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Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

Chapter 4
Early Problems

A subtle division arose in the budding community between the Hindu-oriented yogis and Don and Sandy King who were holding bible-readings in their newly finished house. The latter felt uncomfortable in a group chanting 'Hare Krishna' while others who had Jesus stuffed down their throats as children did not want any more Christianity. A group LSD trip on the hillside below the Lower House brought about thirty people together in the morning sunshine.

RAMON: "For me, the highlight of that experience was the moment Don and I embraced, tears streaming down our cheeks. It felt like the healing of the Christian-Hindu rift within the group. The Morning Star consciousness was higher than any of the traditional antagonisms between the old faiths. From then on, musical sessions included hymns from all the religions."

LOU: "I don't know what I can say about Don and Sandy except that perhaps theirs is the only happy marriage I have ever witnessed in America. They truly have become one in Christ, and I think their achievement is enviable. They came from two wrecked lives and have built one together in Alternate Society which is very beautiful to behold."

A tin can was placed in the Lower House. New arrivals were encouraged to put in five dollars, although no one was turned away if they couldn't contribute. Lou bought a couple of hundred pounds of rice, wheat or beans every few weeks to make up the balance, so everyone ate simple, nourishing meals of grains, garden vegetables and occasionally fish contributed by local fishermen.

On June 8, 1967, Ramón inserted an ad into the local paper:

"Morning Star Diggers will swap work and organic vegetables for what have you. Diggers are determined to find a way of living that's human, person-to-person. Money makes life impersonal. It's our hope at Morning Star to establish a system of barter with our neighbors."

RAMON: "A little old lady whom we nicknamed 'Mrs. Le Moo-moo traded raw milk, eggs and butter with us in return for cleaning her barn and fixing her fences. We figured out the exchange rate and discovered we were making about fifteen cents an hour. But she was very sweet about it when we pointed it out, and we came to a better understanding."

Other neighbors did not share Mrs. Le Moo-moo's enthusiasm. With Morning Star's two houses and barn filled to capacity, huts, shacks, lean-to's and tents sprouted like mushrooms. 'Oms' and chants floated across the starlit meadows while Tibetan-style yogis perched on fenceposts and shell-decorated goddesses walked the boundary paths, tinkling like windchimes. One girl felt sorry for a neighbor's horses because their manes hung in their eyes. She gave them a trim, thereby ruining their chances for a showing at the county fair. When the noise and commotion grew too intense for some of the middle-class neighbors, they complained to the Health and Building inspectors. Nude bodies were visible from their land, and they were afraid the whole Haight-Ashbury was moving next door.

When the Health Department inspected, they found both septic systems overflowing. A conference with Lou and his guests left them impressed: "Lou Gottlieb will make every attempt to cooperate concerning waste disposal. There are intelligent people out there, and they will try to correct any problems themselves. We told them what was needed, and they agreed to do it right away."

The building inspector was equally sympathetic: "Frankly, I was thinking of throwing the book at them, but they've been so willing to cooperate, I've softened my attitude. Morning Star might resolve into a tent community because there are no restrictions against tents, but when you start working with two-by-fours, someone can get hurt and the building code laws are important."

Chuck Herrick, co-founder of Ecology action in Berkeley, arrived with his companion Betty. He gave a class in ecology at the ranch and convinced Lou to spend the money necessary to build a bath house. Work was already under way to add leach lines to the original septic systems. Crews of Diggers were merrily digging away at three one-hundred-foot trenches, four feet deep. At the Lower House, the crew had to work standing in the septic run-off, with the result that hepatitis hit like the Black Plague a month later.

Meanwhile, another life style arrived at Morning Star. Setting up their first camp next to Lou's studios, the Winos added a bacchanalian element to the already broad religious spectrum. Their drunken brawls, aggressive panhandling and thievery disrupted the community as well as further aggravating the neighbors.

LOU: "With the arrival of Nevada, Gypsy, Chief Roger Goodspeed, TW and Crazy Annie, we had the cast of characters for the definitive establishment, at least in my thinking, that it was impossible and immoral to ask people to leave the ranch. There had been some wine-bibbing, and there were a number of people in the community concerned about the violence and the threats of violence. So we had a meeting. Morning Star Ranch actually did have four meetings in 1967, and the minutes for one of them are around someplace. They are very funny. At the conclusion of this first meeting, it was decided that Nevada, Gypsy, TW and Crazy Annie had to go. They were too much. Out of the question. The could not stay. Gypsy, for example, had the habit of pulling his knife in grocery stores. I told him that it didn't make for good public relations. But he said, 'It's impossible, man! I never pulled a knife on him because when I pull my knife I use it, you see what I mean? You say I pulled my knife on him and I didn't use it, then you're killing my reputation!'

"Anyway, they had all gone down to the river that day, and we felt confident. They were voted out 'in absentia,' as it were. So I girded up my loins, because there were a number of people who were really terrified when the knives came out and the shouting and screaming started. When their car pulled into the area next to my studio, I went out to confront them. All five were in the car. I said, 'That's it! We've decided you have to leave.' Well, they took it in good grace except that Nevada said, 'Hey, it'll take me about a week to get my stuff together - to find another place to stay,' or something like that. The next day Gypsy came to me and said, 'I'm beggin' you, I gotta stay here.' And I said, 'No, no, I can't, you know.' I was very firm.

"Then I began to get into serious physical trouble. I had the worst 'yin fit' I've ever had in my life. I had a headache I could have entered in the World's Fair, cold sweats, mild nausea and uncontrollable weeping, all of which summarized in my mind that God's will was for me to stop doing that. That was the last time I ever asked anyone to leave Morning Star."

Not wishing to join Lou's sociological experiment, the neighbors' opposition to Morning Star came to a focus in their self-appointed spokesman, Edward S. Hochuli, whose property abutted the northeast corner of the ranch. An advisor to the president of a local college, he saw himself as an expert on the younger generation and locked in a struggle with Lou "for the minds of the children."

LOU: "Ed Hochuli retired to Sonoma County, the vice-president of a large title company. The first time I met him was at his house. I had walked over to apologize for something, I forget what. He had written an article, he told me, on the problems of leisure and also another one entitled The Rest Of The Century In Redwood Country. I thought that we understood each other. That proved to be a misconception. He only came over where there was trouble. One day he arrived, his face grey with certain green tones, his mouth shaking. 'One of your followers,' he reported, 'has a fire going near my place. When I told him to put it out, he called me a horse's ass.' I walked over to where George was camping and said, 'George, I'm asking you as a favor to me, to apologize.' 'I apologize,' George said. Then, with Hochuli still standing there, I asked George why he had said such a thing. 'Because he is a horse's ass,' George replied.

"The next thing I knew, Hochuli had started circulating a petition around the neighborhood, subsequently signed by three hundred and eighty-five citizens, beseeching the authorities to intervene in 'whatever it was that was going on at Morning Star Ranch.' This petition was what really changed the offensive strategy of the county with respect to the ranch, for they then went ahead and perfected the technique of injunctive procedure, a rare form of legal proceedings, especially in this regard.

"Well, I thought we should go and visit all the signers of the petition. Five ladies and I copied down all the names and addresses. The first one I met was the retired barber of Occidental, of Yugoslavian origin. I asked him why he had signed, and he said that he didn't know. Not more than three months later, when the shit had truly hit the fan, he came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry I signed.' Another was the bartender at Skip's bar in Graton. He denied having signed it. Well, after that I just quit going around."

Phone calls from irate neighbors poured into the District Attorney's office and other county administrators demanding they 'do something.' Finally, on the last day of June, Lou was handed a 'cease and desist' order signed by the Health Department head that gave him twenty-four hours to comply with sanitary standards for an organized camp or cease operations.

"This is an organized camp?" Lou asked in astonishment. "If anything, it's a disorganized camp!"

THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY: "It will be impossible for Mr. Gottlieb to comply with state regulations in twenty-four hours. The other alternative is for Mr. Gottlieb to close his ranch and order his people to leave until such a time that the regulations are complied with."

LOU: "Someone is afraid of something."

The Health Department head had at first refused to sign the 'cease and desist' order, and a dispute arose between his department and the District Attorney.

HEALTH DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: "Mr. Gottlieb says he's not operating an organized camp and never said he was, although someone reported he said he was. At first it looked like he was operating an organized camp, and we gave him the regulations that had to be met. He has been cooperating with the Health Department, and health officials have been on the property bi-weekly helping direct the abatement of undesirable sanitary conditions. We're sort of in the middle. We're trying to get all the data together and work with everyone concerned. We don't like to force people to comply with health regulations, but we try to help them. The people of Morning Star are trying to abate their health problems, and have abated a considerable amount. I intend to take no action against Morning Star until at least after the 4th of July holiday."

More tours of the ranch were made over the weekend to gather evidence that Lou had not closed the ranch as ordered. Finally a week later, a police car was dispatched to arrest him. It broke down somewhat poetically in Graton, a small town famous for the nauseating stench that permeated it during the apple season when the local apple juice cannery dumped its waste into the creek. A second police car managed to make it to Morning Star. Lou had just emerged from his 'piano box' after a typically intense early morning practice session, and was socializing with the score or more people lounging on his porch. He submitted to arrest in a lighthearted manner which triggered laughter from the crowd. At his arraignment, bail was set at $276 as he quipped his way through the proceedings. Bail posted and a court date set for September, he returned home to his disorganized-organized camp, more amused than threatened by the latest turn of events.

About this time, Bill and Gwen Wheeler paid their first visit to the commune. A blond, full-bearded artist from Connecticut, Bill had moved to Sonoma County in the summer of 1962 and settled into an old, rickety house on Coleman Valley Road known as 'Irish Hill.' He then bought a 320-acre ranch about a mile inland from the house and eight miles from Morning Star. That summer he had built a large, barnlike studio on his land. Gwen, a strikingly beautiful brunette, had met Bill on the street in Sausalito. She had left her family home in New Mexico after her nineteenth birthday to strike out on her own on the West Coast. After spending several weeks with Bill, she had accepted his invitation to quit her job and move in with him.

GWEN: "I was relieved to get out of the city, and loved our life by the ocean, surrounded by rolling hills. I grew to feel very close to Bill, although much of who he was and what he did remained a mystery to me. I was very intent on working hard on our relationship and, when my family pressured me and Bill insisted, I began wearing a wedding ring and took his name. The patterns of my life began to change. I learned how to provide much of our own food by making preserves, baking bread and tending a garden. I grew to love smoking grass so much that I gave up drinking alcohol altogether. High on grass, I lost my self-consciousness and my sensitivity to my surroundings was heightened.

"Our house was very close to Highway One on the ocean, and people often stopped by as they travelled along the coast. One day, three interesting young men in a truck drove up and stayed a few days. They had a highly developed consciousness of themselves, a sense of personal freedom and a positive - even radiant - outlook on life. When they left, I wished they could have stayed longer, and saw that Bill also was very much affected by their visit. They had asked him for permission to live on his land, but Bill had said he wasn't ready. It was those three men who first told us about Morning Star Ranch.

"The Morning Star family often could be seen driving along in cars packed to the roofs with bodies and faces, or standing along the roads and the streets of Occidental. They could be easily recognized by their colorful and often raggedy clothing, their unusual freestyle hairdos, the wide-open smiles covering their faces and the evident close feeling of family they all shared.

"Bill and I decided to pay them a visit. As we walked up the hill from the parking lot, we were greeted by Cindy, naked to the waist, wearing a grass skirt and smoking a cigar. She directed us to Lou's studio. As we knocked on the door, the sound of the piano stopped and Lou greeted us with an attitude of having had his fill of visitors, but still holding onto his belief that whomever came was meant to be there."

BILL: "Although Lou had never met us nor knew who we were, he welcomed us warmly into his studio where we talked about fifteen minutes. Since Sonoma County was warming up for some legal action, I advised him to get a good lawyer. He replied that he had experienced at close *and the tragedy of Lenny Bruce reduced to bankruptcy by legal fees, and he was determined not to let that happen to him. He also mentioned the need for more land; the thirty acres of Morning Star were not enough, and he seemed to sense I owned some. I felt a deep sympathy for what he was doing, but I could not see opening up my 320 acres. As a sop to my guilt, I left a twenty-dollar bill on the window sill. I could support what he was doing, but I wouldn't do it myself. 'Open Land' was a step I was not then ready to take."

LOU: "I frequently think of Bill Wheeler as my father and myself as the unruly kid. He must have been Henry David Thoreau in a previous incarnation. He is a true Gemini, unable to sit calmly for over ten seconds at a stretch. His energy is unbelievable! I don't remember our first chat because I was looking only at stunning, beautiful Gwen whom I can remember as a young girl riding a horse around Aspen, Colorado, when I appeared there with the Limeliters."

BILL: "After our talk, Lou took us to the Lower House where I got my first exposure to communal living, the high energy and good vibes arising out of seeming chaos. Ramón stood in the middle of it like a mother hen clucking over her unruly brood. He had a Chiquita Banana sticker pasted over his third eye. I told him I was building a studio for myself, but representing it as a barn to the Building Department to get around their codes. Ramón looked at me thoughtfully, probably wondering if all the new buildings at Morning Star could be classified as barns to placate the building inspectors. By this time, Lou had disappeared in a swirl of steam behind the boiling pots to help prepare another mad hatter's dinner for some seventy-five or one hundred of his 'guests.'"

The community remained polarized between the 'winos' and the flower children. Finally the winos were prevailed upon to move to the parking lot down by the front gate, and the front driveway was blocked by a large cross which Don King set into a concrete base. Wild Bill oversaw the encampment, charging visitors a small fee for the use of the lot and for 'guarding' their cars. The income allowed the Red Mountain wine to flow freely. The pile of empty wine jugs grew to incredible proportions as the sightseers continued to stream in. Rick often visited Wino Flats from Santa Rosa and became its informal historian.

RICK: "This guy came up to Morning Star with his wife to do a story on the ranch. He had gotten hold of some marijuana, and he set his wife down in the corner in front of a typewriter and he was going to smoke his first joint. Hey. this is the God's-honest truth! And this guy started smoking this fucking joint, and he said, 'I'm taking my first couple of drags' - puff-puff, and his wife started typing. Anyway, he got about halfway into the joint and, believe it or not, he was one in seventeen skillion, 'cause when a guy turns on for the first time he hardly ever gets off. Right? Okay. And a drunk, well, you gotta try him about four times. So here was this guy smoking a joint for the first time, and he was one in a million and he actually got off halfway through the joint!

"'My head's startin' to spin,' he said, and his wife typed it down. Then he started to babble a bit, and then he started fuckin' around, you know, and then the next thing he began thinking about what he'd done and started to get panicky. Then he got super paranoid, you know, and he flushed the other two joints down the toilet. And you know what? That cocksucker went over and got his old lady to go call the LSD Rescue Squad! No shit! He panicked out on half a fuckin' joint! So they came and hauled him away."


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