How the ’70s Counterculture Shaped My Ozark Childhood

Going back-to-the-land meant confronting my family's, and our nation's, fraught racial history

Sarah Neidhardt October 25, 2023

In the 1970s, homesteading was the rage that took the counterculture rural. When she was an infant, Sarah Neidhardt’s family bought 20 acres in a remote section of the Arkansas Ozarks in Stone County, uprooting themselves from their home in Colorado Springs to forge a new life.

Neidhardt’s family was at once unconventional and part of a trend: they joined what was then a growing back-to-the-land movement, a phenomenon that amalgamated 1960s counterculture with pioneer homesteading. Driven by a desire for independence and agrarian self-sufficiency, this also entailed a life of rural poverty and a critique of the superficial affluence and constraints of mainstream society.

The University of Arkansas Press

Twenty Acres: A Seventies Childhood in the Woods, released this year by the University of Arkansas Press, is Neidhardt’s childhood memoir recounting this episode in her family’s life and their sudden return to a world they had left behind. At turns poetic and searing, Neidhardt wends through an array of sources (letters, artifacts, oral history and personal memory) to offer, in her words, “both a cautionary tale and an ode to an unconventional and pastoral life.” In the following, Neidhardt recounts her family’s encounter with the religious, political and racial dynamics of their new rural community in Stone County, and how they navigated the thin line that runs between isolation and community, solidarity and exclusion.

I was one of countless American children born of the counterculture revolution who spent some period of their youth living an impoverished rural life. Our parents went back to the land—a misnomer in that most weren’t going back to anything they once knew, but rather to some archetypal, pre-industrial past. As many as one million Americans went back to the land by the end of the 1970s. Daddy—28, quixotic, impulsive and headstrong—brought us to the Arkansas Ozarks in 1973, in a fever for adventure and rugged land, caught up in the zeitgeist of this back-to-the-land movement.

When you delve into the stories of other back-to-the-landers, it can begin to feel as though we were everywhere, passing each other on the road to rural America with our flea-market farm tools and woodstoves and goats. But I was unaware of that, feeling mostly that we were in our own little world. Although my family was part of this larger movement that now threatens to whittle the experience into cliché, then it was just home. It was on the farm that I learned to walk. To talk. To sing. To run in woods and swim in rivers. To read and to write. To make a home. It was where I lived at an age when my environment was making an almost biological imprint, the sounds and smells and experiences speaking to my very genes.

Neighbors

There was an old adage in the hills and valleys of Stone County that my parents have never forgotten: After five minutes you’re no longer a stranger, but after 20 years, you’re still a newcomer. We were living in yellow-dog Democrat country (as in, they’d vote for a yellow dog before they’d vote for a Republican), but it was because the locals held tight to the days and party of the Confederacy. It was just as conservative as it was now, which is solid red, or Trump country. Momma and Daddy were “furriners,” or “from off.” “Are you a Yankee?” kids asked Momma. But my parents had preconceived ideas about the locals too. The movie Deliverance was one of the biggest movies of 1972 and newly part of the popular imagination in the months before we left for Arkansas. A few months after arriving in the woods, Momma wrote home to her aunt and uncle, “Did however run into some types à la Deliverance the other day—very spooky—Otherwise, people here are nicer + friendlier than any I have met anywhere.” Stone County locals were a mix of families in modern trailers and brick houses and those still living in their old cabins. Except in the county seat Mountain View, there were no neighborhoods, but people spread out over miles of hollows and ridges and valley. They had their churches where we rarely ventured, but we all met at school events, Ticer’s Market, the gas station, the feed store, the laundromat or at the courthouse musicals in Mountain View.

Most of the locals were happy to chat and share small farm tips, their sentences a stream of vivid backwoods colloquialisms that fed Daddy’s already rich South Carolina repertoire. Daddy fell subconsciously into a slight rural accent—it wasn’t quite the locals’ vowel-bending, clipped twang, but it wasn’t the Yankee he had adopted nor the r-dropping Carolina dialect of his childhood. Daddy had shed the south for New York City, and now he donned it again, albeit in a more hill-country form. It was his personality to throw himself into each new adventure full bore.

My parents were not inclined to offend people with their more secular and urban mores, particularly not these locals they admired. Already the locals were becoming to Momma and Daddy like gods, so full of practical knowledge. They were the masters of that world, the professors, and my parents felt dependent on them. The mountain people, mostly isolated from mainstream society by the rough terrain of steep ridges and deep valleys, were charming.

We were careful. I made sure to never let a “God damn” or a “Jesus H. Christ” escape my lips at school. (Or, worse yet, “Jesus Fucking Christ.”) We were told or had sensed to keep quiet about politics and money and religion. Momma and Daddy had learned this growing up, in that reserved Protestant way, but it was a practical necessity in the woods. These were topics for the private spaces of home. Katy and I were also warned to never speak of marijuana at school. This was a dry county and teetotaler Baptist country. Some older boys on the school bus asked Katy what our dad smoked.

“I’m not supposed to tell,” she said.

The marijuana plants contributed to my fervent need to be a good girl out in the world. I was a high-strung child, aware as I grew older that our life was often precarious. I dreamed up catastrophe—venomous creatures in crevices, roiling black storms that ripped houses apart, cataclysmic bombs falling from the sky. And we knew Daddy’s plants were illegal. Katy and I slunk down in the backseat when the state trooper drove by as if by being invisible our father’s sins were too. But Daddy felt no misgivings about the plants. They were well hidden from the ground and sky, situated as they were among the constant sprouts of young trees. Momma, who didn’t smoke marijuana, was more apprehensive. She felt nervous when a neighbor saw a roach clip and wondered what it was; Momma mumbled something and changed the subject. She feared we would be ostracized if the plants were discovered.

Sarah Neidhardt being held as an infant by her father on the porch of the family cabin in Arkansas as her sister, Katy, crawls up to the front porch. Circa January 1975. (Courtesy of Sarah Neidhardt)

My parents also learned to ignore what they found distasteful, something they hadn’t always done in the past. Momma wrote Uncle Chuck in 1974, in a list of things that were different about their new life, that in the woods “most of our friends are Baptists + some are [N-word]-haters.” She was borrowing the local language intentionally to emphasize how far they’d travelled. It was in the woods that I first heard men refer to something being “[N-word]-rigged” or to the black fiberboard used on houses as “[N-word] board,” the only word ever used to name it at the local lumberyard. I didn’t yet fully understand what it all meant, but I sensed something amiss. Momma and Daddy knew, of course, and had witnessed more, casual derogatory comments and off-color jokes. My parents didn’t like it, but they knew it came with the territory. Eight years earlier, Momma had resigned from her sorority (the Alpha Phi Chapter of Gamma Phi Beta at Colorado College) when they refused entry to a Black student, writing to them, “I am opposed to racial prejudice, whether latent or expressed, and especially in any organization of which I am a member. […] There are some beliefs which I would compromise for the sake of harmony within a group, but this is not one of them.” Before leaving South Carolina in 1964, Daddy had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to protest segregation. He teamed up with Black students attempting to integrate local restaurants and dated a Black girl who went with him. They were often threatened with violence. But it was now harder to make such a stand as a lone outsider in the country, and, there being no Black people, there seemed less at stake.

Daddy had also grown accustomed to these racist words in childhood. They were an inseparable part of his Carolina past, the social structure that ordered so much of his early universe. So ingrained was racism in the world of my father’s upbringing—and so complete the segregation of the races—that it wasn’t until high school that he even became conscious of the issue. The only Black people he’d known to that point were Emma, his family’s maid, and Lurleen, the next-door neighbor’s maid. Emma worked for his family from the time he was a small child, and she stayed with them until well after my father left home at twenty. My father took a baby me out to visit her at her home in December 1972, to show me off to the woman he’d known his entire life. She had fussed at my dad and his siblings, cleaned their house, done the laundry and worked at their parties.

But one day, when my father was in his teens, he stayed home from school feigning an illness. “Emma was there,” he told me. “I made lunch for both of us and set our places at the breakfast room table. Emma was scandalized and said she couldn’t eat at the table with me. She took her plate into the kitchen and sat on a stool at the counter.” Daddy sat there, stung by her reproach and shocked that she felt they would be violating propriety by sitting together. She was like a second mother or a beloved aunt. But Emma knew more than my father did about the way of things.

When I was a kid, Daddy did not shy away from racial stories or jokes—he told them to us without censor or lecture, but with sarcasm making it clear that they were the work of fools and worse. Momma and Daddy wryly threw out phrases like “Free, white and 21” and “that’s mighty white of you,” subtly highlighting our unearned racial privilege. Daddy spoke of KKK attempts to recruit him and later intimidate him, of segregated water fountains and schools and music halls, of the so-called genteel racism of his mother (even she didn’t allow the N-word). Daddy spoke Gullah phrases to us that Emma had used, and I liked to leaf through his book Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life about the Gullah, looking at the pictures—their homes not so unlike our own—and taking in the poetry and meaning of the title that seemed obvious to me even then.

A few years after leaving the woods, I would become radicalized in a mild, young-girl-in-rural-Arkansas way (mostly inside my head), recognizing the real power of the N-word. In seventh grade, in Little Rock, I wrote in an embarrassingly earnest essay about my present and future self, “I have a very, very strong feeling about Negro people. I think there is nothing different about them toward us except their color. My anger boils over when anybody says anything against Negroes. If I had lived during slavery time, I definitely would have spoken up against slavery.”

I wince as I look back on the fact that Daddy didn’t take a stand at the lumberyard, that he didn’t force the word Celotex rather than succumb to the derogatory “[N-word] board.” How could he have used it if even his own mother didn’t allow that word? I suspect he used it in part to show that he wasn’t too good for them—it was a low-class word in his upbringing, and he wanted to diminish the class divide that separated him from the Fox locals. But perhaps there’s no way to fully explain the banality of white supremacy—how it can invade daily life and infect even those who would normally fight against it.

Reproduced with permission from the University of Arkansas Press

Sarah Neidhardt

Sarah Neidhardt has worked as a bookseller, secretary, paralegal, copyeditor and stay-at-home mother. She grew up in Arkansas and Northern California and now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and teenage son. She is a graduate of Oberlin College.

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