Rancho Olompali: “The White House of Hippiedom”

It was quiet and peaceful when I visit Olompali. But this platform was once alive with laughter, music and work as members of the Chosen Family made bread to be distributed by the Diggers in San Francisco.

It was quiet and peaceful when I visited Olompali. But this platform was once alive with laughter, music and bread as members of the Chosen Family commune made thousands of loaves to be distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco during the late 60s.

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.

Olompali provided an excellent location for the Chosen Family and Included this 20 plus room mansion.

Olompali provided an excellent location for the Chosen Family. It included this 20 plus room mansion, beautiful landscaping and an Olympic-size swimming pool. (Archival photo.)

This large fountain with a blue heron sculpture on top was part of the landscaping.

This large fountain with a blue heron sculpture on top was part of the landscaping. (Archival photo.)

The palms seen on the left side of the mansion as they appear today.

The palms seen on the left side of the mansion as they appear today.

Leasing the rest of the property open up several hundred acres for the commune members to wander through.

Leasing the rest of the property opened up several hundred acres of beautiful country for the commune members to wander through.

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.

Snorty is in the back of the photo.

Snorty is in the back of the photo to the right of the oak tree.

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.

Pouring concrète for the cement pad.

Pouring concrète for the cement pad. (Archival photo.)

Chosen Family members making bread at Rancho Olompali that will be distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco. Clothing was optional. (Photo from the Berkeley Barb.)

Chosen Family members making bread at Rancho Olompali that was distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco. Clothing was optional. The bread was put in coffee cans as seen in foreground and rose over the top, giving it the name mushroom bread. (Photo from the Berkeley Barb.)

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 McCoy. (Archival photo.)

Don McCoy. (Archival photo.)

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.)

Houseboats, Hippies and Haight-Ashbury… Olompali Part IV

Don McCoy would create one of the first modern houseboat communities in Sausalito California in the years before he created the Chosen Family commune at Olompali. A large, thriving community of houseboats still exists in Sausalito.

Don McCoy would create one of the first modern houseboat communities in Sausalito, California in the years before he created the Chosen Family commune at Olompali. A large, thriving community of houseboats still exists in Sausalito.

“I felt we were chosen for something. I thought we were going to create a new society. I thought we were going to change the world, or create a new way of life, a new way of doing things, a new way of living together, getting along in a peaceful world.” —Don McCoy, founder of the Chosen Family. It would be hard to find a statement that better summarizes the hope surrounding ‘The Age of Aquarius’ that seemed so tantalizingly close in the 60s, but was ever so far away.

“The failure to curb personal indulgence was a major collective error. Our journeys down the path (of extensive drug use)… disordered our senses, senselessly wasted young lives, and often sabotaged what we labored so diligently to construct. … It is the artist’s responsibility to manifest sanity and health—something we did not fully understand.” Peter Coyote— Co-founder of the Digger Movement in San Francisco, and friend of Paula McCoy. He would go on to become chair of the California Art’s Council under Jerry Brown, a popular actor (think ET), and a Zen advocate.

“I was definitely exposed to different ways of thought, to people who had yearning for peaceful ways of living, collectively with others. It gave me a more liberal and progressive outlook on life in general, introduced me to organic foods, to eastern religion, to farming, to alternative theater.  Maybe today that sounds almost mainstream, but we were really counterculture then.” Maura McCoy, daughter of Paula and Don, who is presently finishing up a documentary on The Chosen Family that Peter Coyote will narrate.


“What I remember about Thanksgiving dinners at Uncle Bud’s was that they were always loud— boisterous in a positive, friendly way,” my brother-in-law Jim told me, as his mind reached back to his childhood in the 40s and early 50s. Jim is married to Peggy’s sister, Jane. Bud Carrington was Jim’s uncle and Paula McCoy’s father, so Paula was his cousin. Maura is her daughter. Paula would have been part of the boisterous Thanksgiving holidays.

What Jane and Jim recall of the 60s and 70s hippie culture in San Francisco was the darkness of the drug scene that Peter Coyote referred to. It would lead to Paula’s early death. Understandably, they see the Chosen Family, the Diggers, and the Summer of Love in the light of Paula’s shortened life.

My own perspective of the time is somewhat different. My stint at Berkeley was from 1963 to 65, when the Bay Area rock music scene was in its formative stages. Herb Caen had yet to make the word ‘hippies’ part of our every day vocabulary. The Free Speech Movement, Peace Corps, graduation, and marriage dominated my thinking. My awareness of ‘hip’ hadn’t travelled beyond the Beatniks. (I was curious enough about the Beats, however, to make a pilgrimage across the Bay to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore.)

I was in the final months of my Peace Corps assignment in Liberia in July of 1967 when I first became aware of the Summer of Love. A new group of Volunteers hosted a party in Tapeta. A large sign claiming Haight-Asbury Africa greeted us on the edge of town. There wasn’t any LSD (at least that I was aware of), but Liberia’s Club Beer ran freely. And the Bush Devil was there. He seemed to fit right in. Any of the 60’s rock groups would have been delighted to have him shuffle across their stage. (If you want to learn more about the Bush Devil, check out my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, on Amazon.)

By the summer of 1968, I was Director of Peace Corps Recruiting and Public Affairs for Northern California and Northern Nevada. While my territory didn’t cover San Francisco, I travelled into the city on a monthly basis for staff meetings. Out of curiosity I wandered over to Haight-Asbury, which had already lost its luster. I also spent much of my time on college campuses, and some, especially Sonoma State— just up Highway 101 from Olompali, closely reflected what was happening in the more open society of the times. I was drawn to the sense of exploration and freedom the lifestyle offered. My feelings could have easily carried me in that direction, but I got caught up in the world of environmental action instead. “Tune in, Turn on, Drop out” never became part of my vocabulary. But, back to the McCoys.

In 1961, Don and Paula McCoy moved from Southern California to Marin County and Don started an investment property and construction company with his brother Douglas. Within two years they were busily developing Sausalito’s first modern houseboat community at the Sausalito heliport on Richardson Bay. Houseboat living, apparently, had great appeal to artists and musicians. A young Bill Cosby rented a space at the development and Otis Reading used one of Don’s houseboats as an escape from San Francisco. Otis used his stay as inspiration for the hit songSitting on the Dock of the Bay.” A warehouse that Don owned at the Heliport also became a popular rehearsal space for local bands including the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Quicksilver. Chicago apparently practiced there as well.

At some point, Don and Paula bought a house in San Francisco at 715 Ashbury Street. The Grateful Dead lived directly across the road at 710 Ashbury Street. A constant stream of people moved back and forth between the two Victorian houses.

Paula and Don divorced in September of 1977. I couldn’t find the reason, but given the couple’s close association with rock bands, drugs, and the era of free love, it isn’t hard to imagine. Whatever the reason, Don got the kids and within a couple of months he would be creating his commune at Olompali. Paula stayed at the house on Ashbury Street.

While this blog series is focused on Olompali, I broadened my research when I learned about the relationship between my brother-in-law and Paula. Her life in San Francisco was equally interesting to Don’s at the commune. 215 Ashbury became one of the focal points of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin was so close by that she could stand out on her balcony and yell out to her neighbors at 215 and 210. Peter Coyote describes an incident where he was upstairs at Paula’s when Neal Cassady came out of the Dead’s house. Peter lobbed apples at him from the window and Cassady came over to visit and get high. Ken Kesey reportedly used the house to stop his car when he lost his brakes. Several people with close connections to the Dead actually lived at Paula’s. This included Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelly, who would earn fame for their psychedelic Grateful Dead poster art and album covers.

A photo of Paula McCoy wearing her fur coat taken by Peter Coyote.

A photo of Paula McCoy wearing her fur coat taken by Peter Coyote.

715 Asbury Street also became a gathering point for the Hell’s Angels and Diggers. The Angels had developed an early relationship with the Pranksters during the acid tests and this relationship extended to the Dead. Two Angels, Frisco Pete Knell, president of the San Francisco Chapter of the Hells Angels, and Billy “Sweet William” Fritsch, even accompanied the Grateful Dead, Paula, Ken Kesey, and Peter Coyote on a mission to London to meet with the Beatles in 1968. The Dead were concerned about whether the Beatles had a social conscience and were ‘socially adventurous.’ While the Dead found the Beatles more focused on making money than making change, the Beatles found the Dead scary, which is no surprise, considering Knell smashed one of their staff in the nose because Christmas dinner was late. Lennon was present to witness this episode and Coyote had to use his diplomatic skills to calm John down.

Paula and Coyote were invited on the journey because of their close connection with the Dead and with the anarchic Diggers, who were major players in San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury’s 1967 Summer of Love. Coyote, who went by his birth name at the time, Peter Cohon, was one of the founders of the Diggers, along with Emmett Grogan and Peter Berg. Free is the word that best describes what the Diggers did during the summer of 1967 when up to 100,000 young people (hippies/flower children) descended on Haight-Ashbury with little more than the clothes on their backs. The Diggers operated a free store and health clinic, provided free crash pads, gave away free bread in Golden Gate Park (much of which was baked at Olompali), and performed free, radical theater events on the streets and in the parks of the city. (Both Coyote and Berg had been members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.)

The Diggers would distribute thousands of loaves of bread, baked in a coffee can like this.

The Diggers would distribute thousands of loaves of bread, baked in a coffee can like this.

The Diggers were always welcome at 215 Ashbury. Coyote referred to Paula as the doyen of the Diggers and Vanity Fair described her as the group’s patron. Either way, she played an important role in the Diggers’ loose knit organization, the Summer of Love, and what came afterwards. (Imagine being able to say, “Oh, I went off with the Grateful Dead to meet with the Beatles and discuss their social conscience.”) Paula also became part of the dark side of the 60s counter-culture, the use of hard drugs. Coyote blames Emmett Grogan for introducing Paula to heroin. A woman commenting in the March 15, 2003 Digger Archives confirms this observation:

“Emmett was a junkie. Every woman he got involved with, perhaps his last wife being the exception, ended up strung out right along with him, big time. He left a wake and it amazed me some of the women that gave in. Not all of them lived through it. Paula McCoy being a prime example. She was the most intelligent high-toned woman in the scene. God was she smart and politically hip. I never in a million years could have seen those two together.”

But give in she did, and in 1976 the addiction plus ‘a drug deal gone bad’ would lead to her death in San Rafael. As Coyote would note “The Sixties turned into the Seventies and the hard-life changed a lot of things. A lot of friends died: Tracy, Marcus, Bill Lyndon, Billy Batman, Pete Knell, and Paula McCoy. The list is longer than I have the heart to type.”

Emmett Grogan died of an overdose in 1978.

NEXT BLOG: Olompali… the final chapter.