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February 3, 2014

The Farm of Franklin became a 'commercial for God' in the 1970s

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The Daily Star

---- — Their mission was pretty simple.

“We’re out to save the world,” said Martin Goldberg, then 25, speaking about what was called a “spiritual community” near Franklin, better known as The Farm.

Goldberg spoke with The Daily Star in the early days of March 1976, about 15 months after he and about 30 others, ranging in ages from 18 to 40, purchased a farm on Campbell Road, about five miles south of Franklin. The group operated this farm as a religious, nonprofit organization.

The Farm became an offshoot of a parent farm in Lewis County, Tenn., and was one of 15 across the nation, a concept that was born in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco by a religious leader, referred to by Goldberg only as “Stephen.” When times were turbulent in the 1960s, thousands of college-age students turned their backs on conventional society and sought their own alternative lifestyles. Stephen was later identified as Stephen Gaskin, a former teacher at San Francisco State College and founder of the Tennessee farm.

The idea for the local farm began while Goldberg and about a half dozen friends were students at Syracuse University. They visited the farm in Tennessee and liked what they saw. While that farm wasn’t accepting any new members, Gaskin was encouraging the formation of similar communities.

Goldberg and his friends pooled their money and bought land in Franklin in late 1974. Others came to live on the 300 acres, some in trailers, a few in a tent, but most shared a house.

The men of this community — they didn’t like it to be called a commune — worked together as contractors in a firm called Primo Construction to provide a source of income. Profits from the business went into a collective fund. Once a year, after taxes were paid, the income was divided among members. When not out on contract jobs, all members farmed their acreage for vegetables, as they were strict vegetarians.

“We call it a spiritual community,” Goldberg said in 1976. “We believe in God and that all people are the same. We believe the way to solve the world’s problems is for people to realize we are all one, to learn to live peacefully with each other — and share. We are a living experiment that it can be done.”

Regarding the term “commune,” and their being referred to by some as “hippies,” Goldberg said, “Those terms were Kent State and LSD in the ‘60s, and they also represent heavy drug use — we don’t use drugs, or stimulants, we don’t even drink coffee.”

“We’re into getting married, working hard — we don’t feel as though we’re escaping anything. While we are out of the mainstream, we don’t try to be. We have nothing against cities, except they are crowded — and make people crazy a lot … and you won’t find any orgies or wife-swapping here. We’re so straight it’s ridiculous. We believe in some old-fashioned things like courtship, we believe in marriage, making life-time commitments.”

After giving a Star staff reporter a tour of The Farm, Goldberg said, “See, this is all a commercial for God.”

The Daily Star made a follow-up report on The Farm in late December 1980. Eleven families were living there at the time, and some of the children were reaching school age. It was hoped by residents that sometime in the future there could be a Farm school.

Steven Hatfield, a member at that time, said the community’s future rested with the children. The Farm’s ultimate goal was to have about 100 in their community, and members were counting on their children.

“We’re trying to avoid a generation gap,” Hatfield said. “We don’t expect that all of them will want to do this, but hopefully most will. If they don’t, that’s going to say something to us.”

In yet another follow-up in December 1983, it was learned that at one point the membership had hit 100, but had since dwindled and that The Farm was disbanding.

Bob Reifel, then a five-year resident, said the community had fallen on hard times, collapsing under the weight of their generosity. Often, The Farm took in battered women, former mental patients and others they called cast off by society.

“The revolution for us,” Reifel said, “was overthrowing the state by taking over its job — taking care of people. Our hearts were always bigger than our pocketbooks, but we never really had the money to do all that.”

The Star reported on Friday, Feb. 3, 1984, that former members of The Farm had sold the land on Wednesday to a Vermont-based developer, Patten Realty Corp. for $129,000. Reifel said at that time there were no immediate plans to reassemble a similar community.

This weekend: A look back at our local life and times in February 1934.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.