A Place Like No Other: Jonestown’s Early Years

I hope all is well with everyone.

It has been 35 years since we all lost family, friends and – for me – a way of life that I loved. That’s right. I loved building and living in Jonestown, in the years before Jim and the mass of people came down. I understand that way of life was and is not for everyone. But for me, it was everything.

I know that everyone in Peoples Temple was told that Jonestown was paradise on earth, and that once you got there, you would not want for anything. For those of us who actually lived there, as we found out, nothing could have been further from the truth. But what was it that we lacked?

In some respects, living down there was like how farming used to be back here in the States – hard, heavy work, mostly with your hands and your back – but with the additional challenges of the jungle thrown in, like the heat, the rain, and the bugs. We were also isolated from everything and everyone. If we needed a piece of equipment, we couldn’t go down to a local supply store. We had to fashion it ourselves, or wait for weeks while the order came in from Georgetown (or even further away), or do without. You had to have a pioneering spirit to survive.

04-14-touchette (chs)
Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

The first time I saw the Jonestown site, it was nothing more than a footpath in the jungle. We had Indians in front and behind us with their cutlasses chopping the vegetation away as we walked the three-and-a-half miles to what would become the center of Jonestown. And in just over three years, a small group of 50 Americans and around 200 Guyanese built a small farming community. From pure raw jungle emerged 1500 acres under cultivation. We raised our own chickens, cows and pigs. We did something that Guyanese officials told us that their own people could not do.

After a period of time, we had completed our first building. Known as the shoe factory, that building housed six of us. Our light at night was from handmade kerosene wicks which we used to read books and play dominoes and cards. We converted a 55-gallon drum into a stove, and we used other 55-gallon drums to catch rainwater for our baths. We relieved ourselves by walking out into the bush and hanging over a log.

But mainly we worked. From sun up till dark, rain or shine, we worked hard to build what we thought was going to be a better way of life for the family members back here in the States.

My job was to build the roads, clear the trees off the land for planting crops, and making the building sites. When I started, I got to see things that you see only in magazines like National Geographic: macaws, toucans, monkeys, snakes, panthers, nomadic Indians, and so on.

I had an eagle that looked like an American Bald Eagle which followed me while I was clearing the land. Every time I pushed vegetation and trees from the land, there was always something that would run out from the moving pile, like a snake, some type of rodent, or a huge frog. And as it scurried away, the eagle would swoop down and collect his next meal.

At first, the eagle would stay a great distance from me and would fly away if I walked towards him. But as time went by, I was able to walk towards him without him flying off. I would slowly approach him until he started rustling his feathers, as if he was ready to fly away, then I would back off and just stand there talking softly to him. The whole time, I would marvel at how beautiful he was.

I consider myself very lucky and blessed that I was able to experience such things.

My memories from 1974 till the beginning of ‘78 are many and full of love, and to this day they still bring tears to my eyes. Not only the memories of building of Jonestown, but the friendships and camaraderie we had before 1978 is beyond words.

I loved my time in Guyana! I will never forget it, just as I will never forget everyone we lost, from our family members to our friends.

You will always be missed and loved.

(Mike Touchette was among the original pioneers who built Jonestown. He and his wife were in Georgetown on November 18, but several family members died in Jonestown. His earlier stories for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at MichTouc@aol.com.)