The groovy beginning (and bittersweet end) of two hippie communes in Vermont
Fifty years ago, a few idealistic young people fled Nixon’s America to live off the land in Vermont. Photographer Peter Simon remembers.
IN 1966, I WAS A SOPHOMORE at Boston University studying photography, among other subjects, when I fell under the spell of a dynamic upperclassman named Ray Mungo. Ray was the editor of the student newspaper, The Boston University News, and a committed champion of left-wing causes.
Of course, the late ’60s were a time of revolutionary change, particularly in conservative Boston, and this skinny, impish editor had made a name for himself on campus with his fiery editorials. He opened my eyes to the social and political issues of the day and changed my life forever.
By 1968, Ray had graduated and was living in Washington, D.C., where he founded the Liberation News Service, a left-wing version of the Associated Press. Close to broke and living in near-squalor, he became completely disenchanted when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It wasn’t long before he realized he needed to make a change.
On Easter, Ray and another friend, who went by the name Verandah Porche, hatched a plan. “We thought the cities were going to crumble — there would be no more Boston, New York, or D.C. as we knew them. We were full of apocalyptic fear,” he says. “I knew a friend from college who lived deep in the hills of old Vermont who casually mentioned there was a crumbling farmhouse up for sale near his camp. So we thought, Let’s buy it!”
I was a privileged kid — I’m the son of Richard L. Simon, cofounder of the publishing house Simon & Schuster — and had the means to loan Ray $5,000 for the down payment. The “farm” cost $25,000 and included a dilapidated house and more than 60 acres of cleared, rolling landscape. Ray later dubbed it Total Loss Farm; set deep in the woods, it was heated by wood stoves and had outhouses instead of bathrooms. It was here that we would attempt to lose our egos, live collectively, and “merge with the universe.”
Understandably, some of the locals, mostly cattle farmers, were wary of this band of long-haired, dope-smoking weirdos and concerned that their property values would plummet. One dark night, some people in a pickup truck drove down the farm’s driveway and fired guns to scare us. But Ray and his group were open-minded and diplomatic toward the neighbors, and in time the tensions eased.
Meanwhile, I was still a student at BU and was making my way in photography, receiving assignments from The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Time, and others.
I would visit Total Loss Farm on weekends, when I slept on a thin mattress in a loft. As a city kid, I took a while to adjust to the “hard living” aspects of life in the country, like trudging to the outhouse in the dark during a sleet storm and waking up freezing because the fire in the wood stove had died out. But I tried my best to fit in, and I loved the camaraderie, the occasional acid trip, and the home-cooked meals.
By the time I graduated in 1970, I had to make a choice: a career in the city as a photographer, or a completely different kind of life in the country. I had developed an ulcer around this time and was feeling pressure from my mother to “do something important” with my life. I was at an impasse when I heard of another farm for sale; it was just down the road from Ray and the gang.
At $62,500, it was more than twice the price of Ray’s farm, but it had oil heating and working bathrooms! The main selling point for me, though, was the majestic view — a western expanse of rolling hills framed by two perfectly positioned birch trees.
Lacey, my live-in girlfriend at the time, made it clear she would break up with me if we didn’t make the move. That sealed it. Together with a friend, Harry Saxman, we pooled our money and made an offer.
We arrived at what we christened Tree Frog Farm in fall 1970 with no more expectations than being gentlemen farmers and an “if we buy it, they will come” philosophy — and they did. Within two months, we were sharing our home with about 10 mostly Jewish, free-loving, educated hippie friends from the greater BU community.
Harry and I split most of the bills while the others focused on the farming and the care and feeding of the animals: two cows, four dogs, two cats, and a bunch of chickens. We had a huge garden that supplied the bulk of our fresh vegetables, and in the spirit of the times, we sometimes tilled and pulled weeds in the nude.
Our life on the farm was relatively easy compared to the group at Total Loss Farm, and that gave us the freedom to focus more on our feelings than on survival. Sex was casual, with couples breaking up and rearranging on a regular basis, and one cozy winter night we even shed our clothes and discussed the idea of group sex, but settled on a group hug instead. That’s not to say there weren’t jealousies and hurt feelings, but overall, things seemed to be working just fine. Actually, one of the most heated confrontations was when Harry installed a microwave oven without the group’s consent.
But things are not always as they seem, and shortly after the end of the first year, three of the original members, disgruntled with the (mostly unspoken) commune hierarchy, defected to Canada, where land was cheap and Nixon wasn’t in charge. In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end. Word had gotten out about a fun-loving hippie commune in Vermont with lots of good food and pretty women, and before long we were sharing our home with people we felt nothing in common with.
Harry and I began to withdraw from the new crowd, and I decided to focus on my photography career, which took me to Boston, New York, and eventually the West Coast and Hawaii. Three months later, I returned to find strangers sleeping in my bed, and I had to spend the night in my car. To complicate things, I had fallen in love with a woman who didn’t fit in with the others, and they gave her the cold shoulder. Finally, Ray, who had come out as gay, had become infatuated with a straight man from another commune. Rejected and brokenhearted, he left Total Loss Farm for good.
Within 2½ years, the dream was over. The hard realities of life on the farm, the menial labor, and our dwindling levels of tolerance for one another proved to be too much for this naive group of city dwellers. Tree Frog Farm was abandoned and eventually sold.
IN JUNE, I RETURN TO VERMONT for a 50th reunion of Total Loss Farm. I’m eager to see what has become of all of those young idealists and to reconnect with people I shared such an incredible experience with. As I approach the farm, it brings back feelings from that time: the excitement, the optimism, and the fears. Eerily, almost everything feels exactly the same: every branch, every rock, and every bump in the road.
On the first night, about 75 people gather to watch a presentation of some 250 photographs I’ve brought for the occasion. We see ourselves in our prime — young and vibrant kids trying to create our own world. It’s touching to see some of our second- and third-generation offspring with tears running down their cheeks.
The next day I spend time catching up with Ray, now 72 and living in Southern California. He spent his post-commune days writing books and working as a home health aide for AIDS patients in San Diego and, later, as a social worker in Los Angeles. Verandah, a true original, still resides in the house at Total Loss Farm. She writes poetry, is active in the local community, and hosts a steady stream of guests in the seemingly unchanged farmhouse. Harry, meanwhile, built a home adjacent to Tree Frog Farm and worked for a maple syrup company. Later he moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, where he joined an artists’ commune called Art Commandos.
“I was pretty repressed as a kid and young adult, afraid to show deep feelings,” Harry says. “There was no hugging or affection in my upbringing. Having those two years with you all made me a much kinder, softer, and empathetic person. This was without the aid of psychedelics, by the way. It was like a constant contact high.”