Stephen Gaskin, a professed “hippie priest and freelance rebel rouser” who assembled, preached to and presided over the Farm, one of the largest and longest-lasting communes born of the counterculture era, died July 1 at his home near the settlement in Summertown, Tennessee. He was 79.
Douglas Stevenson, who described himself as an unofficial spokesman for the still-extant Farm community, confirmed the death and said he did not know the cause.
In his day, Gaskin was a countercultural celebrity, the figurehead of a commune that seemed to have achieved the critical mass, wherewithal and collective commitment needed to make such a society work when so many others had petered out.
He had first attracted notice in the late 1960s in San Francisco, where he convened weekly seminars called Monday Night Classes. They began, The New York Times reported, with the sounding of a horn and a long “om.”
With the charisma of a guru, he drew hundreds of attendees — sometimes as many as 1,500 — for sessions in which he delved into topics including religion and personal fulfillment. In 1970, he embarked on a national speaking tour. A caravan of some 60 school buses carrying several hundred followers came with him.
In 1971, they pooled their money and bought a tract of land in central Tennessee for $70 per acre. There they founded the Farm, with Gaskin as their leader.
Years later, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, an early communard recalled the decidedly counter-countercultural aspects of the region where they had settled and compared their arrival to “a spaceship landing in Tennessee.”
Community members lived in tents and school buses before building homes. Modern amenities gradually arrived; the phone service was informally known as Beatnik Bell.
Sometimes called the “Technicolor Amish,” the commune residents worked the land and eschewed material wealth. They pursued ecological sustainability, adopting vegan diets and rigorous recycling practices. Contraception was discouraged, and children proliferated. Marriage, perhaps to the surprise of skeptics, was encouraged.
Gaskin served as a spiritual guide, preaching a philosophy that combined elements of Christianity with tenets of Eastern faiths. The “psychedelic testimony of the saints,” he called it.
The community became a nearly self-contained society, with a K-12 school (accredited) and a clinic (with MDs). Business operations included a publishing house, a soy dairy and, most notably, midwifery. Gaskin’s wife, Ina May Gaskin, is a nationally known advocate for home births.
Shortly after the Farm was founded, Gaskin was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for the manufacture of marijuana. (Cultivation of the plant on the Farm was later abolished.) But otherwise, news accounts describe a friendly relationship between the commune and the neighboring communities.
Under Gaskin’s leadership, the commune did wide-ranging work through its humanitarian organization, Plenty International. Among other projects, Vanity Fair magazine reported, volunteers built 3,000 homes and 300 public buildings after an earthquake in Guatemala. Domestically, the group founded an ambulance service for poor communities in the Bronx, N.Y., and did relief work after Hurricane Katrina.
By 1979, The Washington Post reported, the Farm was the “biggest and most prosperous commune in the United States,” with its population peaking at more than 1,200. The prosperity proved fragile, however, as the community incurred debts including medical bills for members who had required outside care.
In the early 1980s, the group underwent the event known as “the changeover.” They transitioned from commune status into a collective living arrangement, in which members earned money and paid dues to the community for group needs.
Today, the Farm has about 200 residents. Among its most successful business endeavors is the sale of personal nuclear-radiation-detection devices.
“Homeland Security’s been good to us. We’re high-tech hippies now,” Gaskin told the Los Angeles Times a decade ago.
In 2000, Gaskin sought the Green Party nomination for president. Weeks before the convention, he had amassed a war chest of $400, the Associated Press reported. His campaign platform included peace and the legalization of marijuana.
Asked by a reporter if he had inhaled — a reference to future President Bill Clinton’s assertion that he had not — Gaskin replied: “I didn’t exhale.”
The nomination that year went to consumer-rights advocate Ralph Nader.
Stephen Floyd Gaskin was born Feb. 16, 1935, in Denver. After service in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, he studied creative writing at what is now San Francisco State University before beginning his speaking career.
He acknowledged having used illicit drugs. “Before I tripped I don’t think I’d ever really introspected in my life,” he told The Post in 1979. At the Farm, however, he enforced a strict policy.
“We don’t do acid on the Farm,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Peyote and mushrooms are a matter of personal conscience.”
Gaskin wrote books including “Amazing Dope Tales,” “Cannabis Spirituality” and “An Outlaw in My Heart.” In recent years, he dedicated efforts to Rocinante, a retirement community he founded and named after Don Quixote’s horse.
Gaskin was married three times before marrying the former Ina May Middleton, who, along with five children, survives him.
Reflecting on the Farm’s “changeover,” which improved the group’s finances but marginalized him as a leader, he seemed sanguine.
“This generation moves like a school of fish,” he said, “and you shouldn’t stand in front of it when it moves. I was in sync with them for a while, but that changed, and that’s all right. I’m not a baby boomer; I’m a beatnik. I honestly liked it better when it was a circus. . . . But I also like being solvent.”