The Original Dropper 

Local author Mark Matthews' new book details America's first hippie commune—and its co-founder, Missoula resident Gene Bernofsky

Droppers chronicles the rise and eventual fall of America's first hippie commune, Drop City. This excerpt appears with the permission and assistance of University of Oklahoma Press (www.oupress.com) and author Mark Matthews. The photos are the property of Gene Bernofsky, a co-founder of the commune and current Missoula resident. Matthews and Bernofsky will read from and sign copies of Droppers at Fact & Fiction on the University of Montana campus Wednesday, April 7, at 7 p.m.

Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky made some vague mention of Drop City when I had interviewed him while on assignment for Audubon magazine in 2002. He told me he founded the nation's first hippie commune with two fellow graduates from the University of Kansas (KU) in the spring of 1965. I mentioned the fact in the article but hadn't thought to indulge in any fact checking at the time. During the same interview, Bernofsky also informed me he majored at KU in a scientific field called radiation biology or radiation biophysics—I don't remember exactly. I never bothered to fact check that bit of information either.

A few months after the Audubon piece appeared, I ran into Bernofsky on the street. When he began chuckling to himself, I asked what was up. He then confessed that he had laid a "dropping" on me during our interview. I asked what a dropping was.

"Well, it's something like this," he said. "There is no such field of study at KU that I told you I had majored in."

When I pressed for why he had lied to me, he answered: "People put too much emphasis on degrees and titles. I knew you would be more impressed if I told you I had majored in some esoteric scientific field, than if I had told you I had studied early childhood education. Interestingly enough, the alumni magazine at the University of Kansas phoned me for an interview after your article appeared in Audubon. They also wanted to write a story on me. They asked me the same question about my major, and I laid the same dropping on them. They mentioned the exact same imaginary field of study. Now that was a major dropping, considering they were writing about their own institution."

click to enlarge When word of Drop City spread through local newspaper accounts, the commune took certain steps to control visitors. “This [sign] was put up at our driveway to discourage 24/7 gawkers,” says Bernofsky. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GENE BERNOFSKY
  • Photo courtesy of Gene Bernofsky
  • When word of Drop City spread through local newspaper accounts, the commune took certain steps to control visitors. “This [sign] was put up at our driveway to discourage 24/7 gawkers,” says Bernofsky.

I continued running into Bernofsky from time to time, something not hard to do in Missoula. Bernofsky rode his bicycle everywhere—a hybrid street-and-mountain bike with a heavy durable frame and skinny tires. After retiring from the U.S. Postal Service he had begun to make documentary movies virtually from the seat of this bike, pedaling from Missoula to such far-flung realms as North Dakota and Utah in order to track down the possible exploitation of public lands by corporate America. In many respects, he is a low-budget Michael Moore, but not as ego driven, nor as physically big. He did, however, dress as casually as Moore—usually donning jeans, a white canvas shirt with frayed cuffs, and a ball cap that featured his own World Wide Films logo. Whenever outdoors he slipped on a pair of shades with thick black frames that, somehow or other, he had managed to keep from breaking or misplacing for more than 40 years. You can see him wearing the same sunglasses in photos taken at the commune in 1965.

By the time I had met him, Bernofsky had already turned 60, his curly dark hair had thinned on top to form a thick bird's nest around a goose egg-sized bald spot; and any grandmother would have enjoyed taking a stab at pinching his chubby cheeks. I never would have thought about supplementing the thousand words I had already written about Bernofsky for Audubon had it not been for novelist T.C. Boyle.

One Sunday morning, during the winter of 2003, I came upon a review of Boyle's newest novel, Drop City, in the Missoulian. The reviewer described the work as a satirical look at a hippie commune.

The next time I ran into Bernofsky, I mentioned the review and he told me that he had already contacted the publisher to request a free copy since, he said, "I was the one who had founded the real Drop City." The publisher complied, and Bernofsky later lent the novel to me.

The plot of Boyle's book alternates between two parallel storylines. One follows the paths of a young hippie couple and their cohorts who live at a commune in Sonoma County, Calif.; the other keeps track of a handful of survivalist homesteaders in Alaska. The young residents of the commune frequently walk about naked, have sex with multiple partners, get high on various drugs such as pot and LSD or get drunk on wine and beer, argue, fight, seemingly defecate behind every bush, and beg and bully money from visitors. They work as little as possible and show little artistic talent or initiative.

Reading the book, there was one thing I couldn't get out of my mind—I kept picturing Bernofsky in the role of the commune leader named Sender. I could imagine Bernofsky shucking and jiving the immigration officials at the Canadian border to distract them from searching the bus for drugs—just as the Sender character does. And I could imagine Bernofsky suggesting, like Sender, something just as romantic and ridiculous as relocating the commune to Alaska.

Even though Boyle named his novel Drop City, the author seemingly knew nothing about Bernofsky. Instead, Boyle had allegedly based his commune leader, Norm Sender, on a certain Ramon Sender, the first resident of an early commune located just outside Sebastapol, Calif., called the Morning Star Ranch. Boyle's Sender character also promotes the original Morning Star philosophy of "LATWIDNO"—Land Access to Which Is Denied No One.

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