Forget what you think you know about hippies. West Virginia native and author Carter Taylor Seaton has some stories for you.
In the 60s, while some hippies were protesting the Vietnam War, enjoying free love and rock music, others were looking to escape it all. These were hippie homesteaders, the people featured in Seaton’s newest book of the same name.
The Linwood Community Library hosted a book signing Sunday for Seaton, and she shared the journey of the hippie homesteaders and the impact they made on West Virginia.
“The Mountain State Art and Craft Fair – that’s where this story begins,” Seaton said. “Because I had the opportunity to spend fifteen summers playing camp at the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair, I met a whole bunch of artisans while I was up there that didn’t sound like the West Virginians that I had been working with – the rural women in Crum, Wayne County and Lincoln County. They didn’t sound like them, nor did they dress like them.”
Those people were transplants from all over the country. They were also the first people Seaton turned to when she began work on the book.
“During that period [the sixties] what sort of missed West Virginia was the social upheaval that was going on in the all the rest of the country,” Seaton said. “We had the Vietnam War and people were upset about that. We had a lot of change that was going on. The kids were disappointed and unhappy with the way their parents’ lifestyle was. They didn’t like the way the environment was looking. They were just in general disgruntled with everything they knew and saw.”
Those “kids” – recent college graduates and twenty-somethings – decided to leave the cities and go back to the land somewhere in a rural state. Seaton said that in a span of five to eight years, one million people left the cities for rural areas, 10,000 of whom came to West Virginia.
They were drawn to the state in several different ways, all of which included its beauty and ruralism.
“They found West Virginia because of something else that was going on at that time,” Seaton said. “Right after [President John F. Kennedy] was killed, we had [President Lyndon B. Johnson] and Johnson declared war on poverty. What was all over the television set was, first of all, the little kid on the front porch – barefoot – but it also showed the beauty of the state and the mountains.”
An article written by Lawrence Goldsmith featured in Mother Earth News magazine also drew the hippies to the state. Goldsmith wrote that he purchased his land for $29 an acre.
“So many people said ‘the farther away from civilization I can get the better,’” Seaton said. “There’s one couple named Tom and Connie McCauley and they moved twice, I think, before they found someplace that they couldn’t hear [anything] or see any lights.”
At the time of this influx of people, the state was preparing for the centennial. The department of commerce, which melded into the Department of Culture and History, developed an outreach program in search for rural arts and crafts to be featured during centennial celebrations.
“They learned from a European model that crafts equal tourism and so they said, ‘well let’s go out and find as many people as we can who are craftsman and convince these little counties all over the place to have some sort of event that features or includes crafts.’ One of those was, of course, the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair. Their idea was to have one hundred events that held arts and crafts as some part of it during that one-hundredth birthday.”
Don Page was one of the men who went out in search for crafts and found “a bunch of hippies,” Seaton said. The hippies learned how to make Appalachian crafts from their native neighbors and expanded on them, created a new form of art.
“Most of the people who were the artisans had come with a college degree and in some cases, some artistic background so that they might have taken a craft that they learned locally and raised the level of sophistication.”
Locals shared their crafting skills with the hippies because their own children “left the nest” for the city or college. It was sort of a trade – the city folk moved to the country and the country folk moved to the city.
“At the same time as they came in, we had a huge out-migration of young people,” Seaton said. “They were leaving to go to the big cities. They had it with rural life. They had it with the farms. So, these were people left with nobody to pass their skills down to and nobody to talk to about what interested them. All of a sudden, here comes these kids who want to live like they’re living.”
Along with teaching their new neighbors crafts and art, Seaton said the locals took an interest in the hippies because they had an idea of how they wanted to live but were unable to make it happen with their college educations.
“They were college graduates who have no clue about the business end of a hoe,” she said. “They don’t know how to farm. Not a one of them knew what farming was before they got here. [The farmers] would stand around and watch these kids try to plant and finally they’d say ‘you know, if you really want to grow those peas, don’t plant them such and such a way, I’ll tell you how to do it. I’ll help you do that.’ Or they’d show them where certain things were that they needed or they’d trade skills back and forth with them.”
The local families ended up symbolically adopting the hippies and, to this day, those hippies can tell you who their “family” was.
“Almost every single solitary one that I’ve talked to can tell me the couple who adopted them and helped them survive,” Seaton said. “It was such a symbiotic relationship. It’s one of those happy circumstances of timing. We wanted crafts at that time. The kids had left and the parents had nobody to talk to and they were willing to support [the hippies]. It’s just amazing that it happened that way. It really is unique. This didn’t happen the same way in any other state.”
The arts and crafts, and musical communities benefited greatly from the hippie homesteaders, a benefit we still see today.
“In the 1960s and 70s, there was a revival, and that’s when a lot of these people came to West Virginia. That’s when a lot of craft cooperatives got started. One of which was Appalachian Crafts that I was involved with. There was another called Cabin Creek Quilts, one called Mountain Artisans based in Charleston and one in Parkersburg called Rural Arts and Crafts.
“If it weren’t for all of this, we wouldn’t have Tamarack today,” she continued. “Most of the people who I interviewed were some of the very original artists whose art was put in Tamarack.”
The movement also gave birth to Mountain Stage. Founders Andy Ridenour and Larry Groce both came to West Virginia to further their educations and created the organization that featured Appalachian musicians.
“When they needed a house band, they found the Putnam County Pickers,” Seaton said. “Every single one of those guys lived on what they called ‘the farm’ in Putnam County. They came from all different places. They lived in what they called an intentional community. They all lived independently but they had a community house. They all tried to grow gardens together – not highly successfully.”
Ron Sowell, director of the Putnam County Pickers is now the band director for Mountain Stage.
Seaton shared tidbits about some of the homesteaders featured in her book and said that although they came from many different background and moved to West Virginia for very different reasons, they have similar stories – they all wanted to live life on their own terms.
“What we had was protesters who, in some cases, spent some time in prison,” she said. “We had a draft dodger who bolted and went to Canada first before he came here. We had a lot of pacifist who might have worked with the Quakers or did something else to aid those who did not want to go to Vietnam. We had a number of people who were in alternative service. They chose another way. They would either become a VISTA volunteer or they would join the Appalachian Volunteers, a number of things like that.”
Many of the homesteaders continue to live the lifestyle while others have moved on to become teachers, social workers, environmental lawyers, doctors and more. But, according to Seaton, it’s easy to pick out those former hippie homesteaders.
“Just because you were once a hippie, doesn’t mean you still aren’t at heart,” she said.
Seaton’s book is available online at www.wvuonline.com and at all major bookstores.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at email@example.com