Forty Years Down the Road

The Homestead ethic remains a constant, from the 1977 founders to the current crop of Homies.

The Homestead turns 40 this year, and Denison's unique intentional community kicked-off healthy middle age with a 3-day anniversary festival in April. Begun in 1977 as an experiment in self-reliance and sustainable living for students, generations of Denison Homies have had the experience of walking the walk, in every sense, up the long dirt path to a place where conscience and community meet.

Continuity was a recurring theme during the April festival, as it's sure to be during Reunion in June, when even more Homesteaders are expected to return and touch base with their shared experience. The April gathering allowed current Homies to ask questions and share experiences with some of the returning founders, and vice versa. A storytelling session called “Creation & Evolution” opened the conversations about changes and ongoing traditions, such as weekday family-style dinners cooked with the woodburning stove. Sometimes with too many hot peppers. 

“… it’s that yearning that one has at that age to practically apply their education in experience.”

Another session gave alumni a chance to talk about how living at the Homestead shaped their careers and life choices. The Denison Museum hosted an interactive simulation of one of the original Homestead cabins, and activities at the Homestead included workshops, mindfulness sessions, tours, and even a speech from President Weinberg, who has been known to pop in for a home-cooked Homestead dinner from time to time. 

Craig Freeland '19 was struck by “the connection that Homesteaders have no matter what year they lived there,” and Annabel Spranger '19 also appreciated the bond of shared experience over years: “It really showed me how important continuity is to the Homestead.” 

Richard Downs '77, son of longtime English professor Len Downs, describes the transformational experience of seeing Cleveland's polluted Cuyahoga River on fire when he was 18. “It became a need for me to spend a fair amount of my life’s work working for a beneficial relationship with the planet as opposed to an apocalyptic one.” When he heard nascent campus rumblings from students and biology professor Bob Alrutz about what would become the Homestead project—a “low-impact” alternative community—he reached out to assist, eventually helping to build the original student cabins. We asked him about how it all started—and why it’s lasted. 

Q: What was the founding mission of Homestead as you understood it?

Downs: Gloria Alrutz actually has a nice quote from her father—that the best type of education is education that’s grounded in experience. When Homestead started, there were all these events happening in the world, but as a student, I felt very, very divorced from them when I was sitting in a classroom or studying. I think a major thrust of the original Homestead intent was to really examine how we live together as a society and how we interact with the planet in a very real and experiential sense. We gathered our own water, we chopped our own wood. We were responsible for our own heat. We were responsible for meals, responsible for food gathering. So it really went back to a very basic level: What do we need from the earth on a daily basis and how do we obtain it? And can we obtain these things in a way that is beneficial and not damaging?

Q: What was your role in the founding? 

Downs: I had graduated by the time they broke ground, but Bob [Alrutz] and I would go out for work sessions. We would pound nails and put down flooring and do plumbing—whatever it took while the students were in class. Alrutz was under a certain amount of pressure from the administration to get it habitable and livable, and I was more than happy to go out there with him. 

Q: Was there skepticism about what that was going to be at all on campus?

Downs: Oh my gosh, yes. And I think there still is today. It’s an ongoing experiment. It’s continuously being reexamined and rethought—it’s been a very organic process. I don’t think anybody has come up with a fixed, final definition or plan for it. I don't think that’s even possible anymore. 

Q: You’ve been involved in some way with the project for 40 years. What stays constant about it?

Downs: I would like to think that it’s that yearning that one has at that age to practically apply their education in experience. Another constant is something I call the “Homestead ethic,” which is grounded in a certain appreciation and respect for the planet and for the dynamics of the ecosystem. I think part of the Homestead ethic is also an appreciation for other people, whether it’s appreciation of ethnic differences or religious differences or sexual differences. 

I get a sense that, 40 years later, there’s been a certain amount of validation of what we were trying to do. The Homestead and Alrutz started a recycling program, and now recycling is a part of mainstream society and the mainstream economy. We were always concerned about fresh food and some Homesteaders went on to become urban farmers in the Seattle and Portland, helping launch the farm-to-table movement. That first cabin that we built was revolutionary at the time because it used studs that we filled with insulation. And we were using double-pane glass instead of single-pane and thermally isolating our foundations. It took I think 30 some years but the international building code and national building code finally caught up to the standards that we used.

I like to say that we need the Homestead now more than ever. Our planet is under a fair amount of stress. But things can be done. We’ll see what happens in the next decade or so, but The Clean Water and Air Act and the environmental movement that was developing in the 70s have proved their value. We have bald eagles back in Granville and the Cuyahoga River is not on fire. A lot of progress has been made. So a lot of these Homestead ideas have proven their value, and to some extent, I think the 40th anniversary just validates the whole thing. 

“40 years later, there’s been a certain amount of validation of what we were trying to do.”

May 23, 2017