© Copyright 2018 by Valerie Marcley
Lou with Morning Star Ranch residents.
God Made may have made the World, but Can He Own It? The Joke was on the Almighty when Folk-singer and Guru Lou Gottlieb Deeded Him his Hippie Commune and the State of California Ruled that God was Not a Responsible Party.
For some California state officials, the quip, “loved the sixties, but can’t remember them,” might be rephrased, “loathed the sixties and don’t want to remember them”. When the fabled Summer of Love arrived, young people conceived new ways of life. Counterculture communes sprouted up all over the country. Hippie back to the land movements embraced a paradise of shared ideals with free love, mind-enhancing drugs and nudity spicing the goulash. Innovative societies, endeavoring to be free of establishment problems and hypocrisy, were often religious, stressing discipline and spirituality. Many were laughably disorganized and chaotic, some intentionally so, eschewing rules and laws. In any case, tolerance and self-sufficiency were objectives. Reports of easy sex, free drugs and food at the open-door communities also attracted misfits, freeloaders and the odd criminal. Neighbors’ complaints of squalid living conditions, collapsed septic systems and drug use triggered raids from county Boards of Health. Parents kept authorities busy investigating for runaways. One Sonoma County commune owner, a remarkable character named Lou Gottlieb, was vexed with raids, court appearances and fines for four years. During it all, musician Gottlieb mulled upon the moral aspects of “private property”, ultimately attempting a unique remedy. Somehow he kept laughing. The State of California became Lou’s straight man.
The Limeliters, a seminal folk-singing group that enjoyed enormous popularity in the early sixties was composed of Glen Yarbrough, Alex Hassilev and bassist and wit, Lou Gottlieb. The group had a distinctive sound seemingly composed of more than their three voices. They had successful records and concerts with box office grosses of about $1 million/year. The trio recorded movie soundtracks, did television appearances and sang the well-remembered “Things Go Better with Coke” jingle. A Billboard reviewer declared that Limelighter concerts were always “presented in an atmosphere of laughs created by sharp ad libs, gag introductions, and a humorous treatment of the songs themselves.” Arch-extrovert Lou Gottlieb was the center of the fun. Tabbed “the brains of the Limelighters,” by Yarbrough, and celebrated as “an unique individual – a constant delight,” by Hassilev. By 1965, a near fatal plane accident, bad health and what he called a “crisis of pessimism” caused Gottlieb to retire from the group.
Working as a music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t alter Gottlieb’s melancholy. He was ill. “It was real exhaustion, plus God-thirst.” When interviewing some avant-garde musicians involved in a Trips Festival, a mutual desire to have an intentional community was discussed. If only they had some land. “I do, “ said Gottlieb, “let’s go take a look at it.”
A few years earlier, Lou purchased a lovely piece of property in redwood country sixty miles north of San Francisco as an investment, tax shelter, and potential subdivision. The 30+- acre property was verdant and fragrant with flower meadows, redwood groves, and blossoming varieties of fruit trees. The land now offered escape for the like-minded individuals. In June 1965, a small group of friends moved up to their new Eden in Sonoma County. Discovering some old bills listing the original name of the property, it was reborn as “Morning Star Ranch.”
From the ramshackle buildings Gottlieb chose the old egg storage shed for himself. He had a plan. A PhD in Musicology, he hoped to prepare for a classical concert debut by the time he was fifty and embarked upon a demanding practice schedule. The tiny shed was crammed with a grand piano, the 6’4” Gottlieb, and a mattress.
Things were near idyllic with the brilliant Lou easily falling into the role of patriarch. The group was composed of artists and gentlefolk. Their trip was self-sacrifice and love of others, above all God. A knowledgeable theologian, Gottlieb, his surname aptly meaning “beloved of God,” gave religious instruction. He was kind, encouraging, outgoing, yet somewhat aloof. The group smoked sacred marijuana and became closer through shared LSD experiences. A mutual intuition developed. They ate communally, gardened, chanted and practice yoga. An emphasis on women and a “Mother Force” evolved when some saw a vision of the Eternal Mother near the barn. Lou felt the property was spiritually female, and referred to it as “she.”
As winter approached, Gottlieb’s nascent philosophy regarding the immorality of private land ownership was put to the test. A group of unruly kids from Haight-Ashbury arrived for an extended stay. They were disruptive, loud at night, would not help with chores and disregarded ranch rules. They failed to attend pre-breakfast exercises, noon Yoga or respect silence at dinner. The group wanted them to leave, but Gottlieb could not face telling them to do so. His right-hand man delivered the demand. Asked by the newcomers if they must go, Lou conceded it was the wish of the others. This tormented Gottlieb, who realized he could never ask anyone to leave Morning Star again. His conclusion that property ownership was the leading cause of the ills of the world prompted him to open the ranch to all comers. And come they did; at first a trickle, and then a deluge supplied by the tsunami of Haight-Ashbury.
In 1966 the Haight district hippy stew bubbled up a plethora of collectives. The Diggers, named after a 1640 commune of English agrarians, were seminal. Seeking to create a free city, their social agenda combined street theater, anarchistic protests and art happenings. By distributing surplus food, opening free medical clinics and Free Stores of recycled goods, the group was crucial to the hippie evolution. Tie-dyed clothing and communal celebrations of planetary events were Digger creations, along with classic hippy slogans like, “do your own thing” and “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” When the group heard of the abundant orchards at Morning Star they called Lou with a proposal. Expecting up to a quarter of a million homeless kids to arrive in San Francisco that summer, they offered to care for the orchards in return for the fruit. Digger ideals and energy appealed to the Morning Star group which accepted with enthusiasm. The exchange arrangement worked well. Soon the commune was known in the city as the “Digger Farm” and city hippies arrived there for the summer.
The land supported sixty people comfortably. Gottlieb didn’t believe in assigning jobs, but encouraged people to pitch in at what they liked or were good at. If you did nothing, that was OK too. It was hoped new arrivals would make a small dollar donation, but no one was turned away. Every few weeks Lou purchased sacks of rice, flour and beans to be supplemented by garden vegetables and donated or bartered fish and dairy products. New living constructions, “folk art”, were created. Lean-tos, teepees, treehouses, huts, land boats and plastic shacks dotted the hills. Bowel movements were offered to Mother Earth. A gamut of sexual arrangements existed: celibates, horny straight people, gays and stable married couples. It wasn’t the cozy original group, but the bumps were manageable and folks found their bliss at Morning Star.
The tolerant Gottlieb accepted even the most difficult with open arms. Early on the first of what he termed “Impossibles” arrived. He felt they had lessons to teach, that they were gurus of sorts. Acceptance would make him a better person. A sixteen year-old runaway, an angry, screaming and very pungent girl was Lou’s first test. Among her difficulties was a yeast infection. A doctor, alarmed by her age and condition informed local police. Lou’s first “Impossible” was the starter flag for Sonoma County agencies. The Narcotics Division sent a friendly young inspector on his first of many visits. He implied that the ranch was no longer anonymous, and discretion would be best for the community. Next an “undercover” man attempting to reduce his own charges was sent to set-up the farm. He kindly informed the group of an impending raid, and they had plenty of time to clean up. Four years of complaints, crackdown raids and court battles commenced.
Ranch population jumped again after Time magazine published an article about hippies in July 1967. The article not only featured Morning Star but also pinpointed the ranch’s location, and praised it as “the most hopeful development in the hippie philosophy to date.” The subsequent huge influx of hippie kids and wannabes prompted the Diggers put a signs around Haight: “Please don’t come up to Morning Star Ranch.”
Neighbors took notice. Clothes were a rarity. Chanting, drumming, dancing, tripping, open fires and outdoor sex were daily occurrences, easily observed from the highway. Both the naked and the beholders enjoyed the display, but for the disgruntled neighbor who groused: “You have not seen a truly disgusting sight until you have seen a row of naked men standing on their heads.” Some folks arrived with no wardrobe at all. Gottlieb, praised two women as, “the first militant nudists I had ever known in my life, and very well equipped for the role, I must say.” A Morning Star scrapbook is filled with photos of hirsute naked hippies sitting on the grass, looking into the camera like flocks of exotic Zap comic birds. Lou’s young girlfriend, his “Sacred Weapon,” a smart, sexually philanthropic beauty, is pictured nude and nursing their baby Vishnu while greeting eyes-averted police. Another extraordinary photo shows the Divine Mother (Sacred Weapon) standing on her head in an inverted yoga pose, while the crawling baby suckles her upside-down breast. Nudity was purity; many lived it as the innocence of Garden of Eden.
Facilities became exhausted, sewage overflowed, plumbing failed, housing was barely viable. Bouts of hepatitis and other illnesses flared. The faithful eked out meals for two and sometimes three hundred. Cracks ripped the communal fabric. Kids had bad trips. Night howls were heard and fires seen. Some of the arrivals were not as kind as the group would hope for, but still were welcome. Hell’s Angels raised hell and brought guns. Criminal types argued and fought with knives. Rifts among groups appeared: Hindu vs. Christian, winos vs. flower children, and acid-fueled blacks against acid-fueled whites.
Communes had in many things in common, and one virtually sure thing was the disapproving next-door neighbor. Morning Star was no different. In this case Lou was up against a crew-cut, politically powerful former executive who in addition considered himself an expert on young people. The neighbor felt compelled to wage a campaign for the “minds of the children.” He bombarded Lou and the county with complaints of open fires and unsanitary conditions and led a group that presented a petition to authorities to investigate “whatever it was that was going on at Morning Star Ranch.” From occasional visits and citations to improve conditions, the county now intensified injunctive procedures, issuing a Health Department “cease and desist” order which gave Gottlieb 24-hours to comply. The District Attorney knew the time frame was impossible and expected the ranch to close. People refused to leave, and of course Lou could not ask them to. “I cannot do that. I have never denied anyone access to this land. It’s like the Indians - it’s land held in trust for all to enjoy.” Charges and contempt fines were levied against him and the others. One charge - running an organized camp - tickled Lou. “If they find any evidence of organization here, I wish they would show me.” Studying law to represent himself, he wondered if he had the best attorney. His barefoot, gentle tribe followed him to court, in beads, bells and feathers.
“Good news. God has revealed the true meaning of original sin. Exclusive ownership of land is original sin, and man commits original sin when he slices up his Mother Earth’s ‘sweet flowing breast’ in order to buy and sell the pieces...‘No Trespassing’ signs are the cause of racial strife and marital unhappiness...” - From a card distributed by Gottlieb at a Santa Rosa Rotary Club meeting.
The ranch was condemned. By July 1968, fines had grown to $14,000. In addition, neighbors filed a $130,000 suit against Lou for trespassing on their land east of Morning Star. On Oct. 10, Gottlieb offered the ranch to Sonoma County as an experiment in living. Reaction was thoroughly negative and the offer refused. The County Supervisor labeled the act a “cheap shot” and “a bid for publicity.”.
A number of local residents supported Gottlieb, testifying for him, advocating Morning Star’s right to exist and sending letters to editors. They found much of the county’s actions foolish. Admired for his cooperation and cheerfulness even by the judge and much of county personnel, he was nevertheless jailed for 15 days in November 1968 for failure to get the few remaining squatters off the property. When released Lou and Divine Mother fled to India for a month, where they found and returned with a new guru. During that time, Gottlieb formed a fascinating solution for the future of Morning Star.
At the Sonoma County Recorder’s office on May 6, 1969 Dr. Louis Gottlieb filed a grant deed to give his 30-acre ranch to God, transferring the title to the “rightful owner.” He encouraged other property owners to do the same. Although the ranch had a new owner, Gottlieb agreed to pay the taxes for God. He would visit from time to time, as would hippies who wished to escape city stress. The County Recorder balked, saying there would be no grantee. “In other words,” Gottlieb told reporters, “he was saying there was no God.” The deed was recorded.
The ink was barely dry when a $100,000 lawsuit was filed by a woman in Arizona naming as defendant “God, also known as Deity, also known as Jehovah, also know as Creator”. Acting with “malice and ill will,” God caused lightning to strike her house in Phoenix. Although this was an out of state occurrence, Sonoma County had jurisdiction because God owned land there. The suit was filed “Quasi in Rem,” a legal procedure to gain jurisdiction over an absent person or one unable to be located. The woman won the case when the defendant failed to appear in court. There is no record of her having collected her pennies from heaven.
A reply to the suit was received in the County Clerk’s office on June 2. God, a San Quentin prisoner, who claimed he was the All Mighty, wrote that he was given the land by Gottlieb and was now the rightful owner. His name should therefore be on the suit. The Deputy Clerk returned the document to the inmate informing him it was invalid because he failed to include a $17 filing fee.
I visited Morning Star with my father, guru and entertainer Majic [sic] Jack Marcley, a close friend of Lou’s and a communard at Rancho Olompali, the Grateful Dead’s property in Novato, and later on his own ranch, which he won in a card game. It was summer and the group numbers had grown again. I was surrounded by naked bodies and prayed to my uptight East Coast deity that my free-spirited father would not be compelled to remove his clothing. He did not. As Dad chatted with Lou’s air-washed girlfriend, she squatted to pee, neither of them batting an eye. After months of tortuous wrangling with the courts, Gottlieb enthusiastically read us the court’s recent ruling. According to the Santa Rosa Superior Court, God was not a person “natural or artificial” and therefore not a responsible person under California law. “If God’s not a responsible person,” chortled Lou, “who is?”
Lou was ruled owner of Morning Star. In August 1970 court-ordered bulldozers chewed the land and razed 18 crude shelters, all serving as homes. Lou still had a $3000 balance in fines and vainly offered his beloved $7500 piano as payment. In 1971 he tried to convince another judge that God owned the ranch, saying in court that, “the new owner is here.” Bulldozers again appeared at the ranch to clear newly built shelters. The California Supreme court denied Gottlieb’s petition for a hearing and California Governor Reagan decreed: “There will be no more Morning Stars.”
A Morning Star II was later established in New Mexico. Several property owners throughout the U.S. followed Lou’s example and deeded their land to God. In 1973 the Limeliters reformed and went on the road again. Lou pushed his piano concert debut deadline to age sixty. He published “A Modest Proposal” addressing homelessness in the inner cities. Gottlieb encouraged the Bureau of Land Management to deed God isolated land parcels. He continued to visit Morning Star.
“I urge anyone who owns land and wishes never again to experience one instant of boredom, who wishes to live in a continuing state of elation, to deny no one access to that land and watch what happens.” Lou Gottlieb, 1924-1996