This article considers the histories of two countercultural, “back-to-the-land” communes located in Northern California: Siskiyou County’s Black Bear Ranch and Sonoma County’s Morning Star Ranch. Both communes were highly influenced by the concept of “open land,” a quintessentially 1960s vision of countercultural colonies that rejected private property, welcomed all newcomers—particularly individuals who were alienated by urban modernity—and allowed each to live as they chose, free of rent, compulsory structure, or governance. I examine the ways in which these communes related to and were shaped by their rural neighbors, as well as state authorities overseeing this region, revealing how the influences of each determined success or failure. Positive relations with neighbors enhanced commune viability, although maintaining such relationships often required that communards compromise their original founding principles, including their commitment to open-land ideals. At the same time, the presence of such enclaves in their midst prompted many rural residents to rethink received notions regarding communes and communards. The exchanges that followed force us to recontextualize the era’s back-to-the-land movement within broader American traditions of frontier settlement and reinvention.
“It’s Hip to Unzip”: Open-Land Communes and Their Neighbors in Northern California, 1966–1979
John Stuart Miller received his BA in history and English literature and MA in history at the University of British Columbia. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, where his dissertation examines the role of psychoactive drugs in the culture, politics, and representation of sexual minorities in the twentieth-century United States.
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John Stuart Miller; “It’s Hip to Unzip”: Open-Land Communes and Their Neighbors in Northern California, 1966–1979. California History 1 May 2021; 98 (2): 100–126. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2021.98.2.100
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