- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

NOVATO, Calif.

The ‘60s aren’t dead. They’re in an archaeological site north of San Francisco. An old commune where the Grateful Dead and other bands used to romp is being excavated and items cataloged by state park archaeologists at Olompali State Historic Park in California.

Among the artifacts: classic hippie beads, a marijuana “roach clip,” fragments of tie-dyed clothes, and a reel-to-reel tape a Marin County studio technician has promised to try to restore.

They are the stuff of memories for Noelle Olompali-Barton, who was 16 when she and her showbiz mother plunged into California’s new counterculture, retreating to this once-private ranch north of San Francisco to establish one of the first hippie communes.

The teenager baked bread to give away in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She sat with the Grateful Dead under an oak tree for a famous 1969 album photo.

For two intense, often drug-laced years, the commune nourished utopian dreams - and some bad trips, too, she said.

But never in her wildest hallucinations did the teen imagine that more than 40 years later, she would assist an archaeologist in identifying macrame headbands, old records and other commune artifacts retrieved from the abandoned ruins of her former home.

“You know you’re old when you’re pictured in Archaeology magazine,” Miss Olompali-Barton, now 58, said with a chuckle. She was profiled in that journal in July along with California state parks archaeologist E. Breck Parkman.

Sitting under oaks outside the park’s visitor center, Mr. Parkman laughed along with Miss Olompali-Barton, who has been using the ranch’s name as her own since she lived here.

The state of California bought Olompali in 1977 and opened a park on its 700 acres of oak-studded rolling hills.

Mr. Parkman knows some people might scoff at his project to catalog and display the artifacts of an era many remember well - or not so well if they were especially indulgent.

But the commune, he said, is as much a part of Olompali as the rest of its history, stretching back thousands of years.

“I see the commune as part of the Cold War,” he said. “If we hadn’t had the Cold War, we wouldn’t have had Vietnam, and if we hadn’t had Vietnam, we wouldn’t have had the commune. It was one of the reactions to the war.”

The years the commune existed, from late 1967 to 1969, were some of the most tumultuous and divisive in modern American history, Mr. Parkman said.

Prominent figures of the ‘60s visited the site - the Grateful Dead rented the ranch the year before the commune moved in - and hippie culture went on to have an indelible impact, for better or worse, on global culture, he said.

Olompali is also historically rich, Mr. Parkman said, because native Miwok Indians developed major settlements here. Olompali is Miwok for “southern village” or “southern people.”

The commune members were generally aware of some of the ranch’s heritage, including the Miwok, Miss Olompali-Barton said. Their ethos was to “get back to the land” and live simply with nature.

But acid rock was their soundtrack. In 1969, while many in the commune were working at a rock concert light show in San Francisco, an electrical fire broke out at the mansion and gutted it.

The fire was part of a downward spiral Miss Olompali-Barton blames on a decision to open the commune to more than a closely knit circle of families.

“There were the freeloaders who came,” she said, “who sat in the living room playing music and not helping at all.”

Police raided the commune twice and arrested members on drug charges. After the fire, two toddlers drowned in the ranch’s pool when a woman who was supposed to be watching them failed in her responsibility, Miss Olompali-Barton said.

The tragedy led to the commune’s collapse.

“I think there were some dark moments at Olompali,” Mr. Parkman said. But some of the commune’s counterculture ideals, he said, such as organic food and environmentalism, have become mainstream.

Miss Olompali-Barton’s mother, Sandra, was in her late 40s when she founded the commune, along with other older people with children and several Vietnam War combat veterans in their 20s.

Don McCoy, then 37, a local businessman with three children, bankrolled the experiment with a fortune he inherited and earned developing the Sausalito, Calif., houseboat marina.

Sandra Barton kept a foot in the “straight” world, performing as a singer at San Francisco hotels and clubs.

One of the commune women, Miss Olompali-Barton recalled, married an Air Force man and used to shop at the commissary of a Marin County base, hauling along a gaggle of home-schooled children in hippie garb.

Mr. Parkman said some commune children grew up to be angry at their parents, especially those who were given drugs or felt unprotected with strangers wandering nude.

But others cherish memories of freedom and fun and say they witnessed history.

“Anything groovy that’s created can exist, and then can dissolve,” Miss Olompali-Barton said.

c Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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