The following article first appeared inthe April 12, 1972 edition of the “Ojai Valley News” on page D6. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Editorial by Fred Volz
Rare conversation with Krishnamurtiabout the Ojai Valley
Last week our long-standing request to interview Jiddu Krishnamurti, world renowned philosopher, was granted. We spent almost two hours taping this interview, mostly about the Ojai Valley. Krishnamurti is now in New York City to give two talks at Carneigie Hall, before returning to England.
Krishnamurti is a slight, aethetic man with golden skin and large, soft brown eyes. He speaks with an Oxford accent in muted tones, pausing occasionally to collect his words.
He was born in 1895 in Madras, India, the eighth child of a Brahmin family. At 16, with his brother Nityananda, he was brought to England where he was privately educated. He first came here with his brother in the ‘20’s, and we begin our interview with that.
The conversation is almost an exact replica of our tape recording.
Sir, I feel that the people here would appreciate your views about the valley. May I ask you some questions about Ojai?
Volz—You came here many years ago and you’ve stayed here from time to time. What are your personal feelings about the valley?
K—I came here first with my brother in 1922. We lived here. We came from India via Australia and lived in a little cottage. And the contrast was enormous. We came in July. The dryness, the heat, the dust. But we liked it enormously. It was the mountains. I’ve been practically all over those mountains, over all these trails. I’ve been up to Topa Topa, up to Chief. And I stayed here during the war . . . and off and on . . . treating this area as kind of my home. I also go to India, that is also my home. I stay in England—but this is one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve seen. I’ve been to Kashmir, and I’ve been to Switzerland, and parts of Europe . . . Pyrenees and various mountains in India. This has an extraordinary charm that the others do not have. It’s extraordinarily quiet at night. Wild. And I used to see deer up there . . . bear. Once, I walked behind a bobcat for several miles. The wind was blowing from him to me. So he didn’t smell me at all. Several miles . . . he was rubbing himself and enjoying himself. I don’t know whether they exist now.
V—Rare. Only very occasionally do I see one . . . just a flash.
K—And I see raccoons, foxes, and I’ve seen several times big brown bear. Marvelous. And somehow I like this place enormously. But I see it gradually being spoiled. I hear they want to put a highway through here. That’s the end of this valley. And they want to develop parts of it . . . a tourist resort and all that. I suppose this is what is really happening all over the world. When there’s a beautiful spot, they want to destroy it . . . exploit it touristically for economic purposes. I know a place in India, a beautiful place, but it’s spoiled now by overpopulation. Get rich quick. Recently, I stayed as a guest in Malibu and they’re destroying that whole hill. Terrible.
V—Well, you’ve answered the first three questions I have. I was going to say you saw Ojai then . . . and you see what’s happening now. I was also going to ask you what exceptional qualities Ojai had in the twenties and what it does not have now.
K—This East end has still got it. Because I can go up one of those hills and not see anyone. In those days I would go . . . oh . . . miles and miles . . . but now it’s gradually being pushed out. It will be destroyed. Unless you all stand firm.
V—Do you see any change in the way it’s going now. Or is gradually the land being used up?
K—I’m afraid so.
V—You don’t see a change. Is there anything we could do about this?
K—Ah, I suppose . . . I don’t know why the government . . . or people congregate . . . and say this is one place in California that should be kept the way it was. Or it will be completely wiped out.
V—As a result of economic motives?
K—The way we are going now in America . . . and the rest of the world . . . in 70 years through overpopulation man will destroy himself.
V—There have been encouraging things happening here recently. For example, the Meditation Group—the private schools . . . Happy Valley, Ojai Valley, and Villanova. So there has been a move in that direction. People coming here to build schools and have them expand. Do you see anything happening here along those lines?
K—Let me tell you about Happy Valley. We came here in 1922. In 1927, Dr. Besant . . . the Happy Valley Foundation . . . she started it . . . she bought land, mortgages and all that. She bought it for one purpose . . . I don’t want to be personal . . . that the teachings that K was giving would bring around a different group of people. Happy Valley land was to be used for that. And now it’s gone into other people’s hands . . . unfortunately. But schools here, if there are a great many schools here. What would happen? Can they maintain themselves? Private schools.
V—They come here for the very reason you and I come here. A beautiful, quiet, peaceful place . . . conducive to study.
K—I believe private schools are suffering a great deal. You see I used to talk practically every year at the other end (near Krotona Hill at the Oak Grove). Many people came here . . . gathered and had camps and all that. It’s all different since then. I’ve not been here practically since 1965. But I could come every year. Things have changed. Can’t serious people come here and maintain this atmosphere and this kind of beauty?
V—I think a lot of us are asking that question. I’m not so sure it’s good for the economy of the valley to have more houses, more people. The very reasons we all came here will have been destroyed.
K—How can we prevent the others from destroying it?
V—I think we’ll just have to say no. That the government will have to say no. That the valley should stay in orchards. In open space. I thought of one time writing to our congressman and proposing this as a national park . . . like Yosemite, like Yellowstone.
K—Will they allow it?
V—Well, the list of proposed national parks is long now. A very beautiful place north of San Francisco in Marin County is the newest national park . . . a strip of original seashore . . . in native grasses and sand. It has been preserved in the hands of one family ever since the Spaniards were there. This is the newest national park. Pt. Reyes National Park. We had our hand in proposing that. Now . . . in the Napa Valley . . . with its vineyards . . . they have made that into what we call a national monument which prevents any change to that valley. Not a park, but a national monument. Yet, it’s not as beautiful as this.
K—We have a school in England in Hampshire. There’s the start of a building there . . . the K Foundation owns it. You can’t build new houses . . . you can only improve or pull down old houses. You have to build on the same foundation. And you have to get permission to build from the planning committee—anything at all. We were going to build for 40 people. It took six months to get permission. It’s only an hour from London by train, but it’s a beautiful place and they said let’s not go and destroy it.
V—I think that’s what happened initially to our great national parks. Yosemite . . . John Muir in particular . . . said we’re not going to destroy this. This has to be kept. They brought United States officials there. And they agreed.
K—Can’t this be done here?
V—One of the problems — I was just thinking about this — it’s an exceptional day outside. If you live here long enough, you begin to think the whole world is like this. And it’s not. Locals don’t understand . . .
K—Can’t Ojai be maintained, sir. Through influence . . . through the machinery of government?
V—Let me say, I’m much more optimistic now, than I was last year for the Ojai Valley. Finally, the people who are in charge are getting the message from all of us down below, that we don’t want this to change, we don’t want more shopping centers and tract houses. We want to keep what’s left. What do you think that the citizens here can do?
K—Sir, do you know what is happening in the world? The citizens are responsible for destroying the world. Hmm? I used to go to India, except this winter. Every winter I spent 5-6 months . . . now it’s reduced to 3 months. You have no idea how it’s being destroyed. In Bombay, people are sleeping on pavements. Thousands of them. And under the tree they sleep. And the villages are being destroyed . . . 10 million of them. And the death rate is not so great as the birth rate. Citizens . . . human beings are responsible for this. Why can’t they stop it? Here in this valley . . . live all of you . . . for God’s sake you preserve this place. One place that’s not destroyed. Do you think there are serious people here? Serious in the sense . . . not all economically well established . . . but have roots in the valley . . . serious-minded people who say let’s maintain this atmosphere…this quietness, this beauty, this sense of . . . otherness. Do you know what I mean? Not at all the wrangles of the Catholic, Protestant, Communist, Socialist. Do you think there are such people here?
V—Yes, I think so. Many people of every political and religious affiliation feel exactly the way we do. Recently, a Committee to Preserve the Ojai was formed. They have four-five hundred members and they’re seeking to influence the kind of people who get elected. Working to defeat unneeded shopping centers. They’re working in a very practical way. And their numbers are growing. More people feel sympathy for them . . . and give them money. So, it’s happening here . . . but it has to happen fast. It can’t wait. There has to be a change in thinking. We all have to realize that open space out there is valuable. The most valuable thing we have. Of course, I write about this all the time to the people of Ojai. I don’t know how much attention they pay to it. Nothing much seems to happen. But I like you saying that.
K—You know, sir, in India, in Greece, and in other civilizations, when they found a beautiful spot like this they put a temple. Not a Christian temple or a Buddhist temple, but a temple. A thing that was beautiful and remained sacred because of the beauty of the place. I go to a school in south India. I spend three weeks talking to children. As you enter there, on a hill is a temple. And the feeling you have is of a sacred place . . . be quiet, be nice, be gentle, be pleasant to your neighbor, don’t kill, don’t hurt . . . all that atmosphere makes for beauty.
V—Do you think Americans are different from other people?
K—They’re much more energetic. They’re pleasure seekers. They’re fleetingly serious. I never have seen such race as this that want to . . . they can’t sit quietly. Go to the lakes, go off on guided hikes . . . oh . . . they can’t be by themselves. One year I was walking right up there on your mountains. I was standing looking at the beauty of the land . . . I could even see the ocean . . . A man came down on horseback . . . I was standing very still . . . He said, ‘what the hell are you standing so still for?’ . . . I said, ‘isn’t it a beautiful day?’ He looked at me and said, ‘oh, you’re the Christ child.’ (Much laughter here).
V— That was many years ago, wasn’t it?
K—Yes. I wonder, sir, you know Ojai. Can people treat this valley as a sacred place . . . not as a commercial center? A sacred place becomes beautiful . . . I hope you understand. People will come here because it’s quiet, restful, thoughtful, serious.
V—You don’t see any formal change . . . like, people coming here to form a religious center or a spiritual center. In the practical sense of the word.
K—I would . . . you see, sir, in India we have a place like this. A school . . . but people who come there are serious people. Treat it . . . I hate to use the word . . . as a sacred place. Unless you have this spot where people really can be thoughtful and serious you are going to destroy the world. You’ve heard of the river Ganges in India. We have a school on the banks of it, and it is very old. I found a statue by digging in the garden which is 6th century. Before that, I found something from B.C. So there’s a tremendous sense of atmosphere. I was talking the other day to Frank Waters and he was saying the American Indians felt the land was sacred and the sky was sacred. So keep it clean, keep it unpolluted. Here there isn’t that attitude . . . that feeling for the earth.
V—Yes, we’re supposed to conquer nature.
K—That’s it . . .
V—It says so in the Bible.
K—I know. In the East, there is a respect for the earth, respect for animals . . . not kill them. Here, you must always use it, build a factory, tear it to pieces. There’s that enormous vitality. Every time I used to come back to Ojai, before 1950, I say, “what a marvelous place!” But now I don’t come because it’s marvelous.
V—It would seem to me it would help much . . . if you would come here more often.
K—Oh yes. I’m coming . . . I didn’t come because the people I was working with didn’t want me to come here.
V—When you come, will you be staying here for a long time?
K—Oh, yes . . .
V—Well, this place will become what we think it should become. If we think positively about it, if we think this is the way the Ojai Valley should be, it will be that way.
K—That’s right. You know, Ojai Valley, is known all over the world. Because of the K Foundation. There’s a K foundation in England, in South America, and in India. People want to come here. That’s why that Happy Valley was bought. By Theosophist, by a group of people of whom I was the head. It was for that. Now it is . . .
V—It’s still there, the land, isn’t it?
K—But they’re different . . . and not interested.
V—I’m pleased to hear that you will be back.
V—Do you plan to give up your place in Switzerland?
K—No, sir. There will be a gathering there. For about 3 weeks from all over Europe. And we’ll go on with that. And we’ll go on with Ojai, on with India. I used to go to Paris, Amsterdam, to various towns, but I’ll be glad to give this up.
V—Sounds like you’re more active than ever.
K—Let me tell you a true story, sir. In India, one time I was doing Yoga exercise and I see a shadow in the window. There is a big black wild monkey. I come quite close and it stretches out its hand. And I hold its hand. And its hand was rough and he wants to come inside. I said, ‘I don’t have time today . . . but come and see me sometime.’
V—Well, I understand you rarely grant interviews . . . on behalf of myself and the people of the Ojai Valley, I thank you for your time.
The Ojai Valley has been the scene of many interesting and notable events, but it is doubtful anything has taken place as unique and distinctive as the Star Camp Congress on the meadow near Meiners Oaks in 1928.
Not often, in this comfort-loving age, do we see such a gathering–a thousand people living in tents for a week or so, whose sole object was to get away from the pressure of domestic and business life, to be quiet and to listen to the teaching of a modest young man who offered to show them how to end sorrow and suffering, and to be happy.
Quietly, and without brass bands or parades of any kind, this great party of campers settled into its city of tents.
Little did the small body of theosophists at Krotona in old Hollywood, members of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, realize that when their secretary, A. P Warrington, was guided to visit his friends, the Rev. Robert Walton and Mary Gray in Ojai, and that when, with their help, he found the Kerfoot Ranch in Meiners Oaks, little did they or Dr. Annie Besant guess that in moving Krotona to Ojai in 1924, they would be preparing the way for these surprising gatherings that would take place during the 1920s.
Besant, president of the Theosophical Society, was accustomed to such inner guidance, as in the purchases of Starland, what Oak Grove is today, and the Happy Valley (Upper Ojai property) for a cradle to nurture a new race of human beings.
Besant attended the American Theosophical Society Convention in Chicago in 1926. However, her special work was really in Ojai, where her intuition led her to start a new colony and school for the children of the “sixth sub-race” and where Krishnamurti, who referred to himself as “K,” would one day start his school at the west end of the valley.
George and Grace Hall moved from Hollywood to live at Krotona in August, 1926, when he became the general manager for Krotona. He planned a subdivision at the east end of the village, to be called Siete Robles, in which he expected to interest most of the would-be Krotona settlers.
Besant and “K,” with their entourage, arrived in Los Angeles in September 1926 and were met at the train station by many of their fellow workers. Her first visit here confirmed that the Ojai Valley would be the future world center for the teachings of J. Krishnamurti.
Oct. 1, 1926, in honor of Besant’s 80th birthday, afternoon tea was served at Krotona to 150 to 200 friends. Standing on the veranda of the Krotona Library, Dr. Besant shared her first impressions of the Ojai Valley.
“I find that your valley has an atmosphere of peace, tranquility and spirituality that is most reminiscent of India in these respects than any other part of the globe that I have visited.”
Referring to the small group of theosophists coming to Ojai, and the work they would do, she emphasized that they came to live in friendliness and brotherhood.
Besant shared her plan to purchase land in Ojai with close associates, and Frank Gerard, a devotee of “K” since 1915, and Fritz Kunz, a dedicated and highly paced member of the Theosophical Society, were the sweat and blood behind what would become the Upper Ojai Valley site.
On Sunday morning, Jan. 3, 1927, Besant called her co-workers together to share her vision and thoughts on buying a piece of land in Ojai, among them George Hall, an active realtor and Krotona manager who was pushing for a tract of land adjacent to Krotona, a tract of live oaks that would one day become a sacred spot (the Oak Grove).
About 10 a.m., they left “K’s” home at Arya Vihara to see the land on the west side of the Krotona property, since Hall and others thought this piece of land would be the right place for what Besant had in mind. When they came to a high open place on the property, Outlook Point, they all gathered around Besant and expressed their ideas about the site.
However, she did not say much, nor did she or “K” seem impressed or much interested in the location, although some 160 acres were bought, later to become the Oak Grove center in Starland, from which “K” would give his dialogues until his death in 1986.
Meanwhile, “K” persuaded Besant and the group to look at the Upper Ojai region where there was also a larger tract of land for sale. They liked it very much and got in touch with the owners, and the negotiations began for about 465 acres, plus the oil rights.
Before Dr. Besant and “K”, with their entourage, left for Europe in April, 1927 (Besant never to return), she appointed George Hall her representative in all matters in Ojai. She appointed the Board of Trustees for the Happy Valley land, all Esoteric Section members, to manage the property according to her wishes and instructions. In May, 1930, Happy Valley was incorporated as the Happy Valley Foundation.
April 15, 1928, “K” arrived back in Los Angeles in the company of Baron van Pallandt, a Dutch nobleman of Ommen, Holland, Mr. Tristram and Mr. Prasad, professors of physics at the University of Madras.
Among those greeting them were Mr. and Mrs. D. Rajagopal, chief organizer, Order of the Star; Dr. and Mrs. John A. Ingelman, national organizer for the United States; Marie Russak Hotchener, editor of The Star magazine; Louis Zalk, Ojai camp manager; James Montgomery Flagg, the illustrator, also Bishop John Tettemer of the Liberal Catholic Church, and many others who were especially devoted to K’s teachings.
New additions to the garage building were now under construction at Krotona Institute to make storage for seven cars. Also being installed was a private 280-gallon gasoline station with pump for the residents’ use.
Since members were coming from all over the world to attend the Star Congress, they wanted to stay at Krotona, but the accommodations at Krotona were still very limited. As for the village of Ojai, it would cost no less than $8 per day, with or without meals, and these also were limited.
Starland camp, west of today’s Taormina property, progressing under Hall’s direct supervision, with the guidance of Zalk, construction began immediately with three bath houses and a cafeteria to make a success of the planned International Star Camp in May, 1928.
The gathering included about 1,200 people (11 nationalities besides American were represented). Ojai had thrown open its doors to the world.
A building boom was soon on in the Ojai Valley. Meiner’s Oaks help a special interest for most of the followers, who were all buying lots within a short walk of Starland.
The opening meeting of the Star Camp 1928 Congress, the Campfire, was held on Outlook Point, overlooking the surrounding countryside. After introductory music, “K” stepped forward and touched the torch to the campfire, chanting an ancient Sanskrit hymn as the flames leaped skyward.
Zalk, general director of the camp, then extended a warm greeting to the many assembled for the first congress. Jinarajadasa of India followed, delighting his listeners with a talk. Next, Warrington spoke poetically of the dream of a dreamer saying, “The first Star Congress of Ojai was the realization of a long-cherished vision held by one man, J. Krishnamurti, for many years.”
On August 3, 1929, at the Ommen Star Camp in Holland, in the presence of Annie Besant, “K” officially dissolved the Order of the Star and the Star Camps around the world were opened for public use.
The management of the Ojai camp made an announcement that the property was to be made available for the use of other organizations all over the nation who might desire such a location and such equipment for convention purposes, except for the time when “K” would occupy the Oak Grove each May for his dialogues.
Around 1975, the Oak Grove School was started adjacent to the Oak Grove.
Summer Bummerby Mark Lewis
Ojai’s Long, Strange Trip Through the Turbulent Sixties
The Age of Aquarius lingers on in Libbey Park, where Ojai’s flower children convene on Sunday afternoons to bang a drum or twirl a hula hoop. Counterculture types also can be spotted occasionally at the Pergola of a Friday evening, joining in the Peace Vigil to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The enduring hippie presence is a long-established Ojai tradition. But there was a time when they did not seem so benign.
For many Ojai residents – those of a certain age, who grew up here – the sight of tie-dyed peaceniks cavorting under the Pergola is a scene straight out of 1967, when anyone driving through downtown was sure to spot hippies lounging on the south side of Ojai Avenue. Some will smile at that memory, but others will cringe, because the Summer of Love was no love feast in these parts. There was yelling and rock-throwing and fist-fighting, culminating in three midsummer nights of violence which old-timers still refer to as “the Ojai riots.” Then the Pergola itself was bombed, and eventually demolished.
It seems extraordinary that these events could have occurred in peaceful little Ojai, which sees itself – and rightly so — as a refuge from the ills of urban life. But 44 years ago, when the 1960s suddenly erupted into “the Sixties,” Ojai seemed on the verge of losing its cherished Shangri-La status. Baffled and bewildered by all the changes, many people focused their fury on the hippies in the park, who seemed to represent a terrifying alien invasion.
Over time, passions cooled, and Ojai’s safe-haven status was preserved – with considerable help from the hippies, as it turned out. The Pergola eventually was rebuilt, and now seems as though it has always been there. The events of 1967 faded into legend, then into obscurity. To many newcomers, Ojai seems firmly rooted in a much more distant past, with its iconic Mission Revival architecture and its century-old orange groves. But a case can be made that the Ojai of today is really a child of the Sixties. Its birth was unusually traumatic, and the quickening began on a festive day in the fall of 1966, when a certain longtime resident returned to town after many years away.
The Secret Doctrine
Jiddu Krishnamurti first came to Ojai in 1922 as a messiah-in-training for Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society. He eventually rejected their World Teacher role and resigned from the society, but he continued to make his home on McAndrew Road, and to give occasional public talks at the Oak Grove in Meiners Oaks. Among his East End neighbors in the late 1950s was a young girl named Susan Diets, who would grow up to be Suza Francina.
“I often saw K standing at the bridge on McAndrew, soaking up the beauty of the valley,” Francina recalls.
For Judy Evans, who grew up in the Upper Valley during the ’50s, the K connection was more fundamental. “We actually moved to Ojai because of Krishnamurti,” says Evans, who describes her parents as “vegetarians and nonconformists.”
That description could be applied to a number of people lured to Ojai by the sage’s presence, including the potter Beatrice Wood and the restaurateur Alan Hooker, who started the Ranch House. Nor was Krishnamurti the only draw. There were also the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and the Happy Valley School (now known as the Besant Hill School). Ojai was home to some notable eccentrics, such as the woman in Meiners Oaks who went barefoot and lived in a tree. Most of the valley’s bohemians were less flamboyant; they had jobs and mortgages and looked pretty much like their neighbors. But when “the Sixties” kicked into gear, they (and their teenage children) were ready to embrace it.
As for Krishnamurti, he almost missed the Sixties altogether, at least as they unfolded in Ojai. He had avoided the town since 1960, due to a strained relationship with his business manager, D. Rajagopal. But in the fall of 1966 he returned to make peace with Rajagopal, and to give a series of talks at the Oak Grove. Alas, the hoped-for reconciliation did not pan out; the sage soon departed, and did not return until well into the 1970s. But his three-week visit in 1966 would have a lasting impact.
Despite his long absence, these talks drew enormous crowds. More than 2,000 people came to the first one, on October 29, to hear Krishnamurti call for “a revolution in the psyche, in the mind itself.”
Ojai’s homegrown intelligentsia turned out in force, along with curious teenagers like Suza Francina, who was delighted to find herself in such enlightened company. Francina, the product of a strict, Pentecostal upbringing, found herself drawn to the free spirits she encountered in the Grove. The term “hippie” had only recently been coined, but it applied to many of Krishnamurti’s listeners. Even in that crowd, they stood out.
“Everything about them had a different vibe,” Francina says.
Many of them had come up from Los Angeles: Laurel Canyon cowboys and Hollywood hipsters eager to latch onto the new thing, Indian gurus being all the rage. To be sure, Krishnamurti’s links to Hollywood went back many decades, and he had been prominently associated with the late Aldous Huxley, whom the counterculture would embrace as a prophet. But K’s 1966 visit seems to have re-forged the Ojai connection for a new generation of Angelenos, especially those who had stopped getting haircuts. Ojai would soon be a regular stop on the hippie caravan route from L.A. to San Francisco.
“Maybe they would have found Ojai anyway,” Francina says, “but they found it sooner through the K talks.”
The talks, which continued through November 13, were extensively covered by the Ojai Valley News. Writer John Nimick attended every session and explicated Krishnamurti’s philosophy in long, detailed articles, which no doubt were well read in the valley’s bohemian precincts. But most OVN subscribers skipped over Nimick’s articles and turned to the sports pages, where bigger news was brewing.
Catch a Wave
November 19 was Homecoming Day at Nordhoff High School. The gym had been decorated for a big dance featuring the Decades, a highly regarded rock band from Ventura. But first the Rangers would host Bishop Diego for a game that would determine the Tri-Valley League championship. Nordhoff was a basketball powerhouse in those days, but the football team had never made it to the playoffs. An enormous crowd showed up at the field on Maricopa Highway that Saturday afternoon, hoping to see the Rangers make history.
Before the kickoff, Homecoming Queen Jill Bryan received her crown — and a kiss — from team co-captain Steve Olsen. Playing center on offense and linebacker on defense, Olsen racked up six tackles and seven assists that day. But Nordhoff still trailed by a point in the final minutes of play, and Bishop Diego was running out the clock. Then the ball popped loose, and Olsen pounced on it. Jan Colenbrander, an exchange student from Holland, kicked a 35-yard field goal, and Nordhoff held on to win the game, 16-14.
The town went temporarily insane with joy. The victors were honored with a triumphal procession through downtown Ojai, escorted by smiling police officers. Then it was on to the dance, and a celebration that would linger in many memories for years to come. Theosophists by the thousand might beat a path to Ojai to sit at Krishnamurti’s feet, but this was still at heart an All-American small town out in the boondocks, where most people cared more about football than about expanding their consciousness.
“It was a time when athletes still dominated the scene,” Olsen recalls. The retired Chaparral High School principal looks back fondly on his own high school days, when Ojai resembled the setting for George Lucas’s classic film American Graffiti.
Just as in Lucas’s film, Ojai teenagers spent their weekend nights cruising the strip, which ran along Ojai Avenue from the Shell station (where Cluff Park is today) to the Hitching Post drive-in at Bald Street. (The Hitching Post, famous for its corn burritos with Happy Jack’s special sauce, was on the site currently occupied by Sea Fresh.) Olsen and a friend once cruised the strip nonstop for 24 hours in a ’55 Chevy: “It was just something we decided to do, and did it.”
More American Graffiti parallels: Ojai’s Top-40 radio playlist was curated by Wolfman Jack, broadcasting from a pirate station south of the border. And just as in the film, Ojai teens were devoted to drag racing. Since the 1950s, successive generations had been racing their cars in the East End, beyond the jurisdiction of city police.
“We’d drag on Gorham Road,” recalls Susana Arce, Nordhoff ’60 (she was Susie Callender back then). Carne Road also was popular, and sometimes Grand Avenue. Everyone fell into one of two categories, Ford or Chevy. “I had a ’52 Ford,” Arce says. “I was a Ford person.”
Manuel Saenz was a Chevy person. More specifically, a ’57 Chevy person. He and his friends were known as “the car guys.” They were a few years older than the high-school crowd. Saenz was 22 in 1966 — old enough to buy beer, which car guys consumed in prodigious quantities.
“In the 1960s, Ojai was the party town of the county,” Saenz says. For car guys, it was heaven: “There were eight gas stations back then, and there were eight bars that were open.”
In that more innocent era, drunk drivers were treated more gently than today. If a teen-ager drank too much, the cops were apt to give him a lecture and drive him home. “It was like Mayberry,” recalls Dan Cole, Nordhoff ’64, who played drums in Ojai’s hometown rock ‘n’ roll band, the Raiders.
Or maybe it was more like Petticoat Junction, since Southern Pacific Railroad trains still chugged into town occasionally to pick up loads of fruit from the packing house on Bryant Street. When kids heard the whistle of an approaching train, they ran down to the tracks to place pennies on the rails.
“Ojai wasn’t a very active place,” says Dr. Ray Huckins, who served as mayor from 1967 to 1970. “And that was fine as far as I was concerned. Nobody got very excited.”
“It certainly was a sleepy town,” agrees former city attorney and City Council member Jack Fay. “But I wouldn’t call it a hick town.”
Indeed not. Ojai offered highbrow cultural amenities rarely available in small-town America. The Happy Valley School staged modern dance programs featuring solemn-looking young women in black leotards, striking esoteric poses derived from Martha Graham. An eccentric impresario named Wayne Glasgow took over the Ojai Theatre in 1966, changed its name to the Glasgow Playhouse, and offered a steady diet of artsy foreign films: Godard, Truffaut, Pasolini. The Art Center that fall was mounting a production of William Inge’s steamy Picnic, to be followed by a heavy dose of Eugene O’Neill. The Ojai Music Festival was planning to bring in the avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez as its next music director, and have him conduct Stockhausen’s “Zeitmasse.”
Perusing this exotic bill of fare in the Ojai Valley News, many valley residents simply scratched their heads. But there was something in the paper for every taste. Under editor-publisher Fred Volz, the OVN ran rave reviews of New Wave films like Last Year at Marienbad, but also gave plenty of ink to church socials, and to the bowling league results from Topa Lanes.
“Ojai was culturally schizophrenic at the time,” says Richard Laubly, Nordhoff ’69. “As far as I know, only long-hairs from Happy Valley School went to Godard films, amongst the teenagers, anyway. For the rest of us, it was definitely James Bond double features at the Los Robles Theatre. On the other hand, I remember various teenagers I knew showing up at Krishnamurti talks, and we would be a little surprised to see each other there.”
One person Laubly didn’t see there was Steve Olsen, who was a jock and a surfer but not a budding Theosophist. Olsen’s focus was on football — at least until the Rangers lost their playoff game. After that, he was free to resume his regular weekend beach safaris to Mondos or Rincon, where an Ojai boy could catch a wave and be sitting on top of the world.
At least one dark cloud was visible on the horizon as 1966 drew to a close. Young men who didn’t go to college were subject to the draft, which meant they might be shipped off to Vietnam.
“The war had kicked in, and I was opposed to it, right from the very beginning,” recalls Howard Landon, who was then a Nordhoff history teacher. “And I was one of the few in town who was. A lot of people thought I was a Communist.”
Ojai’s political spectrum ran the gamut from radical leftists to the John Birch Society. But the liberals — a mostly college-educated cohort of teachers and artists and Theosophy enthusiasts — were far outnumbered by conservatives such as Dr. Huckins, who had actively supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964 and Ronald Reagan’s California gubernatorial bid in the fall of 1966. Reagan’s victory on Nov. 8 cheered his many Ojai supporters — but some were appalled in mid-December when local anti-war activists announced plans to hold a regular Peace Vigil on Sunday afternoons in front of the Bank of America building. (This was not the current Bank of America building; it stood just east of the park, on the site currently occupied by Leslie Clark’s Nomad gallery and the Los Caporales restaurant.)
Meanwhile, there were disturbing reports in the OVN that marijuana and even LSD were making inroads in Ojai.
“Drugs were something that we had just not been aware of,” says Michael Cromer, whose family owned (and still owns) Bodee’s on the Maricopa Highway. Cromer graduated from Nordhoff in 1963, when marijuana and LSD were largely unknown in the valley. Just three years later, they suddenly seemed to be everywhere. “We thought that was something on another planet,” he says.
The dopers hung out in Civic Center Park (it would not be renamed Libbey Park until 1971), and they were increasingly brazen. In those days, there was no open plaza behind the Pergola, there was no big playground, and the park was more heavily wooded. The Pergola was better known as the Wall, a name derived from the three-foot-high masonry structures that filled the spaces between the pillars. When viewed from the street side, they looked like a wall that stretched along the entire length of the Pergola. For decades, Ojai teens had sat on that wall to watch the world go by. Now, this previously benign edifice was beginning to look more like an ominous fortress, which protected the shady characters in the park from police scrutiny.
Not that Ojai was opposed to walls. A lot of people would have liked to build one around the entire valley to keep it safe from outside influences. From the traditionalists’ point of view, Ojai remained a place apart, an island of beauty and sanity and tranquility in a world gone mad. They were determined to keep it that way. But it seemed to be a losing battle. All over Southern California, small towns like Ojai were submitting helplessly to the L.A. juggernaut and trading their orange groves in for housing developments. By the year 2000, the Ojai Valley’s population was projected to rise to 80,000, as more and more people fled the city to find refuge in this rustic paradise. In the process, the newcomers inevitably would transform Ojai into the very thing they were trying to escape.
While Ojai officials cast about for ways to stave off this looming disaster, many younger residents were dreaming of escaping from Ojai itself. They yearned to bust loose and see what the outside world had to offer. They were particularly curious about San Francisco, where strange and wonderful things were said to be happening. Suza Francina was in a hurry to find out for herself. Graduating from Nordhoff a semester early, she left home in December and boarded a northbound Greyhound bus. Soon she was living in a rented room on the third floor of a house in Haight-Ashbury. It was a room with a view, and she sat there at her window watching a brave new world being born.
The Summer of Love
On Jan. 14, 1967, thousands of hippies thronged San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to celebrate the first Human Be-In. It inspired similar events in New York, Los Angeles — and Ojai, where a tribe of local hippies already had staked out Civic Center Park as their headquarters. The closest thing they had to a leader was Ben Barraza, whom the Ventura County Star-Free Press later would dub “the King of the Hippies.”
“I was one of the first ones to go up to San Francisco,” he says. “I went up to the Monterey Pop Festival too.”
At 30, Barraza was older than the average hippie. An Ojai native, he had been a football star at Nordhoff in the mid-Fifties. By 1967 he was married to Judy Evans and they had two young children. But when the counterculture blossomed, Ben grew his hair long and embraced a new role.
“He went from captain of the football team in high school to King of the Hippies,” Evans says.
Ojai’s first love-in, in March, was a peaceful event. “Barefoot youths with flowers behind their ears strummed on guitars, ate picnic lunches and proclaimed ‘love’ to all who would listen,” the OVN reported.
A few hippies from Los Angeles came up to join in the fun. “People who went said it drew a crowd of several hundred and was a peace family trip,” reported the Los Angeles Free Press, an alternative newspaper that kept close tabs on counterculture happenings.
The Ojai Valley Tennis Club was less enthusiastic about the hippie presence. In late April, during the club’s annual tennis tournament, the Los Angeles Times reported that “a group of gate-crashing hippies — not exactly the kind of people you’d expect to see in Ojai — upset the tournament committee by making too much noise during a match between USC’s Stan Smith and UCLA’s Roy Barth.”
In response, some of the hippies formed the Ojai Valley Dopers Association, or O.V.D.A., to tweak the Tennis Club officials.
“The O.V.D.A. was originally a joke on the O.V.T.C., tennis folks who gave some of us a hard time about cluttering up ‘their’ park with our loathsome longhaired hippie selves,” recalls Tony Neuron. “At one point my brother Michael and I played doubles with a couple of other O.V.D.A. members on ‘their’ courts, barefoot with old junk rackets, largely just to piss them off. They saw us as criminal lowlifes — we saw them as stuck-up snobs.”
When the tournament ended, the tennis folks left the park to the hippies. The second love-in, in May, was bigger than the first. The crowd was swelled by local high-school students such as Richard Laubly who came to check out the scene. There were also more out-of-towners, two of whom were arrested for marijuana possession.
“The love-ins were a kick — lots of hippies but also several very straight-looking undercover cops trying to blend in,” Laubly says. “But I think after the first love-in more and more people started coming into town, either just to hang out or for the following love-ins. Ojai being more or less on the route from L.A. to S.F. might have also played a part.”
The hippies were impossible to ignore. There they were lounging on the Wall, right across the street from the Arcade, which in 1967 was not yet the tourist Mecca it is today. Back then the shops catered more to local residents, who went downtown nearly every day for one reason or another.
“That’s where people congregated, that’s where they shopped, that’s where they did everything,” Vince France says.
France is an Ojai native who graduated from Villanova Prep in 1961. By 1967 he was a sergeant on the police force, which suddenly found itself dealing with a serious drug problem. And it was not confined to the hippies in the park. There was, for example, the 14-year-old boy tripping on LSD who took off his clothes in Bart’s Books one evening. “I love everybody,” he announced.
Less amusing were the youths who became seriously ill after overdosing on jimson weed, a natural hallucinogen that grows wild in the hills.
“We had five kids who damn near died,” France says. “It was crazy, it was absolutely crazy.”
Nordhoff teachers had to deal with students who would show up in class while under the influence. “We went through a real drug thing here,” Howard Landon says. “I would have kids in class who would act a little strange.”
Ojai was Mayberry no more. The straight people in town — i.e., the vast majority — looked on aghast as longhaired, unwashed vagrants in psychedelic regalia took over the park and painted “LSD” and other drug-culture slogans on the Pergola. The community demanded action, and the police complied. But in the new political context of 1967, many young people felt persecuted by any vigorous attempt to enforce the drug laws. They felt that the cops “were a little heavy-handed, and so they started to retaliate,” Steve Olsen recalls. “And because of that, there was some anarchy.”
“The Hippie set,” as the OVN called it, consisted of several overlapping groups. There were the authentic flower children, who were obeying Timothy Leary’s injunction to turn on, tune in and drop out; there were young activists who were more politically minded, and more focused on protesting the war; there were dopers, who just liked to get high; there were drug dealers, who were there for business reasons; and there were high school kids who were just there to soak up the vibe. Collectively they were the long-hairs, whereas the anti-hippie set – the car guys, the farm boys, the rednecks, the straight kids – can be labeled the short-hairs, at least for the purposes of this article.
Tension between the two groups further escalated when the O.V.D.A. began using the Pergola as a billboard.
“Ojai police, nettled by a series of provocative acts attributed to members of the Hippie set, were mulling retaliatory action Friday,” the Ojai Valley News reported on June 4. “Chief James D. Alcorn said his phone ‘has been ringing off the hook,’ with calls from citizens who are plainly disturbed by what they claim are impudent reflections on recent narcotics violations. The most recent incident was the posting of a sign near the arches fronting Civic Park, proclaiming ‘Things go better with pot.'”
There was a truce for the Fourth of July, which featured Ojai’s usual parade. It was unusually well attended that year. The theme was “Our America,” and the hippies joined in the spirit of the occasion. “I borrowed a truck,” Barraza says, “and we made a float completely out of flowers.”
But the third love-in, in mid-July, was a disaster. Undercover narcotics officers tried to bust a dealer for selling hashish, and quickly found themselves surrounded by angry young men who did not like narks. A passing short-hair saw what was going on and ran to the officers’ aid, yelling, “All right, which one of these hippies do you want me to clobber?” When the dust cleared, five people were in police custody and hundreds were bummed out.
By now, the battle lines were clearly drawn. “It became where you had the rednecks and the car guys versus the hippies,” Olsen says.
Car guys like Manuel Saenz, who had a job in a machine shop, resented the hippies for thumbing their noses at people who worked for a living. When Saenz and his friends would encounter any long-hairs, the tension was palpable. “Everybody was flipping each other off,” Saenz says.
The short-hairs often congregated in the Elbow Room, a bar in the Arcade near Rains Department Store. (Nowadays the location is occupied by the Primavera Gallery.) The Elbow Room had pool tables and a card room and a good view of the Pergola’s west arch, which constituted the hippies’ main redoubt. From their vantage point under the Arcade, the short-hairs seethed as they watched the long-hairs made teasing remarks to passersby, including women who had to pass the Pergola on their way to the Post Office.
“A lot of young fellows like myself, we just thought that they were being disrespectful,” Mike Cromer says. “It kind of got to a boiling point.”
It was summer now, so all the teenagers were out of school and hanging out downtown. Some lined up with the car guys, some with the hippies. Others just milled about, not taking sides but eager to see what would happen.
Up in San Francisco, the Summer of Love was in full swing. In other cities, fear and loathing were more predominant. All through the long, hot summer of 1967, ghettos erupted in violence. First Newark went up in the flames; then on July 23 the riots spread to Detroit, where they continued for five or six nights, and 43 people were killed. In Ojai that week, people stared at their television sets in disbelief. Could anything like that happen here? Ojai was too small to have a real inner-city ghetto, but it did have a park full of hippies, and clearly there was trouble brewing.
Looming over everything else was Vietnam. On July 23, the OVN reported the death of Army Sgt. David Allen Stephens, Nordhoff ’64, the first Ojai man to be killed in the war. Married only eight months, Stephens left behind a widow who was pregnant with a daughter who would never know her father. Ojai mourned his death, and brooded over its meaning.
Some of the short-hairs were ex-servicemen. They bitterly resented the hippies for opposing the war, and therefore dishonoring the sacrifices made by men like Allen Stephens. “They thought we were being unpatriotic,” Barraza says.
The animosity was further fueled by a whiff of class conflict. The car guys and farm boys tended toward blue-collar occupations, which left them subject to the draft. Whereas many Ojai teenagers who lined up with the hippies were the sons of college graduates and were college-bound themselves, and therefore (at the time) exempt from the draft.
The situation was combustible; it would not require much of a spark to set it off. On July 28, a short-hair got into it with a long-hair, and events began to spiral out of control.
Up Against the Wall
A hot summer evening, well lubricated in the usual way. Young men looking for trouble, and finding it. Push comes to shove, punches are thrown, the police move in to break it up, someone takes a swing at a cop and lands in jail. Just another Friday night fight in a small town with too many bars and not enough to do. But this one lit a fuse.
Mike Cromer remembers it all clearly, 44 years later. He and a friend had just returned from Santa Barbara and were cruising down Ojai Avenue past the Wall.
“Some of these hippie characters yelled at my buddy, and he was kind of an aggressive character,” Cromer says. The friend jumped out to have a little chat with the long-hairs. Cromer quickly found a place to park his car and returned to the scene to find a fistfight in progress. The cops broke it up and hauled the participants down to the police station, which back then was located at the east end of the Arcade. Other young men gathered in front of the station, in support of one side or the other. A second fight broke out, and one youth was arrested for assaulting Chief Alcorn and Sergeant Gene Meadows.
“And that was the beginning,” Cromer says.
There was no more serious violence that night, but both sides were now girding their loins for battle. The tension continued to build throughout the weekend. The downtown area overflowed with spectators, most of who were eager to see the long-hairs get their comeuppance. Saenz recalls that many older people in the crowd were urging the short-hairs on: “The adults were yelling, ‘Get the hippies! Get the hippies!'”
In Ben Barraza’s telling, it was car guy Rick Watson who finally threw down the gauntlet. On Sunday afternoon, Watson and some friends decided that enough was enough. They marched up to the Wall and told the hippies to abandon their fortress by 5 p.m., or face the consequences. The long-hairs who received this ultimatum ran to tell Barraza, who immediately began mobilizing his troops and gathering weapons.
“We had a big stash behind the Wall — pipes and clubs,” Barraza says. “We were ready.”
Somewhat to his surprise, these supposedly peaceful flower children were ready to rumble. “They were ready to put their lives on the line and fight for that Wall,” he says.
(Note: Some longtime Ojai residents might recall a young man named Marc Lewis who lined up with the long-hairs during the period in question. He is no relation to the author of this article.)
For three nights — from Sunday, July 30, through Tuesday, August 1 — Ojai teetered on the brink of civil war. The short-hairs knew most of the long-hairs; they had all grown up together, gone to school together, played football together. Now they were at each other’s throats.
“Every night something would happen downtown,” Alan Rains says. “A window would be broken or a car would be vandalized.”
Each night after dinner, Rains and Charles Barkman would go down to the Rains store and stand guard on the roof.
“The Wall was just about directly across from our front door,” Rains says. “There were lots of people across the street raising Cain.”
The two armies faced each other across Ojai Avenue, the long-hairs under the Pergola, the short-hairs under the Arcade. Rocks were thrown, and handfuls of BBs, and the occasional cherry bomb or firecracker. Grass fires were set in nearby lots. Scores of onlookers — men, women and children — stood on the sidelines or mixed with the combatants, egging them on. The tiny Ojai Police Department, vastly outnumbered, did its best to keep things under control.
“It was just unbelievable,” says Cromer, who was in the thick of it.
There was no general melee, but there were frequent fistfights and brawls. Whenever punches were thrown, the police would quickly move in to stop the fight. Sometimes they had to arrest a combatant who failed to simmer down. On Monday night, short-hair Jerry Puckett got rambunctious and ended up in the grip of four or five officers, who proceeded to frog-march him off to jail. Some long-hairs mistakenly thought that the cops were ganging up on a hippie, so Puckett’s arrest “triggered a storm of rock-throwing,” the OVN reported.
A news photo of Puckett being subdued by Ojai’s finest went out on the wire, and apparently ran in other county newspapers. Their coverage of the disturbances inspired short-hairs from Santa Paula and Ventura to drive to Ojai to get in a lick at a hippie. On each successive night, the crowds were bigger and the mood was uglier.
“It got worse and worse as it went on,” France says. “It was scary times for awhile there.”
With tensions rising to dangerous levels, the police decided they needed to take action to head off a disaster. They called in reinforcements from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol. Then they waited.
By sundown on Tuesday evening, at least 500 people were milling around in the downtown area, waiting for the show to begin. Just after 9 p.m., a brawl broke out near the Post Office, and the police made their move. They barricaded Ojai Avenue at Signal and Montgomery streets and rolled down the avenue in force with their lights flashing. Wearing helmets and carrying nightsticks, they waded into the crowds and ordered everyone to disperse.
But that was not the end of it. Someone was lurking in the shadows behind the Arcade, carrying a six-pack of Molotov cocktails. He tossed one toward the back of the police station, but it exploded harmlessly on the pavement.
The bomb-thrower, apparently, was Roger Stine, a 22-year-old doper who lined up with the long-hairs. Not that Ben Barraza had approved Stine’s commando mission. Most of the hippies were peaceful people, Barraza says: They were just out to defend themselves from the rednecks. But Stine and his cohort were something else entirely.
“These kids were on the fringes,” he says. “They were violent kids with violent thoughts, and they saw their chance to do something.”
Stine concocted his cocktails in empty soda bottles, mixing alcohol and liquid soap to create a napalm effect. “I think he was going to burn down the Arcade,” France says.
He never got the chance. Rains and Barkman, patrolling the Arcade roof, spotted Stine on an exposed deck on the second floor of Tobey’s Super Market, in the building that now houses Rainbow Bridge.
“He was heading to the top of the roof to heave this cocktail,” Rains says. “He had one in his hand.”
Rains and Barkman rushed to intercept the intruder. Stine ended up in the hands of the police, who charged him with felony possession of a Molotov cocktail. (Stine could not be interviewed for this story; he died in 2000, at the age of 54.)
Police had cleared the Arcade area, but disturbances continued for several more hours on the fringes of downtown, where short-hairs and long-hairs traded punches in parking lots and on street corners. It was well after midnight before the two opposing armies finally disbanded for the night. The following morning, Fred Volz in the OVN relayed Chief Alcorn’s warning to everyone in town to stay home that night, and to enforce the curfew on their teenagers. That warning, plus the massive police presence, seems to have persuaded most people that things had gone far enough.
“And that was the end of it,” France says.
But not quite, because now the out-of-town news media descended. “200 Youths Clash in Ojai; Molotov Cocktails Found,” blared the Oxnard Press-Courier. A TV news crew from Santa Barbara set up shop on Ojai Avenue and interviewed Alcorn and Barraza. That night, Ojai residents sat in front of their TV sets and saw their own peaceful little town described as the scene of a riot. Newark, Detroit … and Ojai?
Of course, Ojai’s so-called riots were not remotely comparable to Detroit’s. No one was killed here, or even seriously injured; there was no looting, no buildings set afire, no cars overturned. There were many arrests, but only Stine faced a really serious charge.
“There were some scuffles and pushing around,” Barraza says. “There weren’t that many scuffles, actually. Nothing really happened.”
Perhaps not, but the possibility was there. “The turmoil was very chaotic and threatening,” Rains says. “It was squelched before it turned into something major.”
Pictures at a Revolution
Suza Francina was still in San Francisco while Ojai went through its days of rage. But she returned to her hometown later in August and ended up staying at Ben and Judy Barraza’s place near downtown. She was not their only guest.
“I had a little commune going in my house on Willow Street,” Barraza says.
Other hippie hot spots included the Art Center, Orchid Town, Ojala, Camp Comfort, the Happy Valley School (then located in Meiners Oaks), and much of the East End. Also popular were the dumpsters behind the Bayless Market, where hungry flower children could scavenge for food. But the Barraza house was their main headquarters.
“That was the hippie hub,” Francina says. Fortunately, she had moved on to new digs by October 29, when a county narcotics task force raided the house on Willow Street, arresting the Barrazas and eight other people.
“The narks thought that we were selling acid,” Barraza says. And in fact, as he now concedes, at least one person staying in the house was indeed selling LSD. Acid trips were central to the hippie experience in 1967, and many Ojai flower children indulged – including, on occasion, Suza Francina.
“The hope was, of course, that psychedelic drugs would change human consciousness,” she says. “LSD has been totally marginalized and misunderstood by the mainstream press. Kids should not be taking it. But even though I probably will not take any more drugs ever again this lifetime, it has given me a deep appreciation for cultures that use psychedelic substances in sacramental or religious contexts. I had a spiritual awakening on LSD that has stayed with me my whole life.”
The charges against Barraza and his housemates apparently didn’t stick, and the hippies declined to be chased out of town. They were reinforced by new arrivals, who had heard good things about this little town in the Ventura County backcountry.
“Ojai had a reputation for drawing these people,” France says.
Between the Krishnamurti talks, the love-ins and the riots, Ojai was well known in counterculture circles. Filmmaker Edgar Beatty, who was shooting a documentary about the hippie movement, included a scene shot in Ojai of a group of local flower children, including Judy Evans Barraza, discussing various cosmic matters in a sheltered glade in Dennison Park. (The word “groovy” was frequently employed.) His film, which premiered in New York in December 1967, was titled The Hippie Revolt.
Beatty was not the only filmmaker drawn to Ojai by its counterculture ambiance. One weekend in late November, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider checked into the Ojai Valley Inn to work on the script for Head, a surrealistic send-up of all things psychedelic. Rafelson was to direct, Schneider was to produce, and they had brought along an up-and-coming screenwriter named Jack Nicholson to collaborate with Rafelson on the script.
The choice of Ojai as the setting for their brainstorming session evidently was not a coincidence. Twelve months earlier, Nicholson had been a face in the crowd at the Oak Grove, dragged there for the K talks by his theosophically inclined wife. At the time, Nicholson’s acting career was going nowhere, so he was shifting his focus to screenwriting with an emphasis on counterculture themes. Clearly he considered Ojai a source of good material. His script for Head would recycle the sage’s pronouncements and put them in the mouth of the Swami, a guru-like character clearly inspired by Krishnamurti.
Head was supposed to make movie stars of the Monkees, who were also guests at the Inn that weekend. The three filmmakers and the four Monkees spent several days getting high and dictating their ideas into a tape recorder. The film that emerged from this process would be a resounding flop, thus proving the O.V.D.A. wrong: Things did not always go better with pot.
(Nicholson, Rafelson and Schneider, sans the Monkees, would have much better luck with their next effort: Easy Rider.)
Ojai’s cosmic reputation also lured the novelist Thomas Pynchon to town – or so one might reasonably conclude after reading his 2009 novel Inherent Vice. Pynchon is said to have lived in Manhattan Beach during the late 1960s while writing Gravity’s Rainbow. As it happens, the protagonist of Inherent Vice is an ex-hippie-turned-private-investigator named Doc Sportello, who lives in a town very much like Manhattan Beach. At one point Doc drives up to Ojai to investigate a mysterious sanitarium, and he talks his way in by name-checking Ojai’s favorite sage:
“I believe,” said Doc earnestly, “that just as chakras can be identified on the human body, so does the body of Earth have these special places, concentrations of spiritual energy, grace if you will, and that Ojai, for the presence of Mr. J. Krishnamurti alone, certainly qualifies as one of the more blessed of planetary chakras, which regrettably cannot be said for San Francisco or its immediate vicinity.”
The Inherent Vice plot also features a bank called “the Arbolada Savings and Loan,” which makes loans to “ranchers, local contractors, maybe some Rosicrucians and Theosophists now and then.” Clearly, Pynchon knew Ojai fairly well. Nor was he the only counter-culturally inclined Angeleno to undertake that 90-minute pilgrimage via the Ventura Freeway. With the hippie movement now in full flower, and the caravan route from L.A. to San Francisco heavily traveled, many long-haired strangers passed through Ojai in those days. And some decided to stick around.
Most were more likely to crash at Camp Comfort than to check into the Ojai Valley Inn. All in all, they were not the sort of tourists that Ojai was eager to welcome. But they came anyway. To many people in town, it seemed as though their peaceful community was being overrun by bizarre-looking aliens, who were infecting the local teenagers with their deeply weird ways.
Susie Arce returned to her hometown in the fall of ’67 to teach English at Nordhoff. She found a community that felt itself besieged by the forces of chaos.
“The whole world changed in the Sixties,” she says. Small towns like Ojai “were unprepared for this huge shift. Things just erupted. And nobody knew what to do. It was a shock, I guess.”
The riots had settled nothing. Hippies still hung out in the park and lounged on the Wall, which they generously shared with their fellow travelers, the anti-war protesters. Many older people in town suspected a sinister collusion between the local long-hairs and those campus radicals one read about in the newspapers. It all smacked of an anti-American conspiracy. “They really worried a lot about Communists,” Arce says.
Civic Center Park remained the focal point, and a source of deep concern. Both park and Pergola were owned by the Ojai Civic Association, which had received them as a gift from the philanthropist Edward Drummond Libbey half a century earlier, in 1917. The association trustees were unhappy about the hippies but were unable to evict them without closing the park to everyone else.
The Pergola’s west arch, near the Post Office, posed a particular problem. It was 50 years old and beginning to fall apart, like the rest of the Pergola (and the Arcade as well). The hippies (or their doper friends) seemed to delight in vandalizing it, and in scrawling provocative slogans on its sides. Then someone decided to blow a hole in it. The deed was done on December 30 at 3:30 a.m., using what the OVN described as “a handmade bomb.”
The newspaper said the bomb was made up of shotgun shells filled with black powder. But Tony Neuron drew a different conclusion.
“I actually was on the scene, right by the Post Office, the morning after the ‘explosion,’ ” recalls Neuron, who these days is a librarian in Roanoke, Va. “I ran into Major [John] Dron, who was standing by the first arch holding an empty 12-gauge shotgun shell. It did not look like it had been ‘filled with black powder.’ It was undamaged, and looked like just what you would expect to be ejected from a shotgun after firing. The terra cotta building block that the original Pergola was built of was extremely brittle, and the damage I saw was consistent with a shotgun firing into it.”
Whether the vandal used a bomb or a shotgun, the damage to the arch was relatively minor. No one was arrested, but outraged city officials blamed the hippies.
“Last night’s act is a felonious one and is a definite threat to the health and welfare of the community, and stronger action will have to be taken,” Mayor Huckins said.
Garfield Jenks, president of the Civic Association, complained that the park had been hijacked by hippies. Major Dron, an association trustee, was even more vociferous:
“This outrage is but the culmination of a long series of insensate and vicious efforts to destroy and deface the park,” Dron said. In response, the association must “enforce rigorous measures to prevent the park from being turned into a disgraceful shambles of broken furniture, scarred trees and a headquarters for dope addicts.”
The park was closed. But then it re-opened, and the hippies drifted back in. The summer of 1968 was less troublesome than the one before, but the basic conflicts remained unresolved. The cells of the old Ojai jail behind the park tell the tale: Their walls are covered with peace symbols and drug-related graffiti dating from the late 1960s.
Some of the messages are defiant – “LSD is here to stay” – but others are poignant. One night, by the light of the moon, a young prisoner named Kerry Donat O’Connor cast a spell on the two officers who had arrested him. He scrawled a notice to that effect on the wall of Cell 3. Then he added these lines:
I started at the top
Now I’m falling to the end.
Undestined to be destined
For my life will never end.
Kerry is my name
And faith my only nation;
Time and space my dwelling place
And death my destination.
And all the while, Ojai boys kept dying in Vietnam.
Howard Landon was hit especially hard by the death of his former student George Skakel, Nordhoff ’64. “George Skakel was a brilliant young man,” Landon says. Skakel, a cousin of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, also was known for his sense of humor and venturesome spirit. After graduation, he bummed around the world for a while, then enrolled at UC Santa Cruz. Then he was drafted into the Army. “He was against the war,” Landon says, but Skakel chose not to dodge the draft, “more or less to please his father.” He was killed in action in Quang Tri Province in March 1968.
Raymond Bunch had lined up next to Steve Olsen on the offensive line the day the Rangers beat Bishop Diego. After graduating in June 1967, Bunch went straight into the Marines. He was killed in action at Khe Sanh on July 5, 1968.
In Ojai, opposition to the war was gradually increasing. But most people still viewed the Peace Vigil protesters as unpatriotic or worse, and feelings ran high. “I got my mailbox blown up once,” Landon says.
Richard Laubly, another Landon student, caused a major ruckus by resigning from the Parks and Recreation Commission to start a Ventura College chapter of the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society. His SDS chapter never really got off the ground, but he caught considerable flak just for making the effort.
“When I resigned from the Parks and Recreation Commission to join SDS, it stirred up a lot of that conservative sentiment,” says Laubly, now an education trainer based in Paris. “My father, who taught at Ojai Elementary, was threatened with losing his job, for example.”
Despite all the hostility, Ojai’s anti-war protesters continued to march through the Pergola with their placards, and the long-hairs and dopers continued to line the Wall with their freak flags flying. The structure seemed to symbolize hippie defiance.
“It was decided that it would be wise to eliminate that symbol and show them who’s boss,” Steve Olsen says, relating the story as he has heard it. “So a group of local citizens decided to take it into their own hands, and placed dynamite and blew it up.”
On October 28, 1968, a little before 4 a.m., someone dropped an explosive device into the hole created by the first blast 10 months earlier. This time, the vandals did a more thorough job: The explosion fractured the Pergola’s west arch. The City Council immediately condemned it and had it partially demolished, for safety reasons. Fingers pointed to the usual suspects.
“They tried to blame it on us,” Barraza said. “We didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Indeed they did not. No one ever was arrested in connection with the blast, but Ojai is after all a small town. Before long, everyone thought they knew the main bomber’s identity. And he was no hippie.
“I heard it was Pete Rowe who did it with half a stick of dynamite, and that Gar Jenks [of the Civic Association] put him up to it,” Barraza says.
Vince France, who later served as Ojai’s police chief, says he doubts that Jenks had anything to do with it. Concerning Rowe, France chooses his words carefully. “My theory would be Pete,” he says. “But it’s only a theory.”
Mike Cromer says his lips are sealed.
“I don’t have a theory, I know exactly what happened, and I’m going to take it to the grave,” he says, with a chuckle. “I wasn’t involved, but I had close friends who were.”
Peter Rowe died in 2008 at the age of 70. Many stories are told about this colorful character, but his biggest claim to fame was his supposed role in the Pergola bombing.
“He was a cowboy-type guy, and he was very tough,” Manuel Saenz recalls.
There’s no doubt that the bombers were short-hairs who wanted to strike a blow at the hippies. But Barraza thinks there was a wider conspiracy at work. His theory — and it’s a popular one in Ojai — is that the bombers were given a green light by the powers that be, who wanted an excuse to demolish the entire Pergola. That would deprive the hippies of their fortress, and make it easier for the police to see what was going on in the park.
Another possible motive for getting rid of the Pergola was that city planners wanted to open up the park with a plaza and a fountain as part of Ojai’s ambitious downtown redevelopment effort. The Pergola was old and in the way.
Jack Fay recalls no collusion between the city establishment and whoever bombed the arch. The Pergola was falling apart due to its age, he says, and the bomb accelerated the process.
“The damage to the structure had made it a danger to the public,” he says. “So the city proposed removing it and not replacing it.”
But a vigorous new protest movement sprang up, with the aim of preserving or replacing the Pergola as part of Edward Libbey’s original vision for Ojai. For two and a half years the battle raged, while the new plaza was constructed, and the mutilated Pergola continued to deteriorate. Finally, on March 2, 1971, the Civic Association conveyed ownership of the venerable structure to the city, which quickly made its move. The bulldozers rolled during the early morning hours of March 4, when the protesters were still asleep.
“The city struck at dawn, and had the job done before anybody got wind of it,” Fay recalls with a chuckle.
After 54 years on Ojai Avenue, Edward Libbey’s Pergola was no more.
“It was like a commando thing,” France says. “People woke up and it was gone.”
But at least one unidentified hippie noticed what was happening and moved to retaliate. That same morning, he took a sledgehammer to a newly constructed brick wall near the Ojai Library, a block west of the Pergola. After doing considerable damage, he spray-painted a defiant message on the vandalized structure: “A Wall for a Wall!”
The Pergola’s demise foreshadowed the end of an era. By 1973, the U.S. had withdrawn its forces from Vietnam, and the counterculture was on the wane. There were still hippies around, but they were increasingly difficult to distinguish from the car guys.
“The hippies won in the long run,” Saenz says, “because two years later everyone had long hair.”
So, fast-forward to 1997. Civic Center Park is now Libbey Park and downtown Ojai is a jewel, thanks to the city’s redevelopment efforts. But local history maven David Mason knows something is missing: The Pergola.
Mason’s restoration campaign had been stymied for years by several longtime City Council members. They remembered all too well the events of 1967 through 1971, when the Pergola was a perpetual battleground and an impediment to the police.
“I had to wait until the last one retired from the Council,” Mason says.
Then he went to work, with help from David Bury, Joan Kemper and others. On July 4, 1999, the brand-new Pergola was dedicated. It was a faithful replica of the original in every important respect, except one: the Wall was missing. The spaces between the pillars were left unobstructed. “The police preferred not having a wall there, so we took that out,” Mason says.
The former short-hairs, now middle-aged and longer-haired, did not object to the Pergola’s restoration. “I think it was the correct thing to do, absolutely,” says Mike Cromer, who these days presides over his sprawling Rancho Grande guest ranch in Rose Valley, while his daughter Michele Cromer-Bentivolio runs Bodee’s.
As it happens, the City Council that dedicated the new Pergola included two members of Nordhoff’s Class of 1967: ex-jock Steve Olsen and ex-hippie Suza Francina.
Rebuilding the Pergola “brought a feeling of wholeness and harmony back to that part of our downtown core,” Francina says. “I think for those of us living in Ojai in the 1960s this was a conciliatory moment that brought closure and harmony to the community.”
(Further evidence of closure: The bronze plaque bolted to the new Pergola’s west arch lists the many “community donors” that contributed to the project. Buried in the middle of this long list is a cryptic, Pynchonesque reference to “the O.V.D.A.” Apparently this was a conciliatory moment for the Ojai Valley Dopers Association, too.)
Both Francina and Olsen served terms as mayor while they were on the Council. They have not always seen eye to eye politically, but both agree that Ojai has put the trauma of ’67 behind it. Many contentious issues still divide the town, and the debate often gets heated. But it seldom gets physical.
“As time went on, everyone reconciled,” Olsen says. “I don’t see any negative. I see that we have healed from any of those issues 100 percent.”
For Susie Arce, the 44 years that have passed since the Summer of Love also measure her career at Nordhoff, where she is retiring this June as assistant principal. She too sees Ojai as a different place today.
“People have learned to work together in many ways,” Arce says. “The hostility is gone, I think.”
Vince France, now retired from the force and living in Porterville, makes a similar point. “I think everybody mellowed,” he says. “I know I have.”
Meanwhile, the hippies are back in the park, and nobody seems to mind. Of course there are far fewer than in 1967, and they’re better behaved. They no longer seem like the heralds of change; more like artifacts from a lost past. Some of the older ones may share Doc Sportello’s predicament in Inherent Vice, “caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into the darkness … how a certain hand might reach terribly out of the darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”
Ben Barraza, now 74 and living in Phoenix with his daughter, has known some hard times since the Summer of Love. But he still looks back fondly on his reign as the King of the Hippies.
“I loved those times,” he says. “It was exciting.”
Judy Evans also lives in Phoenix but is divorced from Ben, and she is not at all nostalgic about the Sixties.
“The aftermath was that people who were hippies ended up becoming drug addicts,” she says. “There weren’t any real good outcomes that I can see. I don’t see that anything was accomplished.”
But the hippie movement did accomplish something in Ojai. It helped save the town from the creeping urbanization that seemed so unstoppable in 1967. The political coalition that stopped the freeways and stymied the developers and thwarted the mining companies has many components, but it rests at bottom upon an alliance between well-to-do retirees and green-minded activists. The latter might not be hippies per se, but they tend to draw inspiration — and some of their tactics — from the Sixties counterculture. Over the years, they have applied that activism to the essentially conservative project of keeping Ojai pretty much the way it is. And the town’s old-school conservatives, such as ex-Mayor Huckins, seem reasonably pleased with the results.
Huckins, long retired from politics and from his medical practice, now says that all that talk about riots and bombings was greatly exaggerated. “We always had a fair number of hippies,” he says. “The majority were local. They never caused any trouble. They were mostly good kids.”
Ojai of course has changed quite a bit since 1967, and not always for the better. But, remarkably, it remains a small town surrounded by ranches and orange groves, offering a serene haven to its fortunate residents — including those latter-day hippies who still cavort in the park.
“It’s a quiet little town,” Huckins says. “It was, it still is, and as far as I’m concerned it always will be.”
Krishnamurti at the Oak Grove. When Jiddu Krishnamurti first arrived in Ojai during the summer of 1922, he was already the leader of his own worldwide religious organization, the Order of the Star. During his 1922-23 visit, he spoke at the Hollywood Bowl to an audience of over 16,000 followers. In 1924 he began giving talks in Ojai at the Oak Grove (above), which continued until his death in 1986. Krishnamurti established his Ojai home at Arya Vihara (below), making Ojai one of four worldwide centers for his teachings. He held many discussions and private interviews at Arya Vihara. Among those who visited Krishnamurti here were Annie Besant, Charlie Chaplin, Aldous Huxley, Jonas Salk, John Lennon, Greta Garbo, Igor Stravinsky, D.H. Lawrence, and David Bohm.
The above is an excerpt from Ojai: A Postcard History, by Richard Hoye, Tom Moore, Craig Walker, and available at Ojai Valley Museum or at Amazon.com.
Architect Richard Neutra by David Mason, Ojai Valley News, May 5, 2000
“I shall never live with fewer worries, never have time to develop ideas. I wish I could get out of Europe and get to an idyllic tropical island where one does not have to fear the winter, where one does not have to slave, but finds time to think and more importantly, to be a free spirit.”
— Richard Neutra December 8, 1919
Richard Neutra would not only surprise America with his exciting designs in architecture, but he would find himself being the talk of a small town in Southern California.
Commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. James Moore to design their unique Ojai home, Neutra realized that the structure would indeed become one of the most famous of all his private dwellings. This, however, was not the first house Neutra designed in Ojai. In 1943 Howard Bald had used the talented architect for his home in the East End of the valley. Bald had arrived in Ojai in the spring of 1900. He was 8 years old and ill from tuberculosis. The doctors had recommended that Bald be brought to Southern California for the mild climate. Bald would spend many years working for the Forest Service in the backcountry of Ventura County.
Far from the valley, Neutra was born in Vienna in 1892; and, before coming to America, he had attended the Technische Hochschule in Vienna and the University of Zurich. In 1923, he won an international award for an architectural drawing he had done, and the prize enabled him to travel to the United States. Upon his arrival in America, Neutra spent a short time working with the famous Frank Lloyd Wright.
Neutra was well-influenced by Wright, with his ideas that the concept for each house be of the open plan and extend beyond the boundaries of the house itself and into the surrounding landscape. This plan would eventually be the important element that made Neutra famous.
In 1925, Neutra and his wife Dione settled in the golden state of California. The state became much more dazzling as the striking homes designed by Neutra began to appear on the lush hillsides.
Neutra’s reputation did not become fully established until the first Lovell house in Griffith Park was completed in 1929. As the first steel-framed house built in the International Style in the United States, the Lovell house is of unparalleled historical significance. It’s also known as “Health House,” derived from the fact that Neutra’s client, Dr. Philip M. Lovell, who was a fitness expert, wanted to build a house that would symbolize physical well-being. To this end, he invited those interested in the project to visit him as soon as the house was completed; and Neutra conducted the tours, which resulted in more than 15,000 people being able to see and admire it personally.
Before World War II, very few commissions for buildings had been awarded to architects of the Modern Movement, although the Modernist aesthetics had been deemed acceptable for functional buildings, such as factories. After the war this changed, and one of the reasons was the psychological desire to leave the past behind and go on to things that were new. The people were beginning to respond to the modern designs, having become tired of buildings that appeared to be old-fashioned in style. By the 1950s, all of America was wanting to look to the future.
Neutra’s designs became less heroic and more serene than some other Modernists of the period.
The Bald house was basically rectangular in shape, single-story with a flat roof. To take advantage of its sweeping view of the whole valley, the west side of the house was built primarily of floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
For the highly-acclaimed Moore house, Neutra integrated the building within the landscape. The scale of the windows in which it was sheathed meant that during the daytime the landscape became an integral living component of the interiors; and at night, throwing out its light, the house acted like a beacon on the mountainside. Taking full advantage of the serene beauty of the landscape in which it is situated.
The low-lying building did not attempt to compete with the visual power of the mountains but to exert a quiet aura and potency of its own. In this house, Neutra adopted an idea that he had successfully exploited earlier—frame-less, mitered, glass joints in the corners of rooms—to allow the maximum amount of light to enter the house, and to provide a completely uninterrupted view of the surrounding mountains. The distinction between the interior and the exterior has been all but abolished by the use of glass walls.
Neutra’s buildings received considerable attention and media exposure during the 1950s, both in America and abroad; and, in the field of domestic architecture, he was clearly the most celebrated and influential figure of that time.
Today, these two outstanding examples of Richard Neutra’s architectural designs are an important part of the Ojai Valley. Neutra is but one of the many contemporary architects who worked their magic in the valley. The design period of the 1940s and ’50s warrants closer attention and deserves greater respect.
Note: Richard Neutra had some connections with another Ojai resident, Krishnamurti. Neutra’s early patron, Kees Van Der Leeuw, had helped organize Krishnamurti’s talks in Ommen, Holland. The Moore’s, whose house Neutra designed in Ojai, moved to Ojai because of Krishnamurti. Neutra’s son, Raymond, attended Krishnamurti’s first school in Ojai–the Happy Valley School. Neutra once gave a talk at Happy Valley School on the psychology of modern architecture; his wife played cello in the background.
Beatrice Wood was a ceramicist, who lived in the Ojai Valley for fifty years. During the First World War, she made what was to be a lifetime acquaintance with Marcel Duchamp. He was a leader of New York Dada, and a pivotal figure in the history of modern art. He was also the painter of Nude Descending a Staircase, which was such a scandalous success at the Armory Show in 1913. Beatrice Wood, at the same time, was an accomplished artist on her own merits, as a ceramicist and author, an actress and dancer, who also drew compelling line drawings.
Beatrice was born in San Francisco on March 3, 1893; but by 1900 was in Paris, attending a convent school, about which she retained pleasant memories. “I learned to read French before I learned to read English,” she recalled. She received an excellent education at the Ely School in New York City and the Shipley School at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She studied drawing at the Julien Academy in Paris and also attended the Finch School in New York City. After all this education, she announced that she wished to live a “bohemian life of an artist and paint in Paris.”
Paris was an exciting place to be. She attended the riotous premiere of the Ballet Russe production of Le sacre du printemps. She then joined the French National Repertory Company in New York City, where she appeared in over sixty parts. It was about this time, in 1916, that she met the composer Edgard Varese, who introduced her to Marcel Duchamp and other members of the New York Dada group.
Duchamp encouraged her to draw, and she produced impressive line drawings. One of the drawings was of a stick figure, thumbing its nose as it strode along. It was used for a poster to advertise a Blindman’s Ball. The jaunty figure followed her till the end of her days.
Beatrice’s life changed in the 1920s when she became a member of the Theosophical Society, which she joined in 1923. It was this interest which first brought her to the Ojai Valley. Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher and teacher, at the time associated with the Theosophical Society, was rapidly gaining worldwide attention; and he selected the Ojai Valley as a location for his teaching in the United States. Beatrice Wood came to the valley to attend his first “Star Camp” meeting in 1928.
Beatrice led folk dances at the Star Camp. She had danced professionally in Europe and received lessons from Ivan Clustine, the choreographer for the great ballet dancer Ana Pavlova. Beatrice’s demonstration of her mastery of the dances taught to her by Clustine was performed in the presence of the renown dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Beatrice was also an acquaintance of the famous dancer Isadora Duncan.
Beatrice developed an interest in ceramics in 1928. She wanted to produce a teapot to match some “luster” plates she had purchased in Holland. “Luster” refers to a metallic finish, simulating silver or gold. The project was more extensive than she thought, and in time she found herself successfully in the profession of a ceramicist. Her works were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as early as 1940.
Her workshop and home, located in the San Fernando Valley, were destroyed by a flood in 1938. Ten years later, she moved to the Ojai Valley, where she settled on March 3, 1948 (her birthday). The nearby Happy Valley School, with a founding board of directors which included Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti and Annie Besant, attracted her attention. She was associated with the Happy Valley Foundation for the rest of her life. Her ceramic work then entered what has been described as “a mature expression of her luster glazing technique.” She didn’t think of herself as a chemist, but she was very methodical about testing different chemical formulas for glazes. She also worked with Otto and Vivika Heino, who where themselves noted ceramicists.
Another great change occurred in her life, when she was selected as a “Goodwill Ambassador” to India by the U.S. government in 1961. She visited India, where her works were exhibited in fourteen Indian cities. She also took up the cause of promoting India’s traditional handicrafts. Before long, she took to wearing Indian saris and heavy and abundant Indian necklaces and bracelets. Her appearance was striking, but her explanation was simply that the saris were very comfortable.
During the final three decades of her life, her works were exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. Her book, The Angel Wore Black Tights, was published in 1982. Her autobiography, I Shock Myself, was published in 1985. She received a variety of awards from universities and arts councils. A documentary about her life, Mama of Dada, was shown on public television in 1995.
One of her great achievements was her longevity. Her 90th birthday was celebrated in Los Angeles in 1983 with a Dada Ball. Her 100th birthday was celebrated in 1993; and even through these final years, she was still creatively productive. On March 3, 1998, she celebrated her 105th birthday. She died at her home in the upper Ojai Valley a little over a week later on March 12, 1998.
“He traveled the world for sixty-five years and spoke to more people than anyone else in modern history. His name was J. Krishnmaurti.”
-From the 1989 documentary film, With a Silent Mind
Jiddu Krishnamurti was born on May 12, 1895, in south India to middle-class Brahmin parents. For more than sixty-five years, until his death at age ninety, he traveled the world speaking to large audiences, not as an authority but as a lover of truth. He engaged in dialogues with religious leaders, scientists, teachers, authors, psychologists, students, celebrities and other interested people.
Many years ago, Krishnamurti told a friend, “If I had nowhere to go in the world, I would come to Ojai. I would sit under an orange tree; it would shade me from the sun, and I could live on the fruit.” He first came to the Ojai Valley in 1922 with his brother Nityananda, who had tuberculosis and needed to live in a warm, dry climate.
The Ojai Valley of the 1920s, 30s and 40s was quite different than it is today. The population was smaller, the roads were unpaved, no doors were locked, and there was no traffic. World War II hardly touched the valley, and its stillness and unspoiled splendor soothed most of the people who came here. Krishnamurti also loved the untouched beauty, the tranquility, and the climate of the valley. Ojai offered him relief from crowds of people who flocked to hear him speak in Europe, India, Australia and throughout the United States.
Krishnamurti’s life in the valley was quiet. Wearing a large Mexican hat to shade him while walking, he mingled and sang songs with the orange pickers working in the East End groves. He walked all through the hills and to the top of the Topa Topa ridge and Chief Peak. He went to the Ojai Theater, if a Disney movie, animal film, or American musical classic such as “Oklahoma,” ” Brigadoon,” or “Annie Get Your Gun” was playing.
Some have said that Krishnamurti indirectly established the intellectual and social climate of the Ojai Valley. From his earliest days here, he attracted people from all over the world who traveled here to interview him and attend his yearly talks in the Oak Grove in Meiners Oaks. Among those were Aldous Huxley and Dr. David Bohm, Jackson Pollack, Christopher Isherwood, and Ann Morrow Lindbergh. Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Elsa Lanchester, Greta Garbo, and Charles Laughton also came to the valley to hear him, as his reputation grew worldwide.
Krishnamurti met with everyone – famous or unknown, intellectual or not – listening and asking questions about the deeper issues of life that are relevant to all people. Those thought-provoking discussions and talks were initially recorded as verbatim reports, and in later years on audio and video tapes. But most people have come to know of these teachings through books.
In 1969, Krishnamurti and a group of trustees formed the Krishnamurti Foundation of America (KFA). Today, the KFA is part of a group of Krishnamurti foundations in England, Latin America, Canada, and India, with committees of the foundations located throughout the world. These organizations had, and still have, the unambiguous purpose of preserving, protecting, and disseminating Krishnamurti’s teachings. He asked that this new foundation and the existing foundations do nothing to interpret or explain the teachings. The dialogues hosted by all the foundations offer a process of inquiry into issues of life and living.
Today, the KFA is still thriving, with many people coming to stay at the Krishnamurti Retreat, located in the East End. The turn-of-the-century California ranch house had been Krishnamurti’s home in the Ojai Valley for many years, and has recently been refurbished for visiting guests who come to explore the depth of the teachings or to simply be alone and quiet. Situated among eucalyptus, cypress and cedar trees, the house is next door to the Krishnamurti Archives building and the Krishnamurti Library.
In 1973, Krishnamurti articulated plans to open a school in Ojai similar to those he founded in India and England. He asked R.E. Mark Lee, the former principal of the Rishi Valley Junior School in south India, to come here with his wife, Asha, and their daughters. Lee would be the founding director of the new school and develop it on the 175 acres of virgin land on Lomita Avenue in Meiners Oaks.
In 1975, the Oak Grove School opened with three students and two teachers in Arya Vihara, the rambling ranch house on McAndrew Drive that had been Krishnamurti’s home from the 1920s. The school moved to the Meiners Oaks property in 1977. A warm family atmosphere prevailed, with everyone helping with the maintenance of the house and property. Asha Lee organized the kitchen and garden, and looked after the many guests who came from all over the world. Later, Alan Hooker of the Ranch House joined her. Michael Krohnen was trained as the school and foundation chef, later writing the renowned Kitchen Chronicles: 1001 Lunches with J. Krishnamurti.
Krishnamurti talked with the staff about the ancient gurukul educational concept in India in which students came to the home of a teacher to learn and participate in all activities of living. Currently present at Oak Grove School is this holistic learning concept, balancing high academic achievement with a nurturing atmosphere that helps children mature and flourish with affection and intelligence. A family setting still exists at the school, with students and parents working closely together to create one environment for children.
Today there are nine schools founded by Krishnamurti – seven throughout India, one in Brockwood Park, England, and the Oak Grove School in Ojai. In establishing these many schools, Krishnamurti envisioned that education should emphasize the integral cultivation of the mind and the heart, not mere academic intelligence. For those decades that he engaged in dialogues with teachers and students, he intended to bring home the understanding that it is only in the freedom from conditioning that true learning can take place.
In the last twenty years of Krishnamurti’s life, he would spend three or four months a year in the Ojai Valley as a respite from India, where he had a full schedule of talk and travels. He spent his days walking, gardening, resting, seeing friends, and conducting just a few interviews before the annual May talks in the Oak Grove. He was very involved with the KFA and Oak Grove School, and would often meet with staff and parents to discuss and explore those issues at the heart of the school’s work.
Ultimately, Jiddu Krishnamurti’s affection for the Ojai Valley was expressed in his wish at Madras in January of 1986, when his health was failing. Asking to get back to Ojai as quickly as possible, he arrived tired and weakened after traveling via Singapore and Tokyo to Los Angeles. Krishnamurti died at the age of ninety on February 17, 1986.