Today marks the end of my series on Olompali. Originally, I had planned to write one blog. This is my fifth, and each post has been relatively long. The truth is, I got caught up in the subject, and the more research I did, the more caught up I became. I lived through the 60s and spent considerable time in the Bay Area where these tales took place. I became an activist, committed to change, but I missed the early rock scene, didn’t do LSD, and steered clear of communes. None-the-less, I shared many of the values of those who did travel down these paths.
The 60s were a time when a significant number of young people rebelled against the world of their parents and went seeking something else. As Don McCoy, the founder of the Chosen Family would say, to “create a new way of life, a new way of doing things, a new way of living together, getting along in a peaceful world.” Looking back, this perspective seems almost Quixotic to me. We were tilting at windmills.
But the windmills were real— and scary. America and Russia had accumulated enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the world several times over. Minorities, women, and gays were buried under a suffocating blanket of discrimination that limited who they were and what they might become. Leaders that promised change, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, were shot down, one after another by people who may have been insane— but were reflective of something deeper and darker. A far-off war in Southeast Asia was sucking us into a quagmire that was tearing our nation apart. And last, but far from least, we were awakening to the fact that our desire for more and more of everything was polluting the planet, literally poisoning our home. “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” Pogo proclaimed.
In spite of all of this, or maybe because of it, change was in the air. People across the country felt it. In the Bay Area it was so palpable you could almost taste it. (Listen to the Age of Aquarius here by the Fifth Dimension to get an over-the-top sense of its idealistic flavor.)
Those of us who got caught up in optimism and passion of the 60s believed we could make a difference. Our solutions varied tremendously. For some, like me, it meant joining groups like the Peace Corps and Vista, and working from within the system to achieve change. Others believed more radical solutions were called for. Massive protests and even violence resulted. And some people opted out, either by focusing inward with the aid of meditation or drugs such as LSD, or, more directly, by simply removing themselves from every day society and establishing a new life.
Don McCoy represented the latter. He and a few friends, plus their children, moved to Rancho Olompali in November of 1967 to establish the Chosen Family commune. “God chose us to be family with each other, and also, we chose each other for family,” he said. McCoy was aided in his vision by a $350, 000 inheritance, which is the equivalent of close to 3½ million dollars today.
By most accounts, McCoy was a generous man. One story that reflects his generosity relates to Alan Watts, the Zen philosopher, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito (possibly one of Don’s). When the Indian musician, Ali Akbar Khan, told Watts he wanted to start a music college for teaching Indian music in Northern California and needed money, Alan immediately called Don. Within an hour, McCoy had shown up and given Khan a check for $20,000. (Khan, along with Ravi Shankar, was instrumental in introducing Indian music to the West. His college still exists today in San Rafael.)
As for Rancho Olompali, McCoy picked up the full tab. He started by leasing the property around the house and barns, including the swimming pool. When neighbors, who ran a riding school business on another section of the property, complained about seeing nude people in the swimming pool, he leased the whole ranch and kicked out the neighbors.
McCoy insisted that the adults who came to live at Olompali give up their day jobs. The commune was to be the center of their lives. Food, transportation, health care, and even entertainment were to be supplied, everything necessary to live. And McCoy would pay for it. This didn’t mean that commune members didn’t work. There was food to grow, meals to cook, dishes to do, cows to milk and horses to care for. The property had several horses, including one boarded by Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead percussionist. Snorty, the horse, even made it into the group photo taken at Olompali that appeared on the back of the Dead’s album, Aoxomoxoa.
All of the commune members, including the children, were expected to chip in when it came to chores. One of the biggest was cooking bread. A bakery owner had gone out of business and donated his equipment to the commune. A seven-sided cement pad was poured (it still stands at the park as shown in the top photo), and the equipment installed. Commune members then went to work. Clothing was optional. Twice a week they would bake several hundred loaves of bread in coffee cans. The bread was then turned over to the Diggers to distribute for free in San Francisco.
There was also a side business known as The Garden of Delights where commune members would put on light shows for the various rock groups performing at venues in the Bay Area.
Children were regarded as a communal responsibility. On Mondays, their names were placed in a hat. Adults would then draw names and adopt the child he or she drew for the week. If you had issues as a child, you took them to your adopted parent, not Mommy or Daddy.
A decision was made to educate the children on site rather in local schools. (Otherwise, how could you instill the proper hippie values?) An ex-principal/teacher from the Nicasio Elementary School, Garnet Brennan, was recruited into the commune as the teacher. Brennan had been fired from the Nicasio School District after a thirty-year career in education because she had admitted to smoking pot when she was testifying on behalf of a young man who faced a five-year to life sentence for selling marijuana. She had noted that she knew marijuana wasn’t harmful because she had smoked it for 18 years on a daily basis without any notable damage to herself or anyone else. The issue received national attention including an article in Life Magazine.
Brennan set up a Montessori-type school that the children named Not School. Children were encouraged to pursue subjects that captured their imagination. Education was slipped in as part of the process. “We had displays, supplies, books, and tests,” Maura McCoy remembers. “She was a professional educator and a great person to have there.” Brennan had been known as a “beloved teacher” at the Nicasio School according to the Life magazine article.
Extensive freedom was granted to the children. If you wanted to skip school or go to town, okay. If you wanted smoke pot or try LSD, okay. If you wanted to ride horses, go swimming, or go for a walk in the woods, it was your choice. You were even allowed to pick your own bedtime. (After all, how could you go to sleep with the Grateful Dead playing music in your front yard or living room?) And, if you wanted to run around naked— well that was okay, too. Understandably, some people would and did condemn the freedom, lack of structure and use of drugs as a form of abuse. For the most part, however, the children who spent two years of their life growing up at Olompali remember the experience as fun and filled with loving support. They even took delight in going into Novato and being the “Hippie Kids.”
Not surprisingly, the media pounced on the commune. It was big news: pot-smoking hippies ran around naked and baked bread while grooving out to music produced by the Grateful Dead. They labeled Rancho Olompali as the White House of Hippiedom and Don was their guru, the supreme Hippie. They also recorded the bad times. A horse escaped, ran out on Highway 101, and caused an accident that killed a trucker. There were two raids to seize drugs. Faulty wires caused a fire that gutted the mansion.
Don’s family, concerned about how life on the commune was affecting the children, obtained a conservatorship that took away custody of his children and stopped the flow of money. He ended up in the hospital suffering from physical and mental illness.
The final straw for the Chosen Family was that two of the commune’s children, cycling around the half empty swimming pool, fell in and died. With the death of the children, the commune died as well, its utopian dream snuffed out. The University of San Francisco, who still owned the property, evicted the Chosen Family and set about selling it to a developer who was planning on turning Olompali into condos and a trailer park, an inglorious ending to a fascinating history. But it wasn’t the end of the story.
Olompali was saved by a coin, not just any coin, but an English sixpence found on the property that traced the area’s history all the way back to the initial contact between the Miwoks and Sir Francis Drake. Plans for the trailer park were dropped. Marin Open Space, working with the State of California, obtained the property in 1977 and turned it into Olompali State Park.
Final Notes: Maura McCoy, along with another former member of the commune, Noelle Olompali-Barton, is now making a documentary about the commune. As Noelle says, “We have a lot of colorful history.” Their Facebook page is worth a visit. Scroll down and check out the trailer for the documentary.
NEXT BLOGS: Peggy (my wife) will do several guest blogs on her recent trip to England where she visited a number of gardens and estates, starting with Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle.)