Historical Museum Explores Santa Barbara’s Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Mountain Drive, still alive

By Nick Welsh | October 6, 2022

This Dionysian-themed party scene was filmed for the movie seconds, with Rock Hudson, with Movie Wine Queen 1965 Leslie Hill shown in the grape vat, surrounded by Mountain Drivers. | Credit: Neely Family Collection, Gledhill Library, SB Historical Museum

Inasmuch as Mountain Drive’s exuberant experience of bohemian life still remains embedded in the historic Santa Barbara skyline, it’s like the orgy – The Hot Tubs! The wine is stalling! Naked people! – most of us have never been invited. But when Chris Ervin took over as archivist of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum nearly four years ago — fresh from Orange County — he had never even heard of Mountain Drive, the utopian society of 50 acres of creative mavericks who thrived. here between the late 1940s and early 1970s.

Credit: Chiacos Mountain Drive Papers, Gledhill Library, SB Historical Museum

“Eureka! by Ervin The moment came when the granddaughter of a Mountain Drive settler called, asking to hear her grandmother’s oral history. Ervin quickly discovered that there was not just one oral history in storage, but an entire box of Mountain Drive oral histories totaling approximately 30 hours. “It jumped out at me as something special,” he said. “It hit me in the face.” At the same time, the museum’s top brass – best known for its ultra-traditional take on local history – had encouraged Ervin to try something more daring. With this unexpected find, he was only too happy to oblige. From all of this grew the exhibit which opened at the museum on October 6, bringing the much-mythologized community of Mountain Drive – off the grid even before there was a grid to come out – back from the ashes from which it rose. .

Mountain Drive’s guiding hand was Bobby Hyde, a utopian writer and experimenter who extolled the virtues of living in and with nature with a passion bordering on eroticism. Hyde bought the land – then 50 acres of fire-scorched chaparral – for a song in 1940. After World War II, he and his wife and co-conspirator, Floppy Hyde, began looking for like-minded spirits who could fit into the brave new world they had in mind. Hyde came into contact with GIs returning from World War II who were enrolling in classes at Santa Barbara College, then located on the Riviera. Those he clicked with were offered one-acre lots for unheard-of $50 down payments, coupled with monthly payments of $50 whenever they could afford it. Hyde – who describes himself as a sculptor whose tool was a bulldozer – also offered to teach his new neighbors how to make adobe bricks and how to build improvised housing using these bricks in combination with building materials. recovered.

Credit: Neely Family Collection, Gledhill Library, SB Historical Museum

Before it was all done, around 40 structures would rise from this steep and rugged landscape. But much more than makeshift homes—there were as yet no building codes to limit their inventive notions of housing—the Hydes set out to create an entirely different culture. The Mountain Drivers, as they were called, were competent, creative, educated, self-sufficient and independent people. Many were artists. Many had seen action in the war. One – an optometrist with an office in town – was a former fighter pilot. He will design experimental aircraft upon his return. Later, he would also emerge as an evangelical champion of psychedelics.

Another vet had been stationed in Berlin, working for military intelligence. This cultural exposure would change him forever, and he would seek to pay for it by making wine on Mountain Drive and devising multiple festivities to be celebrated with maximum libation and hedonistic abandon.

Credit: Neely Family Collection, Gledhill Library, SB Historical Museum

Famously, there were the grape pedals with their grape pedal queens – no clothing involved. There was July 14 to celebrate, as well as the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, where haggis was served accompanied by as many pipers as could be cajoled. There were Renaissance fairs, cultural precursors to the summer solstice festival. There were the infamous Mountain Drive Pot Wars – duels of potters competing with each other – which drew such large crowds (3,000 people!) that firefighters felt the need to cancel the event in 1967. Music was everywhere; the drum circle was born on Mountain Drive and a hybrid known as “browngrass” – reflecting the primary color of local vegetation – evolved for those more inclined to pick and fiddle. Although not overtly political, the Mountain Drivers loved satirical warfare, creating what was known as “The Jack Ash Society” to do battle with the John Birch Society of the early 1960s. The Jack Ashers boasted, for example, of stopping the teaching of the Eskimo language in local schools and keeping whale blubber out of local butcher shops.

Mountain Drive was, to be clear, a fantasy fueled for, from and by the male imagination. The women had to be barefoot and pregnant or in the kitchen baking bread while the all-male members of the “Sunset Club” gathered to discuss the important matters of the day and, of course, drink. And they drank a lot. There was an “above the banks” club for residents who drove their cars to the side of the road after perhaps drinking too much heathen wine. The emotional hangovers experienced by children of alcoholics, however, are well known and far more lasting than the hangovers their parents thought they were. This was certainly the case for many children of the early Mountain Drivers. And for teenage girls, the experience of being groped by drunken older men at a kick of grapes was significantly less enjoyable than for those who did the groping.

Ervin teamed up with Elias “Lee” Chiacos, who in 1994 wrote what is still the definitive book on the Mountain Drive experience (Mountain Drive: Santa Barbara’s Pioneering Bohemian Community). Ervin had his gold mine of oral histories, but no photographs. Chiacos had tons. Somehow they managed to select 50 for the Memories of Mountain Drive exposure.

For Ervin, the exhibit reflects more than Santa Barbara’s consistent hospitality for communities determined to stay off the beaten path. (Santa Barbara’s Hobo Jungle, the Sunburst Community, and the short-lived Christania Monarchy all come to mind.) Ervin sees it more as a compelling lens through which to view the impact of World War II on Santa Barbara. “A lot of these people had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] before there was such a thing as PTSD,” he commented. “They had gone to Europe and returned determined to live their lives on their terms and not a buttoned-up, conservative, numbers-based lifestyle. That’s how they handled it. »

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