Commune Country

I have a love/hate relationship politically with Tennessee.  On one hand, it  the State sometimes goes out of its way to keep progress from happening.  On the other, I just don’t feel the same pressure to care about the news here that I did in the Northeast.

The lack of governance is a tradition in Tennessee going back to when we were still a part of North Carolina.  The terrain of Tennessee created natural borders, and the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains in what is now East Tennessee made for an incredibly difficult passage from North Carolina.  This left Tennessee mostly to its own, making it a prime location for seekers of a utopian life.

Everyone has heard of ‘The Farm,” the longest running hippie commune (since 1971) in Summertown, TN, but the first major commune was settled in 1825.  A radical Abolitionist Socialist named Fannie Wright established Nashoba, a 2,000 acre experimental commune to emancipate slaves on the banks of the Wolf River in modern day Germantown, near Memphis.    Its goal was to provide work, whereby the slaves could buy their freedom to be transported to Liberia or Hati; a full 37 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.  It failed after three years of operation due to lack of funding as the outside community fears of interracial marriage  grew.  All remaining slaves were emancipated in Hati.

One of the more successful communes was started in 1880 by English Author Thomas Hughes for “second sons.”  In Victorian England, only the first born son stood to inherit the family estate, and often a career.  The “second sons” of the gentry class founded the doomed Rugby in search of  land ownership, freedom of expectations, and an overall cure for boredom. While Ruby lasted in very small numbers through the 1960’s, it was primed for failure as the soft hands of the second sons were not used to getting their hands dirty.  They produced crops, but disease and exhaustion caused most to leave by 1887.

Shockingly, the late 1800’s gave rise to a fierce socialist movement in the South. In 1854, Julius Augustus Wayland settled the Ruskin Colony, named after the English Author John Ruskin.  The goal of the movement was to form a network of socialist communes for a “co-operative commonwealth.” As a Socialist society, all members had to work.  They were highly successful an manufactured $3 pants, suspenders and belts,chewing gum, snake oil ‘remedies,’ a vapor cabinet, and cereal coffee (whatever that is).  They also had a newspaper, The Coming Nation, which had around 60,000 subscribers at it’s height.  In the end, all citizens were not created equal as disputes went unresolved regarding distribution of wealth or “membership rights,” as well as a growing divide between the more traditional Socialists and members with anarchic trends.  It collapsed in 1901.

Today, Tennessee plays host to a large Amish community, a commune that is a safe space for rural gay men at the Short Mountain Sanctuary, and much more but the most fascinating is the Yellow Deli Community, an offshoot of the Twelve Tribes community in Chattanooga.  Started in 1973, their mission is to recreate biblical life.  To join, you surrender your possessions to the group and regress two thousand years in the past.   Women’s rights?  Never heard of ’em.  Child Labor laws? Psssssh.

So what kind of a name is “Yellow Deli” one might ask?  It’s the name of the restaurant they run where the bottom of the menu hints at their culty-tendencies baiting their customers with these simple words, “We serve the fruit of the Spirit… Why not ask?”   All members work in the restaurant which unfortunately has amazing food.  They spout “love” as a great motivator, but have been involved in scandal after scandal for suspected child abuse and labor law infractions.  They believe that their return to communal living will trigger the beginning stages of the apocalypse.

I can’t wait to see what happens next…

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