Perhaps nothing embodies the spirit of the hippie movement of the 1960s better than the commune. But more than a century before the flower power of the '60s, a group of high-minded Bostonians were similarly countering the culture of their day, right in our back yard.
Just off the VFW Parkway in West Roxbury stretching north from the banks of the Charles River is a huge swath of woodlands at the edge of the bustling city.
"It’s kind of a hidden gem and some hidden history here for sure," said Maggi Brown of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
For six years in the 1840s, this hidden gem was the site of George and Sofia Ripley’s utopian experiment in communal living, called Brook Farm.
"The whole thought with this utopian community is that you can actually experience heaven on earth and that heaven is under our feet," Brown said.
For $500 you got room and board, and five percent of the profits. You had to work 300 days per year, but got to choose whatever work most appealed to you. Among the initial investors was Nathaniel Hawthorne. True to transcendental precepts, the goal was plain living and high thinking.
"But then the goal was also to have time in the evening to slow down your pace, get together, to talk, to experience the arts, to dance, to sing, to play music," Brown said.
At it’s height, Brook Farm had about a hundred full-timers and visitors living and working here. But Kevin Hollenbeck, who manages the site today for DCR, says that from the outset, the community struggled to stay solvent.
"One of the problems with the transcendental community is you had a number of people who had a lot of intellectual smarts, but not a lot of practical smarts," Hollenbeck said.
The soil was difficult to farm, and they struggled with other money-making endeavors: building doors and windows, growing flowers in hothouses for sale in Boston. One thing that kept them alive was the "Nest.”
"One of their more successful ventures is they actually boarded students from around the world," said Hollenbeck. "And being a group of intellectuals, they actually educated them in a building called the Nest."
With the debts piling up, the utopians doubled down, embracing the ideas of French philosopher Charles Fourier. Fourier believed you could organize a communal society into phalanxes – each with a different area of responsibility - all based around an enormous, centralized building for work and leisure called a phalanstère.
"And just as it was about to be completed it burnt to the ground," Hollenbeck said. "You could actually see this fire from downtown Boston. And this is what financially broke the back of the community and shortly thereafter they dissolved."
In fact, not a trace of the utopian society remains here today, except for a handful of overgrown building foundations. Since those heady days, the site has been used to train soldiers during the Civil War, and house both an orphanage and a school. In 1988 the state purchased the site — today 179 acres of managed wilderness, open to the public.
And while George and Sofia Ripley never quite realized their utopian dreams here, ambling through the wide meadows and towering trees on this picturesque fall morning, it really does feel like a tiny pocket of heaven on Earth — Just watch out for snakes.
Brook Farm, one of America’s first communes. And the utopian experiment got underway when the Ripley’s purchased the land, 173 years ago this week.