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Sonoma County Utopias

Following is a list of notable utopian experiments that occurred in Sonoma County over the past 123 years. Some readers might find the '60s category a bit sparse--certainly more communes than Morning Star Ranch and Wheeler Ranch existed in Sonoma County during those years--but only MSR and Wheeler received significant attention.

19th Century

Fountain Grove
1875-1892. Founded by Thomas Lake Harris and his Brotherhood of the New Life. Fountain Grove eventually encompassed thousands of acres just north of Santa Rosa, many of which were planted with excellent vineyards. Harris was a mesmerizing speaker and spiritualist. Earlier he founded colonies in upstate New York. His bizarre ideas about sex eventually got him in trouble in the press, however, and after he left Fountain Grove in 1892 the colony ceased to function as a "utopia." Kanawe Nagasawa, a Harris follower and Japanese samurai who designed and built the round barn that still stands just off Bicentennial Road, eventually came to own the Fountain Grove property and became a notable California (and no doubt first Asian-American) winemaker until his death in 1934.

1881-1887. Founded by French immigrant followers of Etienne Cabet, who described a socially enlightened, communistic utopia in his 1840 novel Voyage en Icarie. The Icaria-Speranza commune was located just south of Cloverdale on 885 fertile acres. Vineyards, fruit orchards and gardens were planted. But financial problems and difficulties in attracting new commune members doomed the experiment.

October 1894-June 1895. Founded by Unitarian Rev. Edward Biron Payne and a band of 26 followers who took their inspiration from Christian Socialist theology and William Dean Howells novel A Traveler from Altruria. The community made a down payment on 185 beautiful acres approximately eight miles up Mark West Road east of present-day Highway 101. Only months after Altruria's founding, an ill-advised scheme to build a hotel on the property created extreme financial hardship. However, Altruria's ideals indirectly lived on in Job Harriman's Southern California utopia, Llano del Rio.

1875-1909. Not "utopia" in the strict academic sociological sense, Preston, located on Oak Mountain north of Cloverdale, was a community gathered around faith healer Madame Emily Preston, who supposedly could see through people with her "X-ray eye." She also dispensed numerous patent -medicines, most of which were based on high alcohol content. Local attempts by doctors to have her prosecuted for illegally selling medicine failed. She was stopped, however, by passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Preston broke up after her death in 1909.

The '60s

Morning Star Ranch
1966-1969. Founded by former Limeliter and hippie spokesman Lou Gottlieb, who invited all comers to join him on his 32-acre property on Graton Road. Sonoma County authorities soon cracked down on Gottlieb for various health-code violations, and sheriff's deputies finally bulldozed Morning Star's tents, tipis, shacks, and cabins in October 1969.

Wheeler Ranch
1967-1973. Artist Bill Wheeler's 320-acre ranch on Coleman Valley Road. Wheeler opened the ranch to anyone and everyone after authorities began hassling residents at Morning Star Ranch. After MSR's bulldozing, Wheeler Ranch continued to operate as the quintessential "hippie commune" until the bulldozers finally came in 1973. The ranch was featured in Harper's in June 1970, and Living on the Earth, a best-seller in the early '70s, was written by Alicia Bay Laurel when she lived on Wheeler.

The Present

Occidental Art and Ecology Center
Occupies the 80-acre site of the old Farallones Institute on Colmen Valley Road. The center itself has an educational focus; eight partners, five of whom work for the center, live on the property in an "intentional community"--the '90s phrase for "commune." Decisions in the community are made through "process," through discussion and compromise. Meals are common, residences private.

Two efforts currently in the planning/permit stages, one in Sebastopol (estimated completion: early 1998) and one in the Courtside Village development in Santa Rosa. Architect Michael Black, who is directing the Sebastopol effort, describes co-housing, a Danish idea, as "a humanistic and pragmatic way of approaching living." The emphasis is on community--on creating a bond among people of diverse in background, ethnicity, education, profession, age, and religion.

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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