|KASILOF - Four men in baggy cotton clothes and floppy hats loaded logs
onto a new John Deere tractor as they painstakingly cleared a field out of the surrounding
It was slow, sweaty labor. But it was paying off. On the land they'd already opened,
newly planted rows of barley, oats and wheat poked out of the soil. One day, say residents
of Ionia Inc., some 40 acres of organic grains will be growing here.
They believe they can raise cereal grains in Southcentral Alaska. Experts say the odds
against it are long. But Ionia has beaten long odds before.
"The people we bought this land from ... thought we wouldn't make it through our
first winter," said Barry Creighton, 57, one of the original residents of this small
Ionia was carved out of the woods in 1987 by a handful of families who were fed up with
the world, frightened by it and, they say, poisoned by it. They all were dealing in some
way with mental illness - schizophrenia, paranoia, you name it - Ionia residents say.
Fathers, mothers and some children were failing in their jobs, school and
They wanted to create a society of their own, a place they could live in peace.
"We were just looking to disappear," Creighton said. "We're people who
had to leave the amusement park."
After a yearlong cross-country journey from Boston, through California and into the
Pacific Northwest, they found just what they were looking for in Cohoe Loop, a finger of
forest buffered on two sides by Cook Inlet and on the other by the Kasilof River.
Ionia is not a commune, residents say. And it is not a homestead, exactly. But the
reclusive community is often compared to one, albeit a homestead with an "Alice in
To wander into Ionia - with its cluster of tall, white canvas tepees, vegetable
gardens, children jumping on trampolines and identical log homes fitted with computers but
no television - is to enter a separate world.
Ionia's families make their own clothes - big, loose-fitting dungarees that would make
a snowboarder do a double take and floor-length cotton dresses straight out of
"Little House on the Prairie." They grow much of their own food, such as kale,
turnips and daikon, a Japanese radish, harvested from the community greenhouses. They
prepare meals together, eat together and play together. Most important, Ionia's members
say, they meet several times a week to settle inevitable disputes that arise when several
families set out to pool their resources and raise some 30 children together.
At Ionia's core are four like-minded families who met in Boston in the early 1970s. The
whirling pace and clatter of American culture were driving them crazy.
They tried living in a Boston neighborhood but were seen as too weird, said Creighton's
wife, Cathy, 55. They were practically forced out in 1985, first stopping in California.
After spending the winter as caretakers at a summer camp, the families drove northwest,
thinking Seattle would have the space they needed. It didn't. Finally, Barry Creighton
recalled saying, "Let's go to Alaska. We've got nothing left."
Anchorage, deep in recession in 1986, was a renter's market, but it had too many
people. The Creightons feared that they would just attract attention and that it would be
like Boston all over again.
Then Aron Wolf, a longtime Anchorage psychiatrist, suggested they take a look at
Kasilof. This is a place where one resident built a house of old car tires, where sled
dogs may outnumber humans and where a bar is trying to enter the "Guinness Book of
World Records" with its collection of 16,500 hats.
Wolf turned out to be right. The community accepted Ionia with little more than a
shrug. Neighbors, separated by acres of woods, don't seem to have a problem with what many
people still call "the tepee village."
Wolf also steered the families toward a lawyer who helped them establish the umbrella
nonprofit corporation that allows them to apply for state and private grants.
"We've been bowled over from the beginning that Alaska accepts us," said
Ionia resident Michael Becherer, 48, a veteran of the group's cross-continent
In the years since, they have drawn friends, relatives, even people they've never met
but who share their ideas about solace and community and their need to treat, or at least
address, mental illness.
When they arrived, many of the residents were so gripped by schizophrenia and paranoia
that they barely functioned, said Cathy Creighton, using herself as an example.
"Twelve years ago, if you would have come to my house, I would have
disappeared," she said.
Barry Creighton said he either would have stared at the floor or started ranting.
"The basic thought was 'How are you going to hurt us?' " he said.
Suspicion of the outside world remains strong, but Ionia's residents increasingly find
themselves coming into contact with it. They say they're OK with that, as long as they
have the village to fall back on.
"This environment is something we're flourishing in," said Ted Eller, 46,
another longtime resident. "Put us somewhere else, and it's another matter. We'd
wither on the vine. There wouldn't be any companionship."
NO RELIGIOUS COMPONENT
If one word conveys the sense of the place, it may be companionship. Ionia shuns words
like "commune" and especially worries that people might conclude it is some sort
of cult. Not only is there no charismatic leader - it's tough pinning titles on anyone who
lives there - but its residents also have no interest in spreading anything that resembles
gospel. Not even New Age, which they view as poppycock.
"What we're doing works for us," Barry Creighton said. "If it happened
to work for somebody else, that would be OK too. We're not religious in the sense that we
think we have some better way to live."
The name Ionia is derived from an ancient culture born in the Greek islands that was
said to be the birthplace of scientific thought. The modern-day Ionia Inc. is constantly
questioning, asking itself what works and what doesn't. Its grain experiment arose from
"This is a group of people who found a focus and they're doing healthy things
around it," said Wolf, medical director at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
"Barry came in and said, 'We're probably doing all right but need somebody to tell
us.' That really has determined our relationship," he said. Wolf still conducts a
monthly community group session.
"We don't have any rules, but we talk a lot," Cathy Creighton said.
Morning meetings for the adults easily can last four hours, and nothing is done unless
the group reaches consensus.
"What they're doing is so all-encompassing in a way," said David Creighton,
24-year-old son of Barry and Cathy Creighton. The younger Creighton was calling from a
cell phone aboard a 90-foot yacht docked in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he works as a
He said he wants to travel for a few years, then eventually return to Ionia - or to
"the context," as residents call it - to settle down.
"They've devoted their entire lives to creating a little children's
paradise," he said. "That's really the motivation behind the thing, re-creating
a village mentality that's kind of been lost."
Ionia's families home-school their children and say they try to encourage them to do
what most interests them.
"They somehow instilled responsibility, even in the young kids," David
He said it's probably because Ionia's children think of themselves as part of a group
and therefore consider how they fit and how they affect the broader village.
The village approach to raising children and leading simple, low-tech lives takes its
cue from groups like the Mennonites and Amish. The elder Creighton spent a few months
living in a Mennonite village in Pennsylvania and said he admires the way such communities
work together. So Ionia borrowed the idea.
But the group didn't take the horse-and-buggy Amish dogma or what Creighton described
as Mennonites' strict Christian culture. There's no religious component to Ionia, and
residents have nothing against technology. Next to their hand-driven wooden wash tubs are
decidedly modern personal computers, often hidden from view by children playing video
games or surfing the Internet.
Each home has a TV monitor and a VCR and shelves of videotapes. Movies, whether on tape
or in the theater, are a central part of the social life, Creighton said. His shelf holds
popular Hollywood movies ranging from "Ace Ventura" to "Taxi
But there's no satellite dish or antennas poking from the roofs because Ionia residents
abhor the idea of a television or radio barrage.
They didn't bother to install toilets, opting for the simple Alaska outhouse.
"They use what they want to use," Wolf said. "It's very interesting.
They live very simply, but a few years ago they developed their own intranet between the
houses down there."
IT ALWAYS COMES BACK TO FOOD
The community's tall tepees stand smartly and drum-tight with their tops about the
height of the surrounding trees, wood smoke drifting from some of the cone tops. One
functions as the summer cook house, with a central fire pit warming a pot of water and six
propane stoves heating pressure cookers.
It always comes back to food at Ionia.
The mainstays at the dinner table were born of the 1960s health-food craze. But
Creighton said the group isn't eating that way for philosophical reasons. It's just that a
diet of whole grains, beans and vegetables made them feel better, so they began working
"We are profoundly sensitive to food in ways that other people aren't," Cathy
Meats, fats, dairy products, honey, syrups and spices - anything that requires
processing or reducing - are out.
"We tend not to eat concentrated food," she said.
Meals usually consist of organic vegetables, whole grains, oats and seaweed, seasoned
with miso, a type of soy sauce, and sesame seeds.
For breakfast, children may eat a bowl of cooked whole oats topped with sesame seeds.
Lunch and dinner, often eaten communally, might be a deceptively simple seaweed soup with
a side of brown rice, boiled vegetables like leeks, broccoli and carrots.
On any given night, a few women may be quietly preparing the next day's meals while
children, shrieking and running about, bounce on trampolines and take turns slipping into
a wood-heated hot tub.
A short walk away are the six log homes where most of the residents spend winter. The
homes are viewed with pride; the families had to learn how to build them.
ATTEMPTING THE IMPOSSIBLE
Despite their self-imposed separation, Ionia residents increasingly are becoming part
of the surrounding community.
This spring, Ionia won support from the Alaska Science & Technology Foundation,
Alaska Conservation Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Land Trust and a private foundation
called Firecatcher Inc. to help pay for a $60,000 tractor that's tilling the thin topsoil
that lies atop Kasilof's deep glacial sand.
Ionia wants to test some 40 strains of hardy northern grains, found in places like
Norway and the Himalayas, to see if they grow well in Southcentral Alaska's short, often
soggy summers. The state wants to know if it will work too, which is why the science
foundation invested $24,500 in the project.
"If it works, it's a good thing for the state and for them," said Jim Palin,
the foundation's grants administrator.
State researchers say growing grain in Alaska has been tried before, but nobody has
come up with a commercially successful seed stock that's good for anything better than
Tom Jahns, a University of Alaska Cooperative Extension agent keeping tabs on the grain
experiment, said he has managed limited success growing feed grains.
"I'd give them 30 to 50 percent odds, somewhere around there," he said.
"I'm not aware of any cereals grown for human consumption on the Kenai
The chance of finding a seed that grows a marketable crop of Alaska-grown organic wheat
is "a low probability, but it could work," Creighton conceded. Ionia is taking
its single-minded, questioning approach to the project, which just might tip the balance,
For example, instead of clearing a field with a bulldozer, which can be done in an
afternoon, Ionia uses its tractor to uproot individual trees. Then Creighton and the
others tap precious soil from the roots. They also have plans to use a powerful chipper to
mulch the roots.
Ionia residents say they're convinced they will eventually come up with something they
can use. They're more motivated than most people, they say, because they're growing food
that they see as critical to their health.
"Somehow we're going to find a way to have this grain grow," Creighton
By mid-August, he said, the field had been transformed into a wave of grain and three
of the experimental stocks showed promise: Two types of barley, Tibetan and excelsior and
Ladoga wheat from Canada.
In many ways, Creighton said, the effort to raise crops in an unforgiving climate
mirrors Ionia's struggles to find a place to live. Its residents don't pay too much
attention to criticism.
"We're used to that," Becherer said. Then he recited a quote they've all
heard many times: "Only those who attempt the absurd achieve the
* Reporter Jon Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org