Stephen Gaskin, Founder Of ‘The Farm’, Dies At 79

Stephen Gaskin, Founder Of ‘The Farm’, Dies At 79

Jul 03


Stephen Gaskin and his wife, Ina May, at the Farm in Summertown, Tenn., in July 2013.


Media Coverage Of Stephen Gaskin’s Death

The Tennessean
The New York Times
The Associated Press


By Jessica Bliss
The Tennessean
July 2, 2014

Original Link

Stephen Gaskin — an often tie-dye-clad hippie philosopher, a proud “freethinker” and iconic founder of The Farm — died Tuesday morning at his home. He was 79.

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.

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.


By Douglas Martin
New York Times
July 2, 2014

Original Link

Stephen Gaskin, a Marine combat veteran and hippie guru who in 1971 led around 300 followers in a caravan of psychedelically painted school buses from San Francisco to Tennessee to start the Farm, a commune that has outlived most of its countercultural counterparts while spreading good works from Guatemala to the South Bronx, died on Tuesday at his home on the commune, in Summertown, Tenn. He was 79.

Leigh Kahan, a family spokesman, confirmed the death without giving a specific cause.

By Mr. Gaskin’s account, the Farm sprang in part from spiritual 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.

But to his followers, he ultimately offered more than spiritual guidance. In founding the Farm, they said, he gave concrete form to the human longing for togetherness coupled with individual expression that had energized the counterculture.

Communes like the Farm have their antecedents throughout American history. In the 1960s and ’70s, hundreds of thousands of people joined them, though most of the communities did not last long. But the Farm, which grew to 1,500 members at its peak in 1979 and has about 200 today, has outlived almost all of them. (It now includes a retirement community.)

“The cultural cliché has it that the flower children danced at Woodstock, crashed at Altamont, and gradually shed their naïve ideals as they made themselves into ice-cream moguls, media magnates and triangulating politicians,” Jim Windolf wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007. “But the 200 people who live at the Farm,” he added, “have managed to hang on to the hippie spirit.”

Timothy Miller, a religious studies professor at the University of Kansas who has studied communes, said in an interview that the Farm was “the archetypal hippie commune” in its commitment to higher consciousness, self-sufficiency, a clean environment and a “flamboyant hippie style.”

But where it departed from most of its counterparts was in embracing an entrepreneurial spirit: It created a book-publishing business, marketed pickles and sorghum syrup under the Old Beatnik label, and even dealt in hand-held Geiger counters to measure radiation leaks at nuclear power plants.

It also spurned insularity for outreach. Answering Mr. Gaskin’s call to “change the world,” Farmies, as they called themselves, built 1,200 houses for the victims of a 1976 earthquake in Guatemala, set up volunteer ambulance services in the South Bronx and on an Indian reservation in upstate New York, and started a school lunch program in Belize and an agricultural training program in Liberia. They were among the earliest volunteers to arrive in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In 1980, Plenty International, a charitable organization Mr. Gaskin started, was awarded one of the first Right Livelihood Awards. Sometimes called the alternative Nobel Prize, the award is presented by the Swedish Parliament to those who have demonstrated “practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today.”

Mr. Gaskin and his wife, the former Ina May Middleton, developed a free midwifery service for women, communard or not. Ms. Gaskin became a widely known advocate for giving birth outside of hospitals, and has written popular books on the subject.

To a degree that startled outsiders in the ’60s, the Farm’s young men in straw hats and beards and women in long skirts lived an almost puritanical life. They took vows of poverty and pooled their assets. Vegetarianism was mandatory. Mr. Gaskin banned alcohol, tobacco and, to the surprise of many, LSD, though not marijuana. Plenty of work — considered a form of meditation — was assigned. Artificial birth control was forbidden.

Mr. Gaskin, who became a minister under Tennessee law, decreed that if couples had sex they must be considered engaged, and if the woman became pregnant, they must marry. Men were expected to treat women with “knightly” chivalry, he said.

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. At San Francisco State University, he became a teaching assistant to S. I. Hayakawa, the semanticist.

By the mid-1960s, he was an instructor at the university, giving courses on subjects like witchcraft. After the literature department declined to renew his contract, he began “Monday Night Classes” around San Francisco to delve more deeply into spiritual exotica. He sat cross-legged on a stage, advocated getting high — with or without drugs — and was given to making pronouncements like “It’s easier to be God than to see God.” He said his skill was an ability to talk intelligently while stoned longer than most people.

When liberal Christian ministers attending a conference in San Francisco heard him, they invited him to visit churches around the United States to bring his message — minus the drugs — to alienated young people in their hometowns.

He agreed, and when followers asked if they could accompany him, he said yes, provided they brought their own wheels and paid their own way.

On Oct. 10, 1970, Mr. Gaskin led a caravan of 25 school buses and other vehicles on a tour of 42 states. Fifty more vehicles and 150 more people, including several babies born along the way, joined the tour.

After returning to San Francisco, the group was unsure what to do next. As the story goes, someone at a meeting blurted out, “Let’s go to Tennessee” — where people had been nice to them — “and get a farm.”

Another caravan hit the road. Not long after arriving in Tennessee, the group bought a 1,014-acre farm south of Nashville for $70 an acre and began setting up tents.

Mr. Gaskin admonished his disciples to treat the local people with courtesy. The sheriff called the Farmies “a fine bunch of people.” Mr. Gaskin was nonetheless arrested and convicted on drug charges after the police found a large marijuana patch on the property, having been alerted by passers-by who had witnessed naked commune members playing flutes to the plants. He took responsibility, though he had questioned the wisdom of cultivating the plant.

More than 600 locals signed a petition protesting his three-year sentence, but to no avail. He was paroled after one year.

As the commune grew, families moved out of tents and into newly built houses. By 1982 the Farm had added 700 acres and established 10 satellites in other states. It incorporated as a “family monastery” to avoid taxes.

By then it had accepted elements of capitalism, having fallen deep into debt in the early 1970s. Some said Mr. Gaskin had pushed the community to expand beyond its capacity. He was asked to step down as titular leader in 1973 but continued to live on the Farm with his wife, who survives him.

Three earlier marriages ended in divorce. He is also survived by a daughter from his second marriage, Dana Wenig; a son, Floyd Hagler, from a nonmarital relationship; three children from his current marriage, Eva, Samuel and Paul Gaskin; a sister, Sherry Gaskin; and five grandchildren.

In 2000, Mr. Gaskin sought the Green Party’s presidential nomination but drew just 10 of 319 votes. The winner, Ralph Nader, received 295.

His campaign statement declared: “I want it to be understood that we are a bunch of tree-huggers and mystics and peaceniks. My main occupations are Hippy Priest, Spiritual Revolutionary, Cannabis Advocate, shade tree mechanic, cultural engineer, tractor driver and community starter. I also love science fiction.”



Original Link

Gaskin was born in Denver, Colorado and served in the US Marine Corps from 1952 to 1955. In the 1960s, he moved to San Francisco and taught English, creative writing, and general semantics at San Francisco State College, where he was a student of S. I. Hayakawa.

Stephen Gaskin’s writing class evolved into an open discussion group known as Monday Night Class, which involved up to 1500 students. The Monday Night Class was held in an auditorium on the Great Highway on the land side of Ocean Beach on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the Outer Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. Stephen Gaskin spoke about his experiences with psychedelic drugs and paranormal experiences, as well as lecturing on the importance of ecological awareness. This popular weekly gathering was attended by hippies from all over the San Francisco Bay Area during the years 1969 and 1970. Stephen became known as San Francisco’s acid guru.

In 1970, Gaskin was part of a caravan of 60 vehicles that crossed the United States to settle 60 miles south-west of Nashville, Tennessee, forming a community called “The Farm”, which the Wall Street Journal came to call “the General Motors of American Communes”. This community was “a platform from which to launch efforts to improve the lot of poor and indigenous peoples, whales, and old growth trees”. For example, raising 1,200 earthquake-resistant homes in Guatemala as well as several public buildings and water lines to 5 villages, sending independent dosimetry teams after the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster, or giving the Rainbow Warrior equipment to escape from a Spanish harbor.

He went to prison in 1974 for marijuana possession, as members of the community had, against his recommendation, planted several marijuana plants on the property. He served one year of a three-year sentence. Following his release, his voting rights were rescinded. He brought a lawsuit challenging the legality of mass retroactive disenfranchisement under the Tennessee Constitution, Gaskin v. Collins. After winning in lower courts, the case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court and in 1981 returned voting rights to more than a quarter of a million convicts.

In Volume One: Sunday Morning Services on the Farm and earlier talks, Stephen Gaskin produced a substantial body of spiritual teaching. His ideas are now contained in books and tapes of the Sunday Morning Services which were published by the Book Publishing Company on The Farm. They speak of magic, energy and life in community as well as of service to humanity.

Gaskin was recipient of the first Right Livelihood Award in 1980 and an inductee into the Counterculture Hall of Fame in 2004. He was awarded the Golden Bolt Award by The Farm Motor Pool (for helping buy a lemon semi), and won the Guru-Off (without even entering), racking up 77 points to Krishnamurti’s 73.

Gaskin continued to work as an international activist, writer and speaker until a few months before his death from natural causes, in his home, surrounded by family. His topics ranged from humorous advice on all aspects of communal life and farming to modern communications, the counter-culture, spirituality, drug law reform, and social and ecological issues. He was a drummer in The Farm Band, an early Jam Band which toured in the seventies and eighties. His last published works were revised and annotated versions of Monday Night Class and The Caravan. He died on July 1, 2014 from natural causes at the age of 79.



Wikipedia on Stephen Gaskin
Wikipedia on The Farm
The Farm
The Farm Community
Plenty International
• Ina May Gaskin



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