Dear Ms. Towle, Franklin Town Librarian/Historian:
I had the pleasure of returning to Franklin recently to visit the land on which our commune, Earthworks, existed from February 2, 1970, until some time roughly four years later when it finally and fitfully dissolved.
My wife and I stopped at the general store for sodas and to ask after old friends when we noticed your impressive book on the history of the town of Franklin for sale on the counter. We opened on impulse to the index under "commune" and were pleased and surprised to find your history of our small moment in the life of this lovely town.
Though your words were mostly kind and good humored, and perhaps reflected how the commune and its members were perceived by many of the townspeople amidst whom we lived, the history you provided was limited in its view and somewhat derisive. I write this addendum to your rendition in an effort to provide a more accurate picture of the Franklin commune as it was and as it was meant to be.
Earthworks, or “the Franklin Commune” as we were universally known by others, was founded in an effort to "return to the land," to master the skills that would promote agrarian self sufficiency, and to help create a society that would provide an alternative to the despair and destruction we were experiencing in our culture, our country, and our environment. We were upset about the state of world affairs and had set about in a manner we acknowledged to be experimental to improve them. We were particularly opposed to our government's military violence, to the competitive behaviors we felt were inherent in capitalism, and to the selfish male dominated non-cooperative values we then believed were wrongly engendered by the nuclear family. The Vietnam holocaust was to us a source of daily pain. So too was the perceived destruction of our natural environment and the permanent annihilation of other living species. We hoped we could make things better. We intended to be social reformers and pioneers, not escapists. Our productive and social failings, and our now obviously erroneous views regarding how planetary life might actually and ultimately be improved, especially in the light of subsequent world and personal history, humble and embarrass us today. Yet all of us benefited from our time and experiences at Franklin, learned lessons not available in classrooms or cities, and grew as people, parents, and citizens.
Dr. Jane Wheelwright, a Jungian therapist, who shared some of the values we espoused, purchased the farm we lived on for us. Jane was always the "owner" of the Franklin commune property, but she imposed no restrictions on our personal practices or use of the land, and left us free to do with our lives and the property as we wished. Since we didn't believe in private ownership of property this little fiction worked quite well. Jane never provided any money directly to us, but did pay the taxes on the farm, thus leaving us use of the property free and clear. In hindsight, her graciousness, and the fact that we did not actually own the land, influenced a number of our decisions and contributed to a number of attitudes and practices that did not serve us well.
Four couples, along with four children, began the commune with a very vague, somewhat shared, but poorly articulated vision of what our goals and our lifestyle were to be. Genuine participatory democracy was our ideal. Private ownership was out. Collectivity was in. Individual leadership was out. Male dominance was out. The nuclear family was out. We would try to live self-sufficiently, without dependence on fossil fuels or purchased goods. We would heat and cook with wood, grow our own food, do the farm work with horses, raise cash crops to barter for other necessities, educate our own children. The means to achieve these ends were often not agreed upon, and our vaguely articulated ideals were often in conflict with the reality of individual social and emotional demands, as well as the demands of farm life. For guidance we looked to romanticized visions of Native Americans and other indigenous "natural" people and to agrarian communes elsewhere in the world as we chose to selectively perceive them.
No matter how skilled or unskilled a commune member was, for example, we believed every person was required to learn to perform every task as an equal, whether that was pounding nails, shoveling manure, operating machinery, or mopping the floor and caring for the children. ("Give a person a fish and you feed him/her for one day. Teach a person to fish and you feed her for a lifetime.") I remember the shocked disapproval of two men visiting from an Israeli kibbutz as they watched ten or twelve healthy and potentially productive adults standing around doing nothing as one inexperienced communard tried to back the hay wagon up the ramp to the barn for unloading at the height of haying season. Efficient we were not.
We also had a disastrous open enrollment policy. After all, since people should not own the land or the earth, and since private ownership was eschewed, anyone who wished to be a part of our commune must be welcomed. At times during our first summer well over forty people were living on the farm, which strained our resources tremendously. And although the core group of "founders" always held some primacy, we were often trying to give that power away as well.
Evening meetings were mandatory to process events and divide the next day's work responsibilities. These meetings were also leaderless, frustrating, and inefficient, but in our view necessary to the development of the new society we imaged we were creating.
Our first purchase was a cow. That none of us had ever owned or milked a cow before in our lives did not deter us from this simple, safe, child centered, and immediately rewarding enterprise. Next we bought a team of horses, Jim, the steady and practical older gelding, and Mike, his stronger but far wilder and younger partner. Horses, unlike cows, are not easy or non-dangerous. They also don't respond well to multiple handlers. Naturally, when word got out that we were planning to work with horses some of the old timers from town who loved and honored this way of life came by to offer instruction and encouragement. Particularly important to us was George Truax, who gave endlessly of his time and wisdom in the arts and crafts of horse management, horse care, and the use and repair of horse drawn equipment.
After our first cow and horses we acquired others, as well as chickens, pigs, goats, more dogs, and cats. The farm was fertile and richly blessed with good growing lands. It also had a remarkably healthy and productive sugar bush, with a more or less complete set of sugar gathering and processing equipment. Although we had only moved onto the farm in February, and knew nothing at that time about horses or sugaring, when the sap started running after town meeting that spring of 1970, like many other Vermont farmers, we set out our taps. We produced over 150 gallons of fine quality maple syrup that first spring, marketed the syrup to a natural foods outlet in New York City under the Earthworks label, and made what seemed a handsome profit. Given the labor we put into this endeavor we probably cleared fifteen cents per hour.
Naturally, when our horse drawn equipment broke down, as old equipment often and inevitably does, we were hard pressed to find or fashion parts. In this realm, we became increasingly familiar with numbers of lovely, profound, and philosophical older farmers who gave graciously of their knowledge, skill, and used machine parts. Ken and Grace Spooner were also important to us in this regard. We often had the image that we kept a team of horses to spread manure on the fields, to plow the fields, to sow hay for the animals, to reap hay for the animals, including the horses, so they could take out the manure, etc. We were their servants as well as they were ours. The margin of profit on our “self-sufficient” turn of the century dairy was slim at best.
We were extremely happy and also extremely troubled throughout our existence. The beauty and the freedom we appreciated were ample and ever present. The hardships and harsh demands of farm life to novices were equally prominent. Inordinate amounts of time were spent making the simplest decisions. We were ridiculously inefficient. We did not achieve our production goals. Our notion that we could raise all our food organically fell short each year. Yet we put tremendous effort into food production and gardening, planted and harvested a two-acre vegetable garden, produced twenty five to fifty percent of the foods we consumed, and lived on an unbelievably meager amount of cash given our numbers.
Then too, we were not prepared for the rigors of country life and experienced some profound and serious setbacks. Large animals who we loved and cared for got sick and we had no sense of how to help them heal. Some even died in our care. Potato bugs ravaged our fields notwithstanding a commitment that every man, woman, and child would spend one hour each morning collectively hand picking bugs off our crops, an endeavor we persisted in for weeks. And the August drought the summer of '70, when our spring and potable water source quite literally ran dry, shocked us as well as seriously threatened ours and our children's health and well being. With over forty people living on the property, and with the main crops needing to be harvested, the fact that we didn't have water to drink created an energy and time consuming problem we had completely failed to anticipate or prepare for.
In this regard, our failure to harvest the oat field planted in spring's enthusiasm reflects over commitment and the absence of good harvesting equipment, as well as an overall level of disorganization and naiveté. The collective harvest of the oat field in winter was a political and spiritual gesture as much as a practical one, where over seventy persons from elsewhere in the state joined us one cold January day to make our way through the field in a visible manifestation of the rewards of joint endeavor. The image was far more important than the actual meager product. The sheaves of harvested oats that stood in that field were a reminder to one and all of what we were capable of achieving …and what we had failed to achieve.
There was energy in the commune movement that was far greater than we were, a social force operating beyond our will or control. Whereas one day there seemed to be few if any communes in Vermont or in the nation, by the summer of 1971 there were easily one hundred separate conglomerates of people sharing living situations in Vermont who considered themselves communes. These ranged from "political" communes, with no base on the land, to "spiritual/life style" communes with no interest in politics. In the summer of 1971 the Earthworks Commune co-sponsored a "gathering of the tribes" at the Franklin farm. Over three hundred people from dozens of separate communes across the state showed up for this meeting and numerous projects whose scope exceeded that which any one commune could create emerged from the gathering, including a free health clinic in Burlington, a food buying co-op, and a children's school at the Mt. Philo commune in Ferrisburg which drew children to it from numerous communes across the state.
The fire that destroyed the main house and wood shed right before Thanksgiving of our second year was a devastating blow and came at a particularly unfortunate time in the evolution of the commune. We had finally achieved a modest degree of stability. Our membership was relatively fixed at thirteen adults and six children. We had a very successful summer and fall from a production perspective. The shed was filed to the rafters with over sixty cords of wood. The root cellar held hundreds of pounds of summer crops, canned food, and preserved meat. We had devised a plan to reduce the number of mouths we had to feed in the difficult winter months, including a plan to house the children at the Philo Commune’s “Children’s School” and rotate parents as teachers to that site. We were prepared for sugaring well in advance.
After the fire we were forced to face the issue of our survival in very pragmatic terms. We had no place to live, no food, and no financial resources. A series of meetings about regrouping versus dissolving were held, mostly at Nat and Mimi Worman's home. We decided to attempt to stay together and rebuild. We erected a makeshift cabin where we could cook and where eight crowded adults could sleep. Others slept in the barn and converted school buses. Many from town succored us with food and clothing; communards from elsewhere in the state, particularly the Mullin Hill Commune in West Glover, provided manual labor. We drafted plans to build a combination workshop and home, the very home where the Gagne family who farms this land lives today.
Building in the midst of a Vermont winter is not ideal to say the least. Daylight hours are pitiably short. Frozen boards split from the pounding of nails. Gloved hands are not agile. Yet we did survive that winter, the children went to the school at Philo, and the stock thrived. By spring many people from elsewhere in Vermont came to help in the sugaring and rebuilding. Naturally, numerous helpers also meant numerous visitors to feed and house, but we were now organized, even "specialized." Only three or four people drove our team of horses. Only three or four people worked the fire and the fifteen-foot boiling pan in our sugarhouse. Guests helped cook, care for youngsters, carry wood, and gather sap.
I have a particular vision of that sugaring season which captures the essence of the Franklin commune experience for me. We were gathering heavily flowing maple sap on a glorious sunny day, temperatures in the high forties, using a three hundred gallon tank being drawn by our team of horses on a dray through deep snow. Dozens of people were tromping through the woods pouring sap from the tap buckets into gathering buckets and unloading those buckets joyfully and speedily into the horse drawn tank. As we drove the first fully loaded tank back toward the sugarhouse the dray hit a hidden rock and tipped over pitching the gathering tank off the dray and onto its side. Though we only lost about twenty or thirty gallons of sap, the tank was far too heavy for us to right and reset on the dray, even with all the people power we had. So we set about unloading the sap we had gathered in the tank back into the gathering pails and then retraced our steps through the snow to the trees we had just harvested where we poured the sap back into the very buckets just unloaded. It was as if someone had taken a movie of our operation and was now playing the reel in reverse.
Yet we did right the tank, and again made sweet syrup amidst our laughter, self doubt and self ridicule. We also finished the shop, planted the year's crops, and persevered through similar joys and failures for a number of years more.
Then the war in Vietnam ended and the "counter-cultural" energy seemed to dissipate. Commune parents and their biological children hungered to make safer saner units to live in. Couples now separated could not comfortably live with ex-spouses in new couplings. Old disputes and disagreements as to how we would live were no longer promising of agreeable resolution. Founding members drifted off and the connection to Jane was frayed. Newcomers did not find the commune as romantic or attractive as it had once been. The commune dissolved. Jane sold the land. The sap flowed in the trees. The grass grew over the scar in the earth that had been our home.
Nearly half a dozen residents of Earthworks still live in Vermont, some in politically and socially active roles. Others have careers in carpentry, psychotherapy, and the law. Occasionally we get together out of on going friendship or just plain curiosity. I know where every one who lived on the Franklin commune twenty years ago is today. Except for Peter and Shannon and their son who was born on the farm and lovingly named Truax, after our departed mentor George.