How Hippies Changed a Rural Redwood Community

By Lisa Gruwell Spicer

This is a story of community resilience told through ethnography, which means “culture writing”, in this case, counterculture. Looking back to the 1960s and ‘70s, this ethnography explores the social-political climate that generated a movement, and then visits one small town to see how it all played out.

First published in 2013 as my masters thesis in Anthropology at Western Washington University, I’m posting this publication weekly as short articles on Substack: Collective Effervescence: A Back to the Land Ethnography.

Introduction

“Hippies took over our swimmin’ holes. There’d be a lot of nudies of both sexes in the river all day where we used to swim,” a Comptche old-timer explained to me in a distinctive accent that revealed Finnish ancestry. The remote timber community nestled on the north coast of California was settled by immigrants from Eastern Europe. I grew up in Comptche, arriving as a ten-year-old in a family who had joined the back-to-the-land movement. Listening to the elder Finn I had known in my youth, I felt a sympathetic resonance with “the Other” that I had not understood as a child. What did it feel like when the hippies moved to town?

Returning in 2011 to conduct ethnographic research in Comptche (pronounced “comp-she”) gave me a chance to understand and articulate what I could not in my youth. I was motivated by the sense that something unique happened in this town during the Seventies, when an immigration wave of back-to-the-landers to the rural redwood community with long-term residents effected positive social change—after a rough period of conflict. The research participants all agreed that something noteworthy happened in this small town, which is why they chose to contribute their thoughts, experiences, reflections—we all wanted to understand what happened. The variety of views among participants regarding what brought social change ranged from “children” to “time.” Just one respondent came close, surmising peace came to Comptche through “potlucks.” My findings revealed that it was community events that provide common ground and a way for newcomers to integrate into the Comptche community.

Community Events and Common Ground

The great social science ancestors Emile Durkheim (1858-1971) and Victor Turner (1920-1983) established that social gatherings and rituals are vital elements in healthy communities. Durkheim explains that collective effervescence, or exuberant social events, support social cohesion that contributes to a healthy community. Events in Comptche attract people to common ground who otherwise live in remote settings. Social gatherings are a key element in understanding what works well in Comptche because they create a synergy between people and place. These synergistic gatherings, in turn, support a virtual civil commons as they provide a unity of purpose. The result is rural resilience.

This ethnography reveals how the people of Comptche were able to overcome values conflicts between newcomers and old-timers through a tradition of social gatherings where people suspend differences and gather on common ground. These virtues were hard won in Comptche; the pre-1970s social structure “didn’t have room,” as one old-timer stated, for counterculture newcomers. Comptche’s eventual acceptance of immigrants occurred through a deliberate process. Community gatherings have become a mechanism providing numerous beneficial outcomes for people and place. 

This ethnography demonstrates that it’s not just “getting together,” but gathering around common values that promotes and nurtures the functions of a healthy community. Well into the new millennium, Comptche has a social structure that honors traditions and integrates newcomers. 

In the spirit of contemplating something on a small-scale in order to understand the grand-scale, what happened in Comptche during the 1970s is a study in overcoming community conflict. My research makes clear that while finding common ground is a crucial first step, an effective way to maintain the commons is through supporting community traditions.

The Place and the People

Comptche is an unincorporated town in Mendocino County, located on the Pacific coast of rural northern California. Land use is a recurring issue in rural communities experiencing in-migration of people from urban concentrations. Similarly, land-use was identified by participants in this study as the major issue in 1970s Comptche. Other common issues noted by participants were social exclusion, children, and fire.

Regional historical patterns show a cycle of in and out migration dependent upon timber and fisheries. Shifts in the timber industry caused shifts in employment, and the regional population continues to climb and fall with the ability of the land to yield resources. The downturn in regional lumber mill operations in the 1950s and 1960s created out-migration that was subsequently filled in the 1970s by a new wave of immigrants from across the country: back-to-the-land hippies. 

Following the California gold rush of 1849, railroad and timber companies acquired vast tracts of redwood forests along the state’s north coast. Today, multi-national corporations own most of these lands and have swallowed the economies of many rural communities whose sustainability was based in natural resources and agriculture. Global corporate control of local economies has had devastating effects on rural family life and rural communities. These powerful hegemonic forces, however, have not had the same effect on Comptche. In the midst of corporate timber giants, the local people have accomplished what Jennifer Sumner asserts is essential for sustainable rural communities: establishing a civil commons. 

The assignment by the Mendocino County Planning Division in the mid-70s to its towns to come up with their own general plans brought the community of Comptche together. The three year process got the people of Comptche engaged in a community building process that created a general plan and a vision for their shared future. Whether they knew it or not, they were identifying and claiming responsibility for their civil commons.

Methods

To better understand the community building process, I used participant observation lasting a year, during which time I also conducted interviews, and visited cultural sites, archives, and museums. To make observations, analyze data, and write the ethnography, I followed the Developmental Research Sequence (DRS) method. Using the DRS method, in which participant observation is a step, I worked progressively through broad, then increasingly focused, observations looking for patterns and contrasts. This process produces to a cultural inventory. From this analysis, I found five organizing cultural domains: conflict, events, relationships, traditions and common ground.

The ground itself provides the common reason people have chosen to live in Comptche since the time of the original Pomo inhabitants. Of the many published accounts and statements made about Comptche in particular and the Mendocino region in general, all agree: this is a place of stunning natural beauty that attracts people to live here. With a child attending public school in Mendocino during my year of fieldwork, I had many occasions to speak with other parents; I heard a chorus of stories about a willingness to trade higher incomes and urban amenities for rural life on the coastal side of Mendocino County. People continue to be drawn by the beautiful environment and the healthy, safe small towns populated by people who value both community and privacy. Whereas the pioneering settlers made land claims, today’s immigrants make claims of personal space, and the tradition of personal freedom persists.

Research Project Participants

This study began in my home state of Washington. Wanting to conduct interviews, but challenged by distance, I developed a questionnaire that could travel and work on its own. While lengthy, there was an excellent response rate. I recruited participants through social media, with the criteria that they were residents of Comptche during the 1970s and preferably still live there today. I asked them to define themselves as either an old timer or a newcomer in the Seventies, and both are represented. Children comprise a significant population segment in this study as fifty percent of the project participants were young children or youth during the Seventies. 

Sixty four percent of the people initially expressing interest in the project became participants and completed the questionnaire. A study conducted on the response rates of 31 surveys sent via email were averaged with a mean response rate 36 percent. While this is a generalized comparison, I attribute the relatively high response rate for the Comptche questionnaire to respondents’ desire to share their stories. Twenty-eight people completed the questionnaire.

All participants agreed that life in 1970s Comptche was a shared unique experience, and all expressed interest in the project outcomes. Shared stories and memories validate our collective memory; the combined stories share many points of agreement, thereby creating an accurate representation of a transformative period of time in a place.

A theme that emerged in discussions with both newcomers and old-timers was how people learned to “agree to disagree,” in the words of an elder hippie still residing in Comptche. By the mid-Seventies, land use became the concern over which the community met, discussed, and felt heard.

In Comptche, the very issues that were divisive in the first half of the Seventies—land use, children, fire—brought the community together by decade’s end. Research findings show that at the heart of all Comptche community gatherings exists the key to resolving conflict: finding common ground.