The purple building in Mapleton, Oregon, is now vacant.
There are only five buildings here, along the side of the highway, so the purple one stands out.
Its hand-painted billboard reads: “café, books, gifts,” and shows a woman with flowing hair holding a bowl of steaming food. The “o”s of the billboard are peace symbols.
“When a fifth of the business is gone in a town of 600 people, that’s huge, you know,” says Wade Williams, a local contractor. He’s on his break, and has walked over with his buddy Dennis Howell, a logger, to peek into the vacant windows.
Inside the store is bare, except for empty wooden bookshelves and a wood stove. In the window, a sign written in pink highlighter reads: Farewell. Thank you for 44 years!
“You read the sign on this little placard over here, you get the gist of the kinda people you’re dealing with,” explains Wade. “What gratitude and what good people!”
For more than four decades, the Alpha-Bit Café was a staple of the small town west of Eugene in the Coastal Mountains — popular with motorists, log truck drivers and those who worked on the railroad.
Locals affectionately called it “that hippie cafe.” It served “grain burgers” a decade before the term “Gardenburger” had been trademarked. It was run by a group of folks who lived deep up the valley of Deadwood, some 20 miles away, on a communal farm called Alpha.
It’s an end of an era for the Alpha-Bit Cafe, but the farm is still going.
Alpha Farm started during the colorful chapter of American history when a counterculture generation went “back to the land” and experimented with communal ways of living. But while many communes of the 1960s and ’70s failed or faded, Alpha Farm has managed to hang on. In fact, it is the longest continuously-running intentional community in Oregon.
To outsiders, life here is a bit of a mystery. So, I went to spend a few days at Alpha and learn how it has managed to endure.
Morning At Alpha
Morning starts in the grey drizzle of rain.
The rising sun catches mist pluming from the forest. The air smells thick and mossy. The stream burbles, and the birds are just beginning to sing.
Kathleen trudges up to the chicken house to collect eggs, and let the hens out to wander for the day.
Nathan has chopped some wood, started a fire in the farm house and has a pot of coffee gurgling.
Natalie tends the spring starts in the greenhouse.
And Phil is fixing a chain in the tractor barn.
“We’re not Quaker by any means,” explains Phil. “But we are Quaker-based, and Quakers have a history of a good work ethic.”
They’ll work until they hear the dinner bell. “There’s a first dinner bell for 20 minutes,” says Nathan, “and then there’s another dinner bell for Hey, you better get your butt in here!”
Every evening, the residents of Alpha Farm gather. They start their meal with a moment of silence, and then kiss each other’s hands. It’s a gesture to recognize each other, and to honor that they have chosen to live here.
At the head of the table is 89-year-old Caroline Estes, the original founder of Alpha Farm. She’s dressed in a purple shirt, her favorite color and a shawl to keep off the evening chill.
She is the last of the original Alpha members, and has remained here since its start in 1972.
Back to the Land
Around this very table, Caroline and a handful of fellow Quakers had the first conversations of leaving their urban lives and striking out, like contemporary pioneers, to the Oregon wilderness, to carve out a rustic life, close to the rawness, power and purity of the land.
Caroline never considered herself a hippie. But like many others at the time, she felt a disconnect and dissatisfaction with mainstream America — the segregation, sexism and war that raged in Vietnam.
She envisioned a simple place, where she and her husband Jim and others could live out their Quaker values of non-violence, egalitarianism and hard work.
“The intentional communities of the 1960s era were far more diverse than the stereotype of the hippie commune would suggest,” wrote Timothy Miller, in The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. “A great many of them were religious in basis, stressing spiritual seeking and disciplined lifestyles. Others were founded on secular visions of a better society.”
With a small group of like-minded individuals, Caroline traded her urban life in Philadelphia for a farm deep in the coastal mountains of Oregon.
It was at the end of a gravel road, with forests, hay fields and a flowing creek.
Besides a small family farm, it had also been the post office of the area, named after the daughter of the first local post master in 1890. Though when Caroline first stepped across the bridge to Alpha Farm, she had no idea that its past role of mail provider to the area would become a vital part of the new Alpha commune.
Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, means “the beginning.” For Caroline, its symbolism couldn’t have been more fitting.
The First Summer Into Winter
That first summer, they set to work. They cut wood to heat their homes, and planted a garden to grow food.
They’d sold off their homes and pooled their savings to move. The purchase of the land took almost everything they had, and they needed to pay bills. So within the first few months, they launched a business to help support the farm. They called it the Alpha-Bit Café — a play of words from “alphabet” and, as they liked to say, the store was “a little bit of Alpha” out in the wider community.
“We didn’t count hours and days we had to work,” recalls Caroline. “Maybe 12 hour days, maybe 10 hour days, maybe six days a week, maybe seven days a week, but that wasn’t how we qualified what we were doing.”
At the big table, she looks over a handful of photos I’ve asked her to share with me. They show a group of young folks with shaggy hair and smiles. Men with thick beards and women in flower dresses. Moments captured: a pregnant woman watering the garden, a small team converting the former pool hall into the Alpha-Bit Café, people in the farmhouse kitchen cooking a shared meal.
“I think it would be fair to say that all of these people wanted to live a whole life,” Caroline explains, “and I guess we could say a wholesome life with a view to creating something that was sustainable and long-term.”
Acceptance of the hippie cafe in the logging town of Mapleton was a slow start. Locals eyed the newcomers with suspicion.
It wasn’t clear if the new communal farm was going to economically survive. But the retirement of the local mailman gave the newcomers an unexpected opportunity.
The mail route has been a dependable source of income, and sustained them though lean times. It also gave them another point of contact with the surrounding community.
“The main reason that they started Alpha-Bit in the first place was outreach into the community,” says Phil. He’s driving a white station-wagon, dropping mail into boxes every quarter-mile or so along a gravel road that twists deeper and deeper into the wooded mountains. He knows the neighbors and says that if they needed something, Alpha would help, and vice versa.
At Christmas, Alpha bakes treats and hands them out to their 240 or so mail customers.
Holding On Through Winter
Alpha lasted its first year, and then another and another. And that was no small feat, the locals knew.
“You must go through a winter to understand,” Ken Kesey wrote in Sometimes a Great Notion. The land of the Coastal Range, Kesey describes, has a way of making one feel small and insignificant, as if all their toil is always being engulfed by the forest, erased by the rain.
It rains here, and rains, and rains. Moss covers everything. Blackberry bushes engulf buildings, and sometimes within just a few years, what was once a cabin or barn collapses into a lump of ferns.
There’s an old bus at Alpha, with faded paint that still barely reads: Tabernacle.
It’s had rounds of residents. When I first visited it was empty, half hidden in vines. When I returned a couple months later, Nathan had moved in, hacked back the bramble and stoked a new fire in the rusted wood stove.
He found a record player and old LPs in Alpha’s storage room. He’s from Oklahoma, and propped up the album “Oklahoma!” for decor.
The old records spin and crackle cowboy songs of the wide open range. The rain taps the metal roof of the old Tabernacle bus and drizzles down the windows. Nathan sits and stares out at the blurry view of a watery world.
Back at the farm house, Natalie takes a guitar out and strums a few chords under a blossoming apple tree, but then decides it’s too wet and chilly and returns inside to help Caroline slice vegetables for dinner.
At its height, Alpha was just over 30 people, and five at the lowest. This spring, at eight people, it’s pretty low.
Nathan and Natalie are new arrivals.
Caroline praises them both. Nathan has brought construction skills and a farmhand work ethic. Natalie has taken to helping nurture the new plants in the greenhouse, and pitches in on every small task with a broad smile and youthful enthusiasm.
At age 20, she’s the youngest. She feels that she’s learning wisdom from the older generation of the tiny community, but sometimes, she admits, she feels lonely. When the rain pauses for a moment of spring sun she goes out to the old trampoline, and dances alone.
After dinner and dish washing, Caroline hugs Natalie, looks her in the eye, and tells her: “You are a gift.”
But deep down, Caroline knows. After so many seasons, decade after decade, she knows. As summer warms and the rain ebbs, Alpha will grow by a couple of new folks; when the rain returns, only the core group will hunker down.
By next winter, Natalie and Nathan will have moved on.
Caroline has faith that come next spring, new arrivals will appear. It has always been so, she tells me.
Return of Spring to Summer
At least six babies have been born at Alpha. It’s seen several marriages and four deaths — including Caroline’s husband, Jim.
He’s buried at a small clearing near the road. His grave is marked by a weeping cherry tree. Caroline steps slowly on the soft ground. She likes this spot, she explains, because it feels full of vibrant energy. When it is her time, she expects to be here—next to her husband.
As Caroline nears 90, as the back-to-the-land movement fades further into the past, and as a new generation grows up in an urban, digital age, it’s not clear how many more years Alpha will go on.
“Alpha Farm is going away,” states Phil. “It may not go away when Caroline dies. It may last another 10 years, let’s give it 100 years, let’s say a 1,000, OK? It’s going away. You don’t have to keep it going. The point isn’t keeping Alpha Farm going. The point is when you’re going what you are doing.”
So for now, Alpha remains.
Little leaves of kale and tendrils of snap peas grow in the greenhouse as the rain runs down the glass. Wood smoke rises from stove pipes. And as the day’s chores are done, the bell rings.
The residents of Alpha gather once again, around platters of steaming food. They clasp each other’s hands, and take a moment of silence to recognize where they are, and why they have come together once again.