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Those Who Came

Those Who Came

“Once upon a time a tribe of people went off into the woods and nobody ever heard of them again…” These words from the 1972 commune journal of West Virginia filmmaker, dancer, wood sculptor, mask-maker and teacher, Jude Binder, tell only part of the story of the back-to-the-land movement’s impact on West Virginia. While her words may have echoed the sentiments of those who came during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the quote has proven naive. Not only were they heard of again, many made an indelible mark on their adopted state. Without them, the cultural landscape of the state would look very different. Quite possibly there would be no Tamarack, the nation’s first statewide collection of its own fine arts and handcrafts, and no Mountain Stage, the weekly live musical radio program broadcast on NPR to thousands of listeners worldwide since 1983 – two of West Virginia’s best advertisements.

According to well documented social histories by Judson Jerome, Timothy Miller, Irwin and Debbi Unger, and Todd Gitlin, following the tumultuous 1960s - especially 1968, often described as ‘The Year the Dream Died’ – the youth of America lost heart. Unable to sense that their activist approach on civil rights had been effective, disheartened by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, disgusted by the National Guard killings at Kent State and the brutal attacks of the Chicago Police Department during the Democratic National Convention, and horrified by the intensification of the Vietnam war and the bombing of Cambodia, youth across the country began to drop-out, to set up a new world for themselves. Despite mainstream stereotypes, it wasn’t necessary to take drugs to drop out; it was more a way of life, a philosophy, a rejection of the current state of affairs, a matter of survival. If they couldn’t change things, they could simply stop participating.

Nationally, the numbers of those who went back-to-the-land are staggering, even if the counting methods were somewhat imprecise. Both Timothy Miller and Jeffery Jacob reported that by the end of the 1970s the number of those living on the land, either in communes or as independent homesteaders, topped one million in rural North America. Enclaves of homesteaders began to dot the US map in rural areas of California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maine, among others. (Eleanor Agnew, Back From the Land, 2004.)

This migration contributed to a dramatic population shift in West Virginia as well. Census figures from the WV Department of Health and Human Resources’ website reveal that the only decade in the last fifty years to see a significant increase in population was the 1970s when the population swelled by more than 200,000. Of those, 110,000 were added through the influx of newcomers alone. Although this increase cannot be attributed solely to the back-to-the-land movement, it did help reverse an alarming trend of out-migration by the state’s youth, which began in the 1950s and had continued un-abated in the 1960s. In that twenty-year period, WV lost almost 700,000 due to out-migration alone. According to some estimates the influx of young people in the late 1960s and the 1970s – predominantly middle-class and college educated - brought more than 10,000 to West Virginia in search of a better life in the hills. (Paul Salstrom, The Neo-Natives: Back-to-the-Land in Appalachia’s 1970s, Appalachian Journal, Summer 2003.)

But why West Virginia? The majority of those who came as part of this national movement were drawn by the romantic ideal of living off the land and bolstered by articles in the new publication, Mother Earth News or by the homesteader’s bible, Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life. Dedicated back-to-the-landers, searching for a place to build their alternate lives found a story touting cheap land in West Virginia in the third issue of Mother Earth News. (May/June 1970) Its feature article, by Lawrence Goldsmith, boasted “much inexpensive acreage” in WV and described newly purchased land in Lincoln County for which he paid only $29 an acre. According to economic historian Paul Salstrom, Goldsmith’s neighbor at the time, the magazine's publisher subsequently used the article to advertise his new magazine on Ohio radio stations. The story prompted many to give the state a look and they liked what they found. Although no part of the state was rejected out of hand, the new settlers did tend to gravitate to the more rural counties where farming and homesteading had the greatest chance for success. Braxton, Calhoun, Greenbrier, Lincoln, Monroe, Pocahontas, and Roane were among the areas of the greatest concentrations.

A number who came were active anti-war protesters, registered conscientious objectors, draft counselors, former escapees to Canada or dedicated pacifists. For them, leaving a war-based economy was part of the decision. Despite his anti-war stance, Monroe County furniture maker Joe Chasnoff was the lone member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at Columbia University who argued, unsuccessfully, against the student campus take-over that resulted in police brutality and the closing of the university. Initially, Tom Rodd could neither vote nor practice law due to his felony draft resistance conviction, but the former potter-turned-law clerk moved to West Virginia from Pittsburgh, obtained a pardon from President Jimmy Carter and went on to become one of the state’s leading environmental lawyers. During the Vietnam War, Braxton County potter and musician Keith Lahti was actively opposed, marched on Washington and worked with the Quakers as a draft counselor before coming to WV in 1973. Furniture designer and builder John Wesley Williams, who now lives atop Butler Mountain in Monroe County, had Conscientious Objector status, but left the country for Canada rather than support the war effort in any way. One of the original Putnam County Pickers and now Mountain Stage cellist, sound engineer Bob Webb was a pacifist whose band during that period had the dubious distinction of being the last USO band to tour Vietnam.

For others, like multi-talented singer/songwriter/poet Colleen Anderson, photographer/community organizer Ric MacDowell, Cabin Creek Quilts organizer James Thibeault, furniture maker Jim Probst, and Dick Pranulis of Wolf Creek Printery – the unrest of that time spurred them into alternative services with Appalachian Volunteers or VISTA - Volunteers In Service To America. The popular counterculture sentiment, ‘if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem…’ struck a chord with Anderson when she heard the Eldridge Cleaver line in a radio ad. Not wanting to be part of the problem, she dropped out of school and joined VISTA. She was assigned to work on a clean water study in WV but became part of Cabin Creek Quilts in rural Eskdale outside of Charleston instead.

In some instances, a past experience or childhood memory of camping, caving or rock climbing in West Virginia drew them back. Metal sculptor Mark Blumenstein had camped and climbed the hills for years before buying his farm in Greenbrier County. Now he also heads the Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River - an activist environmental organization. Tom Rodd’s wife’s family had owned a farm in Hampshire County and Bob Webb had vacationed in Pocahontas County as a child. Potter Bob Zacher came from St. Louis because earlier settler Joe Chasnoff told him about the beauty of the state after camping in Franklin County at the similar urging of back-to-the-land wood turner Allen Ritzman.

One trip to the state for musician/songman Ron Sowell did it. Born in New Mexico, he came via New Orleans to play a gig for a few days and stayed, drawn in by the beauty of the land in Putnam County and the urging of Greg Carroll, now an archivist at the state capitol complex. Lead guitarist for the former Putnam County Pickers, Ron now heads the house band on Mountain Stage.

Gerry Milnes, who came from New Jersey with a classical music background, enjoyed the coincidental good fortune of selecting a farmstead in Braxton County close to that of the late Melvin Wine, one of the state's most outstanding traditional fiddlers. Their collaboration resulted in a much higher profile for Wine and a job working for Milnes teaching other traditional musicians at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College.

Often the state’s hidden beauty was discovered by friends who then encouraged others to come join them. Photographer Chuck Wyrostok made his way from Long Island on the recommendation of a friend, as did former candle makers Steve and Gail Balcourt. The natural beauty of the state lured naturalists and nationally-acclaimed dulcimer makers Sam and Carrie Rizetta out of Washington, D.C., Windsor chair reproduction artist Mark Soukup from Washington State and mime Glenn Singer from Chadds Ford, PA.

Communes had their draw as well. Although the number in WV isn’t well documented, stories of intentional communities in Greenbrier County and Spencer, “The Farm” in Putnam County, The Isle of the Red Hood at Hinton, and the “tribe” that came with Jude Binder to Calhoun County are well told by those who lived there, including Chinese potter Joe Lung and fabric artist Niki Coates.

The opportunity to carve out their dream where they believed it was financially viable overrode the ignorance of farming and the naiveté of youth that often accompanied the homesteaders. However, in Back from the Land, Eleanor Agnew’s first-person account of 1970s life on the land, she suggests that the experiment was ultimately a failed utopia. Without quoting numbers, she states that most of those who once hoped to live an alternative life-style are now quietly walking around undetected in middle-class lives, forced to abandon their dreams as life grew too difficult. For them idealism was no match for the lack of heat, indoor plumbing, and running water or the back-breaking labor and un-relenting poverty that often accompanied self-sufficiency.

No doubt many who came to West Virginia made similar decisions. According to some who did stay, their number may represent less than twenty-five percent of the original back-to-the-land population. Those who succeeded now say they simply didn’t entertain the idea that they wouldn’t. Perhaps they were better prepared or more determined but perhaps it was something else entirely.

Regardless of the draw, the timing of the influx couldn’t have been more fortuitous for either the artisans or the state. According to early artisan advocate, Don Page, the State of WV, under the direction of then Governor Hulett Smith and Director of Commerce, David Callahan, was eager to support working artisans to showcase their works as a tourism draw. Prior to 1963, they had begun to search for highly skilled indigenous artisans to present at a craft fair for the state’s centennial celebration. Additionally, the state had received federal funding to send technical representatives throughout West Virginia to locate and identify people who were making arts and crafts, to evaluate their marketability, and to improve their techniques and skills to an acceptable marketing level. Once done, the state began to develop markets for these artisans.

While crafts had long been a part of the Appalachian heritage, these skills were in some danger of being lost or forgotten. With the out-migration of the youth in the 1950s and 1960s, the practicing artisans had no one to teach until the back-to-the-landers came along. Don Page reports that among the older artisan practitioners he discovered during this statewide search there were also back-to-the-landers who, naively, had come with college educations, but very little knowledge of subsistence living or farming. Suddenly they had realized they needed to supplement their income. Rather than “work out” i.e. taking a job off the land, they looked at the work of the elder artisans and wanted to learn it. Soon they became proficient and with their college background in design, many took their adopted craft to a new level of sophistication.

Encouraged by the blossoming West Virginia Artists & Craftsmen’s Guild and often supported by state supported apprentice programs or on-going workshops at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley, these young artisans filled the booths and tents at the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair during the 1970s. Soon they were the premier producers of baskets, metalwork, pottery, wood, candles, photography, furniture, leather, and silk-screening in the state, if not the nation. Page and others who were instrumental in its development believe the roots of Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia, the nation’s first showcase of handcrafts, fine art and regional cuisine, can be found in those who came during the back-to-the-land movement and either brought their art with them or developed it as Page described.

Tom McColley, who with his wife, Connie, developed highly sophisticated basket forms often displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, said, “A lot of the artisans stayed because they were the ones that figured out some way to survive.” Connie ventured this as well: “I think you have to be really brave to take your soul, your art, and lay it out on the table to let the world see. You also have to be very brave to move into West Virginia with little knowledge and planning.” Perhaps it’s the correlation between being an artist and being gutsy enough to attempt the rigors of homesteading that resulted in the high rate of artisan back-to-the-land success stories.

Additionally, those who made it work did so against all odds and usually with the help of elders who were already seasoned veterans of homestead living. Time and again, artisans who stayed talk of feeling “adopted” by the elders who lived on adjacent farms or down the holler. Joe Chasnoff said, “The only way we survived was because of the McMahan family…they started teaching us how to survive. How to live out here, what you can eat, how to skin a deer, trade vegetables for helping them tie up pans of tobacco….”

According to Loyal Jones, noted expert on Appalachian life and values, “We mountain people are the product of our history and the beliefs and outlook of our foreparents. We are a traditional people, and …more than most people, we avoided mainstream life and thus became self-reliant.” (Appalachian Values, 1994.) No doubt those who met the newcomers soon recognized their own desire for self-reliance, the same values they had inherited from their ancestors. Little did any of those newbie homesteaders imagine that their migration to the hills would be as significant to the history of the state as that of their 1600s and 1700s counter-parts. Yet, it was an almost perfect marriage of timing and circumstance that has resulted in a rebirth of handcrafts, a renaissance of heritage music and a spot on the national map marking West Virginia as the home of Tamarack and Mountain Stage.