A filmic journey into the birth, life and death of a Marin hippie commune
“OLOMPALI: A HIPPIE ODYSSEY” is an upcoming documentary that will recount the remarkable story of Don McCoy and his Chosen Family commune at Rancho Olompali (now Olompali State Historic Park just north of Novato), as told through first person interviews with many of its former inhabitants, archival photos and footage, and music from some of San Francisco’s best-known bands.
The film is being produced by McCoy’s oldest daughter, Maura McCoy, directed by her partner, filmmaker Gregg Gibbs, and narrated by Emmy-award winner Peter Coyote, who was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a founder of the Diggers.
Some will come and some will go,
And we shall surely pass…
We are but a moment of sunlight,
Fading in the grass.
–The Youngbloods, “Get Together”
As Jesse Colin Young crooned these prophetic words in his hippie anthem of love and brotherhood in 1969, the sunlight of utopian idealism was fading for good upon the grasses of Rancho Olompali.
For almost two years, Olompali was the home of an eclectic cohort of the San Francisco counterculture movement who became known throughout the Bay Area as the Chosen Family — Marin’s archetypal entry into the legend and lore of the ’60s hippie commune. Little did they know when they started their well-meaning journey into peace, love and togetherness that it would turn out to be one year of heaven and one year of hell.
The Chosen Family came into being during the Summer of Love in 1967, when wealthy Marin businessman Donald McCoy, inspired by the idealism emerging from the Haight Ashbury and embracing its concepts of social change, mind-expansion, and communal living, “grew a beard, turned on, and dropped out.” Recently separated from his wife of 12 years, he decided to step away from his responsibilities as an entrepreneur and owner of the houseboat marina at the Sausalito heliport, and, together with a couple dozen like-minded friends and their children, searched for a place where they could all live together.
In a stroke of serendipity, they came upon Rancho Olompali, a formerly grand Victorian estate that had once been the home of a thriving Miwok village and was the site of the oldest adobe house north of San Francisco. Using money from his family inheritance, he leased the Burdell mansion along with its large dormitory, horse stables, swimming pool, and expansive acreage. It was the ideal place for Don and his new family to create a nurturing communal atmosphere based on principles of collectivism, spirituality, and self-reliance.
They called themselves the Chosen Family. “I felt we were chosen for something,” McCoy said. “I thought we were going to create a new society, a new way of life, a new way of doing things, a new way of living together, of getting along in a peaceful world.”
In 1968, the Chosen Family experienced its year of heaven. Olompali became a hip mecca, with local luminaries like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Timothy Leary, and Owsley Stanley visiting the ranch, as well as members of the Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The Grateful Dead, who had lived at Olompali in the summer of 1966, returned to the ranch to shoot the back cover of their legendary Aoxomoxoa album there. One local newspaper referred to the commune as “the White House of Hippiedom.”
To tutor the children, McCoy hired local schoolmistress Garnet Brennan, who had become known as the “pot-smoking principal” after being fired for publicly admitting to smoking marijuana for 18 years. The mansion’s dining room was repurposed into a classroom, which the children dubbed the “Not School.”
Commune members installed a large bakery oven outdoors near the swimming pool, where they baked hundreds of loaves of bread (often in the nude) to be handed out by the Diggers as part of their daily food giveaway in the Haight’s Panhandle park.
Toward the end of 1968, things started to change for the worse at Olompali. Pressure from McCoy’s family to stop spending his dwindling inheritance, combined with a change in leadership when Don went on a trip to India, led to a more negative vibe that was felt by many of the commune members.
In January of 1969, the year of hell began. The commune was raided – twice – by the local police, and a number of its residents were arrested. Shortly afterwards, the historic mansion was devastated by a massive fire caused by its antiquated electrical wiring. The subsequent drowning a few months later of two young girls in Olompali’s pool turned out to be the last in a series of tragedies that spelled the end of McCoy’s idealistic social experiment. The remaining members of the Chosen Family were evicted from the property that August, but have remained close over the years.
Although his dream had turned to ashes, McCoy never gave up on his hippie ideals. In 2004, his extended family mourned his death at a memorial service held at Olompali, where they scattered his ashes among the oak trees at the place that will forever be linked to his legacy.
For more info on “Olompali: A Hippie Odyssey,” visit the film’s web site: