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Commune at Montague Farm marks 50th, members recall ‘powerful year’

 

The commune, born of the 1960s Liberation News Service, helped in the renaissance of organic agriculture and the birth of the national anti-nuclear movement. ARCHIVAL PHOTO

https://www.gazettenet.com/Montague-Farm-Reunion-members-come-together-after-50-years-19508099

Like any family reunion, this one had plenty of familiar faces, a little older than in the past, lots of memory sharing and oodles of fun built around those sweet reminiscences.

But the 50th anniversary gathering this past weekend to mark the founding of the Montague Farm a half-century ago brought home a wider world, with connections to an entire generation.

The commune, born of the 1960s Liberation News Service, helped in the renaissance of organic agriculture and the birth of the national anti-nuclear movement. And it struck deep in the souls of the dozens of members of the larger “commune family” that extended to Wendell, Guilford, Vermont, and eyond, as nearly 100 of them and their own family members rediscovered last weekend.

“That was such a powerful year,” said Ira Karasick of Montclair, New Jersey, who arrived about a month after the 60-acre commune was founded in August 1969 as one of the few people with farming experience. He stayed for about a year. “For so many of us, it’s powerful how important the farm was to every decision we made after that. It’s phenomenal and moving to see everybody individually, and also to see them together.”

Karasick was an Amherst College alumnus who’d headed back to western Mass. after reading in the Village Voice about the Aug. 12 “heist” of the news service’s New York presses and typewriters from its New York offices to start an outpost here. Like many of those attending, he built strong relationships by participating in building something new.

Over the weekend, a mini-museum was set up on tables on the lower level of the Montague Retreat Center, in what had been the Ripley Farm barn. Among the artifacts was the Ripley Farm ledger journal, with handwritten accounts of transactions dating back to 1900 and updated photos and writing from the commune years — symbolizing the reverence new arrivals had for what had gone before, and the way this generation of urban and suburban newcomers was adopted by farmers whose own children had moved off the farm.

There amid the newspaper accounts of the commune, of co-founder Marshall Bloom, the news service and member Sam Lovejoy’s 1974 toppling of the proposed Montague nuclear plant weather towers, was founding member Cathy Rogers’ white third-place ribbon from the Franklin County Fair for her pickles, along with her hand-written book of farm recipes and her $7 Curtiss Breeding Service certificate for breeding Dolly, the Jersey cow, on Aug. 27, 1969.

“For me, it wasn’t about a political or cultural change,” said Rogers.

From the outset, she was drawn to the farm from her job at Columbia University Press with her journalist boyfriend. She stayed until 1971.

“When I got to the farm, what was really important to me was the sensation in my body of home, the physical environment, with people who were really interesting.”

For Rogers, who moved back to the Northwest and became a physician pioneering in naturopathic medicine, she credits what she learned about herbs and other natural remedies. “That was the impact of this place. It was really fostered from this experience. Threads of naturopathic medicine were awakened in me here. … Everything I imagined as part of a healthy life was here.”

Whether it was growing and eating food without pesticides or anything else, she recalled, “Every day you felt supported in what you learned at the farm.”

In the aftermath of the urban riots following the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and after nightly Vietnam War death updates and an explosive election year, the news service moved its headquarters from Washington, D.C. to New York. Then, with a splintering of more radical staff members, Bloom wrote in July 1968, “Well, I think we ought to move the news service to a farm, somewhere in the hills, Canada perhaps. A place where people can begin to think clearly, a place to get all those city poisons out of their systems.”

The moment came on Aug. 11 when Bloom, Rogers and a handful of other members snuck off with Liberation News Service equipment and cash during a benefit showing of “Yellow Submarine” at the Fillmore East auditorium, stealing away to the farm they’d purchased on Chestnut Hill, as a pivotal outpost in their generation’s 1960s push “back to the land.”

Bloom, the former editor of Amherst College’s student newspaper, who’d led a walkout of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s 1966 Amherst commencement speech and gotten thrown out of the London School of Economics, had enlisted Boston University News editor Ray Mungo’s help setting up Liberation News Service in 1966, and now, Mungo moved in July 1968 with writer Verandah Porche to a Packard Corners farm near the Leyden line in Guilford, Vt.

“The liberation we tried to force on the world became secondary to the liberation in our own lives,” wrote Mungo in 1970 in “Famous Long Ago.”

Reality set in as winter was coming, and they were hundreds of miles from news sources, with a television their only point of contact and a need to get wood ready for winter. Even the presses froze, ending the news service.

Montague Farm began growing cucumbers on a 10-acre patch of south-facing hillside. Bloom would drive a burlap bag of cucumbers to Oxford Pickle’s Deerfield plant in his two-seat Triumph sedan to sell for $25 a ton.

Still, rather than a hippie haven like many 1960s communes, say members, who became writers, artists, filmmakers and professionals — the farm became a hotbed of political activism, with FBI surveillance at times.

Anti-nuclear

Members came and left, estimated at more than 100 in all through 2003, but never more than a dozen or so at a time. Then, in 1973 — as a larger commune with roots in Leyden, Warwick and Northfield, the Renaissance Community, began dominating local news in Turners Falls — Northeast Utilities announced plans to build twin nuclear reactors on the Montague Plains.

From the moment members read about the nuclear plant, “It immediately energized and focused us,” said Harvey Wasserman, who’d written for Liberation News Service from Chicago at the request of his boyhood friend Bloom. He lived at the Farm from 1969 to 1984. “There never was a doubt. We never had a meeting to discuss whether we were going to oppose the nuclear plant. We were total abolitionists the moment we saw the thing. I knew we were going to fight it, and win.”

Lovejoy, 27 at the time, first saw the 500-foot-tall weather-data tower he would later topple while being driven up Route 47 from Sunderland in early 1964. He walked on the Montague Plains the morning of Feb. 22, 1974, and removed the tower’s guy wires to topple it. Then, he turned himself in to police. Opposition spearheaded by the Montague Farm became a rallying point that helped give birth to a national anti-nuclear movement. Actions included political mobilization, with member Anna Gyorgy running for selectman and member Nina Keller and Lovejoy running for Town Meeting member seats on the NO (Nuclear Opposition) Party ticket. Farm members also set up the Alternative Energy Coalition, with offices in Turners Falls and then Greenfield, inspiring the Clamshell Alliance to fight the planned reactor in Seabrook, N.H.

In 2005, the farm was sold to become a spiritual center run by the nonprofit Zen Peacemakers Community to carry on many of the commune’s original values. The barn was thoroughly rebuilt. It was sold to Montague Retreat Center in 2012 for functions such as yoga sessions.

“This place was paradise,” said Wasserman, one of nearly 100 at the reunion. “There were strains and stresses, and the community moved on … but we retained our connection to each. There was a generational change and overlap. There was continuity. Here we are 50 years later. It’s like a miracle, an existential reality that’s just undeniable.”