THE BOOK IS BACK! A HANDBOOK FOR THE NEW FARMER
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people migrated in droves to the Mendocino Coast to figure out a new way of living in the world. They came with utopian dreams from all over the US and beyond, most with little to no knowledge of what “living on the land” would entail. In Albion, many of the new arrivals were women, and they too were learning by doing, by gleaning what information they could from old-timer locals and each other and sharing newfound knowledge as they made their way through the arcane practices of country life and the consciousness raising that was an intensifying focus. Eventually, the women started a magazine to share more widely what they were discovering, which became a word-of-mouth touchstone, with a readership of over 17,000. The magazines were eventually compiled into a book, first published in 1976. Today, the reissue of Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer is cause for reflection and celebration.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a ragtag movement—which didn’t yet realize it was a movement—brought thousands of young people streaming away from city living to rural enclaves all over the US. They were not migrating to find a job nor fleeing persecution (not exactly), but instead were intent on creating a new way to live in the world, a new way to think and govern themselves, an open-minded, open-ended will to change, grow, and figure things out inside a new paradigm that rebelled against consumerism, the Vietnam War, rigid gender roles, organized power structures, and the disregard and disrespect of Nature. From their original places, they spread, ferreting out cheap land and running into kindred spirits with similar intentions, alarming the locals as they rejoiced in finding each other and settling into new communities.
It was called “the greatest urban exodus in American history.” (GQ Style, September 9,2021). The article, “The Last Glimpses of California’s Vanishing Hippie Utopias,” asserts that“from the late sixties to the mid-seventies, nearly a million young people went back to theland.” Moms and dads in cities on the eastern seaboard, conservative towns in the Midwest,Bible Belt southern towns watched, confounded, as their iconoclastic kids went off, longhaired and shaggy, with no clear roadmap and (mostly) no skills or money, but plenty ofmoxie, their exuberant youth, curiosity, and optimism. The young people (almost all young) moved away from the conventions they’d grown up with, committed to redefining family and community…everything, really…and filling the void with peace, love, rock and roll, and a grand, revolutionary experiment. Many of them gathered here on the left edge of the continent to set about making a new world.
A remarkable population of women—“…young, college educated, urban expatriates,” said an article in The New York Times, in 1977—congregated in Albion and formed what turned into one of the first consciousness-raising women’s groups on the coast. The women were busy building their own shelters, raising families, and planting gardens, but from their deep inquiries into what greater possibilities there were in women’s lives, the core group of Sherry Thomas, Carmen Goodyear, Arlene Reiss, Jeanne Tetrault, Jess River, Helen Jacobs, and Harriet Bye began a magazine, which later was compiled into a book. The first Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer, came out in 1976 and now, forty-five years later, has been reissued for a new generation of new farmers and migrants to country life.
Some kids hitchhiked, with fifty cents in their pocket, a guitar, and a willingness to dig into the adventure, wherever it took them. Others had saved a bit from waitressing, or doing construction work for a while, even dancing in a topless bar in the Bay Area, and packed their VW vans for the road trip to their experimental destiny. A few came with trust funds big enough to finance a down payment on a parcel of land with outbuildings that could be remodeled into not-very-glamorous shelters. Land was astonishingly cheap; an acre of partially forested land was going for under one thousand dollars (sometimes as little as three hundred dollars) in 1970. Carmen Goodyear bought her original homestead farm in 1969 for thirty-six thousand dollars—forty acres of redwoods and a two-story farmhouse [built in 1906]. Her parents had tragically been killed in a car accident but had left her enough in their will to buy the parcel on Albion Ridge, where she still resides. The ones with nest eggs joined with the ones who had nothing; the ones with nothing agreed to contribute sweat equity and to scrounge together the fifty dollars or sixty dollars a month it would take for a group to make land payments together. They were nothing if not resourceful.
Ask anyone up Middle Ridge how they’d funded the cabins they built when they first arrived here and you will hear stories about how so many were built for “practically nothing.” People scavenged old-growth redwood lumber by dismantling defunct chicken coops in Petaluma and an abandoned hotel in Fort Bragg. One early arrival, DawnHofberg, who came with a college degree and a teaching certificate, learned from herneighbors, the Hamm brothers, how to make shakes to cover her handcrafted cabin’sroof and exterior, which she says is still perfectly intact. And Leona Walden, with thehelp of a hand saw and the book, How to Build a Wood-Frame House, by L.O. Anderson,built the first of two cabins and continued on to build three more major constructionprojects over her life, one of which was a forty-six-hundred square foot barn, and another that is the beautiful home she still lives in.
You will also hear how almost all of them built their homes without a single powertool, and how many of them lived with no electricity or running water inside. You willhear that, when somebody was ready to start construction on a new dwelling, folksfrom up and down the ridge might show up to “barn raise,” bring food for the crew,contribute tools and muscle, and build it in a week or a weekend with swarms of ad hochelpers. The newcomers were not just resourceful, but also willing to sacrifice comfortsthey grew up with for the sake of furthering the utopian dream, willing to live with woodstoves alone for heat and cooking, and kerosene lanterns for light, to barter for goodsin order to stay out of the consumer culture, to grow their own food or do without, topatch and embroider their jeans till they resembled crazy quilts, to go back to a gentlerway of living on the land that was simpler in many ways, and much, much harder inothers. In 1968, Harriet Bye said she came equipped only with “flexibility, the willingness to learn, non-attachment to modern comforts like indoor plumbing, a scavenger’sheart, optimism,” and bought an acre-and-a-half parcel for $3,000—$750 down and$50 a month.
On the vanguard of Albion’s hippie movement, Table Mountain Ranch commune wasestablished at the far east end of Albion Ridge Road. The fledgling communards weremaking up the rules (as few as possible) as they went, finding out what worked andwhat failed, and sharing their discoveries with other nearby communes. In 1971, RobertGreenway, a sociology professor at Sonoma State, with his friend Jim Forstner, bought120 acres on Middle Ridge. They divided the property into six parcels. Greenway startedcalling friends to join him on the land. Leona Walden got his call while living in Mexicowith her partner, artist Max Efroym. Having lived briefly on a commune near Santa Cruz,Leona had already decided that she wanted to bring her daughter up communally, soher answer was yes, as it was for a passel of others. One subdivided thirty-acre parcelbecame Salmon Creek Farm. There was nothing built on the land and there was muchto do to make it a functioning family commune for the four adults and seven childrenwho started it. One of the key practices they invented was “Wife for a Week.” Each adult took turns being the “wife,” aided by a child or two, to take care of shopping,cooking, and cleaning while the rest just came to meals. The week of being “wife”could be a lot of work, and as Hofberg remembers, not everyone had the same idea ofwhat wifely duties were. “Some people thought popcorn made a fine dinner.” Leona and Dawn stressed that the cabins at Salmon Creek Farm were mainly placesto sleep. The real “living” happened outside and in the bunkhouse. That’s where theycooked and ate together, played music in the evenings, did projects, chanted, danced,held meetings, and entertained themselves and each other.
In the revelatory film, Women on the Land: Creating Conscious Commuity, by Laurie York and Carmen Goodyear, one of the earliest Albion arrivals, Jess River, talks about those days, saying something like, “We would go to work for money in town, maybe one or two days a week, and we’d make enough to get us by, to make the mortgage payments and chip in for supplies, and somehow, it was enough. We had time. We weren’t scrambling all the time with so much busyness, like now.” This sentiment expressing the spaciousness of living in those times is often accompanied by a dreamyeyed glance and is repeated in the title of Sherry Thomas’s second book, We Didn’t Have Much, But We Sure Had Plenty. Interestingly, Thomas remembers that River was her neighbor in the Washington, D.C. suburbs where she grew up, and used to babysit for her. When she came out here, “Jess was living in a box truck and…there we were again.”
The main thing was, it was all a big experiment. It represented a breaking away from preconceived notions about what a home should look like, what a household should feel like, what women’s work was. It was a recalculation of the nuclear family, community, work, food, health, queerness, religion, love, sexuality, money, consumption, and what was important.
Other communes were started and sometimes abandoned as the movement evolved. Carmen Goodyear and her then-partner Jeanne Tetrault, who co-wrote the Country Women book with Sherry Thomas, called their place Tai Farm. It became a “women’s land” and a small collective/commune. Trillium, also a women’s commune, was settled down the road. Sabina’s Land was on Navarro Ridge, later becoming the Lord’s Land, which is still a functioning “missional community” today. Bo’s Land, Azalea Acres, “The Mune,” Oz, Big River Ranch in Caspar, The Land in Point Arena, Big Foot, and so many other communes all experienced varying degrees of success, failure, and permanence. Moonlight, who lived on Salmon Creek Farm, estimated that, “…by the mid-70s, the communards/back-to-the-landers, that is, ‘permanent’ settlers on Albion Ridge may have numbered five hundred or more.” Changes also occurred within households and partnerships, a phenomenon sometimes dubbed the “Mendocino Shuffle.” Max Efroym fell in love with Dawn Hofberg, and left Leona Walden to live with Hofberg and have a baby; Leona fell in love with Jack Price, married him, moved next door, and built their barn home. When Jack died, Leona inherited the thirty-acre property and built a new home. Not to say it wasn’t difficult at first, but Leona and Dawn are still neighbors, and good friends. You will encounter a lot of these stories up and down the ridge. A lot.
While the phrase “tune in, turn on, drop out” was the hypothesis and the new maxim, it was also a moment of terrific energy and creativity, which still informs the lifestyle and the vibe on this coast.
The music scene was on fire. Everybody had a band, and the bands were good. Lennie Lax, Antonia Lamb, Judy Mayhan, John Chamberlin, Bradley Boo Stedman, Bob Smith and Cat Mother, the incredible Caspar Flats Jug Band, The Mark Levine Revue, and too many others to list here—all added their talents to the Mendocino soundscape. There were places to play, too, and “living room music” was everywhere. Poetry flourished. Writers and painters and sculptors and weavers came for the artist colony vibe Bill Zacha created when he established the Mendocino Art Center, replacing Mendocino’s original incarnation as a logging and fishing village.
Although they were dedicated hippies, some settlers arrived with entrepreneurial courage. These ventured to open businesses that came and went, like The UG (Uncommon Good), Barbara Pritchard’s Sip & Sup Soup House, and the Pyewacket—restaurants that kept a hippie aesthetic in décor and menu. Toad Hall was a funky nightclubup Comptche-Ukiah Road that hosted unbelievably good bands and a mosh pit atmosphere of grooving fans. Annie Liner had a little business called Ova Easy that delivereddeviled eggs to small grocery stores. And upstart startups like Paul and Joan Katzeff’sThanksgiving Coffee Company, which began as a restaurant where Down Home Foodsis now, moved with the times, and became and still is a driving force in the gourmetcoffee industry.
Bye relates: “My first business on the coast was Albion Doors and Windows, thencalled Let the Sunshine In. It was all recycled. It was a byproduct of divorce, living onnew land with just my daughter, using my carpentry skills to build us a shelter, having a decent truck and the above-mentioned scavenger’s heart. That was probablyforty-eight years ago. We, (me, and then fourteen years later, partner Larry Sawyer)have hauled together probably forty thousand windows and doors, maybe more. Fromour backyard, they went into many home-built houses, additions, chicken coops, andbarns. I had no business experience but a practical nature. My degrees were in English,history, and theater arts.” She later teamed with Arlene Reiss and Silver to open a clothing boutique named Fancy That, which is still as much a part of the “Mendo-scene-o”as ever. Bye and Reiss were featured in the film Women on the Land, in which one ofthe most telling moments came when Reiss, who was from New York City, said, “Before moving here, I had never lived in a place where you could just open the front doorand go outside.” They took the tectonic upheaval to their lifestyles with splendid grace.
“It was so empowering. I went to Ivy League university and then I was suddenly building a barn and putting up fencing. We felt we could do anything,” said Sherry Thomas,who with her parents invested in a hundred acres at the end of Middle Ridge. Then shedug her own fourteen-foot well, by hand. She, like many other newly landed residentson Middle Ridge, fell in love with the octogenarian Hamm brothers, who had traveled upthe coast on a schooner in the early 1900s, then by wagon to Middle Ridge to buy property. They’d lived in their barn since their house burned down, and “knew everything.”The beloved pair taught their new ex-city-slicker neighbors how to butcher and shearsheep, among myriad other skills and, as the only people on the road with electricityand a TV, won the undying devotion of the commune kids who went over on Saturdaymornings to watch cartoons and eat actual, store-bought cereal. The old-timers welcomed the young newcomers, mentored them, and threw big barbecue parties withbaseball games every summer.
Emerging from the stifling culturally prescribed roles of women as homemakers,helpmeets, and moms in the fifties and sixties, the many young women who migratedwest during this time, some alone and some with partners, were interested in redefining what being a fully conscious woman could mean. They came seeking the extentof their own capabilities and power, and to build lives with a deeper connection to theland, to nature, to work, and to each other. Up and down Albion Ridge, women foundand helped each other, and started meeting, originally to learn to spin and weave woolfrom the sheep they were raising, but in truth because they were having such a grandtime together. Hands busy and curiosity about each other piqued, the meetings quickly took on another dimension as the women tentatively began to compare notes on their lives.
Tetrault had read The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), a book by the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, which provided plenty of fuel for their deep dive into women’s issues, feminism, inclusivity, consensus, self-actualization. The consciousness raising involved poking into the scary work of dismantling age-old precepts and prejudices, pushing the limits of what had come before. In 1970, LGBTQ+ was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, yet many of the Albion newcomers were early on experimenting with gender fluidity or openly, proudly lesbian in a world that was closed to gayness in all its multiple forms. “There were so many of us discovering this burgeoning movement that had much to teach us about how to live in a way that was respectful and loving towards ourselves and others,” said Table Mountain communard, Sharon Hansen.
As they read and deeply discussed these issues, the meetings became a cauldron of mind-opening shared learning. Thomas began to record the knowledge that was being collected. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to turn these lessons into a publication, and that is how Country Women Magazine was born. Each issue featured a roster of different women who collaborated on choosing and writing articles. Like everything else they were doing, magazine publication, too, had to be learned while doing.
Bye remembers, “The group radically changed my life forever. Not only was it the deepest, most profound sharing, but the political and personal ramifications of our sexist culture for both women and men became apparent. It was a revelation, it was beautiful, and it powered a wave of creativity. Country Women Magazine came out of the desire to share our skills, empower women, and have a venue for exploration, art, and discussion. It was a wonderful collaboration, not of course without disagreements.”
Each issue had a focus and a theme, like Women and Art, Older Women, Kids Liberation, Sexuality (an especially big seller), with chapters covering “Choosing Your Land,” “Developing a Water System,” and “Chain Saws.” Topics ran the gamut from “Pole Framing” to “Speed Composting,” to “Canning,” and from “Feeding a Laying Flock” to “Cheesemaking.” The topics rolled out, month after month, building a practical encyclopedia of homesteading advice.
Additional to writing the articles, were duties most people don’t think about when they leaf through a magazine. Sharon Hansen was part of the team that got the magazine out in the world. “We did the bulk packing and mailings to all the bookstores that ordered the magazine, some in other countries such as Canada and Australia. I also worked on several of the collectives that did the writing and choosing of articles others wrote, edited everything, and put the magazine together with paste and scissors, burning the midnight oil, and feeling rich and privileged in each other’s company.”
The magazine’s popularity grew through word of mouth and readers sharing issues with far-flung friends. Thomas and her sister Sam took a road trip to deliver a 1953 MG to her parents in D.C. and left copies off at bookstores in little towns all across the US. After that, many more subscriptions came in, along with submissions—including a lot of poems—from other back-to-the-landers wanting to share their discoveries.
Leona Walden—“I loved to draw since I was old enough to hold a pencil”—was asked to provide the artwork for the fifth issue on Homesteading and kept that job for the rest of the publication’s runs. “It is from that issue that the book Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer sprang,” explained Walden. In a serendipitous moment, Pat Cody of Cody’s Books, in Berkeley saw that issue and told the publishers that they already had the makings of a book. Everyone said they were too busy to take on such a thing, but the seed was planted, and the work to compile the various issues into a book began.
Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer was picked up by Doubleday (with a surprising ten thousand-dollar advance) and came out in 1976, a welcome addition to the bookshelves of thousands of fledgling farmers, feminists, and aspiring communards. The hunger to understand how to live on the land better was at a peak and sales proved it: a hundred thousand copies sold the first year. The half-page spread on Thomas in The New York Times, titled “On a Farm, She Made the Leap to Independence” also helped spread the word.
THE NEW, NEW FARMERS
Now, nearly fifty years later, the book has been reissued in almost its exact original form, but with a spiffy new cover. In the introduction to the book, Tetrault and Thomas describe the exhilaration of the magazine’s beginnings: “A bootlace budget, loans, and a lot of work kept it going at first. We were amazed as each issue sold out, as subscriptions began coming in, and as bookstores sent increasing orders. Country Women reached beyond our area, then beyond our state…opening up the communication we had dreamed of.” Without help from paid publicity or the internet, the magazine subscriptions grew to more than seventeen thousand. To illustrate the state of the magazine’s economics, an ad on the last page of the Homesteading issue announced a “Country Women Benefit”—a night of women’s poetry and music with “women faces coming in from the dark country night, coming out from the woods” to “share food and support their magazine.” An addendum in parentheses boasted, “$150 was raised to pay some of our debts.”
WHAT WAS OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The book itself has an unusual structure. There are the how-to articles that cover topics on farming, building, and living in the country, all illustrated by Walden’s lively drawings. Then there are curated poems, painstakingly calligraphed by Nancy TeSelle. Nancy did the table of contents, chapter headings, and pages and pages of calligraphy for each issue. And then, there is the running commentary of twenty-year-old “Jennifer,” (Sherry Thomas) who came out west with her fisherman husband “Peter” to become a farmer and whose evolution is traced through her journal entries, musings that are set inside Walden’s graphically ornamented sidebar boxes every few pages. Thomas’s struggles to square her rather conventional marriage with feminist aspirations and her annoyance with traditional women’s roles pull the reader through a journey that eventually leads to the painful choice to leave Peter, then to take courageous actions to create a working farm. She and her sister fenced the steep property into fields, digging post holes and hauling heavy posts. Thomas said she eventually had eighty black sheep, two pigs, a steer, horses, chickens, and turkeys. Her journal entries reveal, page by page, the superhuman strength it took to do the physical, mental, economic, and spiritual work of a woman farming mostly by herself. Following her beautifully written, nonlinear, ultimately triumphant trek to her fulfilled dream brings the how-to book to a high level of personal revelation.
IS BACK-TO-THE-LAND STILL A VIABLE GOAL?
The reissued book comes out at another watershed moment in history. Young people, in a reaction to consumerism gone mad, shallow popular culture, exhaustion from COVID, and national and worldwide political turmoil, are again looking to shake up the paradigm. Ironically, that means that many are returning, some to their old hippie moms’ and dads’ stomping grounds, looking to bring a different vibe to a more conscious life. One of these is the daughter of long-time coast resident, acupuncturist Judith Bayer, Ariana Bayer, who with her husband Josh MacDonald recently completed purchasing
sixty-seven acres in Caspar. They came not to be farmers nor to create a commune.Ariana said, “Our kids will know deeply what can be lost in the climate crisis. We canonly do this because Josh’s job can be remote—I had to leave mine. We didn’t quite”unplug” like previous generations have in moving north from the Bay. Our focus for theacreage in our care is to nourish the land and ecosystem in response to a history of overa hundred years of extraction and neglect. We are thankful for the local network of deeproots of experience in organic farming, restorative land care, and Pomo knowledge. Iam moved by a culture of abundance I find there, generous in education and resourcesto shift how we interact with the land ecologically, socially, and culturally. It makes forCommunity, and we hope to contribute for the long haul—from eggs to acreage.”
Fritz Haag, an artist from Los Angeles, bought Salmon Creek Farm a few years ago.He says he “loved the founding ethos of the place” and wanted to honor the legacy ofthe commune. He is happy that many of the original people still live nearby to sharetheir stories with him, and at the same time, he’s layered on his own vision and aesthetic to the property, not as a commune, but as a place he can share with his partnerand dog and his many artist friends. The communards are watching him, pleased, ashe transforms the gardens and uses for the new millennium.
partner andI asked several of the women interviewed for this story if they had advice for otheryoung people who wanted to follow in their footsteps. Sherry Thomas said, “Whenyou do things that are outside your comfort zone, it opens up your life and gives youso much confidence.” Leona and Dawn similarly replied, almost in unison, “You cando it! The power of imagination will carry you through. Look for people you’d like to
share it with.” Harriet Bye simply said, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Back-to-theland still makes sense. We need the land and it needs us to care for it. Maybe individual homesteads are no longer the answer, but if we don’t find a way to live in harmony with the land and its resources, we as humans will perish, not the land. Time is on the land’s side.” Country Women is still pertinent, again pertinent. Every chapter is crammed with information we can all use, whether we live on communes or in the country, or not. As householders, as gardeners, as DIYers, as awake people who want to live in harmony with Nature, as everyday human beings living in the twenty-first century contemplating life’s mysteries, it’s pertinent. REM
Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer is available in local bookstores and on Amazon.
Legacy issues of Country Women Magazine have been digitized and can be read in their glorious entirety online at: www.jstor.org.
Other articles about the hippie migration: “The Last Glimpses of California’s Vanishing Hippie Utopias,” by David Jacob Kramer: www.gq.com/story/californias-vanishing-hippie-utopias
“THE ALBION NATION: Communes on the Mendocino Coast,” by Cal Winslow: www.brooklynrail.org
An excellent book by local authors: West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California by Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow
Film: Women on the Land—Creating Conscious Community—womenontheland.com and available for on demand streaming: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/womenontheland