Apocalypse Never Happened, but a Community Did

The New York Times/January 6, 2011

Eighty-five miles south of Chicago, where farmland rolls out to the horizon in every direction, sits the tiny community of Stelle.

At first glance, it resembles a typical residential subdivision of ranch houses and bilevels. But its brief history is remarkable.

Proclaimed as the precursor to the Kingdom of God by Richard Kieninger, its guru-like founder, Stelle began as a spiritual commune intended to survive an apocalyptic event. As that dark vision faded, the town became a vibrant outpost of the sustainability movement and evolved into an open, ecumenical community of 100 or so good neighbors.

"What makes Stelle unique is that it survived," said one resident, Steve Bell, a technical specialist for one of two photovoltaic companies with offices in Stelle. "I prefer to describe Stelle as an unincorporated village with a colorful history."

The idea for Stelle (pronounced stell) emerged in 1963, when Mr. Kieninger, under the pen name Eklal Kueshana, published "The Ultimate Frontier," a book about a young man who was instructed by an ancient "Brotherhood" of scientist-philosophers to build a new nation based on karmic principles and the Golden Rule.

Seven years later, Mr. Kieninger, a Chicago native, along with a band of mostly 20-somethings who had come from the hippie counterculture and looked the part until Mr. Kieninger mandated mainstream dress, bought a 240-acre farm in Ford County and began building Stelle. He prophesied the settlement would grow into a city of 250,000.

Mr. Kieninger also foresaw a catastrophic shift of the earth's crust. To survive, he warned, Stelle needed to become self-reliant.

"If things went to hell, which is what Stelle's doomsday culture predicted, how do you carry on? For a start," Mr. Bell said, "you need a power source."

Although followers who bought into Mr. Kieninger's unorthodox philosophy overlooked his failed prophecies, they did not feel the same way when he was suspected of sexual improprieties. Mr. Kieninger was expelled from Stelle by a vote in 1986, and he moved to a community called Adelphi, near Dallas. Later a Republic of Texas separatist, he served time in prison after helping distribute fraudulent cashier's checks.

Even after Mr. Kieninger's departure from Stelle, his insistence on developing self-sufficient technologies resonated among residents. "People in Stelle may have seemed wacky," said Brian Quirke, director of communications for the federal Department of Energy in Chicago, "but for decades, they've made their lives a demonstration of sustainable living."

Today, nearly a third of Stelle's 45 households have photovoltaic panels or passive solar systems. Stelle boasts the nation's first solar-powered telephone company, and a 21-foot-diameter wind turbine generates electricity for the water treatment plant.

The town's sense of community also remains. Members of the Monday Night Dinner Cooperative meet weekly in Stelle's modest community center for a home-cooked meal. Chicken co-op members collect eggs year-round from Stelle's solar-powered hen house. The tool and lawn mower cooperatives operate out of a family garage.

When Wayne Malchow, a retired Marine, moved to Stelle two years ago to build an energy-efficient home, he thought his yard would be his haven. "I didn't care about neighbors," he said.

Things change. Last summer, Mr. Malchow grew cucumbers in the community garden. In October when Stelle participated in a national tour of solar-powered homes, his house was among the stops. He belongs to the Stelle Community Association, which maintains the streets and the water and sewage systems, and he co-founded the orchard co-op.

"I found a community," Mr. Malchow said. "I like it."

Dr. Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, has studied cults and communes for decades. Although several Stelle residents insisted that their community did not begin as a cult, Dr. Zablocki said Stelle was originally "a prophetic and apocalyptic group."

"But," he said, "it's fairly common when the leader leaves or dies, for the group to evolve into a more village-like structure."

About a quarter of Stelle's current residents date back to Mr. Kieninger's time, but only a few still share his ideas. Many who came later were drawn by the community's New Age, eco-conscious reputation. Others, like Joshua Denault, came because he got a good deal on a house.

Growing up nearby, Mr. Denault heard rumors about people building spaceships in Stelle. "I thought people would be weird," he said. "For a long while I kept my distance."

Then last summer, he started taking his 2-year-old child to the local pool, which is privately owned but accessible for everyone. When Mr. Denault and his wife, Jeannie, recently had a baby, neighbors brought over dinner for a week. "It wasn't until we had kids that I understood what community is about," Ms. Denault said.

Carroll English, who has lived in Stelle the longest, keeps 69 copies of "The Ultimate Frontier" in her living room bookcase. "It's so sensible and reasonable," said Ms. English, who first read the book in 1967. "What we have in our lives is what we bring into our lives by what we do for others."

She wishes she could persuade her neighbors to form an "Ultimate Frontier" study group, but she has not yet succeeded. Nonetheless, Ms. English said as she lent a copy to a visitor, "Stelle is a great place."

"It's quiet, in harmony with nature and as close to family as I'll get," she said.

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