After it was reported that Tad Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas had briefly holed up in a northern California commune, the commune’s website crashed.
Black Bear Ranch is an actual hippie commune, and it appears that the Tennessee teacher and his former 15-year-old student did stay there for several days while on the run as “John” and “Joanna” before being kicked out. The commune’s officials told USA Today they didn’t realize who Cummins and Thomas were and oppose harboring fugitives.
The pair then settled into a nearby cabin where the caretaker, suspicious by their license plate-less car and age difference, as well as their demeanor, called the cops.
The rest is history. Cummins is facing criminal charges, Thomas is back in Tennesee, and the Black Bear Ranch is facing a surge of interest.
But what is the commune? How does it work? Who lives there?
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Commune Was Started With Entertainment Industry Money as a Way to Create a ‘Modern Fortress in the Spirit of Che Guevara’
The land that turned into the commune was purchased in 1968 by a San Francisco man named Richard Marley. Locals felt the land’s owner had “sold it to the hippies,” reports Redding.com.
The commune is located in Siskiyou County, California, 25 miles from Forks of Salmon. The goal was to “create a modern fortress in the spirit of Che Guevara,” reports the book, Modern American Communes.
Some have defended the commune, saying it’s peaceful. “It was just a peaceful … fairly well-organized place,” Siskiyou County author Abagail Van Alyn said to Redding.com of the ranch. “These were not cult people.”
The commune was founded by people who wanted to “get back to the land, get out of the city, and start a new life together in the mountains,” reports WJHL.
Actor Peter Coyote has lived there. According to the documentary Commune, “In the late 1960s, a few free thinkers cobbled together donations, primarily from Hollywood, to buy 80 acres at the end of a dirt road in Siskiyou County, California: Big Bear Ranch, a commune with the motto ‘free land for free people.'”
Yonder Journal reports, “it was founded with funds now primarily coming from the entertainment business and a large LSD deal.”
2. The Commune Was Built on the Site of an Old Mining Ghost Town & Was Founded on the Slogan, ‘Free Land for Free People’
According to the Mercury News, the commune describes itself as “a place for people to … share the joys, work and hardships of mountain homesteading” and “also emphasizes the remoteness of the site, advising potential visitors not to attempt the trip in winter or in a two-wheel-drive car.”
The commune “is a historic abandoned mining ghost town turned hippie commune. Open door since 1968! One of the last truly free places in the united states, visitors welcome any time without announcement.”
According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community, describing Black Bear Ranch: “We are into psychic phenomena, organic gardening, spiritual text, all kinds of art and fun. We are open minded and strive to serve as an alternative to mainstream white washed society. Teachers teaching teachers traditional old-world skills. We have ducks, goats, chickens, waterfalls, and endless stretches of land filled with friendly medicinal plant friends. Artistic mountain sanctuary caring for one another, the animals, plants and the land. We have a drum set in the living room and oceans of instruments.”
In the beginning, the commune forbade people to sleep together with the same person for more than two nights in a row and restricted private property, even down to clothing, according to Modern American Communes.
3. The Commune Persists Today & Members Home School Their Children & Are Required to do Work
The commune operates with strict guidelines and a communal spirit.
According to WJHL, “It appears to operate through ‘Circles,’ or meetings, where group decisions are made” and “each member is required to put in work help maintaining the existence of the commune for at least 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. Everyone is also required to give $3 a day to the ranch at a minimum.”
According to Redding.com, “Residents must clean up after themselves and be free from ‘disruptive addictive habits,’ such as drug and alcohol abuse; residency and other important decisions are made by a three-quarters vote of current residents and at least five trustees; there are women-and-children-only gatherings every summer, when the men of the ranch must get off-site for a time; Thanksgiving and Summer Solstice are the most important holidays at Black Bear.”
The ranch doesn’t allow people to have more than two guns and “residents have to tell others when they leave the property and whether they’re thinking of applying for government benefits,” reports Redding.com.
People who stay more than a week must follow the commune’s “traditional guidelines,” according to WJHL.
4. The Commune Was the Subject of a Documentary & the Commune Faced a Colonization Controversy
The hippie commune has been the subject of a documentary.
It’s also run into controversy over claims of appropriating Native American culture and continuing colonization behaviors of taking over land.
Reports Indian Country Today, “The communes were well-intentioned enough, fueled as they were by a desire to transcend systems of greed, social inequality, and environmental degradation the hippies had inherited from their ancestors.But what they also inherited was a sense of settler entitlement to land based on that very system of capitalist greed they were trying to overcome. Most of them hadn’t thought twice that the lands they were buying were stolen from the very people they were trying to emulate; they were just looking for good deals.”
A group of former ranch members sent a letter to current ranch members raising these issues. The letter says in part, “Black Bear Ranch was founded to forge an alternative to the destructive and hollow culture of the United States. We are revolutionaries, artists, healers and troublemakers. Spearheaded by the Diggers movement, the elders of our Black Bear Family created a refuge far from the city and the suburbs where folks could live and learn different life ways: ‘free land for free people.’ The birth of Black Bear Ranch can not be separated from the politics of the day. Those that founded BBR passionately fought against the Vietnam War, racism oppressing black people, capitalism, patriarchy and ecological destruction. Bears today continue this work for a better world.”
The letter called for a new recognition of colonialism. “The authors of this letter, calling ourselves Unsettling Klamath River, are an open community collective of settlers, many us former Black Bear residents, living on the Klamath and Salmon Rivers working to understand and respond to the ‘elephant in the room’: the continued occupation of Karuk, Hoopa, Yurok, Konomihu, Shasta, and Shasta New River Homelands,” it reads. “While we understand that the values of settler society are the problem and not necessarily settler people themselves, we recognize that we have a responsibility to face our position as beneficiaries of settler colonialism (even though we have not intended to benefit in this way). We have been meeting for two years now, starting our efforts with identifying how colonization happened and continues to happen in our communities, re-imagining and taking steps towards material change of colonial structures.”
According to the letter, indigenous peoples told the former ranchers that the commune had “brought good people to the area, who often do amazing work and are real friends. However, Black Bears often get sick of the commune and either have family money, grow weed, or both; and end up buying up more land.”
5. Thomas & Cummins Were Kicked Out of the Commune, Reports Say
Thomas and Cummins were apparently too much even for the commune, although more details of their time there have not been released. The Mercury News reports the pair “had spent at least two days at Black Bear but had been asked to leave for an unspecified reason.”
Authorities initially said they were found at the commune, but then clarified that they were located at a cabin in the area that is not affiliated with Black Bear Ranch. According to the Sacramento Bee, they were in “Siskiyou County, perhaps for more than a week, bureau spokesman Josh DeVine said. The remote, mountainous area has limited cellphone service and the terrain is difficult to traverse. Snow was still on the ground in some places.”
Cummins and Thomas were eventually located “near Cecilville, California, a onetime mining town about 100 miles from the Oregon border,” reports the Mercury News.
According to Redding.com, “officials say Cummins heard about Black Bear while with Thomas in Berkeley.”
A message on the commune’s website reads: “The Black Bear Ranch Web site is currently overwhelmed by traffic due to the recent news stories that had incorrectly reported that teacher Tad Cummins and the 15 year old girl he had run away with had been found at Black Bear ranch. The pair was actually found in Cecilville, California near a cabin where they had been staying that has no connection with Black Bear Ranch. The Sacramento Bee article that can be found here has accurate information about the apprehension and arrest. If you are interested in connecting with or visiting Black Bear, please check back later when things have quieted down. Thanks for your patience.”