Pubdate: Sun, 06 Jul 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Author: Emily Langer
Page: C9


Stephen F. Gaskin, a professed "hippie priest and freelance rebel 
rouser" who assembled, preached to and presided over "The Farm," one 
of the largest and longest-lasting communes born of the 
counterculture era, died July 1 at his home near the settlement in 
Summertown, Tenn. He was 79.

Douglas Stevenson, who described himself as an unofficial spokesman 
for the still-extant Farm community, confirmed the death and said he 
did not know the cause.

In his day, Mr. Gaskin was a countercultural celebrity, the 
figurehead of a commune that seemed to have achieved the critical 
mass, wherewithal and collective commitment needed to make such a 
society work when so many others had petered out.

He first attracted notice in the late 1960s in San Francisco, where 
he convened weekly seminars called Monday Night Classes. They began, 
the New York Times reported, with the sounding of a horn and a long "om."

With the charisma of a guru, he drew hundreds of attendees - 
sometimes as many as 1,500- for sessions in which he delved into 
topics including religion and personal fulfillment. In 1970, he 
embarked on a national speaking tour. A caravan of about 60 school 
buses carrying several hundred followers came with him.

In 1971, they pooled their money and bought a tract of land in 
central Tennessee for $70 per acre. There they founded the Farm, with 
Mr. Gaskin as their leader.

Years later, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, an early 
communard recalled the decidedly counter-countercultural aspects of 
the region where they had settled and compared their arrival to "a 
spaceship landing in Tennessee."

Community members lived in tents and school buses before building 
homes. Modern amenities gradually arrived; the phone service was 
informally known as Beatnik Bell.

Sometimes called the "Technicolor Amish," the commune residents 
worked the land and eschewed material wealth. They pursued ecological 
sustainability, adopting vegan diets and rigorous recycling 
practices. Contraception was discouraged, and children proliferated. 
Marriage, perhaps to the surprise of skeptics, was encouraged.

Mr. Gaskin served as a spiritual guide, preaching a philosophy that 
combined elements of Christianity with tenets of Eastern faiths. The 
"psychedelic testimony of the saints," he called it.

The community became a nearly self-contained society, with an 
accredited K-12 school and a clinic with medical doctors. Business 
operations included a publishing house, a soy dairy and, most 
notably, midwifery. Mr. Gaskin's wife, Ina May Gaskin, is a 
nationally known advocate for home births.

Shortly after the Farm was founded, Mr. Gaskin was arrested, 
convicted and imprisoned for the manufacture of marijuana. 
(Cultivation of the plant on the Farm was later abolished.) But 
otherwise, news accounts describe a friendly relationship between the 
commune and the neighboring communities.

Under Mr. Gaskin's leadership, the commune did wide-ranging work 
through its humanitarian organization, Plenty International. Among 
other projects, Vanity Fair magazine reported, volunteers built 3,000 
homes and 300 public buildings after an earthquake in Guatemala. 
Domestically, the group founded an ambulance service for poor 
communities in the Bronx and did relief work after Hurricane Katrina.

By 1979, The Washington Post reported, the Farm was the "biggest and 
most prosperous commune in the United States," with its population 
peaking at more than 1,200. The prosperity proved fragile, however, 
as the community incurred debts including medical bills for members 
who had required outside care.

In the early 1980s, the group underwent the event known as "the 
changeover." They transitioned from commune status into a collective 
living arrangement, in which members earned money and paid dues to 
the community for group needs.

Today, the Farm has about 200 residents. Among its most successful 
business endeavors is the sale of personal devices to detect nuclear radiation.

"Homeland Security's been good to us. We're high-tech hippies now," 
Mr. Gaskin told the Los Angeles Times a decade ago.

In 2000, Mr. Gaskin sought the Green Party nomination for president. 
Weeks before the convention, he had amassed a war chest of $400, the 
Associated Press reported. His campaign platform included peace and 
the legalization of marijuana.

Asked by a reporter if he had inhaled - a reference to future 
President Bill Clinton's assertion that he had not - Mr. Gaskin 
replied: "I didn't exhale."

The nomination that year went to consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Stephen Floyd Gaskin was born Feb. 16, 1935, in Denver. After service 
in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, he studied creative 
writing at what is now San Francisco State University before 
beginning his speaking career.

He acknowledged having used illicit drugs. "Before I tripped I don't 
think I'd ever really introspected in my life," he told The Post in 
1979. At the Farm, however, he enforced a strict policy.

"We don't do acid on the Farm," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. 
"Peyote and mushrooms are a matter of personal conscience."

Mr. Gaskin wrote books including "Amazing Dope Tales," "Cannabis 
Spirituality" and "An Outlaw in My Heart." In recent years, he 
dedicated efforts to Rocinante, a retirement community he founded and 
named after Don Quixote's horse.

Mr. Gaskin was married three times before marrying the former Ina May 
Middleton, who, along with five children, survives him.

Reflecting on the Farm's "changeover," which improved the group's 
finances but marginalized him as a leader, he seemed sanguine.

"This generation moves like a school of fish," he said, "and you 
shouldn't stand in front of it when it moves. I was in sync with them 
for a while, but that changed, and that's all right. I'm not a baby 
boomer; I'm a beatnik. I honestly liked it better when it was a 
circus. . . . But I also like being solvent."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom