Peace and war Author chronicles the heady ideals and all-too-human realities in the history of one communal farm

Thursday January 10, 2013

MONTAGUE, Mass. -- A veteran of four years living communally at the legendary Montague Farm from 1969 to 1973, Tom Fels still gets questions all the time from people who dream even now of heading back to the land.

"People approach me and say ‘Should I buy a farm?’ I always say ‘Yes, but don’t expect it to be easy,’" said Fels, who lives in North Bennington, Vt. "It’s a difficult thing to do. I think most people who lived there would say that."

Fels brings those difficulties -- and the good times, too -- to light in his new book, "Buying the Farm: Peace and War on a Sixties Commune," an intriguing warts-and-all account of the 35-year history of the Montague Farm, from its idealistic beginnings to its important chapters as a crucible for activism to the long, acrimonious fight over its future.

That long battle, fueled by personality clashes and conflicting but equally passionate ideals, and expressed through hard words, political wrangling and vexing legal maneuvers, forms much of Fels’ book, and is by turns frustrating and fascinating to read.

On Friday at 7 p.m., Fels will read from his new book, "Buying the Farm: Peace and War on a Sixties Commune," at the Montague Bookmill. The reading will be followed by a question-and-answer period. Books will be for sale. The event is free.

Fels didn’t set out to write about the farm’s controversy-filled later years. The publishers at University of Massachusetts Press suggested he write a follow-up to his 2008 book "Farm Friends," which tracked down many of the people who lived communally both at Montague and over the border in southeastern Vermont to find out what they had done with their lives.

Fels thought he was going to write a simple history of life at the Montague Farm.

"When I got into it this other story emerged," said Fels. "The farm had been so often talked about in mythological terms, and people loved that, but that didn’t seem to match up with what happened."

"I definitely was accused the first time around (in ‘Farm Friends’) of upsetting the mythology," Fels added. "I believe in the idealism. I believe people should go off and be on the land. I have a problem when people force their own message on you, and that can happen even in the world of idealism."

Still, Fels has no regrets about spending four years of his life at the Montague Farm.

"To me the thing that was valuable was that it was a space where you define yourself. I look back on it as very useful," said Fels, who went on to become a museum curator and writer who for many years has researched, written about, archived and lecture on the history of the 1960s. "I had to change in order keep my ideals alive. I had to get a job and cut my hair."

And he still cherishes the friends he made during his time there and respects the collective accomplishments of the Montague Farm residents, many of whom became important early activists in the anti-nuke movement. Others were pioneers in organic farming. Still others pursued lives in writing and the arts.

"The accomplishments are quite amazing," he said.

Throughout the book, Fels does an admirable job of detailing, without choosing sides, the long, difficult history of how a group of strong, passionate individuals, who bonded together in an overtly leaderless way, struggled to resolve key issues of ownership, legacy, fairness and mission when times forced them to.

"The place was a victim of its own looseness of approach," said Fels. "These things are complicated, but you have to put your highest principles ahead of you. ... If people didn’t want to be written about like that, why did they act like that?

"That’s a kind of human lesson. It’s not about communes," he said. "This book is intended to be thought-provoking."

Fels said other communes found ways to resolve these issues and still stay true to principles. He praised Packer Corners in Guilford as one such example. Others, like Montague Farm, had a longer, harder struggle.

Eventually, the trustees of the farm sold it to the Zen Peacemakers, who held it for about a decade before selling it this year to a couple from Shelburne Falls, Mass., who plan to operate a nonprofit retreat center there. It’s a hopeful future.

"Everyone’s totally amazed," said Fels.


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