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Haight-Ashbury Icon Stephen Gaskin Dies at 79
Scott Lucas | Photo: Courtesy Steve Elliott | July 3, 2014
The lifelong hippie established one of the nation's oldest surviving communes.
One of the original wild-eyed, free-thinking, free-loving San Francisco hippies died yesterday, and the world is poorer without him.
Stephen Gaskin, who presided over a seminar known as the Monday Night Classes in the last sixties, and who in 1970 led a caravan of counter-culture devotees to the Tennessee wilderness, where they established a still in operation intentional community known as the Farm, died yesterday, July 1st, at the age of 79.
Though he had not lived in the city for more than 40 years, Gaskin was one of the last remaining links to the heyday of the hippie movement centered in the Haight Ashbury district. After serving in the United States Marines during the Korean War, he settled in San Francisco, earning a master's degree on the G.I. Bill at San Francisco State, where he studying under S.I. Hayakawa, who went on to be a United States Senator. Gaskin taught classes in English and creative writing, though in 1966 the college declined to re-hire him because, as Gaskin later put it, "I'd gotten too weird." On his own, Gaskin began teaching what became know as the Monday Night Class, a free-wheeling seminar of New Age topics ranging from religion and politics to sex and drugs. At their height, the classes, which were held in an auditorium in the Outer Richmond near the Great Highway, drew up to 1500 students. As the Tennessean writes in his obituary, "He believed in Tantric thought, telepathy and togetherness—and in an era when youth was disillusioned by the Vietnam War, disturbed by increasing injustice and encouraged by the successes of civil rights, he helped young people feel empowered."
After a speaking tour that took him around the country, Gaskin led 320 followers across the country to rural Tennessee, where they established a commune on over 1,000 acres known as the Farm. They held their property in common, made decisions collectively, and practiced a form of group marriage. The Wall Street Journal called it the "General Motors of American Communes." Members refrained from artificial birth control, alcohol, man-made drugs, and animal products. They also grew to include their own tofu plant, rock band, and charitable arm.
In 1974, some of the members of The Farm were caught growing marijuana, and Gaskin was jailed for a year. Upon his release, he married Ina May Gaskin, who became a widely-recognized expert on midwifery. As a consequence of the conviction, Gaskin was stripped of his voting rights, but in 1981 won a challenge at the Tennessee State Supreme Court that re-enfranchised him along with a quarter-million similar convicts.
By 1980, the Farm had swelled to a population of 1,200, but a series of bad investments and medical bills led to a financial crisis that forced them into privatization, though the land continued to be held in common. Within three years, the Farm managed to stabilize, and continues in operation to today, where it continues to have a reported 175 members.
Gaskin waged a campaign for the Green Party nomination for President in 2000, losing to Ralph Nader. In the course of that campaign, referring to Bill Clinton's claim that he had tried marijuana, but never inhaled, Gaskin boasted, "I've never exhaled."
In 1977, Gaskin explained the principles behind the Farm to Mother Earth News. "We're complete vegetarians and we grow most of the food we eat. We've also delivered 600 babies at home. We have our own school, bank, motor pool, construction company, public utilities, medical clinic, and ambulance service [...] We hold all property in common and share we have according to need. There ain't nothing devious about it: Right our front, we're trying to build an alternative culture."
RIP, Brother Gaskin.