‘Stephen Gaskin, a Marine combat veteran and hippie guru who in 1971 led around 300 followers in a caravan of psychedelically painted school buses from San Francisco to Tennessee to start the Farm, a commune that has outlived most of its countercultural counterparts while spreading good works from Guatemala to the South Bronx, died on Tuesday at his home on the commune, in Summertown, Tenn. He was 79…
Timothy Miller, a religious studies professor at the University of Kansas who has studied communes, said in an interview that the Farm was “the archetypal hippie commune” in its commitment to higher consciousness, self-sufficiency, a clean environment and a “flamboyant hippie style.”
But where it departed from most of its counterparts was in embracing an entrepreneurial spirit: It created a book-publishing business, marketed pickles and sorghum syrup under the Old Beatnik label, and even dealt in hand-held Geiger counters to measure radiation leaks at nuclear power plants.
It also spurned insularity for outreach. Answering Mr. Gaskin’s call to “change the world,” Farmies, as they called themselves, built 1,200 houses for the victims of a 1976 earthquake in Guatemala, set up volunteer ambulance services in the South Bronx and on an Indian reservation in upstate New York, and started a school lunch program in Belize and an agricultural training program in Liberia. They were among the earliest volunteers to arrive in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
In 1980, Plenty International, a charitable organization Mr. Gaskin started, was awarded one of the first Right Livelihood Awards. Sometimes called the alternative Nobel Prize, the award is presented by the Swedish Parliament to those who have demonstrated “practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today.”
Mr. Gaskin and his wife, the former Ina May Middleton, developed a free midwifery service for women, communard or not. Ms. Gaskin became a widely known advocate for giving birth outside of hospitals, and has written popular books on the subject.
To a degree that startled outsiders in the ’60s, the Farm’s young men in straw hats and beards and women in long skirts lived an almost puritanical life. They took vows of poverty and pooled their assets. Vegetarianism was mandatory. Mr. Gaskin banned alcohol, tobacco and, to the surprise of many, LSD, though not marijuana. Plenty of work — considered a form of meditation — was assigned. Artificial birth control was forbidden.
Mr. Gaskin, who became a minister under Tennessee law, decreed that if couples had sex they must be considered engaged, and if the woman became pregnant, they must marry. Men were expected to treat women with “knightly” chivalry, he said…
In 2000, Mr. Gaskin sought the Green Party’s presidential nomination but drew just 10 of 319 votes. The winner, Ralph Nader, received 295.
His campaign statement declared: “I want it to be understood that we are a bunch of tree-huggers and mystics and peaceniks. My main occupations are Hippy Priest, Spiritual Revolutionary, Cannabis Advocate, shade tree mechanic, cultural engineer, tractor driver and community starter. I also love science fiction.” ‘ (NYTimes.com obituary).