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Life at the Bass Creek Commune in the Bitterroot – 12 Years on the Mountain

Life at the Bass Creek Commune in the Bitterroot – 12 Years on the Mountain

The commune along Bass Creek in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest was founded by four close friends who moved from the Bethlehem/Allentown area of Pennsylvania to Missoula in the summer of 1968. Tom Power, Kathy Healy, Peter Rice, and Mark Dinsmore were the original four communard stalwarts. Tom had a position at the University of Montana as an Associate Professor in Economics, having recently been awarded a PhD in Economics from Princeton. Tom’s appointment was in part what drew the group to Missoula.

Location on Bass Creek

Later that year, they identified a mountain property approximately 20 miles south of Missoula in the Bitterroot Mountains. The property consists of 160 acres situated north to south across Bass Creek Canyon, completely surrounded by the Bitterroot National Forest.

The property’s south-facing slope on the north side of Bass Creek was heavily logged in the early 1960s. For a significant part of its east-to-west aspect, the land also occupies the ridge up to Little St. Joe—the mountain the property sits on. The ridge is 800 feet elevation above the Creek and over 1,000 feet elevation above the valley floor. This elevation affords views eight miles up the canyon and, on a good day, 50 miles up the valley.

The property’s western boundary is approximately 2.5 miles from the boundary of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Combined with the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, it comprises the largest such area in the Lower 48.

Building a Home

The property had no buildings when it was purchased, but the group found a spring that initially produced about 5 gallons per minute. Buildings were built downhill from the spring to allow for a gravity-fed water supply.

The first building was a 10’ by 20’ log cabin, the foundation for which were several strategically placed log stumps—very advanced architecture. The cabin was later expanded with an L-shaped addition. In the cabin were a dining room, kitchen, piano, and bathroom. There was a primitive septic system for the toilet, and a wood stove provided hot water for showers. A homemade brewery was tucked in a corner.

By 1970, a 32’ by 40’ house was started to serve as bedrooms and a library. It was immediately adjacent to the cabin. The house was a two-story, pole frame structure set on concrete piers. It contained six bedrooms. Woodstoves provided heat up and down. To simplify heating requirements, the house was not plumbed and all such functions stayed in the cabin. The house featured a wrap-around porch that provided fabulous views of the canyon and valley, and made a great sleeping porch in the summer.

In later years, a root cellar and wood-fired sauna were added by the cabin/house, while a chicken coop was constructed up the hill—far enough away to eliminate the eau de chicken from around the main buildings.

Life on the Commune

Bitterroot Reforestation Tree Planting Camp
Bitterroot Reforestation Tree Planting Camp

The commune had a strong work ethic. After all, living on the side of a mountain is not an easy task. Cutting 30 cords of wood a year for heating, hunting for nearly all our own protein, maintaining terraced gardens in the spring and summer, and managing the daily needs of anywhere from six to 16 people, later including children—it was a lot of work.

The group formally and informally adopted several principles as part and parcel of the commune’s culture:

  • Nearly everyone was welcome if they could pull their own.
  • Money earned was shared equally; savings were not subject to communal income.
  • Decisions were made by consensus and weekly meetings were used to work through the issues at hand.
  • A perspective, however idealistic, was that we were attempting to show that people could live productively in an intentional community with a communal view of governance.
  • Pursuit of one’s avocation or vocation was to be fully supported to the extent practical.
  • Everyone should have basic competence at the essential skills of mountain living.
BItterroot Reforestation Tree Planting Crew
BItterroot Reforestation Tree Planting Crew 1976 Charles Rial second from left

From the original four “settlers,” the commune grew in the early years by fits and starts. Later, there were essentially three types of people who joined the place:

  • Those who believed this is what they would do for the foreseeable future; we were committed.
  • Those who saw it as a way station for education or sorting out where they were headed in life.
  • Itinerant travelers whose stay was usually just a few weeks or months.

At the low point, the population numbered six, and at the high point there were 16 people. All those who stayed for any time basically bought in to the rhythm of the place. There were only rare disagreements about what needed to be done in terms of the basics of making a living on the mountain.

The essential chores of firewood gathering, cooking and cleaning, gardening, fixing our modest car and truck fleet, snow plowing, beer-making, or retrieving elk and deer from a harvest in the woods were carried out with aplomb. There was a realization that these collective chores were part of the necessities of life, and no one really shirked them. Some of us even learned to cook.

Building an Extended Family

Charles Rial in cabin 1973

As we were all fairly young, our disagreements had more to do with relationships and roles rather than getting the basics done. Living in an extended family with those you did not grow up with was not a fluid exercise—it took work. The culture of “everyone being able to do just about anything,” whether it was fixing cars, maintaining and operating a chainsaw, felling trees, or driving the snowplow (a 1942 Dodge Power Wagon), was tough on those whose practical skills were not very developed. But we managed.

By and by, we became a true family—warts and all. We expected to take care of each other—even those we didn’t particularly like in the passing moment. The impact of feminism in the early 1970s was significant. It was a re-ordering that was difficult for all, and most of us made it through it without leaving the place. Reaction and over-reaction was the dialectic for a while, though it eventually re-centered relationships—I would say for the better.

Not All Work

We also had fun—actually lots of it. Whether it was trying out a new batch of beer, backpacking up the canyon in both summer and winter, extended hunting camps in the fall, bringing in the garden harvest, or hosting pig and elk roasts for our friends in Missoula and the Valley, we enjoyed ourselves.

Bass Creek pig roast
Bass Creek pig roast 1975

In the summer, we would take the long way into the South Sweeny drainage, which lay on the north side of Big St. Joe, by climbing over that mountain down to a pass that then led into the uppermost part of South Sweeney. It was a hidden canyon with no known trail into it.

The pig roasts were a broader community event. There were four collective/communal houses in Missoula, which in practical terms were all kinfolk. A pig roast would draw 50-60 people. One year Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder joined us. Allen arrived with his entourage of three Buddhist nuns and his harmonium. He entertained us for several hours in a musically led chant of “Merrily, merrily we welcome in the spring: merrily, merrily we welcome in the spring,” on repeat.

Political Engagement

We were also quite politically engaged. The new 1972 Montana Constitution called for a review of local government organization and function every 20 years. This was at the county level. We ran one of our fellow communards, Peter Rice, as a local government study commissioner. Peter received 650 votes in our small county, which meant to us that hippies were not totally persona non grata in our small population county—a center for the John Birch Society in years past.

CMR Firewood gathering
Charles Rial Firewood gathering 1975

We also focused much energy on the Forest Service and their plans for the Bitterroot Forest, which we lived in the midst of. The inland and Rocky Mountain West was at the tail end of a forestry practice of clearcutting large swaths (1,000+ acres) of the forest, leaving no trees for re-seeding except at the perimeter. It was efficient, unsightly, and ill-considered.

Arnold Bolle, then the dean of the Forestry School at the University of Montana, decried the practice as literal mining of the forest and distinct from effective husbandry that co-joins harvest methods with long-term forest sustainability.

Later on, Tom Power, one of the founders of the commune, became chairman of the Economics Department at the University—a post he held for 30 years. Tom developed a well-founded argument that the economic benefits of recreation and stable logging employment outweighed the short-term benefits of clearcutting and short-term dramatic increases in forest harvest levels.

Tom continues this work today, along with his son, Donovan Power. Donovan is truly a child of the commune, having been born there. Tom and Pam Shore (Donovan’s mother) have been together since the early commune days and remain so today.

The Commune’s Evolution

Although the commune broke up in 1980, it launched many a productive career. Pam Shore became a nurse and lawyer, Peter Rice became a leading researcher/practitioner in invasive weed mitigation, and Cass Healy became a rural Alaskan nurse on the edge of civilization and modern medicine.

Meanwhile, Barbara Burke became a public health administrator, Lee Walsh a senior executive in energy regulation, Charles Rial an economic development consultant and private equity manager, Steve Reitz a ski resort manager and generally capable guy, Eleanor Wend a substance abuse counselor—and the list goes on. Others became bakers par excellence, a guitar maker, a foreign sports car mechanic, marijuana cultivator, and dedicated fly fisherman.

Charles Rial and Mary LaPorte purchased the property in 2005, after 25 years of abandonment; all of the buildings had been lost to fire and vandals, save the root cellar and chicken coop. Charles and Mary’s older son, Griffin, built a cabin, guest quarters, and water and electrical infrastructure to re-establish the place. It’s good to be back.

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