Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, "Sweet Earth". A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many also boast noteworthy eco-friendly features. In this series of stories, we'll visit North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Tennessee, and learn about their founders’ visions.

New Buffalo Bed and Breakfast, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, August 1995

Hundreds of communes were established in America in the late 1960s, but nowhere were they as concentrated as in the northern New Mexico town of Taos. Within a few years, at least twenty-five communities were founded, including the Hog Farm (which provided security at the Woodstock Festival), Morningstar East (established by a group fleeing violence against them in California), the Lama Foundation (a spiritual retreat that still survives despite a 1996 wildfire, which destroyed nearly all its buildings except the central dome), and the Family (a group marriage of fifty adults, most of whom lived in one house with one upstairs bathroom—and many toothbrushes around the sink).

The exemplar of the Taos communal scene was New Buffalo, founded in 1967 by a group of people fascinated with Native American culture, on land donated by a wealthy young man intent on giving away his inheritance. The name “New Buffalo” was chosen because the founders wanted the commune to function as the buffalo had for Native Americans—provider of everything.

New Buffalo was an agrarian commune, simultaneously struggling with living off the land and coping with the instability of large numbers of short- and long-term visitors passing through. Timothy Miller points out in The 60s Communes that this conflict between openness and providing for newcomers may have been the central paradox of 1960s communalism: the more successful a commune became, the more attractive it grew to outsiders. The difficult decision to screen outsiders, and the means of initiating them into the daily practices and ethos of the group, often determined the fate of a commune. New Buffalo managed to survive in some form for nearly two decades, despite what has been termed the “Hippie-Chicano War”: vandalism, and in some cases brutal violence, were directed at the Taos communes by members of the local population who resented much about the communards, including their ability to buy land or get up and leave if things got tough.

By the mid 1990s, the ownership of New Buffalo had reverted to Rick Klein, the young man who’d given the land away many years before. He transformed it into New Buffalo Bed and Breakfast. At last account, it was for sale.

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

Slices of heaven: New Mexico
Joel Sternfeld's photographs of American utopias.