Plans to sell Morningstar Ranch stir memories, prompt dismay

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THE RANCH'S TENURE as a destination for hippies, seekers, Utopians, Flower Children — call them what you will — began in 1966, when the 42-year-old Gottlieb, who had purchased the ranch as a country retreat three years earlier, wearied of the rigors of road-show performances and retired.

Concerned about people who couldn't find their place in a rapidly changing social climate and a world at war — people he called "technological misfits" — he declared his ranch open land, open to all. He built a small studio where he spent his days at his grand piano, preparing for the concert he hoped to perform when he turned 50.

Around him, people gathered, hitching rides, coming in packed VW vans. While Lou made music, they set up their community, building rudimentary shelters, taking group "trips" and working in the vegetable garden designed to supply food for themselves and for The Diggers, a group in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury formed to feed the thousands of street people that were coming to San Francisco to wear flowers in their hair.

It was as the "Digger Ranch" that Morningstar and Gottlieb made Time Magazine and drew national attention — and more people.

The curious, intrigued by the tie-dyed, wild-haired, barefoot young people they encountered in west county gas stations and grocery stores, arranged to visit the ranch, as did the Rotarians and Kiwanians who were invited by Gottlieb when he accepted their invitations to be a luncheon speaker on his open-land philosophy.

The residents, who were tagged by Press Democrat writer Dick Torkelson as "The Happiness People," welcomed one and all. Visitors came back bug-eyed with tales of houses in trees and nude cooks in the makeshift kitchen.

There were 100 people there (perhaps more) at the peak, when the Sonoma County Health Department, responding to neighbors' complaints about open fires and open pit toilets and sub-standard living quarters, got interested in the ranch, as did the Sheriff's Office when military police came searching for deserters.

Authorities accused Gottlieb of running an "organized camp" to which his attorney, Rex Sater, who would become one of the most respected judges on the county's Superior Court, responded that there was nothing at all "organized" about Lou or the ranch.

The Sheriff's Office narcotics division, led by Deputy Paul Stefani, staged raids and the health department pursued the sanitation issues through the next three years.

By 1971, bulldozers had moved in and leveled the shelters and campsites and many of the residents had moved on to another, larger, more-remote area of open land off Coleman Valley Road known as Wheeler Ranch.

After many skirmishes with authorities and a compilation of legal threats and fines, Gottlieb gave up on his ashram, walked into the County Recorder's Office, deeded Morningstar Ranch to God, and left for India.

I am making a long and interesting story short. The whole tale can be found in Ramon Sender's history entitled "Home Free Home" on the website.

The God deed didn't hold. Superior Court Judge Kenneth Eymann's decision was that God "is neither a natural nor artificial person and therefore cannot take title to land." (Some laymen interpreted that to mean, "God doesn't pay taxes.")

As the ruling made its way through the appeals courts to the state Supreme Court, where it was upheld, Lou's musical fortune diminished in legal fees and fines.

There were all kinds of responses to the news that he had deeded the ranch to God. One favorite was a letter received at the county offices from a woman in the Midwest who said that lightning had destroyed her barn and her insurance company had declared it an act of God. If God had property, she said, He owed her for the barn.

No one pretends that Morningstar was not controversial, to put it mildly. Ramon Sender suggests that all the press that Gottlieb and his experiment received did not serve the cause well. And Paula Oandasan acknowledges, "There are still varying opinions of Morningstar, depending on who you talk to."

In her letter, she spoke of her own experience. "As for myself, I learned so much at Morningstar — how to cook for over 100 people, how to love people who were very different from me, how to accept many religions and so much more. Morningstar formed my life."

Lou's heirs, who have yet to respond to Sender's request for an option, also acknowledge that there was controversy in Utopia.

Tony Gottlieb is managing partner of a Nashville music company called ACF Music Group (and longtime owner of Morningstar Management, where his client is popular folk singer and songwriter Cheryl Wheeler). His sister, Judith Gottlieb Spector, lives in Berkeley. And their younger half-brother, Bill Gottlieb, who was born at Morningstar, is a New York attorney.

"Many have a personal relationship to the property's commune days," Tony told me. "As children, we were there too.

"It was an interesting period, but perhaps not all of it was commendable."

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