Is Stephen Gaskin a Second Christ? Some Still Say Yes, Some Disagree

The Tennessean/October 11, 1981

Stephen Gaskin's Farm - a prosperous 1,750-acre tract that is the nation's largest commune - is utopian to some of the flower children of the 1960s that have worked and lived it but others disagree.

They say Gaskin thinks of himself as "the second Christ," of "The Avatar of the Aquarian Age" and condemn the "glowing" publicity he has received in the last decade.

Gaskin, 46, a lanky ex-marine dressed in denims with an old fishing hat covering craggy graying pigtailed hair, and a digital watch roach clip attached to his beaded belt, led about 250 self-described hippies in 60 school buses from San Francisco's height-Ashbury area to the hills of Tennessee 10 years ago this fall. No one would dispute that The Farm is picturesque. The commune is nestled among white oaks, and stands of hickory and dogwood, the smell of freshly picked sweet corn lingering in the air, the sun glistening off the dew dampened grass.

Next to the outhouses and dusty dirt roads, the Farm boasts a sophisticated audio recording studio, a high-priced computer system, lighted basketball courts, a solar CB telephone hookup, a publishing house and electronics shop that manufactures radiation alert remote detectors called "Nukebusters."

First came the printing shop, which was used to spread the word about a commune that was "working." The audio studio produced and distributed records by the Farm's many rock bands. A free clinic, a midwifery service, an international relief agency, a solar electronics firm, a construction company, a flour mill, a woodshop, and a bank are juxtaposed with fields of sweet corn, soy beans, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, cabbage and peppers.

They've set up their own form of government - a business council and a Council of Elders run the show, with Gaskin describing himself as "the coach." He doesn't like to read stories describing the Farm as a commune or him as its leader, although those are the tags used in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone Magazine, the Today Show, and Donahue Show.

"I am what you see. I don't like to use terminology like "'leader' within the Farm," says Gaskin. "I would cop to that on a national or international level that I'm one of the leaders of our movement which is not just the Farm but all the long hairs and pacifists and hippies of the world." But other members of the founding caravan crew dispute Gaskin's shunning of authority.

"He went to Tennessee to foster his ideals," explains Kathleen Platt, 32, a former English instructor at San Francisco State who joined the Farm in 1969 and left it in 1978. "They control your life, but we asked for it. That's the crux of it. He couldn't be doing it if all these people did not bow down to him." Ms. Platt, now a resident of Grass Valley, CA, say s Gaskin used commune money to finance expensive promotional tours overseas while Farm residents went without toilet paper, soap, and housing and children went without proper clothes and food. She was one of the members of the Council of Elders during her stay at the Farm, but says Gaskin controlled the decisions of the board. "supposedly you had freedom of speech at the Farm, but you would be shut down pretty fast if you said something against the flow. I was very excited when I was on the board, but I found out it was a joke. We sat there for hours and smoked so much grass that decisions we would come to would all be erased in a couple of days," she says.

Wayne Bonser, 33, became involved with the Farm through his first wife, who was a disciple of Gaskin's in San Francisco. He was an original member of the cross-country caravan. Bonser says he, too, became fed up with the authoritarian rule of Gaskin and left in 1976. "We were going to save the world," he recalls. "That was the theme emblazoned on top of his scenic cruiser. He called himself the Avatar of the Aquarian Age, and believed he was the second Christ. Everybody bought it back then. We were all taking a lot of psychedelic drugs back then. He tied the LSD experience together with religion. He was and still is looked on as infallible - a true interpreter of God's will."

Bonser says he was a "big honcho" on the Farm, in charge at various times of the "Gate (security) Crew," sanitation, construction, and the pot crew. "He has a gang of henchmen. If anybody interrupts him at one of his gigs, he sends out one of the guys to remove them." Removal meant being banned from the Farm for as long as 30 days, or "busted" to a lower status job, such as the farm crew in charge of picking crops.

There are absolute similarities between the Farm and Jim Jones and Charles Manson," Bonser says, calmly. "No one questions his authority and you can't do anything unless you have his approval. He takes whatever women he wants and nobody questions it. They don't think for themselves there," he says. "Agreement is really stressed at the Farm. He takes quotations from the Bible and other religions and distorts them for his own needs. If you disagree with Stephen's philosophies, it's like slapping God in the face," he says.

Farm members deny the claims and say Bonser was dissatisfied with a "group marriage" situation at the commune and apparently decided to vent his frustrations by attacking his former home. Bonser, now living in Davis, CA, says he decided to leave his group marriage and the farm mainly because of the way children were treated. He says they were fed a kind of soy bean-corn meal mush, rarely getting fresh fruit or vegetables. "If you baby cries, Stephen says he's probably on a ego trip. Never mind it's tired, hungry or thirsty. You should ignore it. Many times they stashed babies in the woods on a blanket or in a playpen. There have been at least three babies die from that kind of neglect at the Farm. They just say it was crib death, but I know because I was also on the ambulance crew."

Bonser says drugs still play a big part of Farm life, despite the fact that Gaskin and two other commune members were sent to the state prison for a year in 1975 for a marijuana arrest that was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on religious grounds. "After the Farm was busted for marijuana, they couldn't grow it there anymore. So they formed the Farm trucking company. Most of the people on the trucking company are on the pot crew. The go to Georgia or even as far away as Oregon to grow pot and bring it back to the Farm. Stephen gets the cream of the crop and others get the leaves. Everybody has a private stash and all are instructed to keep it where they can hide it."

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