They pool their finances, home-school their children — whom they sometimes discipline with small reeds — and have been accused in other parts of the country of being a cult and breaking child labor laws.
But in western Loudoun County, their neighbors wouldn’t trade them for the world. After all, they’re keeping the land free from development.
In 2003, the Twelve Tribes, a religious group founded in Tennessee, came to Hillsboro, a historic town of about 100 people 50 miles west of the District.
Many of the residents don’t take kindly to the McMansions that have sprouted up in formerly rural parts of Northern Virginia. In such postage stamp communities in eastern Loudoun, for example, “you look out your kitchen window into your neighbor’s kitchen window,” said Belle Ware, a Hillsboro resident for more than 50 years.
But the Tribe, as some in town affectionately call its members, has, in the meantime, staved off such growth by choosing to use its 35 acres as a communal farm. Fending off the developers has thus endeared members to locals who admit to having been suspicious upon the group’s arrival.
“There’s obvious curiosity whenever a group like that comes around,” Hillsboro Mayor Roger L. Vance said. Even so, “it was, frankly, a real relief when they were able to acquire that property and put in the farm they’ve got. It’s a great plus for the town.”
Since 2003, the group’s now-25-member chapter has amassed its land, which straddles the incorporated town’s boundary with Loudoun County. On a farm the group hopes will soon be certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bearded, ponytailed men and women in long homemade dresses plant crops, tend to goats and cows and follow the teachings of Yahshua (Jesus) through prayer, song and work.
A far cry from the hippie communes of the 1960s, the group owns for-profit landscaping and construction companies in Purcellville and plans to open a coffee shop in Hillsboro in spring.
Group members say they are monogamous, pay taxes, abstain from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex and possess no firearms.
To anti-growth locals, it sure beats an ominous proliferation of flags in the ground — the telltale sign of land surveyors.
“I’ve been watching this garden grow with anticipation,” said Francesca Edling of Loudoun Heights, as she purchased beets, lettuce and onions from the group’s food stand on the side of Route 9. “I am delighted that it’s a garden instead of a development.”
Next-door neighbor Marion Virts, 85, said she has watched Tribe members from her porch at 4:30 a.m. pick lettuce as the growing number of commuters begin their trek from nearby West Virginia along Route 9, a juxtaposition she finds amusing.
“I was a farmer’s wife for 50 years, but it was so funny to see that,” said Virts, who is glad the group’s land is being preserved. “I thought, ‘What in the world?’ ”
Over the years, the Twelve Tribes, which according to its Web site has a membership of 2,000 to 3,000 worldwide, has not always been so well received.
In 1984, one of its communes in Island Pond, Vt., was raided by state police amid reports of alleged child abuse. Authorities removed 112 children to examine them, but a judge ordered the children returned home after refusing the state’s request for emergency detention orders. The case was dropped.
In 2001, the New York State Department of Labor fined the group $2,000 for violations of child labor laws after the agency found teenagers working in the group’s candle and furniture shops. The group appealed the fines twice to the state Industrial Board of Appeals but lost, said Leo Rosales, spokesman for the Labor Department.
Luke Wiseman, one of the commune’s leaders in Hillsboro who was at Island Pond during the raid, denies all the accusations. Wiseman said that the group’s discipline techniques never amount to abuse and that charges of child labor and cult-like behavior stem from ignorance of their lifestyle.
“We have nothing to hide, and our life is open for anybody to come and observe any time they want,” said Wiseman, 32, who was born and reared in the Twelve Tribes.
On a recent afternoon, those who took Wiseman up on his offer entered the lush Hillsboro property to find members young and old preparing crops and fertilizer, while giggling children just let out of school dashed to a nearby pond and took turns launching off a rope swing. Nonmembers were greeted with smiles and warm hellos.
Every Friday, the commune hosts a musical open house, welcoming town residents for food and song.
While the group is always looking for new members, and has been known to recruit at Grateful Dead concerts and at music festivals on the Mall in Washington, Wiseman said the decision to join should not be made lightly, because it requires people to contribute all their possessions to the common pool and to dedicate their life to Yahshua.
“Faith is voluntary,” he said.
As for the locals who were nervous when the Tribe first came to town, they say it’s been more than just land preservation that has since won them over.
“We had an ice storm here this winter,” recalled Claire Cutshall, a Hillsboro jewelry store owner. “I hired a fellow to come plow for $60, and he only did one car length. Then Luke [Wiseman] drove up with his plow and said, ‘Want me to move your ice?’ I said, ‘How much?’ He said, ‘Oh, nothin,’ [plowed it] and just kept on going.”
“If they’re a cult,” she said, “they’re pretty nice.”