Initiation and Early History - Alpha Farm - 1976

Tags: History, Alpha Farm, Forming Community, Personal Experience

Initiation and Early History AF-A2
Alpha Farm

Initiation and Early History AF-A2

Alpha farm began with a powerful compulsion at a Quaker meeting for worship in March 1971. The setting was a camp in New Jersey where about 90 people from around the world who were associated with the American Friends Service Committee (the "service arm" of the Quakers, dedicated to implementing the values of their faith through, peace and social action projects) were convened to reconsider what they were about.

AFSC, since its founding in 1917, had been based upon the Quaker faith of "that of God" within each individual, and likewise upon the inner call to do good works in the world. Many of those 90 in New Jersey had dedicated large portions of their lives to this work, and AFSC had a well-deserved reputation for projects of the highest quality and integrity. But the world was becoming a more and more complicated place upon which to make a positive impact , and sometimes AFSC staff found itself divided by sincere differences of opinion. The conference was intended to solidify AFSC action. However, some of the staff were not feeling that they were being heard of their views seriously considered, and as this minority considered what to do about it, they concluded that nothing could be done except to support each other. At the following meeting for worship, which was scheduled to last 15 minutes and actually lasted an hour and a half, there was a particularly intense movement of the spirit. Caroline was in attendance at that meeting, and that time marked the beginning of the realization of a "commandment" being given her.

The command had to do essentially with changing the world. The world would be changed not through projects but by living the spirit of God with wholeness and balance and givingness, in a community of people dedicated to that way of life. The change that would change the world was first in our own hearts, and as enough people stayed attuned to that spirit , its reality would naturally expand to others.

Back home in Philadelphia, Jim and Linda and Glenn also felt the truth of that message. Truth is an exhilarating thing and it affected each of them strongly. Little if anything was known about communities but they discovered that they had become one. It seemed natural to share evening meals together and quickly coalesced as a family. Relatively little research was done on communities; not much information was readily available. But it somehow didn't matter. When one feels the truth of something, faith is a natural byproduct. What mattered, they felt, was their cooperation with it.

One other community was visited, Brotherhood of the Spirit in northern Massachusetts. There some things were noticed that were of value, other aspects that they felt different. It was on that journey that they decided not just to talk about community, but to do it.

Jim, Caroline, Maria, Linda and Glenn arranged to take vacations together to look for land. The idea was to find a situation where the social and political climate was most favorable to something as unorthodox as a community. There seemed to be need to make a frontal attack on local values, but rather to take advantage of receptiveness wherever it existed. Based on some experience and on general impressions of regional "personalities," the Northwest was selected after eliminating the rest of the country for one reason or another. The Northwest was seen as generally open minded and tolerant, with relatively small populist-type political units. The land was newly settled by white people, and tradition was not entrenched compared to most other areas. The climate was mild, educational facilities were good, the ocean was nearby and the land seemed not to be particularly prone to earthquakes.

One week after arriving in Oregon (it was decided that of Washington and Oregon, the Eugene vicinity was most what we wanted), the land was found. For those involved, this is a story in itself-- a week marked by leadings and coincidences and the feeling of being in the right place at the right time, further testimony to the felt guidance. The land cost $78,000, complete with buildings and farm machinery -- a bargain at less than $250 an acre. It was roomy the way they had imagined it should be for a community. And it was beautiful. Among them they scratched up a few hundred dollars in earnest money and wondered what they were getting in for.

Rather than establishing a core group of like-minded souls first, and rather than establishing a financial base for the enterprise, and without even doing much research on the experience of other communities past and present, these people just plunged ahead, with faith in the presence that they felt.

Back in Philadelphia, a prospectus was written to explain the undertaking and attract support. Through it, Kate and Jules Williams and Gary and Rachel Sweatt decided to participate. And financial arrangements through mortgages, loans, houses sold and gifts came together so that at the very last moment the property down payment could be made.

Linda was the only one free of engagements to take possession of the land on April 1st, 1972; she drove across the continent in a W bug (with two hostile dogs in the back seat separated by a big board) and showed up to make a presence and start a garden. The Williams and Sweatts (who had never met each other) arrived later that spring, Jim and Caroline sent any surplus money they could earn ahead until they could join the group in mid-summer, and Glenn finally arrived early in October after having completed his work of alternative service.

At that point there was no income at all, only savings which were rapidly consumed. Everyone worked like pioneers (that is, eager but green) and in seven months managed to convert the unfinished farmhouse attic into two bedrooms; transform a small cold-cellar storage building into a residence (Linda's); metamorphose the chicken coop/rabbit hutch into a cottage, including a new roof with hand-split shakes; repair the falling-down south end of the barn; make a livable cabin out of a tin roofed former canning kitchen; and (with help from Glenn's parents who also moved to the area) remodel and open a store in Mapleton. All this before the year of 1972 was out. By that time Alpha was heavily in debt, had no income, had committed itself to investing energy into Alpha Bit which at the time attracted only a smattering of paying customers, and attempted to rely on a fireplace to heat a twelve room house! These people were not used to cold beds or a diet of beans and rice. In addition, most of them had only sensed what was in the prospectus and trusted it, and had not had the advantage of living together previously and knowing the fullness of the vision of community. There were no written agreements. Any leadership that existed had to be earned by dint of persuasiveness in opposition to the strong ethic of leaderlessness-verging-on-anarchism. There was no agreement for settling differences; and although Quaker-style consensus was the accepted method of self-governance, not everyone had had experience with it. Not everyone was a Quaker, nor was there a desire for a common religion. Nor was there any easy way, or a common vocabulary, for expressing the very compulsion of spirit that had brought the group together. As if to emphasize the trials of the infant community, the weather that first winter was the coldest on record for western Oregon, with the thermometer at Alpha registering ten degrees below zero F.

It was as if the cycle had a certain course to run, and our commitment was being tested. And what was it as we finally paused to look up from our work, that we found around about in the neighborhood? The old homestead was known in these parts as "the old Swanson place," where under the Homestead Act the elder Swanson staked his claim and settled. Prior to white settlement there had been some Indians, the region being held as a reservation until that was dissolved in the early 1890s. Indian population had always been sparse in the area, however, Swanson built a small house and a large barn, probably shortly after 1900. The house burned down, probably coincidentally with the large forest fire that swept through Greenleaf and Deadwood in 1909. Swanson replaced the first house with the one standing now. He and his three sons, helped by many part-time workers, raised cows and pigs, selling ham and cream (feeding the milk after separation to the pigs). Tales abound among the old-timers of the area of Swanson and his sons: strong men doing hard work while the women strictly kept the home. They were very frugal people, and they had a local reputation of hiring workers for just a few pennies. One of the sons, Ted, took over the place from his father. Later on in his life Ted was made an invalid in a stump-burning accident, and he spent the last years of his life in the room now serving as a library. The stains of the tobacco juice which he spat across the room are still visible on the back of the door. After his death, the farm was sold to the Kellers, who held it for about eight years.

For a period of time in the early days, the area was served by a post office located at the Swanson homestead, and it was named after a favorite niece of Swanson's, Alpha Lundy. Thus the name Alpha got on the map (where it still may frequently be found) and thus the Communitarians from Philadelphia found a perfect name for the community.

The tradition among the loggers and homesteaders of the area was characterized by live-and-let-live independence rather than a great deal of cooperation. Frequently these were strongly religious folk whose main social involvement was with the local church (the church building was near the corner of where Deadwood Creek Road joins Rt.36); and aside from the trip to church every Sunday and an occasional get-together (we have been told that the fourth of July was the time of an annual picnic for the neighborhood at the Swanson place), the folks were retiring, reclusive people who we deliberately had chosen to settle in an isolated valley far away from the evil influences of the world, cities in particular. This was an era long before formal education above the eight grade was readily available or, indeed, necessary. Hard work on the part of both husband and wife was indispensable and if the homestead was really to make a go of it as Swanson's did, it also took the labor of at least several children and quite a few hired seasonal hands or relatives. The Swansons milked between twenty and thirty cows every day, raised all of the animal feed and most of the human food. Horses supplied pulling power for the plows, but the hay was mown with a scythe and put up loose in the barn--by hand. Only a pedestrian bridge crossed Deadwood Creek. Twice a week or perhaps three times a week Swanson put a yoke on his shoulders and carried the cream across the bridge to be picked up; the cream that came from the dairies in Deadwood was well-known elsewhere in western Lane County for its high quality.

There were only a handful of farmers. Mostly the industry in the area was logging and milling. Many small-type "gypo" logging outfits using oxen or steam-powered engines removed almost all of the magnificent old-growth fir and cedar from the hillsides. Wood was relatively cheap and waste was tremendous. So were human lives: serious accidents and death were frequent in the woods, and in the early days logging was often done by unmarried men. In the second third of the century heavier machinery and trucks entered the lives of both loggers and farmers, easing the danger and roughness of those occupations considerably. The ethic of hard work and independence remained, however.

Thus when the strange people with long hair and beards moved onto the Swanson place in 1972, a major criterion for acceptance hinged on their image around work. If they were lazy and drew the dole, it would be tough going. But when the newcomers obviously worked hard, sought out practical advice, were interested in the welfare and history of the neighborhood, and were evidently intent on improving their lot, it was then easier to overlook the hair, the rumor of peculiar religion, and reports that they sometimes ran around indecently exposed. Getting along with the neighbors is important to us, and has been from the first. It is natural consequence of the original vision: if indeed we are to change the world not by proselytizing or politicizing but rather by allowing a fullness of spirit and openness of heart to be dominant in us, then it follows that an invitation to some exposure is in order.

At the very beginning, therefore, Alpha-Bit came into being. We could scarcely afford it. We borrowed on credit established in our "previous" lives. But creating a common ground for meeting the public was a priority, and so there was the choice to offer what we hoped would be useful services-- a healthy-food cafe, well-selected books, and crafts. The name -- a bit of Alpha-- reflected the true purpose of extending to the public a certain kind of atmosphere where there was a lightness of spirit, friendship even to strangers, and an openness of who we are and what we're about. In the smattering of research on communities that had been done prior to arriving in Oregon. There was one clear warning: cliquishness and isolation tends to create hostilities, a sense of unreality, and in the long run has destroyed many a community. A certain degree of value-supporting separateness is helpful in establishing a firmly grounded centeredness, but it should be balanced with continued contact with society. Alpha-Bit from the beginning has served that purpose. We have generally tried not to have someone work at the farm all the time-- and the friendships and contacts that have been made there are invaluable.

Prior to taking possession of the land, we were asked to write an article about Alpha, and we obliged. It appeared in the first issue of Communities Magazine, a forerunner of Communities Magazine. The publishers inadvertently printed our address, so beginning the very first summer a large number of people visited. This was when communes were an exciting new aspect of the "counterculture," and touring the commune circuit was the "in" thing to do. Some came by prearrangement, some without, pitching tents on the field or front lawn complete with Coleman cooler and pet dog. Despite the overrun feeling, these people were welcome not only for the labor they contributed but because this was another important means of sharing our ideals and our atmosphere with others. Eventually, after a degree of visitor burnout (there were times when guests outnumbered the people who lived here), some aids and controls were adopted such as "trolls" and a visitor calendar.

There was no blueprint that came with the compulsion to begin a community. We knew that our accustomed modes of "doing good" needed to be set aside. We knew that community was more a change of heart than a change of living arrangement. However there was a good deal of caution in those early days, and in the prospectus, about being too explicit regarding finances, degree of commitment , legal structure, and so on. We had a vague idea that the community should be about 20 people, and suggested that each individual be responsible for $5,000. There were no guidelines aside from the assumption that all income would be shared. Circumstances clarified to ambiguities. We were broke. We had no income. And we were quite deeply in debt. To help out, Jim Estes took several short-term jobs at the San Francisco newspaper where he had previously worked. Gary Sweatt started to develop a loom design, and after remodeling the west side of the barn as a woodworking shop, the community spent hundreds of hours during that first winter and spring sawing and sanding for wages that were modest, to say the least. It did not seem right for us to get regular jobs at the local mills; nor did it seem right to raise cattle as the previous owner had.

By this time everyone except the Sweatts had invested everything they owned into Alpha. Their commitment and the community need called for it, and by the spring of 1973 it seemed to be time to begin to settle our financial arrangements and put them on paper. It was also becoming clear that Alpha's style was one of a tightly-knit expanded family, not merely an umbrella for nuclear families. As a result of these things, the Sweatts decided to leave the community, which they did in the summer of 1973, and have since been neighbors. And at this time the community decided some of the most basic elements of its nature, such as the distinction between membership and residency, the requirement for members to pool their resources in the community, and the idea that membership is a significant commitment "for the foreseeable future."

Early 1973 was very difficult economically. Occasionally an income tax refund check would come, like a gem from bygone times. Caroline sold most of her valuable collection of Wedgewood china, which in itself was a significant statement of commitment. But there was no panic, and the community still trusted the power that had led thus far. A major break came when a bid was entered for the mail delivery contract and we were notified of its acceptance. It promised a reliable income for at least four years, and although it scarcely seemed to make a dent first in the pile of bills and urgent needs, it has provided a substantial economic boost since July, 1973.

In January, 1974, heavy rains followed a period of freezing weather, and the result was a severe flood. The floor of Alpha-Bit was covered with four inches of water, ruining a compressor. And at home, the bridge was severely damaged. Yet another crisis! A log bridge, such as the one damaged, we discovered would be prohibitively expensive to replace. Once again we relied on faith to see a way through. Someone gave us the idea of using a railroad flatcar for a bridge, and we investigated. The length of car that we needed was quite rare, being longer than the common flatcar. None were available, even at great distances. Then, even while we waited, a flatcar of exactly the right kind was slightly damaged in an accident in Eugene. Southern Pacific agreed to sell it to us for the very low price of $2,250-- the largest car ever taken out of the Eugene railroad yard, we were told. And not only was the flatbed found, but friends whom we hardly knew gave us $2,000. The bridge was installed by a neighbor, Tubby Beers, whom we had gotten to know through Alpha-Bit.

Clearly the establishment of a community--simply from the physical point of view-- was a huge task, and our core group was small. Beginning the first summer, people who wanted to work for a summer in return for board were invited. Three people showed up and were a great help. They also were an outrageous blend of genius and craziness, and we began to get experience with "summer people," the predecessor to "residents". One lesson quickly learned was that it was almost impossible to have them on any other basis than as part of the family, on a footing that was in day-to-day matters virtually equal. We also learned that we needed to be selective as to whom we invite into the family for an extended period. We were not strong enough to include people with severe psychological illness; we were not a therapeutic community. We also learned that a "summer residency" was a natural avenue into the community for people who might later wish to commit themselves as members. Another lesson was that our need for labor must never overshadow the need to have people here who are in tune with the purpose and the spirit of Alpha. We tended not to talk much about our group purpose or our experience with faith. There wasn't much of a common vocabulary to express what was felt, and sometimes the vocabulary of one individual was threatening, or simply meaningless, to another. And most of our time went toward basic survival, anyway. But we learned through experience that whether we can describe it or not, the spirit or the atmosphere at Alpha is at the center of our experience, and even a single individual out of tune with it is a serious disruption. There needed to be a selectivity somehow based on intuition.

In the midst of the struggle for survival and difficulties in communicating the experiential, intangible atmosphere and values, there became the need to deal with disharmonies in the group. The tendency was not to talk about differences, which alone did not solve them. Beginning the summer of 1974 a meeting was established which was called, for lack of a better name, "Third Meeting." It was a departure from any previous methods of expressing ourselves, and was undertaken somewhat reluctantly. They were sometimes difficult meetings, but they did serve to open channels of communication, establish clearer commitment, strengthen levels of trust, and solidify some of our values.

Still there was no established legal entity for Alpha, and the group undertook to create--without benefit of known community precedents-- a set of legal papers. It was decided to incorporate as a cooperative, and a set of bylaws were drawn up reflecting the economic and membership policies that we wanted. This took effect on May 1, 1975.

By 1975 and 1976 there was a felt need for becoming more comfortable among ourselves with our individual and group religions and spiritual feelings. The psychological realm was important and had its place, but it was also clear that it was quite limited in its scope. Toward the end of developing a common vocabulary and beginning to identify more clearly our common values, we had weekly evening gatherings, sharing our personal religious and spiritual histories and thoughts. We also read "Center of the Cyclone" by John Lilly, had study sessions of the Yoga Sutras, learned songs and hymns and chants, meditated and danced together, listened to many a tape recording, and most importantly talked with each other freely and non-defensively about these matters. In many cases people found that they had preconceptions which weren't accurate, or found that particular words were blocks to them because of past associations , whereas for another person the same word might be a key to something of great value. The point was not to arrive at a rigid code of our own, but to sense the truth of values. This was the beginning of a continuing cross-pollination of ideas, and the breakdown of many exterior casings of form and ritual around religions that divided and excluded.