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The Good Place: A society to match the scenery (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and neighboring)


The Great Divide: Season of the Freaks
   One story of the sixties was the migration of hippies to the Rocky Mountains


The “Great Divide” that Red Lodge writer Gary Ferguson refers to in his book of that title is the Rocky Mountains. Interestingly, his book has the same title as a new release by John Sperling. Sperling’s The Great Divide is a treatise on the backwardness of many people who live in the Rockies, the South, and the Midwest (as compared to the forwardness of the urban residents of the east and west coasts). The divide he contemplates is between the traditional “retros” and the urban “metros.”

Sperling seeks to intensify contention between people who apparently inhabit different realities by establishing “the great divide” as a metaphor that explains political and economic life in America today. Ferguson examines the way the actual “great divide” running north and south through the western half of the country--the Rockies--has long served as a refuge for people who want to get away from the bickering.

From the mountain men of the nineteenth century to the hippies of the sixties, the Rockies have held the promise that there might be life beyond the vast machinery of progress being assembled ever more noisily on both coasts.

The happenstance of the two books having the same title is thought-provoking. There are obvious parallels between the ‘retros” and the “metros” that Sperling talks about and the division between the “Old West” and the “New West” that many observers of life in today’s West have commented on. Were the antecedents for that division established by an influx of newcomers in the 1960s?

A chapter of Ferguson’s book that might be of particular interest to teachers contemplating joining the Expedition to the Sixties is Chapter 9: The Season of the Freaks. Ferguson points out that during the sixties and seventies, people who were disillusioned by the “system” often headed west, more often than not to the Rocky Mountains. Many of these people are still here. Indeed, they are more or less everywhere. They are easy to find and good candidates for oral interviews.

Many who headed for the Rockies in the 1960s and early 1970s came looking for a life without the corrupting influences of the “system,” but with a good supply of like-minded friends within arm’s reach. . . These newcomers were peaceniks and flower children and freaks.” [p. 232-233]

I imagine every town has stories of newcomers and old timers meeting each other. “While [Aspen police magistrate] Guioo was railing against the longhairs in Aspen, on any given summer afternoon in Crested Butte you could find hippie girls skinny-dipping at Nicholson Lake, waving and smiling at the contented old miners watching from their pickup trucks along the east side of the reservoir.”

Colorado newspaperman George Sibley wasn’t amused by the newcomers. Ferguson quotes at length from a 1968 editorial:

The problem children. . .are no more flower children than were all the howling children of the past decade children of Howl. What they are in fact are the basically dull and unoriginal sons and daughters of basically dull and unoriginal mothers and fathers; they are the ones who tack onto any and every movement without understanding in the least what the movement is about. They are bored because they are too unimaginative to creatively amuse themselves, restless because they have energy they do not want to waste on work, stoned on drugs because they are tired of being stoned on the tube. They are not hip, they are not beat. They fight their nothingness by letting somebody else do the work of giving them their identity.

For their part, the young newcomers often shared with Sperling a sense that they knew better than the old-timers they found in place. Though they often wanted what they viewed as the naturalness of rural life, they didn’t always want the traditions of the natives they found.

But it wasn’t just flower children who came. Vietnam vets also came, looking for quiet and for space. The West in the sixties was, as it had been earlier, a place of possibilities. “A place where young girls of privilege could savor the smell of sagebrush and sweat. Where some fortunate black men managed to tumble through a rabbit hole and find themselves a million miles from slavery. Where sickly white men jumped into creeks and sucked at mountain air and sometimes grew strong again.”

An interesting strand in the Sixties Expedition would be to interview people who moved here in the 1960s and 1970s. We could ask them why they came, what they left, what they were looking for, and what they found.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
  1. Mike:

    We first acquired land in Lake County in 1969 but didn’t move here
    until 1971.

    I didn’t look down on the locals but appreciated their local knowledge
    except in the case of the Ronan schools.  This was a major culture
    shock compared to Wyoming and expanded to include virtually all local
    and state government activities.

    Another area of great contrast was the lack of locally created
    philanthropic foundations plus the inexperience this vacuum created in
    most potential board members.

    Our family had owned farms in Iowa for decades so I was quite familiar
    with the flight of people from the farms and the concentration of more
    and more acreage into the hands of absentee landowners. (I traded an
    Iowa farm for the site of the Chalet Jewelry on Reserve Street in the
    mid Seventies.  As usual, I was about a decade ahead of the curve and
    sold it before Dennis Washington triggered the tremendous commercial
    development in the area.)

    The Mission Valley was much like Iowa in the pre WW II era with lots of
    people living on 40-80 acre parcels of irrigated ground and
    commensurately larger landholdings of dry land.  The subsequent
    distinction was that the area was so attractive aesthetically and there
    were sufficient jobs available in the logging industry and Tribal
    employment so that many landowners continued to live on the rural
    parcels.  Thus, the uneconomic size of the ag units didn’t compel the
    landowners to sell out and move.

    The small towns were relatively unattractive as places to live because
    the area had been so poor that there was not a stock of middle or upper
    income houses that had been built over the years. Plus, most of us who
    moved in had territorial imperatives larger than the crowding caused by
    typical in town subdivisions.

    We didn’t fit into the hippie mold but, rather, were more interested in
    getting away from the runaway growth in Gillette and into a more
    pleasant area to live.  I was always attracted to Jackson Hole but the
    climate was abominable if you weren’t a skier.  The Mission Valley
    offered much the same visual beauty but the climate was considerably
    better.

    I did have some dealings with immigrant hippies.  A group of couples
    moved from Berkeley to the Heron area and bought land together in a
    quasi commune.  I, ultimately, hired one of its members as my shop
    foreman for the turbine manufacturing company and he evolved into the
    owner of the most sophisticated computer automated machine shop outside
    of Seattle.  He makes engine turbos for Mitsubishi and many other car
    manufacturers.  Interestingly, he out competed cheap Mexican labor and
    captured the business by making higher quality parts at a competitive
    price.

    Most of the hippies starved out in the Eighties.  The Bitterroot
    emptied out to the point that approximately one third of the houses
    were vacant or on the market.

    The current trend of early retirees moving to the area started about
    the time I moved here and now makes up approximately 75% of the
    immigrants.  They bring their own sources of income with them so are
    not limited by the number of jobs available.  They also provide a much
    broader perspective to the local communities which is contributing to
    the rate of change.

    These immigrants have driven up real estate prices considerably and it
    will interesting to see if the trend continues in the future.  My bet
    is that as soon as there is a net decline in migration there will be a
    dramatic fall in the price of houses and land because there is not
    enough new wealth being generated in the area for local residents to be
    able to afford them at current prices.

    Bill Edelman

    Posted by Michael L Umphrey  on  10/25  at  12:50 PM

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