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Share alike. Twin Oaks - Virginia commune thriving in the '80s

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1988

Louisa, Va.

IT was 1967 when residents of conservative, rural Louisa County learned that some young people were starting a commune on a 400-acre farm outside town. ``Most people here didn't even know what a commune was,'' recalls Hilda Powell, a lifelong resident and editor of the Central Virginian newspaper. Families living on the area's historic farms were as much astonished as alarmed at the prospect of abutting a radical social experiment.

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Most of the thousands of communes that sprang up in the United States during the 1960s and '70s have long since disbanded in the face of economic pressures and changing social trends. But Louisa County's Twin Oaks - now one of the oldest communes in the US - has thrived.

No longer feared as the vanguard of a new society, Twin Oaks today is simply a pocket of about 80 like-minded people living together in the rolling Virginia countryside - evidence of the seemingly boundless ability of American society to absorb diversity.

``They're now well accepted,'' says Henry A. Kennon, Louisa's sheriff since 1964. The commune's longhaired men buy supplies in Louisa without raising a local eyebrow. Twin Oakers frequent the town's public library, and many were active in protesting a nearby nuclear power plant a few years back.

Twin Oaks is one of as many as 1,000 communal living groups in the country. While they coexist harmoniously with mainstream society, they offer an alternative to some patterns of work and family life - patterns that still trouble many Americans.

``The communal impulse covers everything from financial convenience to need for membership in a group,'' says Bennett Berger, a sociologist with the University of California at San Diego, who has studied communes in rural California. ``People in any age need some sense of the community, which in a post-modern society is not that easy to find.''

Based on a vision of a Utopian society described in B.F. Skinner's 1948 novel ``Walden Two,'' Twin Oaks was founded to be a noncompetitive, nonsexist, nonviolent environment providing equal opportunities and resources for all.

To a remarkable extent, it has apparently succeeded.

While many rural communes, such as the 1,500-member Farm in Tennessee, have failed for financial reasons, Twin Oaks is anchored by a hammock-making business worth $1 million in gross sales a year.

Members share all income. The business, farm operations, dormitories, workshops, and dining halls are communally owned and shared. The community assumes all health and living expenses. No one has a private car or house, but no one lacks access to one.

``I have a farm, I have a business, I have children, and I can pick up and leave anytime,'' says Nick, a blond, bearded Twin Oaker in his mid-30s - who like most here uses only his first name (and occasionally changes that).

As Nick talks, he threads nylon rope on a wooden jig, weaving a hammock. He is outdoors - within view of orchards, gardens, passers-by, and silvery buildings of weathered wood. When he tires of his work, he logs in his hours according to an honor system and returns at his convenience to finish his labor quota of 47 to 49 hours a week.

Other Twin Oakers are tending the organic farming operations that provide 60 to 70 percent of the commune's food. Both men and women are tuning up the fleet of 12 cars, cleaning dormitories, and preparing tonight's dinner of cheese grits, broccoli, and salad.

Conditions are not luxurious, but they are comfortable. Although the before-tax income per person is only about $6,000 a year, by living together, raising much of their own food, and buying supplies in bulk, ``We don't have as high cost to live,'' says Peggy, a Twin Oaks economic planner and bookkeeper.