The Story of the Abandoned Movie Ranch Where the Manson Family Launched Helter Skelter

Curbed, Los Angeles/October 22, 2014

By Hadley Hall Meares

In the early evening on Friday, September 25, 1970, one of a series of Southern California wildfires reached a secluded old movie ranch off Santa Susana Pass Road near Chatsworth. Within an hour, the flames had consumed the buildings that once served as backdrops for B Westerns—the Longhorn Saloon, Rock City Café, the undertaking parlor, a barn, and a "jail." The destruction of the ranch made national news, but not because of the movies that had been filmed there since the 1940s. Twenty miles away, in the very different landscape of Downtown Los Angeles, members of a "family" that called the ranch home were being tried for seven brutal murders. Commonly known as the Tate-LaBianca murders, they had been planned by Charles Manson, the "father" of the family, who used the isolation of Spahn Ranch as one of many tools in his dangerous arsenal.

After Manson, who had been incarcerated frequently, was released from Terminal Island Federal Prison in Los Angeles in 1967, he travelled to San Francisco's legendary Haight-Ashbury district, the epicenter of the counterculture movement. The small guitar player with the hypnotic eyes began to lure displaced young people (disproportionately women) with promises of "family," enlightenment, and a home.

The family made its way to Los Angeles, using the communal, open-door attitude of the time to panhandle, collect food, bum rides, recruit new members, and obtain campsites and temporary homes. In Los Angeles, they lived in a variety of places, including "the yellow submarine," a small house on Gresham Street in Canoga Park, and a crash pad on Clubhouse Avenue in Venice. They also occasionally escaped to the Barker Ranch in Death Valley, which was owned by a family member's grandmother. Their grandest home was Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's log cabin-style mansion (once owned by Will Rogers) in Rustic Canyon. Wilson was initially intrigued by Manson's songs and philosophy. He also enjoyed the favors of Charlie's subservient "women," who did all the household chores, in the kitchen and the bedroom. But the group soon outstayed its welcome (Wilson estimated their stay cost him around $100,000, including a trip to a local sexual health clinic), and Wilson fled his own home.

After Wilson's manager evicted the family in August 1968, they decamped to Spahn Ranch, where some members had been living on and off since the spring. Until the family's arrival, the ranch had enjoyed relative anonymity because, as the LA Times put it, the "hard rock and rugged terrain on the rim of a fertile valley left the area virtually useless." After being homesteaded by a farmer named JR Williams in 1885, the ranch had gone through a number of owners, and may have been featured in early silent films. In 1947, a prominent Hollywood physician, Dr. Sharon M. Atkins, sold the 55-acre property to Lee and Ruth McReynolds. They opened a trading post and built a small Western movie town, hoping to attract some of the business from the popular Iverson Movie Ranch across the canyon. In 1953, George Spahn, accompanied by a no-nonsense ex-circus performer named Ruby Pearl, bought the ranch. Before leaving his old life behind, including his wife and eleven children, Spahn had operated out of a North Hollywood ranch as one of the main suppliers of livestock and Western props for motion pictures.

By 1968, when Manson arrived, Spahn was almost eighty, lonely, and nearly blind. Ruby still managed the property, but their personal relationship appears to have been over. Spahn allowed out-of-work stuntmen and ranch hands to live on the property in return for labor and companionship. Besides an occasional TV show, the ranch primarily made money off of holiday riders who rented horses. Once on a steed, visitors encountered a strange "path that led along a cool, trickling stream, past collapsing shacks with their inhabitants of out of work stunt cowboys and barefoot, ragged toddlers. Other trails led up through the hillsides, through groves of oaks, with their gnarled roots reaching into dry riverbeds, higher still to the rim of the rocks overlooking the smog shrouded valley."

The agreement between Manson and Spahn was simple. In return for a place to live, the family—especially Manson's girls—would help take care of the sprawling property and Spahn's needs. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme was assigned to be Spahn's "eyes" and de facto wife. The family of 13 or so women and five men, plus many visitors, caused little comment in the area. One Chatsworth census taker described it as "a place of Indian trails, boulders, rotten roads and individuals whose names in the register bore annotations such as 'he carries a gun,' 'don't approach suddenly' and 'very fierce dog.'" They were not even the first cult to inhabit the area. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Fountain of the World, a group led by a charismatic man who called himself Krishna Venta, had built a "monastery" in nearby Box Canyon. Charles Manson allegedly spent time at the monastery sometime before or after disgruntled ex-members blew most of it up in 1958, killing Venta and seven others.

Spahn Ranch became Manson's kingdom. Here he indoctrinated his followers through a series of acid trips, mandatory orgies, and hypnotic, repetitive lectures outlining "Helter Skelter," the race war he was determined to start. In the scenario Manson imagined, during "Helter Skelter"—which he named after a song on the Beatles's White Album—the black population would fight the white population. While a virtual Armageddon ensued, Manson and his followers would be deep underground, in a hole he claimed to have found in the desert. Eventually, the black population would emerge victorious, but they would find themselves unable to govern wisely. Then the family would come out of the hole, ride over the desert in custom-made dune buggies, and rule over the remainder of the earth's population.

The deserted landscape of Spahn Ranch was ideal for creating and racing dune buggies, stripping cars the family stole, and shooting guns in the creek bed. Convicted killer Susan Atkins would recount, "We were just like wood nymphs and wood creatures. We would run through the woods with flowers in our hair, and Charlie would have a small flute." At the same time, fellow convicted killer Leslie Van Houten remembered that, at the ranch, "I became saturated in acid and had no sense of where those who were not part of the psychedelic reality came from. I had no perspective or sense that I was no longer in control of my mind." According to Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the remoteness of the ranch was key to Manson's total control over his followers' actions:

There were no newspapers at Spahn Ranch, no clocks. Cut off from the rest of society, he created in this timeless land a tight little society of his own, with its own value system. It was holistic, complete, and totally at odds with the world outside."

But even at the ranch, Ruby Pearl and several ranch hands disapproved of the new tenants, repeatedly warning Spahn about the family and its creepy messiah. (One ranch hand, Donald "Shorty" Shea, would eventually be killed by Manson, his body found a mile from the ranch.)

On Friday August 8, 1969, according to Bugliosi's masterful book, Manson announced that it was time for Helter Skelter. Since, in Manson's warped mind, the black population was not smart enough to start the war, the family would have to antagonize the white population by framing black men for the murders of rich white people. After dinner, Manson told family members Susan Atkins, "Tex" Watson, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkle to go with Tex and do whatever he told them to do. The group got into a ranch hand's borrowed car. As they were pulling away, Manson stopped the car. "Leave a sign. You girls know what to write. Something witchy."

The group proceeded to another isolated house, 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, high in the mountains above Beverly Hills. (It had recently been occupied by Candice Bergen and the music producer Terry Melcher, who Manson believed had slighted his musical ambitions.) The French-style country house was soon a crime scene. The bodies of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, teenager Steven Parent, playboy Wojciech Frykowski, and heiress Abigail Folger were found by the maid the next morning. The word PIG was scrawled in Tate's blood on the door. So trusting were the inhabitants of the house that when the murderers walked by her room, Folger had waved to them, assuming they were simply coming to hang out. The next night, the horror was repeated with the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Feliz. This time Manson came along, but he left the killing to Tex, Krenwinkle, Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten. Their actions forever altered the landscape of Los Angeles. As one longtime resident said recently, "After the second murders, the gates went up all over the city."

It took months for investigators to tie the family to the crimes. Amazingly, many "family members" were arrested at Spahn Ranch only a few days after the murders—but for unrelated car theft allegations. Other members took off to two old haunts—the Barker and Myers ranches in Death Valley. So secluded were these barren homesteads that the road that led to them was nearly impassable, even for a four-wheel drive vehicle. On October 12, Manson was found hiding in a tiny cupboard at the Barker Ranch, where he was arrested for suspected auto theft. Those responsible for the murders were finally charged, and the subsequent trial became a media sensation. Shockingly, Spahn allowed family members, including Squeaky, to stay on the property, stating that he didn't want to judge all the "kids" based on a few bad apples.

After the fire, Spahn eventually moved back to North Hollywood, to live with the wife he had left many years before. The remaining family scattered, destined to commit more crimes and inhabit more jails. In 2008, authorities searched Barker Ranch for more suspected Manson victims, with inconclusive results. At Spahn Ranch, plans for a "European Tourist Center" on the property came to naught, as did the neighboring Church of Rocky Peaks's plans for a Christian daycare. Today, most of the overgrown land is owned by the state. There is nothing left of the ranch, but by the creek bed there is a tree with a rusted chain, twisted metal that looks like a sink, and a rock formation of an X, matching the X that Manson and his followers carved onto their foreheads during the trial. There are beer cans strewn about a cave the family took an infamous picture in, where someone has carved into a small boulder, "Manson Family Cave."

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