By Amy Beth Bennett
City & Shore PRIME
70-year-old David Frohman is an insurance industry consultant who specializes in high-end pension planning. He lived in Delray Beach for 20 years before moving recently to Stuart. But in what seems like a lifetime ago to him now, Frohman, his wife and three children once lived in a community of hippies called The Farm, growing their own food and trying to change the world through nonviolence.
The Farm is a community in Lewis County, Tenn., about an hour outside Nashville. Dedicated to nonviolence, spiritual consciousness and vegetarianism, The Farm was founded in 1971 by about 320 people who caravanned east from San Francisco with their teacher, Stephen Gaskin, a counterculture Hippie who was well-known in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. Frohman was The Farm’s documentary photographer from its inception until he and his family moved to Nashville in 1983.
“I’ve had this wonderful experience that sometimes is hard to explain what I did in a previous life,” Frohman says. “We were not a cult because we were more of a culture. We said we were not a commune, because the real word is community.”
Or maybe, he says, more like a “gathering.”
“I wasn’t a great hippie. I didn’t run around and do all the crazy things all the time. [When I was living in San Francisco] I was really learning to be a photographer.” Shortly after arriving in Tennessee, Frohman says Gaskin asked him to be The Farm’s photographer and media liaison.
“The way I was trained as a storyteller was to show the beauty of the people,” he says. “I think the essence of my pictures was to show these were straight ordinary people with everyday life.”
The Farm had its own schools; industries like book binding, construction and farming and the group’s charity called Plenty International. The non-profit has built homes and schools and has provided disaster relief in disadvantaged communities in the United States and abroad.
The Farm also had medical facilities with doctors, nurses and midwives, led by Gaskin’s wife, Ina May Gaskin.
“Any midwife who was out there knows Ina May was the foremother of midwifery,” says Frohman, who witnessed and photographed 40-45 births. “I got close enough that I had to wash my hands once. I was ready, but thank goodness the second midwife came and I went back to what I was good at.”
The experience changed him, he says, “The respect and the awe and the knowledge of what natural childbirth is – I’m very different.”
The economic downturn of the 1980s did not spare The Farm community. “The economics didn’t turn out very well. There wasn’t a lot of earning power in rural Tennessee.”
Having three young children, and with college costs looming, Frohman decided to move his family to Nashville. “I had to get a real job.” That’s where he stepped into another world and became an insurance salesman. “It was just the other side of my brain. It was no different. I just could do it and I felt a responsibility that I would do what I had to for my family.”
Looking back now, Frohman says “The young days were sweet” on The Farm – but not always rosy. “[Was it] hard living? Of course,” he says, “We were taking an old cattle ranch and making it into a town. It was sort of a pioneering effort.”
But all of it – whether idyllic or hard scrabble – still carries a special significance, all these years later.
“You don’t realize until years later, you have captured, you have copyrighted, you have owned and you are responsible for a piece of American history.”