and Tennessee suddenly was able to add between 300 and 400 hippies to its population stats.

The group bought a 1,014-acre farm below Nashville for $70 an acre. Tents went up, and no doubt local residents’ fears about “long-haired freaks” went up as well. Gaskin was savvy about such things, though, and told his followers simply to be courteous and neighborly. They did, to the point of the county sheriff publicly labeling them “a fine bunch of people.”

But they were hippies with hippy ways, too, and when people spotted some members of the new commune sitting around naked and playing flutes in the direction of some suspicious-looking plants, Gaskin was arrested on drug charges, and convicted.

He’d not personally favored growing the marijuana and had told his people so, but as leader he took a buck-stops-here attitude and accepted responsibility for what the farmies had done.

He got a three-year sentence, though he served only a year before being released on parole, and managed in the process to gain even more good will in the community, which earlier had created a petition protesting his sentence.

The Farm expanded and even formed branches in other states. The founding location in Summertown long ago replaced its original tents with permanent structures.

Gaskin was married four times, his final union occurring in 1976. His wife of that marriage, Ina May Gaskin, who survives him, made a name for herself in the field of midwifery, and even led to the Gaskin name attaching to a particular birthing practice.

The “Gaskin Maneuver” involves the delivering mother holding a hands-and-knees position that helps free a baby whose shoulders have become trapped behind the pelvic bone of the mother.

The Farm remains alive today, though with far fewer residents than the approximately 1,500 there in its peak years. Today the number is closer to 200.

Even reduced, the farmies continue to work toward their particular vision of a good world. Those interested in learning more about what they now call the “intentional community” of the Farm can do so by visiting its website, thefarm.org.

Now isn’t the time to actually visit the Farm in person, though. Like so many other things, it has been forced to prohibit on-site visits due to the pandemic.

Stephen Gaskin died of natural causes on the Farm at the age of 79. Some years before his death, and while he was temporarily absent, the Farm residents decided to change their governance to a more democratic process, and Gaskin was removed as leader.

He was allowed to remain on the Farm nonetheless, still the friend and founder of the “farmies.”

His burial site is listed on Findagrave.com as “unknown.”

A couple of his teachings provide a good closing for this column:

1) “You have to be true to yourself, but you have to be true to your best self, not to the self that secretly thinks you are better than other people.”

2) “Just stay cool. Be friendly and nice. Be nice to the guy you buy gasoline from, because you might have to buy gasoline from him again someday.”

Pretty good advice, most of us probably would agree.

Cameron Judd is a lifelong Tennessean born and raised in Cookeville, and a Greene County resident since 1982, when he first joined The Greeneville Sun staff. He also is an extensively published author of western and frontier fiction, having worked with several major publishing houses. He currently works as a feature writer and columnist with the Sun. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Chuckey and have three grown children and three grandchildren.