They were young, they were idealistic, they were high on peace and love and groovy music. They were, in a word, hippies.
A whole bunch of them lived in Athens in the 1960s "“ many in big communal houses "“ and a surprising number have stayed here to raise families, build businesses, pursue careers, and help give this place a flavor like no other.
And if you think they're looking back on their barefoot flower-child days with any embarrassment now, think again.
There remains in the area a small community of folks, many of them musicians and artists, whose shared roots go back to the patchouli-scented Summer of Love. They tend to still know one another and like each other a lot, and when they talk about those days and what they shared, they just seem to glow.
"I've just been struck by how lucky we were in each other," explains Mimi Hart, a long-time singer (Hotcakes, Local Girls) who lived in a big communal household in the '60s near Pomeroy Road, ("rent was $70 a month, and we didn't always have it") and who now teaches at Ohio University.
"It sounds corny, I'm sure," she said. "But it was wonderful, and we took care of each other. It was a great, growing time for us... We were naÃ¯ve, but not innocent, somehow, but we took care of each other. That was a lot of it. You weren't alone."
Stephen Kropf, another self-acknowledged old hippie who now runs a woodworking business in Athens, likewise suggested that any honest description of what the era was like for Athens' small hippie community is bound to come off sounding like, you know, just, wow, man. But so it was, he insisted.
"I wouldn't have traded it for anything," he said. "There's more hyperbole (about the '60s) now than formerly, but it really was a wonderful and unique thing to have lived then... I don't know that we'll see its like again."
He recalled, "I still have this very clear image of standing on the steps of the old Baker Center, and looking out at College Green" on a scene of what seemed perfect joy.
"There were balloons, and beautiful girls with long hair "“ it was like something out of 'Yellow Submarine,'" he remembered.
Joe Limoli, now a successful local business owner (Abrio's), said his involvement in the scene came through the mentoring of artist/sculptor David Hostetler.
"I think more people in that era were more free-spirited, I guess," Limoli mused. "If you had something, you gave it to somebody else because they didn't have it. It sounds kind of corny, but you got peace and love."
Like others from the era, Limoli struggled to convey the sense of the time. "It's hard, going back and trying to explain something that obviously isn't happening right now," he said. "It was just a really, really cool time, and it's hard to explain it, because it was more of a feeling." He laughed. "It was just a really, really cool time. That's all I can say."
To this day, he said, he feels a closeness to the people he bonded with back in the '60s that doesn't even require speech. When he sees an old hippie comrade on the street, he said, "You just kind of wave, you know? You don't even have to say anything."
John Borchard (a guitarist with the Wingnuts, Billycats and Royales, in addition to his career in medicine) also lived in communal households in Athens in the 1960s "with a bunch of luminaries from that time," including the Pomeroy Road site. "It really was kind of a communal scene."
What brought them together, Borchard suggested, was "kind of a new vision for the time. I don't think we were completely starry-eyed. But I think the feeling at the time among many of us was that a lot of the stuff our parents had been telling us really wasn't that great, and maybe there was another way of doing things."
A BIG PART OF IT, OF course, was the Vietnam War.
"The power structure in the United States was so awful, and the Vietnam War was such a disaster," Borchard suggested. "I just felt like, our parents' generation just wanted to send us off to this meat grinder. So there was an awful lot of real anxiety."
This was a big reason for the closeness amongst the hippie community, he guessed.
"I think it really fueled a lot of the bonding, circling the wagons to give you some sense of security from the powers that be," he said.
There was a lot of music in the air, and perhaps a lot of aromatic smoke as well. But Borchard and others insist that the sharing, the music, the sheer enjoyment of your friends, was the main point. He noted that the household would have parties just about every week, at which the music really was central.
"It's really kind of in contrast to college life today," he suggested. "Not that we didn't imbibe, but that wasn't the main event."
Kropf remembered, laughing, a time when he and a friend went to visit another friend who had been busted for drugs and was in jail. They cleaned up nicely to be presentable, he said, but when they got to the jail "the guards looked at us and said, 'You hippies think you're so smart! You come in here reeking of pot!'"
Freaking out, the two fled the scene. It was only later that Kropf realized that what the guards had smelled was the patchouli oil the woman he was with was wearing.
Hart remembered that "we had fabulous dinners. We had gardens. We were hippies, certainly, but it wasn't just sex, drugs and rock and roll "“ though none of us overlooked those possibilities... I always tell people, it was the best time to be young."
She also recalled that the men of the household actually pulled their share of housework.
"All the women were feminists," she said. "Some of the men, too."
Kropf and others admitted that part of what made the whole scene possible was that the United States was probably at the peak of its postwar prosperity, there were ways "“ college deferment, working at the local mental hospital "“ to avoid the draft, and they were, most of them, kids from relatively privileged backgrounds who were willing to live on the cheap.
Folks recall incredible bands always coming to town. "I opened for the Burrito Brothers, for Christ's sake!" Hart marveled.
Kropf recalled a popular club called the Appalachian Lighthouse, and how a local hippie contingent once persuaded the Grateful Dead to not only play Athens, but to hang out for a week. Hart recalled lending an upright piano to the band Little Feat.
Limoli remembered houses painted in psychedelic designs, and oozing-oil light shows projected onto outside walls. Hart remembered trouping to Baker Center, to watch Richard Nixon's speeches on TV. And most everybody who was around then and is still alive still remembers each other, it seems.
"It's remarkable to look around Casa (Nueva restaurant) or the Farmers Market and say, geez, 40 years with these people, and I love them all," Hart said.
Though he has left the area for years at a time and come back, Borchard noted, it's like he never left. "It was like, just a break in the conversation," he marveled. "It's like, 'Now, where were we?'"