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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 9
Early Days on the Ridge & The Naked Cop

Born in 1941, Bill Wheeler came from a long line of New England Yankees. One of his great grandfathers co-founded the Wheeler and Wilson Sewing Machine Company, a significant force in the Industrial Revolution. The company sold out to Singer around the turn of the century, leaving future generations of Wheelers well-off. Bill attended Kent School, which he described as "a very chi-chi prep school designed to perpetuate the upper class." His father ran a real estate business in Bridgeport, Connecticut, until he died. Bill was a sophomore at Yale at the time, his major interests art and architecture. Suddenly at the age of twenty he found himself vice-president of Wheeler & Co.

BILL: "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 twenty. What more was there to do?"

After graduation he married his childhood sweetheart Sarah and they moved to San Francisco, then Stinson Beach and finally Sonoma County in the summer of 1962. They settled into the rickity abandoned farmhouse on Coleman Valley Road named 'Irish Hill' as previously mentioned. The peaceful, pastoral landscapes fascinated him, the smooth rolling hills punctuated with groves of cypress and eucalyptus which flowed towards the ocean less than a mile away. He wanted to buy some land with an inheritance from his father. When a neighbor - old Mr. Hendron - told him of a ranch being sold by an elderly minister and his wife, he drove inland a few miles to look at it.

BILL: "My marriage didn't last very long, but I lived at Irish Hill for five years until I moved to the Ridge. I fell in love with the land at first sight. I knew it was perfect for me. The three hundred and fifteen acres, one ridge back from the ocean, were strangely reminiscent of my boyhood New England, heavily wooded, good water and lots of gardening areas. I made the couple promise not to sell it to anyone else, and in 1965 consummated the sale."

The ranch was protected from the county road by a long and rutted right-of-way through another ranch. As a refugee from the city, Bill felt he had at last found his territory, his chunk of countryside where he could join the bluejays and raccoons.

BILL: "The Ridge held a special magic for me. It was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I saw it as the perfect woman, spacious and lyrical, closed and secure, yet having great vistas. How I loved her, and how her beauty enraptured me!"

In August of 1965, just after Bill bought the property, a dry, gusty wind roared in from the north at the height of the fire danger. A power line went down at the bottom of Coleman Valley. The countryside was tinder-dry, and the sparks ignited the grass. Fed by the wind, the fire raced up Sugarloaf Hill and down into the canyon. It widened to almost a half-mile before anyone saw it. An army of flames advanced across the Ridge, exploding the oaks and firs in the intense heat.

Bill helplessly watched the inferno from the top of the land. Flames leaped from one treetop to the next with a roar, soaring high into the sky. He escaped just in time to make it up to the county road, and returned several days later from the city to find the lush and green landscape a wasted skeleton. Most of the trees had been killed and the house leveled. The minister feared that Bill would now renege on the mortgage, but Bill assured him that "the land was still there and I still loved her. Trees would grow back. She was more mine than ever."

Later that fall, Bill and a crew of Mexican-Americans replanted the East Canyon with thirty thousand trees. On the last day of work, they toasted the land together with beer and tequila, hailing its rebirth. By January, 1967, when he began constructing his studio, he had met Gwen and she moved up to live with him shortly thereafter. In January, 1968, they moved into their new home, a barnlike structure boasting fourteen-foot ceilings. Despite their efforts to insulate it, the studio never warmed up in cold weather and they spent most of the time huddled up close to the cast-iron fireplace in its center.

GWEN: "There was no running water, no plumbing, no electricity, no gas, no telephone and sometimes no passable road to insulate us from the presence of our natural environment. When the winter storms raged, saturating the earth and beating against our house with their violent winds, I felt the mightiness of nature and our own insignificance and helplessness. The power of mankind, which I had always thought so significant, was reduced to nothingness by the pure and mighty forces of Mother Earth.

"Although it was the middle of winter, I found our vegetable garden at Irish Hill still growing. With that exciting discovery, I became increasingly interested in gardening. As the rains poured down, I sat by the fire and read books on growing things. I dreamed of living the simple, self-sufficient life in the country. My first weeks of living close to nature made me feel so loving and gentle that I couldn't imagine raising animals to kill as food. I had met many vegetarians who were convinced that eating meat was unnecessary, so that January it seemed right to become a vegetarian myself. Bill joined me in my decision."

When the weather began to lighten, they spent more time out of doors, planting thousands more trees to complete the reforestation of the Ridge. The garden was fenced and the first seeds planted. Electricity was available at the front gate as well as a good year-round spring. They hooked up a pump, set up a 1500-gallon redwood water tank, and laid many thousands of feet of black plastic pipe that would gravity-feed water to the studio and the garden.

GWEN: "I took many solitary walks to enjoy the beauty of the untouched wilderness of the Ridge. At many beautiful spots I stopped to meditate on the glowing scenery around me. Often the area would strike me as a fantastic site for a house. I wondered if population growth and the expansion of the cities would eventually cover the land with houses. But I dismissed the possibility as something that would not occur for at least twenty years. I did not know that houses would indeed cover the land within two years, and in a way which I could never have imagined. They would not represent an expansion of the urban areas, but a return to the tribal village life.

Shortly after Bill's offer to the Morning Star family, Larry Reed hitchhiked up to the Ridge to look for a campsite for his family. Clad only in an embroidered blanket, he presented a striking image on the roads between the two ranches. He had just been released from jail, and remaining at Morning Star with Pam would just have invited further arrests. For several days he searched the woods, finally settling at the bottom of the East Canyon beside Coleman Creek, as far from civilization as the land offered. He wished to avoid a repeat performance of his Morning Star experience, where his 'meadowboat' had perched only a few hundred feet from the 'bull's-eye.'

BILL: "Everything Larry did was noisy - singing, eating or fucking. A fanatic faith in the Morning Star ideal personified him. A true revolutionary and frontiersman, he was the perfect midwife for the opening of the Ridge."

Pam and Adam Siddartha joined him a few days later. Their arrival was the first trickle through a dike ready to burst. One day the land was peaceful and serene, the next it was swamped with hordes of people, kids, cars, noise, trash and insecurity. Almost the same day Ronald Reagan proclaimed "there will be no more Morning Stars," Wheeler's Ranch opened its gates.

GWEN: "I accompanied Pam on the day for her trial for assault. She had chosen a jury trial, believing that twelve human beings would be unable to convict her and send her to jail for following a deeply emotional, natural instinct. With her nine-month belly and her tiny physical frame, she defended herself before the court by explaining the reasons why she had chosen the Morning Star life style. She and her family had sacrificed material wealth and comfort for the spiritual satisfaction of living in sympathy with the poor peoples of the earth. Pam testified that she had awakened the morning of the arrest thinking that the Gestapo had come to take her husband away. In her desperation, she had felt an overwhelming need to defend him. She was prosecuted by a deputy district attorney whose only interest was in winning the case in order to earn status and favor. He pointed out to the jury that Pam had assaulted peace officers, that it was a crime and that her motives were absolutely irrelevant to the case as was the fact that she was a tiny pregnant woman. The jury came back with their verdict: guilty.

"Hearing the verdict, Pam began to laugh. Then she choked, vomited and began to scream, cry and throw herself about the courtroom floor. The members of the court were horrified. Fearing that the baby would be born on the spot, the judge quickly dismissed her, instructing her to return for sentencing after the birth. Pam, shaken in her faith in the compassion of the human heart, wept all the way home and fainted as we arrived. Later she revived, surrounded by all her friends that knew and loved her so well. By morning she was calm and cheerily on her way back down into the canyon to await the birth of her child. A few weeks later, Psyche Joy Ananda was born in the canyon in the first morning hours. Shortly after her birth, Pam, Larry, Adam Sid and the new baby left for New Mexico."

As 1968 unfolded, a new chapter of the New Age began with a hardening of the lines between the 'freaks' and the 'straights.' The colorful, gentle vibrations gradually disappeared and were replaced by a more militant, angry attitude. Brothers and sisters were being jailed by an establishment power structure that defined hippies as outlaws. Pot-smokers were being sentenced to long terms. The hard-edged old ways were rubbing against the soft Aquarian life style and creating a callous. The V-sign was changing to the upraised fist. Also, the Vietnam War raged on, bombs were falling on helpless villages and the nation was badly polarized on many basic issues. At Morning Star, everyone felt the struggle personally. They knew that the fight could not end until the entire country - and the planet - had been liberated from greed and war.

Instead of families and children, Morning Star was now attracting mostly single men with a heavy emphasis on the wine-drinking 'warrior caste,' as Lou referred to them. Heavy wine sessions around the campfire disrupted the peace and quiet until once again the wine-drinkers were prevailed upon to move down to the parking lot. A great deal of anger came to Morning Star and was released in the orchards and meadows. But better there than in the city streets.

Zen Jack lived in the middle of the orchard, having transformed an old redwood stump into a home. David and Penny continued in their treehouse, David concentrating on his paintings. With the destruction of both kitchens by order of the Health Department, communal meals had decentralized down to family campfires and Coleman stoves. John Butler still lived in the remnants of the Lower House in spite of frequent arrests for disobeying the injunction, looking after the teenage runaways who showed up. He was busted so repeatedly that he was made a trustee at the jail. Morning Star folks would see him outside the courthouse sweeping the pavement when they attended court. It was easy to slip him a couple of joints for him to enjoy later. Don King was also arrested many times - nine altogether - and spent over six months in jail, a strong brother with a deep faith in the Morning Star ideal.

DON KING: "In the spirit of brotherhood, Morning Star has thrown open its doors to all men and all forces. Faith in man has been transformed into faith in our Creator. When this occurs, chaos is seemingly the result. Men hear of Utopia, their souls hunger for it, and they are guided to Morning Star. They bring the forces of the world with them, the forces the world thrives on. In the spirit of brotherhood, these forces are allowed to exist and for a time they run rampant. Evil is not the business of brotherhood. Evil is God's business. Morning Star does not resist evil, and a tiny speck of Truth is its glorious reward. It does work! It is true! The meek do inherit the earth!"

NEAR: "Steve and Leslie lived together in a tent in the apple orchard. Early that spring they decided to get married so that Leslie could write home to her upper middle class banker father that she was married. They asked Lou to perform the ceremony, and it was decided that some of the straight neighbors also should be invited, hopefully to bridge the communications gap. Handwritten invitations were placed in their mailboxes.

"Saturday was the wedding day. Leslie went to get dressed with her bridesmaids. She wore a white table cloth with flowers. It was poncho style; a hole was cut through the middle for her head. She tied it at the waist with a sash. Steve wore white pants and a white lace shirt someone gave him. Everyone gathered on the hill beside the cross. Ed Hochuli was present, and gave red plastic beaded necklaces to the couple. Lou wore a poncho converted from a patchwork quilt that a group of Morning Star women had sewn for him.

"As the ceremony was about to begin, a group of bridesmaids stood beside Leslie, some naked, some clothed. Steve's best man wore dirty blue jeans. A flute player tootled a pastoral melody and everyone took their places. A text by Kahil Gibran of the couple's choosing was read and Lou then asked, 'Leslie, do you take Steve for your husband as long as you're both happy?' 'I do.' 'Steve, do you take Leslie for your wife as long as you're both happy?' 'I do.' Then Lou asked the audience, 'Is there any reason why this couple should not be wed?'

"'Yes there is!' slurred a drunk from Graton. But it was quickly established he was just being obnoxious and his protest ignored. 'I now pronounce you man and wife for as long as you're both happy,' Lou then declared. The single girls all gathered in one spot and Leslie tossed her bouquet. It was caught by naked Diane from New York City. She leaped ahead of the other girls to catch it because she was in love with the fluteplayer Tom who lived in a hollowed-out redwood stump."

Apple juice brought by good neighbor Don Orr was passed out. Homemade music and dancing started. 'Bony' Saludes, the Press Democrat's on-the-spot reporter who had covered many Morning Star stories, wrote up the wedding. He mentioned that Paul Negri, an Occidental restaurant owner who was running for election as Supervisor, had attended the ceremony. Paul subsequently lost the election. A few days later, FBI and CIA men accompanied by the police came to Morning Star looking for Steve who was AWOL. They couldn't find him, so they asked where Lou was. Lou was out so they asked for Near. Near emerged from the bath house naked and soaking wet. The cops became too flustered at seeing a naked woman to ask any questions and left at once.

Tex's appearance duplicated the 1940's caricature of The Dope Fiend, complete with two long incisors drooping out of a hairy mouth. Propped against a telephone pole on Occidental's main street, a jug of Red Mountain beside him, he presented an archetypal picture of what Occidental's citizenry feared the most. The truth was that he was a gentle soul who took on the responsibility that summer of running the wino camp at Morning Star, making sure there was food to eat and settling drunken arguments with diplomatic skill.

LOU: "Tex was the first man who ever kissed me on the mouth. The fact that he had a number of teeth missing exposed me to a larger reality than I expected. I severely regret that my prejudice against alcohol limited my contacts with Tex, but there is no doubt that any unpleasantness I felt at Morning Star related to the consumption of wine, and Tex consumed his share."

TEX: "I started smokin' grass just about early '47, and I've been drinkin' wine since about '42. I've spent half my life in penitentiaries, man, living with a lot of hate, man, a lot of hate. There are very few ways you can come out of the penitentiary. Either you're a tiger - grrr - kill - kill - kill - but now me, I got love. An' it was a necessary experience. I was in an adult penitentiary for seven years, but I had thirty-six months before that. From when I was sixteen until I was twenty-five I was locked up in jail. Then from when I was eleven until I was fourteen I had time in Juvenile Hall, reform school, shit like that too, which was a bummer, you know. But when I was twenty-five years old, when I got out, I decided to be free. I said, 'Man, they've taught me all I need to know an' I'm goin' to be free!' And I want you to know that the penitentiary'll never hold me. That's where my head's at."

NEAR: "'God bless you! You're under arrest!' was the salutation we received from our friendly local cops. They didn't usually bust us unless they had been given specific orders to make arrests. Several of them even commented that Morning Star was the only placed where they felt welcome. Rob was one. His instincts told him we had a better life style than the Rollaids pattern to which he was conforming. He enjoyed talking with us for a few minutes when he made the rounds of the ranch. He even demonstrated his trust of us by sharing food at an evening meal. Before he set his teeth into the freshly picked, lightly steamed string beans and chapattis, he asked if there was any LSD in it. We assured him there wasn't, and he enjoyed his organic snack.

"The following Saturday, Rob appeared at Morning Star out of uniform. It was his day off. Would we mind if he spent the day with us? He just needed a place to cool out. Welcome, brother! He took off his shirt to feel the sun, and planted himself on the bull's-eye of the ranch, the front yard of Lou's studio. Some of us began doing Hatha Yoga postures, and Rob asked us to teach him. Okay, but first he would have to take off his shoes. He did, and managed to get into some of the easier positions. But he found his bulldog pants too constricting. A lovely nude girl explained he could do much better without any clothes on.

"Rob thought about it for a moment. 'Do you promise not to tell anyone?' he asked. 'I'd hate like hell to have the police find me here naked!'

"Assured of total discretion, Rob took off all but his jockey shorts. Then, in a burst of militant freedom, he took those off too! His Morning Star friends gave him encouragement as he continued trying the postures, but his hard, ready-to-fight muscles found it difficult to relax into the gentle flow of yoga. Finally he was able to stand on his head and was maintaining his headstand when he heard the sound of an approaching car. He took off like lightning for the woods. Everybody couldn't help laughing. But the car belonged to a groovy brother and not the Sheriff's department. I went to fetch him back.

"'Hey, Rob, it's okay! The coast is clear! It's not the cops!' He returned and rejoined us, sharing in our laughter.

"'You're more scared of the cops than we are,' one sister joked.

"Rob sheepishly agreed. He continued doing yoga for about an hour, interrupted only twice more by arriving cars. Both times I called him back from the woods. He decided to take a walk around the ranch. I didn't accompany him, but we received reports from the persimmon wireless that he was chasing women around the orchard.

"The next Saturday Rob brought his wife Hilda with him. He felt like a regular, shedding his clothes immediately. Hilda tried not to look at him, and instead absorbed herself in a baby who had just been born at Morning Star.

"'Come on, honey,' begged bare Rob. 'Just take off your clothes.'

"'No, I can't,' she replied, biting her lip.

"Rob persisted, but without success. Morning Star brothers had to remind him not to lay his trip on her. Meanwhile, Hilda listened teary-eyed to the description of the natural birth of the baby. She had been forced to give birth by Caesarian. They returned the next day at Hilda's request because she wanted to bring some baby clothes she didn't need. As she sat holding our newborn arrival, Rob stood on his head, naked, ears perked for the sound of approaching autos."

FRIAR TUCK: "Don King's dog Tripper liked to ride in cars. You'd open a car door a crack and - whammo! - he'd be inside just like that! And he did not like to get out. He was a mean dog when he wanted to be. The only person who could get Tripper out of a car was Don. One night the cops drove in, and they checked out the people around the campfire. Tripper was there, chasing some dog or something. When it came time for the cops to leave, one of them opened the car door and - whoosh! - Tripper was inside!

"'C'mon, dog, get outta there!' the cop said and stuck in his hand towards Tripper. SNAP! went Tripper's teeth. He started his whole number, barking and growling every time the cop got close to him.

"'Wait a minute! We'll get him out!' one of the guys said. He ran down to Don's house. By the time Don got there, one of the cops had his gun out and the other a can of Mace.

"'Don't do it! Don't do it!' Don screamed.

"But by that time the cop had pushed the button on the Mace. Ssssst! And poor Tripper freaked right out, barking and jumping around. Don finally got him cooled out a little bit. The cops just jumped in their car and split."


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