A historical perspective of Morningstar and Wheeler ranches

For those of us still counting, it was 70 years ago that Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play. But 50 years ago, in the wake of the Summer of Love, Sonoma County experienced a psychedelic happening of its own as “the hippies” took up residence in the West County hills on two infamous communes, Morning Star Ranch and Wheeler Ranch.

While the rest of the country remembers the magic summer of 1967 with tributes, an enclave of survivors still thrives here as a testament to the ideals espoused in the back-to-the-land movement. Friends of Bill Wheeler and Morning Star patriarch Lou Gottlieb, such as Ramon Sender Barayón and longtime West County supporter of public art Steve Fowler, carry the memories of a profound moment at a pivotal point in American history. Much of what proponents of the movement held dear still guides the culture in towns like Occidental, Graton and Sebastopol, where the people are dedicated to equality for all citizens, the preservation of open spaces and art for the sake of society.

West County Museum curator Erin Sheffield collected memorabilia from local “hippie elders” to recreate the environment that “those rebels against consumerism and conformity built in the forests of Graton and Occidental from 1966 to 1973.” Co-curator Sue Pekarsky researched 45-year-old records of why the county shut down the communes. The exhibit, “The Hippies,” runs through March.

Morning Star Ranch: 1966-1969
The Morning Star property, 30-odd acres that sit above Graton Road, south and east of Harrison Grade Road, is a former chicken ranch that was at one time owned by poet John Beecher, a direct descendent of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In 1962, Gottlieb, bassist for the folk group the Limeliters, who died in 1996, purchased the property as an investment and tax shelter.

Gottlieb initially intended to sub-divide the land into seven parcels, develop and sell them off. “I was going to build nice houses and sell them for about a hundred grand apiece and let it be known that Charlie Schulz lived just around the corner and stuff like that, to make it a kind of prestige deal,” Gottlieb told his friend Sender in an interview somewhere around 1971-’72. That interview, and others from the people involved in the “free land” movement in Western Sonoma County, was recorded and transcribed by Sender to become the quintessential history of the communes, published as “The Morningstar Scrapbook.”

When he bought the ranch, Gottlieb had little time to spend there due to the demands of touring with the band. He rented it out and the land continued to function as a working egg ranch, but as the rigors of the road continued to wear him down, Gottlieb eventually walked away from the Limeliters to recover from the years of touring. He also experimented with LSD, which was still legal at the time.

When he finally retired to the Morningstar property, he spent his days teaching himself the piano in hopes of playing in public by the age of 50—he was 43 at the time—while chaos swirled around him like the storm around the eye of a hurricane.

In the beginning
But the story of Morning Star really began in 1966 at the Trips Festival in San Francisco, which brought Gottlieb, Sender and longtime Occidental resident Steve Fowler together for the first time. The festival was a seminal moment in the nascent hippie movement: an LSD-laced, 3-day event produced by Sender, Bill Graham and Stewart Brand in conjunction with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters that featured theater and music by bands such as the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company before Janis Joplin joined the group.

Fowler owns 2-1/2 acres off Harrison Grade Road, up a short lane from Morning Star that later on functioned as “an annex” of the ranch, in part because he had a shower and a phone and was sympathetic to the cause. A fourth-generation Bay Area resident—his grandfather lived on Russian Hill and grazed cows in Cow Hollow—he has spent a lifetime “de-programming from his Victorian background.”

A Berkeley-educated middle-class kid, Fowler graduated in 1962 and moved to Sebastopol in 1967. He bought his house outside of Occidental in 1968 because he and his wife wanted to move to the country to get away from the consumerism and fear that gripped American society in the post-war era. Fowler, 76, says he was too old to be a hippie, but too young to be a beatnik.

“When we moved to the country, it wasn’t about ‘getting back to the land,’ as so many of those who followed, but because we wanted to get away from the fear of a nuclear war after the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he said. “We weren’t hippies, we were Bohemians: We drank cheap wine, played guitar—badly—and watched 16 mm films our friends were making.”

Sender, now 82, was born in Spain, the son of a journalist and writer jailed for criticizing the fascist government of Francisco Franco. After Spanish Nationalists executed his mother, Sender was spirited away to the U.S. at the age of two, where he became a classically trained musician and a pioneer in electronic music.

He met Gottlieb prior to the Trips Festival when Gottlieb worked for the San Francisco Chronicle as a music reviewer. That gig lasted three short weeks

“When Lou came to interview us, he took out a briar pipe and filled it with marijuana,” Sender recalls. “I’d never been turned-on by an interviewer before, so it was fairly unusual.”

At the time, Gottlieb was still recovering from a December 1962 plane crash and was “pretty weirded out,” according to Sender. After Trips, Gottlieb invited him to the ranch.

“We had some hash-laced cookies and it was apple-blossom time,” Sender said. “Everything was so vibrant, so I said ‘I’m staying.’”

Thus, Sender became the first resident of the commune. What followed was a rush of refugees from the streets of San Francisco, spiritual idealists seeking Utopian visions and curious voyeurs waiting to catch a glimpse of the naked people running around on the ridge.

Paradise lost
But Utopia did not last for long, as the experiment in free living that began in May 1966 began to crumble less than a year later in April 1967. By then, the vibrant community of about 60 people at Morning Star was drawing national media attention, complete with a front-page story in Time Magazine, but it also drew the attention of local law enforcement and health inspectors.

“Morning Star was the big story,” Fowler remembers. “Buses would come up full of tourists. You could walk around and see naked people. The Diggers were getting apples from the orchard: It was the most subversive thing imaginable.”

The Diggers was a group out of Haight-Ashbury that became famous for distributing free food and creating a free medical clinic in San Francisco, although those activities were but a small part of what they did in effort to create a “free society.” They planted gardens at Morning Star and later at Wheeler, which augmented the diets of the commune residents.

When local law enforcement staged its first raid on the property that spring, Gottlieb described his social experiment to Deputy Paul Stefani of the Sonoma County Narcotics Division as “a pilot study for a time, which is certainly coming, when leisure will be compulsory.”

The beginning of the end was on the horizon.

The “Impossibles” arrived—the “Winos,” led by a Korean War veteran by the name of Nevada, and occasional groups of semi-feral bikers—racial tensions arose and an outbreak of hepatitis scourged the residents of the ranch. By the end of the Summer of Love, Gottlieb’s legal battles began in earnest and neighbor Ed Hochuli set out on a concerted effort to drive Gottlieb and his followers off the property. Gottlieb was served with a restraining order that effectively shut down the ranch. He was ordered to clean up the property and tear down all structures that were not up to county building code, meaning that all the structures save the main house—the lean-tos, tarps and other “home-made” homes—had to be destroyed.

During that time, residents of the commune added color to the conservative surroundings of the Sonoma County courthouse and at several contentious meetings with Occidental-and Graton-area residents.

At his hearing in late September 1967, Gottlieb explained his motives to the judge. “The Great Society is in reality a rat race, creating the kind of environment which can be lethal,” he said. “Our society is transforming so rapidly, the machine displacing people, that it produces bums at an increasing rate. They have become technologically unemployable, for machines do their jobs better and more efficiently. This is a tremendous affront to the employed. Therefore, new avenues of experiment must be explored to find out what to do with all this leisure time. Along this line, I see Morning Star as an open, intentional community with a tremendous potential for psychological and sociological discovery.”

Despite his pleas to allow it to continue, the judge ordered the ranch to be shut down, but a handful of residents attempted to remain, adding to Gottlieb’s fines, which grew to about $14,000 by July 1968.
It was at that time that Bill Wheeler arrived on the scene.

“Bill was a hero: He took on the whole burden of ‘open land,’” Fowler said. “He fought off the crazies and gently dealt with police, the FBI, runaways and draft-dodgers.”

Wheeler owns a 320-acre property off Coleman Valley Road about eight miles from Morning Star. He was born in 1941 to a prominent New England family, attended an exclusive prep school and was a sophomore at Yale when his father died. It was then that he became vice-president of Wheeler & Co. As he related to Sender nearly 50 years ago, “I got a taste of business very young in life, and rose as high in the business world as I thought I ever would. So I retired. I was vice-president at 20. What more was there to do?”

He made his way to Sonoma County via San Francisco and Stinson Beach, buying the Coleman Valley property in 1962. In 1965 the land was razed by a wildfire, so he spent the next two years planting trees and building the barn-like house he lives in to this day. In 1968, the open land movement headed west toward the ocean to Wheeler Ranch.

The move to Wheeler Ranch: 1968-1973
Throughout the fall and winter of 1967 to spring 1968, tensions mounted as the residents of Morning Star pondered their fate and the legal proceedings wore on. In October 1967, Gottlieb visited Wheeler’s property and by the summer of 1968, remnants of the Morning Star population had moved in, including the Impossibles. And, of course, trouble followed. First it was the FBI, and then county building inspectors. The founders of Morning Star became disillusioned and scattered to various points around the globe.

After some time at a commune in New Mexico, Sender headed back to Los Angeles, sold his van and went to a commune in Maui called the Banana Patch, then returned and rented a cabin in Monte Rio.

By Thanksgiving 1968, there were about 50 people living on Wheeler’s property, and in 1969 law enforcement efforts to close the commune began in earnest. By that summer, county officials requested the destruction of structures that did not meet building and health department codes. The legal wrangling continued for another four years, until in 1973, the county ordered everyone off the property and the final destruction of all out-of-compliance houses.

In late May, in order to preserve the trees from bulldozers, 70 structures were burned by the residents, signaling the end of the open land movement on the hills of western Sonoma County.

‘Hippie U’
But it was not all legal battles and fending off the bikers and the winos. The Morning Star/Wheeler Ranch experience offered a brief euphoric taste of freedom for a handful of members of the “Love Generation,” and many members of the community came away with a sense of self-sufficiency they learned from living on the land.They learned how to live in hand-made living structures that leaked profusely in the rain; how to forage for and share food; how to gather together and celebrate being alive without the accoutrements of a nascent technological society and how to survive naked in 50-degree, wet coastal weather.

“It was a sweet opportunity to experience life without possessions and trappings,” Graton resident and Wheeler Ranch alum Karin Lease said. “A chance to live the way we wanted to live with self-determination and freedom: It was wonderful and better than college.”

Lease grew up in a conservative household in Baltimore and made her way to San Francisco via Washington DC and Los Angeles. The people she stayed with in San Francisco told her about Wheeler and dropped her off at the gate one night.

“I was wide-eyed, young and full of hope. It was a beautiful place, but I was totally alone,” she said.
It was winter, and Lease fell in a mud hole called “Gruesome Gulch.” All the potholes on the treacherous road into Wheeler’s had nicknames: One was “Muffler Alley”; one was named “Oil Pan Rock,” which was famous for taking out two police cars.

“It strengthened my confidence and abilities,” Lease said. “It made me more resourceful. I learned how to live simply, on rice, flour and lentils and that you can grow food or find food if you’re stuck… It was a great exercise in being resourceful.”

There were two community gardens and a free store for used clothing, pots and pans. Lease said it was a real “eye-opening experience for those of us who grew up in 1950s suburbia.”

The aftereffects
After attempting to donate the Morning Star property to the county in 1968—and being soundly rejected—Gottlieb deeded it to God on May 6, 1969, which made headlines around the world, but did not sway Sonoma County officials. “Lou never met a religion he didn’t like,” Fowler said. “God intoxicated him.”
Wheeler and Gottlieb began to spend a lot of time at “Camp Fowler”— Steve Fowler’s property—strategizing and getting away from the hassles in which they were embroiled.

Gottlieb briefly reunited with the Limeliters, in part to help pay his legal bills, and wrote several humorous lines including the song “Acres of Limeliters in A Minor,” about his time as “executive hippie at his Morning Star groupie rest home.”

Gottlieb spent the final three years of his life at Fowler’s house, listening to National Public Radio and walking the short distance daily to play his piano on the ranch.

“He was tired and still hanging around the Morning Star cabin we built for him,” Fowler said. “It was previously a farm utility building, so we called it ‘a place for the old Rake.’”

Gottlieb died on July 11, 1996 at Palm Drive Hospital at the age of 72 after suffering with undiagnosed stomach cancer and refusing any extreme measures to prolong his life.

Morning Star now sits empty, in limbo, waiting for Gottlieb’s son, Tony Gottlieb, to sell it. According to Tony Gottlieb, reports in 2013 of the property going up for sale were premature and he expects to put it to market in 2017. He has spent months and thousands of dollars cleaning up the property.

“There were 40 years worth of trash and abandoned vehicles up there,” Tony Gottlieb said. “We took out 30 dump truck loads of trash to get it ready.”

According to Fowler, a group called Friends of Morning Star is “rooting for the ‘right’ ownership” for the land and even has a Facebook page devoted to raising funds for a partnership with Bodega Land Trust in order to keep the property as it is in perpetuity. “It was always a religious retreat, but Lou didn’t know that,” Fowler said. It is unclear whether the The Bodega Land Trust will be able to take stewardship of the deep-sloped property.

In the decades since the Morning Star years, Fowler has been an advocate for public art and had a hand in developing the Peace Garden in Ragle Ranch Regional Park, as well as being a volunteer coordinator and curator of the Luther Burbank Farm for 20 years. He was also one of the central figures in the development of the Occidental Center for the Arts.

Sender lives in Noe Valley, where he and his wife of 35 years Judith Levy-Sender host a speaker series called Odd Mondays. He is a writer—he wrote a book about his mother’s death titled “A Death in Zamora”—not only documenting the history of the open land movement, but also writing a series of novels with “zero” in the title, such as “Zero Summer”; “Zero Gravity.” He still makes regular sojourns to Occidental, for yearly celebrations at Wheeler’s and to play his role as Zero the Clown at the Occidental Fool’s Day Parade, joining longtime friend Fowler to act as emcees of the festivities. He also regularly advocates for a version of the free land movement to help address the homeless crisis in the Bay Area.

Wheeler has become a staple in the Occidental art scene as a painter and member of the “Sonoma Four” group of open air painters. He teaches painting on Thursday nights at the Occidental Center for the Arts and has been a strong advocate for open spaces in Sonoma County.
He still lives on the property, but is hesitant to talk to outsiders about the six-year period that signaled something of the end of the hippie movement.

At an October event for the opening of “The Hippies” exhibit currently at the West County Museum, Wheeler noted how the gathering was like a time warp. “I’m thankful to still be functioning,” he said, adding that he’s “mostly in denial” about the whole thing.

“The Hippies” Museum Exhibit
The Western Sonoma County Historical Society is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love at the West County Museum in Sebastopol with its exhibit “The Hippies” that will run through March, but response has been sufficient that the exhibit may be extended. Call for details.
The exhibit has been the most successful and drawn the most crowds in at least 12 years, said curator Erin Sheffield, adding that she originated the idea for “The Hippies.”

Sheffield, who was raised by the same woman in New York who took in Sender and calls him her step-brother, said: “It’s like a dream come true and very fulfilling to give Bill, Ramon and Lou the credit due to them 50 years later.”  SD