The Sunday Enterprise, p.1
Brockton, Massachusetts
August 4, 1985

'60s commune finds affluence in the '80s

It was a hippie commune like many others in the contentious Sixties, full of flaming revolutionary rhetoric and abhorrence of middle-class values. The group has survived and even thrived — but time has transformed it into a congregation of the affluent, driven between affection for the past and the imperatives of the present.
Members of the Fort Avenue commune, in the Roxbury section of Boston, Mass., gather for a musical evening. Fifteen years ago they rejected 'the system'; today they're no longer poor or revolutionary (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By Suzanne Wetlaufer


BOSTON — Fifteen years ago they talked grandiloquently about burning down the world and scattering the ashes. They tripped on LSD. They hated limits and rejected the system and their parents.
But they loved each other and loved their music without end.
So 30 of them settled in Boston's Roxbury section, in a row of squalid, abandoned Victorian houses near the top of Fort Avenue.
It was a hippie commune complete with bluegrass and the blues, drugs and astrology.
The people who settled at the top of Fort Avenue remain together today, no longer poor or revolutionary.
They have all the trappings, values and problems of a traditional middle-class family, except that they are happily ensconced in a time warp that keeps their hearts in another decade.
Now, for the first time since a magazine article described them as a dangerous cult that worshipped a self-proclaimed Messiah, they have decided to explain themselves to the outside world.
To celebrate their years together, they offered a self-portrait in a magazine called U and I which, among more mundane material, contains philosophical talk about peace and destiny. They're prepared to let skeptics scoff.
"Sometimes we say we are a different race," said Eve Lyman, who joined the group 15 years ago when she was 18 and was married to the founder of the family, Mel Lyman. .
"We know we are full of paradoxes. We are traditional, but we still want to change the world. We are the world in a microcosm, but we are totally apart."
They are parents now, who scold and adore the children that seem to be everywhere around them. They are business people, who run a lucrative home renovation company and invest a fortune left one member by her father, painter Thomas Hart Benton.
The family members, strikingly attractive, have replaced the tattered denim look and potluck meals with a life of fine clothes, gourmet food and travel. They say they have given up hard drugs, and only occasionally light up some marijuana.
The group has grown to 72 adults and 39 children. All spend much of their time in comfortable homes in Boston. New York, Los Angeles, at a 280-acre farm in Kansas and a vacation retreat on Martha's Vineyard, while frequently gravitating back to Roxbury for a stay. Affluence has done little to break nomadic habits.
One recent evening, six of the group's original members sat in the richly decorated living room of one of their six renovated homes on the hill to talk about the commune's history. The setting sun cast shadows through French lace curtains on elegant antique Victorian furniture. A Woodie Guthrie record played.
"In the 60's, the whole world was involved in a revolution. The birth of a new world seemed possible," recalls George Peper, 39, the son of a well-to-do Connecticut family who helped found the community in 1969. "Our life is a continuation of that spirit. We think that you can affect the world by the way you live."
"We have not given up the goals and visions that we had once," Ms. Lyman adds. "It's that we realized it takes a lifetime to achieve them."
In May, the group published U and I, a collection of conversations, poems, letters and photographs. It contains no advertising or solicitations; the group says it is not interested in recruiting new members. Another issue was planned for August.
"Pretend that we are strangers on a train together, you and I — traveling somewhere that we have never been before. Let's not introduce ourselves or ask all the usual questions." the magazine says on its first page. "Let us ask difficult questions and give honest answers. Who knows what we will find on this unchartered voyage."
Jessie Benton, the artist's daughter who has been with the community since its early days, said the magazine was started to give the group "definition" after years of isolation.
"It was scary to open ourselves up to the world," adds Ms. Lyman.
Mel Lyman, a man who seemed to rattle everyone he met, was caught up in hallucinogenic drugs. He was a notorious figure at '60s meeting grounds from San Francisco's Haight Ashbury to Harvard Square in Cambridge.
He started Avatar, an underground newspaper that once won a court battle in defense of its persistent use of obscenity.
"I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble. And then I am going to burn the rubble. And then I am going to scatter the ashes. And then maybe someone will be able to see something as it really is," Lyman wrote in one issue.
He occasionally portrayed himself as a humble blues harp player, but more often claimed to be God or the Messiah.
"He was a life force. He drew people to him," Peper said. "He said he was God so people would question him and their own thoughts."
In 1969, Lyman and his most devoted followers moved to Roxbury. There were reports that they sold drugs to get by, but members say they survived by working as carpenters and playing their music in the streets.
When they weren't working, the group experimented with drugs, made movies about themselves and recorded their music in a sound studio in one house.
Two years later, Rolling Stone magazine profiled the "Hill People" in a critical two-part story.
The piece depicted Lyman as a deranged cult leader, and reported that a photograph of Charles Manson decorated the children's playroom.
It claimed that Lyman filmed and recorded his followers on LSD trips, forbade members from leaving the "family," and confined errant followers in the "vault," a windowless basement room. The group denies the story in its entirety.
"It was a fabrication," Peper said. "There were no pictures of Manson."
Group members say Lyman died in 1978, but refuse to discuss the cause of death. They deny rumors that Lyman quit the group and is now living in Europe.
After the Rolling Stone article appeared, members say, the group's children were taunted at school and the adults were denied jobs. So the family stopped talking about themselves except at home.
Changes in their lives followed.
"We buckled down. You learn that your kids are going to starve if you don't get money for food on the table," recalls Peper. "We had to think, how are we going to do it? How are we going to make it work?"
"In the '60s, people were taking too much LSD, sleeping around too much, basically abusing themselves and others," Peper adds. "We learned pretty fast that if you are going to live together, certain things are required."
The group focused its energies on United Illuminating, a home renovation firm that now operates in California and New York. In its early days, work was done by members of the commune who were builders, carpenters and electricians. Today it employs 30 outside workers and contractors.
Some members of the group took jobs in the city as secretaries, waitresses and artists. The money was pooled, and members took turns buying groceries at Boston's outdoor market, cooking, cleaning and patrolling the hill at night to ward off burglars.
After dinner, the men and women of Fort Avenue would take up guitars, violins, blues harps, and play the music of the '60s for hours.
They struggled with raising their children.
Says one essay in U and I:

"We sit here pulling our hair out over how to talk to the boys and how to talk to the girls and talking to each other and trying to keep ourselves from being too extreme and too liberal and too dignified or too hip, and trying to deal with a situation we really don't know how to deal with. But isn't that life anyway?"
The group started a state-accredited school in one of their homes for the children, and designed a curriculum based on the lives and thoughts of their heroes, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.
The family gave up big political causes in favor of smaller battles, ones like the plight of the striped bass, which was being fished to extinction off the Eastern Seaboard.
For three years, the family traveled to town meetings from Maine to Cape Cod, seeking support for a ban on bass fishing, and in 1984, long-time commune member Dick Russell testified before Congress twice. He also met with Rhode Island Rep. Claudine Schneider, whose call for a moratorium on bass fishing led to a bill reducing the bass harvest by 55 percent.
"Ours was a victory for a whole lot of little people who overpowered a machine for the sake of a feeling that's bigger than all of us'" Russell wrote in U and I.
The glossy 80-page magazine contains several conversations captured on the tape recorder that the family likes to keep running all the time.
In one dialogue, they talk about a sense of ennui afflicting the group, but end on a note of hope. "Have we lost touch with the immediate, sitting in velvet covered chairs staring into the long low fire? ... All that really is left is perhaps the acceptance that we are bound together, that between us all there is really only one voice."
The magazine also includes diary excerpts, letters between old friends, an eclectic history of America, and a short exchange between a mother and her 3-year-old daughter about new shoes.
Family members sell the $5 magazine on street corners where they play their music. So far, Peper said, the commune has sold 3,000 copies.
Their children are growing up and some of them are going away to college. Will they come back? Will the community near the peak of Fort Avenue survive another 15 years?
"I think they'll carry it on," says Peper. "These kids love their life. I think they will live it through the next generation. But it will be totally different. They will change it.
"That's OK," he said after some thought. "That's what we did. We changed the way we lived from the way our parents lived. And we are happy."

Eve Lyman and George Pepper look over their magazine, U and I, which was created to celebrate their years of commune living in Boston's Roxbury section. The group has lived together for 15 years. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Top photo and caption are from The Sunday Star-Bulletin and Advertiser (Honolulu), July 28, 1985, C-12, C20, an almost identical AP article entitled "A '60s Commune With Middle Class Values"
Mel Lyman