I originally wrote this one in 1992 and keep updating it every year. For those of you who know about such things, the commune was called Bottle Hill Farm, in honor of the bluegrass band of the same name.
AT THE DUSK OF AQUARIUS by marty gallanter
On the first day of April I called Walter and left a message on his answering machine.
"This is Marty. Do you remember what we were doing thirty-three years ago today?"
Three times eleven years ago, when Walt was playing guitar with an urban bluegrass band called Bottle Hill, he and I, along with eleven other assorted hippies, established a performing artists' commune in the tiny Upstate New York farming town of Jefferson. On that special, fine spring afternoon, our convoy of seven Volkswagens, one Rambler, an old school bus, and a U-Haul truck announced to a community that had more cows than people the beginning of what came to be known as "the hippie invasion of '72." Walt made the most memorable comment of the day.
"It seems appropriate," he said as our vehicles lined up in front of the huge yellow house, "that we're starting this project on April Fool's Day."
Fools or not, that was the day we joined the great American "Back to the Land" movement, a crusade that peaked in the unmemorable year of 1973. We were just a group of New Jersey counterculture musicians, frustrated by the established entertainment industry, disillusioned with the failure of the Peace Movement... seeking a new start in the pure, clean atmosphere of the country. And we became pioneers... the town's first resident hippies, but not the last. Over the next three months, five more communes, each unconnected to the others, were established in and around Jefferson, New York.
The ideals and dreams that sent us over a hundred miles into rural upstate New York seem terribly trite and naive now when viewed from the perspective of three decades plus gone by so quickly. The commune only lasted fourteen months. Our community disbanded at the same time as my eight year marriage ended. Despite the painful concluding notes, our time in the yellow house was a first-rate adventure, a period of unjudged exploration and a Sixties style expression of freedom... at least for us men. Ironically, that very promise of emancipation, unfulfilled for the women who lived with us, doomed the enterprise to failure.
We did it all... grew an entire acre of vegetables, sat in the organic potato patch and experimented with drugs, unconcerned with the contradiction of ingesting a wide variety of chemicals while restricting ourselves to only the purest foods. We baked our own bread, brewed our own beer, renovated the old school bus and traveled throughout the Northeast making lots of music.
The Bottle Hill band was a pleasant surprise to the locals. The long hair and outlandish outfits convinced them that our repertoire was pure acid rock and our purpose was the corruption of their children. When they found country music to be the sound that supported our souls, their attitude changed. Overnight we went from being "those hippies," said with the tone one would use with a racial slur, to "our hippies," spoken with the affection of a benevolent plantation owner toward his slaves.
We didn't mind the condescension. It was the nature of hippies to enjoy playing the role of a curiosity and we took our attention any way we could get it. Besides, they took care of us... plowed our garden with their tractors, brought home-baked goodies to the door, sold us milk directly from their cows... treated us like stars. Why not? No one else in town had made a record album. We were locally so well-known that my brother once sent a letter addressed only to "the hippies in the yellow house, Jefferson, New York." It was delivered without comment.
Celebrity status did not, however, extend to the women. The Jefferson natives thought that adventurous irresponsibility was romantic in young men, but such behavior was hardly proper for unmarried females. With the exception of my wife, who, as a married woman, fit in a mold they could almost understand, gestures of feminine comradeship came only from the other communes. The women in our house were isolated and we young male, egocentric hippies were no more understanding than men who had lived all their lives in Jefferson.
We simply expected the women to cook, clean and attend to us, especially after returning from a hard road trip of one-night bar stands and college concerts. The female indignation grew daily and we ignored the tension. Though Walt and I, considering ourselves to be enlightened males, discussed the issue several times, our attempt at understanding was valueless. Sometimes we talked about the problem while sitting near the stream, sharing the latest batch of home brew. Whether it was the beer or the enjoyment of our exalted male positions, I cannot once remember dealing with the issue while cleaning the bathrooms.
The women in the yellow house, who envied our freedom as performers on the road as much as they resented the liberties we took at home, first chose an artistic response. They focused their protest on the common dream of a performing artists' commune by creating a puppet theater and practicing on local children's groups. When they wanted to take their act on tour, however, we men resisted. At first our exercise in control was passive. We would find a dozen excuses why they should stay at home. We eventually prevailed by withholding a critical resource that they needed... the contacts that could assist their new act obtain bookings.
Then the resentments came out in the open. Though the end of my own marriage centered on other issues, the collapse of that pillar was the catalyst that brought the weakened house down. The days of the commune were numbered and people began to explore living alternatives. A few months later the yellow house had been sold. One by one, the other communes in town disappeared, victims of their own unique internal tensions. Jefferson's brief invasion of the hippies was over.
A third of a century later, Walt continues to perform while for a living fulfills the role of artistic director for a now famous traditional music and arts festival in Maryland that he founded. He excels on an esoteric instrument called the hammered dulcimer and now a lot of time has passed since he shortened his shoulder length hair. I gave up my pony tail even more years ago. Though I currently live in a small-town city in eastern South Dakota, for a long time I wrote, taught, wore a suit, worked in New York, lived in a condominium, and maintained a substantial tax-deferred retirement account. Yet Walt and I still share a common experience with roots in that long ago time.
When the topic of the "old days" is discussed, either from his stage or mine, we can always count on a few of those present, usually young women - who were preschoolers when we arrived in Jefferson - to find themselves enchanted by our experience.
"Did you really live in a commune?" They always ask as if to confirm the reality of our cosmic commentary. "I've never known anyone who actually lived in a commune," seems to be the next most frequent remark. We listen as they compare our experiences with that of their parents. We always win, though the discussion usually makes us both feel like relics.
Yet every time this happens... every time I look into the envious shinning face of an under-thirty career woman, I am torn between the image and the reality of that time. When I think about the gender-discrimination she probably faces at her office, the various frustrations and maybe even insults that she might have contended with just before meeting me... I know what dream is turning on the light behind her eyes. For a moment she's out in a green meadow, far away from her boss, wearing calico and feeling very free. I never can bring myself to destroy someone's harmless fantasy.
Still, while I'm permitting some young female admirer to believe that things were so much better so long ago, I find my thoughts focusing on the bright, energetic women who shared that adventure with us. I often wonder if these once-upon-a-time female hippies relate their own stories of the "old days." If they do, I'm certain their telling is not with the same longing nostalgia so obvious as when Walter or I spin the tale.
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