The annual Bohemian Grove encampment, as a friend pointed out this week, lends itself to such tales of adventure that it has become one of the most fascinating facets of our local history.|

The annual Bohemian Grove encampment, as a friend pointed out this week, lends itself to such tales of adventure that it has become one of the most fascinating facets of our local history.

Example: I see by my daily newspaper that some of this year's protesters outside the Monte Rio site are of the tea party persuasion.

Now that's different.

The road to the Monte Rio redwood grove where the rich and famous gather each July has been lined with protesters, off and on, since 1980. That's when the Bohemian Grove Action Network, headed by Camp Meeker's tenacious laborer in the vineyards of peace and justice, Mary Moore, led a group of the county's concerned citizens to confront the captains of industry, accusing them of endangering the fate of the nation. Now, apparently, it is members of the far right who have issues with this traditional retreat.

This isn't the first sea change in the grove's climate. Not in the least. If we could, still in Shakespeare's words, "Call back yesterday, bid time return," we would find that Bohemian Club was founded in 1872 by nine San Franciscans who took it as their mission to be caretakers of the arts on the Pacific Coast at a time when American culture was seen to exist exclusively in New England and New York.

They were anything but rich and famous. There were, among them, a Shakespearean actor, a winemaker, two successful merchants and, heaven help us, five journalists.

In 1878, the club held its first encampment as a farewell party for the actor member, who was moving to New York. According to the club's official historian, Alfred Baxter, everyone had such a good time they decided to make it an annual event.

That first one was on Lagunitas Creek in Marin County. The site is now Samuel Taylor State Park. In 1879, they camped on Freezeout Creek in Duncans Mills; in 1880, just east of Guerneville; in 1881, west of Guerneville. The next four years, they were at (Camp) Meeker's, from 1887 to 1891 at Elim Grove on Austin Creek, and in 1892 they went back to Marin, to Muir Woods.

Then in 1893, they found a campsite in a long narrow stand of old-growth redwoods owned by Sonoma Lumber Co., known as Westover Canyon.

They liked it so well they never left. For eight years, they used the property with the lumber company's permission.

But, when they found undercuts on some of the largest trees, they knew what was coming. To save the forest -- and their magical canyon -- they bought the property.

The sale was accomplished in increments, beginning in 1901. Meanwhile, a genuine town was growing up at the head of the grove, to be officially named Monte Rio in 1902.

THIS WAS still a relatively small group of poets and artists and writers and musicians -- a band of merry fellows with every right to call themselves bohemians in the 18th century Paris meaning of the word (as in "La Boheme").

Jack London is an excellent "close to home" example. He and his poet pal George Sterling were members and wrote the plays for the 1904 and '05 encampments.

Before long, the Bohemian Club had come to be regarded as a San Francisco institution, and everybody who was anybody, the richer the better, it seemed, wanted a piece of the action.

For the injection of politics to the mix, we can blame Herbert Hoover. In the 1920s, as a Stanford engineering professor, Hoover became a regular and a champion of the grove and, after he became president, he introduced his political associates to the wonders of the summer frolic in the redwoods. Republican leaders came from all corners of the country.

I am not the first to suggest that money and political power trumps the arts every time.

There are still artists and musicians and playwrights in the club -- they have their own camps -- like Band Camp or Toonerville for musicians, Aviary for vocalists.

There are about 115 camps in all. Maybe more. Some are tents and platforms; others are pretty elaborate, with servants. Medicine Lodge consists of doctors living in teepees; members of Highland Camp come to dinner in kilts. One camp, Mandalay (Jerry Ford was a member) is so far up the canyon wall there's an incline railway to haul supplies.

Some have silly names like Pig 'n Whistle and Dog House. I seem to remember that Owl's Nest was Reagan's camp. There's even one called "Snob Hill."

They are obviously having fun out there -- about 2,000 of them on weekends, maybe less than half that during the week ... it happens every July. There may be more or fewer, I cannot say, and I'm certainly not of a mind to sneak in and count them.

The permanent structures are rustic and unremarkable, with the exception of The Lodge at the narrow end of the canyon, designed for meetings by the estimable Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck in the early part of the 20th century.

During World War II, The Lodge was chosen by government officials looking for a hideaway for the world's top physicists to meet and discuss top secret plans for what would become the Manhattan Project and, ultimately, the atom bomb.

In 1981, at the height of the BGAN protests, I happened to be on a tour as a guest of Supervisor Helen Putnam on a county officials visit.

As we passed The Lodge, our guide, a genial Bohemian named Jim North, seemed a bit rueful.

"If they had to do it all over again," he said, "they perhaps wouldn't do it all."

I wasn't sure whether he meant let the government use The Lodge. Or make the bomb.

Maybe both.

THE WELL-PUBLICIZED PROTESTS that began in the 1980s may be attributable to the big population jump of the 1970s in the county, which brought literally thousands of young people from metropolitan areas seeking a permanent place in the same happy, tree-shaded. riverside environment that brought us the Bohos in the first place.

The clash of worldviews was pretty much inevitable.

As for the current vigil from the far right -- I don't know what to make of that. Herbert Hoover probably wouldn't either.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.