A Facebook search for my grandfather, Allen Noonan, reveals thousands of results. Most of these results lead to other Allens: younger Allens, Allens who were alive for the invention of Facebook.
One of these results, however, does include my grandfather. It is a photograph of an altar upon which rest two wooden sculptures, a paper titled “The New World Covenant Bill of Rights,” and a gold-framed oil painting of a balding deity, staring down serenely from a pastel sky. This deity–the artist responsible for the sculptures, the author of the Bill of Rights, and the subject of the painting–is my grandfather. The man who posted this photo on Facebook, who constructed and maintains an alter to my grandfather in his home, is a man whom I have never met.
This photograph, casually posted with the caption “painting of Allen Noonan” captured my imagination. The stories I knew of my grandfather always started and ended with the same basic ingredients: his belief in aliens, his subsequent books, and his commune (or cult – depending on who you ask). This picture, however, inspired me to look for different stories, stories of a life that would inspire alter-level devotion. When I asked for these stories, however, I found that my grandfather never told them. When his children asked about his life before the commune, Allen would tell them to focus on the present, namely, on the aliens, the books, and the commune. Here, I’ve chosen to ignore that advice, to do my own research, and to do the best that I can to capture the whole life of my grandfather, the man who inspired the commune.
Allen Noonan’s life began in 1916 among the exactly 1,593 citizens of Britt, Iowa. Britt’s town slogan is, “A Place to Call Home” (Britt, Iowa). Not, A Nice Place to Call Home. Just, A Place. Situated on what was previously just a “blank space of prairie and mire,” the Britt of Allen’s childhood was a close-knit farming and trading district (History Britt). Allen grew up in a small home on Main Street with his parents Bernard and Bessie Noonan and four siblings, Eveleen, William, Marcene, and Pauline. The family owned an electronics store as well as a coffee shop in downtown Britt, and outside of school the children helped with day-to-day operations.
In his father’s electronics store Allen first discovered his penchant for creativity and invention. During the after-school hours when he should have been watching the register, Allen would take the electronics apart and put them back together or combine them to make new gadgets for the store. After a few years of this, Allen designed a kite that utilized an alarm clock, a string, and a camera to capture aerial photographs of Britt. One of the few pictures I have of my grandfather as a young man depicts him proudly posing with one of these kites, taller and wider than he, with the words “Allen Aerial Photos” painted across it in large block letters.
Allen began high school during the Great Depression. During this time, few citizens of Britt could afford the luxuries the Noonans offered in their stores; however, Allen’s parents prioritized his education and enabled him to become involved in artistic and athletic activities despite this change in fortune. In May 1934 Allen was heralded in the local paper as the “first prize winner of the Auxiliary Poppy Poster Contest” (“Echoes From the Past”). This early award in the arts would foreshadow a life of creativity and an artistic legacy that would extend far beyond his hometown. Allen also ran on the Britt high school track team, and as a senior in 1936 set the state record for the mile run with a time of 4 minutes and 38 seconds (“Noonan Cracks Relays Record”). After he graduated, this record-breaking run earned Allen a scholarship to college, which he utilized for one year before dropping out to pursue a career in art as a sign painter.
Allen’s career as a pictorial sign painter took a slight detour in 1942 when he was drafted into military service during the second world war. However, even war couldn’t separate Allen from his craft and he was stationed in Africa where he painted camouflage onto Allied tanks. He also registered as a conscientious objector, an early indication of his staunch pacifist beliefs.
When Allen returned to the United States in 1945, he also returned to sign painting. It was while he was creating a sign outside of Long Beach, California in 1947 that Allen was first contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence. According to Allen’s collection of channelings, he was suddenly enveloped in a golden light and “taken up into a great room inside a spaceship”; here, he connected with the “Great Galactic Being” who requested that he be “the savior of the world” (Michael). This experience “knocked him out of his body and off the ladder on which he was standing” and changed the course of his life (“New Vibes”). After this first experience Allen discovered that he had “extraordinary telepathic abilities” and began to engage in “automatic writing” wherein he transcribed the messages of this Great Being (Tumminia, p. 54). According to Diana Tumminia’s analysis of these texts in her book Alien Worlds, these channelings synthesized a belief in extraterrestrial life and reincarnation with the ideology of communism.
In the years after this “cosmic initiation” Allen was chiefly concerned with communicating these channelings with the world (“New Vibes”). To this end, he established multiple temporary communal living experiences based around the philosophies communicated to him by the Great Being. These first attempts were successful in gaining converts; however they also “attracted some problematic individuals” and were therefore each eventually dissolved (“New Vibes”). During this period Allen also established the first of many entrepreneurial ventures: an art studio and coffee shop in Long Beach called the House of Meditation. The shop “provided a successful artistic outlet for the community” and also allowed Allen to begin creating and exhibiting his own art (Tumminia, p. 56). The House of Meditation reportedly also gave multiple successful artists their start, including the popular recording artist Jackson Browne.
In 1967, citing “telegraphic guidance,” Allen moved to San Francisco and set up a natural food store called The Mustard Seed (Tumminia, p. 56). The Seed, as locals called it, was a “vibrant and light filled” restaurant that provided food which was in accordance with Allen’s teachings, that is, cheap and vegetarian (“New Vibes”). Advertisements for the Mustard Seed offered a “delicious” and “natural” lunch for one dollar, or dinner for a dollar fifty (“Collective Communes”). According to the Berkeley Barb, a visit to the Mustard Seed would “put you in direct contact with many good vibes” as well as “soul-tingling edibles.”
While in Berkeley, Allen also established the One World Family Commune, which would become his lasting base of followers. By 1969 the commune had about 50 adherents and 3 “rockin’” bands: the Blessed Deliverance from the Demons of Dualism, the Angels own Social Grace, and the Chorus of the Messiah’s World Crusade. Allen took on the title of “Galactic Messenger” and began channeling messages to groups of believers once a week (“New Vibes”). There he also met my grandmother, Dianne, who quickly became part of the One World Family. Allen and Dianne went on to have two children in Berkeley: my uncle Allen David, and my mother Synthea Grace.
However, the reception of the Galactic Messenger’s teachings was not completely positive. In 1968 Allen was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover agent, a charge that he unsuccessfully appealed with the claim that “the Sermon on the Mount” required him to “give to those who would ask of [him]” (“Cosmic Messiah”). The Berkeley Barb also leveled some less than positive reviews of the commune stating that “words known for their link to classical forms of fascism and totalitarianism pervade the One World doctrine” and cautioned visitors from “digging too much into the Messiah” (“Collective Communes”). Other critics claimed that Allen’s “channelings” were nothing more than “psychedelic trips” resulting from the hallucinogens that Allen admitted to taking in order to “lift [his] spirit from the swamp of materialism and inevitable destruction” (“Collective Communes”).
In response to these detractors and the recently realized threat of government surveillance, in 1975 the One World Family moved to Stockton, California. There, my mother grew up in large home with about 40 believers who saw “sharing all things in common as the sensible civil way to live” (Tumminia, p. 55). In 1980, when my mother was 8 years old, she spent the year in Washington DC while her father ran for president as the only candidate for the “Utopian Synthesis Party.” Allen campaigned on the platform of “printing free money,” “worldwide work stoppage,” and “the canceling of all debts” (Tumminia, p. 56). Surprisingly, these promises could not sway the American people, and Ronald Reagan won the Presidency that year.
Throughout his life, my grandfather remained a child of Britt, Iowa, and the Great Depression. He remained inventive, and an artist, and continued his parent’s entrepreneurial legacy in almost every city he called home. Though he never told his children the stories of his father’s store or his high school track records, these stories shaped his adult life and the philosophies which attracted the members of the One Family Commune. While these members have solidified the memory of the Galactic Messenger in alters and oil paintings, my tribute to my grandfather is contained in the body of this essay, and in my newfound, lifelong affiliation with the good people of Britt, Iowa.
Britt, Iowa: A Place to Call Home. City of Britt, IA, brittiowa.com. Accessed 03 Apr. 2019.
“Collective Communes, Communal Collectives, and Counterculture Icons.”
Quirky Berkeley. quirkyberkeley.com/gone-3-collective-communes-communal-collectives-and-counterculture-icons. Accessed 03 Apr. 2019.
“’Cosmic Messiah’ on trial for pot.” The Daily Review, Hayward, Cal. Apr. 10, 1970. Ancestry.com.
“Echoes From The Past.” News-Tribune, Britt, Iowa, May 26, 1954. Ancestry.com.
History Britt, Hancock County, IA. history.rays-place.com/ia/h-britt.htm.Accessed 03 Apr. 2019.
Michael, Allen. The Everlasting Gospel: New World Bible. Starmast Multimedia, 2001.
“New Vibes on Telly” Berkeley Barb, Dec. 18, 1969.
“Noonan Cracks Relays Record.” Mason City Globe-Gazette, June 1, 1936. Ancestry.com.
Tumminia, Diana. Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact. Syracuse University Press, 2007.