A pair of Twin Oaks residents (who asked not to be named) relax on one of the hammocks the community produces. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
While many intentional communities and communes founded during the mind-altering ‘60s and ’70s have vanished, footnotes to a turbulent social history, Twin Oaks is still going strong after a half century.
At any given time, about 100 or so adults and a dozen or more children live in the Louisa County community whose land holdings have grown to 500 acres. There’s a waiting list of people who want to join, and other communes have sprung up nearby.
“Partly because of Twin Oaks being such an anchor, Louisa County has become sort of the hotbed of intentional communities in the U.S., which to me is bizarre, because you’d think it would be in Northern California, or Vermont or Colorado or somewhere groovy,” says Ezra, 43, who has lived at Twin Oaks for 16 years and is rearing two sons, ages 7 and 11, with his partner. Like many at Twin Oaks, he prefers to be identified by his first name. “A lot of my reasoning for coming here, which I think is shared by a lot of people, is trying to live a life that’s in line with what you want as a form of positive political activism,” he says, while leading visitors on a Saturday tour.
“The communal idea is big enough to stimulate a lot of different dreams. But the commonest of all is the personal dream of no longer being lonely.” —Kathleen “Kat” Kinkade, a founder of the Twin Oaks community, in her book “A Walden Two Experiment”
Ezra was raised by parents who were part of the back-to-the-land movements of the 1970s, but he says Twin Oakers come from every walk of life.
After the community’s first five years, the average age of a Twin Oaks resident was 23 1/2. Now, it's about 42, though the number is fairly fluid because of turnover.
Twin Oakers tend to a carrot garden. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
With members contributing 42 hours of labor a week, Twin Oaks is a place where capitalists might feel at home — if not for the fact that everybody shares clothes and cars. The communal, unisex bathrooms also might come as a shock. But there’s also music and dancing and storytelling, and birth control is free. Additionally, everyone gets a private room, and a $100 monthly allowance, and there’s a sauna.
Live television is banned, but television is less relevant these days anyway, with the advent of the Internet.
Twin Oaks supports itself through a variety of businesses, from tofu production — about a ton of it a day — to book indexing.
Yet, it’s perhaps best known for its hammocks, which are sold online worldwide as well as in various retail settings, and have been a staple for the community since its beginning. Residents produce about 5,000 hammocks a year.
According to the late co-founder Kat Kinkade’s two books on Twin Oaks, another founder with inherited money came up with the idea of making hammocks. He also bought the farm where Twin Oaks is situated and leased it to the community until the members purchased it outright.
On this Saturday tour, a lithe, dark-haired woman is working in the hammock shop. “I’m Linda, from California,” she says. A former bookkeeper, she has been at Twin Oaks for four months.
“I was ready to see what else there might be in life,” says Linda, who at the age of 54 just made it under Twin Oaks mandatory age requirement.
No one is accepted who is 55 or older, given the work demands to keep the community viable. On average, Twin Oakers have an income of $6,000 to $7,000 a year. But there are no salaries or wages. The money comes in the form of an income share dividend from the community’s corporation, of which all residents are co-owners. Twin Oaks operates under 501(d) of the tax code.
“According to the IRS, we’re a monastery,” Ezra says with a laugh.
He adds that because Twin Oaks’ residents are technically impoverished, they are eligible for virtually free health care through the University of Virginia Health System.
“So one of the little-known facts is that one of the reasons we’ve been able to exist here as long as we have … is because we all qualify for U.Va. indigent health care,” Ezra says.
TaChai building, named after a famous Mao-era Chinese commune (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Every building on the Twin Oaks farm was built by the members themselves, including nine residence halls, dining centers, assorted warehouses, even a hospice for the end of life.
The community is self-sustaining with gardens, a dairy herd of about a dozen cows, as well as beef cattle and chickens. Recently, they’ve begun trading a food residue of their tofu operation to a pig farmer who uses it for feed, in exchange for pork bellies.
Although vegetarians and vegans are accommodated at Twin Oaks, so are meat eaters. When the tour stops in the community’s main dining hall, there is a thank-you note from one of the chefs: “Many thanks to those who killed and cut up animals this month, so that I could cook meat and we all could eat meat.”
All the buildings at Twin Oaks are heated with firewood during the winter, and towering stacks of cut firewood dot the property.
A building constructed into a hillside is used as a community school and learning center. It also is a symbol of a failed experiment from the early days, when Twin Oaks tried having all the children live in one building and be raised by community members.
“The idea was that children belonged to the community,” Ezra explains.
But many parents rebelled, and the experiment ended.
As children reach their teenage years, they have tended to enroll in public schools in Louisa County.
Sunya, a baker at Twin Oaks (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Of the other intentional communities in Louisa, the only true spin-off from Twin Oaks is the Acorn Community, a farming collective about seven miles away that raises, markets and distributes organic and heirloom seeds through its primary business, the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Twin Oaks helped Acorn purchase the property and a number of former Twin Oakers are now part of that community. Twin Oaks also raises seeds for the co-op.
Others include Cambia; the Living Energy Farm (which avoids the use of fossil fuels and promotes a sustainable lifestyle); and Little Flower Catholic Worker Farm.
Twin Oaks also helped establish the East Wind Community in Missouri. Every year, Twin Oakers journey there to trade for peanut butter, one of East Wind’s principal products.
Ezra says there are more than 100 ex-members of Twin Oaks living in Louisa and in the Richmond and Charlottesville areas. Why do they leave?
“There’s probably a thousand reasons,” he says. “The two biggest reasons are that people get together and find a romantic partner and decide they don’t want to live in community. Or someone fails to find a romantic partner and thinks it’s never going to happen in [the] community so they leave.”
Twin Oaks encourages visitors to come by and take a look, with a three-hour tour on Saturdays or a three-week visit where you can live like a Twin Oaker.
As Ezra ends this tour through Twin Oaks property and its history, a middle-aged woman on the tour, who gives her name as Wilma from the Richmond area, asks about the procedure for arranging a three-week visit at Twin Oaks. She might like to join.
“I just don’t like to live by myself,” Wilma says. “My kids are grown. I would love living in a community, so I wanted to, for sure, see what this entails.”
Twin Oaks has an annual turnover of about 15 to 25 people a year, some going and some coming.
Wilma thinks that, maybe, she’ll be one of the new arrivals.