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Kathleen Kinkade

Page history last edited by Andrea Brownstein 12 years, 5 months ago

Kathleen Kinkade, Founder of Utopian Commune, Is Dead at 77

Published: July 27, 2008

American soil has proved to be fertile ground for utopian communities. Since the days of Brook Farm, they have come and gone — most of them quickly. Twin Oaks, an experimental community near Charlottesville, Va., inspired by the behaviorist ideas of B. F. Skinner, still survives after more than 40 years. Kathleen Kinkade, one of its founders, died there on July 3 at the age of 77.

Twin Oaks Community

Kathleen Kinkade

The cause was breast cancer, said her daughter, Josie Kinkade.

Inspired by the ideal society described in Skinner’s book “Walden Two,” Ms. Kinkade, who was known as Kat, joined with seven other fellow believers in 1967 and took over a former tobacco farm to realize her vision of a perfect egalitarian society.

It was not easy. The farm’s well ran dry, cows starved over the winter and rammed-earth bricks did not generate the kind of revenue that the founders had hoped for. Pot-smoking hippies who drifted into the commune found themselves at odds with work-ethic missionaries like Ms. Kinkade, whose blunt practicality and executive talent — rare qualities in the counterculture — helped the stumbling colony achieve not just self-sufficiency but something resembling prosperity.

“She was the Hillary Clinton of Twin Oaks,” her daughter said.

Ms. Kinkade grew up on the lower rungs of the working class in Seattle. Her father died when she was young. After her stepfather was jailed for sexually abusing her and her sister, she lived with an aunt, whom she described as critical and unloving.

She flourished at the Prairie Bible Institute, a fundamentalist high school, where she learned the hymn-singing to which she returned enthusiastically later in life, despite her atheism. After a year at the University of Washington, she married Donald Logsdon, an Army sergeant, but the two quickly divorced. With a daughter in tow, Ms. Kinkade, headed off to Mexico City, where she learned Spanish and found a job teaching English to first graders at a private school.

In 1964, while living in Los Angeles and working in a dead-end secretarial job, she read “Walden Two.” Skinner’s novel, about humans living in a hivelike egalitarian society, strikes many readers as bloodless and forbidding, but Ms. Kinkade responded ecstatically. She wrote to the author asking if such a community existed, and if she could join.

She received no reply, concluded that there was no such community and decided to create one.

“It wasn’t the behaviorist theory that attracted her so much,” her daughter said. “I think she was looking for a middle-class village where gentle people, living according to egalitarian principles, sat around talking and listening to music together.”

Ms. Kinkade found a house in Washington, D.C., whose residents were trying to put “Walden Two” into practice and had been living there for two years when a wealthy Skinner devotee lent the residents money to buy a 123-acre tobacco farm.

Although the group laid down certain of Skinner’s principles right away — strict work schedules and equal pay for all, for example — behavior modification through positive reinforcement moved to the back burner in the struggle for survival.

Fault lines appeared almost immediately. Once the community achieved stability, some members wanted to float along in peace and harmony, making the woven hammocks that turned out to be a money-spinner after Pier One Imports began buying them. Others, like Ms. Kinkade, wanted to grow, create new communes and get on with the mission of transforming society.

“They really thought that the rest of the world would see their community and follow its example,” Josie Kinkade said. “Today I think Twin Oaks sees itself more as an eco-village, living lightly on the land.”

In addition to producing hammocks, Twin Oaks now makes foods like tofu in three flavors and vegetarian sausage.

Ms. Kinkade helped found two other communes, East Wind, near Tecumseh, Mo., and Acorn, just a few miles away from Twin Oaks in Louisa County. Both survive.

In 1973 she published “A Walden Two Experiment,” a proselytizing history of the first five years of Twin Oaks. A less rosy history followed in 1990, titled “Is It Utopia Yet?”

She made enemies. Her impatient style did not always sit well with community members fond of endless discussion and group consensus. Some regarded her as power-hungry and intimidating. In truth, she was more pioneer than hippie, an awkward fit wherever she went, too wayward for conventional society and too managerial for the chaotic 1960s.

“She was a tough cookie,” Leslie Greenwood, a commune member, wrote on a memorial Web site dedicated to Ms. Kinkade. “She was not fond of group hugs, had no interest in alternative medicine, nature-centered activities or tofu lasagna.”

The fires of idealism faded somewhat with the years. In 1980 Ms. Kinkade moved to Boston and worked, briefly and unhappily, as a computer programmer before returning to Twin Oaks.

“She came back from Boston not just frustrated but beaten down,” her daughter said. Her mood turned self-critical. “What did I build?” she said to her daughter. “A nice place for middle-class hippies to have a great time for a while.” To a newspaper reporter she said, “I’m trapped.”

Ms. Kinkade looked for new projects. She found them in the choir at the church in nearby Yanceyville, and in shape-note singing, the traditional Appalachian style of hymn singing that has experienced a revival.

In 2000, her daughter, who had left Twin Oaks and gone to medical school, bought her a house in Mineral; there, she rescued stray cats and talked to her flowers.

When Ms. Kinkade became too ill to carry on, the members of Twin Oaks discarded their own rules — rules drafted by Ms. Kinkade — and welcomed her back to care for her as she died. “These people really seem to love me,” she told her daughter before her death. “I don’t know why.”

She is survived by her daughter, of Louisa, and a granddaughter. She was buried in the graveyard at Twin Oaks on July 4.

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