Something in the air

A decades old cultural movement is still prospering in Pocahontas County.

By Shay Maunz and Allison Rollins | 12/13/2011

In 1972, Carol Capolungo and Joe Hartman left Berkeley, Ca. in a Volkswagen van on a cross-country trip.

They zigzagged across the United States on a pilgrimage of sorts, looking for a piece of countryside where they could live off the land – away from the grid and close to nature.

Finally, after months of searching, they ran into Bill Huffman at a gas station in Pocahontas County.

“And he just said to them, ‘Come on home,’ as the story goes,” said Rebecca Heunink, their daughter, who was later born and raised in Pocahontas County.

Huffman led Capolungo and Hartman to a community of like-minded people: young urbanites who had fled America’s cities in search of a simpler lifestyle, a phenomenon termed the “back to the land” movement.

This was happening across the country, and the community that the Capolungo and Hartman joined in Pocahontas County was a large one. At its peak, in the mid-1970s, Heunink estimates there were as many as 200 people living this way in the Greenbrier Valley, mainly around Jacox, Lobelia and Rush Run Road.

By most accounts, the first back-to-the-landers settled in Pocahontas County in the early 1970s.

The people flooding into the region were self-proclaimed hippies, who had grown tired of what they saw as an overly materialistic society. In the Greenbrier Valley, they saw the potential for an agrarian lifestyle.

“My grandparents grew up on farms, and I remember my grandmother saying to me ‘Why would you want to go back there? We worked our whole lives trying to get off the farm, I’d never go back’,” said Danette Condon, of Lobelia Road. “But it was what we wanted.”

Danette came to Pocahontas County later than most of the early back-to-the-landers, in the early 80s, eventually moving in with her eventual husband, Mike Condon, who had already built a home and established a farm on a piece of land on Lobelia Road.

Mike and Danette lived without electricity for years, until they installed their first solar panel in the mid-80s. Now around a dozen solar panels keep electricity running in the home. They still rely on a gravity-fed water supply and maintain a farm where they grow much of their food, and raise several cows, many chickens and one lame goat.

In the early years, the back to the landers often lived communally at first, camping in the area until they found a parcel of land for themselves.

Even after the commune dissipated, the communal atmosphere prevailed.
The back to the landers shared recipes and garden-grown fruits and vegetables. They learned to quilt from the older women who were native to the area, then made quilts together.

When two people in the community married – as often happened – the community would come together to both plan and attend the ceremony, which was often held outdoors. Ms. Condon, for example, recalls that her wedding was attended by all her neighbors on Lobelia Road, and her two goats.

Families often got together to prepare and eat meals, and for spiritual services in their homes, rotating through different houses in the community, taking turns to choose a prayer or reading at each humble service.

“I think we weren’t so much looking for self-sufficiency as inter-dependency,” Mike Condon said.

“We could have done it all ourselves, without looking to the community for help, but then we would have worked ourselves to death.”

In the 80s, many of the people who had moved to Pocahontas County in the first wave of the back-to-the-land movement were starting families. Nearly all of these babies were born in the home, delivered by a midwife.

Matt Condon, Mike and Danette’s oldest son, is now 28 but remembers that his parents never had to rely on organized childcare for him and his younger brother. Instead, they spent time at the homes of their neighbors, other back to the land families.

“The community in the area, that was the family, so everybody helped out,” he said. “If somebody needed wood, everybody would go collect wood. And that was how it was with everything.”

Because of that sense of community, Matt said, he and his brother never felt limited by the lifestyle their parents chose for them.

More than 40 years after the first back to the land families arrived in Pocahontas County, many, like Mike and Danette, are still committed to the lifestyle they chose years ago. Others have moved into the city – in Pocahontas County. Former back to the landers are now teachers, nurses and county commissioners.

And many children of the original back to the landers, now young adults, are moving back to the community, with a set of ideals similar to their parents’ – Mike and Danette say they see a lot of themselves in this new crop of back to the landers.

They loaned their turn-of-the-century era apple press to some kids from the “younger generation” in September, and haven’t seen it since. Instead, it’s been used at cider pressing parties through apple-picking season.

“I guess that means we’re the elders now,” Danette said.

Matt, who lives with his fiancée, is still saving up to buy his own home, so he doesn’t have a farm or any solar panels – yet. He noted that his own version of the American Dream looks quite different from the white picket fence in suburbia that many of his peers may be striving for.

“I will definitely raise my own child as close as I could to the way my mom and dad raised me. They’re the perfect example of how you can live harmoniously with nature and have everything everybody else has, just not as shiny and new,” he said.

“If we can all raise our kids in the ideals of a lot of the back to the landers, we should.

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