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.
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.
``When the plumbing breaks down, we don't call an outsider who charges who knows how much money. We call Alexis,'' says Phaedrus, a 35-year-old MIT graduate who runs a small computer software business from the commune.
Under the shade of apple trees, men and women rock with toddlers in hammocks, filling shifts as child-care workers. A children's house offers care round the clock for children under 4.
The original bold plan laid out in ``Walden Two'' called for communal child raising - with all children living apart from their parents. ``We thought we were going to raise children better than their parents did, but that turned out to be nonsense,'' comments Kat, a founding member and author of ``A Walden Two Experiment,'' describing Twin Oaks' first five years.
``A lot of people are good with kids in the day-care center, but when it comes right down to who's going to take nitty-gritty responsibility for children's day-to-day care, it's the parents every time,'' she concludes.
As for living arrangements, married couples have double rooms of their own. Unmarrieds have singles.
Recognizing the importance of parenting, Twin Oaks offers parents the chance to raise their children affordably.
Parents can fill slots as child-care workers and receive the same work credit as if they were involved in income-producing tasks. They can divide their work hours between child care and another job.
But more than any of these financial and work supports, Twin Oaks seems to attract members because it removes that private terror of some modern lives - loneliness - by the closeness and cooperation it requires for nearly every aspect of daily life.
Indeed, as a motivation for alternative living, the need for companionship and social belonging seems to be as central to the 1980s as the desire for political change was to the 1960s.
``The first time I came to live here it was largely a political thing,'' says Phaedrus, who lived here in the 1970s and returned a year and a half ago. ``But this time it was mostly for the people.''
On the surface, this flexible, communal life could seem the kind of Utopia that founding members hoped it would be. But current members frankly tend to disclaim its utopianism.
``I prefer this life, but it's not any easier here,'' says Peggy, who has lived at the Twin Oaks commune over the past five years. ``You have as many problems here as you do at home.''
Each person has to pull his weight, want to work, be a real group member. There are no punishments or fines to enforce the work quotas. All depends on voluntary cooperation.
The place is a little messy. The grass gets long. The kitchen has a few crumbs. Differing standards push and tug at the bonds of friendships.
``You have to work at relationships like you do anywhere,'' says Peggy. ``If people have trouble getting along with things in the outside world, they have trouble getting along here, too.''
Most couples who meet at Twin Oaks and decide to have children eventually leave for a more private life outside the community.
``They want to go out and live in a nuclear family,'' comments Peggy. Only 15 children live at the commune today.
While Skinner envisioned the commune as a society for everyone, Twin Oaks is, in fact, a homogeneous group of liberal, college-educated whites from middle-class backgrounds.
``The bigger we've become and the better off we've become moneywise, the more we attract people who are alternative but are still of the mainstream,'' Peggy reflects.
``I kind of think of us as any upwardly mobile neighborhood.''