Bill Wheeler, founder of famed Sonoma County hippie commune, dies at 77

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Artist Bill Wheeler, who 50 years ago welcomed free spirits onto a west Sonoma County commune that affronted country neighbors but also helped along the region’s tentative embrace of liberal politics and non-mainstream lifestyles, died early Tuesday morning at the remote Occidental-area ranch that remained his home. He was 77 and had braved Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

From 1968 until the hippie habitations on the ranch were razed by the county in 1973, Wheeler presided over the exercise in spontaneous, simple, musical, stoned, off-the-grid, clothing-optional existence. The commune grew from the demise of Lou Gottlieb’s nearby Morningstar Ranch, also shut down by the county.

Wheeler Ranch became nationally known as an intentional alternative to uptight middle-class values and the daily grind. At its peak, about 400 people grew vegetables, toileted in holes and coexisted on the isolated, wooded, 320 acres off Coleman Valley Road.

“I didn’t consider myself the head of a commune,” Wheeler told The Press Democrat in a 2002 interview. “I wasn’t consciously doing it. I was just interested in being an artist.”

He stood up for the admittedly flawed utopia on his ranch and for the souls who found there a new way to be. Along with the late Gottlieb, he is credited with moving social and political dials leftward in what was then a still-conservative county.

Author Ramon Sender Barayon, who lived on both communes and chronicled their history in a 2017 book, noted Tuesday that Wheeler was regarded as the “King of Hippies.”

In the wake of what he introduced in just a few years at his ranch, Barayon said, “the culture-at-large gradually incorporated more and more of the values he and his ranchers embraced: organic food, the women’s and the environmental movements, alternative medical practices and spirituality such as Zen Buddhism, Vipassana (meditation), Hinduism and Native American religion.”

When the end of the commune came, he left his property for about a year and half, then returned and in time resumed making art, his best days spent painting outdoors.

Over the decades, he moved far beyond the Age of Aquarius days and he tired of talking about them. One of his two daughters, Jessica Wheeler of Colorado, said Tuesday that often upon being asked about Wheeler Ranch, he’d say, “Time for a new conversation.”

“Or,” interjected her sister, Aliza Wheeler of Massachusetts, “‘I don’t remember.’”

Sebastopol artist Jack Stuppin credits Wheeler with rekindling his interest in on-location or plein air painting. The two of them became a foursome with Occidental artist Tony King and the late Bill Morehouse, and in 1992 they drove cross-country together, painting all the way.

“It was eight hours (a day) of driving, eight hours of painting and eight hours of everything else,” said Stuppin. The trek concluded with a show by the Sonoma Four in New York’s exclusive Century Club.

“Bill was a storyteller,” said King, who painted outdoors with Wheeler for more than three decades. “The story was his painting on site. It seemed to go best when it was done in one day.”

He recalled Wheeler standing before a landscape, applying color and often scraping it off and reapplying it, with brushes, sticks, knives, pencils.

“It was a process, an event,” King said. “At the end of the day, he would say, ‘All right. I’m done.’”

Wheeler told Press Democrat columnist and historian Gaye LeBaron in a 2002 oral-history interview, “I’m so thankful, so thankful, that I’m able to make my living off my art and express myself and be a, you know, bona fide artist.”

Wheeler never brought electricity to his ranch. He was dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s when, just months ago, family and friends helped get solar power installed.

For decades as he painted, Wheeler advocated for land conservation. “I think the thing he was most proud of was protecting west Sonoma County and making it what it is today,” Aliza Wheeler said.

William Wheeler was born June 17, 1940, in Connecticut. His family was well to do. His father sold real estate and his great-grandfather, Nathaniel Wheeler, had co-founded the Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Co., which near the turn of the century sold to Singer.

Bill Wheeler was a 20-year-old sophomore at Yale University when his father died. Upon graduation, Wheeler married his childhood sweetheart and they moved to San Francisco so he could attend San Francisco Art Institute.

Two years later, the Wheelers relocated to Sonoma County, living in a ramshackle ranch house on Coleman Valley Road, which links Occidental to the coast. In 1965, Wheeler used his inheritance to purchase the ranch.

He met and befriended Lou Gottlieb, the former San Francisco newsman and The Limeliters performer who’d founded Morningstar Ranch on 30 acres off Graton Road in 1966. Gottlieb’s hippie commune made the cover of Time magazine in 1967.

Wheeler told LeBaron in 2002 that the first time he visited Morningstar Ranch “it was still relatively civilized.” The flower children living there “were idealistic and principled ... it was a whole cultural thing that was happening at the time.”

But neighbors complained about what was going on there and by the following year, Morningstar was under siege by local and federal authorities and county regulators.

“Eventually, the county declared the place a public nuisance and health hazard, which was my neighbors’ way of saying the hippies were freaking them out,” Gottlieb told the Los Angeles Times more than 30 years ago. “They got an injunction preventing anyone but the owners from staying there overnight.”

Hassled residents of Morningstar Ranch migrated in 1968 to Wheeler Ranch. Wheeler recounted to LeBaron that “all of a sudden there were all of these homeless people that had been, you know, gone to jail. A lot of people, actually, went to jail from Morningstar ... And so I said, ‘Well, come on up, it’s alright.’”

Wheeler said in the interview nearly 16 years ago that most of the people who showed up on his ranch on the coastal ridge were “good people. And they were people that were dedicated to the land and living peacefully ...” But neighbors also complained about Wheeler Ranch’s unpermitted structures, lack of sanitary facilities, drug use and comings-and-goings by suspected criminals.

There were government fly-overs and raids, and land-use and public-health inspections. Then came the enforcement orders and, ultimately, a court order that Wheeler remove everyone from the property.

“It was basically the same procedure that they used at Morningstar,” Wheeler told LeBaron. There was a judge’s order, then an order to bring in the bulldozers.

Three earthmovers sent by the county appeared early the morning of May 18, 1973. Before nightfall, dozens of cabins and other structures were leveled.

On the national news, Walter Cronkite declared the destruction of Wheeler Ranch “a damn shame.”

Wheeler went away, to the Marin village of Bolinas. A year and half later, he returned to his ranch and in the early 1980s resumed plein air painting.

In the room where he died early Tuesday, candles provided the light, the opera Don Giovanni was playing and many of Wheeler’s paintings were arranged around the room.

A celebration of his life on the land he called Sheep Ridge is planned on May Day, and friends and admirers are invited to gather at 6 p.m. Thursday at a drawing class he led at the Occidental Center for the Arts.

In addition to his daughters, Wheeler is survived by sons Shannon Wheeler of Portland, Oregon, and Matthew Wheeler of Whidbey Island, Washington, sisters Patricia Gilchrist of Newport Beach and Dora Benegas of Puerto Madryn, Argentina, and nine grandchildren.

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