Earth People's Park - VT's 70's Hippie Invasion

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HardyMacia:
Free land for free people: Looking back at Earth People’s Park

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By Rod Clarke

posted August 5, 2005

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devil’s bargain;
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

– Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

They came by the hundreds, looking for the garden. But what they found was 592 acres of tangled, bug-infested, logged out swampland, a wall of local hostility, and a climate so harsh and unforgiving that it brought tears to the eyes of the weak when the bitter winds of winter howled down across the Canadian border.

Some took one look, hitched up their backpacks, and headed out without ever unrolling their sleeping bags.

Others stayed, much to the dismay of the hard-working, French-Canadian locals who had viewed the invasion of their land by hordes of long-haired hippie freaks with fear and loathing.

It was called Earth People’s Park (EPP), and to this day, the very name conjures up a host of images, most of them wildly off the mark. I should know. For a year, my family called EPP home.

Taking the leap

In 1971, I was a staff reporter for United Press International’s Montpelier bureau, covering virtually everything that happened in the state: crime, politics, state government, the Legislature. The hot issue that year was the threatened hippie invasion. Playboy magazine started it off with an article explaining how easy it would be for counterculture (remember THAT word?) radicals from across the country to take over poor, old, naïve, bumpkin Vermont.

A lot of people found that prospect terrifying. The Vermont media (which was much more conservative in those days) picked up the banner, warning that as many as half a million long-haired freaks might flock to the Green Mountains that summer. Bold, black newspaper headlines warned of the impending “HIPPIE INVASION,” sending more than one old farmer scurrying for his shotgun. Gov. Deane Davis hastily called a news conference to explain that he hadn’t really invited them. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns sponsored a workshop to brief local officials on how to deal with the so-called “influx.”

The focal point for all this hyperbole was a handful of dreamers with visions of a new utopia dancing in their brains who had begun trying to eke out an existence on a hardscrabble parcel of land tucked along the Canadian border in the Northeast Kingdom community of Norton.

Earth People’s Park was an outgrowth of the fabled Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in neighboring New York State, and the celebrated People’s Park rebellion in Berkeley, CA.

The concept was simple: The best way to keep the Woodstock Nation alive was to buy a piece of land somewhere and open it up to all the people.

Led by the Hog Farm commune, which helped organize Woodstock, bands of disciples streamed across the nation, panhandling on street corners and passing the hat at rock concerts and college campuses. When enough cash had been raised, legend has it, the new nonprofit corporation bought the Norton property sight unseen out of a real estate catalogue. Why? Because it was big. And it was cheap.

The first settlers began arriving without much fanfare in the late summer and fall of 1970. A few actually stayed through the winter. But by spring 1971, word was out on the alternative grapevine — there was free land in Vermont.

On the first weekend of May, a colleague who wrote for The Burlington Free Press and I decided it was time to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about. I had an old, small school bus that had been converted to a camper, and we packed it up and headed to Norton. My friend and I spent the weekend at the park. We toured the land and met the people and lived the life. And a spark was lit inside me.

By this time, my wife Loretta and I had had five kids, and were living in Barre while I worked at UPI. My hair was down over my shoulders and my beard hit the middle of my chest. I was going through something of a philosophical and political upheaval as well, and EPP appealed to the latent anarchist that was growing inside my gut. Every weekend, we loaded the kids into the bus and headed to Norton.

In September, the park was hosting “an ecology workshop” — a euphemism for a fundraising party to make the $8,000 annual mortgage payment. My suggestion to UPI that we cover it was rebuffed by an editor in Boston, who pointed out that I’d just done a major EPP piece. “It’s like the second load of moon rocks,” he said. I went anyway, on my own time. It was a heck of a party. On hand was Hog Farm guru Hugh Romney — better known as Wavy Gravy, who made the stage announcements at Woodstock and later had a Ben & Jerry’s flavor named after him.

The problem was, I forgot to come back to work on Monday. And Tuesday. UPI fired me. With no job and a gnawing sense of unrest growling in my gut, I took what seemed then to be the most logical step — we became fulltime Earth People. It was a decision we’ve never regretted.

No lease. No payment

It may be easier to say what Earth People’s Park wasn’t than describe what it was. It wasn’t a commune. To be sure, some people lived communally, sharing food, living quarters, resources. Others lived more solitary lives, guarding both their property and their privacy with pitbull tenacity.

There were the young and the not-so-young, male and female, black and white; the fugitive and the seeker, the idealist and the cynic, the lawless and the godly. Some hoped that by freeing themselves from their urban ways and material possessions, they might carve a new way of life and a new way of living from the land.

There were druggies and drunks, hoping that a fresh start in a new place might help them break the chains of their addictions. Some made it. Others didn’t, and have since paid the ultimate price for their habits.

There were runaways hiding from their parents, and Jesus freaks who freely gave away all their worldly possessions. There were peaceniks and pacifists, Buddhists and bikers. They came 3,000 miles from California and a long stone’s throw from Island Pond, just down roller coastery Route 114.

There was a young man who walked around buck naked all the time, and a middle-aged engineer from Canada who built a sophisticated homestead and knew a little bit about everything.

There were permanent settlers who built sturdy log homes and A-frames from scavenged lumber and dreamed of someday having a community school. And there were the transients who came during the summer because they’d heard it was a great place for parties, dope, booze, and free sex. (It wasn’t.) They freeloaded off the residents and caused problems for the locals, then fled as soon as the frost began making threatening gestures toward the pumpkin.

The land. That’s what we called it. Just “the land.” It was the thing that brought us there and it was the tie that bound us together. The land, after all, was pretty much the only thing we had in common. The underlying tenet of Earth People’s Park was deceptively simple: “Free land for free people.”

Only those living there could make rules. You arrived, staked out a piece of land, built or camped on it, and it was yours as long as you stayed. No deed. No lease. No payment. And no one had locks on their doors. The land would be open and free to all people. We took that very seriously.

Moving on

A kind of basic, primitive anarchy reigned at EPP. There was no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, no telephones, no television. In the wintertime, the rough and rocky path that served as a road was closed by snow, and a trip to the Norton store meant a three-mile trek. Few of the full-time residents had cars. Those that did had to park them at the entrance to the land and hope they’d start when needed.

I was working harder at the park than I’d ever worked in my life, putting in 18-hour days trying to establish some sort of a homestead. We were older and more settled than most residents, and blessed with a few more creature comforts. Our trailer was heated with oil, not wood, we had a small generator, a chain saw, an indoor chemical toilet, a shotgun, a tiny black and white battery powered television set, a propane gas cook stove, an old four-wheel drive jeep, a hundred-dollar snowmobile — even a gas refrigerator.

During the summers, the park filled with transients who partied all night and generally upset the backwoods tranquility. But they were gone by fall, and only the most serious, diehard homesteaders stuck around after the snow began flying.

Those winters were magical, joyful, vintage times. Playing charades by oil lamp and sipping hot apple cider with the family up the road, the air so cold and brittle it would shatter it like a pane of glass, and a full moon casting a blue-white radiance on a foot of fresh snow. No visitors could visit, no phone could ring.

(to be continued...)

HardyMacia:
(...continued)
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But then summer returned, and the craziness began anew. By the fall of ’72, it was time to move on. Because I was older and perceived as somewhat more responsible, I found myself in a leadership role I wasn’t ready to assume. I didn’t want to be mayor of Earth People’s Park; I just wanted to work my land. I didn’t like having to account for the antics of the summer transients. I didn’t particularly like to be awakened in the middle of the night to go out in the woods and talk some freak down from a bad trip. And it bothered me when someone from the village would ask, “How do you people live like that?”

I had developed friendships with many Norton residents, I loaded their hay and poured their concrete and my kids went to school with their kids. I liked these folks, and was weary of the insurmountable barrier that I feared would loom between us as long as we lived at the park.

Within a few years, I was back in Montpelier and was rehired by UPI, eventually becoming bureau chief. Life went on pretty much as it had before. I even wrote the stories about Earth People’s Park as it fell on hard times. Many of the permanent settlers — those who gave the place soul and hope — had departed, leaving it mostly to the transients and the burnouts. The reputation worsened, a guy was stabbed to death, and police raids escalated as troopers found large plots of marijuana.

Eventually, the federal government seized the land, then made a deal that turned it over to the state with the proviso that no one could live on it.

Despite its apparent failings, EPP served a very real and a very valuable purpose. It gave people a little space when they needed it, and it bought them time when time was running out. It was a respite and a stopover — a way-station on a journey, not the end of the journey.

And, in a sense, its destiny has been fulfilled. It is still “free land for free people.” Far out.

Pan:
Hi Hardy, I was trying to remember who you were. I am fairly sure I knew you back in the day. I first arrived in EPP in 1973, stayed six months or so, left, returned again in 1976 with my wife, Ellie, stayed a year. Had a baby there. Sandy Laughing-River... We loved EPP. But the early days were the pure days. After the pot growers came in, it was more a gangland than a community. Ending in Pinky's death. I had it out with them many a time. But it was no use. Old timers who had originally lived in EPP moved out, some not far away, but were afraid to bring their children into the land anymore. Because the pot growers were harsh and threatening. Not brothers. Although the kept up the pretense so they could claim the land was theirs. I wish I could say "All's well that ends well." But it didn't. It couldn't. Can't mix crap with oatmeal and expect to have an edible breakfast. EPP was a blessing gone to hell. I wrote a book about it. Called the place Martian Folk's Farm or MFF. Changed all the other names too. The book is COMPORTING ROADWISE. It is completely on line:

http://www.trholme.com/comporting_roadwise.htm

I know you wrote the piece I am responding to back in 2005 - that's six years ago. But what you said is excellent. I am sorry I didn't discover your post earlier.

Pan

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