In 1967 a group of eight people set out to transform a Louisa County tobacco farm into something far more advantageous. What has been dubbed by some as a “hippie commune,” the Twin Oaks Community has managed to remain prosperous and almost completely self-sustaining for more than 40 years.
Hammocks, tofu production, and book indexing are the three major income generators that help keep Twin Oaks independent from mainstream society.
“We earn what we need to get by in life,” said Valerie Renwick, manager of the Twin Oaks visitor program. “We can provide a lot for ourselves, but what we can’t provide for – we need money like everyone, so we have collectively owned businesses.”
Renwick said the community has countless other smaller income areas, but the three big areas provide hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to buy whatever they may need.
Members have a wide variety of work and educational backgrounds; some even come from abroad. Renwick, who has been at Twin Oaks for 17 years, said the community has steadily grown over the years.
“What we have evolved to, 42 years later, is a group of about 100 people – we have about 90 adults and 10 children,” Renwick said. “We live on about 450 acres of land; every member has their own bedroom in a residence, and we share a kitchen, living room and bath.”
There are eight eco-friendly residences which all contain a communal living room, one washer and dryer, and a fully-equipped kitchen. In addition to what is available within each living area, community members share a community dining hall where most meals are served.
New members have the opportunity to change to their names when they come to Twin Oaks and many of them do. Renwick said more times than not, people who come to the community are going through a transitional time in their lives and are seeking clarity.
“Our average adult age is 39, with 44 members who are age 18 to 39, and 40 members who are age 40 to 85,” stated Bucket Von Harmony in the summer 2009 issue of The Leaves of Twin Oaks newsletter. “Fifty-six percent of current members are female [and] the average length of membership is 7.6 years.”
Inspired by Walden Two, a novel written by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, the founders of Twin Oaks decided to build a rural community independent from mainstream America. Walden Two illustrated an ideal, Utopian living situation based on behavioral principals, namely positive reinforcement. The novel highlighted the perils of a consumer-driven society as well as issues like over-population and overuse of resources.
“This group of people read it and thought, ‘Well, this is the blueprint on paper, let’s make the community in real life,’” Renwick said.
Over the years the community has moved away from the behaviorism model and no longer functions solely on those ideals.
“People started to come here because it was the late ‘60s and ‘70s and all this back to the land stuff [was] going on,” Renwick explained. “People who didn’t really know or care about behaviorism came, they just heard about this place, and so we grew.”
Renwick said as part of the old system, children were educated by the community outside the family unit. Now, children who reside at Twin Oaks go to public school or are home-schooled.
One remaining factor of the behaviorism model is their planner-manager system of governing the community. While there is no designated leader, each member is expected to pull their weight, so to speak. Planners and managers have more responsibility, but each decision made is the result of the entire community’s input.
Each member works in the community for 42 hours per week and some of that work is done in one of the three major areas: weaving hammocks, making tofu, or indexing. The other type of work is domestic, such as cooking, cleaning, or repairing and maintenance work.
Food, housing, and healthcare are all provided within the community and for things the community doesn’t provide, members get a $75 monthly allowance. Trips into Charlottesville, Louisa, and Richmond are made several times a week to pick up items that cannot be provided otherwise.
“We work our 42 hours, we don’t get salary or wages, but I like to say we get our lives,” Renwick said.
The community is governed by four main values: egalitarianism, income sharing, non-violence and cooperation.
Egalitarianism essentially means each member has equal access to resources and decision making within the community. Twin Oaks is part of a national organization, the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, which was founded in 1976. According to the F.E.C. Web site, communal groups like Twin Oaks exist across the U.S.
“We range in size and emphasis from small agricultural homesteads to village-like communities to group houses,” stated the F.E.C. Web site.
Twin Oaks is currently at capacity and no longer accepting new members. However, scheduled tours are available to those interested in visiting the property or learning more about communal living.
For more information on Twin Oaks or its products, visit www.twinoaks.org.
(And if you’re interested in trying some Twin Oaks tofu, it can be purchased at Ellwood Thompson’s, and Good Foods Grocery. It is also served at several Richmond restaurants, including 821 Café, Café Gutenberg, Crossroads Coffee, Harrison St. Coffee Shop, Ipanema Café, Jerk Pit, Mojo’s, and Savor.)