If you take a trip 15 miles up the road from Poughkeepsie to Millbrook, you will encounter a large, stately Victorian home—unsuspecting, aside from the painting of a clown-like cartoon face on the façade of the building. The painted image depicts the face of the “turned-on” man, the embodiment of Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra, according to the Times Union.
Leary was an ardent proponent of the use of psychedelics for spiritual purposes and a prominent leader of the early psychedelic movement. At the height of the war on drugs, he was vilified by Richard Nixon, who referred to Leary as “the most dangerous man in America,” according to the New York Times.
Though the Hitchcock Estate, where Leary and his associates dwelled and experimented, now lies dormant and relatively abandoned, it served as the epicenter of the psychedelic movement nearly six decades ago.
In the early ’60s, Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) began experimenting with psychedelics at Harvard, where they founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The project later morphed into the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF), whose goal was to examine the religious use of psychedelics, according to New York State Historian Devin Lander. In Alpert’s influential book, “Be Here Now,” he described the rift that formed between professors involved with IFIF and those who were weary of it.
Tensions grew between the groups of academics due to their differing ideologies, and in the spring of 1962, Leary and Alpert were terminated from their tenured positions––Leary for his failure to show up to his lectures and Alpert for giving psilocybin to an undergraduate student. After being kicked out of Harvard, Leary and Alpert moved to Mexico. They continued their psychedelic explorations there before moving back to the United States a short six weeks later when the Mexican government learned of their controversial circumstances at Harvard and expelled them from the country, according to Lander.
Lucky for them, one of their remaining connections from Harvard was Peggy Hitchcock, an heir to the Andrew Mellon family fortune. She informed Leary and Alpert that her brother had recently purchased a 2,500-acre estate in Millbrook with a 64-room mansion which they had no use for. Leary and Alpert, eager to find a new place to relocate their project (which was renamed to the Castalia Foundation), moved into the mansion, signing a lease that obligated them to a $1 monthly rental payment, according to Timeline.
The house took shape as a psychedelic commune with a rotating cast of philosophers, psychologists, artists and pop culture icons. As the scene got wilder, and fear of the counterculture movement grew among politicians, the Millbrook estate became the subject of government scrutiny. In the spring of 1966, the Dutchess County District Attorney’s Office, led by G. Gordon Liddy (who was later involved in the Watergate Scandal), raided the mansion, and although they did not find anything aside from a small amount of marijuana, the estate came under inescapable surveillance, which ultimately drove Leary and his peers off the property.
Later that year, Leary reorganized the Castalia Foundation into a religion called the League for Spiritual Discovery (abbreviated as L.S.D.) with the hopes of maintaining the legality of LSD on the basis of religious freedom.
The estate also served as a meeting point for Ken Kesey—another prominent figure in the promotion of acid—and Leary’s sects of the psychedelic movement. In 1964, Kesey’s notorious Furthur bus carrying his crew of Merry Pranksters on their acid-crazed crusade across America made a stop in Millbrook. However, the two groups did not get along—the Millbrook group was too academic for Kesey, and the Furthur group was too rowdy for Leary, who was on a three-day psychedelic trip during the visit and did not bother to spend time with his guests.
Today, Leary’s dream of psychedelics being recognized for their powerful spiritual and healing properties is gaining traction in the mainstream, as evidenced by the nationwide movement to decriminalize psychedelics, including in New York.
Though the house has long been empty of Leary and his colleagues, their indelible influence still permeates the Hudson Valley. As psychedelic research picks up steam in scientific circles, the Millbrook estate stands as a monument to the movement’s ’60s counterculture roots and as a reminder of Dutchess County’s prominent role in psychedelic history.