A place to call our own

What promised to be a cataclysmic event – our being caught red-handed growing pot out in the back forty – was promptly relegated to the past and the future. We had plenty to occupy our attention in the present, our accused perpetrators – including Stephen, who had accepted responsibility as the leader of our band of settlers – were released on bail and the trial was continued for a while. Meanwhile, we’d installed running water to standpipes along the main road, the community garden was yielding plenty of fresh veggies, a busload of our people had driven north to Michigan to pick fruit and bring many bushels home, and finally, we’d begun construction on a six-sided building to house the community store and root cellar.

We regarded the store building as a gift to the family who was letting us stay on their land. It was a nicely crafted construction – the first wood-framed building I’d watched being assembled since my father had his design transformed into reality in 1960. So we did have some craftsmen among us. Knowing that there were experienced people in the community to lead our farming, mechanical and construction projects instilled some confidence that we wouldn’t bungle our way into oblivion. The dumbness of the pot caper had unnerved me a bit. It certainly made gate duty more of a challenge, choosing our words even more carefully than before in responding to the questions of local Tennesseans.

Even as it began to feel that we might be digging in on the borrowed property for a while, the news spread that a piece of property just down the road was for sale. It was called the Black Swan Ranch, and its thousand acres had been used mostly as a cattle spread. We’d made an offer and the sellers were taking us seriously. I was amazed, given our sudden notoriety. Though we’d heard no outrage in reaction to the bust, I couldn’t help but think that there’d be resistance to our actually buying property in the area.

A couple weeks later, my fears proved unfounded as the deal was closed. The Black Swan would be our new home. Paul and I were invited to take a look at the land to see how our gravity-fed water system would be laid out. In the motor pool, one of the VW bugs donated by its owner to the community was transformed into a racy looking conveyance for Stephen’s exclusive use in getting around the new land. He called it the Boon Duggy. With Stephen at the wheel, Paul and I followed in a pickup truck for our first look. Just a half mile from our front gate, we turned down a smaller dirt road that led through a hollow and up the hill to a fence line. There was a white single story house and a corrugated metal barn next to a smaller wooden storage structure that showed its age. We stopped and looked around.

The house seemed to be at the high point of the property, withmainroad a dirt lane leading down a gentle slope following the cleared fields that were bordered by wooded ridges and hollows that – we were told – defined the watersheds of two creek systems – Cox Branch and Swan Creek. There was a well at the house – that would be our main source at this high point. But the lay of the land would determine where our residential areas would be. We might need to develop another water source and another system further down the road.

We went exploring, driving down the main road – a rutted, unimproved track that still showed signs of having been used mainly by the cattle herd. The cleared land was said to be about 200 acres. As in the property where we were temporarily holed up, the forests showed all the signs of having been ruthlessly logged of the best trees. What was left were mostly scrub oak and immature hardwoods of the hickory and maple families. Supposedly there were some good sized beeches and maples deep in the creek valleys, but we decided not to venture down the narrow logging roads that traced the ridge lines.

The next week, Stephen announced our plans for moving to the Black Swan. Those plans included our starting our first cottage industry – the production of sorghum molasses, a syrup made from a variety of sugar cane that was used as the southern version of maple syrup from the Northeast. To prepare for getting into that business, we’d build ourselves a sorghum mill where the juice would be pressed out of the cane and then boiled down for jarring under the label Old Beatnik. We’d also, immediately, secure another of the water storage towers from the boys camp where we’d salvaged the tower on the Martin farm. This new tower – a taller structure at 50 feet – would be erected near the house on the new property, at the highest point available. Flexible black plastic pipe would be run down alongside the road to wherever the residential neighborhoods would located.

Once those projects were underway, we’d begin moving down the road – the still-running buses first, followed by those, like ours, that needed towing.

The excitement seemed to drown out the concerns about being busted. The move began in September, 1971.