As the Denison Homestead turns 40, a look back at how it all started with one of the community’s founders.
When Richard Downs ’77 turned 18, his father—longtime English professor Len Downs—drove him from their home in Granville to New York for his first beer. As they passed through Cleveland, Downs saw out the window that the Cuyahoga River, long a dumping ground for industrial waste, was on fire. “That was apocalyptic,” says Downs. “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 of the Homestead project—a “low-impact” alternative community—he reached out to assist, eventually helping to build the original student cabins. Forty years later, Downs looks back at how it all started—and why it has lasted. —Dan Morrell
DM: What was the founding mission of the 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 the 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?
DM: Tell us about 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.
DM: Was there skepticism 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.
DM: 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 students have at that age to practically apply their education to 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 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 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 Clean Air Acts and the environmental movement that was developing in the ’70s have proven 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.