In 1967, about 100,000 hippies, flower children, students, political activists, musicians and others—most of them young — arrived in San Francisco for a summer of peace, love, rock ’n roll, and celebration.
That time, which came to be known as The Summer of Love, was so bountiful that it spilled out of San Francisco, spread north, and took root in Sonoma County, where rock music and back-to-the-land movements prospered and drew national attention.
Summer of Love Music in Sonoma County
In the late 1960s, many of rock's chart-topping performers — musicians who sold out big San Francisco arenas like the Fillmore Auditorium, Winterland, Avalon Ballroom, or the Polo Grounds — loved crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and heading into rural areas to chill out and get close to nature. Performing in smaller, quieter venues like The Barn in Rio Nido or Inn of the Beginning in Cotati were big names such as Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia.
For Garcia, the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead, Sonoma County was a familiar place. He'd attended Sebastopol's Analy High School as a junior in 1959 and 1960 (he dropped out in his senior year), commuting 30 miles by bus from his mother's Cazadero home. Garcia’s first-ever guitar gig was at Analy as part of a five-man musical group, the Chords.
Near the end of the Summer of Love, on Sept. 3, 1967, The Grateful Dead performed at Rio Nido's Dance Hall (it's said that Robert Hunter wrote the famed "Dark Star" at this event). The numbers played that day included "Dancin' in the Streets," "Big Boss Man," and a 31-minute version of "Midnight Hour." You can listen to the raw psychedelic power of the last song, as it was recorded that night, here.
Some Sonoma County concerts took place in bigger venues. In July 1967, the Yardbirds played to an audience of 4,000 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. A few other bands of the era also played here, including Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother, Iron Butterfly, and Canned Heat.
Today a few major figures from the Summer of Love reside in Sonoma County. Drummer Mickey Hart, who joined the Dead in 1967 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Half of Fame in 1994, lives in Occidental. He continues to experiment and thrive as a musician and, in recent years, has become successful as a visual artist. Stanley Mouse (born Stanley Miller), whose psychedelic posters and album covers defined an entire era, works out of his studio in Sebastopol.
Back to the Land in Sonoma County
Seeking and finding bliss in Sonoma County isn’t anything new. Utopian-seekers have come here since the 19th century. They founded colonies such as Fountain Grove (1875-1892), begun by Thomas Lake Harris and the Brotherhood of the New Life; Icaria-Speranza (1881-1887), a communist-like commune south of Cloverdale; Altruria (1894-1895), which went financially bust before it could accomplish much; and Preston (1875-1909), headed by faith healer Emily Preston, who claimed to be able to see through people with an X-ray eye.
In the mid-1960s, many young people around the nation, having grown up in the staid 1950s, rebelled against a culture they viewed as regimented and false. A vibrant "back to the land" movement developed, with communal living amidst nature providing a less materialistic way of life.
With its beautiful rural countryside and fine weather, Sonoma County became home to many alternative-living communities at that time. Two of them, Morning Star Ranch and Wheeler Ranch, became famous.
Morning Star Ranch’s Brief History
The 32-acre Morning Star Ranch — also known as The Digger Farm — was tucked into the remote countryside off Graton Road near Occidental and Sebastopol. Morning Star was started in 1966 by Lou Gottlieb, a founding member of a successful folk music group, the Limeliters. He bought the former chicken ranch in 1962 as an investment, moving there in 1966 after the Limeliters disbanded. Once settled in, he planned to train on the piano to reach performance levels, and pursue his spiritual side.
Friends came to visit and, entranced by the peaceful life, stayed on. The word spread, and more people, all searching for Utopia, arrived. Not all were known to Gottlieb, but, believing that the land should be available for everyone, he welcomed all (his motto was "Land Access to Which Is Denied No One” or LATWIDNO).
The Diggers, a San Francisco group that provided free food and medical services to young people in Haight-Ashbury, planted a garden at the ranch and cared for the orchard. Soon a changing cast of hippies, dreamers, bikers, draft dodgers, the occasional runaway, and other counter-cultural types were living, working, playing, loving, and sharing communally at Gottlieb’s (at its peak, Morning Star was home to less than 100 people).
During the Summer of Love, Time magazine included the ranch in an issue devoted to the hippie movement, complete with photos — which brought more counter-culture visitors, the merely curious, and journalists.
By late summer of 1967, neighbors began complaining, a petition gathered signatures, the Health Department grew concerned about sanitation, the police began dropping by and, finally, Gottlieb was arrested and subsequently posted bail. The years that followed brought a non-stop cascade of similar problems, including large fines, legal fees, a visit from the FBI, building inspections, ad infinitum.
Finally, in 1972, the county bulldozed — at Gottlieb's expense — the shacks, tipis, cabins, and other ranch structures. The commune ceased to exist the next year.
Less than 10 miles away lived a friend of Gottlieb's, Bill Wheeler, an artist trained at Yale University and the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1965, Wheeler purchased a 320-acre ranch off Coleman Valley Road.
Life at Wheeler Ranch
In 1967, when Gottlieb began having legal problems, Wheeler opened his land to Morningstar's back-to-the-landers. "It was a real leap of faith," he once said in an interview, "a real leap into the darkness, or the light — or whatever you want to call it. It was an incredible, very revolutionary thing."
Accounts of life at Wheeler Ranch in those days describe a blissful existence filled with the sounds and scents of nature, singing, yoga, laughing children, burgeoning friendships, happy communal gatherings, passionate discussions, and love.
"Surely some of the happiest times I can remember," wrote one former resident, "were my early years at Wheeler Ranch."
This halcyon existence at Wheeler came to an end in 1973, in a way similar to Morningstar Ranch. A neighbor complained. One thing led to another, and then came a lawsuit and other legal complications. Eventually all out-of-compliance houses on the property were destroyed.
The Spirit Lives On
Many Summer of Love people put down roots in Sonoma County, adding to the laid-back, easy-going ways hereabouts. In some spots — at a western Sonoma County farmers market, for example, where you might see residents dancing in 1960s-style clothing — you might feel you’ve stepped through a time warp back to the days of flower power.
And as for music, it’s everywhere in Sonoma County and touches all genres, from hard rock to bluegrass fiddlers to classical. Learn more about the Sonoma County music scene here.
Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez.