Episode 6: Between a Rock and Antelope
This is the Building Utopia podcast. We’re taking a deep dive into the creation and implosion of the communities that formed around the charismatic leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Last time, the Rajneeshees arrived on their 64,000-acre ranch in eastern Oregon. Sheela told her new neighbors that she was a rich housewife, there to build a small, experimental farming commune for no more than 50 people. Pay no attention to the bulldozers, excavators, double-wide trailers, and scores of red-clothed sannyasins pouring through the nearby town of Antelope and up the hills into the ranch. Sheela’s story crumbled to pieces when her Master, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, showed up in a parade of Rolls Royces at the end of August 1981.
The secret was out. “Guru arrives at followers’ ranch” read the Portland Oregonian. The Mayor of Antelope described seeing a bearded man with flowing robes in town, and another resident saw a guy in a big white hat driving a Rolls Royce on the county roads. Sheela told the press that Bhagwan was just a guest at the ranch, and she wouldn’t speculate how long he’d stay. “In my country,” she said, “one doesn’t ask people when they are leaving on the day that they arrive.”
As she gave interviews and glad-handed local politicians, Sheela seemed oblivious to the confrontation brewing with her closest neighbors, oblivious to the spark she had ignited by bringing her Master — and all his baggage — to eastern Oregon.
A war was looming between the Rajneeshees and a town of just 39 people — a “ghost town,” as Sheela called it. The Rajneeshees were about go to battle with the people of Antelope.
PART 1 - No Way To Win
I sometimes try to imagine a parallel universe where Rajneeshpuram still exists today, nearly 40 years after its founding. Where curious people like me could still drive there, stop by the visitors’ center for a tour, take a meditation course, have a delicious vegetarian meal. What small nudges would you need to make to the past for that parallel universe to be a reality? In particular, I wonder what the Rajneeshees could have done differently, especially in that first year or so, to ensure their long-term survival in eastern Oregon.
But… I don’t know. Having buried myself in this history and considered it from multiple angles, I’m increasingly convinced that Rajneeshpuram’s fate was sealed from the moment Sheela and her husband Jay bought the ranch in July 1981. Their mission was to build a sprawling commune to fulfill Bhagwan’s dreams. If the Big Muddy Ranch was the site, I’m not sure how else things could have played out given the resistance the Rajneeshees experienced from the moment they arrived.
The story of the Rajneeshees in Oregon is often told as a cautionary tale about cults and totalitarianism. About mind-boggling criminal activity and bizarrely-aggressive rhetoric and political sleight-of-hand. Those themes definitely have a place at the table, and we’ll be exploring them. But so much of the Rajneeshee experience in Oregon, especially in those early years, was reacting to hostility from the outside. Locals saw them as weird, noisy invaders, disrupting their quiet way of life. State and county officials saw them as nothing but a problem, a nuisance to be controlled and minimized and hopefully eliminated. If the Rajneeshees had tried a lighter touch… if they had done a better job at building political alliances… even if they had ratcheted down the rapid pace of development… I’m still not sure they could have lasted in such an unwelcoming environment.
A prime example, which we’ll be exploring today, is the battle between the Rajneeshees and the people of Antelope. Before we get there, let’s catch up with the ranch’s development. By the time Bhagwan arrived on August 29, 1981, the Rajneeshees had obtained 53 permits to build housing on the ranch. The permits came from both Wasco and Jefferson Counties, since the ranch straddled both. They also received permits to build a storage shed, a dining hall, a garage, barns, a medical center, a school house, and a building that would serve as the ranch’s headquarters. In September they brought in overhead electricity lines, and built sewer systems and new roads.
All of these permits were sought under the guise of a small farm. Sheela’s attitude at the time was to build what they needed for the commune under the cloak of farming, and let officials ask questions later if they wanted to. This classic ask-for-forgivness-not-permission approach had by-and-large worked for Sheela in India. So far she had no reason to think it wouldn’t work in Oregon.
But September was a turning point for the Rajneeshees’ relations with their neighbors. With Bhagwan now very publicly ensconced in his triple-wide trailer on a hill above the other new construction, and with no end in sight to the new development, locals began to seriously probe the Rajneeshees’ claims about building a little farm. They raised red flags to the local county commissioners and brought in an Oregon land-use watchdog organization called 1000 Friends of Oregon. At first, it was just questions and concerns. We’re all farmers here; they bought farmland; but they’re converting the property into something that doesn’t look like a farm to us. Shouldn’t somebody stop them? Or at least take a closer look at what they’re planning?
The Rajneeshees actually consulted with 1000 Friends as well in those first couple months. Sheela was pretty blunt with them. OK, you’re the land-use experts: how can we fulfill our Master’s ambitious vision for the commune on this $6 million ranch without violating state land-use laws?
The short answer from 1000 Friends: You can’t. This probably came as no surprise to Krishna Deva, or KD, the psychologist and real-estate broker we met in the last episode. He knew that if you wanted to build something on land that’s zoned exclusively for farm use… it needed to be related to farm use. To the extent the Rajneeshees wanted to build things like shops and business offices, they’d need to find a municipal area with an existing Urban Growth Boundary, which could legally accommodate such development. And the closest Urban Growth Boundary, was, of course… Antelope.
Go to Antelope, 1000 Friends told the Rajneeshees. Look into developing more property there.
The Rajneeshees later came to believe that Antelope was a trap, and 1000 Friends had led them straight into it.
But the Rajneeshees took 1000 Friends’ advice. Their strategy became two-fold: one, keep pushing the counties for new building permits on the ranch and just shoehorn everything under the guise of farming. And two, buy additional lots in Antelope and start building a small base there in case things don’t work out on the ranch.
But increasing the Rajneeshee presence in little tiny Antelope had serious consequences. The retirees there, looking for a quiet life, were suddenly confronted with construction activity, foreigners moving in next door to them, traffic in and out of town. Here, I’ll let one resident describe it:
[Antelope Retiree Interview Audio] “Why did you come to Antelope? Because of the peace, the quiet, you could hear the birds. You didn’t have to worry about leaving your door open, anything laying on the table, or anything of that nature. … Now I lock my door, I take everything in when I go in at night, because you never know who is walking through, driving through, where they are coming from or where they are headed to. Traffic is more than 4 times what it was last summer.”
Before that, the Rajneeshees had been a curiosity, perhaps a source of discomfort or concern. But now they were face-to-face with the people of Antelope, living right next door to them.
That’s when things started to get dicey.
The Antelope City Council, led by Mayor Margaret Hill, began stonewalling Rajneeshee applications to develop their property in town. Most critical for the Rajneeshees was a two-story printing-press they wanted to build to produce Bhagwan’s books and promotional materials. Even creative minds like KD’s couldn’t link a printing press with farm activity, so they had to build it in Antelope.
But the Antelope City Council shelved the application. And then, as even more applications came in, the council imposed a complete moratorium on all further development in town. The purpose, at least so they said, was to give them more time to determine how all this new construction would affect things like their taxes and their limited supply of water and electricity.
Around the same time, Jefferson County began denying or delaying permits for the part of the Big Muddy Ranch in that county.
The furious efforts to prepare the commune for the Rajneeshee diaspora, whether in Antelope or on their ranch, was grinding to a halt.
So what were the Rajneeshees to do in that situation? On one hand they were being told they couldn’t build the commune on the ranch because it wasn’t within an Urban Growth Boundary. And on the other, they weren’t allowed to develop the property they owned within an Urban Growth Boundary because the locals didn’t like it. Moving away wasn’t an option. They already owned the ranch and had dumped millions of dollars into developing it. Bhagwan was living there. They were all in — physically, financially, and emotionally.
So what’s the solution?
The guy who came up with it… was Krishna Deva. He’d studied the laws, and he approached Sheela with the idea sometime in September or October 1981. If we need an Urban Growth Boundary to build the commune… why not create a new boundary here, on the ranch?
How about we incorporate our own city?
Under Oregon law at the time, people living in an unincorporated area could petition the county to allow them to vote to form a new city. It was a pretty cut-and-dry provision — if 150 people voted to incorporate, the county should allow it. Notably for our purposes, the statute didn’t say anything about how new incorporation related to the Oregon land-use planning laws. This would become a huge point of contention in the years to come.
KD instantly saw the potential. If they could get 150 sannyasins living on the ranch, they could incorporate and establish their own Urban Growth Boundary there. They could install their own city council, their own mayor, all of whom wanted to fulfill Bhagwan’s vision. They could zone city property however they wanted and then build businesses, light industry, homes, without relying on this whole farming pretext.
Sheela LOVED this idea. But she didn’t love KD’s plan of execution. He’d done the math and figured it would take about a year to receive permits and build enough housing for 150 sannyasins. There were probably already that many sannyasins at the ranch by then, but many of them weren’t Americans, so they couldn’t vote. And they were stuffing far more people into their housing than was allowed by county law. To make sure they didn’t raise suspicions, KD felt they needed a plan to properly move American voters onto the ranch.
But a year wasn’t going to work for Sheela. KD later testified that Sheela told him, “I am not interested in waiting. Do it, and do it tomorrow.” Her suggestion was to file the incorporation petition as soon as possible, and then do whatever was needed over the coming months to get enough sannyasins there by the time the vote rolled around.
And that’s what they did. They filed the incorporation petition on October 14, 1981 in Wasco County, and a public hearing was held a couple weeks later. The county commissioners approved the petition by a 2-1 vote and scheduled the incorporation election for May 1982, six months later.
The local ranchers, especially those whose property bordered the Big Muddy Ranch, did not want the Rajneeshees to get their own city. They teamed up with 1000 Friends of Oregon and sued Wasco County to try to stop the incorporation vote. Their basic argument was that the Rajneeshees were using the incorporation process to skirt the state’s land-use planning laws, which were designed to protect rural areas. They also made a slippery-slope argument. I’ll let a lawyer from 1000 Friends explain it:
[Paul Gearhardt Audio] “[I]ncorporation would provide a gaping loophole in the state’s land-use planning program. If the Rajneesh are allowed to create a city in order to run a farm, what’s to stop other people from doing that in the Willamette Valley or other productive agricultural lands. … All the sudden they have the right to put any type of urban uses in as long as they can get DEQ permits and what have you. They also have a license to grow. It’s essentially a blank check, is incorporation.”
In addition to the lawsuit, 1000 Friends formally requested an investigation into one of the three Wasco County commissioners, Rick Cantrell, who approved the incorporation petition. Turns out that 10 days before the commissioners took up the petition, Cantrell and the Rajneeshees entered a business arrangement, which he didn’t disclose at the time of the hearing. The Rajneeshees paid him $17,000 for 50 head of cattle he was selling. One expert said this was five to seven thousand dollars above market value. Cantrell was ultimately cleared by an ethics panel, but he remained an unusually vocal proponent of the Rajneeshees in the years to come.
All this opposition to their development in both Antelope and on the ranch sent a clear message to the Rajneeshees: their neighbors, the people of Antelope, and 1000 Friends did not want them to exist anywhere in Oregon. They just wanted the Rajneeshees to disappear.
It gets back to the question I asked earlier: what else could the Rajneeshees have done in 1981 to change their destiny, once they had bought the ranch? To me, it seems like they had tried a little bit of everything and nothing seemed to appease the outsiders. I suspect that Sheela and others at the ranch saw it that way too. OK, we tried to play within your rules — even if we stretched them a bit — and you’re still fighting us.
The dream of peaceful co-existence seemed to be a thing of the past. It was now a battle for the survival of Bhagwan’s new commune. The coming months would be a series of escalating maneuvers, each side trying to stay one step ahead of the other. And although the Rajneeshees had reason to feel optimistic as the ranch moved toward incorporation, the people of Antelope were about to pull the trigger on a nuclear weapon.
Stick with us.
Intermission - October 1981 Visit to the Ranch
Let’s consider what it would be like for an outsider to drive into the budding Rajneesh commune three months after the purchase, around the time that it filed for incorporation. Our source is a report written by a federal investigator who inspected the ranch in October 1981:
“The ranch is reached as follows: From Antelope one drives two miles east on Highway 218 to its intersection with Cold Camp Road and turns south, proceeding four miles to Muddy Road and turning east. The old ranch boundary and a cattle gate are located two miles further. A new sign proclaiming entry to ‘Rajneeshpuram’ was observed there. A further nine miles brings the traveller onto a small valley floor and in view of the original ranch, which consisted of two older homes, a barn, a machine shed, and corrals.
“A slightly improved airstrip parallels the road before arrival at the ranch proper. … The writer noted that it had been improved somewhat and lengthened to about 2,000 feet. A  twin-engined aircraft was noted parked beside the strip. The arrival of another aircraft  was noted during writer’s stay.
“Upon arrival at the ranch proper, writer noted that several units of mobile housing had been sited in front of the old residence and were apparently being used as offices. One corner of the barn had been converted to an office and bore a sign designating it as a ‘Reception Center.’
“Numbers of men and women in reddish colored clothing with brown necklaces around their necks were noted. No particular style of clothing was worn; in fact, most of it appeared to be ordinary work clothing that had been dyed. As for the persons themselves, all appeared to be engaged in one form or another of purposeful activity. Considerable vehicular activity to and fro was observed; most of the drivers, including those on heavy equipment, wore red clothing. The women were primarily engaged in lighter tasks, most of which appeared to be administrative in nature. With the exception of a lunch break about an hour after writer’s arrival, no persons were observed who might be characterized as visiting for pleasure.
“Old roads were noted to have been improved and numerous new ones laid out. Large double-wide mobile housing units were observed in quantity in various stages of siting from newly arrived to completely sited and apparently occupied. A very large new building termed a cafeteria was pointed out, which appeared capable of handling the claimed ranch population and more. … All persons observed, then or elsewhere, with one exception, appeared to be white European types.
“During the ... ‘guided tour,’ officers repeatedly asked the whereabouts and residence of Rajneesh, only to have the question pointedly ignored.
“Writer and companions departed the ranch after approximately a three-hour stay without incident.”
Part 2 - “The Takeover of Antelope”
“The Takeover of Antelope.” That’s how it became known across the country in 1982, when the evening news would provide regular reports on developments in eastern Oregon. It was gripping dramatic material: the rural ranching community with its salt-of-the-earth residents versus the wacko foreign sex cult that invaded their town, snatched up all the available properties, and terrified the locals. Here’s how Mayor Margaret Hill described it at the time:
[Margaret Hill Audio] “Our city has been taken over. The people who live here have been laughed at and ridiculed. Some of our long time residents have left. We’ve been involved in litigation — I’ve lost track of the number of litigations that we have been involved with. The pressure has been unrelenting.
“What kind of pressure?
“From the Rajneesh. Demands to do this, demands to do that. If you don’t do this, if you don’t do that. … We’ve had those who have left because they’ve been intimidated, frightened. And I must admit there have been some who have left because they’ve been greedy.
“How to you mean — let’s take one at a time. The people who have been intimidated, what kind of intimidation? What’s been frightening?
“I think just the sheer numbers, for one thing. The constant picture taking. For another, the constant flow of people walking up and down the streets. Where we’re accustomed to see maybe a half-dozen people during the day, now there are dozens, literally.”
So if the Rajneeshees were about to vote for their own city out on the ranch, why the continued presence in Antelope? Their incorporation vote was definitely moving forward on May 18, 1982. The Land Use Board of Appeals rejected the 1000 Friends lawsuit against Wasco County, and found that a city incorporation is not a land-use decision under the Oregon Laws. But despite this forward momentum on the ranch, Antelope remained a necessary element in the Rajneeshee strategy, even if they didn’t plan to stay there forever.
The Rajneeshees needed Antelope as a hedge. They weren’t sure they could get the 150 votes they needed. They weren’t sure the county would accept the results of the vote. And 1000 Friends wouldn’t let up. They’d appealed the land-use decision, and there were those ethical complaints against Rick Cantrell. Even if they won the incorporation vote, the Rajneeshees weren’t sure that the courts would uphold it. Here’s Sheela describing this “interim problem”:
[Sheela Audio] “Well, we have never intended to come to Antelope. We don’t have any intention of future either. It is just an interim problem, and we are trying to survive. And one of the things I would like to say to everyone, that you cannot tell a flowing river to stop, it gets muddy, it gets polluted, to tell a flowing river to stop. And we are a flowing people. We flow very well, very nicely. And there’s nothing — if they treat us like human beings, if they treat us like people, there’s no problem.”
The Rajneeshee property in Antelope gave them an alternative if for some reason they could no longer develop the Big Muddy Ranch. They didn’t keep this plan very close to their chests. The locals knew that the Rajneeshees saw Antelope as Plan B: an existing Urban Growth Boundary where they could lawfully build their printing press and their stores and their restaurants. To try to foreclose this possibility, the Antelope City Council took an extraordinary step, one that attracted the harsh glare of national media attention.
It set a vote to disincorporate the town of Antelope.
In other words, at the same time the Rajneeshees were trying to incorporate a new city on their ranch, the people of Antelope were trying to dissolve their own city. If successful, Antelope would become an unincorporated, rural part of Wasco County with no local government of its own. And, critically, it would eliminate the possibility for any new urban development. By destroying the city, the people of Antelope hoped to wipe out any strategic value it held for the Rajneeshees.
But Sheela beat them to the punch. To disincorporate, a majority of Antelope residents would need to vote in favor. But you only needed two weeks of residence in town to be an eligible voter. So Sheela launched an effort to stuff Antelope with Bhagwan-worshipping, red-clad sannyasins who would vote in opposition. They also tried to encourage long-time Antelope residents to sell their homes to Rajneeshees and move out of town.
Bhagwan’s former bodyguard Shiva was assigned to photograph Antelope residents at this time. Ostensibly he was gathering evidence to show that some of the old-timers didn’t live there full-time and thus couldn’t vote there. But the real purpose was to harass them. Shiva remembers one elderly man who caught him stalking his house with a camera. “Come out and talk to me like a man!” he shouted at Shiva, but he was barely able to spit it out because he was so impotent with rage. Shiva also reports Rajneeshees holding all-night parties in town, as noisy as possible, near the homes of elderly people.
KD was apparently part of this harassment campaign as well, although his role was more direct. He would personally visit homeowners to try to strong-arm them into selling. Here’s an Antelope man describing what happened when KD visited some locals. I should say: he’s telling this story on a television program called Town Hall, where Rajneeshees and people of Antelope sat side by side in a cramped room and laid out their cases against each other. So when he talks about KD, he’s looking him right in the eyes:
[Buck Coe Audio] “For the past week I’ve had an elderly couple at my house that have been absolutely terrified to come back over here, because they took four and a half hours of badgering by this gentleman right here over to sell a trailer court to him. And when the man and the wife got to my place, they were basket cases.
“This gentleman right here came in with a real estate lady and spent four hours trying to get this lady and man to sign the paper to sell this trailer court. And after the people tried to get rid of him, the only way they could get rid of him was to sign it. So when they did that, they left town.
“And these people were terrified. And they— people going around taking pictures of them all day long. Just nothing but harassment. Now if that’s neighborly love, I’m in the wrong outfit.”
The mayor, Margaret Hill, said she had a similar experience with KD:
[Margaret Hill Audio] “He came into my house, he stayed for — well I didn’t time it, but much too long. Among other things he told me I was stupid, and unintelligent, a hypocrite, and a liar. Now it’s my word against his and he can say whatever he chooses about that. But this is the kind of harassment with which we have to deal.”
KD’s denial did not go over well with the audience:
[KD Audio] “This is a really good example of the kind of inflammatory thing that basically goes around the state as rumors.” [Shocked/angry sounds]
When she was asked why the Rajneeshees opposed disincorporation, Sheela gave a response that probably was not very persuasive to the fed-up people sitting around her:
[Sheela Audio] “Why was it that your people opposed the disincorporation? Why if the people of Antelope wanted to disincorporate would you let them, so to speak?
“We are part of the city, we own quite a few properties in the city. And also we don’t believe in destruction. We believe in constructive thinking. It is the constructive approach to this life which is what Bhagwan teaches us. And we have to not just keep it in the books, the teachings of Bhagwan, we have to live the teachings of Bhagwan too in our daily life.”
Whether it was by Bhagwan’s grace or something else, Sheela outfoxed the people of Antelope. By the time the April disincorporation vote came around, there were about double the number of Rajneeshees living in Antelope compared to the old-timers. Amid the news cameras and reporters and angry soundbites from Antelopians about preserving their way of life… the disincorporation measure failed. Resoundingly. Antelope — and its valuable Urban Growth Boundary — weren’t going anywhere.
Next up was the incorporation vote for Rajneeshpuram, just a month later. From the moment the Rajneeshees first floated the idea of incorporating a city on their ranch, the locals latched onto it as a perfect of example of how Bhagwan’s followers did nothing but lie. The popular narrative that emerged was that the Rajneeshees had always planned to build a city. Everything they had done in the previous six months, all the talk about their little farming commune, had been a lie. They were playing the people of eastern Oregon for fools — it was all so obvious now.
Here’s Rosemary McGreer, whose ranch bordered the Rajneeshee property:
[Rosemary McGreer Audio] “They have proved it’s not going to be an agricultural community. Everything is subterfuge for a city. We have been to meeting after meeting after meeting. Every time it’s a new way to come around the backdoor to build a city. Whether it’s putting a sewer system that’s designed for a city, they call it for a festival, but they probably would like to leave it there. It will be ready for a city. Maybe it’s power lines. Maybe it’s water. It’s innumerable things. They have tried from the very beginning to create a city, and all they’ve done is come in a thousand backdoors to do that very same thing.”
To be fair to the Rajneeshees, I’ve seen no indication that they bought the ranch with the intention of turning it into an actual city. I don’t think anyone anticipated a Rajneeshee government. As far as I can tell, they really thought they could build what they wanted on the ranch without interference. And when they started receiving pushback, they would lie and minimize and deflect and scramble to find other ways to get it done. Incorporating the city of Rajneeshpuram was the perfect tool they stumbled upon at the perfect time.
On May 18, 1982, 154 Rajneeshees voted to incorporate the city of Rajneeshpuram. The following week, Wasco County affirmed the vote and set August 10 for city council and mayoral elections. But before the Rajneeshees had carte blanche to build on their property, they would need to draft a Comprehensive Land-use Plan and submit it for state and county approval.
While the Rajneeshees turned their attention to planning their new city and all the wonders they could accomplish there, representatives of the Antelope City Council approached them to try to settle all the outstanding litigation related to the Antelope building permits. They may have imagined that the Rajneeshees would be willing to make some major concessions in Antelope now that they had their city. But Sheela held firm. In the agreement they signed on July 8, 1982, Antelope agreed to end the moratorium on new development and promptly consider all pending permit applications. For their part, the Rajneeshees did agree to drop all their litigation against Antelope and slow down their building efforts in town. They also agreed to pay for any community improvements required by their new construction. But they didn’t give up the city.
With the Antelope settlement agreement, and Rajneeshpuram on the horizon, you could say the future looked bright for relations between the two communities in the summer of 1982. The Rajneeshees were about to have their own autonomy — finally, some freedom from local bureaucrats. And the people of Antelope hoped that the Rajneeshees would eventually retreat to their ranch and leave them in peace.
But the future was not bright.
In November 1982, the Rajneeshees and the long-time Antelopians filmed another episode of Town Hall. Since the previous taping six months earlier, the Rajneeshees had voted to incorporate, settled with the Antelope City Council, held municipal elections, and circulated their Comprehensive Land-use Plan.
Their newly minted mayor kicked off the program:
[KD Audio] “Swami Krishna Deva, Mayor of the City of Rajneeshpuram.
“You are the elected mayor, and it is now a city?
“It is a city.”
KD’s conduct over the past year — digging into the land-use laws, suggesting the incorporation strategy, rattling the people of Antelope — must have impressed the right people. He later testified that Bhagwan personally selected him to be mayor. Sheela took a list of names to her Master, and he decided which of his disciples would be mayor and on the city council. His slate was passed on to the commune residents, who then voted in lockstep at the August 1982 elections. KD described it as “a predetermined situation, not democratic.”
At the November “Town Hall” taping, Rajneeshpuram’s new police commissioner also introduced himself:
[Jayananda Audio] “Do we have law enforcement? Right there, would you identify yourself?
“Prem Jayananda, I’m the police commissioner for Rajneeshpuram. [Applause/laughter] We hired two —
“I take it you’re serious when you said that you’re police commissioner? OK, I wanted to make sure.
That’s right… Sheela’s husband, the mild-mannered finance whiz from New Jersey, was now in charge of Rajneeshpuram’s police force.
The commune’s lead accountant, who we met back in Poona, provided an update on construction expenses:
[Savita Audio] “My name is Ma Prem Savita of Rajneesh Services International, I’m a financial consultant. On construction we’ve probably spent between twenty, twenty-five million in the last 15 months.”
But the heart of the conversation was about what the Rajneeshees put in their comprehensive plan for the city. What appeared in those pages shocked many people in Wasco and Jefferson Counties. As they saw it, farming was now a footnote. It just confirmed what they had all feared. The new focus was on bringing in huge numbers of people to live and visit at the commune. Here’s the city planner, a Harvard-educated dreamboat named Deva Wadud, talking about a surprising new industry that had cropped up at the ranch:
[Wadud Audio] “We want to have a convention center. And we feel like a convention center - the city’s going to become a major tourist center. We didn’t anticipate the amount of interest that we’ve had in the last year. But we have as many as 100 people a day visiting. And we feel like the destination resort possibilities for the city is very great. So we’re really looking to expand the economy instead of just centering it on agriculture. Which is actually one of the requirements for the state for a city to do, is to diversify its economy. So we’re really looking to have a very broad-based economy. And tourism is actually one of those aspects for it. And so the city will take on that form in the sense of various tourist facilities.”
This talk about tourism was certainly alarming to people in the community, and also 1000 Friends of Oregon. Here’s their lawyer:
[Paul Gearhardt Audio] “They said that they needed a city, a small city, in order to run an intensive farm, and that their uses would be farm uses and those necessary to support a farm. It was going to be a rural city, they said. Well, lo and behold now, they want to have a multi-faceted urban center, of a city with a 500-unit hotel. That’s the size of the downtown Portland Hilton.”
The projected population of Rajneeshpuram also caused some alarm. Here’s a local rancher, Diane McDonald:
[Diane McDonald Audio] “All they said they wanted to do was farm and live with their neighbors. They have since changed their tune considerably. Now they’re, in their comprehensive plan for a city, they’re projecting 4000 people within the next 15 years. 4000 people at this time Jefferson County in its entirety has a little over 5,000 registered voters. . . . I don’t think any organization should be allowed to go out in the middle of exclusive farm-use land, squat, call themselves a city, and form a government.”
But Sheela turned these arguments back around on the neighbors themselves:
[Sheela Audio] “Thanks to people like Donna McDonald and Rosemary McGreer that we have attracted tourism. It wasn’t my intention. [Laughter] They have created enough publicity for me that I have a problem. Isabel comes every day. Sheela what am I going to do with this tourist? You need a place for tourists. And if tourists are going to come, I want to take care of them, welcome them, love them, let them see what we are all about. Do you want to know what we are all about?”
Sure, the ranch’s immediate neighbors had reason to be alarmed, but at least the people living in Antelope could rest easy… right?
Well, I’ve left out one important development. Remember that phrase, “The Takeover of Antelope”? The anxiety that Rajneeshees would drive long-time residents out of the town altogether?
On November 2, 1982, the Rajneeshees actually did take over Antelope. On that day, in the Antelope city elections, sannyasins captured the mayor seat and three of six city council positions. Since the mayor was the tie-breaker, the Rajneeshees effectively controlled Antelope city government from that point on. Outgoing Mayor Margaret Hill refused to swear in her replacement, leaving the newly-elected city recorder to do it — a sannyasin, of course.
Antelopians saw the election as yet another betrayal of their trust. The July settlement agreement was premised on the understanding that the Rajneeshee presence in Antelope would be temporary. But now they showed no signs of leaving. I guess you could call the Rajneeshees “risk-averse,” in a sense. The only thing better than controlling one Urban Growth Boundary… would be controlling two.
Frankly, I can see where they were coming from. The challenges to Rajneeshpuram were gaining national attention — and support. There was a distinct possibility that a future court decision could wipe out everything they had built. Antelope was still Plan B, at least for the time being.
Sheela describes it another way in her memoir, while reflecting on the “Takeover of Antelope,” writing: “I have to say that both the praise and the blame must go to the then mayor of Antelope and her anti-Rajneesh friends, because they forced us to take over the city… Their anger was a loud invitation for us to get involved with the city and take control of it. Their destructive power was turned against them — like a boomerang.”
Whatever hope there had been for peace and quiet between the long-time residents and the Rajneeshees seemed to be gone forever.
[Neighbor & Sheela Audio] “And also, Sheela — I’m Barbara Hill, a native Oregonian ad have lived in Jefferson County for 27 years. Sheela, you said from the onstart all we want to do is ranch in peace and harmony among our neighbors—
“This is exactly how we are living. If you really want to know how we are living, what Rajneeshpuram is all about it, here we are.” [RAJNEESHEE SINGING: “Yes Bhagwan Yes”]
Next time on Building Utopia, we’ll take a look at the plans for the City of Rajneeshpuram and see how people like KD and Wadud planned to turn Bhagwan’s dream into a reality. We’ll also see what it took for a sannyasin to be invited to come live at the ranch in those first couple years — and what their lives were like once they got there. And we’ll check in with the Master himself. What’s Bhagwan been up to this whole time? Has he been pulling the strings from his triple-wide trailer, or has he passed the reins on to Sheela? And isn’t the clock ticking on his tourist visa?
Those topics and more next time. We hope you join us then.
Building Utopia is researched, written, narrated, and produced by me, Rusty King. If you’re enjoying the series and want to support the show — please subscribe, rate, and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this.
I’d like give a special shout-out to Jack Faust, who hosted those Town Hall segments we heard for KATU television in Portland. And a big thank-you to his daughter, Amy Faust, who had those videos digitized and made them available online. Links to those videos and an article written by Amy about the Rajneeshees are available on our website, BuildingUtopiaPodcast.com.
If you have any questions or comments about topics we’ve covered in this series, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through the website, or find Building Utopia on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
See you next time.