Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke

By Dean Kuipers
Bloomsbury, 384 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)



Making fun of hippies is a pastime worthy of lawn darts and ignoring MySpace. Part of the appeal is that it's a risk-free endeavor. Since hippies are all about the peace and the love, one needn't fear retaliation. And like making fun of yuppies, hipsters or the liberal media, it's that much easier, since no one self-identifies as a member of the respective tribe.



But nearly 40 years after the Summer of Love, those who might be ridiculed as hippies are more complex than the snarkier angels of our nature care to admit. In a time when a movement to decriminalize marijuana includes both the ballot initiative and the jam bandwagon, something more than a party is afoot.


The story grows more complex in Dean Kuipers' fascinating new book, Burning Rainbow Farm. It's the tale of two gay, working-class men from the "Michiana" rustbelt who devoted their lives to a farm that was more of a stuttering business than the hippie commune many mistook it for. The farm's owners, Tom Crosslin and his lover, Rollie Rohm, were shot down by FBI agents on their property in southwestern Michigan in 2001. Their crime: growing pot and refusing to forfeit their land to the feds.


Rainbow Farm was a real farm in the sense that stuff grew in its soil. Its real purpose, however, was serving as an open campground and a music- and marijuana-festival venue. People came from around the Midwest to listen to music and help organize against the war on drugs. But mostly they came to share the kind bud in a safe environment. 


Cultural stereotypes may be great fun, but they're useless in explaining Rainbow Farm and its founder. A man of many contradictions, Crosslin grew up something of a rust-belt hillbilly in nearby Elkhart, Ind. In his younger days he flipped junk cars before graduating to start his own flagpole-mounting business. He then moved on to real estate. He was never an angel. Enraged by the Oklahoma City bombing ... and a wee bit sauced ... he assaulted an innocent woman in a restaurant. Meanwhile, he spent thousands  buying toys and school lunches for needy children.


Ultimately it was a combination of marijuana use and homosexuality that shifted him from a "government off our backs" Republican into a fighting libertarian. This was abetted by the febrile climate of the 1990s, when the mention of Michigan was invariably followed with the word "militia." 


Part of what makes Burning Rainbow Farm so compelling are the unlikely political alliances the farm witnessed. Many of its early festivals found members of the Michigan Militia working security, rubbing shoulders with earnest marijuana activists more familiar with petitions than AKs. Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but united for a time that's been ignored: The confrontation that shut the farm down occurred on the eve of Sept. 11, 2001.


The demise of Rainbow Farm had as much to do with a stupid mistake by Crosslin and Rohm as with the imbecility of existing drug laws and an overzealous state prosecutor: With law enforcement drooling to shut them down, the pair somehow decided it was OK to grow pot in their basement. When the raid went down, this irrefutable fact was what would've sent them to jail, and handed their property to the state. Making it worse: Rollie's son Robert (from an earlier marriage) was taken into state custody because of his father's legal trouble. With everything to lose, a violent showdown seemed all but scripted.


Kuipers manages to balance a critique of the war on marijuana while making plain the difficulties of running Rainbow Farm as a business. Competing egos, and ideologically pure activists aghast that the farm's owners would desire to make money, led to schisms better known to social movements than to festival venues. In short, the farm confronted the complex personal issues inherent to any organization. It had its triumphs and failures, but ultimately could not beat back the apparatus of the state.


Hippie culture invites derision for a lot of good reasons, not least of which is its tendency to dress up indulgence as something that's always "subversive." Kuipers doesn't get mired in these debates, but he does manage to make real and inviting a subculture that's too easily dismissed. Rainbow Farm was something way beyond a venue for jam bands and a place to toke up. It was people creating their own space and their own brief, messy utopia, and paying a huge price for it thanks to an injustice carried out by the FBI.

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