From the Archives: The Psychedelic Rise and Fall of Two Sonoma Communes

Experience the days of free living and free love in Sonoma County.

This article was originally published in Sonoma Magazine in 2017. Click through the above gallery for archival photos from the Morning Star and Wheeler Ranch communes. 

Early one summer evening in 1966, a group of artists sat in the front room of musician and counterculture pioneer Lou Gottlieb’s modest ranch house on Graton Road near Occidental. Having just concluded a 10-day brown-rice fast, Gottlieb’s assembled guests — a fellow musician, a teacher, two theater artists, a writer, a filmmaker and a poet — silently passed around White Lightning LSD tabs and slipped them onto their tongues.

As their senses opened and intensified, they wandered outside, strolling the gently sloping hills, meadow and redwood forest that made up Gottlieb’s property. There, everything came alive — the scent of ripening apples, the whir of insects, the changing colors of the sky. Hours later, their host served them omelets, and avant-garde musician Ramón Sender read aloud from “Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism.”

The words seemed written just for them. Nothing of importance happens accidentally, they realized. They had been drawn to the right place by the right wish. With these people, whose aspirations were like their own, they felt they could transform the world.

From 1966, as the hippie scene reached its zenith, through 1973, when it crashed and burned, rural Sonoma County experienced its own psychedelic rise and fall.

Two west county properties, Gottlieb’s Morning Star Ranch and Bill Wheeler’s Wheeler Ranch, became home to a shifting population of young people dissatisfied with the world they’d inherited and determined to create a better one. They changed the culture in ways still evident, especially in that part of the county, and called into question just what constitutes freedom.

At the core were two vastly different men whose willingness to share all they had changed Sonoma forever.

Limeliters album cover. L-R: baritone Alex Hassilev, bassist Lou Gottlieb, and tenor Glenn Yarbrough. Gottlieb admitted his was the weakest voice, but he made it up as the group’s “comicarranger-musicologist.”
Limeliters album cover. L-R: baritone Alex Hassilev, bassist Lou Gottlieb, and tenor Glenn Yarbrough.

Lou Gottlieb, 43 in 1966, tall and lanky with a sharp wit, owned 31 acres outside of Occidental. He was a celebrated bassist and singer with The Limeliters, an in-demand folk music trio, and he had purchased his land as an investment in 1962. Bill Wheeler was scion of a Connecticut family whose fortune descended from his great-grandfather’s sewing machine invention. He came west to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, moved to Sonoma County in 1963 and bought 315 acres off Coleman Valley Road, high above Bodega Bay, in 1965. A year later, he moved there with his common-law wife, Gay.

Neither man could have guessed that his land, or rather the soon-to-be notorious commune on it, would be a factor — along with the expansion of Sonoma State College and a housing boom along the 101 corridor — in transforming the politics and cultural sensibility of a growing county.

In 1960 the census counted 147,375 residents. By 1970 the count was 204,000. In a rural and agricultural region dominated by ranchers and conservative Republicans, the insurgent movement of people who were going back to the land was bound to stir the pot.

The hippies were about to arrive.

Party at Wheeler Ranch, 1971. (Photographer unknown, courtesy of Ramón Sender)

In the spring of 1966, Ramón Sender and his live-in partner Victoria,  a schoolteacher, accepted Gottlieb’s invitation to spend spring break on his Sonoma County land. Sender and Gottlieb had met for the first time a few months earlier, when Gottlieb was covering San Francisco’s Trips Festival — co-produced by Sender, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, neophyte impresario Bill Graham and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey — for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It was fabulously beautiful,” Victoria recalls of Gottlieb’s property. “In the early stages it was the Garden of Eden. Ramón and I both had that vision. It was a release from the city.”

The first day there, the couple enjoyed their host’s hashish-laced cookies under blossoming apple trees, and each subsequent day was lovelier than the last. At the end of the week Sender decided to stay. Gottlieb, in poor health and taking a break from The Limeliters, returned to his family home in El Cerrito, and would continue commuting back and forth for some months. Victoria resumed her teaching job; she joined Ramón on weekends until school let out, and then she, too, moved north. Not long after, she discovered some old receipts in a closet in the ranchhouse and for the first time learned the official name of Gottlieb’s property: Morning Star.

Lou Gottlieb playing Mozart in the egg shed, 1966. (Unidentified photographer. Courtesy of Ramón Sender)
Lou Gottlieb playing Mozart in the egg shed, 1966. (Unidentified photographer. Courtesy of Ramón Sender)

A procession of friends followed: experimental artists Ben and Rain Jacopetti of Berkeley’s Open Theatre, with their 8-year-old son, Hobart, artist and writer Wilder Bentley, underground filmmaker Bruce Baillie, poet Pam Millward and eventually, Gottlieb himself. Burned out from touring, he had decided to devote himself to his second instrument, the piano, hoping to become good enough to debut at Carnegie Hall by his 50th birthday. Morning Star, a former chicken ranch, had two houses, but he chose to move into the old egg storage shed with his Bosendorfer piano, a typewriter, a mattress and sleeping bag.

Ramón Sender in Los Angeles, 1974. (Photo by Erin Sheffield)
Ramón Sender in Los Angeles, 1974. (Photo by Erin Sheffield)
Ben and Rain Jacopetti. (Photo by Jerry Wainwright)

Happy to have the others do whatever they wished, Gottlieb would practice for hours, then emerge to tell jokes and stories, expounding on his theories about the coming “snowball of cybernation” and the challenges facing “the first wave of an ocean of technologically unemployables.” An ex-Communist with a Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, he came to believe that private property was a sin. By principle and inclination, he was willing to open his land to all comers.

Ramón and Victoria lived awhile in the upper house, then built a platform on the eastern slope of the property to sleep under the stars. The Jacopettis settled into a room off the kitchen in the lower house. Rain did most of the cooking for the group; she and Ben were followers of Subud, a spiritual practice that began in Indonesia in the 1920s, and they introduced the others to macrobiotic cooking and the 10-day brown-rice diet.

This first group at Morning Star shared similar backgrounds and values. They were creative, they had been raised in comfort, and while they had money, they wanted to live simply. Morning Star’s orchards were a cornucopia of delicious fruit; the septic system was adequate, the weather was sublime and that summer, the living was easy. Gottlieb and Sender bonded during that early LSD trip, and their friendship became the glue that held Morning Star together as the commune grew. Their shared credo was Open Land: LATWIDNO: “Land Access To Which Is Denied No One.”

People worked when work was needed, and marijuana and LSD mellowed out conflicts. Children ran free; Bach and Mozart floated from the egg shed. Nudity was commonplace, and clothing took on new color and style as clothes were mended, embroidered and refashioned.

Then Morning Star was discovered.

Morning Star commune members embrace. (Unidentified photographer, courtesy Ramón Sender)
Morning Star commune members embrace. (Unidentified photographer, courtesy Ramón Sender)

In 1967 the Diggers — a loosely knit group of artists and anarchists in Haight Ashbury who opened a free store and gave out free food in San Francisco’s Panhandle neighborhood — arrived at Morning Star to pick apples for their food program. Soon they asked to create a garden.

“They brought in leaf mulch and mixed it with old chicken shit. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Victoria says. “You had to jump back because the vegetables grew so fast — they were like outer space aliens. Even when 80 people were living there, we couldn’t eat all of them.” In San Francisco, Morning Star became known as “The Digger Farm.”

“Early in 1967 that back-to-the-country thing became a prominent theme in hippie culture,” said Joel Selvin, author of “The Summer of Love” (1994), in a recent interview. Selvin noted that soon after the Human Be-In took place in Golden Gate Park in January of that year, followers of the movement came in droves to Haight Ashbury, “thinking they’d discovered a panacea.”

“What had been manageable and a complete delight began to disintegrate,” Selvin continued. “It’s the mentality the utopian ideal attracts: instead of responsible members you’re looking at people wanting something for free. Utopias are undermined by human nature.”

Chalkboard at Morning Star. (Unidentified photographer, courtesy Ramón Sender)
Chalkboard at Morning Star. (Unidentified photographer, courtesy Ramón Sender)

In the Haight, the Diggers posted information about the commune, and a “Digger Free Bus” ran from their free store to Morning Star. Soon a procession of hippies, flower children, dropouts, outlaws, draft resisters, runaways, dilettantes and serious back-to-the-landers was making its way north. Everyone was welcomed with no questions asked. There was no governing body, no written rules. Once Sender had to eject four troublemakers, and the decision tormented Gottlieb, who never willingly asked anyone to leave.

Time magazine published a cover story about Morning Star that year, which led to more growth. The commune swelled to nearly 150 residents. “Do your own thing,” the hippie mantra, defined behavior, and Gottlieb’s conviction that no one should be denied residency caused problems. Many of the new arrivals were young people who’d never had to take responsibility for themselves or their living spaces.

“We were experimenting with how to come together and create an environment you want to be in,” Rain reflects. “The older people wanted to be in a more structured environment, focused on creativity and art. The new people were focused on finding out what life was about.” Her personal breaking point came after newcomers moved into her living quarters while she was away visiting family in Idaho. No one told them not to; that would have meant curtailing freedom. Disenchanted, the Jacopettis soon moved back to Berkeley, and later changed their names to Alexandra and Roland as part of their Subud practice. (Today Rain is a prominent textile artist known as Alexandra Jacopetti Hart.)

Rain Jacopetti in her Day and Night jean skirt, made for a traveling exhibit of her creative hippie clothing in 1974. In the communes, colorful patchwork and intricate embroidery transformed worn clothing into chic fashion. (Photo by Jerry Wainwright)
Rain Jacopetti in her Day and Night jean skirt, made for a traveling exhibit of her creative hippie clothing in 1974. In the communes, colorful patchwork and intricate embroidery transformed worn clothing into chic fashion. (Photo by Jerry Wainwright)

Cindy Read, a political activist and Digger, came to Morning Star in 1967. Originally from Massachusetts, she had joined the peace movement, supported draft resisters and worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After moving to San Francisco, she and her roommates cooked cauldrons of soup daily in their apartment for the Diggers’ free food program.

Read was along for the ride the day after the Diggers “liberated” a load of lumber from San Francisco’s Goodman Lumberand drove it to Morning Star as a gift. At supper she talked with Gottlieb and discovered a political kindred spirit. Upon return to the city, she suffered a sexual assault. Her attacker was a “straight” — a mainstream acquaintance — and, afraid he would return to hurt her but mistrustful of the police, she abandoned the Haight for Morning Star.

In Rain Jacopetti’s absence, Read soon took charge of the kitchen. There was one communal meal a day when everyone would hold hands and share a moment of silence before sitting down to eat. She and some helpers prepared vats of brown rice, soup and fresh vegetable salad with Gottlieb’s special sour cream dressing. She was fine with the work until one evening when the diners decamped, leaving her with dozens of unwashed plates. This marked Read’s breaking point, and she punctuated it by methodically smashing each dish into pieces and dumping them into the garbage can.

Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963, had urged women to create an identity beyond marriage and children — but that concept took years to embed itself in the counterculture. Hippies practiced their own kind of feminism, which Gretchen Lemke Santangelo describes in “Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Counterculture” (2009) as one “that affirmed … ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ female characteristics” like nurturing, creating beauty, and nest-building.

Tasks at Morning Star were often divided by gender: the men built dwellings, did arduous physical work and discussed philosophy while the women, enjoying camaraderie, gardened, cooked and took care of the children. They all endured cold, wet winters and intrusions from Graton Road. “People would come through to gawk because they were interested or because they hated us,” Read says. “Some would spend a night, then go back to their day job. This one man planted a garden like a mandala of beautiful growing things. He planted it, and went away.”

Wheeler Ranch family portrait. (Unidentified photographer. Courtesy of Ramón Sender)
Wheeler Ranch family portrait. (Unidentified photographer. Courtesy of Ramón Sender)

Morning Star could be magical for its residents, but not necessarily for its closest neighbor, Edward Hochuli. He was a retired Navy officer and assistant to Ambrose Nichols, the first president of Sonoma State — and, Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron says, “certainly not of the social or intellectual mode to understand or appreciate what Gottlieb was doing at Morning Star.”

Hochuli wrote to Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors that he believed Morning Star presented a fire hazard. He complained about the remains of campfires that weren’t in compliance with the 15-foot clearance in Gottlieb’s fire permit. The fire inspectors pointed out that such things happened all over the county, but fire wasn’t Hochuli’s only concern. He was incensed over nudity and explicit sexual activity within view of his property line.

“Ed Hochuli was beside himself about Morning Star,” LeBaron remembers, “but I would have been concerned if they had been my neighbors. They were peeing in the creek that ran through both properties and using the outdoors for toilets. They scared people who couldn’t imagine where it was all going. It was not healthy.”

Concerned citizens including County Supervisor Robert Rath pressured the county to declare Morning Star an “organized camp,” which called for strict regulations. Gottlieb had a witty retort at the ready (“Have you ever tried to organize a bunch of hippies?”), but he cautioned his guests that a threat existed. Some paid attention and set about clearing trash. Residents pitched in to remedy a septic field problem, which led to a hepatitis outbreak. Eventually, Gottlieb acceded to the “organized camp” charge and had the communal bathhouse rebuilt to code, but a county health inspector condemned the building.

Despite the subsequent injunctions, arrests, fines and court appearances Gottlieb was faced with, certain judges and law enforcement officers were sympathetic to the hippies and wanted to work with them. A few neighbors went to bat for Gottlieb as well in letters to The Press Democrat, and public opinion outside the county was more positive than negative. Gottlieb was active addressing civic groups, but there was an odd detached quality to his efforts, and some of his appearances were pure showmanship. Gaye LeBaron was present when, wearing nothing but a loincloth and an anklet of bells, he addressed a group of junior college students, mesmerizing them.

Bill Wheeler on his land. (Courtesy of Ramón Sender)
Bill Wheeler on his land. (Courtesy of Ramón Sender)

In September of 1967, Gottlieb was ordered to empty the commune. Bill Wheeler, a frequent visitor to Morning Star, offered to help, and the following summer some 50 Morning Star residents relocated to Wheeler Ranch. Wheeler’s property was vast and isolated, reachable by a deeply rutted road that knocked out more than a few cars. In part because of the isolation, the residents developed a strong sense of community. Many played instruments and sang, and the nights were filled with music.

Salli Rasberry (née Harrison),who lived in nearby Freestone with her partner, Robert Greenway, became a regular Sunday visitor at Wheeler Ranch in its heyday, taking saunas, walking the land, enjoying the company. When Bill and Gay Wheeler’s daughter was born and named Raspberry Sundown Hummingbird, Salli decided to adopt the last name “Rasberry,” after the baby. “Bill was sharing his large inheritance with people that he didn’t even know,” says Rasberry. “He saved a lot of people who didn’t have a home.” She also recalls that he was good-looking and strong, an alpha male with a touch of arrogance. “He loved the ladies,” she says, “and they loved him back.”

Meanwhile, Gottlieb’s legal battles continued. Because residents refused to leave, he was held in contempt of court. In order to avoid excessive fines, he had to place under citizen’s arrest all on his land who refused to leave, and he did so painfully. It was a dramatic moment, but by no means final; many moved back, and new residents continued to move in. By the summer of 1968, the Morning Star population rebounded to 120, and Gottlieb paid dearly — slapped with fines that eventually totaled nearly $18,500.

Inspectors and two uniformed Brinks guards walk onto Wheeler Ranch with attorney Corbin Houchins, at right, and deputies, May 1969. (Bob Fitch Archive, courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)
Inspectors and two uniformed Brinks guards walk onto Wheeler Ranch with attorney Corbin Houchins, at right, and deputies, May 1969. (Bob Fitch Archive, courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

In an effort to get out from under, Gottlieb offered to donate Morning Star to the county, and was refused. Then in May 1969, in a move seen as a ploy by some and an ingenious strategy by others, he went to the county clerk’s office and deeded his land to God. Public defender Rex Sater of Santa Rosa argued Gottlieb’s case before Judge Kenneth Eymann, who ruled that God was not proven to be a person, place or thing and therefore couldn’t take possession. By 1971, bulldozers were sent in to level nearly every building on the ranch.

That same fate was still some two years away for Wheeler Ranch. Like Gottlieb, Bill Wheeler had difficulties with a neighbor, James G. Kelly. The access road to the ranch ran through Kelly’s land, and the Kelly family tried to close it off, once padlocking the gate. Wheeler was an adroit negotiator, but he was sorely tested by Kelly — and by the FBI agents, health and building inspectors and sheriff’s deputies who began to show up at the ranch looking for criminals, underage runaways, draft resisters, drugs and health and building violations. Members of the Hell’s Angels began to visit as well, looking for trouble.

Ramón Sender believes that Wheeler’s commune, given time, could have grown into a sustainable community. He borrows a concept put forth by Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly about organizations and why they work — that a mix of 15 percent structure and 85 percent chaos is the most creative. “Morning Star was 99 percent chaos and 1 percent structure; it never would have worked as a community,” says Sender. “However, Wheeler’s ranch was gradually forming a group head. It was close to an 85 to 15 percent mix when the county bulldozed it.”

At 6:30 in the morning on May 18, 1973 — a morning when Bill Wheeler himself happened to be away — three bulldozers sent by county officials roared onto his land. The 50some residents awakened by the ominous rumblings scrambled from their shelters and watched as the big machines — having gained access through a specially graded road on James Kelly’s land — smashed and crunched Wheeler’s house and studio. The bulldozers turned next to more vulnerable structures: a treehouse built around an old oak was broken up, the tree destroyed in the process. Throughout the day the machines shoved and scraped, but by day’s end their work, for which Wheeler would be ordered to pay, was not yet done.

When Wheeler arrived home two days later, there was no home to come to. His guests, still in shock, were dismantling their houses to save them from the next wave, but the work proved difficult by hand, and with Wheeler’s go-ahead they decided to clear by fire. That night they burned 50 homes in what felt like a sacred ritual, their last on the land, to save trees under which they had sheltered. The next day the bulldozers returned to finish the job.

“I don’t remember many citizens’ voices rising up to say don’t bulldoze,” historian Gaye LeBaron says. “Some of us wished they wouldn’t, but we were quiet about it because we weren’t sure what was going on. It was a troubled time.”

“It’s hard where you draw the line between pretext and legitimate concern,” says Eric Koenigshofer, a former Sonoma County supervisor. “It’s like I say about almost anything I deal with politically and legally: It’s complicated, and mistakes were made.”

Remains of a Wheeler Ranch dwelling after the fire of May 20. (Photo by Pieter Myers)
Remains of a Wheeler Ranch dwelling after the fire of May 20. (Photo by Pieter Myers)

After his commune was dismantled, Wheeler moved to Bolinas for a year and a half. He returned north after a friend bought out his adversary, James Kelly, and took up art once again, enjoying success as a landscape painter. These days he teaches drawing once a week in Occidental and lives on his land. Wheeler has been in poor health and was not interviewed for this article. He has been quoted as saying he’s blocked out a lot of what came down in the 1970s. Fortunately for posterity, it’s on the record in Sender’s book “Home Free Home,” an oral history of the communes that weaves together many voices from the time.

Lou Gottlieb returned to the reconstituted Limeliters in 1972. During the last years of his life he moved back to Morning Star, where friends built him a shed to sleep in and play his piano. He spent most days at his friend Steve Fowler’s home in Sebastopol working on his computer; there was no electricity on his own land.

“A lot of people came and sat at Lou’s feet,” Fowler recalls fondly. “He was always on 24/7.” Gottlieb never made a Carnegie Hall debut. He died at Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol in July 1996. His heirs, including a son born at Morning Star to his thenpartner, Rena Blumberg, have yet to make a decision about the future of the land.

Historically, Sonoma has had numerous utopian communities, starting in the 19th century. “Once, someone asked me in a class why I thought there were so many,” LeBaron said recently. “I suggested that it was kind of a sheltering place; the hills and valleys make you think you’re protected. The man said, ‘No, it’s because Sonoma County is a Mother County — if you look at a map it’s shaped like a uterus.’ I don’t buy it, but I remember it.”

This year, the hippie era is being celebrated across the nation with exhibits and programs — not because it was sensational, though it was, and not because it was unprecedented, though it was. It’s being celebrated because of the profound changes the counterculture made in America in the way we see ourselves, our environment and the world of possibilities.

There are still communes in the county, but they keep a low profile. Sonoma is a different place today; it’s traded the “Redwood Empire” moniker for “Wine Country,” and there are even stricter environmental regulations. The Board of Supervisors has been dominated by liberals for years, and registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans. And it would take weeks to hit all the yoga studios, organic groceries, vegetarian cafes and shops selling tie-dye shirts, Buddhist books and crystals.

Writer and actor Peter Coyote, who was a member of the Diggers, puts it this way: “Anyone who is eating organic food, being treated by acupuncture, homeopathy, or naturopathy; anyone who is in a women’s movement, environmental movement, or practicing an alternative religion to Judeo-Christian beliefs, owes some respect to the counterculture who retrieved all these disciplines and thought from the great collective warehouse of human history and the great underground.”

Wheeler’s and Morning Star may have lost the battle, but there is evidence that culturally at least, the hippies won the war.

The Dynamic Duo

Bill Wheeler (left) and Lou Gottlieb, 18 years apart in age, united in intention, walking at Wheeler Ranch. (Bob Fitch Archive, courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

Lou Gottlieb (at right) (b. 1923), a celebrated bassist and singer with folk music trio The Limeliters, purchased 31 acres in west county as an investment in 1962. By 1966 he had a new identity as the laidback landlord of the Morning Star commune. Recalled by friends as a blend of philosopher and entertainer, sybarite and monk, Gottlieb’s soul was music, but preserving a place of refuge for all comers became his cause célèbre.

The legal troubles Gottlieb encountered due to Morning Star’s numerous health and building violations ultimately led to fines totaling nearly $18,500. When an effort to donate the property to Sonoma County was refused, Gottlieb attempted to deed it to God — an impressive but unsuccessful move that still serves as a mock court case for law students around the country.

Gottlieb spent the last years of his life back at Morning Star; he died in Sebastopol in 1996.

Bill Wheeler (b. 1941) came west to attend the San Francisco Art Institute and moved to Sonoma County in 1963, buying 315 acres off Coleman Valley Road, high above Bodega Bay, in 1965. When his friend Lou Gottlieb’s legal troubles came to a head, Wheeler offered Morning Star’s displaced residents a home at Wheeler Ranch — beginning a journey that would take him worlds away from his well-heeled, buttoned-up Connecticut roots. An artist and free spirit, self-reliant and introspective, over the next few years Wheeler lost his inherited fortune but found a place in history.

Wheeler died Jan. 16, 2018 at the remote Occidental-area ranch that remained his home.

The Properties

Although Lou Gottlieb initially purchased Morning Star Ranch, a former chicken farm, as an investment, his open-land credo soon made it home to a procession of hippies, flower children, draft resisters, runaways, and serious back-to-the-landers. Following a 1967 Time magazine cover story about the commune, its population swelled to nearly 150 — and its neighbors and county officials grew concerned about perceived fire and health hazards and illicit activities on the property.

After years of legal wrangling that culminated in Gottlieb’s failed attempt to deed the property to God, the county sent in bulldozers to tear down its buildings in 1971. Today the land is still owned by Gottlieb’s heirs.

High above Bodega Bay off Coleman Valley Road, Wheeler Ranch was initially home to Bill Wheeler and his common-law wife, Gay, before its second incarnation as a commune following the displacement of the hippies living at Gottlieb’s Morning Star Ranch. In part because of the property’s isolation, its residents developed a strong sense of community.

Eventually targeted by FBI agents, health and building inspectors and sheriff’s deputies, Wheeler’s met the same fate as Morning Star, with bulldozers arriving in May 1973. The night before the final leveling of its structures, Wheeler Ranch residents burned some 50 homes themselves, in what felt to many like their last sacred ritual on the land.