The Fort Hill 'Gang' 20 Years Later
Controversial Hub commune of the '60s survives and prospers
by Matt Carroll"IN ALL humility I tell you that I am the greatest man in the world and it doesn't bother me in the least."JACKIE, 25, spends hours carefully shaping clay figures, turning herself into an accomplished sculptor.
---Mel Lyman, 1967
Anthony, 22, is taking time off from art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts to play guitar and banjo in a folk band.
Geordie, 21, is learning construction by working hard in the family business.
All three are polite, friendly and intelligent - in short, young adults who would do any family proud.
But the three have run into trouble in the past - in school, with neighbors - when people have found out about the "family" to which they belong.
From early childhood, Jackie, Anthony and Geordie were raised at the Fort Hill Community, a controversial commune founded in Roxbury about 20 years ago by a band of idealists, musicians and youths seeking a different way of life.
The group, also known as the Lyman Family, was one of the few "communes" to survive the turbulent '60s.
Today it is flourishing in three states, with a farm in Kansas, a contracting business in Los Angeles and houses in Roxbury and Martha's Vineyard.
But the community is still haunted by a past that includes a vicious corporate battle for control of a major alternative Boston newspaper, a botched bank robbery that left one man dead and two in prison, and allegations that Mel Lyman - the founder of the group - was some sort of mind-control guru.
That past drove the community underground for the last decade. But now the commune is stepping again into the public eye with the publication of a new magazine, "U and I.""EVERYTHING that is true of the Fort Hill Community is true of the entire Family of Man. . . . We contain all the virtues and all the weaknesses of mankind; we are humanity in microcosm."SEVEN or eight members of the Family cluster around the kitchen table, chatting amiably. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee drifts up from handmade mugs. A child with curly blonde hair snuggles up to his mother. . .
It's a Norman Rockwell-esque scene, snug and comfortable. Fort Hill claims it's a fairly typical portrait.
Unlike a lot of other communes, "we never were into 'doing your own thing,' or into smoking dope and sleeping around," says Eve Lyman, one of Mel's former wives, now in her mid-30s.
Members are proud of their values - a strong work ethic, a strong sense of family and a love of folk and traditional American music.
They call their "extended family" of 111 members a "world in microcosm, only slightly more intensified," and say the spirit of their entire family makes something that is greater than the sum of the individual members.
Eve describes their lives as being in a state of "constant internal revolution ... constantly overthrowing the old and dead in our lives."
They are eager to talk about the present and future, but still have to fight the past and the lurid stories that surround Fort Hill's early days.
"We'd scheduled three concerts recently through the Rhode Island Park Department. Then they called back and said they didn't want us," a member says."I THINK the idea was to create a community to serve as an example to other communities around the country ... to do something constructive for society. . .DURING the late 1960s, when the country was in turmoil over Vietnam and split by racial strife, Fort Hill was at the cutting edge of the underground movement in Boston.
"Mel thought he could save the world, simply by putting himself out there and expressing himself strongly. . ."
-Lew Crampton, ex-member, former GOP congressional candidate
The Family came together about 1966. Led by Mel Lyman, a 28-year-old charismatic banjo-harmonica player from Portland, Ore., a small group of friends bought some houses on Fort Hill in Roxbury for a few thousand dollars.
The houses were broken-down wrecks without heat. Worse, no one had much money, either for food or fixing things up.
"We'd go down to Haymarket," says one member, "and get the food they were going to throw out. We'd just skim off the worms." But the commune became a magnet for hundreds who were seeking something "more substantial" in their lives.
They flocked to the ramshackle houses, where Lyman had fashioned a downhome philosophy based on "uncompromising truth," hard work and a strong family life.
Lyman, who died "seven or eight years ago," had already attracted a number of talented people at that point, including Jim Kweskin, leader of the popular jug band that bears his name, and Jessie Benton, daughter of famed artist Thomas Hart Benton.
"Mel's enthusiasm and strength got us through those days," says Jessie Benton. "He kept us enthusiastically working on the dream he had. He inspired us all to have the same vision.
"You felt you were creating a new world. You were hopeful, obsessed.""ALL THAT really matters in this life is a man's inner worth, what he still has left when all the chips are down."WHEN THE Family was in its early years, Boston was rich in the spirit of the times, the feeling that things were happening. One of those things was an underground newspaper called the Avatar.
First printed In 1967, the paper was different from anything published by the mainstream press. It used dramatic graphics, four-letter words and a "spiritual" approach.
It was a success at its peak, selling more than 30,000 copies per issue. But a fight over the direction of the paper split the paper's board of directors into two camps: One pro-Fort Hill, the other anti-Hill.
Wayne Hansen, 40, a former Family member who is now a self-employed contractor in Somerville, was one of the founding editors.
"The Hill wanted to focus more on people's inner selves," said Hansen, who left the Family in 1979. "Their goal was more esoteric - they wanted a magazine, not a newspaper."
Hansen says that It was "clear early on that Melvin was the soul of the thing."
The other group was more interested in subjects like "Vietnam, politics," Hansen says. "They wanted to be more like the Phoenix or Real Paper."
David Wilson, an editor and member of the board of directors, who was opposed to the Hill, says that once Mel "had a revelation he was God, he became a lot less easy to communicate with."
The Family's philosophy is a "mystery to me," says Wilson. "Other than he's God, his way is the right way; people who disagreed should be punished. I've never been able to see how so many others bought it ..."
Another Avatar editor, Charles Guiliano, describes the Hill as kind of a Utopian experiment and Lyman as a "backwoods savant."
"It was a unique, conservative element that espoused wholesome family values. But in retrospect, it was very right wing," a completely autocratic society, he says.
The two factions battled for control. After one particularly bitter battle, the Lyman group snatched an entire printed edition of the paper and sold it for scrap. After that, the Lyman group was in control.
"It's a chapter of my life I associate with lots of anger and bitterness, a lot of shattered dreams," say Guiliano, now a freelancer for the Patriot Ledger.
The Avatar's name was changed to the American Avatar, and after continuing for a few more years, disappeared as the Family moved on to other interests.
There were also charges in those days that Lyman was a kind of "mind-control" master who had a firm grip on the Hill people. Members say Lyman died "seven or eight" years ago but are reluctant to say much about his death other than that it followed an illness. they say the fact the Family continues to prosper is proof that Lyman never was the "guru" he was made out to be."THE Hip Movement is guilt-ridden, it represents everything it condemns. It overflows with prejudice, war, lovelessness, pride, injustice, and contempt. It totally lacks compassion..."Despite the Avatar incident, the Family was growing. It quickly expanded into several cities across the country: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and New Orleans.
But in the early 1970s, the dream appeared to dissolve as quickly as it had been spun. The Family turned inward, refusing interviews, trying to live their lives as privately as possible.
They blame the withdrawal partly on a change in the mood of the country.
Mostly they blame a highly critical, two-part article in 1971 in Rolling Stone magazine that compared the Lyman Family to the Manson Family, the killers in the grisly Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders.
Another incident that tarnished the group's reputation was a bank holdup in 1973 involving family member Mark Frechette and two others. One of his accomplices was shot to death by police.
Frechette had been the star of the 1968 movie "Zabriskie Point," directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, whose credits included "Blowup."
Frechette died at MCI-Norfolk in 1975 after a weightlifting accident, prison officials said.
Wayne Hansen, who was a member of the Family from the late '60s until 1979, says much of the publicity was overstated.
"I enjoyed life there," he says, "although it can be difficult. There are a lot of demands placed on people from living that close together."
He left because of personal problems but still considers Fort Hill members to be his friends.
His 7-year-old son, Henry, still lives at Fort Hill with the boy's mother, but that doesn't worry him.
It's a wonderful place for a kid to live. I can't offer what they can. I don't have a place on Martha's Vineyard; I can't take him to Los Angeles in the winter.""LIFE is a trial and a struggle, you get out of it exactly what you put into it; there are no free gifts, all you get to keep is what you've MADE out of yourself."The new magazine and a band, both called "U & I," have again put Fort Hill in the public spotlight.
The magazine "really is a dialogue between the writers and the readers," says Dick Russell, who is a Family member, a free-lance writer and also handles publicity. "We're not trying to explain ourselves."
It is not your everyday magazine. There are no page numbers, no author's names, no advertising, no guideposts to help lead an unwary reader just thumbing through its pages.
Articles range from preserving the striped bass to a "journal of a Mad Artist"; from Abraham Lincoln to life in the punk lane; from a look at Born Agains to poetry.
The magazine, which costs $5, is sold at newsstands or by writing to U and I, Box 1886, Jamaica Plain, Mass. 02316. The second issue is due out in December.
The band plays at local clubs, like Charley's Tap in Cambridge. Jim Kweskin, the '60s jug-band leader, is a member of the band."...WE have not gathered here to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, but rather to establish a greater order within that order, an order born of willing cooperation and necessary discipline..."Fort Hill has flourished. According to members, there are 72 adults and 39 children, with homes in Boston, Martha's Vineyard and Los Angeles and a farm in Kansas. While there is someone at all the homes at any one time, members often move back and forth, depending on where they are needed.
Fort Hill Construction, the name of the company that is the Family's main source of income, is a bustling Los Angeles business. While the Family won't discuss whom it works for, past clients are reported to have included "E.T." director Steven Spielberg and actor Dustin Hoffman.
Smaller construction companies operate in Boston and New York. Some members have outside jobs, and some women work in a new business, Dust Busters, a cleaning service. All the money they earn goes into a common pool.
Along Roxbury's Fort Avenue Terrace, the family owns the six houses that line the short private way.
The houses are magnificent: Beautifully designed wooden arches gracefully tie one room with the next; colorful, hand-painted ceramic tiles decorate the kitchens; exquisite, original details of the 100-year-old homes have been carefully and skillfully reconstructed.
The luxury that surrounds them has a price. The price is hard work, both on their physical surroundings and on their relationships.
In order to have a sustained relationship, you have to work at it," says Eve Lyman. And working on the relationship can be painful, especially if, like in a marriage, there are problems.
"We take marriage very seriously," she says. She added that while couples don't divorce each other, they do "occasionally separate, but the relationship goes on forever."
"They see the relationship through. They live in the same house, they learn to get through it. They have to find deeper places, which can be richer and deeper than the marriage itself."
After children are born, they are with one or both parents until the child is at least a teen-ager, a Family member says.
"But any of the kids would say they have lots of mommys and daddys, lots of people to take care of them," the member adds.
"They would also say they have lots of brothers and sisters. The blood relationship is not the biggest thing happening, although it is still very important.
"But the ultimate responsibility for the child rests with the parents," says the member."EVERYONE is waiting for a miracle to come and change things, a Christ, a World Teacher, a Saviour, someone or something to descend from the clouds and wash us all clean. There are no miracles. Miracles are the result of hard work."The Family started teaching its own children, because members didn't think public schools were putting enough emphasis on subjects they consider important, such as history.
They felt there wasn't enough emphasis on great leaders, such as Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy.
"I want the children to learn to respect the great men of history, whether they're philosophers, musicians, scientists, whatever," says Eve Lyman. "If my son grows up with an appreciation of Albert Einstein, his life will be enriched. He'll be an example."
At the Family's school, run by members as well as tutors, the children spent about eight hours a day in classes but went to school for a shorter period.
The children had run into trouble in public schools. In Boston, in the late '60s, the Hill children were about the only whites in their school. One boy was pushed off a jungle gym; a gang beat a girl.
In Kansas, where they went to school in a rural school district near the towns of Blue Rapids and Waterville, there were problems.
"We were the 'commune kids,'" says Jackie Lyman, Melvin's 25-year-old daughter. "Everyone in the community looked down on us. The teachers used to harass us, and we didn't have many friends."
That changed. The Valley Heights School System, consisting of two grammar schools and a high school, was facing a declining enrollment until the Family put about 20 of its children into the system in 1983, helping to keep the system afloat by stabilizing enrollment.
All of the Family's children now attend the Kansas schools and are also tutored by members."A COMMUNITY needs a leader, someone who best knows the potential of that particular group of people and how to bring it into actuality. I am that leader and guide, the father at the head of this family."
MEMBER: Jessie Benton, daughter of famed artist Thomas Hart Benton, is one of 111 members of Fort Hill commune.
SCULPTOR: Jackie Lyman, Mel Lyman's 25-year-old daughter, grew up in commune. Here she works on a sculpture in one of several houses the group owns at Fort Hill.
THE LYMAN FAMILY: Commune members pose at one of their homes in Roxbury. They also have houses on Martha's Vineyard and in Kansas and Los Angeles.
MEL LYMAN plucking his banjo in the '60s.
SNACK TIME: Daria Lyman, Jessie Benton and Anthony Gude in communal kitchen on Fort Hill.
COMFORTABLE LIVING: One of the commune houses on Fort Hill.
COMMUNE'S NEW BAND, U and I, play a gig at Charley's Tap in Cambridge. From left: Etta Russell, Jim Kweskin, Anthony Gude, Geoffrey De War and Geordie Gude.
Staff photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen and Seth Kardon