Kenneth Patchen watches a rusty green car make its way up past the overgrown brush and massive trees that shade the winding entrance road.”You can tell what they want by how far they come into the property,” he says.

It’s late in the afternoon, and the sun has taken on a restful golden glow. Patchen figures that the car’s occupants are cruising for a make-out spot and that once they come into the clearing in the woods they’ll be so startled it isn’t as secluded as they thought that they’ll turn around and hightail it out. If they continue up the drive, he says, they’re probably interested in seeing the majestic wooden building that looms beside him–an enormous structure that has served over the years as a health resort, a hospital for the demented, and the site of one of the first free-love communes in this country. Every once in a while a third sort of visitor stops by to talk to Patchen about his hobby–growing and marketing grain amaranth.

The car practically screeches to a halt when it nears the clearing and quickly does a U-turn. “Yep, just what I thought,” Patchen says. “Just looking for a deserted road.”

Those who come looking for the building, which is 45 miles northwest of Chicago on Wooster Lake near Ingleside, can easily miss the entrance road. Set on 90 idyllic acres, the building is now abandoned and home to mostly raccoons and bats. The old nurses’ quarters across the way are home to a beehive that has taken over one wall. Only two livable cottages are left on the property (which is for sale). One of them has been occupied for the past couple of years by Patchen and his wife, Betty Ann Ralston, who often find themselves serving as informal guides for historians and curious tourists and as guards against unwanted punks and adolescent lovers.

Patchen and Ralston have collected books, articles, papers, and even family letters that reveal the history of the building, particularly the turn-of-the-century commune that built it. The Spirit Fruit Society was founded by Jacob Beilhart in Lisbon, Ohio–“spirit fruit” was his term for love. In 1904 the members of the group moved to the Chicago area, where they built by hand their Ingleside home, the “Spirit Temple,” which had its grand opening in 1906. Its two and one-half stories and full basement contained 40 rooms with oak floors, plastered walls “tinted with alabastrine,” and pressed-metal ceilings. It had, for its time, sophisticated steam-heat, lighting, and plumbing systems.

The site was close to the main line of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Saint Paul Railroad, which offered easy access to Chicago, where Beilhart preached. He and his small band of loyal followers embraced a worldview that emphasized freedom for the individual through community living. At various times Beilhart contended that he possessed a dual nature–male and female–and that both parts required expression.

Hundreds of visitors came to the site, many on the train from Chicago, to hear Beilhart’s teachings; the heterosexual free love appealed to some, the homoerotic practices to others. Beilhart’s theories appealed particularly to women, who were treated as equals in the commune. “All work around the property was shared,” says Ralston. “Beilhart felt that marriage subjugated women, as did motherhood.” Yet Beilhart’s sister Mary still caused an uproar when she had two children out of wedlock, fathered by different members of the commune.

Among the visitors to the Spirit Temple were lawyer Clarence Darrow, feminist Emma Goldman, and C.W. Post, inventor of Postum and Grape Nuts. Beilhart had once been employed as a nurse in a Michigan sanitarium owned by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, whose work as a health propagandist appealed to him. One of Kellogg’s–and therefore Beilhart’s–patients was Post, who introduced Beilhart to Christian Science and became a lifelong friend. The two shared an interest in health foods, and at least some of Post’s research into better ways of providing cereal food for the masses was done in Beilhart’s company.

Beilhart died in 1908 after an acute case of appendicitis. He is buried on the Ingleside property in a lone, unmarked grave overlooking Wooster Lake. The commune stayed on there until 1915, when it set out for Santa Cruz, California, to launch its third and final Spirit Fruit colony, Hilltop.

“I think anyone who’s ever been associated with this property was a utopian in one form or another,” says Patchen. “The place seems to lend itself to that.” He pauses. “I guess you can call me a utopian, too.”

Patchen has a full-time job with an Evanston-based company preparing environmental-impact statements, which might put him in utopian company. Certainly Post and Beilhart would have found his amaranth hobby much to their liking. The 4,000-year-old grain was only rediscovered in the past decade after being close to extinction as a commercial crop, and Patchen was one of the first farmers in the nation to cultivate it commercially. Now he teaches others to grow it; he also markets it through the Illinois Amaranth Company, which he founded.

“Amaranth has a distinctive nutty flavor,” says Patchen. “It also offers three to four times more fiber than other grains.” Amaranth has an unusually high amount of protein for a grain, he explains, and it is also a complete protein. It is gluten free, important to people allergic to more common grains, and its tiny seeds can be ground into flour and used in breads and other baked goods. The leaves of a young plant can also be boiled and eaten.

The grain was a staple of the Aztecs, but they also mixed it with the blood of human sacrifices to form a clay that was molded into pagan idols. When Cortez and his Spanish army came rampaging through 16th-century Mexico, Cortez wanted to put a stop to this ritual and decided that the easiest way was to burn the amaranth fields. The plant never regained its status as a dominant crop, though it continued to grow wild.

Robert Rodale, of the Rodale Research Center in Pennsylvania, made an expedition to Mexico in 1974 to gather amaranth seed for experiments. The center’s research has shown that amaranth is relatively immune to drought, can be grown in saline soil, and tolerates cold weather.

Patchen was one of those who tested the grain. Now he helps answer other people’s questions about it. Most of the inquiries mailed to him come from third-world and socialist countries–the Soviet Union has a project under way to commercially grow the grain, as do Cuba, Bulgaria, and Japan. Other requests for information have come from Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

“It is kind of ironic that after all these years the grower of an American amaranth crop would wind up on the property where C.W. Post would have come,” Patchen says. “Sometimes you think that some things were just meant to be.”

For information on the Ingleside area, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.