The continuing Vietnam War and setbacks in environmental and civil rights causes, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, disillusioned many young Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Author Carter Taylor Seaton said they saw their parents’ way of life as hypocritical, and some wanted to dodge the draft. They dropped out of universities and left society in droves. More than a million joined the back-to-the-land movement to live a simpler and more environmentally conscious life, and over 10,000 came to West Virginia.
Just as these college-educated students were pouring into the state and trying to live off the land — lacking in necessary skills, some resorting to chicken coops for shelter — the native children of uneducated farmers and artisans were leaving for cities like Detroit and Charlotte. These locals, Seaton said, adopted these young people and taught them their survival skills, and their art.
“They’re about to freeze to death and starve to death ... it was really idealistic and not well thought out,” Seaton said of the young pioneers.
“It was kind of like, these people who had been here saw in these new kids the same sense of values, the same spirit, the same sensibilities, and the same work ethic, that they had grown up with,” she said.
Seaton has written a book, “Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music, and Living on the Land in West Virginia,” on their impact on the state. She spoke Sunday afternoon at the MacFarland-Hubbard House, in an event sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council, which helped her roughly two years of research with a $2,500 fellowship.
From 1971 to about 1985, Seaton directed a crafts cooperative in Huntington and spent most of her summers at the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair, where she met many artisans who had accents that seemed more fit in Boston than in a holler and looked like stereotypical hippies, with tie-dye, long hair and Birkenstock shoes. She knew they had to be residents because the fair then only allowed in-state artisans.
That got her wondering where they came from and eventually led to the book.
But why did they choose West Virginia, a state known for entrenched poverty? She said President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was part of the reason.
“When Johnson put the War on Poverty on television, he showed West Virginia as its model, you know, as its poster child,” she said. “But not only did it show the kid on the front porch with no shoes, it showed the beauty of the state. And people recognized that this was someplace that maybe they could find what they were looking for.”
Around the same time, Seaton said, the second issue of a magazine called Mother Earth News carried an article about a man who said he paid $29 an acre for land in Lincoln County.
“Well that’s all it took,” she said. “It’s beautiful, it’s remote and it’s cheap. What else could you want?”
Seaton said the young pioneers rejuvenated West Virginia’s crafts, which had survived extinctions that killed other states’ traditions. The Industrial Revolution’s manufactured goods destroyed crafts in most of the country, she said.
“But in West Virginia, and in Appalachia, the guy with the wagon couldn’t get up those hollers,” Seaton said. She said that preservation of crafts was good for West Virginia but made residents appear backward. In the early 1900s, settlement schools sprung up to teach crafts in a way that would appeal to the outer world. But the Great Depression killed these schools.
Later the back-to-the-landers arrived and took up the artistic heritage. Since they were from outside West Virginia, they were more willing to innovate their art and travel outside the state to sell. Seaton added that the government of West Virginia, more than governments in other states, supported crafts as a way to draw tourists.
Seaton said the “hippie homesteaders” helped establish and continue to be an overwhelming part of Tamarack, a state craft show, and the public radio music program “Mountain Stage.” She suggested their story is the reverse of the usual tale of a native West Virginia leaving to find notoriety.
“These people came here; they were willing to live the West Virginia lifestyle, and a hardscrabble one at that, and they still became successful,” she said.
Reach Ryan Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1254.