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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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.

“The appearance of Time magazine signified to me that we had lost our direction for the development of Drop City,” said Bernofsky. “Now, everything that I despised about fame was happening to us. There was too much glory too soon.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD KALLWEIT
  • Photo courtesy of Richard Kallweit
  • “The appearance of Time magazine signified to me that we had lost our direction for the development of Drop City,” said Bernofsky. “Now, everything that I despised about fame was happening to us. There was too much glory too soon.”

"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.

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