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Jared Phillips Studies the Back-to-the-Land Movement in the Ozarks

by | Apr 5, 2019 | Blog, Books

In what might be the first book of its kind, U of A historian Jared Phillips has written an in-depth study of the back-to-the-land movement in the Ozarks during the 1960s and 1970s, from its roots in America’s agrarian ideals to its lasting influences on the region’s politics, culture, and economy.

Most people remember the hippies for protesting the war in Vietnam and marching for Civil Rights and women’s liberation. But as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, “they became disillusioned with the methods that they had been using in the 60s; the protests weren’t working,” according to Phillips, an instructor of international studies in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. “They needed to refigure how we do this, how do we approach the revolution?” Many of them, he says, chose to leave the mainstream American society and move out to the country to live a simple life – or, as they put it, “bug out.”

One place that was particularly attractive to the back-to-the-landers was the Ozark Mountains. Phillips estimates that somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 hippies moved to the Arkansas Ozarks between the 1960s and 1970s. Phillips, who grew up in the Ozarks, remembered hearing stories about these back-to-the-landers. His interest in the topic led him to publish an academic article, which he then developed into a book, Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks, published by the University of Arkansas Press. 

In it, Phillips – who holds both a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in history from the U of A – writes about how the hipbillies tapped into a long-standing American tradition of agrarian ideals as a means of lasting social change. “They believed that in order to move away from all the problems of society at the time – such as how we relate to each other and to the natural world – we have to start at ground zero,” Phillips says. The hippies wanted to live their ethics of shared community, sustainable agriculture, and preservation of natural areas. “Think of it like Thoreau or Jefferson,” he says, “but with a little bit of acid thrown in.”

The Ozarks were an attractive place for a lot of reasons, only one of which was cheap land. The region also had something of a mythical attraction for many; it had been built up in the national consciousness, Phillips says, “as a sort of ‘hillbilly heaven,’ where the skills of yore had been maintained.”

While the hipbillies were generally well-educated – 75 percent held a Bachelor’s degree –“they didn’t know anything,” Phillips says. “They knew how to live in a suburban world, but they didn’t know how to live in a rural world, especially not in the Ozarks.” So the challenge, he says, was that they had to learn so much in so little time: “Everything from how to build a house to plant – not even a cash crop farm, but just a garden. How do you castrate cattle? How do you shear a sheep?”

While some of this information was available in publications like Mother Earth News, the Whole Earth Catalog and the Foxfire series, the hipbillies knew they needed to learn from the local community. Phillips says the old-school hill farmers didn’t necessarily understand or approve of the hipbillies’ lifestyle – “they don’t approve of the drug use, they don’t understand why you try to operate a tractor naked.” But they saw a group of people who wanted to learn skills from them that nobody else wanted to learn. It was likely that this kind of integration into the local community enabled the Ozark hipbillies to last longer than most other back-to-the-land movements of the time.

Of course, when people with such different lifestyles and values came into contact with each other, conflicts were bound to arise. However, Phillips says, the tales of conflict that dominate the discussion of this era are overblown: “by and large it’ll be a conflict born of early misunderstanding that then turns into a kind of amusement.” He says there was a level of traditional Ozark respect given to them: “you do your thing, I’m gonna do my thing, and we’ll work together when we need to.”

Though the height of the hipbilly phenomenon was almost 50 years ago, Phillips says their legacy is still with us in myriad ways, from Walmart selling organic food to the popularity of Bernie Sanders. These things wouldn’t have been possible, he says, without decades of “incubation of these ideals of community, of agrarianism, of class, of caring about your community.”

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