A short geography lesson: find a road atlas
of the United States, turn to Tennessee, then trace a line with your finger due southwest from
Nashville. After the equivalent of fifty or so miles you've found Lewis County, site of The
Farm which was (and still is) one of the most successful commune settlements in the country.
The Farm has connections to the science fiction world; reportedly, Spider Robinson was there
for a short time and former fanzine editor Bill Meyers (who once lived in Chattanooga) was a
founding member. The following article about The Farm was written by another former resident
who is perhaps better known in the fanzine community as publisher of Trap Door, which
was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1987.
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by Robert Lichtman
After the obligatory stop at Tony Kidd's for Dr. Peppers and a big bag of "hot" potato chips, my driver and I headed south on Highway 43 towards the Alabama line. We were in a big bobtail truck and our cargo was ten empty 55-gallon drums. This was all part of my job in those days: Robert Lichtman, Store Man. I bought all the groceries and much else for The Farm. These drums had been purchased at the second-hand barrel yard on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville. They were all "food grade" barrels, and some of them had previously held the remains of Eskimo Pie topping. When those barrels had first arrived on The Farm they had been scraped clean of all their tasty residue by people on the scene at the time. Many a chocolate cake or batch of brownies owed its vital ingredient's origins to these drums of chocoiate manna. Small kids would climb inside the drums when no one was watching and spend hours eating clean every available surface. Later, a Guilt Trip was launched to make all those individuals, young and old alike, Feel Bad. Chocolate, went the rap, was Bad For You; it caused zits and "made you speedy". Carob became the official substitute for many years, though many tins of Hershey's cocoa continued to be smuggled into the community.
We were taking these barrels to Sheffield, Alabama, to get them filled with table syrup. Our order called for five drums each of Pride of Dixie White and Pride of Dixie Brown corn syrup. This was late summer of 1972 and the community was halfway along the path to all-out white sugar use. Corn table syrup (this of the Karo type, to name a national brand) was that halfway point between guilt and acceptance of that `60s bugaboo, white sugar. It was a hell of a lot easier to sweeten anything with syrup than with sorghum molasses, the sweetener of choice in the earliest days of The Farm (along witn honey, which was discontinued due to something "spirituai teacher" Stephen Gaskin said about exploitation of bees; when bees became an endangered species a few years later, he recanted). But it took a lot of it to make anything very sweet. That was the era of sticky, soggy cakes and crystalline cookies.
It was a hot and sunny day. The corn was as high as the proverbial elephant's eye and sorghum crops were doing their best to look lush and near ready for harvest. About five miles down toward Lawrenceburg my friend Will, who was driving, got out a couple of mushroom caps about the size of half-dollars; he offered me one and began nibbling on the other. By the time we hit the Alabama line, past many more miles of those increasingly fecund fields, we went sailing across the border in more ways than one. George Wallace smiled at us from the welcoming billboard at the state line, encouraging us to stay a while.
After cruising through the boring town of Florence, home of such traditional southern sights as the Roy Rogers Roast Beef Sandwich franchise and the bring-your-own-meat barbecue place, we stopped at a little creekside park on the Jackson Highway near the north end of Sheffield, just a few blocks from the famous 2400 Jackson Highway recording studio of `70s rock and roll fame. It had become a very hot day; the sky was a deep southern blue with nary a cloud to be seen. We had brought brown bag lunches (soybean sandwiches on whole wheat bread with sprouts) but first we stopped in at the little corner grocery across the street from the park to get more cold drinks. Now that we'd stopped driving, the mushrooms were roaring like a freight train to their peak; everything seemed more than sufficiently surreal.
Eating took a long time with a lot of conversation, and a lot of looking at the beautiful surroundings of the park. We were practically in the middle of the "Quad Cities" (besides Florence and Sheffield there is Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia) but we might have been in the farthest reaches of the woods away from civilization. All this and Sundrop Golden Cola right across the street! What a joy to be able (while very stoned) to sink one's hands into frigid waters to requisition the bottle fresh out of an old ice water cooler in a primitive country store.
We polished off our lunch with another item from the store, my favorite piece of southern junk food: the pecan pie. These items which came in their own three-inch diameter pie tins took us straight to our nouveau southern roots, far away from our humble origins as beatniks / hippies in San Francisco in the `60s. More than Sundrop or its arch-rival, Kick, more tham fried pies, more than chocolate soda, these little pecan pies epitomized the Southern Culinary Experience (since we were vegetarians, the joys of items like "country ham" and "red eye gravy" were off-limits). Even the plentiful sacks of day-old doughnuts from the donut store in Columbia, Tennessee (that were the staple of Farm in-town-for-money carpentry crews a few years later) never replaced the simple joys of a store-bought little tiny pecan pie, y'all.
Much time had passed. We drove on soberly to the syrup factory, which was situated in an enormous old brick warehouse, very gone to seed, on a railroad spur in an industrial section of town. And yet, it was just blocks from the park paradise we'd just left.
The corn syrup arrived here in tanker cars from Iowa or maybe Nebraska; it's pumped off the siding into several large holding tanks. From there it's eventually pumped into the mixing area, where it's blended with either white or brown sugar, plus maybe honey (old crystallized five-gallon tins of honey they have to cut open with metal shears), maple (plastic gallon jugs of Mapleine), or sorghum (also crystallized, in five-gal1on cans). There were rooms full of 50 and 100 pound sacks of white and brown sugar, which arrive by the truckload, bought from jobbers further south. Another room holds their supply of honey, maple, and sorghum; other areas are festooned with pallets holding cases of empty jars. Stacks of printed labels sit near the bottling line, to be applied during the process. Elsewhere, finished inventory awaits pick-up by various wholesalers and delivery by their own fleet of three old trucks similar to the one in which we've arrived.
The proprietor, a fat elderly A1abaman, his stout son and their "colored he1p" all pitched in together to expedite the filling of our barrels. First they were washed once again, using their equipment (better than our own), and then, still hot from the steaming water, they got wheeled on a dolly over to the edge of the filling machine, where a makeshift diverter from the filler swiveled out over the drums. While we watched, rich table syrup oozed endlessly into the waiting containers. One at a time they were filled and winched back up to our truck.
While this was happening, we engaged in a curious ritual with the owner's son. As had happened on numerous prior occasions, he led us to a dusty corner of the plant where "returns" were stored. These were cases of syrup in which one or more containers had broken, depositing syrup all over other bottles. The labels become discolored when cleaned and for some reason they preferred not to relabel, so they gave us some of these "seconds" to take back. These included exotic flavors of table syrup such as 'honey', 'maple', and 'sorghum', which were much prized by those back on The Farm who were chosen (by Will and me) to receive a bottle of this bounty. The syrup factory owners had begun this curious ritual the very first time I went to see them to set up our account. (I "discovered" them as a source by looking in the sweetener sections of several local grocery stores when the go-ahead came that it would be okay to abandon sorghum.)
The purchase complete, the special gift of returns carefully loaded, the requisite half-hour or so of hanging out with the owners and their help behind us (if we didn't steer the conversation heavily at these times, it would always turn eventually to something like duck hunting, moonshining, or old racist tales). We headed back out toward the Tennessee line. As we crossed the border again, my driver friend whipped out a joint. It was a perfect way to end an unusual day.
The foliowing morning came the exciting adventure of unloading these 10 barrels, each now weighing around 450 pounds, from five feet up in the back of a truck, with only some long, heavy beams and a lot of people power to perform this challenging task. In those early days, the cry, "Monkeys!" would go out when muscle was needed for things like pushing trucks out of the mud and lifting heavy objects. The community agreement was so tight then that everyone within earshot who could be interrupted would stop and pitch in. The Farm's roads were terrible in the early years; sections could be traversed only by the most experienced daredevil drivers and then only in certain vehic1es. The old mail truck in which I came to The Farm was, in later years, much prized as one that could make it through almost anything..
The real bottom line here is that this is the sort of stuff I would try to do for "work" while I lived on The Farm. I was never one of those people, of whom there were many in the earlier years, who just wanted to "stay in the woods". I counted it a good day during my stay if I could get into these positions rather than having to go do field work, cut firewood with chain saws, or bang nails building other people's houses and apartment complexes off The Farm (I did all of these things and more at one time or another). In the early days of The Farm especially, I was one of the few who would condescend to go out and take care of the community's business. At that point in time, I was regarded by many as some sort of karmic thunder hero for my ready willingness to go out and shop for the community (most people just wanted to stay on the land; how boring, I thought). I considered it an opportunity to spend some time between and after business of the day browsing in the precious few bookstores in Nashville, perchance to find the latest Philip K. Dick novel or short story collection to buy and take home.
Sometimes I'd get to travel to even more exotic towns, and if I saw a used bookstore I'd check it out if I had time. My precious copy of Our Friends From Frolix 8 is from The Book Rack, a tiny hole in the wall in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Later, it was the Howard the Duck comics I would have laid away for my irregular visits to The Great Escape, a comics and comix emporium in Nashville near Vanderbilt University -- down the street from the Sunshine Grocery, where the only copies of Coevolution Quarterly available in Nashville could be acquired. Sunshine was a hippie-style "natural foods" emporium that even into the early `80s (when I last saw it) still retained much of its original `60s flavor.
Later, of course, others caught on and I had to compete more for these jobs. But yes, I see I'm rambling! So I'm going to declare this a good spot at which to temporarily close the flood gates of this narrative; I hope no one minds if they re-open from time to time when I'm in the mood. It seems somehow appropriate for this to be appearing in a fanzine from Tennessee; this is sort of a painless way of gathering notes for an eventual book. Even in the above there are paths unexplored in order to stick to the main points. Once I get going, it's so easy to ramble on. Like, hey, remind me sometime to tell you about what happened when Certain People went to see Star Wars...
All illustrations by Wade Gilbreath