Book excerpt: ‘A quartet of colonists’

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    Kevin Dillon, of Grafton, N.H., enters the Grafton town offices on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, to pay his vehicle registration. He has lived in town since 1997, and grew up in Enfield, N.H., and New York. "I stay independent to politics," he said. "It's a losing battle." (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • The town of Grafton, N.H. on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Kimberly Hongoltz-Hetling photograph)

Published: 9/27/2020 3:45:44 PM
Modified: 9/27/2020 3:45:43 PM

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling first went to Grafton in the fall of 2016 as a reporter for the Valley News. He soon became interested in the bears and libertarians who lived there and the history of Grafton itself. After he wrote a well-received article on the subject for The Atavist Magazine, Hongoltz-Hetling landed a book contract with a major publisher.

The Vershire-based writer’s A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) was published this month, and the excerpt below, lightly edited for Valley News style, is from an early chapter as “a quartet of colonists” scoped out Grafton for what became known as the Free Town Project, a precursor to the broader Free State Project in New Hampshire.

In February 2004, a van lurched from one tiny, frozen New Hampshire town to the next. Inside, four men fortified by tobacco, alcohol, and firearms held court, every conversation tinged by an undercurrent of understanding that the Republican Party lacked the guts to get serious about freedom.

Like Grafton resident John Babiarz, the travelers were libertarians. One of the pernicious obstacles to the growth of the party has been its commitment to following logic chains into whatever dark place they lead, regardless of social mores. That’s why, in one true sense, the philosophy is deeply ingrained with America’s founding principles but, in an equally true sense, still engenders earnest debates over whether consensual cannibalism should be legal.

Though the road-trip roster varied over the course of the three-day journey, a core four was there for the whole ride.

Tim Condon, a well-spoken if bombastic 55-year-old lawyer (like computer coders, lawyers thrive on logic-based language), had been a political activist for thirty years. After serving in Vietnam as a US Marine, he returned home and found inspiration in the writing of conservative politician Barry Goldwater (who would later become an important bridge between Republicans and Libertarians).

Condon flew up to New Hampshire from his home state of Florida, as did Larry Pendarvis, the oldest of the group at 61. Pendarvis was traveling under the pseudonym “Zack Bass,” possibly to prevent anyone from linking him with his time working an office job for a health unit within Florida’s Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. That job had been abruptly terminated when coworkers, suspicious of his secretive computer habits, found digital files that led to a conviction for 129 counts of child pornography. Pendarvis was sometimes described as a split personality — reserved in person, but a vituperative troll online. During his child pornography trial, the prosecutor showed the judge and defense counsel a list of words written on a large notepad that described Pendarvis with words like “shy” and “introvert.”

Once the defense counsel had indicated it had no objection to the list being shown to the jury, the prosecutor surreptitiously used a pen to alter the word “introvert” so that the jury read it as “pervert.” When Pendarvis’s lawyer complained about the deception, the conviction was reversed. Pendarvis walked free and according to news articles happily began building a new enterprise — a Philippine-centric mail-order bride business. (Pendarvis himself had been married seven or eight times at that point, depending on whether one counted a brief period of polygamy as one marriage or two.)

After their plane landed in New Hampshire, Condon and Pendarvis met up with Bob Hull, a thin-lipped, well-to-do, 38-year-old New Jersey businessman known for both his quiet demeanor and his disco-era fashion sense.

The dream team was rounded out by the van’s bushy-bearded owner, Tony Lekas. Soft-spoken and intellectual, the 48-year-old was the only New Hampshire resident, having moved there from Chicago in 1979. He was a software engineer by profession, but he was increasingly consumed by the prospect of becoming a firearms instructor.

Many libertarians feel a deep kinship with America’s early days, which they view as a utopian golden age when government was small and people lived freely. The connection with that halcyon era felt particularly strong as they drove along, swapping stories of freedom. Just like the founding fathers, they tended to keep firearms within easy reach and were acutely aware of personal rights. And just like the founding fathers, they intended to father a new founding.

These four dreamers had struck upon a plan to answer the decades-old problem of mainstreaming libertarian ideas and had now come to New Hampshire to lay tracks for the boldest social experiment in modern American history: the Free Town Project.

If all went as planned, hundreds of Free Towners would concentrate their voting power to effect a political makeover, transforming a small American town from a stodgy and unattractive thicket of burdensome regulations into an “anything goes” frontier where, according to a website created by Pendarvis, citizens should assert certain inalienable rights, such as the right to have more than two junk cars on private property, the right to gamble, the right to engage in school truancy, the right to traffic drugs, and the right to have incestual intercourse.

The creation of America’s first Free Town was so ambitious in scope that it seemed doomed from the start, and indeed, almost every such population-level social experiment in history has failed spectacularly. Most efforts at planned communities involve artificially populating an uninhabited place, like a stretch of desert or an island—as in 1972, when a Nevada millionaire and his libertarian friends declared independent ownership of an island off the coast of New Zealand (a claim that was promptly quashed by the New Zealand military).

The building of utopias is limited by the rarity of visionaries with deep pockets. Building a new community from scratch requires millions or billions of dollars to create an infrastructure and overcome the challenges preventing people from living there in the first place. Henry Ford, whose assembly line kick-started the automobile revolution, learned this the hard way when his planned Amazonian utopia, Fordlandia, succumbed in the 1930s to the threats of rainforest blight, disease, cultural clashes, and an unhelpful Brazilian government.

The four libertarians who came to New Hampshire had thinner wallets than Ford and other would-be utopians, but they had a new angle they believed would help them move the Free Town Project out of the realm of marijuana-hazed reveries and into reality.

Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town — just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much larger organism and force it to work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.

That the perfect town would lie somewhere in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, the first of the 13 colonies to declare statehood, seemed almost a foregone conclusion. In a country known for fussy states with streaks of independence, New Hampshire is among the fussiest and the streakiest. It’s one of only five states with no sales tax, one of two states that limit the governor to two-year terms, and the only state in New England that still allows the death penalty. (No one has been executed since 1939, but they like to keep their options open.)

But which town? They drove about, canvassing communities, searching for the perfect place. The town of Roxbury was appealing, but since there wasn’t much land for sale, colonization would be difficult there. Lempster, with a stagecoach hotel on the market, seemed like a promising launching pad for incoming revolutionaries. But when they went to check it out, someone told them that the town was about to adopt zoning regulations — building codes designed to keep structures habitable and safe from fire. That was an absolute deal-breaker.

“Zoning might be used as a statist weapon by existing local political powers to block any large-scale immigration ... into the town,” Condon wrote in a blog post about the trip. “In addition, the existence of zoning suggests a ‘busybody-friendly atmosphere’ among the current populace. We wanted no part of any such place.”

In all, they considered and rejected 20 towns — too cold, not enough land, too many regulations, and so on.

Then they got to Grafton, 46 square miles of rugged bear country in the southernmost reaches of Grafton County. Here, over the course of the last five years, Jessica Soule and her Bungtown neighbors had watched as the signs of bears — scat, tracks, and manifest appearances — increased, but as the colonists drove in on Route 4, the only paved road that led into Grafton, they saw no bears. Nor did they see much in the way of commerce — in fact, there were no coffee shops, no restaurants, no retail businesses of any kind, save a tired traditional general store, which was fronted by a sagging wooden porch overlooking a single gas pump.

Clearly, this was a place where the “busybody-friendly” civic pride Condon abhorred was on the wane. In fact, outside of the general store, Grafton seemed to have just a few notable community features — in Grafton Center, there was the historic Grafton Center Church (which dated back to 1798) and a flagging roadside attraction in the Ruggles Mine, a former commercial mica excavation. The only visible municipal assets were the modest Grafton Public Library and the fire station, which also served as the town’s de facto ambulance garage and communal meeting space.

The fire station was where Lekas finally turned his van off Route 4 and pulled into a parking lot. The libertarians disembarked, stretching legs and cracking backs. They knew little about the town. The town, in turn, was equally ignorant about them. Though the would-be colonists were walking into a public building to talk about a matter that would have been of major public interest, the meeting itself was decidedly private. No one knew they were there — other than John and Rosalie Babiarz.

Right away, Grafton sounded promising. John Babiarz told them that native Graftonites were “unsupportive of bureaucracy” and “hostile toward zoning” and other busybody regulations.

That was good. They also got the sense that Grafton was a sandbox in which they could play, with little state or federal supervision. No longer tethered by rail lines and commerce to the broader world, Grafton had become a tiny fragment of civilization hidden away among the trees. And because Grafton had far more land than people, plenty of plots were available for would-be homesteaders.

Together, the colonists and their hosts strategized a naked power grab of the town government. Grafton had fewer than 800 registered voters, most of whom didn’t show up on election days. They figured that just a couple of dozen new voters could join an existing base of like-minded people to tip the scales in favor of a new order.

Might it be possible, Condon asked, to defund the local public school district?

There’s already talk about that, said Rosalie, who was a payroll clerk with the local regional school district.

At one point, their conversation was interrupted when Merle Kenyon, the chief of the Grafton Police Department (and its only full-time employee), walked through. The always-folksy Kenyon stopped to make small talk for a few minutes before moving on.

After Chief Kenyon left, the colonists concluded that he didn’t seem the sort to harass and arrest people for victimless crimes. Besides, “the police chief is an elected position in Grafton,” Condon wrote later, “so if power were abused, he could be voted out of office.”

Condon and the others asked their hosts if they had “any hesitation about a bunch of wild libertarians invading your quiet town? ... Should we choose Grafton as the Free Town?”

“Absolutely,” said Rosalie.

It’s not clear whether, at this point, the Babiarzes fully understood that the libertarians were operating under vampire rules — the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded.

John smiled. “Sure!” he said. “Why not?”

A bevy of libertarian neighbors could only help his mission to build New Hampshire’s Libertarian Party infrastructure — perhaps even help him become the nation’s first Libertarian governor. And anyway, logically speaking, the Free Towners and Grafton’s longtime residents all hated taxes.

What could possibly go wrong?

This article has been excerpted from A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. Copyright © 2020. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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