Protests have waned at Bohemian Grove, but suspicion lingers

History, mystery and a dash of controversy has come together at annual private gathering of the 150-year-old Bohemian Club.|

Back in 1984, some 300 demonstrators descended upon Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, blockading the entrance to an annual summer conclave legendary for its woodsy, all-male bacchanal. They wove giant spiderwebs of yarn and string. Someone dressed as Flo the Whale. At least 50 people were arrested.

The main agitator was Mary Moore, who turned 87 this month and still lives in Camp Meeker. For Moore, the effort was rooted in the No Nukes movement. Only when a Bohemian Grove employee leaked guest lists sometime in the early 1980s had she realized how many of the men crafting global arms policy at the time were regular campers among the redwoods each July.

“We made the point that it’s all connected, in the sense that someone is profiting from doing these things that are not good for humanity,” Moore said.

But the protests have become smaller and more sporadic over the years. Lately, they haven’t been more than a couple guys showing up here and there to yell at arriving guests on video.

Thursday morning, with the Bohemian Club of San Francisco (which organizes the summer camp) celebrating its 150th anniversary and members trickling in for the Grove’s final weekend of 2022, there was no opposition at all on Bohemian Avenue. As a steady stream of cars approached the checkpoint — from appearances, a mix of employees, trade workers and well-heeled attendees in Range Rovers — the only uninvited guests were a couple of wild turkeys crossing the road.

With the world in literal and metaphorical flames, it seems folks here have simply lost interest in Bohemian Grove.

But the Grove endures, as mysterious and exclusive as ever. Its guest list remains a guarded secret, but almost certainly includes current and former heads of states, CEOs of multinational corporations and old-money trust funders.

And there is no denying the summer camp’s impact on the surrounding area. The local roads were especially clogged for a Thursday morning, and workers at a couple of Monte Rio businesses said sales pick up in July, when the Grove is occupied for three weekends.

The effect on regional air traffic is demonstrable. Over the eight-year period between 2014 and 2021, July was the busiest month at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport seven times, according to tower aircraft counts, with an average of about 8,100 planes. Pilots of small planes can generally land at any regional airport by radioing air traffic control as they approach. Over three consecutive four-day weekends in July, that option is off the table at Schulz Sonoma County.

The Federal Aviation Administration left no doubt about the reason in a notice it sent out July 19.

“The (prior permission required) program is being utilized to accommodate the increased demand for airport parking and services ahead of the 2022 Bohemian Grove event,” it read. The FAA said to expect “an increase of High Performance and Business Jet traffic” at Napa County and Schulz-Sonoma County airports.

From Hoover to George W

The Bohos, as they’re called, have their supporters.

“It’s collaborative. They’re good neighbors to us,” said Michele McDonell, a fourth-generation Monte Rio native who was helping to set up for Thursday night’s 111th Annual Monte Rio Variety Show at the town’s outdoor amphitheater. “And the fact that they steward 2,700 acres of pristine forest.”

The variety show features big-name musical acts that wander down the hill from Bohemian Grove. The 2022 edition, the first live show since before the pandemic, included late-night TV host Conan O’Brien and rock star Jimmy Buffett. Reached Friday, McDonell said it looked like the fundraiser pulled in “north of $100,000” for its three beneficiaries — St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, the Monte Rio Fire Services Foundation and the Monte Rio School Foundation.

There are unofficial winners, too. Sophie’s Cellars in nearby Duncans Mills is famously reputed to have filled a $20,000 wine order from a Boho years ago.

Why would anyone protest that? Because the Grove’s membership rolls and guest lists — each of the 2,600 men on the former is allowed to put one man on the latter — have included pretty much everyone a peacenik might have blamed for the state of the world over the past 100 years or more.

That would include every Republican president from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, hawkish U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Gulf War architects Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, right-wing donors Charles and James Koch, Rockefellers and Bechtels.

The Manhattan Project team even used the Grove clubhouse for a meeting in 1942, a step toward development of the first atomic bombs.

The Bohemian Club, started mostly by San Francisco Examiner journalists as a cultural retreat, also has included beloved figures like Mark Twain, Jack London and Walter Cronkite. Clint Eastwood and former 49ers general manager Carmen Policy were on a guest list posted by WikiLeaks in 2008.

Still, many object to Bohemian Grove’s exclusion of women, and to what they perceive as campfire collaboration on important financial and political matters the average citizen could never get a whiff of.

That perception is real, said Peter Phillips, who taught his last sociology class in June after nearly 30 years at Sonoma State University. Phillips’ next book, tentatively called Titans, will focus on investment management companies like BlackRock. He estimates that around 200 people who attend the Grove festivities are on the boards of directors or are managers of these huge firms.

The idea of the camps is to leave business behind. That doesn’t happen, Phillips said. He knows. He sneaked in once, in 1994, when he “just put on khakis and a Hawaiian shirt and walked on in.”

“If a guy was soliciting investments directly, he could be reprimanded, or even kicked out of the club,” said Phillips, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bohemian Grove. “But the intimacy of these men who are seeing each other for eight or nine days in July — talking about everything from their prostates to their most recent divorce, it gets to be pretty intimate. So business is done quite openly.”

That’s why Mary Moore still hangs a banner from her deck that reads: “Expose Bohemian Grove.”

Bohemian Club executives rarely grant interviews. The club’s general manager did not return a phone call from The Press Democrat.

Lately, protests from the left have largely been replaced by conspiracy-prone opposition from the right. That trend began in earnest in 2000, when Alex Jones — whose paranoid “investigative” website, InfoWars, was in its infancy then — filmed the Grove’s secretive Cremation of Care initiation and released the video.

Eventually, Bohemian Grove’s elite clientele and faux druidic rituals would fit neatly into the emerging QAnon movement’s concept of shadow rulers who prey on children and seek world dominion through vaccines and microchips.

It isn’t surprising that Bohemian Grove would spawn far-out rumors. Its members cloak the gathering in secrecy, and some of the photo evidence we do have is strange. The Bohemian Club motto is “Weaving spiders come not here,” a Shakespearean plea to focus on revelry, not networking. And of course there is the Cremation of Care.

“They build a Care skeleton,” Phillips said, recalling his eyes-on experience. “They row it across the lake in a gondola. They set it afire. There are guys in monk robes, marching with torches. They used to have a horse-drawn hearse. And then there’s a high priest.”

Finally, the priest sets Care ablaze, sort of a Burning Man for investment bankers. The men cheer and hoot, and fireworks explode above the scene.

“They started a fire with the fireworks when I was there,” Phillips said.

Some of what we know about what happens in the Grove comes from disillusioned former employees such as Emily Chavez.

Chavez worked Bohemian Grove for one summer in 1996 or 1997, when she was a student at El Molino High School in Forestville. Pretty much all her El Mo friends worked there.

Chavez failed to make it through one summer term, quitting after 8-10 shifts. Maybe she should have known what was coming. She is Mary Moore’s granddaughter.

“That place was so creepy,” reflected Chavez, who now lives in Petaluma and consults with cannabis companies on compliance issues. “It was like being a little kid, and you’re exploring, going into the forest — and then suddenly, ‘Oh, I’m not supposed to be here. This is really strange energy.’”

Chavez was a server at the outdoor cafeteria.

“It was literally a sea of white bald heads and a cloud of cigar smoke,” she said, recalling quarter-century-old memories. “That was pretty gross. You’re this young woman, serving food, and they’re blowing smoke in your face.”

To the more suspicious among us, Bohemian Grove is where diabolical men gather to hatch plans for control. In reality, most of the guests are there to drink cocktails and listen to live piano music without having to deal with traffic, ringing phones or, you know, their wives.

Even Phillips, who made a career of speaking truth to power as director of Project Censored, has some sympathy.

“There’s nothing really sinister going on there,” he said. “It’s men genuinely feeling connections with one another. There’s an intimacy there for many men that isn’t really available elsewhere else.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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