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An era of updated communes takes root in Missouri

Intentional communities offer alternative lifestyle opportunities based on shared vision

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RUTLEDGE, Missouri — For 40 years, the grain bin near the entrance of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage was filled with thousands of bushels of corn.

In 2002, it was converted into a comfortable duplex in this rural hamlet near Rutledge, Missouri.

Known as an intentional community, Dancing Rabbit is a collection of distinctive living quarters, gardens, common spaces and pastureland.

Down a dirt road, an old school bus has become a modest residence with a wooden porch and attached greenhouse. Nearby, a domed adobe cottage looks as if it had been plucked from the landscape in “Lord of the Rings.”

Across a narrow footpath, a two-story log home showcases a living roof — rye and wild grasses insulate the place.

These green and natural building techniques characterize Dancing Rabbit’s sustainable vision. Renewable energy, collaboration and organic food production contribute to that vision, adopted years ago by its residents.

Dancing Rabbit is one of more than 50 intentional communities in Missouri and at least 1,700 in the United States. These communities, much like communes 50 years ago, are organized around a set of principles that define their lifestyle and unify their members.

Some communities are based on religious beliefs, while others — called ecovillages — are grounded in sustainability. Still others hark back to the egalitarian culture of communes in the 1960s and '70s.

The intentional communities in Missouri reflect those cultures, but most fall under the headings of ecovillages and egalitarian communities.

Egalitarian communities retain many of the characteristics that distinguished the cooperative lifestyle of communes. Members share nearly everything, including land, labor and income.

Ecovillages began to flourish in the 1990s and are grounded in the modern environmental movement. Today, nearly 400 ecovillages in the U.S. and more than a dozen in Missouri are on the cutting edge of sustainable building and living.

Sustainability and cooperation are both essential to the success of an ecovillage, said Bob Rouse, a retired sail maker from Houston who moved to Dancing Rabbit in 2002.

“I came out here for the ecovillage, so I was light on the community side," he said. "But it’s important.”

There are more than 50 intentional communities in Missouri, some sustainable ecovillages, some religious communities and some egalitarian communes. Intentional communities are formed around a vision that all members agree upon, such as religious or spiritual views. The communities shown are featured in the story. Central Missouri Grains for Food is the location of Richard Knapp’s farm, where he would one day like to start an intentional community. Alexa Ahern

FROM PILGRIMS TO COMMUNES

Religious communities, like the Plymouth Colony in the 1600s, were among the first intentional communities in the United States, according to Susan Love Brown, an anthropology professor at Florida Atlantic University and the author of "Intentional Community: An Anthropological Perspective."

Among the early nonreligious communities was Brook Farm, an agricultural and egalitarian venture in Massachusetts in 1841. Inspired by the transcendentalist movement, the farm community sought to balance leisure and labor but ran into financial trouble six years later.

Communes gained a fair amount of notoriety in the 1960s for the widespread reports of sex, drugs and general idleness. East Wind Community in the Missouri Ozarks, however, has steered clear of most messy interactions. Founded in 1974, it has become one of the more successful communes in the state.

Young environmentalists in the 1990s began building self-sustaining communities based on renewable energy, natural building materials and a lighter dependence on the earth's resources.

Etta Madden, an English professor at Missouri State University who has studied intentional communities in the U.S. and elsewhere, said ecovillages aren’t much different from the earliest intentional communities.

“The ecovillage has become the new religion,” she said. “The goal of every intentional community is to provide a model way of life that will improve the members and, if adopted, the world at large. People think, ‘This (sustainability) is how we will save ourselves and other people in the world.’”

DANCING RABBIT

Dancing Rabbit is one of the largest and most well-known intentional communities in Missouri. The founders were three students from Stanford University who moved in the '90s to the northeast Missouri property where land was abundant and cheap. Another community, Sandhill Farm, was already established there, and two more — Dandelion and Red Earth farms — would arrive later.

When Rouse arrived at Dancing Rabbit's 280-acre spread in Scotland County, most of its 15 members were living in tents. An old trailer served as a community meeting place, and the pre-existing buildings — a hog barn, two grain bins and a tool shed — had long been disappearing into the overgrown foliage.

Signs of a prosperous future lay in the construction of a new community building and the group’s steadfast vision. The founding members had set-up a nonprofit land trust where anyone who joins the community can lease land for pennies. They own anything they build on it and can lease the property to newcomers, but the land stays forever within the community as an affordable commodity.

By the second year, only four of the original members remained at Dancing Rabbit. But interest and membership soon began to grow, and the ecovillage has stabilized at about 60.

By 2004, the community building was completed with heated floors, a battery station — the source of most energy then — a wood-fired boiler for hot water, computer room, library and kitchen. Alternative building techniques were tried: timberframe, cob — a clay, sand and straw mixture that can be molded into walls — and waddle and daub, an ancient technique of woven wood covered in plaster.

For many, it's an abrupt change from their familiar living accommodations.

“A lot of people learn when they get here, and it's a steep learning curve,” Rouse said. “Sometimes we have to convince them not to do something.”

A LAND OF MILK AND HONEY

The houses are clustered on just a few of the 280 acres, and members can rent additional land for cultivation. Dancing Rabbit has two types of land use — agricultural and garden space.

Garden space is leased at one-tenth of a cent per square foot per month. The plots are small and typically devoted to growing produce. Agricultural land is leased at one-hundredth of a cent per square foot per month. It is designated for raising small livestock, starting an orchard or growing crops such as grapes in a small vineyard.

Both commerce and cooperatives thrive in tandem at Dancing Rabbit.

The Milkweed Mercantile, an inn and restaurant, sells drinks, baked goods, specialty preserves and canned pickles to the public every day but Wednesday. On Thursdays, the restaurant offers homemade pizza.

Milkweed Mercantile is owned and run by a resident couple, one of many opportunities available to village members. Some staff the inn, while others run the honor-system grocery store, the laundry, the library and various food co-ops. A number of members are also employed elsewhere, either online or in town.

Members can join the co-ops for a small fee. Joining the shower co-op costs $50 per year, for example. Internet use runs $27 per month, and belonging to a food co-op costs $7 or $8 a day.

Although many things are shared, the community operates more like a small town than a commune. The ecovillage is governed by covenants, a set of laws and regulations established by members throughout the years. They’ve written covenants for everything from managing pets to raising children.

“It is wildly individualistic here,” Rouse said. “We have the covenants to hold us together. Other than that, we are all different.”

It’s not always easy adjusting to the community, however, and Rouse said the turnover rate is high. It can be financially draining to build a home, which might take more than a year to complete, he said.

Maintaining and expanding the community isn’t cheap either. Plans to build a new common house were scuttled after the cost estimate came in at more than $1 million.

A PLACE OF HIS OWN

Although growth at Dancing Rabbit has slowed, interest in intentional communities continues to build in Missouri. Thirty-three of the 52 communities found on a statewide directory claim to be “forming” or “reforming.” One such community near Columbia is the dream of Richard Knapp.

Knapp, 72, has fantasized about starting an intentional community since his younger hippie years. The dream began to take shape after he retired as a computer programmer for MU’s PeopleSoft software system.

He bought a piece of land along Black Branch just outside Columbia intending to grow organic wheat. He wanted to provide income for a future community on the property, as well as add more food sustainability to the area.

Five years ago, he started Central Missouri Grains for Food. The business has seen good years and bad.

Clover's Natural Market and Lucky's Market both sell his flour. He also sells through the online farm-to-table grocery service, Pick A Pepper, and has customers in St. Louis. He tried the local farmers markets but said it became too expensive for him to set up a booth every Saturday.

On a recent humid day earlier this summer, Knapp was eager to talk about his operation as he walked around the small plot of land. He explained which of the tall grasses are rye, which are turkey red wheat and which are weeds.

“If you see a perfect wheat field, you know it’s not organic,” he said.

He pointed out the dozen or so rows of vegetables and fruit trees he's also planted. Some are nibbled by deer, but others have done well this year. He’ll store the potatoes and squash for the winter.

Knapp listed the skills needed to build his clean white barn, which has an expansive upstairs that he’d like to turn into a living space or maybe a school. He said everything he grows is done organically, and he used green building techniques in his barn and greenhouse. But he wants more than an eco-farm.

He thought he would eventually find like-minded people to build homes, help with the business and create an egalitarian community. So far, he hasn’t had much luck.

Most of the inquiries are from idealistic young people who have no money and think contributing their labor will be enough, he said.

“I've spent almost all of my lifetime savings on this project," Knapp said. "If there is to be a community, any expansion at all, newcomers will have to have some financial resources of their own."

There also isn't much demand for organic wheat in Missouri, he discovered. He gets by on his farmers-market earnings and online sales.

Meanwhile, this year's wheat harvest is just ahead, which requires the help of friends and strangers alike. He found a fellow wheat grower on Facebook and others have offered to help as well.

“I have this ideal,” he said. “It’s way up there, but there are instances of community. Any sort of cooperative venture is attractive to me.”


WHAT’S IN A COMMUNE

Others share Knapp's dream of building an intentional community in Missouri and elsewhere. The number of intentional communities isn’t as large as it was the '60s and '70s, Brown said, when as many as 10,000 were counted in the U. S. — most short-lived. But there has been a definite resurgence.

Intentional communities belong to what’s called a revitalization movement, Brown said. These movements emerge when change pushes some people to leave the mainstream and develop an alternative lifestyle around their own vision.

Communes in the '60s sprang from deep distrust of the establishment during the Vietnam War era and the civil rights movement. Likewise, the environmental movement was built around the dissatisfaction with abuse of the earth's resources.

That movement has since expanded to include sustainability, the foundation of ecovillages, Brown said.

All communities need income, and every intentional community in Missouri dabbles in banking and business. Dancing Rabbit accrues money by leasing land to members. It has an internal bartering system and its own currency, called ELMs.

Sandhill Farm near Rutledge sustains itself on sorghum syrup and other farm products. The community has always had an agricultural slant, said Mica Wood, a seven-year resident.

“The values we hold very highly are connecting with the land, food and with each other,” she said. Members rely more on food sustainability than energy sustainability.

The Shepherdsfield Community near Fulton, which is rooted in Christian teachings, sustains its community through dog grooming and landscape services, as well as a bakery, butcher shop and other small business ventures.

No matter the lifestyle, adaptability is key.

“For a community to be vibrant for a long time, it has to be willing to change,” Madden said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.