Heirs to Morning Star Ranch, famed 1960s Occidental commune, selling for $2.5 million

Heirs to the Morning Star Ranch, a symbol of the ‘60s counter-culture, are selling the 31-acre property for $2.5 million.|

The starry-eyed Flower Children who once flocked to the Morning Star Ranch outside Occidental have long since gone their separate ways, the remnants of their experiment in communal living bulldozed by county work crews decades ago.

But the land that supported their enthusiastic foray into cooperative, material-free existence endures - a slice of history and heaven in the redwood-studded hills of west Sonoma County.

And it's for sale, with an asking price of $2.5 million.

The children of late folk musician Lou Gottlieb, who in 1965 welcomed any and all comers to his 31-acre Graton Road ranch, have decided it's time to sell the land, which their father once famously sought to deed to God. The move was rejected by a Sonoma County judge.

“Of course there's an emotional component to it,” said Tony Gottlieb, 63, a son who lives in Nashville. “But the reality of it is none of Lou's children are ever going to live there, and we all have our own children, and we're all getting older. And at some point, as the executor for the estate, it finally came to us it's time for us to let go of it.”

He described the ranch as a “primeval, fantastically beautiful property,” with three parcels suitable for several homes, a garden, perhaps a hobby vineyard and other agricultural uses.

And it comes with a colorful history that sets it apart.

Cultural destination

A one-time egg ranch, the Morning Star commune was for a brief but memorable period in the late 1960s a counter-culture destination for young idealists drawn west by San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury hippie scene. It proved a symbol of the era - one that put west Sonoma County on the map and onto the cover of Time magazine as a place to “do your own thing.”

One of two such communes in the area - the other was Wheeler Ranch off Coleman Valley Road - Morning Star was a refuge known for certain indulgences of the time, including nudity and drugs, as well as spiritual reflection, creative expression, simple living and liberation from societal norms.

Its leader was Louis “Lou” Gottlieb, a bassist and arranger with a Ph.D. in musicology, and a founding member of the Limelighters folk trio, formed in 1959. Finding swift commercial success, the group spent several years recording and touring before a near-fatal plane crash in late 1962 prompted Gottlieb to take a break from performing.

He and his wife, Lee Hart, had purchased the west county property about a year earlier from an activist poet named John Beecher, who had raised thousands of laying hens and a small flock of sheep on the property.

It was a remote, idyllic spot, bordered on the north and south by Dupont and Graton roads, with redwood trees, a clear creek, sloping meadows and an apple orchard that stands today. The former chicken coop served as a piano room and studio in which Gottlieb practiced, hoping to launch a second a career as a concert pianist.

A haven for free spirits

When Gottlieb, then 43 and a one-time Communist, declared the ranch “open land” in 1965, friends and like-minded strangers gradually began to gather in numbers and personalities that were manageable at first. Several structures stood on the property and later makeshift shelters were added. Members also worked a vegetable garden.

The experiment in “voluntary primitivism” soon caught the attention of The Diggers in San Francisco, a group that had been formed to provide free food for the thousands of young people gathering in the city as the 1967 Summer of Love loomed. They turned to the ranch for space to garden and raise food, so that many soon knew the ranch as Digger Farm.

When Morning Star was featured in a 1967 Time cover story, the ranch population swelled above 100, reaching as high as 150, according to some accounts, with full-time residents and visitors moving back and forth between San Francisco and Sonoma County.

“My father was a very flamboyant, kind of forward-thinking progressive,” Tony Gottlieb said. “He was very concerned about different social issues, and he felt like the possibility of communal living had some future, for sure.”

But Tony Gottlieb, the middle child of three siblings from two mothers, remembers the ranch as a turbulent, sometimes destabilizing place for children, without any predictable structure. For example, when he visited from his mother's home in El Cerrito, Gottlieb said, there was no bedroom for the children to sleep in. As no one was turned away, the ranch sometimes attracted troubled people, he said.

“It was an experiment, a living experiment,” Gottlieb said.

The ranch's popularity and limited infrastructure would eventually be its undoing, as issues with sanitation, open fires, squalid housing and drug use arose, drawing the attention of county law enforcement and health officials.

A three-year period of snowballing regulatory enforcement included fines, court orders and even a week in jail for Lou Gottlieb, who was found in contempt of court when occupants of the land refused to leave. The elder Gottlieb finally was forced to make citizen's arrests of those who remained on the property, and, in 1971, county bulldozers arrived to scrape it clean.

Gottlieb would spend the next 20 years living for short periods of time at different spots around the West Coast and Hawaii, before returning to Sonoma County in 1992, his son said.

With help from friends, he built a new studio and for the next four years occupied the ranch much of the time, though he mostly stayed at night in a room he rented nearby, Tony Gottlieb said.

In 1996, at age 74, Lou Gottlieb fell on the property and later died at Sebastopol's Palm Drive Hospital, his son said.

The ranch has stayed in family ownership since then, though it's mostly been caretakers who have lived there. The small cabin - Gottlieb's studio - is the only structure that remains.

Tony Gottlieb has stayed there during visits to clear the property of debris, mostly overgrown brush. He said there is an obvious building site where someone could homestead and keep much of the land wild.

“It's like paradise,” said listing real estate agent Kerrin Shettle, with RE/MAX Gold. “It's like your own private park, and it's so breathtakingly special.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. 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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