In his 1968 classic book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe traveled the country in a bus with writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. During a trip that came to encapsulate the counterculture, Wolfe quoted Kesey as saying, “Now you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place—then it won’t make a damn.”
This semester, nine students from Winterthur and the University of Delaware Program in American Material Culture literally and figuratively “got on the bus” when they enrolled in my class, Cities on a Hill: Material Culture in America’s Communal Utopias. Although the hippies of the 1960s often come to mind when communes, utopias, and intentional communities are mentioned, the impulse to fashion a new way of living in opposition to mainstream society that involves social cohesion, relative isolation, and at least some communal sharing of ideology, property, space, and material goods, dates to the first European settlers on the shores of North America.
Throughout the course, we dove headlong into the history of American communal utopias using the Winterthur collection and field studies to come to a greater understanding of the diverse and unbroken tradition of communal living in America. Students were asked to seriously consider the concept of communal living and utopia by coming to terms with the humanity, practicality, and materiality of communal living, and their attempts to make a better world.
However, students literally hopped on the bus when we took a weekend field trip to upstate New York, home of the famed Burned-Over District of the 19th century that still smolders with the embers of reform. Field-based learning is a hallmark of courses based at Winterthur. They help students visualize, experience, and, in this case, live like the individuals who had, until then, only been known in books and photographs.
The trip began at Byrdcliffe, an art colony outside Woodstock, New York, inspired by the English arts and crafts movement. Here, renowned artisans and craftspeople came together to create furniture, ceramics, textiles, and fine art in the bucolic setting of the Hudson Valley. Though Winterthur holds the entire Byrdcliffe archive, traipsing the mountainous terrain of Byrdcliffe brought those documents and artifacts to life for the students. We were led by Director of Exhibitions Derin Tanyol and board member Henry Ford through some of the most stunning architecture of the American arts and crafts movement, including the founder of the community Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s own magnificent manor house, White Pines, and other buildings that are still used for artist-in-residency programs at the community. Indeed, although Woodstock is usually associated with the hippies of the music festival that bears its name, it was Whitehead who brought the avant-garde to the area more than 60 years prior.
From there we headed to central New York and the fascinating Communal Societies Collection at Hamilton College. The delightful Christian Goodwillie, director and curator of special collections, came in on a Saturday night to show us their collection of the material culture of community—including ephemera from the House of David, comics from the Kerista Community, and amazing material from the Amana Community. In total, Goodwillie pulled more than 75 items for us to examine. But what’s more, he and his wife Erika Sanchez Goodwillie, a leading expert in the replication of historic paints who has done work at museums nationwide, opened their home to us with a feast of central New York foods such a Utica Greens and Tomato Pie. Christian even curated a pop-up exhibit of Shaker chairs!
Winterthur field trips are a total immersion experiences, and as such we stayed the night at the famed Oneida Community Mansion House, the home of the 19th-century Perfectionists led by John Humphrey Noyes, and still a home today to descendants of the original communards. These communards practiced, among other things, “bible communism,” “complex marriage,” and “mutual criticism,” but are better known today as a flatware company. The students woke rested as we embarked on a tour of the Mansion House with Curator of Education Dr. Molly Jessup, who explained how the material culture of the Mansion House, especially the architecture, reinforced and reflected the tenets of Perfectionism.
There is little rest on the road to utopia, and the afternoon brought another 19th-century group to the fore. Palmyra, New York, is the site where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (colloquially known as the Mormons or LDS Church) was founded by Joseph Smith and where the Book of Mormon was first translated. Here, church elders toured the students through the Hill Cumorah Visitor’s Center, the Smith Family Home, and the Whitmer Log Home—all sites held sacred by Mormons. Here we were immersed in the teachings, history, material culture, and current missionary efforts of the LDS church and learned how this area today functions as a pilgrimage place for Mormons worldwide.
Our weary band of travelers rested their bones in Ithaca, New York, a town that in many ways still embodies the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. During our last day on the bus, the students visited a present-day intentional community, the EcoVillage at Ithaca, a co-housing ecovillage that is dedicated to showing the world a new way to live that involves green energy, permaculture, and an overall emphasis on sustainability. We toured the village led by Liz Walker, the founder of the community, which has been in existence more than 25 years and now numbers more than 200 residents. We talked about sustainability, net-zero energy construction, and gardens as we went into homes and walked the community paths. Craft and creativity also thrive at the EcoVillage as we visited Graham Ottoson at “Gourdlandia,” where she shared her passion for creating gourd lamps and specially grown gourds with the group. Sustainably and eco-friendly farming are a staple of the village, and we met with farmer of West Haven Farm, John Bokaer-Smith, who told us all about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), the importance of the EcoVillage to community and restaurant life in Ithaca, and practical green problem solving at the farm. The students were even put to work cleaning garlic for the farmer’s market!
At the end of the trip, thankfully no one had gotten off the bus. However, I think that Kesey’s sentiment will stay with these students, it surely will with me. No matter where we go, what we are doing, the experiences we had, the people we met, and the things we examined, touched, and felt, will always stay with us. If we do find our way off the bus—if we have forgotten to dream of a different, better world—we will find it again. I am sure.
But, for those who aren’t on the bus, well, “it won’t make a damn.”
Post by Thomas A. Guiler, Manager and Instructor, Academic Programs, Winterthur