A look inside East Wind, where socialists share a border with Republicans
Nestled amid several dozen hilly acres in Ozark County, in what would later become Trump’s America, 16 people once banded together to help spread socialism.
Decades later, the East Wind community is the largest it’s ever been, with 73 members sharing more than 1,000 acres.
But despite a long history in this county on the Arkansas border, where Trump received 80 percent of the vote, East Winders are outsiders.
The Ozark locals regard them with a sense of suspicion and sanctimony.
Peggy Williams, 44, who was raised and still lives in this county, said those at East Wind “don’t bother nobody.”
“Least they’re not going out killing people, least I know of,” she said before pausing. “Might be a pile of dead bodies back there.”
Other rumors past and present hold that East Winders, wearing dark cloaks, perform rituals to drink the blood of babies; that they engage in weekly orgies; that they are all bound for eternal damnation.
“I know they all run around naked,” one man said nonchalantly while pumping gas at Tecumseh’s only station.
Betty Killion, a grandmother and frequent churchgoer, believes East Winders lead immoral lives.
“From what I hear, they’re way off the grid from being Christians,” she said.
East Wind lies at the end of a two-mile gravel road off a winding highway. Many Ozark locals can give precise directions to its entrance, but considering how few of them drive down it, the road may as well stretch hundreds of miles.
Into the wild
Signs of the community emerge on either side of the road, in pockets amid the dense wood: a cluttered mechanic shop, an office building, an old outbuilding where they make rope sandals.
On the road, people pass by on foot and on bicycles.
On a recent day, Deborah Slavin stood on a cabin porch in the summer heat, gripping a can of beer snuggled in a koozie. Nearby, another East Winder, his shirtless torso bearing intricate tattoos, strummed a guitar.
People milled about before dinner, waiting for a meal of tilapia, cheesy potatoes and granola.
Slavin, 65, is a commanding presence in the community — the person many come to with questions.
The last of the original 16 founders of East Wind still here, Slavin now has snow-white hair and wears dangling earrings and a flowing skirt. In her spare time, she takes cha-cha lessons from another member, a strapping man about half her age with braided hair.
Though it’s been more than 40 years since she gave up college to help launch the community, the matriarch maintains a sprightly nature, especially when it comes to Trump, socialism and the Ozark locals.
She called Ozark County the “most backward, hillbilly Republican county in the state.”
Since 1888, just two other presidential nominees received a higher percentage of support from Ozark County than Trump did in November: Republicans Herbert Hoover in 1928 and Thomas E. Dewey in 1944.
To Slavin, Trump’s rise was further evidence that the socialist principles championed at East Wind could never take root on a broader scale in America, “the belly of the capitalist beast.” Such knowledge disheartens her.
Indignation occasionally creeps into her voice, as if she’s spent years preaching to an obstinate child who never matures.
“Am I surprised we elected a damn businessman? No,” she said. “In capitalism, it will always be government for business and government by business. Trump is the next step. If you don’t have government to regulate and keep a leash on ragingly blatant capitalism, you’re going to continue to have enslaved and oppressed societies. That’s how capitalism works.”
Such anti-capitalist sentiments may seem blasphemous to some of the locals, who are occasionally invited to East Wind for dinner, parties or conversation but rarely show.
“They’d rather have their imaginations run wild,” said East Winder Brandon Rabik.
Lee Bearden of Gainesville is one of the few locals who’s been down the road to East Wind. As a boy, he rode in his father’s garbage truck into the community. As a father, he accompanied his young son’s class on a field trip to East Wind around 2000.
He even did some business with East Winders back when he had a turkey farm, but until recently, he was unaware they are socialists.
“They’re quiet, polite people down there. ... Just living more of a hippie lifestyle,” said the 45-year-old truck driver who has lived in Ozark County for about four decades. “Most people around the county just leave them alone.”
Members of East Wind all have a slightly different definition of their lifestyle. Depending whom you ask, they are secular humanists, free-loving hippies or enlightened people free from discrimination, authority and Wi-Fi.
Though most members praise the community for its tranquility, a few wonder if a better life is out there, away from this liberal enclave in an increasingly red county.
They reside in shared cabins with names from literature and history that, with a little research, evoke revolution and communitarianism: Anarres, Greyhaven, Fanshen, Sunnyside, Lilliput. A few people sleep in old buses.
Most everything here — land, property, revenue — is shared equally.
“Nobody can get richer than the next person,” Slavin said.
Tolerance for each other pervades within the community, even if it doesn’t always extend beyond it to the Ozark locals.
East Winders withhold judgment based on appearance, religious belief and lifestyle. They wear what they want — even if that means nothing at all — without inhibition. Same-sex marriages were recognized here more than a decade before the federal government.
They are all party to the community’s direct democracy. Everyone has the same political clout: one vote. Starting at age 7, children are entitled to a half-vote.
All members are committed to what they call egalitarian socialism — communal ownership, equal distribution of wealth — putting them at odds with the Republican stranglehold on the region and perhaps explaining the schism between them and the Ozark locals.
“Capitalism itself is the biggest deterrent to this sort of model,” Slavin said. “It’s just unpatriotic if everybody doesn’t have their own house, own dishwasher, own car, own TV and own, own, own everything. And to hell with the energy costs to the rest of the planet because, hell, we’re Americans and we deserve it.”
Don Smiley, a 76-year-old Vietnam veteran and Trump supporter, has almost no interaction with the community, but he can relate in some ways to East Winders’ removed way of life.
He moved from Kansas City to Ozark County in 1974, the same year East Wind arrived, to get away from urban life.
It remains difficult for Smiley to talk about his military service, but he said he would risk his life for the socialist outsiders.
“I don’t personally agree with the way communes are structured,” he said. “At the same time, I’d go to Vietnam again to protect their right to live free and make their own choices.”
‘Summer of Love’
The 16 founders established East Wind in Missouri on May 1, 1974, drawn to inexpensive land with creek access and a mixture of wooded and agricultural space. The community’s name comes from the words of a Chinese communist revolutionary.
Slavin, a teenager at the time, was captivated by the ideas that helped define an ethos: anti-capitalism, anti-war, racial equality, women’s liberation.
Her parents, who had paid for a young Slavin to attend an expensive Catholic girls’ school, were profoundly disappointed when their daughter dropped out of college at 20 to join East Wind, which began in Massachusetts about a year before arriving in Tecumseh.
“They (her parents) thought I was going to be brainwashed, if I wasn’t killed,” Slavin said. “They were the classic example of white middle class. ... They were what I was protesting against.”
Joining East Wind was a disruption of her life that had, until then, largely tracked along the well-defined ruts of status quo. She swapped her college textbooks on botany, physiology and Marxist economics for a more direct education in the field. She swore off marriage, childbearing and a life in the suburbs spent doing “nothing.”
“Equality was the guiding principle,” she said. “Equal work for equal pay; equal rights for everyone regardless of abilities, educational levels, race. ... Everything was going to change.”
Aside from the social and economic issues that galvanized the founders, Slavin and others were also drawn by the prospect of sexual freedom. Slavin is bisexual, and as a young woman she found her orientation turned away potential partners.
“I wasn’t the only one who said, ‘Let’s join a hippie commune and dance naked in the moonlight.’ ”
To Slavin’s knowledge, no Ozark local has ever joined East Wind. The community appeals to the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers. Few minorities or those from the low-income class move here.
In vulnerable moments, Slavin wonders if she could have done more to foster this way of life, to plant these seeds of socialism.
“There’s certainly days when I say to myself, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ ” she said. “ ‘Is this the best you can do with your life?’ ”
But East Wind has grown, in membership and in wealth.
In the beginning, members produced lawn furniture and hammocks, then sandals from unused hammock rope.
Their most successful products, a variety of nut butters, net about $500,000 annually. After business and living expenses, members receive roughly $150 in discretionary income each month.
East Wind’s organic peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter and tahini, to name a few, are available in some Kansas City stores and across the country.
Labor is broadly defined as anything deemed beneficial to the community — even something as simple as teaching another member to cha-cha.
Adults fulfill a labor quota of 35 hours per week, and members are free to choose their own jobs and their own hours.
Mark Kruger, who studied East Wind in the late ’80s and made the community the focus of his dissertation, likened the lifestyle to Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”
“It’s kind of like, ‘I’m going to go out in the woods and I’m going to see how much labor it really takes to survive and not spend my life constantly working, working, working,’ ” he said.
One time, a salesman pitched expanding the nut butter business. Members turned him down, favoring their leisurely lifestyle over more money. When Slavin told him, the salesman called her a derogatory word and said members sounded like communists.
“ ‘Gee, that’s awfully astute, you ignorant bastard,’ ” she retorted.
Slavin recognizes the irony in the fact that her anti-capitalist commune must rely on capitalism for survival. East Winders can’t remove themselves completely from the market. It costs to live.
But they strive for sustainability by growing their own vegetables, milking their own cows and composting their own waste to return it to the land. They buy eggs locally and purchased a portion of a nearby ridge to preserve its trees and their view from some future clear-cutter.
Yohanan Hunter, a longtime member, praised East Wind’s mores.
“We don’t live in mansions separating ourselves from the woods,” Hunter said in the herb garden, from the shade of a hut cloaked in a decade-old vine. “People and planet are our wealth.”
Moving ‘outside’ — drawn back in
Though they enjoy the lifestyle, some members fantasize about moving “outside,” as they ironically refer to the world beyond their homes amid nature.
Kara Jo Koehler has spent the majority of her life here, but as she nears the age of 40, she envisions leaving the only home she’s known for two decades despite being frightened by the mere thought. Though she occasionally visits relatives with her husband and 11-year-old son, Aiden, she hasn’t spent an extended amount of time away from East Wind since she arrived at 17.
Koehler’s childhood was marred by hardship. East Wind gave her life direction.
She was dropped off here in the mid-’90s. She hadn’t graduated from her central Maine high school, where she was bullied. Her parents’ divorce, a newly employed mother and siblings who moved away contributed to a sense of abandonment and lonesomeness.
Before East Wind, Koehler spent much of her time with a friend at her house, “just kind of doing our own thing,” she said. “Our parents didn’t really know what to do with us.”
Then the friend’s mother had an idea: She would shuttle the girls halfway across the country, to a commune she’d heard about in Tecumseh.
Koehler’s mother was hesitant to approve the move, but “she knew there wasn’t a lot she could do for me,” said Koehler, who today has tattoos of butterflies on her upper arm and the Chinese symbol for butterfly on her neck. “She hadn’t been there for me.”
Since arriving, Koehler has married, raised her son and found peace in East Wind’s rhythms: communal meals, announced by the clanging of a ranch-style bell; post-dinner smoke sessions using imported rice paper produced solely by wind power; summer solstice parties with roasted commune pigs and blazing bonfires; hikes through the woods; trips to skinny-dip in the creek.
But she sometimes longs for something more. When visiting her home state, Koehler and her sister often stroll through the mall together, or get ice cream, or grab a coffee — exotic trips for Koehler that are everyday to the average urbanite.
A life with easy access to such consumerist indulgences is “a mystery to me,” she said.
Koehler said she’d have difficulty affording a move away from East Wind. She hasn’t been “socking away” her discretionary income through the years.
“Even though I love it here, I can’t say I’m satisfied or content because I’ve never experienced being outside,” she said. “This has been my life. ... I don’t really know anything else.”
Even those who do leave are, for various reasons, drawn back to the community.
Anthony Sterling grew up at East Wind. Koehler was his babysitter.
Sterling and his mother moved here when he was 6 years old and left a decade later, after he had been home-schooled and had developed such close relationships with other children that he considered them closer to siblings than peers.
After leaving and while living in Portland, Ore., he was exposed to aspects of city life that, at times, made him uncomfortable. Crowds unsettled him, as did homelessness and other signs of extreme poverty.
He worked for a time as a caterer and developed a sense of indignation by the power structures of the modern workplace.
“It was a relationship of subservience,” he said. “I liked them (his managers) as people, but it’s not a relationship that humans embrace very well. I’ve never met anyone who says, ‘I can’t wait to do what that person tells me to do.’ ”
Now he’s 27 and recently returned to his childhood home. A desire to work alongside people rather than for them drew him back.
“I don’t feel like someone is getting rich off my sweat,” he said of work at East Wind. “People have an ability to do things on their own terms.”
Still, he misses facets of city life, such as coffee shops, clubs, bars, the thrill of encountering strangers.
He has plans to travel abroad and pay his way by working on organic farms.
“I just have this feeling that I can keep going and experience new things,” he said. “I don’t feel like there’s one right way to live.”
Koehler tried to leave East Wind before, too, for a job at a factory as a 20-year-old. Her coworkers there made fun of her, teasing her for how she smelled and leaving bars of soap at her work station.
They ridiculed her clothing, which Koehler described as “hippie-ish” — a favorite pair of Levi’s patched with flowered cloth, flowing blouses, everyday shoes.
She loathed the coworkers and the pressure of conformity they imposed on her. Koehler yearned to return to East Wind.
“The energy here was so much better,” she said. “People didn’t say things to me about the way I looked.”
Peace, love, polarization
Though Slavin is dispirited by the failure to further spread the East Wind ideology, she takes pride in what she’s helped build.
Women and men stand on a level playing field here. With the gender pay gap, with a persistent disparity between men and women political leaders and with a continuing reluctance to tap women for leadership roles in the private sector, the outside world lags behind East Wind.
Slavin learned carpentry here decades ago — work then considered by some as suitable only to men.
East Wind was in debt from land acquisition and capital investment until about 10 years ago. Money, which some members disdain, is now flowing into the community. And people are remaining here longer. The average stay has doubled in recent times, to about five years.
Though difficult to estimate, scholars believe there were roughly 50,000 communes in the U.S. by 1974, with as many as a million members. But the vast majority disbanded over the next decade. Today, there are only about 300 communes listed in a directory from the Fellowship for Intentional Communities.
“It’s hard to keep a community going,” said Kruger, who has continued his East Wind studies. But East Winders “started all those years ago, and they’re stronger now ... stronger than they’ve ever been.”
Yet they remain outsiders.
Koehler fears her son, Aiden, will be mocked away from East Wind, like she was during different stages of her life. Because of this, she and her husband were initially wary of enrolling Aiden in a public school in the area.
But they eventually did, and their son has excelled. He earned straight A’s in fourth grade this year. He also has won multiple awards, including one for integrity.
She knows a time may come when Aiden wants to leave the community. She welcomes the possibility, hopeful that opportunities unavailable to her materialize for her son.
“If he wants to leave, if he wants to get out, I’d love for him to go to college,” she said. “I’d like him to see the world.”