Dennis Thomas walks through the German countryside in May 1985. KEVIN SHAY PHOTO
Human beings will be happier not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie – but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.
– KURT VONNEGUT JR., 1973 interview in Playboy
Utopia is a paradoxical concept. As a motivating idea – improvement is desirable – we can’t do without it. But every time we try to implement it on a grand scale, we accomplish its disastrous opposite. Perhaps that is why the word itself means “no place.”
– MARGARET ATWOOD, 1999
Perhaps the greatest utopia would be if we could all realize that no utopia is possible; no place to run, no place to hide, just take care of business here and now.
– JACK CARROLL, Canadian politician, businessman
By Kevin James Shay
Like many people, Bob and Ruth Foote spent much of their lives searching for a better way to live.
They took their children out of public schools and educated them through experiences such as a California-to-Bolivia sailing excursion. They lived in the backwoods of Oregon without access to numerous modern conveniences. They built a 55-foot schooner and schemed about taking the family to a deserted island for a Swiss Family Robinson adventure.
The island idea was beached due to excessive costs and porting regulations, so the Foote’s decided to establish a self-sufficient community of earth-sheltered homes that would use the smallest environmental footprint possible and also shelter homeowners from escalating mortgage rates and energy costs.
Ruth Foote worked in the real estate, insurance, and title businesses, while her spouse was an engineer in California and designed some experimental aircraft. While he considered rising coastal sea levels, nuclear strikes, and a collapsed economy real possibilities, friends say he wasn’t really a survivalist but liked the challenge of building an off-the-grid community.
“The story as I was told as a child was that Bob Foote had built a ferro-cement boat that was so nice that his wife, Ruth, suggested they live in it,” Ben Huttash, a Whitehawk resident for part of his childhood, wrote in an article for the Preserve Denton blog.
Finding 80 acres of fairly cheap land near Denton, Tx., the Foote’s named the community Whitehawk Valley after an albino hawk they observed during their initial glimpse of the area in 1977. Soon, 30 other families put down $2,500 for a plot of land to build their own version of their visions. Many knew the Foote’s through a spiritual group.
“We were a group taking an apocalyptic viewpoint,” Bob Foote told me in 1982 as I surveyed the array of ferro-cement, underground homes while researching an article on the community. “We didn’t think the world would end literally, but would end as to how we are currently living. Natural resources are finite. When they are used up, there is nothing left. We took a viewpoint that someone had to do something about finding a more conservative, simpler lifestyle.”
They weren’t the first – and wouldn’t be the last – group to seek a utopian community. As Donald Trump takes over the White House in 2017, some say more people fed up with his philosophy of greed being good again will seek sanctuary in an intentional community.
Early Utopian experiments
Plato’s Republic, written around 380 B.C., outlined a proposal for a better societal system. British lawyer and author Sir Thomas More created probably the first definitive work in his 1516 book, Utopia, about an Atlantic Ocean island society. Native peoples formed communities for centuries that shared resources and were ruled not by a king but a council of elders; American Indians like the Iroquois inspired founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin through separation of powers and other principles in their governing system, according to author Bruce E. Johansen.
Many families left Europe for America, seeking religious freedom, their own land, and little taxes. The colony of Plymouth, Mass., formed in 1620, was among those to feed on such desires, though reality often did not match expectations. One of the longest-running early American communes was established by the Christian separatist group Harmony Society near Pittsburgh, Pa., in the early 1800s. Led by George Rapp, believers practiced celibacy and placed their goods in common, while preparing for the second coming of Christ. The group moved to Indiana for a decade before returning to Pennsylvania and existing for about a century.
While the Rappites didn’t attract many converts, the Shakers, another religious group that formed communes in the U.S. around the same time, gained about 6,000 members at 20 sites by the 1830s. Founded by Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers practiced concepts such as equal labor and celibacy.
The Oneida community, a New York socialist commune formed by John Humphrey Noyes, believed in bringing about a Heaven on earth while practicing group marriages. The group lasted more than three decades in the 19th century, and its silverware-making operation branched into a big company. Transcendentalists, who believed that humans had the capacity to transcend the chaos in the world to bring forth their inherent good nature, started their own utopian communes, Brook Farm and Fruitlands, in the 1840s in Massachusetts. Brook Farm lasted five years, with one of its leaders, journalist Charles Dana, writing that it showed a way to abolish domestic servitude and provide better education for all students. Fruitlands went under in less than a year.
La Réunion, a socialist community inspired by French philosopher François Fourier, formed in 1855 near present-day downtown Dallas. Unlike other early communes, both men and women could own property and vote. Members had skills that enabled them to form Dallas’ first butcher shop and brewery, but they found their farming skills among the chalky terrain lacking.
The colony disbanded within a few years, and many returned to Europe or moved to San Antonio or New Orleans. Those who stayed included acclaimed botanist Julien Reverchon, who had a park and street named after him, and Benjamin Long, who later became Dallas mayor.
Such communities are not without their controversies, with many failing to live up to utopian ideals and dying out following internal conflicts and economic problems. An extreme example was Jonestown, a Guyana religious commune that practiced a form of socialism founded by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. The cult ended in a tragic 1978 suicide of more than 900 members. The Branch Davidians religious group led by David Koresh was another cult, culminating in a 1993 fire and law enforcement standoff in Texas that left more than 80 dead.
The Centrepoint community in New Zealand saw some leaders convicted of drug charges and sexual assault of minors in the 1990s. The fundamentalist Seven Tribes commune in Germany faced allegations of child abuse after a television reporter filmed instances of adults striking young children with willow canes in 2013.
While the Fellowship for Intentional Community lists more than 1,700 U.S. communities in its online directory, about half were only in the process of forming as of 2016. Many groups don’t choose to list themselves, said Laird Schaub, former executive secretary of the FIC who had been involved in the movement for more than four decades. He estimated that there were about 4,000 intentional communities with a combined population of some 100,000 in the U.S.
Those numbers, which are hard to obtain since many groups are not interested in answering inquiries from the general public, “have been rising over the quarter century that we’ve been collecting the data,” Schaub said. “Some groups are afraid that open publicity will lead to more negative attention than positive attention and thus choose to be discreet about what they say in public.”
One of the oldest established ones is Arden, a Delaware art colony of about 500 people founded in 1900 based on the economic philosophy of Henry George. Residents own homes and pay taxes, or land rent, while about half the land is publicly-owned undeveloped forests and greenways. Arden, the oldest and largest of three villages, is governed through a town assembly. Among its former residents were vice president Joe Biden and writer Upton Sinclair.
Black Bear Ranch was founded in the mountainous section of northern California in 1968 by a group of people who wanted to “go back to the land,” according to its website. A few people lived there in 2016, while more attend events such as a Summer Solstice celebration.
The Farm was another long-established community, dating to 1971 when about 300 mostly Californians purchased cheap land in central Tennessee as “an experiment in sustainable, developmentally progressive human habitat.” They built structures entirely from salvaged and recycled materials and became agriculturally self-sufficient within four years without depending on government aid.
By 1980, the population had swelled to more than 1,200, but financial problems such as medical bills forced the farm to charge residents rent. There were about 150 members as of 2016. Some residents worked at jobs outside the community, while others ran mail order, grocery store, book publishing, and other enterprises.
Twin Oaks still going strong
An even older community, the 400-acre Twin Oaks in rural Virginia, also thrived through 2016. Founded in 1967 on a former tobacco farm under the beliefs of psychologist B.F. Skinner, the group grew to almost 90 people by 1984.
Residents worked full-time at jobs such as making hammocks and other furniture, growing tofu, and indexing books. They received housing, food, health care, and spending money rather than a direct salary. In the 1970s, the group won a big contract with national retailer Pier 1 Imports to produce the hand-crafted hammocks. Twin Oaks had so many orders that leaders, or planners, had to subcontract with other communes such as the nearby Acorn Community Farm, which formed in 1993. But in 2004, Pier 1 faced financial problems and ended the hammock contract.
Twin Oaks had to cut $50,000 from the budget that year, and the tofu business replaced hammock manufacturing as the most lucrative enterprise. Members grew much of their food and raised cows and other animals. While the planners, managers, and decentralized committees made decisions, a majority vote of members could overturn their choices.
There were seven large group houses, a children’s building, center with a communal kitchen, work buildings, hospice, and cemetery. Most buildings utilized some form of solar energy. Some members ran errands in Richmond and other area cities, taking care of other residents’ needs such as returning books from a library.
“Our resource-sharing lifestyle enables us to live lightly on the earth, minimize waste and inefficiency, and invest wisely in collective goods,” wrote Raj Ghoshal in a 2002 article.
Those public amenities included an artificial pond, volleyball court, miniature home theater, computers, and music equipment. Other communities have sprung up in the area besides Acorn: Living Energy Farm acquired land in 2010, while Sapling formed in 2013.
I met one Twin Oaks member in 1984 in the midst of walking through Virginia on the Walk of the People project. Taylor Frome, a cousin of walk participant Barbara Hirshkowitz, had given much of her possessions to Twin Oaks and traveled with just a small pack, while some of us had several suitcases and large packs.
On a rest day, Taylor led a group therapy session, where we discussed if we could really change another person and other concepts. We tried a listening exercise practiced at Twin Oaks, where we broke into pairs and explained our ideas further on a one-to-one level. When we reconvened, we had to summarize what our partner said. Most of us discovered we were better talkers than listeners.
“You learn a lot about how to work with others through living in a community,” said Frome, who later moved to the Philadelphia area but maintained communication with former and present members. “You gain tools that really help you.”
Keenan Dakota, who joined Twin Oaks in 1983 and still resided there in 2016, told a Richmond, Va., television news reporter that she came there seeking a simpler lifestyle. “The things that kept me here are different,” she said. “I wanted to raise my kids. I like the work with my hands. I like to build things. I think that’s true for a lot of people who live here.”
Rachelle Ellis, who lived at Twin Oaks from 2005 to 2007, said in a comment on an Al Jazeera America article that income-sharing communities “provide an incredible security that you’d never find in the mainstream culture.”
“You have to work, but you also don’t have to pay bills, worry about upkeep for your car, try to find the cheapest organic brown rice at the co-op, or find a doctor that’s covered under your health care plan,” Ellis wrote. “All of those activities are worked into the labor structure of the community and become someone’s job, which is perfect motivation for taking care of those things and making them the problems of a small group of people who get ‘paid’ to do so.”
Overall, Twin Oaks was in good financial shape to meet future needs, she wrote in 2014. “Though terrible things could happen if the community loses everything economically, I have a hard time seeing that happen,” Ellis said.
On the walk, we ran into other people who lived in intentional communities and stayed in a few ourselves. In mid-1985 in Baudenbach, a German village among picturesque scenery between Wurzburg and Nuremberg, Swami Gerhard Unger allowed us the run of two rooms and an entire attic of a 20-member commune for a few days. He had studied yoga in Bombay for four years and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, and the U.S.
During a rest day, I took a hike through nearby woods with fellow walker Dennis Thomas, a California engineer who joined the project in France. Working at IBM in a position of “figuring out how much computers cost,” Dennis had made enough money to afford two houses, a Datsun sports car, and tax breaks, before he discovered something missing and decided to radically alter his lifestyle. He heard about the walk around the same time I did and was about to join it from California with intentions of going the distance, but something made him hang on to job security for one more year.
Like myself, Dennis had not been a formal member of a peace organization, though the former collegiate swimmer and water polo player sympathized with the aims. We propped ourselves on a decaying picnic table and munched on cheese sandwiches and apples. Our chatter eventually gravitated to issues involved in living in a group setting.
Dennis, who had ignored walk member Tammy Leffler’s request a few nights before to help her with the dishes, explained his non-cooperative behavior. “I just don’t like to be told what to do, even on that simple level. If I’m not in the mood to do something, I just don’t like to do it. In a utopian community, everyone should be able to do what they want automatically, and it would work that easily.”
“But you forget. We have yet to find a real utopian community,” I noted. “That’s what we’ve been searching for ever since we have existed.”
I had been looking myself for such a community even before that walking project when I helped start one in a large lakeside house near Dallas in 1982. That experiment lasted about a year before succumbing to squabbles and money problems. In a way, the walk was a nomadic intentional community not unlike an old-fashioned tribe that lasted almost two years.
The Baudenbach commune was not listed in the Fellowship of Intentional Community’s online directory and apparently was inoperable in 2016, as an Internet search did not yield a clue. But others that we visited or stayed with, such as L’Arche communities in Alabama, Washington, D.C., France, and Belgium, were still active in 2016.
Our walk stalled at the former East German border, and we moved into a seven-bedroom mill house in the 750-year-old village of Regnitzlosau. Called Frieden Zentrum, Dreilandereck, which meant “peace house near the triple-border point,” the residence had been the home for two other international peace contingents in the previous two years, so it was a sort of temporary commune.
Signs of another walking attempt to Moscow were still apparent; a poster on a closet read, “We hereby declare Kleppermuhlgasschen II, Regnitzlosau to be a nuclear-free zone. Signed October 17, 1982, Mary Killian and Paula Boulton, A Walk to Moscow.” That project crossed the U.S. from Washington state to the East Coast in 1981 and through the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Germany in 1982 before stalling at Regnitzlosau. After a nine-month stay, members obtained visas to walk through Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1983, but they had to take a train in Russia. The other contingent that stayed there was comprised of primarily Australian natives who cycled for peace in 1984 and were eventually granted visas to enter Czechoslovakia.
During our two months there, we started a garden and made improvements, including in the upstairs plumbing. There were enough rooms for each of us to have our own, even with leaving the “museum” room intact, which was filled with about 300 eight-inch stick figures. Some carried red swords, others gray, positioned in a procession of rows that led to a common burning ground, symbolizing soldiers laying down their arms.
The exhibition was the work of Carl, a former resident from Czechoslovakia. The man apparently did not have much to do one long, bitter winter but whittle out wooden symbols and eat potatoes. The more potatoes he ate, the more stick figures he made. It seemed like something out of a Stephen King novel. He also created two four-foot wooden figures, one named after the West German border village of Nentschau and the other after the East German border village of Posseck. He positioned them shaking hands over an iron symbol of the curtain.
I suspected that was the kind of thing you did when you were cooped up during a long winter, especially in the pre-Internet days. I didn’t want to discover for myself what that was like, and subsequently, I did not fully appreciate the experience of living in a stationary commune setting for a couple months. My efforts were consumed with getting back on the road.
We made trips to meet with officials in embassies in Cologne, Bonn, and Berlin to discuss visas, played gin rummy, read books, and worked on community relations projects like helping neighbors paint their homes. We took photographs of the red-orange crescent moon over church steeples with a homemade tripod Dennis made, held campfires, and swam almost a mile across a lake.
Some wanted to organize a formal schedule of duties, such as cooking and washing dishes. Others like myself thought that getting into such a routine would cause us to become too comfortable and not make us get out and obtain visas. So we compromised and made a sort of schedule.
Our stationary, temporary commune broke up when former peace campers at a base in southwest Germany needed to take over our base in mid-August, 1985. Most of us wanted to get back on the road by then anyway, so we continued into Austria. The project’s walking portion essentially ended in Vienna, as we arranged a train trip into Hungary. Some later walked through part of Switzerland and visited Moscow and Warsaw by train.
The walk project lent me a good idea of what utopian communities were like, both in visiting some and attempting to live out a nomadic version. Having people around to share tasks and do jobs most cannot like unplugging a centuries-old plumbing system is a definite advantage. Keeping expenses down, using as few resources as possible, and fellowship with like-minded friends are other benefits in such a living arrangement.
Limited privacy is among the drawbacks to living in communes. You have to be willing to wait in a line for the bathroom. Hearing others talk loudly when you’re trying to sleep or focus on something can be annoying. But it was not much different from living in an apartment complex, particularly one with thin walls, or a large family.
Another drawback is dealing with inevitable conflicts, which can be fueled by lack of space and getting on each other’s nerves. Even close friends who have known each other for years can face conflicts when put into a communal living situation; television shows like Survivor and Big Brother depend on this development for ratings. Studies show that groups that have clear ways of dealing with such conflicts tend to last longer than those that let issues fester.
“When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause great harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people,” Jeanne Segal and Melinda Smith wrote in a report for the nonprofit HelpGuide.org.
Successful intentional communities, such as Twin Oaks and the Farm, also don’t isolate themselves, Lucy Sargisson, a professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, wrote in a study on estrangement in intentional communities. They assimilate to some degree into the wider community, she noted.
Finding ways to support itself has long been a commune’s challenge, Sargisson said. If it can’t sell a product such as a hammock or tofu to the wider community or have members work outside the commune, it can’t raise revenue and usually disbands. Being part of the wider community is also good to combat against feelings of alienation from society, she said.
Of course, one reason many join a commune is to separate themselves from the greater community. And those entities need a certain amount of separation to accomplish their purposes.
“Just as utopian fiction requires some level of estrangement for critical distance or cognition, so intentional communities require it to pursue their collective projects,” Sargisson wrote. “These groups need to operate within self-set boundaries that separate them from the wider community… However, this can generate material challenges and, more importantly, can deteriorate into collective alienation.”
While boundaries are essential in most intentional communities, a balance between separation and remaining open to the greater community needs to be maintained, she said. For example, the Katajuta community in New Zealand found it had to alter a longtime open-door policy after a new member started walking around naked claiming to be Jesus Christ.
“Nobody minded very much until he began to insist that they kneel and worship him,” Sargisson wrote. “This hardly fitted with their vision of the good life, and there followed a difficult period from which the group took some time to recover.”
On the walk, we had an open-door policy for people joining for the day, but they had to be reviewed via a letter to our coordinator in Georgia if they wanted to walk longer. Some embraced this and others didn’t, leading to long, draining debates. We never had a problem with anyone walking naked and wanting us to kneel before him, but we did have to deal with a new member in England who told a veteran walker to “f— off” in front of our hosts. She soon left the project after a meeting in which several members said such outbursts hurt our credibility. That same day, the Russians announced the death of Premier Konstantin Chernenko, which I joked occurred because he didn’t want to deal anymore with the thought of us invading his country.
There were also various viewpoints on how much community building was needed within our group. Some wanted to meet for hours building cohesion during non-walking days; others preferred quick meetings with more free time to do their own thing. We tried to reach a compromise, though there were still some meetings that lasted for hours. Like many progressive groups, we operated on consensus with no set leader. Coordination duties rotated between us from week to week.
Some people were better suited for commune life than others. John Van Der Zee Sears, a boarder at the 19th century Brook Farm school for several years, appreciated the community’s concept of equality of pay and duties. “Men and women, boys and girls, drawn together in groups by special likings for the work to be done, made labor not only light but really pleasant,” he wrote. Ardent Brook Farmers wanted “first of all, to be in harmony with the common mind,” he wrote.
Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne invested in the Brook Farm community and moved there, thinking he would have much time to write books. But he left in six months and even filed a lawsuit against founder and Unitarian minister George Ripley for $586. He reportedly did not have time to write much more than a letter and tired of shoveling manure that was used at the farm as fertilizer. He wrote to his fiancée that he “never suspected that farming was so hard” and wanted to leave “before my soul is utterly buried in a dungheap.”
Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller declined to join Brook Farm, believing in solitude and more of an individualistic vision. Fellow writer Henry David Thoreau also was not a fervent supporter. He wrote in his journal after a visit, “As for these communities, I think I had rather keep a bachelor’s room in Hell than go to board in Heaven.”
I sympathize with such views but still believe in finding some type of community-living arrangement that provides a better way to live than having to lock ourselves into structures, and even gated communities, in fear of what may occur. A lot has changed since the 1840s, and we have to find better methods to share what may be limited resources in the future.
Since the walk, I have tried various housing styles. I bought and sold two single-family houses, rented apartments and single-family dwellings, and leased rooms. I have shared quarters with roommates and lived almost alone, with my two kids there half the time, in a four-bedroom house. I helped start the short-lived, spiritual retreat-like commune.
Most arrangements worked for a time and had their advantages and disadvantages. Owning a new 2,000-square-foot home on a cul-de-sac for just $105,000 in Arlington, Tx., was a good deal. Most neighbors were friendly and considerate, with the biggest problem being a few early-morning parties and cigarette butts thrown on our lawn. Owning an almost 60-year-old, 1,900-square-foot home on a cul-de-sac for $275,000 in Rockville, Md., was not such a good deal. The home was in a decent but not great neighborhood, dated in many areas, and required substantial plumbing, roof, electrical, and other repairs.
Qualifying for Montgomery County’s moderately-priced dwelling program allowed me to rent a two-bedroom apartment in some trendy Town Hall-style planned communities for lower than market rates. But still, paying $1,200 a month for such apartments seemed excessive, though having access to pools, hot tubs, exercise rooms, and even a theater made it more worthwhile. I heard when neighbors flushed the toilet and entered the building at early hours. Fears of fires were lessened through room sprinkler systems required in newer buildings, though there were several crime incidents such as break-ins and burglaries.
All in all, living in King Farm and Fallsgrove apartments were decent experiences. In King Farm, I could walk or take a free shuttle to a light-rail station, which gave me access to the Washington, D.C., area. I could walk to work, parks, grocery stores, banks, restaurants, and shops. Fallsgrove had a greater variety of retailers, though not a nearby subway station. Bicycling was encouraged, but there were not any covered racks to lock them. There were events like community movie nights, swim parties, and yard sales.
But there was a definite gap between homeowners and “apartment people,” with the latter viewed by some as having second-class status. That was a major issue in such communities; you didn’t feel like you’re an equal member of the community when you rented an apartment, town home or even single-family residence as the actual homeowners.
I can see the benefits of living in an intentional community like Twin Oaks, especially for those in their early 20s out of college. But when you get to a certain age and want a family, a more traditional arrangement typically makes more sense.
Some believe that cohousing projects, which combine privately-owned homes with shared amenities such as laundry rooms and lawnmowers, is a great alternative. Besides residing at Twin Oaks, Ellis lived in the Blueberry Hill Cohousing Community in Vienna, Va., from 2008 to 2012. That community formed in 1994.
“In cohousing, members own their homes, property, and cars,” Ellis wrote. “They do their own grocery shopping and are responsible for their own health care needs, etc. It’s almost like a conventional neighborhood, but there’s true intention as being there really is a choice.”
Boulder Creek Community in Colorado was the oldest listed in the U.S. Cohousing Association’s online directory, dating to 1985. Renting a room in the Common House started at $550 per month, while one-bedroom condos began at $1,300. Buying one-bedroom condos started at $190,000, which was a decent option with interest rates below 4 percent in 2016. In the early 1980s, owning a home was a dream for many when interest rates skyrocketed beyond 20 percent.
Many cohousing projects have similar values to intentional communities, including cooperation, Sargisson wrote in another study. But most sites were more focused on individual members than the community.
“Its members aspire to own their homes, bring up their children in nuclear families and live safe, happy lives in friendly and supportive neighborhoods,” she said. “And, as a movement, there is an observable anti-radical tendency in North American cohousing. They describe themselves as non-ideological, or non-doctrinal. What they mean, I have suggested, is that they are not oppositional. And this may help to explain the success of cohousing.”
The anti-radical nature in which cohousing works primarily for the good of members is not meant to be a criticism, Sargisson said. “Cohousing is significant, and it is effective. I have cited studies that suggest that it does indeed create better communities and more active citizenry amongst its members.”
Cohousing communities lets people live more closely with their neighbors without being in communes. “They allow people to live a new life without dropping out,” Sargisson said. “Cohousing communities are thoroughly modern utopias; comfortable with the values of mainstream culture but seeking a better way of life for their members.”
The Foote’s Whitehawk Valley in Texas is a sort of gated cohousing community in which residents build and own their homes while sharing common areas, tools, and work. Ferro-cement, which involves applying plaster or mortar over metal such as chicken wire, originated in the 1840s in France and has been used in the building process of other items like ships and water tanks.
The home construction costs ranged from $25 to $35 per square foot, compared with $100 to $150 with the average brick or siding home. The first 550-square-foot home cost about $3,500 for materials and required 3,000 man-hours to construct. All homes had septic tanks, which comprised up to 20 percent of the total cost.
With proper solar-window setups and ground cover, the homes maintained comfortable temperatures without the need for battery-powered heaters or cooling systems, advocates said. During one hot summer when the temperature reached over 100 degrees for six consecutive weeks, the temperature inside a Whitehawk residence did not get over 80 degrees, according to a report by builder Loren C. Impson.
On really cold days, which do not number too much in Texas, the temperature inside the structure dropped down to 60 degrees, which requires a heater for most people. Some reported contention over homes and living conditions, with a few family members not enjoying the somewhat rustic conditions that can be similar to camping out. One homeowner contracting for electricity on the power grid caused controversy among members who thought it went against the founders’ ideas. Lots were sold through memberships, not individual deeds.
Many homes had wind generators, composting toilets, solar energy panels, and greenhouses. The Foote’s started another community, Rainbow Valley, in 1978 and formed an agricultural coop that made decisions through votes by members. They provided 78 acres of the land to the Texas Land Conservancy to preserve that original Blackland Prairie area.
While Bob Foote passed away in 2013 and Ruth in 2012, their son, Robin Foote, still lived in the area in 2016. He owned Whitehawk Construction Co., which helped members build their homes.
“As new people move in, the reason for [Whitehawk and Rainbow Valley’s] existence changes,” Huttash said. “Sometimes I think about climate change and wonder if the intended purpose of Whitehawk will be realized in a warming climate…. I have a two year old and worry about the world she will inherit from us. The Foote family was on the right track, just 40 years too early.”
Keri Ross, who grew up in Rainbow Valley and lived about an hour away in 2016, has fond memories of her childhood. “Me and my friends….used to roam. My mom would ring the dinner bell when it was time to come home. It was great,” she said.
The vision changed with disputes over land, membership, and other matters, Ross said. The roads and other areas were badly in need of repair in 2016. It used to be that co-op members were required to volunteer a certain number of hours working on roads and other sections. “But no one does now,” Ross said. The valley is pretty well preserved and co-op still operating, but things have changed, she noted.
In 1982, Foote told me he foresaw similar communities of low-cost underground homes cropping up around the country, though not necessarily built with ferro-cement. While the number of really successful alternative housing communities remains relatively small, the philosophy that causes many to seek a better life, to strive for Utopia, continues to thrive. “We’re advocating a new way of life of conservation and simplicity,” Foote said then. “A lot of people are fed up with the waste and bureaucracy of modern society.”