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."
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.
Pam Hanna, a writer who once lived at Morning Star, described Boyle's characterization of her community as a condemnatory cartoon from hell, the Zap comix version. She complained that "he takes snippets of actual lifestyles and happenings of the period, and weaves it into a complete fabrication and caricature, not readily apparent to anyone who has not lived through and participated in the communal life of the era. Nowhere is there mention of the new social order attempted or the continuation of that social order in hundreds of communes that survive to the present time."
Ramon Sender also accused Boyle of misrepresenting the residents of Morning Star as "humorless, unrelentingly wasted and sad, with no redeeming qualities."
Bernofsky's critique of the novel was terser: "It's total bullshit. It was nothing like that." I sensed a challenge in Bernofsky's tone of voice. When I mentioned that people might be interested in reading about the real Drop City, Bernofsky looked at me and said: "It's about time you recognized that. What do you think I've been hinting at for the last year? I'm surprised it took you so long to suggest it."
Clark Richert, Bernofsky's classmate at KU, always had a feeling the two droppers would stay connected. In fact, he dreamt about it. But after graduation, Richert moved to Boulder, Colo., and Bernofsky ended up in New York City—and then Africa, where he unsuccessfully tried to start his first commune. When Bernofsky returned stateside, his friend traveled to New York, and the two got to talking.
"Comparing our visions," Richert said, "we postulated synthesizing them and in a great moment of clarity agreed: Let's do it. We would own the property, build A-frame houses, pay no rent, make films and art and as Gene put it, put our trust in dose Cosmic Forces."
But the cosmic forces did not indicate that the time was right and the two friends again parted without formulating a concrete plan.
"In the back of our minds," Richert continued, "we were all wondering: What do we do now? The only future I could see was graduation from the University of Colorado with an MFA degree—and then what?''
During the remainder of the spring, Bernofsky sold marijuana in New York. "A few weeks later," he said, "[my wife and I] decided to get into our car and drive around the West to find a rural piece of land where we could build a meaningful civilization. I had raised a couple of thousand dollars selling the last of the marijuana crop, and we took off for Montana."
By going rural, and especially in heading west, Bernofsky bucked a trend being set by his contemporaries. Ever since World War I, rural Americans had continually migrated to the cities as technology wrought a sea change in farmer productivity. During the 1950s, the nation had lost more than 1.6 million farmers, and almost a million more during the 1960s, thanks to mechanization. A few months before Bernofsky's departure, Time reported that the population drain was most pronounced in the West.
"Fewer and fewer Americans, about one out of three, live in the great outdoors now celebrated almost entirely in never-ever television westerns," the article stated. "In a curious miracle of abandonment, Americans have become strangers in a landscape that they believe has built their national character."
Montana had one of the smallest populations in the Lower 48 at the time, and the state still nurtures less than one million residents. Still, Bernofsky had little luck finding a home there.
"We drove all over the state and we found some land for sale, but we would have had to buy hundreds of acres at a time at $20 an acre," he said. "We couldn't buy just five or 10 acres. We tried because we really loved the state. Our next stop was Colorado, where we stopped off at Clark's house in Boulder. Clark and I again talked about finding a place where we could make things in peace and not be bothered. We again expressed our faith that the cosmic forces would generate enough income for us to survive on. Clark said he'd be happy to help me look."
The two headed out on their search on a sunny day in early May.
"I believe the idea was that we would head north to Missoula and buy land there," Richert said, "but following intuition and half-baked leads, we gradually turned to the south."
The friends eventually drove almost to the border of New Mexico where the landscape grew drier and supported little vegetation beyond irrigated fields. They could see an occasional cottonwood tree standing guard in a draw where water ran periodically after a rain storm or after snow melted. After a while they pulled off the highway and tooled around the county gravel roads. Their circuitous route took them past the poor, Chicano, laid-back town of Trinidad, Colo.
"We went through Trinidad," Bernofsky said, "and were driving around in a rural area about 10 miles to the east, in the El Moro area. There was nothing there but an old Depression era adobe schoolhouse—all dirt roads, semi-arid desert, and rolling topography with some farmhouses. Where two dirt roads intersected, we saw a 'For Sale' sign. The farmer, Mr. Anderson, wanted to sell five acres where he used to run goats for $200 an acre. I offered one hundred and fifty an acre and told him I had the money right on me. I think the Andersons saw we were okay young people. They were very generous and offered to let us live in their farmhouse while we built our own house. We closed the deal that day and I bought the land."
The date was May 3, 1965. During my early research of Drop City I discovered a slender paper trail that continually led back to this date. Sociologist Hugh Gardner designated that day's transaction as the date that more or less begins the "hippie" era of modern communes.
"In more ways than one the commune that was soon to sprout from the old goat pasture was an integral part of the birth of the counterculture," he wrote in his book, The Children of Prosperity: Thirteen Modern American Communes.
Others social scientists agreed.
"Drop City brought together most of the themes that had been developing in other recent communities—anarchy, pacifism, sexual freedom, rural isolation, interest in drugs, art—and wrapped them flamboyantly into a commune not quite like any that had gone before," wrote Timothy Miller, a historian of American religion at the University of Kansas. "Drop City thus represents the point at which a new type of commune building had definitively arrived. It was defiantly outrageous, proclaiming itself a whole new civilization, its members rejecting paid employment and creating wildly original funky architecture. It pioneered what soon became a widespread hippie love of integrated arts, creating multimedia extravaganzas, using color profusely, employing trash as source material, blending art with everything else in life."
Over the next decade the back-to-the-land commune movement would expand to include at least 5,000 and possibly 10,000 rural communal retreats. Thousands of others would evolve in towns and cities, especially where colleges were located. Sociologists estimate at least a half million young people would become temporarily associated with a communal enterprise—a scale Gardner described as "unprecedented in our history, involving more people and more organizations than all previous commune movements in America combined."
Bernofsky and Richert had no idea on that May day that they were vanguards of a cultural revolution. They certainly didn't think of themselves as hippies, since that term had yet to be coined. They just knew that they wanted to save society from the military-industrial complex and the soul-deadening effects of capitalism and its obsession with the unending accumulation of material wealth. At that moment, the goat pasture in Colorado symbolized a refuge where they would be able to dedicate their time to intellectual and artistic creation.
For inspiration in naming the commune, Bernofsky and Richert went back to the radical performance art of their undergraduate days, when they had started dropping painted pebbles from the rooftop of the building on Massachusetts Avenue down to the sidewalk in Lawrence, Kansas. Once a dropper, always a dropper, and Drop City instinctively rolled off their tongues.
"Those were the real roots of Drop City," Bernofsky said. "The dome was our first official dropping. This was going to be Drop City and we were going to be droppers. We felt as if we were functioning within the cosmic forces so much that we were actually influencing them."
Over the ensuing 40 years, the name, Drop City, would come to baffle many writers and scholars.
"Perhaps the most pervasive myths about Drop City have to do with its name," Miller wrote. "In the late 1960s the word drop had two special meanings. First, it meant ingesting LSD; dropping acid was the standard argot for that. Second, many hippies saw themselves as dropouts from a decaying society, the alienated who were going to build their own culture from the ground up. So anyone who heard of Drop City immediately had two associations, and the general presumption was that the name of the commune involved one or both kinds of dropping."
The FBI got it partially correct. "BERNOFSKY, on being specifically questioned as to the use of the name droppers and the name Drop City," one FBI report said, "stated that the terms had been adopted not from the viewpoint of meaning that he and the members of the community were dropping out of society and desired to isolate themselves, but rather from the viewpoint of desiring to shock society by indicating that we drop things here and there, thereafter alluding to the droppings of animals in that word usage connotation."
By midsummer, Bernofsky said, the droppers had moved out of the farmhouse and into their first geodesic dome, a dwelling made of things like chicken wire, tar paper, trash and sawed-off car tops. The architectural marvels would become the signature of the commune.
"All four of us—my wife and I, Clark and Richard [Kallweit, another KU art graduate] moved in," Bernofsky said. "My wife and I then decided that we wanted more privacy, so we pitched a tent between the two trees, a cottonwood and a black mulberry, that grew on our property in the southwest corner of the land below the dome. It was a small wall tent. In the mornings, we'd make a fire in the woodstove of the dome and cook up some gruel, and then we headed out to scrounge and build. We only owned hand tools, and the building of the domes took a lot of precise work. During the construction period, we were always accumulating found material from around the area. We would assemble it into massive collages, and place them along the fenceline of Drop City, and paint them with buckets of oil paint that Clark had gotten at school. Already, we were transforming the land."
From the inception of Drop City, the founding droppers had decided that they would make no rules, nor devise any standards by which to judge anyone who wished to join the community. In sociological parlance, Drop City had no "cross-boundary control" over its members or visitors. The droppers welcomed all comers with open arms and offered them full use of the community's resources. Newcomers could also bail out whenever they wished.
"We really believed the cosmic forces would take care of us," Bernofsky said. "We never drew up a charter or anything. The only legal paper we had was the land deed, which was in my name. The newcomers would show up and we would all pitch in and build separate domes for them. During the construction phase we set up a big wall tent for the families to inhabit. We had people showing up and making a commitment and contributing energy to develop the community. We really believed the cosmic forces would take care of us."
As the commune expanded, the press began to take notice. A local story about Drop City appeared in the Denver Post in 1967 and mentioned that "the droppers don't take drugs and they work diligently on imaginative projects and art works."
As far as newspapers were concerned, Bernofsky said, "It didn't make any sense to tell them the truth about drugs because we would have gotten busted. There were times we thought the feds were coming down on us and people would take off to hide their stash in the walls of their domes. But on the other hand, no, we didn't wake up in the morning and start smoking pot first thing. It was a way to recreate for us. There were certain activities I liked to engage in while being stoned—like playing chess. At Drop City we didn't want the hype to get out that we smoked dope. We didn't want a bunch of people lying around taking drugs and experiencing eternal insights. We were outside every day with our tools making things. There wasn't any place for heavy drugs."
Drop City resident Peter Douthit reported "the only thou-shalt-not rule at Drop City that everybody was serious about was never buying or selling dope." Even FBI informants denied that dropper associates used any type of drugs or liquor or were involved in any criminal activity.
However, Douthit painted a different picture in his book, which he published after leaving the commune. After reading Douthit's Drop City, reviewer Joseph Nicholson concluded in his Rolling Stone write-up: "Consciousness-expanding drugs are at the heart of the Drop City story. The dropper's daily intake reads like a spilled bowl of vegetable soup—T's and P's and L's and D's and S's and M's galore, plus grass, hash, speed, etc. The result is a macho perception of life at its simplest—the deer, trees, sky, and mountains. At the other end, we have the drug adventures, some hilarious, some revealing, some frightening. To go with the flow, yet maintain control was the objective." Richert admitted that "the droppers were pro-LSD, but we were not all heavy users."
It's hard to say just how much dope the droppers inhaled or swallowed, but there's no question drugs played some role in the dynamics of the community—and in the hippie movement in general. As the number of visitors to Drop City steadily increased, the droppers would have a large variety of drugs from which to choose—ranging from heroin to LSD. All were fairly easy to acquire at the time.
"How much of this hippie pharmacopoeia reached Drop City is hard to ascertain," Miller wrote, "but it is a fair guess that virtually all of the droppers had enough experience with marijuana to understand the notion of chemical alteration of consciousness."
Dropper fame spread as newspaper reporters and television crews from Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Boulder and Trinidad continued to churn out stories about the commune. Some articles painted the droppers in a good light as hard working and productive artists while others panned them as loafers and miscreants. The wire services picked up some of the stories, which then ran in papers up and down the Rocky Mountain front, but their reputation as an underground cultural center remained regional. However, one day in 1967, the shit hit the fan—at least from Bernofsky's point of view.
While working on the triple-fused dome, the undeclared leader of Drop City watched a shiny red Toyota drive through the commune gate and onto the property. Bernofsky took particular interest because most tourists showed enough respect to park along the road.
"Two casually dressed, neat looking men emerged from the sedan," he said. "A necklace of cameras dangled from the shoulders of one. When I saw those cameras I thought, here comes trouble. The two men introduced themselves as reporters from Time magazine and said they were looking for Peter Rabbit [aka Peter Douthit]. 'You'll find him in that dome,' I said. The reporters entered the dome, but quickly reappeared with Douthit, who proceeded to lead them around the community like a drum major. When the reporters stopped to interview me, they explained that Time was preparing a cover story on hippies and planned to focus a spotlight on Drop City. I refused to be interviewed and retreated to my dome while the reporters spent the rest of the afternoon holed up with Douthit.
"The appearance of Time magazine signified to me that we had lost our direction for the development of Drop City" he continued. "Now, everything that I despised about fame was happening to us. There was too much glory too soon. Our substance wasn't rooted deep enough to withstand the attention. Drop City was being sucked up by big-time commercial media and the community began to wither. It came about because of the myopic greed of some individuals seeking self aggrandizement. In the end, their true colors showed through. They were nothing but posturing buffoons who were able to manipulate the community for their own ends. They wanted to become the Allen Ginsbergs of the hippie movement. For me, that was elemental bullshit."
Bernofsky also objected to another new development at the commune. Douthit and others decided to host the Joy Festival, a June event that invited anyone and everyone to Drop City to partake in "Poetry-Painting-Music-Beans-Feds-Lite Shows-Dropping-Dance-Films."
"We had started arguing over it right from the beginning," Bernofsky said. "I was against it for one reason. At that time no essence or soul had been built into the community that could withstand anything like the Joy Festival."
Sociologists would have agreed with Bernofsky's analysis. The droppers never attempted to program individual behavior, require newcomers to go through an initiation, or to convert; nor did Drop City present any power structures or authority figure to inspire an individual to surrender to the group's subtle and ambiguous institutions. The main dropper institution was a work ethic, or better yet, a creativity ethic, which they pursued both communally and individually. Another institution, which they stridently protected—one that went hand in hand with creativity—was individual intellectual freedom. Mixing creativity and freedom transformed into dropper art. All was based on the ideals of brotherly love and rejection of capitalistic materialism. Those individuals astute enough to understand the subtle and often ambiguous institutions of Drop City pitched in to help build domes, tend to the chickens, and dig latrines as they simultaneously indulged in personal artistic pursuits. Those who continued to focus on themselves sometimes faltered in their commitment to the community, finding it difficult to abandon the American ideals of the self-made man or woman—despite their apparent voluntary acceptance of poverty. When individual rhythm coincided with the communal heartbeat, Drop City grew stronger. When self-interest persisted in a dropper, the bedrock of the community began to crack.
As the event approached, Bernofsky began to withdraw. He pulled back even more during the festivities.
"Everything you can imagine at the height of the psychedelic period of the mid-'60s happened that whole week," he said. "The noise was ceaseless. I stayed away and never came close to the dome the entire weekend. I didn't want to see it or participate in it."
Bernofsky's vision of Drop City as a gentle, nurturing home where creative people could start families and make art for art's sake—no, for life's sake—had been shattered. Drop City had suddenly garnered a new reputation: a place to pursue perpetual fun, where a person could get high, maybe get laid, and feel no pressure to take on any responsibility; a place to chill out for a while before moving on to somewhere else. He sensed the change. From that day on the commune would resemble a hobo camp, a Hooverville; community would exist only in the moment, faces would forever change, no one would set down roots. Drop City had splashed itself upon the counterculture map of America—big time.
"Everything I was naively dreaming about was lost and had been turned into a senseless, meaningless behemoth of empty smoke," Bernofsky said. "I had lost all input."
The next day, Bernofsky packed his family and their possessions into an old station wagon and hit the road once again. The FBI noted the departure and later tracked his movements: "Current investigation at Trinidad, Colorado, resulted in information that BERNOFSKY is believed by U.S. Post Office, and welfare agencies, Trinidad, to have left area in June of 1967..."