NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Stephen Gaskin, a counterculture visionary who led a caravan of hippies from California to establish one of the country’s longest lasting communes in rural Middle Tennessee and later sought the Green Party nomination for president, has died. He was 79.
Gaskin died of natural causes at his home in Summertown on Tuesday, according to Gretchen Bates, who grew up on The Farm and is close to Gaskin’s family.
Bates told The Associated Press that Gaskin had been ill for a while. She described him as a visionary and spiritual guide who advocated being responsible and giving back to the community.
“He made us think about taking responsibility for your life … and trying to give back as much as you possibly could,” Bates said.
A message on The Farm’s website reads: “We mourn the passing of Stephen Gaskin, our founder and friend. Our community would not exist, were it not for his bravery and free spirit.”
Gaskin, a Korean War veteran, was a writing instructor at San Francisco State College when his “Monday Night Class” on love, sex, politics, drugs and other non-traditional college topics became popular with hippie students.
In 1970, he led a caravan of about 320 hippies to 1,750 acres of rough ridge country where they founded the back-to-basics collective on about three square miles. It was meant to be an “experiment in sustainable, developmentally progressive human habitat,” according to the website.
By 1980, The Farm’s population had grown to more than 1,200 in Lewis County near Summertown. But a financial crisis a few years later led to a reorganization in which members began paying monthly dues.
Leigh Kahan, one of The Farm’s founding members, said the reorganization “changed everything” because The Farm went from being a “true collective to being a true cooperative.”
“You went from everybody holding all things in common to you need your own car, you need your own health insurance … you need to pay the rent, you need to join back into the society at large,” said Kahan, who lived in the community for about 15 years before moving to Nashville.
Currently, The Farm has about 200 residents. Most of them work in nearby towns, while others work within the community for homegrown industries like a book publishing company, soy dairy and solar electronics company. There are also midwives who practice outside of the community.
Gaskin went to prison in 1974 for marijuana possession and served one year of a three-year sentence. Under state law, he lost his right to vote because of the conviction. He mounted a successful court challenge to the law and had his voting rights restored.
In 2000, Gaskin sought the Green Party presidential nomination, advocating peace, social consciousness and the legalization of marijuana. He called himself a “hippie priest and freelance rebel rouser.”
Gaskin told The Associated Press that year he had no problem answering the question on marijuana, “Did you inhale?”
“I didn’t exhale,” he said.
He also said, “If you want to throw some seeds in your garden and grow some pot and smoke it yourself, I don’t think it’s anybody else’s business. And I don’t think that the Constitution thinks that it’s anybody else’s business.”
In 1997, Gaskin wrote in an opinion piece published in The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that his “freethinking” philosophy was generational.
Gaskin said his grandmother, who drove a covered wagon from Tennessee to Texas, was a freethinker and a suffragette who marched in the streets for the right of women to vote. And he said her brother helped organize the longshoremen’s union on the waterfront in San Francisco in the 1930s and `40s.
“We have been freethinkers for generations,” Gaskin wrote. “And … I have passed my philosophical and religious ways on to my children, who are very proud of their heritage and ancestors.”