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Miwok replica village.
Miwok replica village.

Olompali: Miwoks, Chosen Family, Grateful Dead

Field review by the editors.

Novato, California

Olompali State Historic Park has had a long, strange procession of inhabitants, starting with the Miwok Indians, and ending with the Grateful Dead and a hippie commune, "The Chosen Family." The historic state park is 700 acres of scenic land and hiking trails on the slopes of Mount Burdell, at the upper end of Marin County. A small exhibit area in one of the ranch buildings chronicles its periods of occupancy.

The Miwoks

The Coast Miwok Indians lived in the region for over 8,000 years, populating a large village for periods (moving to pursue seasonal hunting). Their creator god was the coyote.

Remnants of the mansion.
Remnants of the mansion.

A small replica village in the state park includes a redwood bark tepee-like kotcha and a roundish tule kotcha. Functional, but not fancy -- and to control pest infestation, Miwoks would burn down their dwellings annually. Scattered picnic tables are a clue this specific site is not sacred.

"The replica is only for educational purposes," said our tour guide, Nick Tipon, a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

A number of areas help tell the Miwok story, from a "kitchen rock" used for preparing meals, to a trail with carefully nurtured, historically accurate plants used for food and other aspects of tribe life.

The region came under Spanish and then Mexican rule as settlers and missionaries moved in. Like many indigenous peoples encountering Europeans, diseases decimated the Coast Miwoks, and by the 19th century there were under a hundred left. The Olompali land was deeded by the Mexican government to Coast Miwok leader Camilo Ynitia, who sold it soon after. Miwoks stopped living in Olompali in the 1850s.

Coffee Can bread and other artifacts of the Chosen Family period.
Coffee Can bread and other artifacts of the Chosen Family period.

Today, the Miwok are (sort of) known around the world, via a pop culture nod. Our Miwok expert said yes, Marin resident George Lucas was inspired by the Miwoks to name his race of toy-ready warrior teddy bears "Ewoks" in Star Wars (the redwood forest scenes for the planet Endor were filmed two valleys south, near Skywalker Ranch).

Mexico vs. the Bear Flaggers

The Battle of Olompali was a skirmish on June 24, 1846 between a force of Mexican soldiers and Sonoma rebels waving a flag with a bear on it. It happened near Ynitia's adobe house. A Mexican soldier was killed by the Bear flaggers, the Mexican-American War cranked into high gear, California became part of the United States, and the bear image became the state symbol.

Victorian Garden

A mansion was built by the new owners, Galen and Mary Burdell, expanding out from Ynitia's adobe house. As the ranch expanded, more outbuildings were added. After a 1911 renovation, the stucco mansion included 26 rooms.

The vestiges of what might be an old miniature golf course turns out to be the Victorian Garden, built starting in 1863. The main surviving feature is a volcano-like fountain -- it's a pile of rocks that originally had a bronze crane at the top.

Olompali Swim Club

Olompali trails.
Olompali trails.

In 1948, the property was purchased by the University of San Francisco, with plans to turn it into a Jesuit retreat. Later investors eventually ended up building a large swimming pool in front of the mansion and ran the Olompali Swim Club, with plans to add tennis courts. Ultimately the business failed.

Hippie Nirvana

In 1967, the property was leased by Donald McCoy Jr. using money from his wealthy family. For a few months the Grateful Dead lived there and would perform concerts in front of the mansion. The ranch appears on one of their albums, and pals such as Janice Joplin and Grace Slick were loyal ranch visitors.

A collective known as the "Chosen Family," a creation of Don McCoy, transformed the property into the prototypical hippie commune, pursuing their love of the land and their fellow humans. According to local historian Susan Stompe, they became known in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for the fresh baked bread they distributed freely, in old coffee cans, prepared using an outdoor oven at the ranch. It was the "Summer of Love."

Olompali ranch.

The "Chosen Family" peaked at about a hundred residents, including children, during their tenancy from 1967-69.

Hippie Bummer

This all went south on February 2, 1969, when an electrical fire gutted the mansion. Fire trucks spewed water pumped from the old swimming pool, to no avail.

The stucco outer walls of the mansion still stand today, the windows and doors covered for safety. Artifacts of mansion life were recovered and some are displayed in the museum: melted vinyl records, a coffee can with a bulging crust of the famous Chosen Family loaf.

With the central dwelling (and most of McCoy's money) decimated, the Chosen Family started to disperse, though many hippies still lived in the outbuildings.

Later in 1969, two little girls fell into the half-filled pool and drowned. Commune members couldn't get any of their communal beater vehicles to start to get them to the hospital. County officials investigated and found numerous building code violations.

Within a month, they were all expelled.

Museum Ghost Woman

The property has been operated as a state historic park since 1990. In the frame house containing the museum, gift shop and park offices, a ghost woman in a white dress has been reported at the top of the second floor stairs. Perhaps the last tenant at Olompali?

Every year, on a mid-May Sunday, Olompali Heritage Day is held. Visitors may meet Miwok descendants and Chosen Family alumni.

Olompali: Miwoks, Chosen Family, Grateful Dead

Olompali State Historic Park

US Hwy 101, Novato, CA
Olompali State Historic Park. North of town along US Hwy 101. If heading north, exit at Landfill Access, cross hwy and take US Hwy 101 south for 1 mile, entrance on right. Visitor Center, when staffed: 415-415-892-3383
Daily 9-5. Visitor center not always open. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
$8 exact cash parking fee.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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