Jan 30, 2015

Don McCoy and the Olompali Commune

To accompany my post on the Aoxomoxoa photo, I've put together this page collecting a few articles on Don McCoy and the Chosen Family commune at Olompali. These are just the ones I found most useful and interesting. Some are excerpts from recent online news articles; a couple are from book chapters; one is a contemporary piece on the commune.

From "Donald McCoy - Marin Developer, '60s Dropout," by Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/04: 
...[McCoy] grew up in Pasadena and earned a bachelor's degree in 1953 from Occidental College, where he was a star player on the water polo team and a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. After marrying Paula Carrigan in 1955, he served two years in the Navy in Honolulu, then moved to Newport Beach (Orange County). The couple had three children.
In 1961, the family moved to Marin County, where Mr. McCoy started a property investment and construction company with his brother, Douglas. Two years later, the brothers developed the first modern houseboat marina at the Sausalito heliport at Richardson Bay.
Some of the most popular musicians and performers of the day lived in the eclectic houseboat community, including comic Bill Cosby. Otis Redding is said to have written the song "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" on Mr. McCoy's houseboat.
"He loved Bill Cosby, and he loved Otis Redding," said his longtime companion, Sheila McKendrick, who prefers to use only her first name. "They all became buddies. Before I even met Don, a friend of mine took me to a party on one of his houseboats, and it was a-rockin'."
In 1966, Mr. McCoy separated from his wife, who left him with their three daughters. Within a year, he was searching for communal bliss.
"I had become a slave to my business affairs," he said at the time. "If you are unhappy, you are a failure, no matter how much money you have."
Armed with about $500,000 in inheritance and profits from his houseboat business, he leased a 700-acre estate at Rancho Olompali, now known as Olompali State Historic Park, just north of Novato.
He and a dozen friends and their children became known as "the Chosen Family," to the delight of the mirthful press. Mr. McCoy, with his long, dark beard and flowing locks, became the "hippie benefactor," the "bearded patriarch" and the "rich guru." The exploits of his band of 50 hippies were tracked with zeal in the newspapers.
The children attended a "Not School" school run by a pot-smoking nun. Two of the students, it was gleefully reported, were the sons of Richard (Sgt. Sunshine) Bergess, a San Francisco police sergeant convicted of smoking pot on the Hall of Justice steps.
The 22-room mansion where the group lived, mused one reporter, was "the White House of hippiedom."
People came from all over to visit, including actors, spiritual leaders, astrologers, numerologists and musicians, including members of the Grateful Dead. It was, said Sheila, who was Mr. McCoy's partner for the last 27 years of his life, "a hippie oasis."
Then, seemingly overnight, "things weren't going beautifully anymore," she said. The father of Mr. McCoy's ex-wife had his assets impounded, saying he had frittered away $300,000 supporting "artful and designing persons."
Two children drowned when they fell into the swimming pool. The driver of a semi-truck was killed in a grisly accident after one of the rancho's 40 horses escaped and ran onto Highway 101.
There were two renowned drug busts in 1969. In one of them, narcotics agents demanded to know who owned all the pot they found. Mr. McCoy responded famously, "It belongs to God. I just smoke it."
The coup de grace came when the historic two-story mansion, parts of which had been built 150 years before, burned down in 1969.
"We were all very depressed and practically having nervous breakdowns," Sheila said. "It was stressful and depressing and chaotic, and then we gave it up."
Stressed and searching for new meaning, Mr. McCoy went to India for a spiritual summit conference. In Calcutta, he met a white-bearded beggar, Ciranjiva Roy, who told him about his vision. Mr. McCoy ended up helping Roy come to the United States, where he created the Foundation of Revelation, which still exists at 59 Scott St. in San Francisco.
In 1977, Mr. McCoy moved to a condominium complex in Terra Linda, where he became active in the homeowners association. By the time of his death, barely a trace of his counterculture past could be detected except, perhaps, in his penchant for collecting odd phrases and turning them into poetry.
His business card touted him as a "retirement adviser," because his advice to all people was to retire. He would say every day, "Be good to your mother, be good to your wife, be good to all the girls in your life," according to his family... 

From The ‘60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond, by Timothy Miller, p.70-72:
...[McCoy] had a substantial inheritance, and he and his brother had also done well operating a heliport and owning and renting out houseboats in Sausalito. In the summer of 1967 a circle of friends with whom he had become involved started spending a great deal of time together, so much that they hated to part company at the end of the day. McCoy began looking for a large place where they could live together, and at the end of 1967 rented the very large house and 690 acres of land at Olompali. More friends joined the original 26, and soon they were all known as the Chosen Family – because...“God chose us to be family with each other, and also, we chose each other for family.” They lived very comfortably from McCoy’s checkbook. Just about anything people asked for, they received: McCoy paid all the bills and bought his friends motorcycles, horses, light show equipment, and any number of other things. He gave one member $7,000 to pay off her old bills. The Chosen Family lived a very happy life, by all accounts – no one had to work, and nude socializing around the swimming pool and ubiquitous marijuana-smoking occupied a good deal of everyone’s day. Even a nun who had happened onto the group got into the spirit of things, moved in, and doffed her habit. The Grateful Dead got along famously with the new residents and continued to visit, playing there several times. Members did not just engage in self-indulgence, however; they had equipment for a commercial-sized baking operation (supplied by the Diggers of San Francisco, those tireless purveyors of free food) and with it baked hundreds of loaves of bread twice a week for the San Francisco communes…
[In 1968] Don McCoy had become friends with Lou Gottlieb of Morning Star Ranch and became intrigued with Gottlieb’s devotion to open land. Morning Star was in the throes of its conflicts with the authorities in Sonoma County, and some of its residents were leaving to avoid further arrests and evictions… [Some went to] Olompali, where McCoy welcomed them. The rest of the Chosen Family, however, was not so taken with all the new company camping in their woods. Morning Star had a diverse crowd, some of them definitely not culturally congenial with the high-living Olompalians. [One of them said,] “We were persona non grata in a lot of places. We were too crazy.”
[Noelle Barton described the newcomers:] “So now come those things out of God knows where, who are camping and pissing here. I’ve already gone to Morning Star, and gone through one of my walks in the woods and stepped in people shit… And I said, ‘No, we’re not having this at our ranch.’ So now we start dividing. Some say, ‘We are all one, let everybody come live with us,’ and then some of us say, ‘Yeah, but who’s footing the bill here, and who’s eating the food, and who’s going to do the work, and who are these people anyway? Get out of my living room, get off my couch, no, don’t use my hairbrush.’ And so there was division.”
“Distaste for the new campers disrupted Olompali’s routines; among other things, swimming pool maintenance stopped and the pool fell into foul unusability… Don McCoy’s family, arguing that he was squandering his children’s future, imposed a conservatorship on him that stopped the money flow. Suddenly the cooks were reduced to taking up collections for food, and the rent wasn’t getting paid. Additionally, given the easy availability of marijuana around the house and grounds a bust was inevitable, and it came not once but twice, eight days apart… The house suffered a bad fire in February when the antiquated electrical wiring suffered one overload too many.
Barton recalled that fateful night: “We came home one night stoned on acid from doing a light show at Longshoreman’s Hall. All of a sudden there were sirens behind us. So we busted up the freeway; we thought we would get to our house and lose them. So as we drove up you could look up and see the mansion, and it was like an Edgar Allan Poe movie, with the flames leaping out the window. And we’re stoned, so it’s like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’… Now all the fire trucks had arrived…[and] the mansion is being gutted, and we’re all standing out there stoned, watching everything we know going up in flames!...”
“Other buildings remained, and for several months the dwindling number of commune members soldiered on, trying to make Olompali a working commune, with a heavy emphasis on the alternative school. But in June 1969…two little girls were riding their tricycles unsupervised around the  half-empty swimming pool – and fell in and drowned. Plenty of bad press ensued, the residents were evicted, and during the summer Olompali faded into history… Some of the residents later decided that the place had probably always had an evil spirit; and indeed, there are troubling stories that date back to Indian days. But the residents have gone on to other things, and like many former 60s communards, most have warm memories of good times that tend to eclipse the downside.”

From The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities of the ‘60s & ‘70s, by Richard Fairfield, p.90-93:
[From a June ’68 article in the Modern Utopian magazine:] “Don McCoy has what at first seems a resort for the wealthy. The 750-acre ranch includes an elegant historical mansion with tiled swimming pool and four color televisions. The kids are taught by Mrs. Garnett Brennan, an exciting Summerhillian, fired as principal in Nicasio for saying she had smoked marijuana for 18 years. Don has long hair and, as her public ally, says that drugs, if properly used, can be the most valuable experience of one’s life. People go around naked in and around the pool. Homegrown vegetables are part of the diet. Twice a week 1,000 loaves of free bread for San Francisco communes are baked by nude members of the community and SF Free City people, moving in the hot sun between the outdoor bakery on an octagonal concrete slab and the pool. The driveway has a sign posted that says no visitors unless you feel like negotiating about this policy.”

...Don McCoy, a big man in his 30s, inherited some money from his father and then, through shrewd investments in real estate, amassed a fortune of $500,000. But accumulating great wealth was not enough for Don; he was looking for something else. He found it in San Francisco, where he discovered the flower children…turned on, grew a beard, and dropped out. With him went several friends, including Sandy Barton, a successful nightclub entertainer, and the children of Sergeant Sunshine, the pot-smoking San Francisco police officer.
Originally, Don McCoy leased only five acres of the ranch. But after patrons of a neighboring riding school complained about seeing nude sunbathers near the swimming pool, McCoy took over the lease on the entire property and evicted the riding school.
Most members found much to admire in Don, who had assumed the dual role of both leader and benefactor to the commune. However, there was clearly a streak of resentment in some members because of [his] paternalism and affluence.
Don spent his money freely and lavishly. During the first year, beginning November 1967 (when he and his friends first occupied the property), he spent half of his wealth on cars, motorcycles, color television sets, musical instruments and clothes. In addition, he set up an elaborate bakery, a recording studio, and arts and crafts workshops. As a result, his father-in-law filed a lawsuit against him, contending that Don was squandering money that should be set aside to support his children and grandchildren.
After the lawsuit was filed, McCoy and two other members, incuding Sheyla McKendrick, flew to India to meditate with a holy man. Sheyla’s former husband, Robert McKendrick, then took over leadership of the commune. He had a background in business, plus unbounded optimism. He wanted the commune to become self-supporting, with income derived from the production of food and crafts. A leather shop and jewelry shop were set up; commercial plans were made for the bakery and organic garden.
Robert McKendrick’s enthusiasm was not shared by most of the other family members. They did not wish to be regimented into a work schedule. Some of the people wanted only to look at trees – an activity that McKendrick had a tendency to interrupt with irritating and…incomprehensible questions such as “What are you doing?” As a result, much friction was generated, but not much work. By the end of December 1968, McKendrick’s leadership had declined almost to the point of disappearance. And in January he himself followed suit, leaving for parts unknown.
Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve, McCoy returned from India with an intense religious message for the members. [Unfortunately, misfortunes soon befell the commune:]
- A visitor was accidentally killed while riding a motorcycle around the nearby village of Novato.
- There were two large-scale drugs raids on the commune in mid-January.
- One of the ranch’s horses wandered out onto Highway 101 and was hit by a motorist…the latter was killed.
- On February 2, the old wiring in the main house shorted out and the ensuing fire gutted the building.
- McCoy lost the lawsuit; his supply of money was cut to a bare minimum and he lost custody of his children.
He also spent some time in the Napa State Hospital and the Marin General Hospital, his ailment being described as a physical breakdown.
From February through July [1969] the remaining 20 or so commune members tried to pull things together. They wanted to create a working communal ranch with a school and spiritual center. But firm leadership was lacking. They could not decide which of their projects should be given top priority, nor how to go about implementing them.
Aside from difficulties about future projects, the commune had money problems right then, seriously aggravated by Don McCoy’s decline in fortunes. The utility bills alone ran from $150 per month in the summer to $350 in the winter; the rent was between $600 and $900 a month. Getting this much money together was hard enough although donations, especially one for $2,200 and another for $500, eased the pressure somewhat. Nearly every day it was necessary to appeal for funds from visitors and residents just to get enough money together to buy dinner. There were continued purchases of musical instruments (including a piano), clothes, and other “necessities,” yet everyone bummed cigarettes and there was no money to put the pool back in running order when warm weather arrived.
Like many other hippie communes, Olompali Ranch could not agree on how to deal with visitors. Many members wanted the commune to be closed with no outsiders allowed; others felt they should welcome everyone; no one, on either side, had the strength to actually turn visitors away. Guests might insist that they would vanish into the upper woods, but they all had a way of showing up in the kitchen at dinnertime.
The relationships between adults were often strained and abrasive…disparaging remarks punctuated nearly every conversation. [Only the children’s relationships were successful.] The ranch’s animal contingent – 11 horses, a cow, and a vast number of cats and dogs – no doubt helped keep the children occupied.
But more than that, there was a near total absence of whining and bickering. Children were treated with the maturity they had earned. A 13-year-old could be treated as an adult on some matters and as a child on others. Breakfast was a freelance affair, with the older children helping the younger ones…
It was with the unfortunate deaths of two of the children in June [1969] that Olompali itself came to an end. Four-year-old Audrey and two-year-old Nika were pedaling a tricycle along the edge of the unfenced pool and fell in. By the time they were discovered it was too late to save them. The Establishment press sensationalized the accident, implying gross negligence on the part of the commune. County, health, and sanitation authorities descended on the ranch and produced a long list of code violations. The landlord ordered everyone off the property in 30 days. Within eight hours of these orders and after dinnertime, the 40 residents were reduced to 18 – almost all the guests left; all the children were sent away before the impending visit of the probation officer. A few die-hard members remained at Olompali until they were forced to leave by the landlord’s order.
So the commune at Olompali Ranch died in the summer of 1969, at the tender age of 20 months.”

From “Growing Up On A California Commune,” by Mary Papenfuss, September 2014: 
When Maura McCoy was 10, she wore bells on her ankles, went to school when she felt like it and smoked pot. ...  Maura spent two years of her childhood on a legendary 690-acre commune at Rancho Olompali, 40 minutes north of San Francisco. Communers unspooled at wild parties, dancing to music from the often-visiting Grateful Dead while Owsley Stanley doled out his infamous LSD. Beatnik muse Neal Cassady chopped wood, and Timothy Leary pitched a tent. Maura’s commune family even posed for the photo of the Dead’s Aoxomoxoa album. Maura, her two younger sisters and 12 other children lived on a California commune in 1967. They were unapologetic “hippie kids,” she explains. “We reveled in it when we went into town. We were the cool kids,” she tells OZY.
Maura’s dad, Don McCoy, founded the “Chosen Family” commune, using money he’d received from an inheritance.
“It started in disillusionment with what I was doing,” Don said in an interview years ago. He was struggling to be the “houseboat king” of Sausalito, renting floating homes in San Francisco Bay, as well as rehearsal space to local bands. “I found myself a lonely man,” he said, referring to the time after he’d split from his wife. 
The 22-room mansion in which they lived and their freethinking way of life soon caught the media’s attention and the public’s imagination — but as with many communes, the group’s utopian ideals eventually crashed and burned. The Chosen Family “turned out to be the best … and the worst. It got heavy,” Don said. So he concocted a plan to build a freewheeling utopia. “I wanted a family. I wanted a big place where the kids could all be together.” 
Maura ran with her pals on the former estate rented by her pop. She swam in the pool, rode horses, sporadically attended the commune’s “Not School” and had lots of fun.
But there was a downside. “I didn’t like the chaos,” she recalled. “People say children crave routine, and I very much agree with that. I felt vulnerable.” She adds, “You rebel against what your parents did, no matter how radical.” 
The Olompali experiment ended after 600 days of spangly, heady freedom had been punctuated by two drug busts, a fatal traffic crash, the accidental drowning deaths of two children and a fire at the mansion.
“Something started to change,” recalled Noelle Barton, who moved to the commune at 16 with her mom, one of the three original adults. “But looking back, it was the best time of my life.”
Barton blames the commune’s downfall in part on freeloaders out for drugs, music, food and sex, noting that visitors weren’t always faithful to hippie ideals. [ ... ]
“I think it was worth a try,” said a former resident. “It was really worth a try.”

From "Remembering Novato's Hippie Past," by Paul Jones, the Novato Advance, 2/3/10: 
...[Dawn Laurant, curator of the Marin History Museum, said:] “Don McCoy was a founder of the commune. He had family money, so he did this dropping out thing for a while, sold the houseboats he owned in Sausalito, and leased the Olompali property from then-owner University of San Francisco in 1967. They were there for two years, and the Grateful Dead also came, a lot of musicians came.”
Unfortunately, the commune’s exit was caused by two disastrous events.
“There was a fire due to faulty wiring in the old mansion, and the family was burnt out of the house,” Dawn said. “There were a lot of out-buildings there were able to stay in, though. Prior to the family renting the land, there had been a group of investors who started the retreat and swim club, and they built a pool and were going to expand with tennis courts, but it didn’t work out. The pool had been drained to fight the fire. Later that year, two young girls fell into the pool and they drowned, and that was the end of it.”
Two original members of The Chosen Family were present at the exhibit’s opening. Sheila McKendrick, who helped co-found the family with McCoy, explained the purpose envisioned by members for the commune.
“We were trying to provide a place where the children could grow up without being touched by many of the negative things happening in the world, from President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Vietnam,” she said. “We wanted to provide a beautiful outdoor place where the children could ride horses and have fun in their own world.”
One of the things The Chosen Family became well-known for was the contribution of substantial amounts of baked bread to The Diggers, a radical San Francisco movement whose members promoted a world without private property.
“We had been given this bakery, and it was a huge bakery, so it became an enormous project to get the parts, paint them, build a concrete platform to put it on and reassemble it, and we’d bake up to 500 loaves at a time,” McKendrick said. “Don McCoy would be putting honey and butter on the bread, giving it to the children, and then the rest we’d give to the Diggers, who were feeding people in Golden Gate Park.”
Noelle Olompali, whose mother was also a co-founder, said she felt the commune, while short-lived, had been part of a cultural movement that ultimately bore fruit.
“The high part was about a year-and-a-half in. We had wonderful ideals, and wonderful dreams, though we had no true game-plan,” she said. “I think though we never accomplished it, we set the ball rolling for a more open-minded society. We started the green thing that’s becoming popular over 40 years later, even though it didn’t take then.”
Olompali said the main vision of the commune had to do with relationships between people.
“I hope people take away from our portion of the exhibit that it’s human to live in a group. This tiny, separate nuclear-family thing isn’t the way we were made. We’re made to be in a community of like-minded people, where the children are all raised together,” she said. “I miss that, a lot. It’s not that I want to rush back to a commune, but we could do with more of that spirit in our society.”

From "Digging It At Historic Olompali," by Donna Horowitz, the San Francisco Examiner, 8/18/97:
..."The Summer of Love," Merry Prankster and novelist Ken Kesey once said, "began one afternoon at Olompali."
Goats, horses, dogs, kids and their child-like parents had the run of the place for the two years the commune survived. There was free love, drugs - with two major drug busts in '69 - and the "Not School" for kids, run by teacher Garnet Brennan, who had lost her establishment gig as principal of the Nicasio School when she admitted smoking pot to alleviate stress.
Men, women and children wore fringed leather vests, boots, bell-bottoms and floppy hats - or nothing at all - and swayed to the riffs of entertaining visitors like the Grateful Dead, who stopped by on weekends.
"It was like the best party you've ever been to that never ends," said Noelle Barton Olompali, who moved to the commune when she was 17 and is so enamored of her life there that she adopted the community's name as her own.
It wasn't all laughs. There were rivers of tears as well. Two-year-old Nika Carter and Audrey Keller, 3, died after tumbling into the murky swimming pool while riding a tricycle at Olompali the summer of '69. The tragedy sparked the wrath of local officials, who very nearly shut the place down.
"There are numerous individuals and small children living in extremely dangerous and unsanitary conditions on this property," Douglas Maloney, then Marin County counsel, declared at the time.
In November 1968, a horse from the commune wandered onto U.S. 101 and a truck driver who hit it was killed. The mansion was destroyed in early '69 by a fire apparently sparked by a faulty gas heater or electrical wiring. A dog, two cats and two parakeets burned to death; there were no other injuries. The hipsters were finally evicted from the grounds. Members became teachers and caterers, musicians, artists, homemakers.
The commune was launched in 1967 by Don McCoy, then 37, with $500,000 in real estate profits and inheritance money. He supported as many as 60 adults and children on the 690-acre spread that he rented for $1,000 a month.
"I was really looking to duck responsibility," said McCoy, 67, now retired in San Rafael. "I also was on a search for meaning in life. I was looking for answers. It seemed like the world was going headlong to its own destruction. It seemed like man was raping the Earth.
"I still have some of those same hippie sentiments. I wanted to change the world."
McCoy had to balance his reverence for freedom with enough rules to keep the place operating.
He asked members to give up outside jobs and focus on communal life. They signed up for chores on a blackboard in the kitchen: cooking, cleaning, gardening and baking bread in a large outdoor oven to distribute to the poor.
But Olompali admitted the discussion at nearly every group meeting - at this and other communes where she later lived - boiled down to the same kinds of issues: Who let the pets in, who didn't wash the dishes and who left the gate to the garden open?
"You're cooking for 50 or 60 people," said Barton Olompali. "When we made breakfast in the morning, it was six loaves of bread, four or five flats of eggs for scrambled eggs. We bought things in bulk.
"You had space cadets who didn't show up (for chores)," she conceded, but there were no real penalties for them.
"People would suggest they show up the the next day. It wasn't an uptight atmosphere. The whole idea was to get away from regimented things."
Still, "we didn't want to feel controlled. We wanted to feel freedom," she said. "Sometimes you were in the mood to hang out by the pool. Maybe you wanted to bake bread or hang out with the guys working on the motorcycles, or go on a truck to Baskin Robbins or hang out smoking a joint."
The dream was to be "a self-sufficient community where we weren't dependent on the outside world," said Barton Olompali. "We really wanted to be separate from U.S. rules. We wanted to be our own entity. We had our own way of being."
The 15 children - ranging in age from 5 to 17 - were an important focus.
"We wanted to give them a good time," recalled Sheila McCoy, who lived on the commune with her three children and former husband, Bob McKendrick, and later married Don McCoy. "There was lots of space for the children. They had each other. We weren't chained to the daily routine of the nuclear family.
"We wanted to get the children away from the straight world, which was going into chaos after the assassination of Bob Kennedy. We wanted to get them into this natural atmosphere and let them lead a life of nature away from newspapers and TV."
At the commune's Monday night meetings each adult drew a child's name out of a hat, and would "adopt" that boy or girl for the week.
"I thought it was a great idea," said Don McCoy. "The reason we did that was that whenever children had a problem, they'd run to their biological parent. We changed it so everyone could be a mom and a dad. Everybody bonded."
The children were never pressured to attend the "Not School," which, Don McCoy now admits "had its down side." The teacher would often wait three hours for her charges to show up and the kids "fell behind," he said.
The Grateful Dead first rented the 26-room mansion the summer of '66 from the University of San Francisco, which then owned the property. The back cover of a Grateful Dead album, "Aoxomoxoa," features a photo of Jerry Garcia and commune members among the trees of Olompali.
The band drew a chorus of other rockers to the site - Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Santana, David Crosby, members of Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service - as well as acid guru Timothy Leary.
"This was a big weekend gathering place for the San Francisco rock icons," said park ranger Fred Lew. "They had a lot of jam sessions here. They could play their music loud. They didn't have neighbors to disturb."
"The Dead played because they loved the sound," Don McCoy said. "They'd get into these long, long riffs. They'd improvise. It would echo throughout the hills. You could go up in the hills anywhere and hear the music. It sounded like it was coming from above."...

From "All About Olompali," by Mal Karman, the Pacific Sun, 1/15/15:
...“Dad had inherited $500,000 from his family,” Maura says. “That’s like $4 million today. He and his friends, who all had kids, started looking for a large house with a large yard. A realtor [going by the tag Codfish Carrier] showed them Rancho Olompali, a few miles north of Novato, and everyone fell in love with it! It’s one of the most beautiful places you can imagine, out in the country, 690 acres with a 26-room mansion for maybe $1,000 a month!”
What’s not to like? A mountain rises behind you to 1,558 feet with stunning views. The land is filled with oak and bay trees and a storied past. And the silvery waters of the bay sit right in your sightline.
While it didn’t start out to be the quintessential hippie commune of the ’60s, when parents and their kids want to live as an ensemble, that’s what you get. It became even easier when Don, the nucleus of the Chosen Family, as they chose to call themselves, “wanted people not to stress out by working at a job. But if you had talent, he wanted you at the ranch; you pitched in with labor,” recalls Noelle Barton, who with her mother Sandy [a San Francisco nightclub singer] was part of the original core group. “We had an awareness and sharing mentality.”
Maura, who now lives in Marina del Rey [Los Angeles County], reflects on this and says, “As I got older I kind of put Olompali behind me. I rejected hippie things and went back to a more conventional lifestyle. We always reject what we’ve been raised with, and I wasn’t really that interested in it in my 20s or 30s."  [ ... ]
When the Chosen Family set up house at Olompali and was finished choosing (at least temporarily), by most accounts there were about 10 adults, 15 girls and four boys: Don and his three girls, Maura, Dana and Mary; Sandy and Noelle; Bob and Sheila McKendrick (who would later divorce Bob and marry Don), their two daughters and son; and Buz Rowell, their de facto ranch manager. They soon added the likes of a pot-smoking nun, Sister Mary (now Mary Norbert Korte) and a pot-smoking elementary school teaching principal, Garnet Brennan, whose 30-year career was erased by the Nicasio school district after she admitted to smoking weed.
Six of Sister Mary’s poems appeared in the book Women of the Beat Generation, including one titled, “There’s No Such Thing As An Ex-Catholic.” Meanwhile, Brennan, whose termination was a national news story picked up by LIFE magazine, set up the dining area at the mansion as the classroom of the “Not School.”
“We had displays, supplies, books, tests—yes, she tested us,” remembers Maura McCoy, who was 10 at the time. “She was a professional educator and a great person to have there.”
 “We had a Montessori-type school,” Barton says. “Kids in the real world didn’t have their own horses or an oversize swimming pool or the freedom to choose their own bedtime. Kids even got to pick what color to paint their room. You can’t dream of a life like that. At my age [then 17] all boundaries and restrictions were removed. You don’t have to go anywhere. Or do anything. Music came to us [including the Grateful Dead, who lived at the ranch during the summer of 1966, and were close enough with Don and Sandy to just drop in on weekends].”
Others who supposedly passed through could either be found in a Grammy lineup or a police lineup: Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, a 5-year-old Courtney Love, Nina Simone, Lou Gottlieb (of the Limeliters), Bill Cosby, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Hells Angels and Charles Manson. The back cover of the Dead album Aoxomoxoa features a photo of Jerry Garcia and commune members, including Maura McCoy, among the trees at Olompali.
 “Everything was in the moment,” Noelle Barton recalls, “and you had a choice, a lot of freedom and merriment. You might make some wrong choices along the way because you didn’t have enough [life] skills … There were people who showed up later to take advantage of those freedoms, but not at the beginning. We worked hard, making meals three times a day for 50-60 people, shopping for food, cleaning up after. But work isn’t a chore when you’re sharing with people you care about—six or more of us washing dishes together and laughing and talking—it’s more adventure than chore. We milked our own cows, milked our own goats, fed and groomed horses, tended the garden.”
“It was a special and wonderful life,” Maura says. “Just a lot of freedom as children. Pot was definitely made available to us, but it was entirely up to us. On occasion like a party anyone could have LSD. I tried it, didn’t like it. Nobody thought pot was harmful, even though some of the younger kids who have kids of their own now say, ‘How could they have done that?’ But it was a different time.” At Monday night meetings of the Family, each adult drew a child’s name out of a hat and would “adopt” that boy or girl for the week. “We were collectively parented,” Maura says. “More specifically, to make sure each child was being looked after, we were assigned each week to a specific adult. They just wanted to experiment with different ways of parenting. I wasn’t missing anything, any more than any child of divorce who misses a parent.”
Maura’s sister Mary concurs. “I was only 6 at the time,” she says. “[But] that was a difficult period for all of us. You suddenly lose your place in the universe with regard to your mother and father, and when I lived with my parents, I had a bedroom—and all of a sudden I’m sharing a big space with many other kids in the mansion, but new friends trumped the rest of it.” [ ... ]
As part of the communal template that was being forged there in ’67 and ’68, new people anxious to be part of it all had to be voted in. One who did was Peter Risley, a 20-year-old freelance photographer hired to shoot photos for a Pacific Sun article on what one reporter called “The White House of Hippiedom.”
“After I joined the experiment the photography dropped away, due a lot to my immaturity,” Risley says. “I was a good idealist, but not a good businessman.”
Buz Rowell remembers that Risley “hit it off with everyone and he sort of took over the garden. The kids and adults helped him and, because animals dumped their stuff there, it was really productive. We grew chard, corn, beans, tomatoes, cukes, squash, yeah marijuana, but not too much, because people were always bringing in gunny sacks of Acapulco Gold.”
We tracked Risley down in Kapaau, Hawaii, where he is now an award-winning organic farmer with a pretty sober view of life, now and then. “It was there I decided farming was what I wanted to do—it was needed and I could do something for the world. Things that made Olompali relevant—it’s now intensified. We’re in trouble because of the way we relate to the earth and each other. Our society has yet to open up to what we were trying to do back then.”
He recalls the press gleefully descending on the ranch, apparently anxious to puncture holes in what many perceived to be the absurdities of the freethinking counterculture.
“The media stuff was always happening, which created a negative situation. We weren’t ready to deal with it. We were dealing with our personal lives. A lot of stuff that happened was imposed on us. I really liked Don a lot, and I saw things that happened to him that reverberated with all of us. He was a man who landed in a hurricane. Don’t forget that period was right in the middle of revolution—this great change in America and particularly on Haight Street—and the feeling was, ‘We’re it!’ But there was not a snowball chance in hell that [the commune] could survive, and that was our own fault.  Because of the publicity, he was getting letters from people looking for answers and wanting to come and live there, people trying to use him. We just got crushed by reality and our own naiveté.”
About seven months into Don McCoy’s communal life, in the summer of 1968, his father asked his grandfather to put Don’s inheritance into conservatorship “so he doesn’t piss it all away.” Maura says, “Dad didn’t fight it. He’d become all hippie by then and actually felt the money was a bit of a burden.” But they did offer him enough to join Sheila and Buz at the Worldwide Spiritual Conference in India, though that may have sounded the death knell for the ranch.
In November 1968, while they were still in Calcutta, someone left a gate open at Olompali and a horse ran down the driveway that led directly to the freeway. A second gate [at the bottom of the hill] was usually kept closed, but that, too, was open and the horse ran onto Highway 101, causing the driver of a semi to jackknife as it slammed into the animal. Both the horse and the driver were killed.
When the group returned to California from India, Buz Rowell says the structure of the commune had been changed by Bob McKendrick. “The ranch was never the same after that,” he remembers. “A lot of people had joined up since we’d been gone, people living up in our hills. You’d look at them and ask, ‘Do they live here?’ and someone would say, ‘Duh, I dunno.’”
In January of 1969, narcotics agents made two raids at the commune, busts that Maura believes were the result of an informer in their midst. When the narcs demanded to know who owned all the marijuana, Don replied, “It belongs to God. I just smoke it.” Charges were eventually dropped.
Not long after, in the early morning hours of February 2, old and faulty wiring caused a raging electrical fire. “From the highway you could see flames leaping out of windows,” recalls Noelle Barton, who had been working a light show that night. “When we shot up the road, the fire trucks were already there, but they weren’t doing anything. They were waiting for the captain to arrive to give orders, but he had had a heart attack on his way over.” Though everyone got out without injury, a dog, two cats and a parakeet were burned to death and the blaze gutted the 150-year-old, two-story mansion.
After the fire, Olompali was hanging on by a thread. “Watching it fall into shambles was very sad,” Rowell says. “It was nothing like the joy when we started. There were no family meetings anymore or sounding things out. Don was losing touch with reality and that was dividing people, too. The ranch fell into the hands of [the late Bob] McKendrick, who I didn’t get along with—there were more drugs, PCP, speed, hallucinogens. The school was not there anymore—children had gone back to public schools. They started moving out; that’s what was missing, it just wasn’t there anymore. Things were deteriorating. It became authoritarian.”
Don McCoy had a breakdown and was, according to Maura, at Marin General under observation in the mental ward. Then, signaling the final tragic note of a movement that ultimately had witnessed the last of its music in the air and flowers in the hair, two toddlers—2-year-old Nika Carter and 3-year-old Audrey Keller—were pedaling a tricycle along the edge of the unfenced pool and fell in and drowned.
“I was in the workshop in the dormitory when it happened,” Rowell remembers. “People started screaming. I came out and saw everyone racing around frantically trying to start cars.”  No one could get any of their wrecks to fire up and by the time they were able to get the girls to a hospital in a neighbor’s truck, it was too late. “On that day, my dad looked out the [hospital ward] window and saw people from Olompali rushing in,” Maura says, “and, later when he heard what had happened, thought he would be blamed for this.”
Outraged county officials had had enough. They charged up to the ranch, found dozens of building code violations, and had landlord USF order everyone out within 30 days.
Although that was the end, there are connections to that time and place by members of the core family that apparently cannot be severed. Rowell, who now lives in a trailer park just south of Jenner, says, “Whenever I’m going south to San Francisco, I always stop at Olompali and take a solitary walk around and remember how it used to be. Although we live in different places, I have kept in touch with a lot of our people for many years.” [ ... ] 
“We, who are still alive, are in touch with almost everyone except a few who we have lost track of over time,” Noelle Barton says, “and I would say at least 80 percent of the founding families and their kids are all one family to this day.” [ ... ]

From “Just What We Were Kneading," by Terry Reim, from the Berkeley Barb, 7/11/68 [Olompali misspelling retained]:
As the intensity of city life increases, becoming more up-tight and more unbearable, people are turning in larger numbers to an alternate way of life – like, the pastoral scene.
Dubbed “alternative society” by Morningstar’s Lou Gottlieb, it is called “the Other” by members of Oampali Ranch in Marin County.
“The answers to today’s problems are simple – they are right here,” one of the Oampali residents told me as she turned and surveyed the 780 lush acres upon which the ranch is located.
Oampali is the third in what promises to be a large number of communal ranches north of San Francisco.
Morningstar and another ranch in Sonoma County were started some time ago. Oampali was begun earlier this year and from what residents have told me, they have learned from the problems which have beset Gottlieb and his Morningstar.
Gottlieb attempted to eliminate the “territorial imperative” with one cardinal rule: “access to the land is denied to no one.” Thus, deputy sheriffs, health, zoning and all other types of inspectors and officials are also welcomed at Morningstar. The result has been considerable expense in fines levied against Gottlieb because people remained on the land after it had been condemned by Sonoma County authorities.
Don McCoy started Oampali. I was told he had a great deal of money, but was unhappy. His friends were in the opposite position, so they adopted one another and leased the 780-acre ranch 20 miles north of San Rafael just off Rte. 101.
The success of their venture is already apparent.
Unlike Morningstar, residency at Oampali is controlled; most of the 40 people living there are friends of McCoy’s.
I visited Oampali last week. Their newly acquired baking equipment was being put to use for the first time. A bakery owner decided to drop out, and laid the oven, mixers, and other accessories on the ranch. In turn, the residents of the ranch are baking bread and distributing it free throughout the bay area.
As I arrived large gobs of dough were being put into baking pans, then set in the sun to rise. The bakers, guys and chicks who live at Oampali, were busily preparing their gifts in front of the outdoor oven. The atmosphere was entirely casual and I learned immediately that clothes were of little consequence.
While the bakers went about their business, I walked around the ranch, talked to the people, and tried to purge the city from my system.
Finally, at the bidding of the people frolicking nude in the swimming pool at the rear of the main house, I slid out of my clothes and into the pool.
Lying on my back in the pool, I dug the lovely flesh, and the city rapidly oozed from my body – they had worked their cure on me.
“Now you see,” said one of the chicks living at the ranch. “This is it – you only have to come here to realize it. That’s why we haven’t been hassled. All the county officials and inspectors who come here realize that this is a better way of life than theirs. They know this is the answer just as you do.”
The answer I learned was right there in the swimming pool where I remained for the rest of the afternoon. “The hell with BARB,” I thought. “I’ll learn what I can about the ranch from right here – an aquarian point of view.”
I swam about talking to the different people who entered and left the pool – Berkeley became a far off place somewhere on the other side of the bay.
When the children were finished with their day’s schooling, I left the pool for some of the bread which was about to be taken from the ovens.
There are about 20 children on the ranch, I learned, under the tutorship of Mrs. Garnett Brennan. Mrs. Brennan is the Marin grade school principal who lost her job last year because she announced she smoked grass in an affidavit supporting Melkon Melkonian, now appealing a five to life pot sentence.
The education of the children at Oampali includes pottery, jewelry making, and horseback riding.
There are 30 horses on the ranch, two pottery wheels, and ample supplies for making jewelry.
The children learn what they want when they feel like it. “In this way they are allowed to investigate their own interests and they naturally learn much faster,” I was told. The school is presently seeking accreditation with the State.
When the bread finally came out of the oven, it was served, still warm with honey. The baking continued late into the evening and by the time I was ready to leave, some 300 loaves were already stacked waiting to be distributed.
The recipe came from the Diggers, they told me, but it was strictly Oampali bread. How can the city bread at the Diggers’ compare to the open-air, sun-risen bread of the bakers of Oampali, even though both are made with the milk of human kindness?

Recently, archaeologist Breck Parkman uncovered a batch of records that had been lost in the Olompali fire. These are a few articles covering his finds:


  1. October 27, 1968 NY Daily News pdf and jpeg https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1hzeu5sqnuctlu5/AAC3G4NMkuCbvvPXzpCyDg3Ya?dl=0

    1. Interesting find on Don McCoy, thanks!
      This grabbed my eye: "the wild bash [McCoy] tossed for several hundred needy souls last summer, at which the rock group known as the Grateful Dead performed. The party lasted two days, but McCoy himself...was in jail at the time."
      Sounds like an unknown performance date for the Dead at a Rancho Olompali party, sometime in summer 1968...

    2. It could be 1968-07-28 from which we have that 3/5 Mile In 10 Seconds Jam with Jack Casady.

  2. I am Noelle Olompali Barton, and every time I read segments of information written by journalists about our lifestyle and residency at Olompali I cringe at the inaccurate reporting that's in print. Though some facts are recorded, the timeline is all wrong and many assumptions are made and told as if factual events. I obviously must write about WHO we were, HOW we came to live together at Olompali, Why things went awry, What happened while living there and What our intentions were, Where we went after we had to move and basically the reality of our experiences, therefore debunking the classic stereotyping of our family of close-knit friends and family as a bunch of drug taking hippies...

    1. Yes, I'd encourage you to write more about your experiences! It would be great to have a new first-hand account of those days at Olompali.

  3. Thank you for weighing in! I know that I, for one, would love love love to hear more from you. If you are inclined to correspond, I would be grateful! jgmfblog@gmail.com. Thanks!