They built a commune but nobody came
PITMAN, Pa. — They slept in the barn their first winter, on a straw mattress with antique linen sheets and a feather tick. There was no electricity, heat or plumbing, so they made their own candles, used a chamber pot and drew water from a spring.
They were born Michael Colby and Donald Graves, but once there, on 63 acres in the Mahantongo Valley, a bowl of land in central Pennsylvania, they changed their names to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and called themselves the Harmonists, inspired by a splinter group of 18th-century Moravian brothers who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life.
Their ideals were lofty but simple: They would live off the land, farming with Colonial-era tools, along with a band of like-minded men dressed in homespun robes wielding scythes and pickaxes. They would sleep in atmospheric log cabins and other 18th-century structures that they had rescued from the area and that they began to reconstruct, painstakingly, brick by crumbling brick and log by log.
But what if you built a commune, and no one came?
It turns out it’s not so easy to cook up a utopia from scratch. There are 1,775 so-called intentional communities listed in the Fellowship for Intentional Community’s United States directory: eco-villages, pagan co-ops, faith-based retreats and everything in between. But how do you advertise, organize and thrive? “Don’t ask us,” Johannes said. “We failed that class.”
It was a raw, bright afternoon in April. Christian and Johannes, or to be accurate (stay with me here) Zephram and Johannes (Christian changed his name again when he realized the hoped-for brotherhood was never going to materialize, and his new last name is de Colebi), are now 65 and 64. And they have reconfigured their life here for the third time in three decades.
The 25 buildings that dot the landscape are mostly dormant, save for Zephram’s house and Johannes’s house. The two have been living separately, so to speak, for a decade, individual housing being an unlooked-for boon when their commune went to pieces and they ceased to be a couple.
They’ve sold most of their antique tools, save for a handful, which they’ve added to the collection of furniture, housewares, paintings, textiles and other Pennsylvania Dutch relics they’ve amassed over the years. The two have turned the whole lot — thousands of artifacts — into a museum, filling the cavernous barn where they spent their first winter with exhibits.
They’ve written a memoir, tragicomic, of course, and are looking for a publisher.
It’s their second book. “The Big Book of Flax,” the story of linen processing (in history, legend and song!), came out in 2011 from Schiffer Publishing, a Pennsylvania house whose publishing motto is “Find your niche and scratch it!”
Johannes and Zephram met in the 1970s at a gay-consciousness-raising group in Salt Lake City, where both were attending college. They were each dabbling in various spiritual practices: Zephram was circling around the Wiccans, attracted by their earth-centered rituals, and Johannes was sampling Hinduism.
When you’re gay, Zephram pointed out, it is not always the case that traditional religions will welcome you. So alternatives beckon.
Salt Lake City was changing, they said; they could see their future mapped out there, and it was not an appealing one. “Successful urban gays, buying property, having cultural weekends in San Francisco,” Johannes said. “Save us.”
Inspired in part by the Mormons, they began to turn over the idea of starting an intentional community in a rural setting. But how to organize? What would be the guiding principle?
They toyed with creating a gay Scottish clan (Johannes is from Texas and Zephram from Maine, and both have Scottish forebears) or starting their own version of the Radical Faeries, a vaguely pagan, spiritually based queer counterculture movement from the mid-1970s.
They moved to Bethlehem, Pa., that hotbed of Moravian culture (crafts and agriculture, mostly), where Zephram worked as a teacher and Johannes as a reporter. There they learned of a curious local offshoot of a brotherhood started in Europe in the 18th century.
Its leader was the charismatic son of a patron of the Moravian Church, who believed in a spiritual communion through sex and agricultural practice. It was not a wildly popular concept 300 years ago, and contemporary rural Pennsylvania was perhaps not the best place to resurrect its tenets, even with the sex part edited out.
Also, as Johannes pointed out: “Neither one of us is very charismatic. That was a problem.”
But they were young and eager. They bought 63 acres for $63,000 in Pitman, a tiny community in Eldred Township, and they began to rescue period cabins and structures in the area and move them to the site.
Filled with Colonial zeal, they bought an antique letterpress and began printing brochures to advertise their concept. Dressed in their homespun linen garments, made from flax they had planted and sewn themselves, they set up tables at gay-pride festivals, living-history farms and farming museums.
“People would look at us and say, ‘Oh, so you’re gay Amish?’ ” Johannes said.
They did get a few takers: a man who was interested in the culture of the early German settlers, but preferred to observe its customs rather than pitch in; a guy they called “the Primitive man,” who set up a lean-to on the property and wore loincloths in the summer (he stayed the longest but turned out to be mentally ill).
Then there was the man who brought his accordion and offered to play while they worked. Indeed, the farming chores seemed to mystify most of their would-be brothers.
“Everyone just wanted to watch us work, and that got old real fast,” Johannes said.
“We weren’t good at being able to explain the spiritual part, either. People would say: ‘Let’s write down your philosophy. Let’s create some commandments.’ But that didn’t come naturally. When we tried to explain our beliefs — spirits living in springs, the earth as mother — people just thought we were weird.”
Farming the Colonial way requires lots of hands. While Zephram worked full time as a teacher in a neighboring town, which paid their mortgage and costs, Johannes was alone on the farm, having been fired from his reporting job.
“I wasn’t able to do two full-time jobs at once,” Johannes said. “I remember the first time I cut hay, seven acres that had been planted by the previous owner. I’m there with my scythe, and I started cutting, and I quickly realized that what made the brotherhood we were emulating successful is that they had 88 men, and we were only two.”
Yet the work was holy to him, he said. “I loved getting out there.”
They had cattle, sheep and goats; turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens; and cats and dogs. A pair of oxen, Star and Bright, took over the plowing duties, with a handmade plow the local auto mechanic would fix when the oxen grew balky and mangled its metal parts.
They acquired much of their livestock before building the appropriate fencing, which meant that the animals would wander off, enraging the neighbors. “They were so incredibly tame, and we loved them,” Johannes said. “We had Edward Hicks and ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ in our mind. But for ruminants, you know, the grass is always greener.”
Their older neighbors were impressed by their work ethic and shared their folklore and practices. “These Dutch couples in their 80s had lived the lifestyle we were living,” Johannes said. “They didn’t care who we were, they just saw how hard we worked. They taught us how to broadcast seed, how to tie the corn shocks to dry the corn.” And how to sharpen their scythes on the stone walls that Zephram had built.
Early on, a woman appeared with a gift, a heavy heirloom quilt stitched with pieces of her husband’s uniform from World War II. “This kept my husband and I alive one winter,” she told them.
There were moments of incredible joy. The day they completed the reconstruction of what they called the community house, an 18th-century log cabin with a marvelous peaked roof that they rescued from an industrial park and that took 10 years to remake. Eating outside with the animals. (“They were like our family,” Johannes said. “But they did eat all the flowers.”)
But there was menace, too. This rural township was not overwhelmingly welcoming to two young gay men and their dreams to populate a fledgling farm. They always knew when the bars closed. They would hear engines revving, and the shouts would begin: “We’re going to kill you.” “Go home.”
Johannes took to sleeping in his truck, hoping to chase the perpetrators and write down their license-plate numbers. One night, a cow was shot.
Eventually, self-sufficiency and exhaustion trumped the Colonial lifestyle. They put in a satellite phone, dug a well.
Harvesting by hand gave way at first to Star and Bright’s efforts, and then they sold the team to buy a tractor. They bought a generator and power tools, including a jigsaw. “That was fun — we put gingerbread trim on everything,” Johannes said.
They tried wind power, then solar. “You might get 40 minutes a day, and then it would crash,” he said. “Lightning storms would hit and blow up the transformer.” Four years ago, they hooked up to the power grid.
In the wake of the unrealized brotherhood, they tried artists’ retreats, residencies and other gatherings. Worn out, they decided their empty commune would be a hermitage. “We would be hermits, each in his hermit house,” Johannes said.
Now, they raise only poultry, because the birds are easier to take care of. They turned the bunkhouse into a library; along with a collection of local religious texts, there is a prodigious array of “Star Trek” paperbacks. (In anticipation, they christened it the Brokeback Bunkhouse, and decorated its crossbeams with saddles.)
Zephram retired from his teaching job and began painting. “We try to live in the spirit,” Johannes said. Some days are easier than others.
Then one day in early 2012, their turkeys vanished. They found them beaten to death, their body parts strewn over a field and a bloody crutch tossed nearby.
It had been years since Zephram and Johannes had been threatened. The viciousness of the attack stunned them. Though they say they know the assailant, no one was charged with the crime. Yet something shifted after that day.
“People came up to us and apologized,” Johannes said. “It traumatized not just us, but the town.”
Jim Hepler, a sixth-generation farmer and Pitman native, called it a turning point. “When they arrived, people said, ‘Oh, no, we’ve got a gay community beginning here in the valley, and it’s going to be awful,’ ” he said. “That wasn’t my feeling, but there was tension. Here we are 30 years later, and it’s still two men minding their own business.”
The turkey beating, he said, “was an awful thing.”
“It was senseless, and it was bad,” he continued. “I think the community came together then in support of them.”
Johannes and Zephram have rebranded themselves, too, as curators of the Mahantongo Heritage Center (that’s the barn with its exhibits), open to the public from May through October.
Zephram paints vibrant animistic canvases in his studio; Johannes frets about the maintenance on their copious collection of structures. In a tour of the property accompanied by their enormous bellowing turkeys (they have replenished the flock), he pointed out the peeling paint on the window trim of his hillside house.
Up on a ridge, a few art installations (a grain silo embellished with fins to look like a spaceship, and a cow-size dog made from rusty pipes) give the place a goofy DiaBeacon feel.
“It was a dream, and it was a good dream,” Zephram said. “Though it broke our spirits that we had no one to share it with. Now, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t have brothers. It doesn’t matter if the place survives. We carry it with us, in the moment. The work we did. What we felt. Star and Bright and all the animals.
“It’s not a lonely place. It’s just jumbled.”
- They Built It. No One Came, New York Times, 16 May 2015, by Penelope Green https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/style/they-built-it-no-one-came.html