In 1981, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual leader from India, and thousands of his disciples moved to Wasco and Jefferson Counties. On what had been the Big Muddy Ranch, the “sannyasins” set out to build a new city, a utopian community in the desert -- Rajneeshpuram.
Thousands of people from around the world gathered here to celebrate life. They worked hard and transformed the landscape. And more than a few hoped to spend the rest of their days at this place.
But by 1986, they were gone.
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"If you live in the country you kinda like the country to remain the way it is." (Bernie Smith, former Wasco County District Attorney)
Many of the Rajneeshees came from overseas, and most from urban backgrounds. They were vegetarians, now living among ranch people and small-town retirees in central Oregon cattle country. The two cultures were foreign to each other, and ultimately they would clash.
"I think there were a lot of masters and maybe doctor's degrees out there. It didn't mean they had any horse sense. They were pretty illogical about a lot of things." (Margaret Hill, former Mayor of nearby Antelope, Oregon)
As the Rajneeshee planners began to slog their way through the rules and regulations of local government, problems arose. As the new people encountered the slow-grinding wheels of bureaucracy - the building codes and zoning restrictions and other land-use regulations -- the sannyasins' patience grew thin. Confrontation and rude behavior followed.
The Rajneeshees took over the town of Antelope. Their leadership declared the local people to be bigoted and threatening. And Bhagwan's open disdain for Christianity did not play well in the new conservative, Christian environment.
"At some point people stopped talking, and they just started screaming. Nothing is going to get done in that environment, and nothing got done." (Milt Ritter, former news videographer)
In the span of four-and-a-half years, Bhagwan's people invested more than 50 million dollars in Rancho Rajneesh. They made substantial improvements to the land,. Many found real joy in being close to their spiritual master and part of the Rajneeshpuram community. But they ultimately would walk away from it all.
Twenty-five sannyasins would be convicted of crimes: arson, wiretapping, immigration fraud, election fraud and attempted murder. Ten would serve time in prison.
At the end of it all, Wasco County Judge Bill Hulse predicted (correctly) that somebody would write a book about what had happened there: "The people who read that book,” he said, “will think it's fiction."
© 2013 Oregon Public Broadcasting.