Growing Up on a California Commune - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Growing Up on a California Commune

Growing Up on a California Commune

By Mary Papenfuss

Grateful Dead


Because chasing a utopia comes at a price.

By Mary Papenfuss

When Maura McCoy was 10, she wore bells on her ankles, went to school when she felt like it and smoked pot. Nearly 50 years later, she’s looking back and sharing tales from her bohemian and bumpy past.

Color photo of Maura McCoy as a child

Maura with Don and Dana

Now working in film production in Los Angeles, Maura spent two years of her childhood on a legendary 690-acre commune at Rancho Olompali, 40 minutes north of San Francisco. Communers unspooled at wild parties, dancing to music from the often-visiting Grateful Dead while Owsley Stanley doled out his infamous LSD. Beatnik muse Neal Cassady chopped wood, and Timothy Leary pitched a tent. Maura’s commune family even posed for the photo of the Dead’s Aoxomoxoa album.Maura, her two younger sisters and 12 other children lived on a California commune in 1967. They were unapologetic “hippie kids,” she explains. “We reveled in it when we went into town. We were the cool kids,” she tells OZY.

Part reminiscence, part therapy for those who survived the 1960s, Olompali: A California Story is a portrait of what happens when noble ideals collide with practical realities — and unrestrained excess.A new documentary that Maura is producing with partner and filmmaker Gregg Gibbs now reveals that trippy past.

I wanted a family. I wanted a big place where the kids could all be together.

— Don McCoy, Maura’s dad

Maura’s dad, Don McCoy, founded the “Chosen Family” commune, using money he’d received from an inheritance.

Color photo of Maura as a girl playing outside

Maura McCoy, right.

“It started in disillusionment with what I was doing,” Don said in an interview years ago. He was struggling to be the “houseboat king” of Sausalito, renting floating homes in San Francisco Bay, as well as rehearsal space to local bands. “I found myself a lonely man,” he said, referring to the time after he’d split from his wife. 

The 22-room mansion in which they lived and their freethinking way of life soon caught the media’s attention and the public’s imagination — but as with many communes, the group’s utopian ideals eventually crashed and burned. The Chosen Family “turned out to be the best … and the worst. It got heavy,” Don said. So he concocted a plan to build a freewheeling utopia. “I wanted a family. I wanted a big place where the kids could all be together.” 

You rebel against what your parents did, no matter how radical.

— Maura McCoy

Maura ran with her pals on the former estate rented by her pop. She swam in the pool, rode horses, sporadically attended the commune’s “Not School” and had lots of fun.

But there was a downside. “I didn’t like the chaos,” she recalled. “People say children crave routine, and I very much agree with that. I felt vulnerable.” She adds, “You rebel against what your parents did, no matter how radical.”


The Olompali experiment ended after 600 days of spangly, heady freedom had been punctuated by two drug busts, a fatal traffic crash, the accidental drowning deaths of two children and a fire at the mansion.

“Something started to change,” recalled Noelle Barton, who moved to the commune at 16 with her mom, one of the three original adults. “But looking back, it was the best time of my life.”

Barton blames the commune’s downfall in part on freeloaders out for drugs, music, food and sex, noting that visitors weren’t always faithful to hippie ideals.

The film — which is being narrated by actor Peter Coyote — looks at the Chosen Family’s highs and lows. At a recent screening of an excerpt, onetime commune members were left in tears by what they saw.

“I think it was worth a try,” said a former resident. “It was really worth a try.” 


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