A writer and sculptor born in Huntington, Carter Taylor Seaton has long been a part of the arts and crafts movement in West Virginia. In 2016, Seaton was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History for her decades of service and leadership in the state’s arts community. For fifteen years she served as the director of an Appalachian women’s crafting co-op and led numerous arts and crafts festivals before turning her attention to writing. In her book Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music and Living on the Land in West Virginia, Seaton uses interviews and her own intimate knowledge to provide an insider’s look at the artisans who formed the back to the land movement.
Though arts, crafts, and music have long been a part of Appalachian culture, Seaton focuses primarily on the artisan movement of the 1970s. For the state and its “hippie homesteaders,” the timing was perfect: just as the homesteaders were eyeing West Virginia as a possible rural haven, federal funds were being disbursed to fuel the arts. In 1967, the West Virginia Commerce on the Arts was created to disburse said funds, allowing the state to support its artisans through workshops and cultural centers “designed to house and showcase a state’s arts efforts.”
As federal funds were pouring in, however, residents were leaving in high numbers. Seeking jobs or a more urban lifestyle, young West Virginians were leaving in droves. At the same time, much of the youth in the cities across the nation were becoming disenchanted and looking for a change of scenery. Changes in America and in the nation’s general ethos was paramount to the “back-to-the-land” movement that peaked in the 1970s. The late 1960s were tumultuous, and many individuals who became homesteaders were tired of the civil unrest in the cities and dispirited by America’s involvement in Vietnam. Many had participated in protests, marches, and sit-ins, and felt burnt out by their early 20s. Disillusioned by an increasingly militarized and materialisticsociety, they yearned for a more simplistic life.
Many homesteaders chose West Virginia as their oasis thanks to its cheap and plentiful land and solitude. According to author Seaton, “the youth were concerned with pollution, pesticides, preservatives, consumer waste, the destruction of nature, and the dangers inherent in city living.” Some knew of West Virginia thanks to family vacations or other homesteaders; many of the artisans interviewed by Seaton merely stumbled upon a tract of land and fell in love. Still others had been introduced to the state while fulfilling alternate service duties with VISTA or Appalachian Volunteers. Regardless of what brought them to West Virginia, the homesteaders seemed unanimous on one thing: West Virginia was truly “almost heaven.”
In addition to offering artisans a rural oasis, the aid of the state was paramount to the artisans’ success. With its federal funds, West Virginia was able to offer workshops where artisans could hone their craft; it also organized fairs and festivals where handicrafts could be sold. These programs are owed (and are given) a great deal of thanks by Seaton herself and her interviewees. Norm Sartorius, a sculptor who settled in McDowell County was “quick to credit the support…West Virginia provided him and hordes of other artisans in those days.” Seaton notes as well that Ron Sowell, a member of the Putnam County Pickers, credited “support from the WV Division of Culture and History with much of their success.” In addition to the aid that came through state-sponsored programs and workshops, there seemed to be something to the spirit of the state itself that allowed these homesteaders to thrive. Seaton notes that “Loyal Jones, noted expert on Appalachia…believes that many strengths like neighborliness, love of place, independence, and self-reliance have been lost in much of America, but still exist in Appalachia.” The personal testimonies collected by Seaton seem to concur.
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The individuals interviewed by Seaton were quick to credit West Virginia residents for their success, as well. Many homesteaders came to the state armed with idealism and copies of Mother Earth News—but little to no working knowledge of how to live off the land. Luckily, the homesteaders found support through neighbors. Bob Zacher, a potter out of Monroe County, commented, “the people that were here at the time…were so generous and so inviting to all of us young people.” This sentiment is echoed repeatedly in one form or another throughout Seaton’s interviews. “They just did it,” marveled Chuck Wyrostok, photographer, about neighbors who offered a helping hand. “And to them it wasn’t anything out of their way. It was what you did. That was what community was all about.”
With interviews, personal knowledge, and historical context, Seaton’s book paints a full and vibrant picture of West Virginia’s back to the land movement. The interviews are complemented by black and white photographs of the artisans as they lived and worked in the 1970s. Hippie Homesteaders also includes chapters about West Virginia’s Arts and Crafts Movement (“Traditional Handcrafts in Appalachia”), the American ideology that sparked the back to the land movement (“Living the Good Life”), the hippie homesteaders that made up the artisan community (“Pacifists, Protestors, and Draft Dodgers”), and how they lived together (“Communes and Intentional Communities”). Running the gambit from West Virginia history to handicrafts to the hippie movement, Seaton’s book has something for artists and history buffs alike.
Published by the West Virginia University Press, Hippie Homesteaders can be purchased through most major retailers. If you have a hippie dad like I do, it may be the perfect gift for Father’s Day!
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.