The First Encounter with the Founder
by Judith Ashley, Psychologist
I first became aware of the Founder when he came into our store and started asking everyone a lot of questions. He didn't bother to introduce himself, to try to make friends, or to do anything to help us relax. We had no idea of who he was, although the idea of him being from the IRS was more than a little preposterous. However, he certainly wasn't a tourist.
Since he was actually interfering with our morning's work, I thought I better make it my business to sit down with him, quiet him down, and see what he was up to. So, I went up to him, introduced myself, and asked him his name. I told him that I could answer any questions he might have, and I asked him to join me for a drink and a snack in our restaurant.
He seemed a little disconcerted about my request, perhaps because I was about his age and fairly attractive. So, I informed him that I wasn't making a pass but that I was one of the officers of our community. He indicated that he found that hard to believe, but he did join me at the snack shop. He ordered a sandwich and a drink but did not offer to order anything for me, not that I minded; in fact, I was pleased to note that he was taking me at my word.
I told him that before we would answer all of his questions that he needed to answer some of ours. He seemed uncomfortable about this request and asked what we needed to know. I told him that we needed to know more about who he was and why he wanted to find out about us.
He first explained that he was just someone interested in joining a community like ours. I explained that we had run out of room and weren't taking any more members. He then told me that he had recently acquired a lot of money and had used it to buy a great deal of land, and he wanted for some of us to come and live on his land. I asked him if he had brought a map of his property, and he said no. I could sense that he wasn't quite telling the truth, and I was wondering how I should proceed. But without any prodding, he began telling me why he was interested in our community.
So, I became an active listener, and he told me about his momma, his dad, the farm, and lots about his motivations and interests. I asked him if he was married or had a girlfriend, and he uncomfortably said he "hadn't met the right person." I guessed from his behavior that he was still a virgin and had spent little or no time with women. His relationship with his mother had been too close and with his father too traumatic. He was a strongly inhibited and an almost completely isolated individual. However, he was kind and sensitive; he showed a real love of nature and a strong concern about the damage the human race was causing. A community like ours would be perfect for him, although he had no special skills to make him attractive to us.
As he talked, I realized that he wasn't a threat, even though he was lying about something, and I found myself warming up to him, so I offered to show him around when it finished raining.
His offer of land in Alabama was not something that would create automatic enthusiasm; however, recently, more and more people had expressed interest in joining us, we had had our own little population explosion, and our valley had acquired all the people it could hold. Alabama, though, was awfully far away, and the on-going violence against Negroes and hostility against "outsiders" could create serious problems. The Selma March and the murder of one of the marchers had occurred just the previous year.
Then he wanted to know all about us. He said he had read a good report, but he wanted to learn from us firsthand. I first explained the layout of our community. It was situated in a single, narrow valley in the curve of the Appalachian Mountains in central Pennsylvania, with the mountainsides wooded and the valley floor mainly cleared for crops and for some dairy cows. The store was located on the highway at the extreme south end of our land. The store was a little bit of this and that; in fact, we had several outside entrances and signs to break it up, but we considered it all one store. First, there was a gas station. Although we had just a few Microbuses and work trucks, the gas station encouraged travelers to stop, so we kept it open. In the gas station, we sold sandwiches, curios, paintings, photographs, pottery, and this and that to tourists and locals. Next door, sharing the kitchen, was the restaurant, selling home-grown, vegetarian health foods; it wasn't a complete success in spite of delicious foods: putting "vegetarian" on a restaurant sign is like putting a heavy anchor in a balloon. We had a small hardware store, more for us than for outsiders, and a fruit and vegetable stand, which also included milk, eggs, and honey. Facing away from the road, we had a trolley stop. We operated the trolley every day during the summer and on weekends during the other warm weather months. It was a very quaint, old trolley with three miles of track winding back through our community, so it was popular with many children and some adults. There was a nice little lake constructed at the upper end of the valley for fishing (not very good), swimming, and picnicking. In fact, we would fix a picnic basket, give everyone a ride both ways, and let them go swimming for a very reasonable price. On the Fourth and on Labor Day, members of the community would dress up in old-fashioned costumes, we would have a band playing music, and we would allow people to visit our grist mill, blacksmith shops, and a few select houses, and we would sell handmade furniture, dishes, pottery, and clothes for those so interested. None of our various sources of income generated a great deal of income, but all contributed. We also saw these as opportunities to explain our way of life.
I also explained about our history and our organization. I have given these explanations to so many that I don't remember exactly what I told him; I do remember that he asked questions as I explained and seemed to know about some of this history.
When telling our story, I first explain that the movement to the country and the simple life is as old as the movement to the city and the industrial life. There are written accounts of the back-to-the-farm movement in Roman times when the idea was just a few slaves and some fruit trees. And much of this philosophy had come from the Greeks. In fact, the theme is found in the Bible, although well-hidden, in Job and in the story of Cain and Abel (Cain was a farmer and a city-builder while Abel was the more rustic sheepherder). Although focusing on God rather on Nature, Jesus was a strong supporter of the poor and humble and spoke out strongly against wealth again and again; he said unequivocally, "No man can have two masters; you can not serve both God and money." In modern times, Rousseau and Voltaire both recommended a retreat to Nature and a simpler life, Coleridge and Wordsworth planned such a retreat, and in America, Thoreau experimented with the simple life alone while George Ripley, Charles Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others experienced group living at Brook Farm. There was also the less successful experiment at Fruitland undertaken by Bronson Alcott and some others. Less famous people were far more successful; some communities lasted many years, and some are still in existence. Among these groups are the Oneida, Amana, and Shaker communities. Many individuals or groups moved west towards a more simple life and became part of the pioneer movement. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) was the largest group of this type. The Amish and Mennonites currently reject modern society; although each individual church has come to a somewhat different understanding, many expect their members not to use motorized vehicles, gasoline engines, or electric appliances. In the 20's and 30's, large numbers of Americans quit city jobs to buy farms as individuals or to found communities to share a more self-sufficient life. There was also a small movement during the beat or "Bohemian" period of the fifties. The movement towards the country and away from the city is strongest during periods of prosperity, when people have greater resources, and during periods of depression, when people are more desperate.
We have also always considered as part of our movement many individuals who have treasured the outdoors and Nature and have spend their free time enjoying its beauty and/or who have campaigned against or supported restrictions on logging, stripmining, polluting, and spraying pesticides. We also respect adventurers who have traveled great distances by horseback, in small boats, on bicycle, on foot, by balloon, or who have explored frozen areas, mountains, caves, or the depths of the sea. We also consider as contributors to our community those who have made advances in understanding human nature and improving relationships between people. This includes social leaders, such as Penn and Gandhi, but also a number of modern psychologists.
Our own community was founded in the 20's by several families, with a second, larger, and longer immigration during the thirties, and a smattering of individuals since. From the beginning, the goal was not to get away from civilization and progress but to create a more satisfactory life. Nonetheless, many modern developments have been considered harmful because of the indirect harm that they cause. A basic core belief is that man is a part of Nature and must live in harmony with it and not destroy his heritage. Great emphasis has been placed both on personal development and on cooperative living; selfish competition and the pursuit of wealth are condemned.
Our community has been described by others as either democratic or socialistic, but neither term is accurate. We know that there are several kinds of democracies and that our form is much different from the representative democracy of the United States, and we believe there are three economic systems (anarchistic, capitalistic, communistic), not two, and we try to combine the best features of the three, since we feel that no one system solves every problem. We meet weekly in small, cohesive, family-like encounter groups and make our plans by consensus. We have a council, made up of representatives from the smaller groups, but its primary purpose is communication, and the members rotate yearly. We also have various officers, but they only make small, immediate decisions and as many recommendations as they feel necessary. Some of the officers remain in office year after year, due to special skills, but they are considered workers, not leaders.
He asked me to tell him more about our attitudes towards modern technology, and I answered at length. Basically, we shun any "advancement" that is destructive of Nature or of human well-being. For instance, we reject radio and TV, not because we consider them to be against God's will or technologically evil, but because radio and TV programs are poor educationally. TV programs also tend to encourage passive behavior. We oppose automobiles because they are substitutes for healthy recreation, because they damage the environment, and because they encourage harmful and destructive behavior. We also oppose some of the most common features of American culture. We do not like large houses because they are wasteful of energy and lumber, grass lawns because they encourage the destruction of trees and the use of lawn mowers with their noxious vapors, and the common toilet because it pollutes ground water and does not return the nutrients to the soil. Most of us do not kill and eat other mammals because we feel they also have thoughts and feelings just like people, some will eat no fowl, and others will eat neither fish nor fowl, and finally, some of us refuse any food coming from animals, such as eggs and milk because such food contributes to the death and/or mistreatment of animals, although we neither kill nor mistreat our own animals.
As to religion, I told him we vary quite a bit. We included conservative Christians, liberal Christians, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists. We have all agreed to respect everyone's right to his or her own personal faith, and we take that agreement very seriously.
After my introduction, I showed him the different parts of the store and explained their operation, we got someone to take us on the trolley to the lake, and then walked back in a misting rain, visiting some of our businesses and homes on the way back. Really, he did not see much more than the tourists do.
While riding on our trolley up to the lake, he asked me why we thought it was any better than an automobile. I explained that in some ways it wasn't; however, our Birney was built for the tourists, who usually weren't physically fit enough to walk up to the lake and back. The trolley was something of an attraction itself, although Pittsburgh and Philadelphia still had streetcar lines. For our own purposes, we either walked or rode bicycles to get around in the community. Overall, I explained, railways are better than roadways because they use less energy and thus are less polluting. Our own trolley system, however, was more of an experiment than a good model.
After looking at the lake, we started walking back to the store. Our first stop was at the school, the largest building in our community. We had about three hundred students at that time. His first question was about its style, and I explained that each of our buildings was designed with its micro-climate in mind. Since micro-climate was a new term to him, I explained that each spot on the earth has a slightly different climate from every other spot. I pointed out that we could have placed the school building in several locations, and each location would have affected the temperature of the building at different times of the day and during different seasons of the year. Likewise, the trees around the building change its climate, particularly when the leaves are on the trees. Finally, the building is designed with its particular location in mind. The windows are designed to let in more light and heat during the cold months and less light and heat during the warm. The building is dug into the ground on the north side to avoid heat loss and to help moderate the temperature over the year. The insulation is thickest where the heat loss is the greatest, the windows are covered in the evening hours, and the wood furnace heats the rock of the building rather than the air to gradually release heat during the day and to avoid dry air. We also keep the building temperature fairly low during the winter, and the students wear warm clothing while inside.
After going into the school, he first commented upon the mixed age groups of children in the various rooms, and I explained that we didn't have the rigid structure and single-age classes of conventional schools. He also noticed that the rooms did not have the rows of desks facing the teacher's desk and surrounded by blackboards, nor were the students focusing on the teacher, except in one classroom, but were working independently or in small groups. They were talking with each other as they worked too. The lay-out of each room was somewhat chaotic, with bookshelves, tables, chairs, and open areas arranged haphazardly. Many of the rooms were also cluttered with various devices or with cages and aquariums. I explained that we did not use the conventional lecture-type class session much; usually, the students worked semi-independently on various projects. For instance, to learn about weather, the students would construct simple gauges to record air pressure, temperature, wind speed, and rainfall, and they would make charts over a period of time. We did keep a careful record of the students' work, and we made sure that each student covered all the important subjects and learned all the important skills, but we neither expected nor wanted for all to learn the same thing at the same time. Instead, we placed high value on the students becoming independent, self-starting learners. To ensure that learning had taken place, and as feedback for the student, we gave a test after each completed study, and we also asked for a written report which had to be carefully done. These were made part of each student's record. Some of the subjects were partially taught through lecture, such as math, some were taught in labs, such as chemistry, some were taught in group sessions, such as foreign language conversation, and some took place outside the classrooms -- biology, in particular, involved many field trips. He asked me about sports, and I said that we didn't have them in the usual sense, although we have the equipment for casual ball games. Rather than stressing competitive, combative, team sports which involve comparatively few students and have little health value, we stressed healthy, cooperative physical activities which involved all of the students, such as hiking, cycling, running, swimming, gymnastics, and ice skating. I told him that all of our students twelve and older could walk six miles, bicycle ten miles, run two miles, or swim twice across our lake. He then asked me what we perceived to be the greatest weakness of our educational system. I replied that our greatest problem was that we had been too successful; we were educating our students to a level above what they would ever need in our community, and as a result, three-fourths of them would never return after college. Of course, I pointed out, they could be considered missionaries, in a sense. And we were out of room anyway.
After leaving the school, I remembered to tell him that we had school twelve months a year. The conventional summer vacation was originally created to allow children to work in the fields. On the other hand, our students go to school only half of the week, so only about half are in the school at any one time. And I also pointed out that the school is heavily used by adults at night for learning, recreation, and get-togethers.
We next walked to the power station which was not in operation. He asked me why, and I had to explain our energy strategies. Our houses and buildings received some of their energy from the sun, but during the winter, we had to burn wood to keep them warm. We had worked very hard at designing wood furnaces that would burn cleanly -- basically reinventing the Franklin stove. Dead wood was gathered from the surrounding forests -- living trees were not cut for this purpose -- and the wood ash was placed on our fields or returned to the forests although some was used to make soap. After using kerosene lamps for many years, we had converted to electricity, and for a while, we had generated our own electricity. However, we did not have enough waste wood for all our needs, especially after building the trolley, and some had been against our purchasing coal. So, we had decided to purchase power from the electric company, but there was just one meter, down at the store. The power plant, which used a steam engine, was kept in repair and with a supply of wood handy, in case of a storm cutting off the power.
We next visited the sawmill which was also idle. I explained that the sawmill could produce all of the boards we needed by working only a couple of months of the year, including the furniture we were selling. He asked if we could expand the sale of furniture. I explained that we were already having to buy timber from others and that we were already fully employed anyway. The sawmill's idleness does not indicate lack of work within our community.
The next site was the flour mill, also unproductive today. To one side was an operating undershot waterwheel, but I explained that the wheel had been constructed for the tourists only; we didn't have enough water or enough fall for useful water power. We produced all of our own flour and meal, and we sold a fair quantity too. The grain was purchased, however, because our fields were too small.
We passed our small blacksmith shop -- mainly for the tourists -- I told him. We did have a few horses and buggies for those who like those kinds of rides. Then we walked a good distance to the dairy, passing lots of homes along the way.
Although we missed seeing the cows being milked, some of the milk was being bottled as we toured the dairy. I explained to him our "odd" treatment of the cows. In most dairies, the cows are "freshened" every year; that is, they are "dried up" and bear a new calf. Since we did not believe in killing the excess animals, we would have been soon overrun with cattle, so we treated our cattle with sex hormones to extend their milking periods for years. I explained that the cows needed to bear only two calves in a lifetime in order to maintain their numbers; the bull calves are trained for use as oxen to plow fields, haul rock, and drag timber.
Since I was getting hungry and we were near my home, I invited him to lunch. He discovered a two-room house with lots of windows snuggled under the trees. He asked first if my house was so small because I was single, and I told him that the house was small because my husband and I didn't have any children; the house was designed to grow as needed. Noticing his reaction, I pointed out that I had been wearing a wedding ring, so he shouldn't think I had been deliberately misleading him. He immediately asked me why our buildings were mostly wood-framed. I explained that wood-framed homes and shops took less effort to build, used fewer materials, were easily insulated, and could be more easily altered than any other kind. In fact, our wood buildings were pinned and fitted together to make disassembly or reconstruction easier. Of course, structures made of stone or concrete last forever and suffer very little damage from weather, so they might be preferable in the long run. Log homes, I explained, had little to commend them except appearance; however, all the tourists expected us to have log cabins or old-fashioned houses.
While I was preparing lunch, he told me more about his dreams. He evidently felt he had a very large and desirable plot of land; he felt that we could become completely self-sufficient, even producing our own glass and steel. These wild and impractical suggestions tended to discourage me; however, I told him that we had a group of theorists who like to discuss those possibilities. But I also told him, our real objective was not complete self-sufficiency but to demonstrate practical alternatives to a culture that was self-destructive and destructive of Nature. He became very agitated and squirmed in his chair, but he did not carry forward that discussion. Instead, he asked me how he would go about presenting his proposal to us. I explained that he had already taken the first step. Next, he needed to bring us maps, deeds, and surveys to show us his holdings. Information about adjoining land would be valuable too, so we would have room to expand. Our problem here, I stated, was that we could buy none of the surrounding properties to grow larger. Once he produced the documents, we could hold a small meeting with a few knowledgeable officers, and then we could visit and photograph his holdings. Finally, our findings would be shared with the representatives of the neighborhoods, and then the neighborhoods would decide whether to accept his offer.
He seemed very uncomfortable about what I was saying. "What would I have to do," he asked me, "to get you to visit without my showing you maps and deeds?" I stopped and looked at him very seriously. "This seems to be a major issue for you, why? You know we have to be careful." He explained that he couldn't provide all the materials we needed, and he couldn't explain why. He went on to say that he had a very good offer to make us, but he couldn't reveal all of the details, even if not doing so would mean that he would be automatically turned down. He then offered to pay for the trip for some of us to visit his place. He also said that if we would have a meeting, he would show us some proof that his land was worthwhile.
So, I promised to have a meeting that night with him, took him back to the store, and contacted the people who would need to come to the meeting.
Before meeting with him that night, we had a preliminary meeting. It was not a hopeful discussion since we really didn't know anything about him, and no one was much interested in going to Alabama, even if he paid the expenses. We also seriously doubted that he had much land to offer; otherwise he would be willing to show us his deeds. At the second meeting, held down at the store that night, I explained to him that we had all decided that we were unwilling to make the trip, even if he paid all of our expenses. One of our major concerns, I pointed out, was that he had been holding back on us. When we gave him a chance to speak, he placed a heavy briefcase on the table and opened it; it was filled with gold nuggets. After we had gotten up and assured ourselves that they were really gold nuggets, he said, "Now can you see why I have secrets?"