The Original Dropper 

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

Page 4 of 4

"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.

click to enlarge Droppers lived by a certain work ethic, or better yet, a creativity ethic, which they pursued both communally and individually. They also stridently protected individual intellectual freedom. When the droppers worked together, the community grew. But when they pursued personal agendas, Drop City started to suffer. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD KALLWEIT
  • Photo courtesy of Richard Kallweit
  • Droppers lived by a certain work ethic, or better yet, a creativity ethic, which they pursued both communally and individually. They also stridently protected individual intellectual freedom. When the droppers worked together, the community grew. But when they pursued personal agendas, Drop City started to suffer.

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.

click to enlarge The back-to-the-land commune movement would expand to include at least 5,000 and possibly 10,000 rural communal retreats. Sociologists estimate at least a half million young people would become temporarily associated with a communal enterprise. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD KALLWEIT
  • Photo courtesy of Richard Kallweit
  • The back-to-the-land commune movement would expand to include at least 5,000 and possibly 10,000 rural communal retreats. Sociologists estimate at least a half million young people would become temporarily associated with a communal enterprise.

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..."

  • Email
  • Print

More by MARK MATTHEWS

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

© 2014 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation