The Many Faces of Ogilvy Ranch

Lying several miles up from Mono Creek’s confluence with the Santa Ynez River, the Ogilvy Ranch has been an Indian village, a homestead, a cattle ranch, a family retreat, a commune, a paramilitary camp, a murder site, and an organic farm. Named for its third owner, Arthur E. Ogilvy, the ranch was acquired by William Walker in the 1950s. A San Francisco lumberman, Walker added a wooden cabin set against the hill.

In the early sixties, Jim Andros of Andros Floor Coverings, was on a trail ride in the backcountry when he spotted a cluster of ranch buildings in a shaded glen and thought the secluded ranch would make a perfect retreat for family and friends. He contacted his dentist buddy, Al Heimlich, and the two purchased the property almost sight unseen.

Jim and Al set about making improvements immediately. They cut a new road, re-shingled the Ogilvy Adobe, put up fences, and added wells to the one-windmill system. They planted 30 fruit trees and grew hay on forty acres. Jim ran over a hundred cattle on the ranch until the Forest Service caught on and issued a cease and desist order. Jim kept four horses on the ranch, and Al used to drag an old weapons carrier loaded with supplies behind his jeep. Since it was waterproof, the supplies made the numerous river crossings unscathed.

They used the ranch as a weekend getaway for friends and family. They hunted and fished and swam in the clear pools. A barbeque pit and picnic area underneath the old oak near the adobe saw many festive gathering over the years. Indian artifacts from the Sigvaya village were plentiful, and they found the remains of sweat houses. Just near the side of the road was a midden (refuse heap), and they found a mortar near the creek, but the 1969 flood tumbled the stone and it was lost.

Al and Jim hired a succession of caretakers to stay on the ranch. A master of understatement, Jim said, “These guys were unique individuals.” One caretaker nearly dissolved the adobe by leaving the sprinkler on all night; another extinguished the quail population, keeping the feathers in two large barrels; yet another disappeared for two weeks, surfacing in a dentist’s office in Los Angeles asking for Al Heimlich.

Their last caretaker was Little Joe, who lived in the board-and-batten cabin that Carl Stoddard had built back in 1900. Joe, a tiny man who wore a large black cowboy hat, ran the ranch and did some plowing. “Joe was neat as a pin in every way,” said Jim,” but look out when he was rip-roaring drunk!” One time Jim got a phone call from the Forest Service saying they’d just passed Little Joe heading out on a D4 bulldozer. Jim jumped in his truck and tore up Romero Canyon Road. He intercepted Little Joe riding high in the dozer just as he crested the mountain. Somewhat beyond tipsy, Joe raved about the beauty of the snow, which was actually dense fog.

After ten years of babysitting the caretakers, maintaining the remote property, and running their businesses in Santa Barbara, it became too much. They decided to sell. Jim liked one prospective buyer who claimed he was trying to save the lost generation of the 1960s by getting them off drugs and into a spiritual life. His name was Norm Paulsen.

Welcome to Lemuria

Norm was a former disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda and spent years searching for self-realization through Eastern meditation, Christianity and personal visions. Norm was convinced he was in contact with the Ancients, survivors of the sunken continent of Mu or Lemuria. After years of living in various locations in California and Nevada, Norm returned to work in the construction trade in Santa Barbara and taught meditation techniques.

A cadre of followers attached themselves to Norm and in 1969, they moved into an old ice cream factory at 808 East Cota Street where the Brotherhood of the Sun and Sunburst New Age Communities was founded. This community prohibited alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and premarital sex. They believed in promoting healthy lifestyles through organically grown foods and in 1970 established the first of their communal farms in the old lodge at Flores Flats off Gibraltar Road. In 1971, they added the Ogilvy Ranch and changed its name to Lemuria.

A 1974 brochure advertised that Sunburst was a Christian society whose goal was “to live a natural way of life ruled by the simple laws of Our Father.” At Lemuria, they renovated the 100-year-old buildings and added new adobes. They grew wheat and corn and planted orchards and vineyards for whose bounty they competed with the deer and bears and other wildlife. Percheron draft horses pulled plows.

Tended by nomadic goat herders living in tents, goats provided milk and cheese as well as wool. The commune grew herbs and built an adobe drying house. Bee hives provided honey, and a blacksmith’s shop provided tools and other metal implements. Eventually, Lemuria became a school center as well.

There were no modern forms of communication at Lemuria, so messages were sent via carrier pigeon. Jake Collier, who has been with Sunburst since 1972, says that Lemuria never achieved complete self-sufficiency, so Sunburst trucks drove in periodically to bring food and other supplies. In 1976, Sunburst acquired the Tajiguas Ranch near Gaviota and added another community. The organization developed an impressive natural foods empire during this time, owning 11 local businesses and four large parcels of land.

Late in 1978, things started to fall apart. Internal dissension and disillusionment caused two-thirds of the membership to leave. Penniless after years of labor for the common good, the disaffected members sued Sunburst for a share of its properties. The Lemuria contingent was ordered to move to Tajiguas in 1980. Caretakers were hired to tend the Ogilvy property until it could be sold.

Murder Most Foul

In 1981, James Arthur Howell, Lewis Price and his girlfriend, Gina Savio, were hired as caretakers of the ranch. Price brought along an extensive gun collection and his copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Trouble started immediately when Howell claimed Price’s .44 Magnum as his own. According to Gina Savio, Howell terrorized the couple by playing wildly with guns and telling gory stories about burning huts, raping women, and torturing and eating men in Africa where he’d supposedly been a mercenary. He often threatened the couple with violence. Howell claimed the mob was after him, that he’d seen Sasquatch tramping around the ranch, and that Sunburst-bred mutants watched the ranch and worshipped the devil.

In October 1981, Savio was inside the adobe cabin when she heard a shot. When she ran outside, she saw Price with a 9 mm pistol standing over Howell, who had been shot in the back of the head. Price claimed that Howell’s latest rantings had made him fear for his life. The couple shoved Howell’s dead body head first into a blazing outdoor oven and stoked the fire for two days to cremate the body.

When the Sunburst truck came by that Sunday, they told the driver that Howell had hiked out. Savio returned to Santa Barbara and eventually told her mother what had transpired. Her mother called the police, and Price was arrested and then convicted of murder.

Around 1982, Norm Paulsen called Jim Andros and asked if he’d like to buy his ranch back. Jim did so, but realized what a mess the place was and how expensive it would be to clean it up. In less than a year, he put it back on the market. In 1983-84 a savvy former farmer turned entrepreneur, James F. Brucker, snapped it up.

Brucker hired Chris Thompson, one of the founders of the organic Fairview Farms in Goleta, to be his caretaker. When Chris moved in, he found the remains of Sunburst’s activities, many of which were far removed from the idyllic and romantic “Walden Pond” descriptions of Sunburst’s 1974 brochure. Instead, Chris found evidence of Sunburst’s increasing paranoia that Armageddon was imminent.

In the middle of the meadow stood a half-built fort with gun ports around the top and an underground floor with sealable compartments. Up and down the road were observation pits with buzzers attached to wires running back to the ranch. Former members who came to visit the ranch told Chris that there had been a whole arsenal of weapons, and members undertook combat training and held daily target practice. Buzzers would sound when hikers and forest service personnel were in the area to warn the trainees to stop the gunfire and go back to tending bees or spinning wool. The paramilitary operation was abandoned quite suddenly, and without explanation, when Norm issued the order to turn in the guns and stop the military building.

Gina Savio also visited the ranch during Chris’s tenure. She brought with her a group of screenwriters who took photographs and explored. Gina sat in a corner and never uttered a word, however, and the movie was apparently never made.

A Brief Return to Paradise

When Chris moved onto the Ogilvy property in 1984, he set about creating a paradise of organic farming and self-sufficiency. He and his girlfriend grew all their own food as well as a cash crop of carrots and onions and garlic, which transported easily over the hot, dusty roads. He also grew oat hay and alfalfa for his two mules and saddle horse, planted pecan and pear trees, and brought back the older orchard trees on the property. Every two weeks, he’d go into town for supplies with a full load of produce or fruit or split wood to sell. James Brucker was very attached to the ranch and supported Chris’s work there. When he died in 1987 his ashes were spread over the ranch he loved. Today, his son Danny is sole owner of the ranch.

As there was no communication at the Ogilvy, the Forest Service was kind enough to give him a radio for emergencies. Like Sunburst before him, he used homing pigeons to get messages to his girlfriend and son when he was away from the ranch. It was an idyllic life. On hot days, he’d quit working around noon and play with Brody in the kiddy pool on the lawn. Every time it rained, they’d find beads on the road and sometimes arrowheads. Chris’s enterprises became hampered by a severe drought, however, and the wells couldn’t produce enough water.

When Chris’s son was three, he indicated that he wanted to be around other children, and Chris decided not to impose his lifestyle choice on his son. He moved back to Santa Barbara in 1989. Chris now farms on land off Franklin Ranch Road, an organic farm, which counts among its customers New Frontiers Natural Foods, the reincarnation of Sunburst Natural Foods. A subsequent caretaker at the Ogilvy bulldozed all evidence of Sunburst’s earlier activities.

In the 1990s, scientists declared the Arroyo Toad endangered, and the Forest Service closed the direct road into the Ogilvy Ranch. Now owners and caretakers had to use the Hildreth Fire Road to get to the ranch. This road was ten times as long; it was also rough, winding, and difficult. The Bruckers decided to remove everything from the ranch. Chris, who hikes in every few years, says almost all the orchard trees are gone except for his pecan trees. Although there is no permanent caretaker for the Ogilvy today, Danny Brucker goes back periodically to shore up the historic property, which spends most of its days alone and desolate, patiently awaiting its next transformation.

(Sources: interviews, Jim Blakley files, contemporary news articles, Sunburst: Return of the Ancients by Norm Paulsen, Sunburst: A People, a Path, a Purpose by Dusk and Willow Weaver. Special thanks to Jim Andros, Al Heimlich, and Chris Thompson, as well as Toni Damiano of the County Maps department.)