They Built It. No One Came.
May 16, 2015 7:56 AM   Subscribe

In Pennsylvania, two men with 63 acres and a communal vision of utopia learn the hard way that not everyone follows the leader.

In 1988 Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf moved to the Mahantongo Valley, in rural Pennsylvania, to form an intentional community living off the land after the model of two 18th century Moravian brothers. Today they are still the only two men living on the land.

Their story in their own words in 2012.
They have become well known for their flax production, even publishing a book The Big Book of Flax in 2011.
The Hermitage and Mahantongo Heritage Center today.
posted by crazy with stars (40 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just finished this article and came here thinking I might start a post.

I can't quite elucidate the feeling I got reading it. The last vestiges of young, idealistic me is internally warring with old, cynical me over the whole enterprise.

tl;dr Hippies, smh
posted by nevercalm at 8:10 AM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hey, this mountain used to rock.
posted by localroger at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2015


It's also a story about being bullied and tormented by a few locals. A cow was shot early on, but after their turkeys were beaten to death one night, people came out in support of their project.
posted by Brian B. at 8:21 AM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm a little surprised at their utter failure to find even just a few Co-spiritualists. Their dream is shared by so many people I know that it's frankly amazing to me that they are still alone after all these years. which leads me to think there may be more to this story than we are seeing...
posted by Chrischris at 8:22 AM on May 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Note to self: when starting a co-spiritual community, one must not only be nerdy but nerdy AND charismatic.
posted by nevercalm at 8:24 AM on May 16, 2015 [11 favorites]


Their dream is shared by so many people I know that it's frankly amazing to me that they are still alone after all these years. which leads me to think there may be more to this story than we are seeing...

There's always something hidden..
posted by ReeMonster at 8:24 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem I've found with pretty much every insightful, rational, logical idea, is that when they are implemented, they run up against the same issue every time.

*People* simply do not act out of good-faith and enlightened self interest that underlies the belief that they will go along with insightful, rational, logical ideas...
posted by mikelieman at 8:27 AM on May 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


Note to self: when starting a co-spiritual community, one must not only be nerdy but nerdy AND charismatic.

The successful ones are called "cults".

See Also: NXIVM
posted by mikelieman at 8:29 AM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean: syncretic spiritualism + queer-centric communal living + organic, pre-industrial farming hits just about every hot button for a vast number of folks. Plus, the Anne of Greene Gables country squire Cosplay in that NYT slideshow is, frankly, amazing.
posted by Chrischris at 8:30 AM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Their dream is shared by so many people I know that it's frankly amazing to me that they are still alone after all these years.

I'm not surprised that people won't show up for unfamiliar hard manual labor for no pay on someone else's dream property, and even these two had day jobs at some point and they also slowly gave up their quaint approach for modern devices. They mentioned their lack of promoting their effort, and its worth noting that those that did show up were idealistic stereotypes:

They did get a few takers: a man who was interested in the culture of the early German settlers, but preferred to observe its customs rather than pitch in; a guy they called “the Primitive man,” who set up a lean-to on the property and wore loincloths in the summer (he stayed the longest but turned out to be mentally ill).

Then there was the man who brought his accordion and offered to play while they worked. Indeed, the farming chores seemed to mystify most of their would-be brothers.

“Everyone just wanted to watch us work, and that got old real fast,” Johannes said.

posted by Brian B. at 8:31 AM on May 16, 2015 [11 favorites]


In the end, whatever your ideals and philosophy, you have to live with those other fucking people. It's always the problem.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:31 AM on May 16, 2015 [15 favorites]


I read this today and my first reaction was pack up and see if I could rent a place there. Then I remember I live in a small set of condos, just ten units. Some of the social and mental health issues are insurmountable. This is with water, electricity, heat and grocery stores. Then I think back on my communal experiences way back when, and I just now sighed, because the land loving, 19th century daydream is so appealing. I have to remember the TV shows in which the cowboys were the important players, and the women were always wiping their hands at the dish sink and watching out the window for the important stuff to happen.

But really out on that land in antique buildings, looked so good. Oh yeah, and they longed for a manly thing, no women desired. Sad about the turkeys.
posted by Oyéah at 8:47 AM on May 16, 2015 [9 favorites]


Wow, good for these guys. Hopefully with the publicity the NYT is giving their failure they'll receive a flood of new, good and hardworking co-colonists.
posted by Flashman at 8:51 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


>*People* simply do not act out of good-faith and enlightened self interest that underlies the belief that they will go along with insightful, rational, logical ideas...

The rational, logical ideas they mention in the article include "spirits living in springs" and the phrase "let's create some commandments". If you don't immediately want to put a large amount of space between yourself and anybody who would even half-seriously say, "Let's create some commandments", then you and I identify our self-interests very differently. And that's before you even get to the part where small farms often don't work financially even with a lot of brutally hard work, or the part where the locals come to kill your animals at night. I'm sorry it didn't work out for them, but it sounds like a hot mess to me.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:53 AM on May 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


The whole quote is:
“We weren’t good at being able to explain the spiritual part, either. People would say: ‘Let’s write down your philosophy. Let’s create some commandments.’ But that didn’t come naturally. When we tried to explain our beliefs — spirits living in springs, the earth as mother — people just thought we were weird.”

It would appear they were against the "let's create some commandments" suggestion.

I think it's pretty cool that they cultivated their own philosophy and lifestyle and weren't too focused on getting other people to adopt it. Focusing on practice over prostelyzation is somewhat admirable to me.

It looks like they have written some stuff down -- third-testament.org -- but so far in reading it I'd say it's an occult text that would require a greater proficiency with Christian symbolism than I have to effectively parse it.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 9:47 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


This was an entertaining read which reminded me of Lousia May Alcott's account of Fruitlands, the utopian community her father experimented with when she was a child (and that was later dubbed "Apple Slump" in the wickedly satirical account penned by his grown daughter), but it also made me think of the time my father and I were driving by some Amish farms, and my father (who grew up on a farm and was also a farmer himself for 25 years or so of his working years) said, "We used to farm that way when I was a boy, and they can have it."

There's nothing sacred about nineteenth century technologies and standards of living. If someone wants to get back to living simply and working the land, fine, but for heaven's sake be pragmatic about it and do so as efficiently as possible. That's what the Shakers did. They were always very modern and even inventive, and their communities were a great success until the rise of mass production made their business model obsolete.
posted by orange swan at 9:57 AM on May 16, 2015 [17 favorites]


Given that subsidence farming is basically the world thing we ever came up with I'm not surprised they didn't have a line out the door
posted by The Whelk at 10:02 AM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


They were always very modern and even inventive, and their communities were a great success until the rise of mass production made their business model obsolete.

The no sex thing didn't help.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:09 AM on May 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


>It would appear they were against the "let's create some commandments" suggestion.

Yeah, I know, but they also apparently attracted somebody who said that to them. If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with commandments.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 10:10 AM on May 16, 2015


Their dream is shared by so many people I know that it's frankly amazing to me that they are still alone after all these years. which leads me to think there may be more to this story than we are seeing...

There's always something hidden..


Wait, are they in a marijuana state or not?
posted by hal_c_on at 10:20 AM on May 16, 2015


I, too, suspect that "No ladies allowed" didn't help them in this effort.

Eh!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:23 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


The cutest part of the whole story is how they got a jigsaw and decorated all their buildings with gingerbread trim. "Hey, our farm is falling to pieces and all our turkeys are dead, but the barn looks GREAT!"
posted by jfwlucy at 10:27 AM on May 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Apparently, there's a shortage of people interested in living in the 18th ce.
posted by Sassenach at 10:56 AM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I, too, suspect that "No ladies allowed" didn't help them in this effort.

They were setting up booths at gay pride festivals -- the men-only aspect was presumably presented as a selling point (though obviously unsuccessfully).
posted by Dip Flash at 11:24 AM on May 16, 2015


And yeah, there are intentional gay communities in the sticks with a religious or therapeutic emphasis but they're not based on 18th century farm labor and they're more like retreats one visits not a commune you join.
posted by The Whelk at 12:07 PM on May 16, 2015


FIVE TONS OF FLAX!
posted by Reverend John at 1:48 PM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


And yeah, there are intentional gay communities in the sticks with a religious or therapeutic emphasis but they're not based on 18th century farm labor

Exactly. I was curious about the directory of intentional communities mentioned in the article and there's only 400-some that identify as {rural} + {commune, ecovillage, or religious community}. That doesn't even account for how many of them focus on producing everything locally and shunning modern tech (which I daresay is a small percentage). It's a tough row to hoe, they dreamed big, but it's incredibly hard to create and sustain something so demanding.
posted by psoas at 2:07 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not surprised that people won't show up for unfamiliar hard manual labor for no pay on someone else's dream property,

Me either.

Citation: I mean it reminds me alot of the experience shared by Helen and Scott Nearing's The Good Life. They had people that heard about them show up and work and participate in this or that aspect of their homestead, sometimes for months I think, but no one stayed as forever-guests/neighbors because ... reasons...

I think some of those reasons are likely that it's nearly impossible to match up *perfectly* with folks in situations like these. For example Helen and Scott didn't eat meat, didn't eat animal products, didn't use artificial sweeteners, didn't do bread (instead they did porridge and.. gruel I think), and lived, by all accounts, very close to the earth. This meant, and I believe them, once their homestead was established, they were able to maintain a work day of only a few hours followed by lunch then an afternoon of hanging out and, maybe music.

But porridge with maple syrup... maybe not so much.

“Everyone just wanted to watch us work, and that got old real fast,” Johannes said.

They said much the same thing about having alot of folks want to watch or come to eat but more than anything the work and the simple foodstuffs sent the weak ones packing very quickly and the even the more formidable/interested ones left eventually.

It's a good book by the way, if this stuff was interesting to you then it might actually perk you up a bit because Helen and Scott make. it. work.
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:31 PM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


it might actually perk you up a bit

I should qualify that before you get your hopes up too high. Helen and Scott did have similar issues with getting others, namely their community, to buy into ventures that would have helped one and all. Imagine something like "Hey, let's build a maple sugar shed for EVERYONE to use because *good reasons here*". Everyone says that sounds great. Time passes, no one puts in the work, a political split forms around pro/con alcohol consumption in general, project collapses in on itself like a dying star.

So, yea, working with people is hard.
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:38 PM on May 16, 2015


A pair of oxen, Star and Bright,

Been reading Farmer Boy, have you?

Yeah, I would never squash anyone's youthful dreams but homesteaders a hundred years ago would have killed, killed for today's technology. And many immigrants to the west after the Homestead Act of 1868 farmed only because life was much worse back home, and no other reason.
posted by Melismata at 4:40 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


In their situation, if I had 63 acres with adequate water, I'd consider keeping 13 acres, 10 more for farming, and offer life-long, low-cost restricted leases on each of the remaining 40 acres. Put together a covenant, that sets, say 80% of the profits aside for renewable improvements and infrastructure - and when people move away or die, the property reverts to the organization.

It's even more unrealistic these days than in the 70s to expect to find lots of people all interested in the same lifestyle. But IMO there are plenty of people who want small plots of land for simple homes - who'll endeavor to bootstrap a mutual-rewarding sustainable community. I even suspect that's a future we'll see plenty of .. out of necessity, not just romantic disinclination to be part of The Machine.
posted by Twang at 5:15 PM on May 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


orange swan: There's nothing sacred about nineteenth century technologies and standards of living. If someone wants to get back to living simply and working the land, fine, but for heaven's sake be pragmatic about it and do so as efficiently as possible. That's what the Shakers did. They were always very modern and even inventive, and their communities were a great success until the rise of mass production made their business model obsolete.

There's also the option of keeping your communal medieval agrarian theology and social structure but being gung-ho about the latest agricultural technology. The Hutterite colonies near where I grew up were generally the most technologically advanced farming operations in the area.
posted by clawsoon at 6:42 PM on May 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


In their situation, if I had 63 acres with adequate water, I'd consider keeping 13 acres, 10 more for farming, and offer life-long, low-cost restricted leases on each of the remaining 40 acres.

I'd imagine they are doing something pretty similar to this with much of their land at this point. It doesn't mention them farming much at all anymore, and two 60 something dudes probably couldn't draw enough value from 63 acres of farm land to justify the equipment costs, let alone just the farming bit.

There's also the option of keeping your communal medieval agrarian theology and social structure but being gung-ho about the latest agricultural technology. The Hutterite colonies near where I grew up were generally the most technologically advanced farming operations in the area.

This, for sure. One of the colonies near our farm has a fancy milking facility, a decent on-site basic vet type place, one of the nicest kitchens and canneries I've ever seen, and a big 15x15 or so CNC machine with a fifty year old mechanic running it. They used it to cut big slabs of scrap metal apart to make steamboat style wheel attachments for driving heavy tractors in mud. A lot of bad in the hutterite way of life, but they are nothing if not dedicated to maintaining it.
posted by neonrev at 1:43 AM on May 17, 2015


Thinking about it, I think the Hutterites are a great example of succeeding at communal living for one more reason. Hutterite colonies are just that, colonies of a larger whole, just one without a core territory. Each is a semi-independent outpost that produces some particular good in concert with other colonies, in the effort of all of them producing enough of different things that everyone has enough. It's quite socialist, actually. The colonies I know best are both food production colonies, one turkey and one dairy. Both also maintain some farm land, but it's mostly corn and to make money for electricity and other things the colonies can't trade between each other for. There are textile mill colonies over on the east coast that make the classic "hutterite lady dress" fabric, and at least some other stuff. I think some exist purely as money making enterprises, but I don't know how that works. Some colonies operate as weird vehicle repair hubs. Old tractors filter down the ranks of importance for farming, and if it breaks, it's fixed. Nothing is thrown away. It's a fascinating system, and one that allows a bunch of smallish (>200) person communes to operate.

Specialization is important, and something these guys forgot about I think. Those 18th century agrarian villages didn't operate in a vacuum. They needed the village down the river with the good blacksmith, and the village with the windmill, the village that had the big market, etc. It's really hard to actually make it on your own, even harder starting from nothing.
posted by neonrev at 1:56 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


In their situation, if I had 63 acres with adequate water, I'd consider keeping 13 acres, 10 more for farming, and offer life-long, low-cost restricted leases on each of the remaining 40 acres.

That would be almost impossible to get past zoning review here, but maybe it is easier in Pennsylvania. A lot of places have barriers to subdividing and developing agricultural land that aren't insurmountable (obviously, given all the development that takes place) but that do add cost and complexity. The difference in tax alone by changing the land from agriculture to a housing development would be significant, for example.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:36 AM on May 17, 2015


A lot of places have barriers to subdividing and developing agricultural land....

Indeed this is one the reasons why the locals gave them such a bad welcome when they first arrived, according to their version of their story:

Initially they thought we might be going to subdivide the farm, an idea anathema to farmers who had kept some of the surrounding land in their families for two centuries. In retaliation for that idea, the signs we put up at each end of the property with the community’s name, not that of a subdivision as was erroneously supposed, were stolen within days of our putting them up.

I suspect one of the reasons they're getting along better with the neighbors now is that they've never subdivided their land (even along the limited lines Twang suggests). I also think that if it looked like their colony ever looked like it was going to grow and prosper, local goodwill would sour pretty fast. It's easier to be charitable to two older men who will die without heirs than a flourishing commune that implicitly threatens your way of life.
posted by crazy with stars at 4:54 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I too was reminded of the Hutterites when reading the story. I'm fascinated by their communal living but I disagree with far too many of the rest of their beliefs (and I'm a sendentary wuss who'd be useless at farm labor).
Something most modern ICs (which tend to burn out over time) fail to account for is shrinkage. The Amish and their spiritual relatives have maintained healthy growth but that masks the large number of members who leave. Of course, if four of your eight children leave the community, you'll still double in a generation.
IMHO another thing modern communes have neglected is the power of religion. Humans are terrible to live with and it helps if you have the promise of reward or the threat of damnation to motivate them to work things out.
posted by Octaviuz at 4:48 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, the Amish are also great manipulators and emotional abusers. Leaving the community means never speaking to or otherwise interacting with your family, friends, or anyone else you've met in your life to that point. Tough decision, eh.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:53 AM on May 18, 2015


It doesn't quite work that way. If, after you turn 16, you decide not to officially join the church and move away, your family will still talk to you. If you join the church and then commit some crappy behaviors, you could be shunned, but it's complicated. It varies quite a bit between groups. But it's definitely not like some of the more extreme Hasidic groups where you're dead to everyone if you get caught watching TV.
posted by Melismata at 12:40 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


These guys want to build a utopia for freelancers in the Canadian woods.
Thus, the sensible thing to do is for all the young, connected artsy types to pack up and leave their hellish apartments to live together in tiny houses in the woods, hippie commune-style. But, you know, with an internet connection, Macbooks, and freelance graphic design jobs. ... “How much stuff can you buy with one hundred people? You could have, like, a pool, crazy tools, farm groceries and raise fishes. The possibilities are unlimited,” Dumas continued.
I rest my case.
posted by Twang at 3:02 PM on May 22, 2015


« Older Jury Sentences Boston Marathon Bomber to Death   |   The IPs are coming from inside the house Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments