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by John Q McDonald --- 17 January 2017


America's First Hippie Commune, Drop City

by Mark Matthews

The founding of Drop City commune in El Moro, Colorado in 1965 is often seen as the beginning of the hippie commune movment "back to the land" in the sixties. A small group of art students and disaffected college kids built a cluster of fanciful geodesic domes and more exotic "zomes" on a patch of unshaded goat pasture, where they hoped to demonstrate a different way of being in a world torn by domestic unrest and a brutal war abroad. The notion of "dropping" initially had nothing to do with dropping out, as counseled by later hippie gurus, but the idea of drop art, the act of dropping into conventional life with a disruptive action or art piece, something to awaken the viewer to new possibilities. Thus, Drop City, an experiment that went well, at first, and, like so many experiments of its kind, turned sour upon making itself famous.

There have been a few books about Drop City. One nonfiction novel version by one of its members, a much later memoir, and a contentious book by a famous novelist. Indeed, it was irritation with this last version, Drop City by T. C. Boyle, that brought Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky out of relative obscurity to talk to author Mark Matthews about his own recollection of Drop City's history. Boyle's novel bears more resemblance to another California commune, but his choice of title has tied his story to that of the real Drop City ever since. Bernofsky speaks to dispel that connection, but is also given to telling his own tall tales. Matthews's project here is to disentangle that tale and he uses the FBI file on Bernofsky and Drop City as a counterpoint. What results is a linear and rambling retelling of Drop City history, one told, again, from the viewpoint of Bernofsky and a couple other participants. While the book is wide ranging, even the author acknowledges that it can't be the whole story. At least three people the author tried to contact refused to participate in his project. Over the years of its existence, scores of people were involved with the commune. But it is the tale of the original visionaries and how their vision got coopted and dissolved that is the key to whatever moral Drop City carries in its story.

What we get is governed a great deal by Bernofsky's personality and his FBI file. But Matthews also does a terrific job setting Drop City into a broad context of the era, as well as in the long tradition of alternative communities in the the United States. His research is extensive and his analogies to history are convincing. A lot of what ultimately went wrong had a lot to do with the founders' own lack of historical context. They reinvented a broken wheel. As in other versions, Peter Douthit (AKA Peter Rabbit) is the villain of the story, exposing Drop City to outside scrutiny, fame and an influx of visitors long before the experiment was solid enough to survive the onslaught. He later reflects on his errors, but is a sad character in his own way. Other key figures are Steve Baer, who developed the Zome architecture and Clark Reichert, with whom Bernofsky started the whole project. Various other characters have walk-on roles in this book.

A complete history of Drop City would likely fill several volumes. One wishes one could go back and visit the place and its time. There is a lot of material there. But it had its moment, and even its governing board of aging hippies balked at Bernofsky's later offer to revive some of the experiment. The plot of land is now littered with the parts of tractor trailer trucks, but a view in google maps can still reveal the circular shadow of a long-gone geodesic dome. Matthews's 2010 book hightlights the difficulties of constructing a history of so idiosyncratic a place, but it is probably yet not the last word. (Indeed, a nearly simultaneous 2010 documentary film offers further details and moving pictures of the place.) In any event, a rewarding reflection. Recommended.

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See Also: [Drop City by Peter Rabbit] [Memories of Drop City by John Curl] [Drop City by T. C. Boyle]

[Other books on Counterculture & the 60s]

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