HARRODSBURG, Ind. — In the spring of 1976, a group of long-haired 20-somethings dreaming of a utopia among the trees bought 304 acres of rolling woodlands and moved into canvas tepees.
They slept on rug-covered dirt floors, cooked over campfires and wood stoves, raised chickens and goats, tended an organic garden and endured summer heat and winter cold.
The reward was the sheltering trees, the plants and animals and, on summer nights, a star-filled sky that merged with the living constellations of fireflies drifting around them.
"In those days you were young and it was all an adventure. You didn't have a job where you felt that pressure," recalls Sara Steffey, 47, one of the original half-dozen members of May Creek Farm. "We were all really happy. It was like retiring in your 20s. We had the whole day to ourselves, to do want we wanted to do."
But retiring in your 20s isn't really possible, is it? Everyone grows up, communal friends drift apart, utopian dreams break up on the rocks of reality, don't they?
Each of the hundreds of communes that sprang up around the time May Creek Farm did answers those questions in its own way. Some have disbanded or dissolved. Others, like May Creek, evolve and remain.
Twenty-two years later, Steffey and her husband, Mike McQueen, live in a hexagonal house that long ago replaced their tepee. And the community that sprouted from that pseudo-Indian village continues to thrive.
Home to 10 Families
A blend of nature preserve, housing subdivision and corporation, May Creek Farm Inc. is now home to 10 families with 30 members, including 11 children.
They live in rustic homes on 100 acres divided into plots of varying sizes that families own individually. Each household owns an equal share of the corporation, which can be sold only with the other shareholders' approval.
Surrounding the home plots are 200 acres of wildflower-filled woodlands that the "creekers," as they call themselves, own communally and protect from poachers in search of ginseng, goldenseal and morel mushrooms.
A 34-acre clearing that encompasses a large pond, a shelter house made from old barn timbers and a garden is the community's natural focal point. It is the scene of an annual springtime bash honoring the founding of May Creek, named for a stream that meanders across the southern Indiana property.
Over the years, May Creek's residents have had to revise their original goal of self-sufficiency. Two families make their living through artistic endeavors, but most at May Creek have careers in nearby Bloomington: as nurse, elementary school teacher, plumber, dance instructor, recording engineer.
May Creek is one of 540 North American communities, ranging from similar "eco-villages" to resource-pooling communes, listed in a directory produced by the Fellowship for Intentional Community, based in Rutledge, Mo.
Goeff Cozeny, a co-founder of San Francisco's Purple Rose Collective, has visited 340 communities. "What all these groups have in common," he says, "is they looked at mainstream society around them and had this vision of how life can be better and tried to set out to live that vision."
A recent weekend afternoon finds woodworking artists David Diegel, 46, and Heather Jones, 32, sipping a glass of red wine on the vine-covered patio of their May Creek home, which David built in 1985.
Just back from an out-of-state art show, they watch as a butterfly drifts about, inspecting the purple blooms on a pawpaw tree.
Jones savors the tranquil life creating works of art.
"It's so nice to take a walk and know you probably won't be running into anybody," she says. "If I had to live in town again I don't think I could stand it."
Down the road, Vince Beyer and his wife, Rosemary Doherty, prepare popcorn for their children, Rachel and Vinnie, in their four-story home overlooking a hollow.
While Vinnie, 6, plays his favorite computer game, Rachel, 12, reads by a window that looks out into the woods.
Vince, a plumbing contractor, talks about his ideas for cutting timber on parts of the communally owned land as a moneymaking venture.
"There are trees that are just growing old and dying out there and they're mature right now," says Beyer, 45.
Others at May Creek oppose any such plans for timbering.
Differences among residents are not hard to find. Some are Buddhists, others Catholic, Protestant or followers of American Indian religions. Binding them together are friendships and a love of the natural surroundings they have preserved for two decades.
Early Woes Subside
In the early days, some locals didn't know what to make of the private, long-haired newcomers who lived in the woods and danced around a maypole. Rumors spread of orgies, nudity and other acts of debauchery--untrue except for the occasional skinny-dip in the communal pond.
There were wrangles with county officials over such newfangled ideas as compost toilets, to which leaves and other organic materials are periodically added to encourage decomposition.