The Original Dropper 

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

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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?''

click to enlarge Drop City received considerable attention for its environmentally friendly geodesic domes. “This 40-foot diameter dome structure was constructed of culled 2x4s rejected by a nearby mill,” says commune co-founder Gene Bernofsky. “The mill let us have all the short ends we wanted for free, and we scabbed the shorts together to make a usable length for structures, sculptures, floors, furniture, fuel, etc.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD KALLWEIT
  • Photo courtesy of Richard Kallweit
  • Drop City received considerable attention for its environmentally friendly geodesic domes. “This 40-foot diameter dome structure was constructed of culled 2x4s rejected by a nearby mill,” says commune co-founder Gene Bernofsky. “The mill let us have all the short ends we wanted for free, and we scabbed the shorts together to make a usable length for structures, sculptures, floors, furniture, fuel, etc.”

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.

click to enlarge I continued running into Bernofsky from time to time. 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. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GENE BERNOFSKY
  • Photo courtesy of Gene Bernofsky
  • I continued running into Bernofsky from time to time. 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.

"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.

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