Following the Los Angeles premiere of Happiness Runs, which features Molossus contributor Laura Peters, it seems appropriate to publish this brief interview with Droppers author Mark Matthews (University of Oklahoma Press, $19.95). Matthews’ new book explores the history of America’s first hippie commune, Drop City, founded outside Trinidad, Colorado in 1965. A true historical account of the community depicted in T.C. Boyle’s novel by the same name, Matthews excavates the ideological underpinnings of the community by conversing with its founders, especially his friend Eugene Bernofsky.
This interview is published with the generous permission of University of Oklahoma Press.
How did you become interested in writing about Drop City?
I suppose I owe it to T.C. Boyle for stimulating my Drop City project—when he wrote a novel by the same name. I knew a little bit about the real commune named Drop City because I was friends with one of the founders—Gene Bernofsky. When I read a review of the novel I let Bernofsky know that someone had written a book about Drop City. That piqued his curiosity, so he called the publisher, identified himself as the founder of Drop City, and demanded they send him a copy of Boyle’s book—which they did. After reading the novel, Gene told me, in so many words, that the real Drop City was nothing like Boyle depicted. Half jokingly, I said we ought to tell the real story of Drop City. Although a little hesitant, he finally agreed and we met for coffee once a week for two years.
How did you approach writing about Drop City?
Right away I wanted to expand the project because Gene was such an interesting personality and he’d done so many curious, anti-establishment things during his life. I’d always been interested in writing the history of “unhistorical” people who lead interesting lives and affect society in some way—under the radar—and Gene fit the bill with his environmental advocacy films, his union work, and his all-around lawful subversion. He may not have been the first hippie, but he was a good representation of the psyche of American youth during the early-Sixties—rebelling against such institutions as the Draconian educational system, materialism, the consumer oriented economy, rampant racism, the standardization of American life. Throw in his artistic temperament, and juxtapose that to the carnage and hypocrisy of the Vietnam War, and you’ve got the major stimulants of the hippie cultural rebellion rolled into one person. However, because a biography would have revealed personal details of other family members, we decided to focus solely on Drop City. Ultimately, I approached the project as if I was writing a biography of the commune, talking to and reading up on others connected with Drop City.
What was the purpose of Drop City?
Founders Eugene Bernofsky and Clark Richert wanted to form a self-supporting artists’ community and have a refuge where they could dedicate their time to intellectual and artistic creation. Drop City brought together the themes that had been developing in other recent communes—anarchy, pacifism, sexual freedom, rural isolation, an interest in drugs and art. The members rejected paid employment and created wildly original architecture using trash as a source material and blended art with everything else in life. In many ways, the commune that sprouted from an old goat pasture near Trinidad, Colorado, was an integral part of the birth of the counterculture and came to represent communes that were founded by hippies who fled the cities in the Sixties. The high ideals became increasingly hard to sustain in the face of external pressures and internal divisions. Over time, Drop City suffered from media attention, the distraction of visitors, and the arrival of new residents who didn’t share the founders’ ideals.
How is this book important or relevant today?
It’s a timely book in the sense that the baby boomer generation is reaching that reflective stage-of-life that has obsessed their parents ever since the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. I hope the book obliterates the negative perceptions with which the neo-conservative press routinely dismisses the Sixties—sure, a lot of kids smoked marijuana, indulged in promiscuous sex, and wore outlandish outfits during that era—but there was more than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll connected to that cultural revolution. Without the hippies embracing the concept that all men are created equal we probably wouldn’t currently have a president who happens to have black skin. Or, blacks and whites would still be drinking from separate water fountains in the South, and sitting in separate sections of the bus. Out West, mining and timber industries probably would have already ravaged the remaining wild places and the country would probably be at war with a lot more entities than just the Taliban in Afghanistan. Environmentalism really got going during that period—recycling has entered the consciousness of America and the alternative energy movement has picked up steam —thanks in part to the things that were going on back in the Sixties. Upon reflection, the counter culture generation will realize it has a lot to be proud of.