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Strumming in the Hills at the Fur Peace Ranch

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]e sat focused and ready, gray hair gleaming with wisdom, encircled by a class of 16 students. Masterfully strumming the chords, Jorma Kaukonen was positioned right before our eyes, clad in a blue-and-black flannel with tattoos peeking out from beneath.

The students concentrated intently on the teachings and notes gracefully filling the snug room. Kaukonen was situated between guitar instructors David Wolff and Marjorie Thompson, all three matching one another in comfy plaid wear.

“Don’t be frustrated,” Kaukonen said gently. “Everybody makes mistakes.”

From afar, Kaukonen might easily be mistaken for an older man with an easygoing attitude and a startlingly extensive vocabulary. Other than the occasional tattoo shown adorning his skin, or the gold tooth sparkling through his smile, there are not many hints of Kaukonen’s past and present as a rock, blues and folk guitarist, known widely for his roles in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

The students enclose Mr. Kaukonen, Wolff and Thompson, sitting on foldout chairs with their guitars resting among their legs or within their hands, itching to be played and practiced on.

“Make it your own,” Thompson chimed in while scribbling down the progression.

As the students became weary, a woman raises her hand in hopes of a group sing-along with the instructors playing the full song. Soon enough, the room was bursting with joy and energy, musical notes and happy words filling the air from each and every individual. At the end, applause arises from every angle, as the students and teachers praise the completed song.

This is Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar camp hidden in a miniscule Ohio village named Pomeroy. While this scene may reek of a typical classroom setting with guitars instead of pens and paper and a celebrity instead of a stuffy professor, this camp holds something of a much greater magnitude.

“There’s something magical going on here,” said John Hurlbut, Fur Peace Ranch manager and long time friend of Mr. Kaukonen.

* * *

Positioned deep within the hills of Southeast Ohio stands this remote camp full of gratified smiles and solitude. Shortly after getting off US-33 E I was utterly convinced that my planned day visit might be no more: I was nearing disorientation and fearing an afternoon of unintended seclusion in the middle of nowhere, unable to find our destination. Once making the next turn I discovered how wrong I was. I wasn’t lost I was right where I was supposed to be, a place bursting with individuals finding themselves, discovering new talents, new skills and, as stated by many, lifelong friendships.

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Mr. Kaukonen (far right) speaking with campers.

Fur Peace Ranch is a secluded guitar camp created by Mr. Kaukonen and his wife Vanessa, a civil engineer. Although already living in Upstate New York, Mr. Kaukonen purchased the 119-acre property in Pomeroy, Ohio from a well-known friend. Not knowing what to do with the land, Mrs. Kaukonen put her engineering and design skills in gear and became the mastermind behind the Fur Peace Ranch. Fur Peace Ranch then made its debut in 1989. “It was kind of a joke that I said we’d raise guitar players,” Mrs. Kaukonen said lightheartedly.

“It was sort of an outsource of me loving to teach,” explained Mr. Kaukonen. “We just had a lot of faith that everything would come together.”

Driving along the cement road, I saw the ranch approaching me. To the left was short, stout grass and, past that, a land of trees attempting recovery from the previous harshening winter. To the right I spotted a squat, wooden fence with reaches of land behind it, including a few poised hay bales. Most importantly is what approached me at this moment, a grand arch labeled “FPR” in bold, black letters. Passing underneath this declaration of the temporarily unknown, I entered Fur Peace Ranch, cleansed of all expectations and ignorant to all that would be unveiled.

After arriving to the camp, my nerves were immediately quieted when graciously welcomed in by the calm and comforting Hurlbut.

Hurlbut, a walking wealth of knowledge, first escorted me to the workshop building. A sign that read “Teach” adorned the wooden cabin, along with various wooden rocking chairs and a wooden swing. Inside the building was one sizeable room clad with deep red walls, carefully arranged fold-up chairs sitting atop a carpeted floor, a miniature stage and dozens of colorful, framed band posters proudly hanging as honorary embellishments. “Jefferson Airplane” and “Hot Tuna” could be read from any angle within the room, as these were the band names on the posters so respectably displayed throughout the cabin.

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Mr. Kaukonen’s many framed band posters.

Before the creation of Fur Peace Ranch, Mr. Kaukonen had already experienced a life of success, mainly beginning after college when he first became a guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, an American rock band formed during the psychedelic era.

Jack Casady, bass player for Jefferson Airplane, and Mr. Kaukonen then left Jefferson Airplane to create their own band titled Hot Tuna, with an emphasis on traditional blues. Mrs. Kaukonen became Hot Tuna’s manager and, soon enough, took part in the creation of Fur Peace Ranch. “It really is history from there,” said Mr. Kaukonen.

Mr. Kaukonen is furthermore renowned for his skilled fingerpicking guitar method, first made famous by gospel and blues guitarist and singer Reverend Gary Davis. Rory Block, a teacher at Fur Peace Ranch, passes on this skill to campers as well, having been taught by Davis himself.

During this particular weekend workshop, fingerpicking was the spotlight, and a large reason why several campers came. “I wanted to get an introduction to the fingerpicking style,” said Bill Seles, a kind camper and business owner from Southern California, regarding his reason for choosing the particular session.

Our next stop was the striking library, similarly constructed like the workshop building on the outside, but even more stunning on the inside. Guitar cases, posters and a massive staircase leading to another floor were immediately seen. To the right were blue, wooden chairs surrounding a circular table, squishy black and white chairs, gorgeous paintings, a game of chess and a large television, all used as a relaxing room for the campers to utilize as they please.

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A portion of the library’s bookshelf collections.

Once ascending up the gorgeous wooden staircase, the library came to view, complete with an extended bookshelf meticulously crowded amid books, posters, photographs, videos and much more. The wooden ground was protected with uniquely decorated rugs, rocking chairs and drums.

The sun glimmered upon campers while they excitedly mingled on the cabin porches with their guitars in hand, tunes pouring throughout the peaceful area. Numerous campers traveled from out of state to take lessons from the many accomplished teachers, especially Mr. Kaukonen himself. Just seeing Jorma walking around the camp puts everyone at ease, said Michael Beckerich, a camper and chemist from Connecticut. “He has this relaxing quality,” he explained.

Fur Peace Ranch holds four-day workshops for guitarists of all different levels and skillsets. Workshops run from Thursday until Monday for 16 weekends starting in March and ending in November. The workshops vary based on the teacher and time and can be chosen by the camper based on individual skill-level, or preferred lesson.

Not only does Fur Peace Ranch give campers the chance to be taught by famous, distinctive guitarists, but it also offers campers the ability to be surrounded by what they love—the music—and others who share this same love. “What I really like is that the people getting together that don’t know each other from all over the world are coming together with this bond of music and it really extends into, like, a family,” said Hurlbut with a voice full of compassion.

Finding and meeting diverse individuals who share this love for so many aspects of music would have never been able to occur in the real world, stated Beckerich.

“There is a thread of certain music that flows through everybody here,” Beckerich said genuinely.

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A FPR camper practicing on the porch.

“We’ve had people that came the first year and still come, so if you could think about, you know, people you’ve seen for like 16 years straight you really see people grow up,” added Hurlbut. “It really is like having good friends come to visit ya.”

Breakfast was easily spotted from the library and was accessible just a few feet away in the Beatrice Love Kitchen. The Beatrice Love Kitchen is another cabin ornamented with tables, chairs and delicious snacks and beverages available all throughout the day. Fruitful amounts of healthy, local food are provided during meals, consisting of items such as ripe fruits, colorful pasta and, of course, homemade ice cream and cookies.

“The food is great,” Jim Glennon, a camper and software engineer from Rhode Island, said enthusiastically while commenting on the local ingredients.

Mrs. Kaukonen’s face lit up as she discussed the unbelievable food, great cleaning staff and fantastic landscapers. “The staff that I have right now, they rock,” she said with a profound grin. She repeated this once more, her voice slightly louder, “THEY ROCK. We all are like a well-oiled machine.”

Hurlbut continued the informative tour by directing me to the Fur Peace Station, a large performance hall where countless artists have famously performed in the past. Fur Peace Station is used as a multi-purpose room, housing the administrative offices, classes and, very widely known, the Concert Series. Chairs are aligned neatly in a consistent pattern, facing the stage most often used for the Concert Series performances.

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A rocking grizzly bear.

Hanging on the back of a large majority of these foldout chairs are over a hundred names of various people and businesses, displaying the large multitude of season ticket holders. As described by Hurlbut, many individuals come back year after year for the Concert Series, as if it is their once-a-year “vacation.”

Just taking a glance at the Fur Peace Ranch website, it is easy to measure the popularity of the Concert Series, as concerts are already almost entirely sold out for the remainder of the year. “We’ve had great luck over the years with attracting great players. They’re all people that have been out doing it for many, many years. They know their craft well and they’re able to break down and tell you, you know, how they’ve done it and the lessons they’ve learned over the years,” said Hurlbut.

Not too far away from the Fur Peace Station stands the Psylodelic Gallery, a towering, silver, cylinder shaped museum full of psychedelic mementos. Countless white and black quotes cover the walls leading into the main room of the gallery. Within this main room stand dozens of photographs, art, and historical items created, taken, or worn by prominent individuals throughout history.

Mrs. Kaukonen sought to find a way to display the history and her appreciation of the psychedelic era that Mr. Kaukonen came from, including the large amounts of great art, music, expression, drugs and the anti-war movement. Describing the outcome of this era as “incredible art,” Mrs. Kaukonen wanted to “do more” and decided to create the original gallery space.

Mr. Kaukonen’s first wife’s zany pieces of abstract art are displayed throughout the gallery and can also be spotted while walking up the stairs toward the Liquid Light Show. Adorning the second floor of the gallery is an assembly of original band posters accompanied by well-fitting, massive tie-dyed beanbags. While relaxing on these unforgettably large cushions, the Liquid Light Show begins playing on the ceiling, with images moving to the beats of the psychedelic rock music.

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Some of Mr. Kaukonen’s first wife’s artwork.

A few steps away from the Psylodelic Gallery and the Fur Peace Station resides the Fur Peace Ranch Company Store. Outside of this cabin, a quirky wooden grizzly bear plays a guitar with his mouth wide open in song. The wide red doors open to a shop complete with Fur Peace Ranch and Hot Tuna merchandise, including dozens of T-shirts, posters, hats and more. This shop is the miniature Disney Store of Jorma Kaukonen, the only touristy-like area on the grounds, perfect for the life-long fans that reside within the camp, or come for the regularly sold-out concerts.

Fur Peace Ranch also supports many local businesses through the vending of items such as local organic free trade chocolate and coffee. These products, along with others from places like Pomeroy’s own Snowville Creamery, are sold in the Fur Peace Ranch Company Store and are featured during daily meals in the Beatrice Love Kitchen.

Within the Fur Peace Ranch Company Store stands Kelly Stewart, the woman in charge of all sales in-store and online. “There’s not a day that I get up and wish I didn’t have to go to work because of who I work for or who I work with,” said Stewart without any hesitation.

This optimism and love toward one another, and the camp itself, seems to be spread quite abundantly throughout the Fur Peace Ranch by faculty, workers and campers alike.

Thompson, not only Fur Peace Ranch faculty but also Dean of Biological Sciences at Brown University, explained that this camp is home to a much different environment in comparison with others. One blatant difference between Fur Peace Ranch and many other guitar camps is the strict no-alcohol or drugs policy. It is thought that a sober community will help create an environment where people are coming solely for the music and nothing else. “People focus on one thing and one thing only,” Mrs. Kaukonen concurred.

 

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Thompson teaching her class of campers.

“There’s something else going on here,” said Thompson. “As you can see, people fall in love with the place—more than addiction, it’s like oxygen.”

While I walk around the ranch during break times and meals, it is obvious that the campers have quickly become friends with one another, regardless of only having met a few days prior. All of the campers are extremely friendly, chatting casually over drinks and cookies, or practicing with one another in the open, crisp air. The opportunity to meet and stay amongst diverse individuals who share a common adoration for music was often stated by students as one of the greatest aspects of Fur Peace Ranch.

Students are housed on the ranch in miniature cabins behind the workshop and library. Each cabin has a white plastic chair sitting outside the door, and a hammock rests between two trees only a few steps away. The cabins are all aligned right next to each other in an all-encompassing fashion, allowing the students to fully engage in newfound friendships and discussion.

Although there are different levels of skillsets between the students, there is no sort of competition seen, said Hurlbut.
Instead, many students chose to look to each other for further advice and help with anything they may have missed during the lesson. “There’s a lot of sharing between the students,” Hurlbut explains. “It’s like a great support group of fellow musicians.”

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A few of the cabins for campers.

Beckerich described Fur Peace Ranch as a rare opportunity to immediately find and meet 18 people to converse with about music.

“People are very open and you can completely isolate yourself from the daily rat race,” said Hakan Altan, a business professor from Ohio State University. “There was a lot of information but I certainly felt like I improved my technique, but most important, I got a lot of new ideas.”

Although Seles, too, felt a bit overloaded with the intense lessons and practices occurring throughout the weekend, he agreed that it is a great experience meeting people from all walks of life while being thrown into the various teachings of guitar. “It’s immersion-type learning,” he added.

One common wish, though, was that a greater number of younger students would begin taking part in the workshops. Thompson explains that this is important as Fur Peace Ranch continues working to “keep this dying style of music from the twenties and thirties alive” and bring it forward. Thompson would even like to see these nearly forgotten styles passed along to those of a high-school age.

This goal seems to be a bit out of reach due to many factors, including the expensive $1375 price tag attached to a four-day, weekend-long workshop. For Special Weekends, tuition is raised to $1500. Making the cost seem a little more bearable, tuition includes all workshops, room and board, and a ticket to the Fur Peace Station Concert Hall performance, along with the student performance.

While meeting other campers is a great advantage of the camp, another emphasized fortune was the opportunity to work with, play and learn from Mr. Kaukonen. As is easily seen by his laid-back vibe, and was often mentioned by the campers, Mr. Kaukonen has an easy-going personality that is hard to miss. “I love working with Jorma,” Thompson said without hesitation.

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Mr. Kaukonen playing with Hurlbut.

Jorma and his wife not only consider you family first, but they also make sure to guarantee that the students don’t feel like customers, said Thompson.

According to Beckerich, this calming, tranquil persona is something that Mr. Kaukonen passes along very fast. “I find that important for me to enjoy the kind of music,” he added.

Mr. Kaukonen can often be found talking with students during breaks, eating meals with the students and faculty and fully immersing himself in a majority of activities both before and after his teachings.

Mr. Kaukonen is also known for always making a note of where his learned styles have come from, while managing to tweak them to fit his personality and still keep their essence. “One of the things that makes his style unique [is that] he learned the original style, but he’s always made it his own,” stated Thompson.

Beckerich refers to Mr. Kaukonen as “the captain,” who properly allows everyone do their jobs, opposed to taking over and directing others. Having had lessons from other famous musicians in the past, Beckerich admitted that those instructors did not have nearly the same teaching capabilities as Mr. Kaukonen.

Mr. Kaukonen refers to past experiences continuously throughout the day in an effort to teach the students his dos and don’ts, as well as personal mistakes and lessons. He easily opens up and not only shares the music, but his world, his life and his experiences, added Wolff.

Concerning working with Jorma and his positive, yet uncommon life approach, Wolff confessed, “It spoils you.”

Not shockingly, with a return rate of 97%, many campers were already planning their next visit back to the Fur Peace Ranch. “I hope to make this kind of an annual pilgrimage,” said Glennon. “It’s a commitment but it’s well worth it.”

* * *

Winding up the day, and beginning to conclude the busy weekend that had quickly passed, campers began to fill the workshop building once more.

After multiple workshops and lessons from Mr. Kaukonen, Thompson and Wolff, it was now time for the roles to be reversed, and the teachers to rest. This was an opportunity for campers to take what they learned and add it to songs they were working on, in front of the group.

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Two campers performing a duet.

It was the students’ chance to embody the man that they prized so dearly – Jorma Kaukonen. This was the man they had both learned from and watched perform countless times, at both the ranch and throughout history.

Instead of watching him play, it was now their turn to play for him.

“It’s like an open-mic, except we all like each other,” Mr. Kaukonen said goofily to the students.

Ample nervous laughter surrounded the room as campers looked at each other, waiting for someone to go first. One hand slowly rose as the first victim admitted defeat and took the stage.

But defeat it was not. Instead, it was an opportunity for students to test the waters outside of their shells and perform in front of a crowd, something that a number of them had never done before.

One by one, campers agreed to perform.

After each individual act was finished, Mr. Kaukonen would rise to his feet and provide a silly backward, behind-the-back high-five. Solo acts were seen, as well as various duets and trios, full of singing, strumming and beautiful music. Regardless of mistakes, students continued jamming on, finishing with much more certainty than that with which they started.

A show that began with a slow start full of nervous hands and shaky voices soon lasted over an hour, with hands steadily rising in an effort to tackle the stage and follow the last act. Individuals and groups continued to perform, some more times than others, all while sharing their loved passion again and again in front of the group.

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(In the center, starting from the left) Wolff, Mr. Kaukonen, and Thompson surrounded by the weekend’s many campers.

Amazingly, the man they previously looked at with admiration and inferiority, helped take away their anxiety, allowing the students to taste the delicious fruit he was so blessed to have held for most of his life.

“There is literally nothing like the Fur Peace Ranch,” said Mrs. Kaukonen with a charmed look in her eyes. “It’s like a vortex.”

Note: This article was written in May of 2014. 

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