The news on KTVZ tonight about the former Rajneesh land being sold caught my ear and got me reflecting a bit on that particular period of weirdness in Central Oregon history. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a "dark day" in Oregon history like the interviewee on the news did, but it was definitely weird.
The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian (from India the country, not Native American) spiritual teacher who in 1981 came to Oregon, where his followers bought The Big Muddy ranch outside of Antelope and started a commune there. Naming the commune Rajneeshpuram, they attracted all sorts of attention among the locals, mostly negative.
Understand, this part of Oregon in the 80s was much more conservative and rural than now; the majority of the population was based in agriculture (farmers, cowboys) and operated on Good-Ol-Boy-ism. So the idea of a cult moving in and then taking over the town of Antelope was met with open hostility.
It didn’t help that the Rajneeshees had a number of odd practices and goings-on as well. They all wore red, for instance. They owned a large number of Rolls Royces and the Bhagwan would ride around in them everywhere. They carried machine guns in open sight.
And when I said they "took over" Antelope, I’m not kidding—they registered to vote there and got a referendum passed renaming the town to "Rajneesh." They were able to do this because some 7000 of them lived in the commune.
Sheela, the Bhagwan’s Number Two person, was a real piece of work. When authorities started investigating the Rajneesh commune, the crazy stuff came to light and Sheela and several leaders "were indicted and convicted of several crimes, including immigration fraud, wiretapping, first and second degree assault (poisoning) of two public officials, and the attempted murder of Rajneesh’s personal physician."
Sheela and the Rajneeshees also have the dubious honor of perpetrating the largest germ warfare attack in the history of the U.S., when they infected a salad bar in a restaurant in The Dalles with salmonella—sickening over 750 people.
The Bhagwan went on the run and was caught back east in North Carolina and deported. The sheriff or whoever who was involved in the capture appeared on the news, drawling, "We caught us a Bag-wahn from Ory-gun."
Strange days, indeed.