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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 12
The Ridge Raid & John Butler Is Murdered

The Ridge's first Thanksgiving was the first real communal celebration and feast on the land. Although food was scarce in those days, the big table outside the studio was piled high with bean and rice dishes, cooked vegetables, salads, pies, desserts and breads. There was no turkey, inasmuch as most everyone was vegetarian either by choice or economic necessity. The day was one of the last clear, warm days of the season, and everyone spent the afternoon stuffing themselves, sharing stories, laughing and playing music. When evening came, a huge bonfire was built and people gathered around it, its warmth bringing them together as one common family. They felt the burgeoning strength of a young seedling firmly rooted in the ground.

GWEN: "Shortly after Thanksgiving, I noticed my blouse felt uncomfortable when it rubbed against my breasts. The color of my nipples was deepening, the tips sticking out further. A warm rush surged through me. 'I'm pregnant,' I said to myself. 'There's a tiny being living inside me right now!' I felt honored and in awe of my body. My days began to revolve around the developing child within me. I planned to give birth at home. Since there were no doctors around who encouraged home deliveries, I felt I needed to be in the best shape possible when the time came.

"Although the chill of winter had not yet set in, the rains already had saturated the ground, and the annual winter lake had begun to form outside the studio door. One quiet, drizzly afternoon, a carload of people came spinning and churning up the road beore braking to a mushy stop halfway through the lake. Three or four Ridge residents hopped out, glad to be home. The two girls who had given them a ride got out also, looking a little less amused. They stood around with the others before accepting Bill's invitation to dry out in the studio and plan the rescue of their car. After much pulling and pushing and smoking of joints, the car and its driver started back to Berkeley. The other girl, Alicia, stayed at the studio, dipping soup and playing the guitar."

BILL: "Round, brown eyes, round, young body and round, curly brown hair, Alicia spoke softly but with assurance. After thinking quietly for a while, she asked me if I knew of any coffee houses where she could play and sing for money. Shortly before dark, she dressed warmly and set out to find a place to stay. My concern over her welfare that rainy night was unfounded as I discovered a few days later when she returned to the studio, bursting with merriment, and related her adventures. She had been welcomed at several people's houses and was planning to go back to the city, get her things and come back to stay.

"Gray weeks passed before I saw her again. This time, Alicia wore the air of an established resident and nothing else. When most folks were still in warm sweaters, Alicia could be seen wandering around in the fog without a stitch of clothes, a book or some sewing under her arm. When the sun began to warm the air the following spring, she was in the garden almost every day, doing yoga and tending the vegetables. She was the only community member who gardened regularly that second summer. Without her care, the community garden would have never started. In those days she was also the only person on the Ridge who was neither 'without income' nor on welfare. She generated income from various creative projects which she sold, an activity then unique among Open Landers.

"Alicia began working on an intercommunal newsletter, describing in unpretentious script and with simple line drawings the basic skills needed by newcomers to live primitively in an isolated, rural community. She demonstrated with childlike fluidity how to build a shelter, shit in the ground, chop wood, have a baby, etc. The project took her over a year, during which time she left with the winter '69 exodus that took many Ridge residents further north into Humbolt County.

"When she returned the next summer, she announced that the newsletter had grown into a book which was being privately financed and published by a Berkeley publisher with the title Living On The Earth. It turned out to be a phenomenon, the first edition of 10,000 selling out in three weeks. One copy found its way to Bennett Cerf at Random House. Delighted and impressed, Cerf bought the book and Alicia, now Alicia Bay Laurel, was sent on a national promotional tour to explain to America the joys of Open Land living. By the following Christmas, Living On The Earth had become a best seller with 150,000 copies sold. It engendered much sympathy and interest in a simple, non-technical life style. Whatever it was we were doing together on the land, people were hungry to know more."

In early December, the rains settled in with a vengeance. Tents began to leak and the blow away. Folks huddled around woodstoves for warmth until their wood stashes ran out and they were forced into their beds. First-time carpenters' homes suffered hopelessly from leaks and drafts, yet most everyone enjoyed their new-found primitivism, even if it meant being wet and cold. Periodically some resident would give it up and head back to the city, a movie and a generous friend with a warm bath. The flow of people through the land slowed considerably. Most cars could not negotiate the butterscotch pudding access road which boasted such historic spots as Gruesome Gulch, Oil Pan Rock and the Cavernous Culvert. At least once a day someone got stuck and had to be pulled out by the four-wheel-drive jeep. But the bad weather, shared among so many, elicited an even greater feeling of family than before. It was Open Land at its best.

Some health problems occurred, mainly because it was just too cold to take a bath with the garden hose. Cases of staphylococcus, ringworm, threadworm, scabies, lice and colds which didn't go away plagued the residents. With professional medical treatment unavailable, people turned to folk and Indian remedies: sulphur for scabies, radishes and ginseng for hepatitis, Aloe Vera for herpes, bay leaf tea and arrowroot starch for dysentery, golden seal for skin infections. And garlic for warding off colds, expelling worms and aiding the body in fighting any viruses passing through. Studying Miwok tribal customs brought the ranch another wonderful way to cure winter ailments. A sweat lodge was built out of bent branches covered with plastic behind the barn on the side of the West Canyon. Several energetic men spent the morning splitting wood and starting a fire to heat the rocks.

"Steambath! Steambath!" The canyons amplified the shouts so that they could be heard on nearly every part of the land.

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People came running, shedding their clothes in one motion. Like sardines in a can, body to body, grown-ups and kids crammed into the hut while the hot rocks were pitchforked into a central pit. Rivers of sweat poured down naked bodies. Water was splashed on the rocks which spit searing steam. It was the ultimate escape from the winter miseries. Cooked bodies finally emerged, steaming and lobster red, for the run to the garden and a hosedown, leaving the participants refreshed and clean.

Late in January, a white plane flew over the Ridge and began circling lower. Accustomed during the previous summer to low-flying Piper Cubs with faces peering out of them, no one paid much attention until it had circled for the sixth time. By then the big white four-wheel-drive sheriff's van had driven up to the door of the studio. One female and three male deputies got out and informed Bill they were in 'hot pursuit' of draft dodgers and underage juveniles. They were going to search the land. Gwen quickly left to spread the news while Bill began yelling that they needed a warrant.

With their walkie-talkies in hand, they drove all over the land, asking questions and taking photos of structures which later were used in obtaining a warrant to inspect for building code violations. The plane continued flying around, very low, radioing messages to the cops on the ground.

GWEN: "I felt angry and afraid. The life I was living felt so pure and simple and harmless that it was hard for me to feel like an outlaw. It was against the law to smoke marijuana, to build and live in a house that didn't have electricity, and to live in community with men who refused to fight in wars or with others who had left their parents' homes before a certain age. The tranquillity of the land was much disturbed by these armed men whose very presence implied that we were doing something dangerously wrong."

BILL: "The elderly, slack-jawed officer in charge told me they had received a letter from a young boy's parents stating that he was on the land and that they wanted him back.

"'He's not here,' I told him.

"'We have positive information that he is,' he replied.

"'Where's your search warrant?'

"'We don't need one,' he answered arrogantly, and ordered me to remain in the studio while they searched.

"Disregarding his order, I walked to the garden to find Curly-haired Chuck. 'Go, go quickly - they are here!' I yelled.

"He ran off into the West Canyon. The circling plane spotted him and radioed to the 'ground forces.' He stopped running, feeling that flight was fruitless. Yielding to God's will, he settled into a full lotus position and went into deep meditation. But he was never found, nor was the boy the deputies came for, although they asked for I.D.'s from as many people as they saw. In order not to return red-faced and empty-handed, they picked up another seventeen-year-old youth in spite of the letter of permission from his mother he carried.

"'Gestapo pigs!' we shouted.

"'If that was true, there wouldn't be places like this around,' they answered.

"On their way out, one of their jeeps became mired in the mud. They unraveled the winch but didn't know how it worked. The land had conquered them in a small way, and we enjoyed watching the spectacle. Two deputies pushed, mud covering their uniforms. They became as human as we, but what was about our simple and peaceful life that made them treat us so?"

As springtime crept into Sonoma County, the Ridgefolk emerged from their winter miasma of mud and moldy edges to shed their clothes and revel in the warm sunlight. Their shared hardships had created a family on the land, but one that often found Bill's leadership lacking.

"He's not a hippie," one resident complained one day when Bill pulled the plug and then the fuse at the front gate to keep electric music off the land.

GWEN: "From the very first there were various objections to Bill's role as supreme authority. People felt they should have the same freedom as if the land belonged to them. Bill loved the Ridge and wanted to protect it as he thought best. His responsibility for the upkeep of the place prompted him to lay down the law on what could or could not be done. But many could not accept his authoritarian attitude. Because of his lack of diplomacy, personal misunderstandings flared."

Gradually it became evident to both Bill and Gwen that they were part of an experiment that was out of their hands. "Let go, let go," Lou would chant to the tune of the Seven Dwarfs 'Heigh ho' song during his frequent visits, encouraging them to just 'let it happen.' He pointed out that when a person's most basic anxiety was relieved - a place to live - a joyous expansion of the heart was the result. And Open Land offered that possibility to anyone, regardless of their condition. The difficulties Bill and Gwen were experiencing in adjusting to their new life were merely part of a natural growth process, he assured them.

After a few weeks, spring sunshine ceased to be a novelty. The raucous party spirit mellowed into frolicking celebrations of any birthday or holiday that came along. For Easter, Crazy David erected a huge cross of fir logs and set it in concrete on Hoffie's Hill. It was the highest point on the land, named after the first person to camp there where the land opened, and afforded a magnificent view in all directions. On a clear day, Mt. Tamalpais could be seen fifty miles to the south.

Early Easter morning, a group of sleepy, shuffling souls met at the cross in the wispy fog where flowers, marijuana and breakfast rolls had been placed. Hands joined, they merged their voices in a long 'Ommmmmmm' as the first rays of the sun pierced the mists.

RAMON: "I had returned from New Mexico the previous fall and continued on to Maui to visit The Banana Patch, an Open Land community set in a valley of banana trees. Since 1966, a dozen homemade houses had been built by young people in much the same manner as at Morning Star. The owner, an older man named David Joseph, was a native Hawaiian who shared Lou's big-hearted attitude towards the homeless, although at the time he had never heard of Morning Star. When the authorities began to pressure him, he attempted to deed the land to God or to a church dedicated to the principles of Open Land.

"David was a beautiful spirit, a fascinating and animated talker. Ultimately he suffered considerable persecution for his beliefs at the hands of the police and courts. He finally had to sell The Banana Patch to one of his attorneys to pay his extensive legal fees.

"I originally travelled to Hawaii with the intention of taking a job in Honolulu, earning some money and continuing to India. But Lou wrote me from Calcutta saying not to bother. He already had found HIM for whom we were all waiting - meaning Chiranjiva, of course - and was bringing him back to Morning Star. So I returned to the mainland on a ticket Lou paid for, sleeping three days at the Honolulu airport on standby waiting for a seat.

"I found Gina working as a Go-go dancer to pay the rent on a flat on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. The minute I arrived, she broke up with her boyfriend and invited me to move in with her. The place was filled with Morning Star refugees and street people, and she retained two 'bouncers' to shoo out the speedfreaks at bedtime. A woman named 'Purple' in the next room enlivened the nights by singing in an eerie falsetto. After a week, I convinced her to give up her sociological experiment and we moved to a commune on Cole Street. A chance encounter with Don and Sandy King triggered our return to Morning Star Ranch."

On February 17th, John Butler was stabbed to death in the Haight-Ashbury. John used to tell Sonoma County officials, "I can't leave Morning Star or I'll die." After numerous arrests and over sixty days in jail, he was forced to leave.

FRIAR TUCK: "John Butler was one hell of a man. Louis Kuntz and I were living in the city, and John Butler left our house fifteen minutes before he died. He and this chick and this other couple came over and we partied for a couple of hours. Finally he said, 'Well, we're splitting. We're going up to the doughnut shop. Want to come along?' And we said, 'No, man, we're too fucked up.' But we should've went. Had we gone, they might not have killed him, at least at that point. But we all know why he was killed. It wasn't because he was black with a white chick. Absolutely not. He had been very big in the criminal investigation division of the Army. He even told Lou one time, 'I can straighten this shit out. If you have any big problems, let me know and I'll call J. Edgar Hoover.' And the cat wasn't kidding! He didn't say things that weren't true. Now you can see why he was killed.

"The night of the day John was killed, both Louis and I had taken acid and it was the first bum trip I'd ever had. Just bummed out, man, just really bummed out, insane, crazy, a bad trip, seeing knives being thrown through the air, really crazy things. And I'd never had a bad trip before. Then the next day we found out that John had been killed by Gypsy Jokers going from our house to the doughnut shop on Stanyan Street. What supposedly happened was that a couple of Gypsy Jokers drove up in a car - a car, mind you, and I've never known Gypsy Jokers to roam around in cars - and they jumped out, ran across the street and stabbed John. The other guy tried to stop them and they stabbed him too. He recovered. I really believe it was a political killing. John once told me, 'I know too much. Some day they'll get me.'"

BART: "After John Butler was killed, the Hell's Angels told the Gypsy Jokers to strip their colors. They just told 'em not to have their club any more. They didn't like 'em, and only wanted to have their own club around. They don't like other bike clubs, 'cause what they do reflects on them."

RAMON: "I feel I owe my life to John Butler for his intervention on that last crazy day at Morning Star. Somehow I wasn't able to pay that debt before John was killed. He would be alive today if he hadn't been forced back into the city. God bless John Butler!"

Ramón and Gina visited Lou and Near at Morning Star to hear all about Lou's new guru who was 'on his way' to save the ranch from the county's persecution. However Sergeant Hayes from the sheriff's department showed up and told them if he found them living on the land again, he would run them in. So they rented a cabin under the redwoods on the Russian River where Bill Wheeler visited and invited them to move to his land. But Ramón preferred to stay close to Morning Star where he could at least spend sunny days. When his previous year's womanfriend Betty arrived while Don and Sandy were visiting, Gina had a fit of jealousy and left with Don and Sandy. Ramón returned with Betty to Berkeley, accepting her suggestion to become musical director of The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company's current production. One month later, Gina joined him. She gave a glowing report of her visit to Wheeler's Ranch, and repeated Bill's invitation. In April they moved to the Ridge.

BILL: "In the April of 1969, two of my closest friends came to live at the Ridge, Gina and Ramón. She and I were astrological twins, born on the same day, the same year."

GWEN: "They moved into the Mouse House with Katy the Dog, and Ramón brought with him a quiet diplomacy that helped smooth the differences between Bill and his rivals. He also brought his accordion which he played everywhere, all the time. His music made any moment a festive occasion and, with his arrival, music began to flourish on the land, attracting musicians to settle and inspiring others to learn."

BILL: "Ramón taught us about open-tuned music, access to which was denied no one. To this end he invented what Lou christened the 'Ramon-a-phone,' an autoharp with the machine removed, tuned to an open chord, enabling anyone, even an infant, to pick it up and instantly make beautiful, harmonious music. Musical heaven for Ramón was the gathering of a half-dozen such instruments and making a sound which in its complexity and delight, could only be described as the singing of angels. I was touched to see a musician of Ramón's sophistication express such a Jeffersonian belief in people's innate musical ability. Once he put an ad in the local paper asking for used instruments, especially autoharps, for 'The Sgt. Pepper's Open Land Band.' Firmly believing that the audience-performer relationship was a deadening dichotomy, he encouraged everyone to make sounds, whether on Ramon-o-phones or banging on pans, singing, flutes or whatever. At gatherings where this spirit prevailed, incredibly complex and beautiful music resulted. The individual personalities merged symphonically in primitive, free-flowing rhythms as an expression of the joys of the life on the land."


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