Feb 2, 2018
By Ramón Sender Barayón
Bill Wheeler, plein air artist of renown as well as human rights activist, departed the planet much too early at the early age of 77. He put up a good fight against Parkinson’s and other ailments, but finally surrendered in his own home, surrounded by his loved ones. Well-beloved in the West County for his long defense of a person’s right to build their home to their own taste, he was active for years with the Western Sonoma County Rural Alliance and other boards that sought to defend the unique quality of the area against both developers and county officiousness.
Frequently he could be caught at a table at Occidental’s Union Hotel chatting with a few friends, or teaching his live drawing class at the Occidental Center for The Arts on Thursday afternoons. Over the years Bill had his ups and downs, both with his love life and an enthusiasm for fermented hops and grains, but he was warm and generous both with his time and inherited wealth. The latter had allowed him to purchase the 320-acre ranch that in 1968 he opened to all comers, especially to the hippy refugees who had been run off Lou Gottlieb’s Morning Star property a few miles away – including myself.
“Thirtydays or leave the county,” the judge said, but some of us made the eight-mile trek westward to Bill’s land. Many of those I named ‘the Morning Star graduating class of 1967’ migrated to New Mexico to build a Morning Star adobe pueblo there – not an easy job for those so-called laid-back young folks.
At Wheeler’s that 1968 winter, the population averaged perhaps 30 people, but rapidly grew the next summer. Over the ensuing four years, I estimate that over three thousand folks passed through the commune, including myself. I viewed the community as a gateway to the Kingdom of New Albion that stretched northward through Oregon and Washington. City dwellers could come and learn the art of simple living, carrying their water, chopping their firewood, growing their food, living without electricity. Our carbon footprint on the land was the lowest in the USA. Neighborhoods formed on the land, and sometimes a group would gel into an extended family. They would take wing to places like Humboldt County where land was cheap and building codes less constricting.
A number of police raids ended in the notorious ‘Big Raid’ in 1971 when over 100 armed police descended on the property and held everyone at gunpoint in their homes. Fifteen were arrested for cannabis plants and offered a plea deal. One guy, William Sheehan, refused, saying, “Those were not my plants! I want a jury trial.” The judge threw the case out, the county lost on appeal and the result created precedent law: you cannot search multiple dwellings with just one search warrant. We were thrilled by this brief moment of victory!
A federal appeal of the permanent injunction forbidding anyone but Bill’s family from living on the land was lost in 1973, and the ranchers prepared for the worst. Some began to leave while others, to save trees from the county bulldozers already roaring on the ridge, one night burned sixty homes in contained burns. I watched from an adjoining ridge and it was like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
Between 1966 and 1971, I lived at Morning Star and then Wheeler’s, leaving both and then attempting unsuccessfully to return. Finally I realized I was what I called ‘communed out.’ I needed time away from police raids and other uncertainties to write a history of the Open Land movement in the hopes of explaining ourselves coherently to consensus reality. I spent five years more in the western hills, but could not support my country lifestyle writing full-time, and moved back to the Bay Area. Now very happily paired with an amazing wife for 35 years, I still feel an exile of sorts, chased out of the county because of my religious beliefs, but I return faithfully every April as Zero the Clown for the Fools Parade in Occidental.
One of Bill’s great discoveries in my view was to buy a milking cow and let milking times create a natural gathering place, if you wanted milk for your morning coffee. Twice a day community members met to discuss issues over the back of the gentle beast. If a human had grabbed the reins and said, “Okay, we’ve got to meet,” there always would be someone to say, “And just whose god put you in charge?” Recently I attended a conference where someone described how, when he purchased a defunct communal property, he also inherited the minutes of their weekly discussions – many file drawers worth. I thought gratefully of how we were spared this agony, and these days, whenever I’m asked how to start a rural community, I always reply, “Buy a milking cow.”
When we incorporated The Ahimsa Church in an attempt to define our lifestyle to society-at-large, the board of directors consisted of whoever showed up at sunrise at the appointed time and place. I think we had all of perhaps one meeting a year. After the land was closed, Bill moved away. It took a while for him to return and build a home with a septic system, all legal according to county codes. In the 1980s he was chased down by the sheriff’s helicopter and busted for growing pot, but the charges were dropped after considerable expense. Over the ensuing decades, he developed his art, toured with three plein air local artists, showed at galleries, and campaigned hard to get Ernie Carpenter elected District 8 supervisor from 1981 through 1997.
A fitting quote from his good friend Ernie’s eulogy: “Perhaps it is good that Bill went quickly after his cancer was discovered. He had suffered physically the past few years and there was no indication he was going to get better or have enjoyment of life. Bill was a proud person within his self and the failing ability, diminished capacity did not serve him well. He liked his looks and his charm and as he felt this deserted him, it was depressing to him I am certain. He was able to articulate that he did not like losing his maleness, good looks or youth. That was Bill, but old partner, not to worry, we have your back. We love you. And while your body may have departed, we have your spirit, your art and your memory to carry us forward. Rest in Peace William Wheeler.”
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