Campout of wealthy and powerful at Bohemian Grove peaks this weekend

Each July, the exclusive summer gathering in the Monte Rio redwoods breathes an air of mystery into the surrounding community.|

Whether it’s the influx of private jets at the Sonoma County Airport, out-of-towners in pricey cars or roadside ads for the upcoming Monte Rio Variety Show, the signs are clear: The annual encampment of rich and powerful men at Bohemian Grove is underway.

The exclusive, male-only summer gathering in the redwoods of Monte Rio has been a fixture for more than 130 years and yet each July breathes an air of mystery into the surrounding community - a humble town of modest means that, for 18 days a year, has 2,400 of the world’s elite ensconced in the woods nearby.

But beyond the novelty of participation by globally important political and corporate figures, many in the Russian River community simply view the seasonal campout as a fact of life that brings business and jobs into an ever-struggling economy and sponsors an annual community fundraiser, to boot.

“Really, the only change that I can see is you get a lot more people asking for directions from fancy cars,” said Anke Larsen-Yfkamp, 16, who serves some of the grove’s guests in her job at the Village Inn & Restaurant nearby.

The super-secret, San Francisco-based Bohemian Club hosts the retreat at its 2,700-acre grove down a narrow lane on the south side of the Russian River.

Its ranks are said to include captains of industry, military leaders, actors, musicians, wealthy investors, cabinet members and every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge. Secret Service personnel turn up, too.

Speakers this year reportedly include former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker Jr.; retired U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; television writer and producer Norman Lear; former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta; Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq; and AOL founder Steve Case.

But the public’s glimpse into club membership, as well as its activities, is mostly limited to what gets leaked or is unearthed by the curious and suspicious, some of whom view the Bohos with distrust - not least because so much wealth and influence is concentrated in one place, unfettered by democratic rules or transparency.

“There’s lots of reasons to call attention to it,” said longtime social justice advocate Mary Moore, 80, a Camp Meeker resident who organized protests at the Bohemian Grove gate over much of the past three decades.

Moore believes the Grove’s secrecy permits power players to formulate domestic, foreign and financial policy outside of public view, where it should be made.

“It’s not the only place in the world where rich guys get together,” Moore said, “but it is the one in our backyard.”

Yet Moore has stood down in recent years, withdrawing from the annual gate demonstrations because of what she says is the unwelcome intrusion of conspiracy theorists who embrace tales of Satan worship and human sacrifice - driven largely by a ritualistic and costumed “Cremation of Care” ceremony that opens the encampment each year, permitting participants to cast away their concerns while they party in the woods.

“They have a right to be out there, but they hijack the event,” Moore said of those who tout far-fetched stories of the occult, “and more important, they hijack the message.”

A handful of folks have continued to demonstrate outside the gates during this year’s encampment, which began July 9 and runs through the 26th.

But many in the community say their interactions with those from the grove suggest a bunch of well-heeled guys relishing a fun and relaxing vacation, surrounded by friends in a beautiful forest where they enjoy theater, eclectic musical performances and intriguing talks about issues of the day.

Most stories about the grove “are myth and legend,” said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who is in and out of the grove on official business throughout the year, as well as during the encampment. He once spent a half-day ferrying Ronald Reagan around, before the onetime actor and California governor became the nation’s president.

“It’s no different than any other group of people that get together and have a good time,” Baxman said. “It’s great entertainment, great talks, great shows.”

The grove remains active throughout the 18-day encampment, bringing increased traffic to the region, though arrivals tend to be most noticeable around Thursday of each week and departures most obvious Sunday, as far as the county airport is concerned.

Assistant Airport Manager Steve Lange said as many as 50 private jets may accumulate on a given day. This weekend, the second of the encampment, is generally the busiest, he and others said.

The grove is divided into 115 camps with names like Hill Billies, Stowaways, Lost Angels and Owl’s Nest. These maintain their own cultures and customs within the larger club, which was founded in 1872 to connect “gentlemen” with art, literature, music and drama.

The club’s tradition of hosting musical and theatrical events continues at the grove, through performances at individual camps as well as those for a grovewide audience.

The club also produces an annual variety show at the Monte Rio Amphitheater, this year scheduled for Thursday. Each year, the show brings in tens of thousands of dollars to benefit the Monte Rio Fire Services Department, the Monte Rio School Foundation and St. Catherine’s Church. The beneficiaries also sell barbecue, drinks and other refreshments at the show.

Michele McDonell, who coordinates the food, advertising and ticketing for the event, said the performing acts and production are completely covered by the Bohemian Club, which begins work on the next year’s show as soon as the encampment closes each summer.

It’s always a surprise, and always varied, McDonell said.

The summer encampment additionally has created jobs for thousands of high school and college-age workers over the years, including more than 800 this year who work in the dining hall and fill other service jobs during the course of the event.

“They’re very good for the economy,” even if it’s just for a few weeks, said Gaylord Schaap, course manager at Northwood Golf Club, whose son and several of his El Molino High School classmates are among those employed this year.

Schaap said visitors to the grove also find their way to his links at some point during their encampment, mostly discernible because of their bearing, golf shirts from exclusive private clubs like Augusta National, and the fact that they’re renting clubs.

“I think they do get a little stir-crazy over there and they venture off the reservation and look for other things to do,” Schaap said. “Golf is one of them, and we’re just across the river.”

Larsen-Yfkamp said her brother and several friends work there, as well, and are having a good time.

But the grove “doesn’t really affect most of the town, day-to-day,” she said.

Fern’s Grocery owner Renee Combes, whose backyard abuts the grove, said she occasionally, if infrequently, meets someone who refers to the club as “a cult.”

But like lots of people, Combes has had friends and acquaintances who worked with the club in some capacity - including her late ex-husband, who delivered coffee there - and said she’s never heard anything bad from anyone who has actually had legitimate dealings with the group.

“I have customers in here every day who are locals and have lived here forever and ever, and it’s very rare that anybody even brings them up,” Combes said. “They’re here. They’ve been here for a long time, and everybody’s used to it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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