Ruins of Drop City

Trinidad, Colorado
August 1995

Ruins of Drop City, Trinidad, Colo., August 1995

Ruins of Drop City, Trinidad, Colo., August 1995

Credit: Joel Sternfeld

Three of the original founders of Drop City met as art students in Lawrence, Kan., in 1961. They referred to their practice of painting rocks and dropping them from a loft window onto the busy street below as “Drop Art.”

By 1965 the founders' desire to live rent free and create art without the distraction of employment led them to a six-acre goat pasture outside Trinidad, Colo., which they purchased for $450. Naming their community after their gravity-driven art was the easy part; building it a little harder. But having recently attended a lecture by Buckminster Fuller and now joined by a would-be dome builder from Albuquerque, N.M., they began with scrap materials and visionary optimism. Sheet metal was stripped off car roofs (for which they paid a nickel or a dime) and attached to the grid of a dome. These building materials not only provided shelter, but they also emblemized the group's refusal to participate in consumerist society. Money, clothing, and cars were shared, and they lived as quasi-dumpster divers.

Initially the community flourished. With a core group of 12, it functioned as the founders had intended, a hotbed of art-making. But a steady flow of publicity in underground and mainstream media, encouraged by resident Peter Rabbit, led to a torrent of guests. It has been reported that Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, and Jim Morrison visited, but the historian's chestnut, the primary account, may be less than reliable when it comes to the 1960s. By the time the community decided to abandon its open-door policy, it was too late: The founding members had left, and conditions had taken hold that would bring about a final dissolution in 1973. In 1978 the site was sold; proceeds helped rent space in New York City for exhibitions of the group's work and to publish it in Crisscross magazine.

The domes sat on the land of A. Blasi and Sons Trucking Co. until recently, when they succumbed to gravity.

The Farm

Summertown, Tennessee
March 2003

The Farm, Summertown, Tenn., March 2003

The Farm, Summertown, Tenn., March 2003

Credit: Joel Sternfeld

When Stephen Gaskin, a charismatic philosopher from San Francisco, went on a speaking tour in 1970, his adherents followed him in buses and vans. After each engagement, a few more vehicles would follow along, until hundreds of people were in the caravan. Eventually, they bought 2,000 acres of land in Tennessee and began living communally as the Farm.

They lived according to “Agreements,” including a personal and collective dedication to “harmlessness, right livelihood, right thinking, etc., while maintaining a sense of humor.” All members agreed to a vegan diet, nonviolence, a shared purse, and voluntary poverty. Housing for the first several years consisted of used Army tents and the buses and vans in which they had traveled.

As the population steadily grew to 1,400, the Farm gained self-sufficiency in food production and took on the aspect of an at-once primitive and technically advanced small town, dedicated to humane enterprise. Soybean farming and research led to commercial sales of soy products such as tofu, tempeh, soy yogurt, and Ice Bean, an ice cream equivalent.

When an earthquake devastated Guatemala, the Farm sent its charitable arm, Plenty, with carpenters and workers to aid in rebuilding; an ongoing relationship with communities in Central America resulted. When municipal ambulance service in New York City's South Bronx became unconscionably inadequate, the Farm began its own voluntary ambulance corps there.

As the Farm grew, Plenty expanded, and satellite farms in 20 states and foreign countries were founded. To stay in touch, a group of ham radio operators living at the Farm developed innovative space-based communications and an electronics manufacturing center, which helped serve the Farm's broader environmental aims.

The Farm has developed solar hybrid vehicles, the doppler fetoscope (for amplifying the heartbeat of a young fetus), portable concentrating solar arrays, and numerous other inventions, but the one device that has remained constantly in production and a financial success is the Nukebuster, a pocketsized Geiger counter with a built-in alert system. After the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, sales of Nukebusters boomed. The resulting profits played a critical role in saving the Farm during a crisis in 1983, when crushing debt and a national recession nearly brought to an end one of the most important alternative communities of the modern era.