Blue Rapids John Kostick's long legs made big strides as he walked up the slope toward the barn.
"I loved this country the first time I saw it," he said, "the spaciousness of it, the wildness of it."
Kostick, 42, talked of growing up on a small farm near Boston, with a couple of milk cows, some hay and a big garden. It was quite a contrast, he said, to his present home, a 280-acre farm with 35 goats, a hog, two ponies, two milk cows and 21 head of beef cattle, 70 Muscovy ducks, some geese, 15 cats, three dogs and a stallion named Windy, all on the rocky, rolling landscape of north-central Kansas.
The transplanted Bostonian and other members of his family have lived on the farm since 1971, producing vegetables, grain and meat to feed themselves.
There's nothing unusual about that except that Kostick's family is a large one 117 people, 78 adults and 39 children, who live in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., as well as Kansas.
Kostick is a member of a commune, a collection of people related by common interests in music, publishing, art and self-sufficiency. He has been a member of the group since it began in Boston 21 years ago.
"This is my life," Kostick said, "living with a lot [of] people. It's very much a family setup. When it gets down to only 20 people here, it gets kind of lonely."
For most of the commune's history, it has remained separated from the outside world. Now, a long-talked-about project, U and I a 74-page, slick magazine about feelings, relationships and common history has called the group out of its self-imposed privacy.
Members say the publication is aimed neither at explaining their lifestyle nor at recruiting but at opening communication with other people at a time when, they believe, Americans are drawing away from one another.
Commune members see a lot of America. With 20 homes in five diverse settings, many travel from place to place every few weeks working on projects.
In California, the commune is involved in the remodeling business, having worked for movie stars and other wealthy clients. In Boston, the group's focus is music, with Jim Kweskin of the 1960s Jug Band as the leader of what is now the U and I Band, which plays vintage country to contemporary rock and most everything in between in East Coast clubs and campus coffeehouses.
In all settings, there are some members who work outside in such occupations as teachers, nurses, writers, secretaries and waitresses. Their paychecks are pooled.
Much of their food comes from the farm in Kansas and fishing boats they own at Martha's Vineyard.
George Peper recently stopped in Kansas on a personal mission., "I'm here at the farm because I wanted to get my son settled into school," he said. "I usually spend my winters in L.A. and summers on the East Coast."
Peper, 40, spoke of the family, its structure and how it came to be. "Living together, for us, is an absolute natural process," he said, "that has to do with the way we were brought up."
"Where we really come from is not the '60s; it's really the '50s. We knew each other in the '50s. It was the beginning of the folk era, a kind of a movement that included the beatnik movement. Our living together came from that unity of music at that time. We never were hippies at all."
Peper and others dropped the name "Jessie" into conversation frequently. Jessie Benton, daughter of the late Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton, is one of the founding members of the group, and a leader among those who claim no leaders. Jessie's home base is in Los Angeles.
"Jessie knew Pete Seeger as a little girl," Peper said. "He would visit her home. Thomas Hart Benton played harmonica, you know."
The Benton family summer home on Martha's Vineyard is the commune's oceanfront retreat and fishing ground, and the farm, purchased in 1971 by Thomas Hart Benton as a legacy to his grandson, Anthony, also remains officially a Benton property. Benton enjoyed visiting commune members at what is now called Benton Farm in his honor. All of the properties the commune uses are held in a realty trust, a Boston-based member explained.
Structurally, the commune has no central decision-making body, yet each person young and old seems to have a sense of his or her place. "There are no meetings," Peper said. "We've never done that."
Symbolic of the lack of centralization, the group has no name.
"We don't call ourselves anything," said Peper. "We never have. We were called the Fort Hill Community in Boston; I guess that comes as close to anything as being our name. We never intended to start a community." Roots of the group are in the slums of the Fort Hill area of Boston, where music drew the group together, in the mid-1960s and the renovated a block of dilapidated house for their own use.
"We are, definitely, a family," interjected Faith Gude. "All the children feel that way, too."
"Our lives are very free and very strict," Peper said. "What our children do and what they're interested in shapes our lives very much. We do not wish to form our children in our own image."
The shape of life in the commune clearly is out of the mainstream. Marriages are not formalized, and divorce is by acclamation instead of by legal writ.
"It is the most unique thing in the world today that we have no divorce," Peper said. "We recognize that some relationships don't last forever, and, when a relationship, for one reason or another, is over, those people are bound together by any responsibility they feel toward their children.
"Sometimes, a relationship ends, and it's painful, yet a living relationship continues. These children do not have divorced parents; they have parents. They don't lose one. What we live for is something beyond our being men and women, mothers or fathers. It's a belief in each other"
Peper was married to Alison, who retains his surname though she now is married to someone else. Alison is at the farm now, but she also spends a good deal of time in Los Angeles.
"We were married at the beginning, before Fort Hill," Alison said. "We were married for two years and had a baby, a son. When we split up, it was very difficult. I had dreamed of being married to George forever. But we were both a part of a bigger life that meant so much to both of us that we were able to work out our problems."
Addressing the practical aspects of breakups, Alison explained that in a difficult breakup sometimes one partner moves to another of the commune's homes, at least for a while.
"It took us a while to become friends," she said of her own divorce. "We have a saying that marriage is forever, in the sense that the relationship continues, even though you're still not in the same room. You work out the hostilities. The relationship grows, and the children are a part of it."
The lack of structure extends to a lack of ritual. Traditional Thanksgiving feasts usually are celebrated, but there are some years that Christmas is only modestly heralded.
"We want the children to know about Christmas and the true Christmas spirit," explained Carol Franck, "but Christmas is gone now in the world because of the commercialism. We play Christmas music that's the part that has feeling in it but we don't always have a tree."
Birthdays are the special days in the commune, where, statistically, someone is having a birthday every three days. Because the family places a good deal of importance on astrology, birthdays are when the individual is celebrated by the group. "You get most of the clothes you need for the year on your birthday," Peper said.
"We're all very connected, even though we're far apart," Gude said.
One way they stay connected is by traveling coast to coast in what they call their "camper," a 7-year-old, 28-foot motor home or in a van, which carries eight.
Food and supplies are transported as family members travel. The farm provides much of the food for the group canned vegetables, berry preserves and jellies even canned fish, mostly carp. Also shared are corn meal and several varieties of flours milled at the farm from home-grown grains. When members come to Kansas from the East, they bring commune-caught tuna and bonita to share with the Kansans.
"The reasons we travel around," Peper said, "is a combination of necessity and whether we want to be somewhere."
Children travel, too.
They go to school where their interests are best met, with some attending classical Latin school in Los Angeles and others in public schools in Boston and Kansas.
Individual needs and wants are dealt with in much the same way as they would be in a typical family. Skills and interests are taken into account when group needs are identified. For example, some of the men developed mechanical skills when vehicles needed repair. Women learned pressure canning after they moved to the farm.
Finances also are managed in a typical family way, with a person or two at each setting having the responsibility to set budgets and keep records. As family members need money, they ask for it. "There's really not very often that there's anything that I want that I can't have," Peper said.
"You learn to live very sensitively with one another," Gude said. "You learn to know others' needs."
The sensitivity was evident on a recent afternoon, as men and women moved in and out of the Kansas farmhouse, chatting around the kitchen table or the large dining room table. Coffee is served all day. An abundance of ashtrays attests to the fact that all but one of the adults smoke cigarettes.
There are four living units at the farm the farmhouse, built in 1925 and remodeled by the family; "the big house" or "the house on the hill," built by family members a few years ago; "the silo," literally an old storage silo converted to a three-story dormitory for high school-age boys; and a springhouse, which once served as the community's schoolhouse and now is living quarters for young women.
Meals are prepared and served in two places because there are usually too many people to seat in one dining room. Until school ends, there will be 18 students and at least a dozen adults living on the farm. Children eat in the house on the hill; adults eat later at the farmhouse. Both groups sit on benches around large, wooden tables in dining rooms filled with oils and lithographs, the majority of' them by Thomas Hart Benton.
FOR THE most past, women fulfill traditional women's roles, preparing meals, doing laundry and overseeing upkeep of the homes. After the young people's meal, a handful of young women tackled dishwashing at the kitchen sink.
"We've had dishwashers," Kostick explained, "but the ladies asked us to take them out; they'd rather do it this way and have the cabinet space. We are the most modern people you can imagine. We have a satellite dish, we have TV, we have computers."
After a recent dinner of catfish and drum caught in the nearby Blue River, fresh watercress salad from a spring-fed creek and fresh-baked bread made from flour milled on the farm, the young people gathered in the living room of the big house, sharing notes from school and asking about assignments. There was no television set in sight. Students are not allowed to watch TV during the school week, but they can videotape programs and watch them on weekends.
EIGHTEEN OF the children attend elementary, junior high and high schools in Marshall County, but that was not always so.
Until three years ago, the children were taught at home, with the old springhouse set up as a three-story, accredited school. Teachers were commune members with teaching credentials and outsiders the family hired.
It was a system that worked well for a time, Peper said. "They had a completely different attitude about school. Because it wasn't separated from home life, there were no boundaries. They took their school conversations to the dinner table. The older ones took equivalency diploma tests, and they all did well on their SATs.
The children were sent to public school because the teachers in the family were needed elsewhere on other projects and "the school systems in Kansas are very good," Peper said.
MAINSTREAMING THE young people into public schools has not caused pressure on them, the adults said. After 14 years on the farm, most of the residents of the county have come to know some family members or to understand who they are and what they do.
"When I was little," said Leelia Franck, 9, "the kids would say, "Do you live in that Quaker Oats can?" (the silo). But they don't say anything now.
"They're used to it, and they don't really mind," added Sylvie Keegan, 11.
It is not unusual for the children to bring home four to six friends for a weekend, Gude said, and when they do, it [is] not necessarily with the permission of the host's natural mother or father.
Exchanges between adults and children lend few cues about who belongs to whom, in the everyday parent-child sense. Adults allude to the notion that commune children have several "mommies and daddies," though they explain that, at least for the younger children, it is customary for a child to live with at least one parent.
THE DIFFERENT shape of group life was what puzzled the neighbors at first.
"People were terribly upset when they first heard they were going to come in," said Ruth Martin, who with her husband, Bill, is the commune's nearest neighbor.
The Martins have taken a particular interest in the farm and its inhabitants because the farm is Ruth's birthplace. Her father had the farmhouse built when she was 4, and also had the original silo built for storage of animal feed.
"Some people thought they were like the Manson family," Bill Martin recalled. "I have never seen any evidence that they were like the Manson family."
The Martins have been invited to family meals, after which they have been entertained with music. They have hired some of the young people to work on their place. "Our relationship with them has been good," Bill Martin said, "and we have never had more polite kids come over here. Never."
STILL, THERE are some oddities about the transplanted Easterners. Farmers in the area are puzzled by the family's steadfast refusal to use pesticides, for example, the Martins said.
"They're quite idealistic. They haven't quite learned to adjust to the conservative standards of the community," Bill said, explaining that neighbors used to be irked when family members would take walks through their properly without asking permission. "Let's just say good fences make good neighbors."
The Martins marvel at the family's resourcefulness. "If they don't know how to do something, they learn it," Bill said.
"They're amazing people," said Ruth. "I think they're fantastic in the things they've learned how to do that they didn't know how to do."
COMMUNE MEMBERS admit that when they moved to Kansas they didn't hesitate to ask neighbors for advice, and they are grateful that many complied, teaching them how to fish and to hunt morrels, how to plant and harvest grains, how to tend livestock and care for the vintage tractors and other machinery the family owns.
"They all gave us such a gift, a richness," said Peper. "They really are our benefactors. We bring to this place our East Coast values. We couldn't just come here and get into cattle and grain farming without help. People look at our way of life as being odd, yet you don't have to look very far back in history to see that this way of life has the fundamental values of this country, like cooperation and sense of community."