Whether it was the rebirth of rural life, the death rattle of the hippie era, or a blend of both, the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s left a lasting mark on the West Virginia countryside. The lure of cheap land, the state’s natural beauty, and a desire to live simple, genuine, peaceful lives in an era of burgeoning materialism brought thousands of new pioneers to West Virginia’s farm counties.
Most of the newcomers came from outside the state, were in their 20s, were several generations removed from life on the farm, had at least some college education, and were willing—at first, at least—to endure hardship in their quest to live off the land. They settled in virtually every county, avoiding only the state’s southern coalfields where the scars of mining were evident and farmsteads were scarce due to the dominance of corporate landowners.
In 1970, Lincoln County became an early magnet for the newcomers, who began streaming into the state by the hundreds after an article appeared in the third issue of Mother Earth News, a magazine encouraging the homestead movement. In the article, a new settler wrote of buying 79 acres of Lincoln County land for $2,700. The article was advertised in a series of radio spots, and the rush was on.
The movement quickly spread across the state, fueled by nationally distributed Strout Real Estate catalogs featuring photos of rural properties at bargain prices. Concentrations of back-to-theland settlers sprang up in the Greenbrier Valley counties of Pocahontas, Greenbrier, Summers, and Monroe, and in the rolling hills and overgrown pastures of north-central counties such as Roane, Calhoun, Ritchie, and Gilmer. Health food stores and natural foods co-ops blossomed in communities such as Hamlin and Spencer, where the newcomers’ presence was most visible.
While communes were frequently a part of the back-to-the-land movement in other states, where land prices were higher, they were rare and mostly short-lived in West Virginia. Here, most homesteaders acquired individual farms of their own. An exception was the Catholic Workers farm established five miles north of Hamlin in 1970 by Kansan Chuck Smith, a former Franciscan brother, and Wheeling native Sandy Adams. For six years, Smith and Adams published the Green Revolution, a newsletter encouraging rural communities and Christian ideals, and established a land trust to protect farmland from future development.
Response to the newcomers by long- established local residents varied from amused neighborliness to outright hostility, depending in part on the newcomers’ willingness to accept advice and to respect, if not embrace, local customs. Overall, despite vast differences in background, point of view, and mode of dress, the new arrivals and their established neighbors got along surprisingly well. Numerous farmsteaders immersed themselves in mountain music and took up Appalachian craftmaking. Today, many of the state’s best artisans and traditional musicians trace their West Virginia roots to the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s.
Living off the land proved to be difficult, however. Some homesteaders sustained themselves in cottage industries, usually crafts, or by taking work off the farm. A few others kept their farmsteads intact by turning to a more lucrative but illegal pursuit, the cultivation of marijuana. Perhaps most of those who came to West Virginia to live off the land eventually moved off their farms. Many left the state.
Those who stayed helped breathe new life into the hills and hollows abandoned by the job-seeking sons, daughters, and grandchildren of local residents. Some became activists in social and environmental issues that arose in subsequent years, including surface mining, the building of freeway-style highways into rural areas, the creation of Stonewall Jackson Lake, and the proposed construction of a high-voltage power line across a scenic stretch of Summers and Monroe counties.
Some shifted their focus from subsistence farming to operating shops, inns, and restaurants in nearby communities, or working in nearby towns and cities as teachers, lawyers, health care providers, sawmill operators, social workers, and journalists, among other pursuits. Today former back-to-the-landers are productive, active citizens in many areas, some of them among the state’s important opinion makers.
This Article was written by Rick Steelhammer
Last Revised on December 16, 2010