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In Search of Utopia

Facing escalating housing costs and societal turmoil, people are searching for better ways to live

Kevin Shay
May 6, 2018 · 22 min read
Photo: SvetaZi/Getty Images

LLike many people, Bob and Ruth Foote spent much of their lives searching for a better way to live.

They took their children out of public schools and educated them instead through experiences such as a California-to-Bolivia sailing excursion. They lived in the backwoods of Oregon without access to numerous modern conveniences. They built a 55-foot schooner and schemed about taking the family to a deserted island for a Swiss Family Robinson-style adventure.

The island idea was eventually beached due to excessive costs and porting regulations, so the Footes decided to establish a self-sufficient community of earth-sheltered homes that would use the smallest environmental footprint possible and also shield homeowners from escalating mortgage rates and energy costs. Ruth Foote worked in the real estate, insurance, and title industries, while Bob was an engineer and designed experimental aircraft. While he considered rising coastal sea levels, potential nuclear strikes, and a collapsed economy very real possibilities, friends say they wouldn’t have labeled him a survivalist but that he liked the challenge of building an off-the-grid community.

“The story as I was told as a child was that Bob Foote had built a ferro-cement boat that was so nice that his wife, Ruth, suggested they live in it,” said Ben Huttash, who lived in the Footes’ community for part of his childhood.

Finding 80 acres of fairly cheap land near Denton, Texas., the Footes named the community Whitehawk Valley after an albino hawk they observed during their initial glimpse of the area in 1977. Soon, 30 other families started putting down $2,500 each for a plot of land to build their own version of their visions. Many knew the Footes through a spiritual group.

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Underground homes made of ferro-cement, such as this one, still exist in Whitehawk Valley, Texas. Photo courtesy of Steve Spurlock.

Holding onto the attitudes hatched during the cataclysmic societal changes of the 1960s, most Whitehawk pioneers were fed up with the waste and bureaucracy of modern society, Bob Foote told me in 1982 as I surveyed numerous ferro-cement, underground homes while researching an article on the community. They wanted not only to advocate for conservation and simplicity, but to live those ideals.

“We were a group taking an apocalyptic viewpoint,” Foote said. “We didn’t think the world would end literally, but would end as to how we are currently living. Natural resources are finite. When they are used up, there is nothing left. We took a viewpoint that someone had to do something about finding a more conservative, simpler lifestyle.”

Since that visit, the average cost of a single-family home in the United States has more than tripled to about $300,000. Spending upwards of $20,000 annually to rent an apartment is the norm. Environmental problems have only worsened.

The Whitehawkers weren’t the first — and wouldn’t be the last — people to seek a utopian community. Plato’s Republic, written around 380 B.C., outlined a proposal for a better societal system. British lawyer and author Sir Thomas More created probably the first definitive work about an Atlantic Ocean island society in his 1516 book, Utopia. Native peoples formed communities for centuries that shared resources and were ruled not by a king but by a council of elders; American Indians like the Iroquois could have inspired founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin with their practice of separation of powers and other principles in their governing system, according to author Bruce E. Johansen.

Many families left Europe for America seeking religious freedom, their own land, and more favorable taxes. The colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, formed in 1620, was among those which spoke to such desires, though reality often did not match expectations. One of the longest-running early American communes was established by the Christian separatist group the Harmony Society near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the early 1800s. Led by George Rapp, believers, called Rappites, practiced celibacy and shared all goods and property, while preparing for the second coming of Christ. The group moved to Indiana for a decade before returning to Pennsylvania, where they existed for about a century.

While the Rappites didn’t attract many converts, the Shakers, another religious group that formed communes in the U.S. around the same time, gained about 6,000 members across 20 sites by the 1830s. Founded by Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers practiced principles such as equal labor and celibacy.

The Oneida Community, a New York socialist commune formed by John Humphrey Noyes, believed in perfectionism, which is centered on bringing about Heaven on earth, not just in the afterlife. They practiced complex marriage, which is based on the concept of free love. The group lasted more than three decades in the 19th century, and its silverware-making operation blossomed into a big company.

Transcendentalists, who believed that humans had the capacity to transcend the chaos in the world to bring forth their inherent good nature, started their own utopian communes, Brook Farm and Fruitlands, in the 1840s in Massachusetts. Brook Farm lasted five years, with one of its leaders, journalist Charles Dana, claiming that it showed a way to abolish domestic servitude and provide better education for all students. Fruitlands went under in less than a year.

La Réunion, a socialist community inspired by French philosopher François Fourier, was formed in 1855 near present-day downtown Dallas. Unlike other early communes, both men and women could own property and vote. Members honed skills that enabled them to form Dallas’ first butcher shop and brewery, but their farming competence amidst the chalky terrain was lacking.

The colony disbanded within a few years, with many returning to Europe or moving to San Antonio or New Orleans. Those who stayed included acclaimed botanist Julien Reverchon, who had both a park and street named after him, and Benjamin Long, who later became the mayor of Dallas.

Many fail to live up to ideals

Utopia is a paradoxical concept. As a motivating idea — improvement is desirable — we can’t do without it. But every time we try to implement it on a grand scale, we accomplish its disastrous opposite. Perhaps that is why the word itself means “no place.”

—Margaret Atwood

Such communities are not without their controversies, with many failing to live up to utopian ideals and dying out due to internal conflict and economic problems. An extreme example was Jonestown, a Guyana religious commune that practiced a form of socialism founded by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. The cult ended with the tragic 1978 mass suicide of more than 900 members. The Branch Davidians religious group led by David Koresh in Texas was another notorious cult, culminating in a 1993 fire and law enforcement standoff that left more than 80 dead.

The Centrepoint community in New Zealand saw some of its leaders convicted of drug charges and sexual assault of minors in the 1990s. The fundamentalist Seven Tribes commune in Germany faced allegations of child abuse after a television reporter filmed instances of adults striking young children with willow canes in 2013.

While the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) lists more than 1,500 U.S. communities in its online directory, about half were still only in the formation process as of 2018. Many groups don’t choose to list themselves, said Laird Schaub, former executive secretary of the FIC. He estimated that there were about 4,000 intentional communities with a combined population of some 100,000 in the States alone.

Those numbers, which are hard to obtain since many groups are not interested in answering inquiries from the general public, “have been rising over the quarter century that we’ve been collecting the data,” Schaub said. “Some groups are afraid that open publicity will lead to more negative attention than positive attention and thus choose to be discreet about what they say in public.”

One of the oldest established ones is Arden, a Delaware-based art colony of about 500 people founded in 1900 based on the economic philosophy of political economist and writer Henry George. Residents own homes and pay taxes, or land rent, while about half of Arden’s land is publicly-owned undeveloped forests and greenways. Arden, the oldest and largest of three villages collectively known as The Ardens, is governed through a town assembly. Counted among its former residents are Vice President Joe Biden and writer Upton Sinclair.

Black Bear Ranch was founded in the mountainous section of northern California in 1968 by a group of people who wanted to “go back to the land,” according to its website. A few people live there as of 2018, while more have been known to attend events such as Summer Solstice celebrations.

The Farm dates to 1971 when about 300 mostly Californians purchased cheap land in central Tennessee as “an experiment in sustainable, developmentally progressive human habitat.” They built structures entirely from salvaged and recycled materials and became agriculturally self-sufficient within four years without government aid.

By 1980, the population had swelled to more than 1,200 people, but financial problems like medical bills forced the farm to start charging residents rent. There were about 150 members as of 2018. Some residents work at jobs outside the community, while others run postal establishments, grocery stores, partake in book publishing, and other enterprises.

Twin Oaks still going strong

Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie — but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my Utopia.

—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

An even older community, the 400-acre Twin Oaks in rural Virginia, still exists today. Founded in 1967 on a former tobacco farm, , the group grew to almost 90 people by 1984 and adheres to the beliefs of psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Residents work full-time at jobs such as making hammocks and other furniture, growing tofu, and indexing books. They receive housing, food, health care, and spending money rather than a direct salary. In the 1970s, the group won a big contract with national retailer Pier 1 Imports to produce handcrafted hammocks. Twin Oaks had so many orders that leaders, or planners, had to subcontract with neighboring communes such as Acorn Community, which formed in 1993. But in 2004, Pier 1 faced financial problems and ended the contract.

In response, Twin Oaks had to cut $50,000 from their overall budget that year, with the tofu business replacing hammock manufacturing as the most lucrative enterprise. Members grow much of their own food and raise cows and other animals. While the planners, managers, and decentralized committees make decisions, a majority vote by members can overturn their choices.

There are seven large group houses, a children’s building, a center with a communal kitchen, work buildings, a hospice, and cemetery. Most buildings utilize some form of solar energy. Some members run errands in Richmond and other neighboring cities, taking care of other residents’ needs such as returning library books.

“Our resource-sharing lifestyle enables us to live lightly on the earth, minimize waste and inefficiency, and invest wisely in collective goods,” wrote Twin Oaks member Raj Ghoshal in a 2002 article. Those public amenities included an artificial pond, volleyball court, miniature home theater, computers, and music equipment.

I met one Twin Oaks member in 1984 while walking through Virginia on a Cold War-era peace project called “Walk of the People” which aimed to bring attention to looming nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. Taylor Frome, a cousin of walk participant Barbara Hirshkowitz, had given most of her possessions to Twin Oaks and traveled with just a small pack, while some of us had several suitcases and large packs in tow.

On a rest day, Frome led a group therapy session, where we discussed the true potential of being able to change another person and other related concepts. We tried a listening exercise practiced at Twin Oaks, where we broke into pairs and explained our ideas further on a one-to-one level. When we reconvened, we had to summarize what our partner said. Most discovered we were better talkers than listeners.

“You learn a lot about how to work with others through living in a community,” said Frome, who later moved to the Philadelphia area but maintained communication with former and present members. “You gain tools that really help you.”

Keenan Dakota, who joined Twin Oaks in 1983, told a Richmond, Virginia, television news reporter that she came seeking a simpler lifestyle. “The things that kept me here are different,” she said. “I wanted to raise my kids. I like the work with my hands. I like to build things. I think that’s true for a lot of people who live here.”

Rachelle Ellis, who lived at Twin Oaks from 2005 to 2007, commented on an Al Jazeera America article that income-sharing communities “provide an incredible security that you’d never find in the mainstream culture…. You have to work, but you also don’t have to pay bills, worry about upkeep for your car, try to find the cheapest organic brown rice at the co-op, or find a doctor that’s covered under your health care plan. All of those activities are worked into the labor structure of the community and become someone’s job, which is perfect motivation for taking care of those things and making them the problems of a small group of people who get ‘paid’ to do so.”

German communities

Also on the Walk of the People, we ran into others who lived in intentional communities and stayed in a few ourselves. In mid-1985 in Baudenbach, a German village nestled among picturesque scenery between Wurzburg and Nuremberg, Swami Gerhard Unger allowed us the run of two rooms and an entire attic within a 20-member commune for a few days. He had studied yoga in Bombay for four years and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, and the U.S.

During a rest day, I took a hike through woods nearby with fellow walker Dennis Thomas, a California engineer who joined the project in France. Working at IBM “figuring out how much computers cost,” Thomas had made enough money to afford two houses, a Datsun sports car and tax breaks, before he felt like something was missing and decided to radically alter his lifestyle. He heard about the walk around the same time I did and was about to join it from California with intentions of going the distance, but something made him hang on to job security for one more year.

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Dennis Thomas walks through the German countryside in 1985 in search of a better way. Photo courtesy of Kevin Shay

Like myself, Thomas had not been a formal member of a peace organization, though the former collegiate swimmer and water polo player sympathized with the aims. We propped ourselves on a decaying picnic table and munched on cheese sandwiches and apples. Our chatter eventually gravitated to issues revolving around living in a group setting.

Thomas, who had ignored walk member Tammy Leffler’s request a few nights earlier to help her with the dishes, explained his non-cooperative behavior. “I just don’t like to be told what to do, even on that simple level. If I’m not in the mood to do something, I just don’t like to do it. In a utopian community, everyone should be able to do what they want automatically, and it would work that easily.”

“But you forget. We have yet to find a real utopian community,” I noted.

I myself had been looking for such a community even before that walking project when I helped start one in a large lakeside house near Dallas in 1982. The experiment existed about a year before succumbing to squabbles and money problems. In a way, the Walk of the People itself was a nomadic intentional community — not unlike an old-fashioned tribe — that lasted almost two years.

At the Baudenbach community, Harold Greubel detailed his experiences from a journey that took him through the Himalayas, Australia, New Zealand, and the western U.S. He stayed at several communities, including the Moonies for about a month. One Moonie rule became difficult to follow while there: No sex. “They don’t believe in invoking that sense of guilt, here,” he disclosed.

The Baudenbach commune was not listed in the Fellowship of Intentional Community’s online directory and was apparently inoperable in 2018, as an internet search did not yield further information. Others we visited or stayed with, though, such as L’Arche communities in Alabama, Washington, D.C., France, and Belgium are still active.

Our walk stalled at the former East German border, and we moved into a seven-bedroom mill house in the 750-year-old village of Regnitzlosau. Called Frieden Zentrum Dreilandereck, which meant “peace house near the triple-border point,” the residence had been home to two other international peace contingents in the previous two years, so it was a temporary commune of sorts.

Members of a project called “A Walk to Moscow” had stayed there for some nine months in 1982 and 1983, before securing visas to walk through Czechoslovakia and Poland. The other contingent was comprised of primarily Australian natives who cycled for peace in 1984, and were eventually granted visas to enter Czechoslovakia.

During our two months, we started a garden and made home improvements, including to the upstairs plumbing. We built community relations through projects like helping our neighbors paint their homes.

Our stationary, temporary commune broke up when former peace campers at a base in southwest Germany needed to take over the mill house. We then continued into Austria, where the project’s walking portion essentially ended in Vienna. We arranged a train trip into Hungary, and some time later walked through part of Switzerland before visiting Moscow and Warsaw by train.

The importance of being open to outside society

The walk project gave me a good idea of what utopian communities were like, both in my experiences visiting some and attempting to live out my own nomadic version. Having people around to share tasks and do jobs most cannot, like unplugging a centuries-old plumbing system, is a definite advantage. Keeping expenses down, conserving resources, and fellowship with like-minded friends are other benefits in such living arrangements.

But there are drawbacks to living in communes, like limited privacy. You have to be willing to wait in line for the bathroom. Hearing others talk loudly when you’re trying to sleep or focus can be annoying. But it wasn’t much different from living in an apartment complex, particularly one with thin walls, or a large family.

Another drawback is dealing with inevitable conflict, which can be fueled by lack of space or just getting on each others’ nerves. Even close friends who have known each other for years can face conflict when in a communal living situation; television shows like Survivor and Big Brother depend on drama like this for ratings.

Studies show that groups that have clear ways of dealing with such conflicts tend to last longer than those that let issues fester. “When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause great harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people,” Jeanne Segal and Melinda Smith wrote in a report for the nonprofit HelpGuide.

Successful intentional communities, such as Twin Oaks and the Farm, also don’t isolate themselves, Lucy Sargisson, a professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, wrote in a study on estrangement in intentional communities. They assimilate to some degree into the wider community, she noted.

Finding ways to support itself has long been a challenge for communes, Sargisson said. If it can’t sell a product, such as a hammock or tofu, to the wider community or have its members work outside the commune, it can’t raise revenue. And that, in turn, leads to bigger problems. Being part of the wider community is also beneficial to combat feelings of alienation from society, she said.

Of course, one reason many join a commune in the first place is to separate themselves from the greater community. And those entities need a certain amount of separation to accomplish this.

“Just as Utopian fiction requires some level of estrangement for critical distance or cognition, so intentional communities require it to pursue their collective projects,” Sargisson wrote. “These groups need to operate within self-set boundaries that separate them from the wider community… However, this can generate material challenges and, more importantly, can deteriorate into collective alienation.”

While boundaries are essential in most intentional communities, a balance between separation and remaining open to the greater community needs to be maintained, she said. For example, the Katajuta community in New Zealand found it had to alter a longtime open-door policy after a new member started walking around naked claiming to be Jesus Christ.

“Nobody minded very much until he began to insist that they kneel and worship him,” Sargisson wrote. “This hardly fitted with their vision of the good life, and there followed a difficult period from which the group took some time to recover.”

On the walk, we had an open-door policy for people joining for the day, but they had to be reviewed via a written letter to our coordinator in Georgia if they wanted to walk longer than that. Some embraced this and others didn’t, leading to long, draining debates. We never had a problem with anyone walking around naked and wanting us to kneel before him, but we did have to deal with a new member in England who told a veteran walker to “f — off” in front of numerous people.

There were also various viewpoints on how much community building was needed within our group. Some wanted to meet for hours to build cohesion during non-walking days; others preferred quick meetings with more free time to do their own thing. We tried to reach a compromise, though there were still some meetings that lasted for hours. Like many progressive groups, we operated on consensus with no set leader. Coordination duties rotated between members from week to week.

Truthfully, some people are better suited for commune life than others. John Van der Zee Sears, a boarder at the 19th-century Brook Farm school for several years, appreciated the community’s practice of equal pay and dividing of duties. “Men and women, boys and girls, drawn together in groups by special likings for the work to be done, made labor not only light but really pleasant,” he wrote. Ardent Brook Farmers wanted “first of all, to be in harmony with the common mind.”

Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne invested in the Brook Farm community and moved there, thinking he would have much time to write books. But he left after six months and even filed a lawsuit against founder and Unitarian minister George Ripley for $586. He reportedly did not have time to write much more than a letter and grew tired of shoveling manure that was used at the farm as fertilizer. He wrote to his fiancée that he “never suspected that farming was so hard” and wanted to leave “before my soul is utterly buried in a dungheap.”

Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller declined to join Brook Farm, believing in solitude and more of an individualistic vision. Fellow writer Henry David Thoreau was also not a fervent supporter. He wrote in his journal after a visit, “As for these communities, I think I had rather keep a bachelor’s room in Hell than go to board in Heaven.”

I sympathize with such views — it’s hard to live with just one person, let alone more than one. Yet, I still prefer some type of community-living arrangement that provides a better way to live than having to lock ourselves into structures, or even gated communities, out of fear of what may occur. A lot has changed since the 1840s, and we have to find better methods to share what may be limited resources in the future.

Cohousing, micro homes, and other alternatives grow

Perhaps the greatest Utopia would be if we could all realize that no Utopia is possible; no place to run, no place to hide, just take care of business here and now.

—Jack Carroll, Canadian politician and businessman

Since the walk, I have tried various housing arrangements. I bought and sold two single-family houses, rented apartments and single-family dwellings, and leased rooms. I have shared quarters with roommates and lived almost alone, with my two kids there half the time, in a four-bedroom house. I helped start a short-lived, spiritual retreat-like commune.

Most arrangements worked for a time and had both advantages and disadvantages. Owning a new 2,000-square-foot home on a cul-de-sac for just $105,000 in Arlington, TX, was a good deal. Most neighbors were friendly and considerate, with the biggest problem being a few parties lasting to the early morning and cigarette butts thrown on our lawn. Owning an almost 60-year-old, 1,900-square-foot home on a cul-de-sac for $275,000 in Rockville, MD, was not such a good deal. The home was in a decent — but not great — neighborhood, dated in many areas, and required substantial plumbing, roof, electrical, and other repairs.

Qualifying for Montgomery County’s moderately-priced dwelling program allowed me to rent a two-bedroom apartment in a trendy town hall-style planned communities for lower than market rate. But still, paying $1,200 a month for such apartments seemed excessive, though having access to pools, hot tubs, exercise rooms, and even a theater made it more worthwhile. I heard when neighbors flushed the toilet and entered the building at early hours. Fears of fires were lessened by in-room sprinkler systems required in newer buildings, though there were several crime incidents such as break-ins and burglaries.

All in all, living in King Farm and Fallsgrove apartments were decent experiences. In King Farm, I could walk or take a free shuttle to a light-rail station, which gave me access to the Washington, D.C., area. I could walk to work, parks, grocery stores, banks, restaurants, and shops. Fallsgrove had a greater variety of retailers, though not a nearby subway station. Bicycling was encouraged, but there were not any covered racks to lock them. There were events like community movie nights, swim parties, and yard sales.

But there was a definite gap between homeowners and “apartment people,” with the latter viewed by some as having second-class status. That was a major issue in such communities; you didn’t feel like you were an equal member when you rented an apartment, town home, or even single-family residence in comparison to actual homeowners.

I can see the benefits of living in an intentional community like Twin Oaks, especially for those in their early 20s, fresh out of college. But when you get to a certain age and want a family, a more traditional arrangement typically makes more sense.

Some believe that cohousing projects, which combine privately-owned homes with shared amenities such as laundry rooms and lawnmowers, is a great alternative. Besides residing at Twin Oaks, Ellis lived in the Blueberry Hill Cohousing Community in Vienna, VA, from 2008 to 2012. That community formed some two decades ago.

“In cohousing, members own their homes, property, and cars,” Ellis wrote. “They do their own grocery shopping and are responsible for their own health care needs, etc. It’s almost like a conventional neighborhood, but there’s true intention as being there really is a choice.”

Common Place Cooperative in Cambridge, MA, was the oldest listed in the U.S. Cohousing Association’s online directory, dating back to 1973. While some homes can be pricey, others are more reasonable, often depending on the area and size. Blueberry Hill had a four-bedroom house listing for $675,000, compared to $238,000 for a one-bedroom home in the Sand River community in Santa Fe, NM. With interest rates around 4 percent, buying is now a better option than it was in the early 1980s, when rates skyrocketed beyond 20 percent.

Also, many cohousing projects have similar values to intentional communities, including cooperation, Sargisson wrote in another study. But most sites were more focused on individual members than the community as a whole.

“Its members aspire to own their homes, bring up their children in nuclear families and live safe, happy lives in friendly and supportive neighborhoods,” she said. “And, as a movement, there is an observable anti-radical tendency in North American cohousing. They describe themselves as non-ideological, or non-doctrinal. What they mean, I have suggested, is that they are not oppositional. And this may help to explain the success of cohousing.”

The anti-radical nature in which cohousing works primarily for the good of members is not meant to be a criticism, Sargisson said. “Cohousing is significant, and it is effective. I have cited studies that suggest that it does indeed create better communities and more active citizenry amongst its members.”

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A prefabricated, plastic, earth-sheltered home designed by Compass Green Homes. Photo courtesy of Compass Green.

Another trend is towards micro homes — with many residences smaller than 700 square feet — as an alternative to giant mansions, or even the average-sized home. Compass Green Homes is among the companies that build both above ground and underground homes that are more energy efficient and have a much smaller environmental footprint than most dwellings.

The Footes’ Whitehawk Valley in Texas is a sort of gated cohousing and micro-home community in which residents build and own their homes while sharing common areas, tools, and work. Ferro-cement, which involves applying plaster or mortar over metal such as chicken wire, originated in the 1840s in France and has been used in the building of other sturdy things like ships and water tanks.

The home construction costs ranged from $25 to $35 per square foot, compared with $100 to $150 with the average brick or siding home. The first 550-square-foot home cost about $3,500 for materials and required 3,000 man hours to construct. All homes had septic tanks, which comprised up to 20 percent of the total cost.

With proper solar-window setups and ground cover, the homes maintained comfortable temperatures without the need for battery-powered heaters or cooling systems, advocates said. During one hot summer when the temperature reached over 100 degrees for six consecutive weeks, the temperature inside a Whitehawk residence did not exceed 80 degrees, according to a report by builder Loren C. Impson.

On really cold days, which are fairly infrequent in Texas, the temperature inside the structure dropped to 60 degrees, which requires use of a heater for most people. Some reported contention over homes and living conditions, with a few family members not enjoying the somewhat rustic conditions that could be likened to camping. One homeowner contracting for electricity on the power grid caused controversy among members who thought it went against the founders’ ideas. Lots were sold through memberships, not individual deeds.

Many homes had wind generators, composting toilets, solar energy panels, and greenhouses. The Footes also started another community, Rainbow Valley, in 1978 and formed an agricultural co-op that made decisions through a voting system by members. They provided 78 acres of the land to the Texas Land Conservancy to preserve the original Blackland Prairie area.

While Bob Foote passed away in 2013 and Ruth in 2012, their son, Robin, continued to live in the area. He owned Whitehawk Construction Co., which helped members build their homes.

“As new people move in, the reason for [Whitehawk and Rainbow Valley’s] existence changes,” Ben Huttash said. “Sometimes I think about climate change and wonder if the intended purpose of Whitehawk will be realized in a warming climate…. I have a two-year-old and worry about the world she will inherit from us. The Foote family was on the right track, just 40 years too early.”

Keri Ross, who grew up in Rainbow Valley and later lived about an hour away, has fond memories of her childhood. “Me and my friends….used to roam. My mom would ring the dinner bell when it was time to come home. It was great,” she said.

The vision changed with disputes over land, membership, and other matters, Ross said. The roads and other areas were badly in need of repair. It used to be that co-op members were required to volunteer a certain number of hours working on roads and other sections. “But no one does now,” Ross said. The valley is pretty well preserved and co-op is still operating, but things have changed, she noted.

In 1982, Foote told me he foresaw similar communities of low-cost underground homes cropping up around the country, though not necessarily built with ferro-cement. While the number of really successful alternative housing communities remains relatively small, the philosophy that causes many to seek a better life, to strive for utopia, continues to thrive.

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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