The back-to-the-land gathering held last Sunday brought more than 100 people to the Gays Mills to reminisce and reflect on those days of urban relocation to rural Crawford, Vernon, Grant and Richland counties from 1965 to 1985.
The impact of this relocation, known as the back-to-the-land movement, was definitely felt locally, as scores of people, many college-educated, left cities for a “simpler life” in the country. As many at the recent event noted, living simply often proved to be a rather complex problem in reality.
‘Reflections on Community Building in Southwest Wisconsin,’ as the event was formally titled, grew from the work of two of the adult children of these early back-to-the landers, Christine ‘Kelle’ Lemley, daughter of Bud and Katie Lemley; and Josh Feyen, son of John and Andrea Feyen.
Lemley, an associate professor of education at Northern Arizona University, and Feyen, an educator for American Family Insurance in Madison, began their project collecting stories from the back-to-the-landers and local residents seven years ago. The gathering in Gays Mills on Sunday grew out of Lemley and Feyen’s efforts to compile an oral history of back-to-the-lander experiences. To date, the pair has done 93 interviews. Many of those interviewed indicated they would be interested in meeting some of the folks they knew from the past and in some cases meeting others they had never met.
Last Sunday’s event was a rousing success by almost every account. When Feyen asked one of the participants if he wanted to be a part of the group photo, the man responded by saying, “I wouldn’t miss it. It’s an historic event.”
Both organizers were pleased with the turn out and participation of those at the event.
“It certainly has been worth it, because I’ve always been thinking I wanted to get all of these people together,” Feyen said later.
The project originated with Feyen and Lemley’s common interest to better understand community building in the area through interviewing people that had moved to live here.
“The uniqueness of the time and place only becomes known after it is past,” Lemley noted. “The uniqueness of this situation wasn’t known then.”
However, it is the unique nature of the back-to-the-land movement that peaks the curiosity of Lemley and Feyen. After all, it was a reversal of the Industrial Revolution that caused a mass migration from the countryside to the cities.
“What were they looking for and what did they find?” Josh Feyen wondered about his parents, who moved to the Rolling Ground area from Milwaukee in the 1976. And, what about the others who arrived with the Back-to-the-Land Movement?
Feyen and Lemley began their work by interviewing their parents in 2008. From there, they refined and restructured some questions to help interview others.
“Community oral histories are so important,” Lemley explained. “As I see it, valuing and validating the lives and voices of people is essential in a time when so many projects and decisions rely on secondary versus primary sources.”
After 93 such interviews, Feyen acknowledged that what started as a hobby is now “more than a hobby.” That was pretty evident at the event in the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center last Sunday.
Things kicked off early in the afternoon with Kelle Lemley explaining some discussion points that she and Feyen had gleaned from going over the interviews. The large group was divided into 10 separate smaller groups. Each was asked to consider how the themes of simplicity, self-sufficiency and freedom led to community building then and now.
After two hours, presentations from each of the smaller groups were made to the larger meeting. There were plenty of similarities in the presentations and more than a couple of surprises.
Feyen was struck by the response to self-sufficiency theme that many of the groups had. Multiple groups decided, independently of each other, that a better term than self-sufficiency was self-reliance. Most saw the term self-sufficiency as meaning a solo or singular approach to living, while self-reliance was taken to include an approach working with neighbors or others. The idea of simplicity leading to the building of the back-to-the-landers’ community brought a few smiles to those involved in the discussions.
“We came looking for a simple life, but found out it was really complex,” one presenter told the group. Others echoed that opinion
The idea of freedom leading to the formation of the community brought a variety of responses. One group noted the initial no-rules attitude changed, as people came to see regulations were helpful in protecting the environment and other things. Others claimed rules were necessary for people to feel free.
One group stated that freedom actually came from within individuals.
In the end, all of the groups agreed the back-to-the-land movement had formed a community in the area and listed a variety of accomplishments from the formation of food co-ops to the growth of the Organic Valley and organic agriculture to the work forming alternative schools, as well as work within the public schools, as just some of the accomplishments.
Most in the group also acknowledged as newcomers to the area that they were aided greatly at times by “old timers” from the area. However, coming from different places to the rural area also led to feelings of isolation and building the community was the result of combatting that isolation.
It was also noted that over time the back-to-the-land community became more involved with politics. The first direct local involvement may have come with the opposition to the low level flights being proposed for the area by the U.S. Air Force. In this movement, the newcomers built coalitions with the Amish, local livestock farmers and many others. Subsequent political efforts, involving some in the back-to-the land community, focused on the siting of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), permitting of high capacity wells and more recently frac sand mining.
Following more than an hour of presentations, the group enjoyed meeting each other and renewing old friendships, while enjoying a potluck dinner.
What’s next for Lemley and Feyen? Well, the pair hopes to publish a book based on the interviews and have submitted it to the Wisconsin Historical Society Press for publication. In addition to a book, the pair is also considering the possibility of producing a documentary on the back-to-the-land movement in Crawford, Vernon, Grant and Richland counties.
All of the work to date on the impact of the back-to-the-land movement locally has been done in conformance with the Wisconsin Historical Society guidelines, so it can be archived by the organization in Madison, according to Lemley. This will make the work available for any future researchers and the public.
Why a project on the back-to-the-land movement’s experience in southwestern Wisconsin?
“The history of several generations living in southwestern Wisconsin has been collected, preserved and made available to the public,” Lemley noted. “However, the ‘back-to-the-landers,’ who moved from across the United States to southwestern Wisconsin and the locals with whom they worked, celebrated and lived have not been well-documented. The primary source interviews presented in this collection represent both the voices of locals and back-to-the- landers and their lived experiences.”