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A look back: The origins of Bohemian Grove campground

Prominent journalists, artists, business magnates and former U.S. presidents are among the thousands of powerful men who gather annually at the Bohemian Grove, a private, 2,700-acre campground in Monte Rio along the Russian River.

Their weekslong gathering in July is a summer ritual in Sonoma County, where protesters flock by the gates, security is high, and conspiracy theories abound.

But it wasn’t always a spectacle. The Bohemian Club of San Francisco started small when it formed in 1872 by newspapermen as an artistic, or bohemian, social outlet for men. Six years later, the group had its first midsummer retreat. The Monte Rio campground was purchased in 1899.

An 1880 newspaper report of a Bohemian Club gathering described it as a “joyous occasion.”

“The spot selected by them is a marvel of natural attractiveness. Outside the clearing of the redwoods and laurel form a shield of protection from the sun’s ray, and within fifty feet of the camp gurgles a mountain stream whose nectar far eclipsed any the club brought from the city in glass or stone jugs,” the Petaluma Weekly Argus report said.

Bohemian Grove evolved eventually from a gathering of local writers and artists to an elite club of high-powered men from other spheres like politics and the corporate world.

Nicknamed “Bohos,” attendees of the annual invitation-only gathering of men have a mascot — an owl — and its motto is “Weaving spiders come not here,” a line from William Shakepeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The men conduct lakeside talks, have “jinks” or entertainment usually in the form of a Grove play, and an initiation ceremony called the Cremation of Care.

Protesters of the encampment say it’s sexist and it allows rich and powerful men the opportunity to forge deals in privacy. Some point to a 1940s Manhattan Project planning meeting allegedly held at the camp, leading to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Upper-class retreats such as the Bohemian Grove “increases the social cohesiveness of America's rulers,” according to “The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats,” by G. William Domhoff, a UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of psychology and sociology.

“Moreover, their existence is evidence for a theory heatedly disputed by most social scientists and political commentators: that a cohesive ruling group persists in the United States despite the country's size and the diversity of interests within it,” Domhoff wrote.

Bohemian Grove traditions continued this month as the men gathered for their annual encampment.

View photos in the gallery above of the Bohemian Grove in its early days.

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