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The Spahn Ranch: From Hoss Cartwright to Charles Manson



If there was any one watershed event that could be attributed to bringing about an end to the “peace & love” hippie movement, it would be the heinous murder spree of Charles Manson and his devoted followers.  During the sixties, the counter-culture inspired hippies tended to reject the conservative beliefs held by their parents.  These beliefs were forged by hardships experienced by their respective parents during both the Great Depression and World War II.  The hippie movement was about social non-conformity and the possession of a different outlook on morality than the previous generation.  The movement spread out during the mid-sixties from both the San Francisco Bay area and New York City’s Greenwich Village.  By 1968, hippie fashion and music had reached the main stream of both American and Western European culture.  The crescendo of the movement occurred in upstate New York during August 1969, as 500,000 people attended the idyllic Woodstock Music Festival.  

The most important film of the era was Easy Rider, a 1969 film directed by Dennis Hopper which starred Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Hopper as peaceful hippies on a journey to discover both themselves and America.  It caught the mood of the times as the protagonists fought with rednecks and out of touch policemen during their road trip adventure.  At that point in time, hippies were generally viewed in a somewhat positive light.

That image began to change in December 1969, as the seams of the movement began to crack. During the month, the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco ended up in a chaotic, drug induced nightmare of violence. Also in December 1969,  California authorities made the first arrests in the horrific Tate / LaBianca murders. The Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, California was the base of operations used by Charles Manson and his followers during their 1969 murder spree.  The Manson Family case can be regarded as a metaphor for the end of innocence of the decade of peace and love.

Manson, who studied Scientology while incarcerated in the Los Angeles County jail, moved to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district after his release in March 1967.  There he became a self-professed guru and assembled a number of spaced-out female runaways that were looking for love, attention and guidance.  When he arrived at the Spahn Ranch in the summer of 1968, the Manson Family included approximately 30 young women as well as Manson and five other men.

During the early stages of the trial, the underground press supported Manson and the family. They were viewed as victims of a repressive, capitalist society. However, as the trial proceeded and the family's behavior grew publically more erratic, that support ceased.

In October 2014, I decided to travel to Chatsworth to explore what remains of the Spahn Ranch. Maybe I did it out of curiosity or possibly as an effort to get a better understanding of what took place there during 1969.  The place was quite scenic with remnants of the old stage trail still apparent.  The solitude and desolation of the ranch (now a state park) stood in stark contrast to the rambunctious days of 1969.  However the peaceful atmosphere of the ranch still held the spark of some unknown form of misguided energy.



The Spahn Ranch:


The infamous and now-desolate Spahn Ranch is located at 12000 Santa Susana Pass Road in Chatsworth, California.  Santa Susana Pass was named by Spanish settlers to honor St. Susana, a 3rd Century Catholic martyr.  The rugged trail through the Santa Susana Pass was initially used as a transportation link between the settlements of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Stage Coaches began using Santa Susana Pass during 1861 after the state of California spent $15,000 on necessary trial improvements. 

The Homestead Act of 1862, provided that any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land in areas west of the Mississippi River. In 1897, James Williams would stake his claim to section of the lands that would later become part of the Spahn Ranch.  

As movie production companies moved to Southern California, actor William S. Hart bought the Williams property and began using it as a ranch for stabling his movie horses.  In 1946, the ranch was used to film the David O. Selznick classic Duel in the Sun, which starred Gregory Peck.  Hart sold the ranch in 1948 and it passed through several owners before being purchased by Pennsylvania native George Spahn in 1953. Spahn followed the lead of other area ranchers and began using the rugged and desolate landscape of his Santa Susana Mountain ranch as a rental location for both motion picture and television production.

Spahn constructed a replica western town on his property which included The Longhorn Café and The Rock City Saloon, along with other buildings representative of the old west time period.  The Spahn Ranch was used in the filming of the television series Bonanza (1959 – 1973), Zorro (1957 – 1959), and The Lone Ranger (1949- 1957).  In 2002, Bonanza, a warm-hearted tale of the post-Civil War adventures of the Cartwright family, was ranked Number 43 in TV Guide's “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time”, and in 2013 TV Guide included it in its list of “The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time.”

There were also a number of “B-grade” movies mixed in with a few pornographic films filmed at ranch.  Unfortunately, as the sixties came to a close, the demand for western-themed entertainment productions had all but dried up.  The Los Angeles Times described the future plight of the ranch as "hard rock and rugged terrain on the rim of a fertile valley left the area virtually useless."



The Manson Family:

In August 1968, Charles Manson and his followers were evicted from their tumultuous stay at the Rustic Canyon home of Beach Boy’s drummer Dennis Wilson. The family moved to the Spahn Ranch and agreed to help keep the property maintained in lieu of paying rent.  With the movie filming production business slowing down, the ranch primarily made money by renting horse rides through the property.  The ranch offered a number of scenic trails through the mountains and valleys that predominated the area.  The remains of the stage coach trail built in 1861 still ran though the property and was bordered on its south side by a dry creek.  There was also a corral located adjacent to the western town that was used for riding instructions.   The Manson Family assisted with the horse rides and family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme would serve as the 80 year-old Spahn’s de-facto wife. She received her nickname based on the "squeak" she made when the blind Spahn would rub her thigh.

On September 5, 1975, Fromme would point a Colt 1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol at President Gerald R. Ford while he was making an appearance at Sacramento’s Capitol Park.  Secret Service officers wrestled her to the ground before she was able to fire the weapon.  Fromme would spend 35 years in Federal Prison for her crime.

In July 1969,  the Mason Family  began their uncategorized reign of terror with the brutal murder of 31 year-old music teacher Gary Hinman. He was found stabbed to death in his Topanga Canyon home with the words "Political Piggy" daubed on the walls with his own blood. Promising musician and Manson associate Robert Kenneth "Bobby" Beausoleil was arrested by Los Angeles Police and charged with Hinman's murder.  In 1970, Beausoleil received a death sentence (later commuted to life imprisonment) for the crime.  He is still incarcerated in the California Penal System.

Over the years, Charles Manson had developed Armageddon-inspired visions of a nihilistic race war in which the black population would rise-up and murder the white citizens of the world.  He told his followers that they would go into hiding in a deep hole in the California desert during the war.  After the struggle was finished, the family would emerge after the black rulers found themselves incapable of governing.  The Manson Family would take over control of the country and eventually rule the world.  He termed this race-war “Helter Skelter”, after a song that appeared on the Beatles White Album.  His tortuous logic was brought to light during his trial when he told the judge "Like Helter Skelter is a nightclub. Helter Skelter means confusion."  He would later remark to California State criminal prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi when asked who ordered the Tate / LaBianca murders "It's the Beatles, the music they're putting out. They're talking about war."

While at the ranch, most of the family enjoyed an idyllic life style. Manson Family member 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." She had grown-up middle-class in San Jose, California and had been a member of church choir. At 13, Atkins' mother died of cancer and her father basically left her and a brother to fend for themselves.  She met Manson in 1967 and believed him to be Jesus. 

Atkins would later admit that on the night on August 8, 1969, she had restrained actress Sharon Tate while Tex Watson stabbed both Tate and her unborn baby to death.  Tate pleaded for her and the baby’s life to which Atkins replied “Woman, I have no mercy for you.”



At the same time, fellow family member and former homecoming queen 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."  Van Houten had moved to the ranch during the summer of 1968 along with her boyfriend Bobby Beausoleil. 

California State Criminal Court prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi held that the remoteness of the ranch was key to Manson's total control over his followers' actions. In his book Helter Skelter, he states “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.”


Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel apparently suffered from low-self esteem while an adolescent due to physical problems associated with an endocrine gland problem.  After completion of high school, she had considered becoming a nun before joining the group.  She met Manson in 1967 at Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles and soon became a devout follower and became known as one of "Charlie's girls."  While at the ranch, Krenwinkel acted as a mother figure to the Family's several illegitimate children.  During her trial, Patricia Krenwinkle admitted that she had chased Abigail Folger onto the front lawn and stabbed her to death. Patricia said Folger told her to stop stabbing her, crying, "I'm already dead."



Satan’s Sadists:

During July 1969, director Al Adamson began filming the biker-inspired move Satan’s Sadists at Spahn Ranch.  Regina Carrol, a 26 year-old actress and self-described hippie was alarmed at the appearance of the Manson Family while they watched the filming of the movie.  Carrol made the following statement concerning the Manson Family, “They were all bare-footed. Their hair was in need of combing. They didn’t wear makeup, even later in the day. They didn’t even wear any of the colorful costumes generally worn by hippies. They’d just sort of wander around the ranch aimlessly. To me, they appeared to be in a very sad state of life. And when they’d come toward you, they moved as if we were controlling them and had hypnotized them to come closer. Frankly, it gave me the creeps,”

Family member and soon-to-be murderer Tex Watson also hung around the set while the movie was being filmed.  He constantly carried two .45 caliber pistols, both stuck in his belt while watching the production.  “Watson began bothering some of the female members of our cast so we had to kick him off the set, guns and all,” Adamson says. “These were literally little people. Dirty types. You see them all around Southern California and you don’t think much about it.”

The film Satan's Sadists would be the last major production filmed at the ranch before the 1970 fire.


Helter Skelter:

On August 8, 1969, Manson decided that he had to start “Helter Skelter” because he didn't believe that the black population was smart enough to start a race war.  That afternoon, he instructed Susan Atkins, "Tex" Watson, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to go to 10050 Cielo Drive, a mansion in Benedict Canyon, north of Beverly Hills.  They were to kill everyone in the house and leave graffiti on the walls that would lead police to believe the murders were the product of a black revolutionary group. The Cielo Drive residence was home to actress Sharon Tate and her husband director Roman Polanski.  While the Manson Family made their 20 mile journey, Tate, Wojciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger had dinner at El Coyote Mexican restaurant, located at 7312 Beverly Boulevard.  Sharon Tate was only two weeks away from giving birth to her first child.

As night fell, Watson was able to scale the fence at the Tate residence by climbing a utility pole adjacent to the mansion's security fence.  While walking up the driveway, he encountered 18 year-old Steven Parent in his white 1966 AMC Rambler.  He had been at the residence visiting groundskeeper William Garretson and was about to open the driveway security gate to exit the residence when he was stopped by Watson.  Parent yelled "Please don't hurt me! I won't say anything!" and raised his hands in a defensive posture.  Watson cut Parent's arm with a knife before shooting the young man four times with a .22 caliber revolver. William Garretson, lived in the guest house behind the main house and was unaware of the murders until the next morning, when he was taken into custody by police officers who had arrived at the scene. He was later cleared of all charges.

After the murder of Parent, Watson, Atkins and Krenwinkel would gain entrance into the house through an open window.  The group first seized Polish screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, a friend of Roman Polanski, while he was lying on the living room couch.  Atkins would then round-up Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger from other parts of the house and force them into the living room.  Tate and Sebring would be bound together by the neck with rope by Watson.  When Sebring beginning loudly and definitely complaining to the assailants about their rough treatment of the pregnant Tate, he was shot by Watson.   As the helpless Sebring lay dying, Watson kicked him in the face several times, breaking both his nose and eye socket in the process.  Sebring was then stabbed seven times by Watson. 

The terrified couple of Frykowski and his girlfriend Folger were both able to escape from the residence.  Tragically, Frykowski was be caught and stabbed by Atkins as well as being shot by Watson.  Frykowski would be shot twice, struck thirteen times over the head with a blunt object and stabbed a total of 51 times.  Folger was stabbed 28 times and died from a stab wound to the aorta.  Both the bodies of Frykowski and Folger were found only a few feet apart in the front yard.

The final act of violence occurred when Atkins and Watson proceeded to viciously stab the defenseless Sharon Tate and her unborn child 16 times. The Los Angeles County's Coroner's report stated  "five of the wounds were in and of themselves fatal."  The merciless night of terror at 10050 Cielo Drive had ended.





Leno LaBianca was a enterprising supermarket owner while his wife Rosemary was a successful businesswoman. They lived in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz at 3301 Waverly Drive. On August 9, 1969, they had vacationed for the day at Lake Isabella, located near Bakersfield, California.  The couple was returning home as Charles Manson and his entourage were proceeding to claim their next victims.

Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Steve Grogan and Charles Manson would leave the Spahn Ranch and drive to the LaBianca home.  Manson entered the home accompanied by Watson and told the couple that they would not be physically harmed.  Manson then ordered Krenwinkel and Van Houten into the house and told the others to drive away from the scene. Both Krenwinkel and Van Houten drug Rosemary into a bedroom and attempted to stab her with kitchen knives but the victim put up a fierce struggle against the two assailants.  Noting that their attack was failing, the two called for Watson, who entered the room and killed Rosemary with a bayonet. Manson and Watson then killed Leno with a knife in the living room. 





August 16th Raid by Los Angeles County Sheriff:

On August 16, 1969, more than 100 deputies from the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department raided Spahn Ranch shortly after 6:00 a.m.  They arrested 26 adults in connection with a major metropolitan Los Angeles auto theft ring.  Also taken into custody were seven juveniles, including four infants, that were transported to county juvenile authorities. A Los Angeles Times reporter quoted a deputy as stating “The four infants, all under 2 years old, and four women were found sleeping on the floor of a dirty, broken-down trailer.”




The Murder of Donald “Shorty” Shea:

Spahn ranch hand and Hollywood stuntman, six foot four inch Donald “Shorty” Shea felt that something was askew with the Manson Family and expressed these concerns to George Spahn.  Manson apparently did not approve of the fact that Shea had married a black woman named Magdalena Shea.  Manson apparently became disturbed anytime that Magdalena was at the ranch. On August 26, 1969, Manson ordered Steve Grogan and Bruce Davis to murder Shea and dispose of his body at the ranch.  Shea was 35 at the time of his murder. Shortly after the murder, Manson and his followers moved to an abandoned ranch in aptly named Death Valley. Shea’s remains were located on the ranch in December 1977, when Grogan agreed to tell law enforcement officials the location of the body.  Grogan was released from prison in 1985 and remains the only Manson family member who has been convicted of murder and released from prison. Davis is currently serving a life sentence in the California Penitentiary System.







Arrest and Trial of the Manson Family:

Based on jailhouse conversations with family member Susan Atkins, an informant provided enough information to allow Los Angeles law enforcement officials to issue arrest warrants in the Tate / LaBianca cases on December 1, 1969.

At present, Charles Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Tex Watson and Leslie Van Houten are incarcerated and  serving life sentences in the California Penitentiary System for their participation in the Tate / LaBianca murders.  Susan Atkins died in 2009 at age 61 while incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla, California.



The Final Days of the Spahn Movie Ranch:

On December 16, 1969, a fire destroyed the trailer that was used as a home by Charles Manson during his stay at the Spahn Ranch.  Sharon G. Rayfield, 18, was awakened by smoke at 2 a.m. and saw flames at the foot of her bed and tried to extinguish them.  Rayfield had been helping the new owners of the trailer, Michael G. Armstrong, 24, and his wife, Denise, 22, transfer some horses from a nearby ranch to the Spahn Ranch.

Spahn allowed Manson family members to remain at the ranch after the arrests, stating that he didn't want to judge all the kids based on a few bad apples. Unfortunately, on a warm Friday night on September 25, 1970, a fire started at the ranch.  It quickly consumed all the old western town buildings. After the fire, George Spahn moved to North Hollywood while the remainder of the family scattered across the country. In 1971, Spahn sold the ranch to a West German investment firm that had intentions of developing a tourist resort for German vacationers.  Nothing ever materialized of the project and in 1984; the ranch was sold to the State of California and to the Church at Rocky Peak.  The old movie town section of the ranch has been incorporated into the Santa Susana State Historical Park. The remnants of the Manson Family compound and movie town have been bulldozed into the dry creek.

The western part of the ranch is privately owned and contains a nine-bedroom house constructed in 1983 with an addition built in 1995.  It is presently listed in the Los Angeles County Assessor of Property as being appraised at $2,319,524.  It serves as an assisted living home and is called Country Oaks Estates.  The property also contains a baseball field that it is utilized by the nearby Church at Rocky Peak. 

There’s nothing much left at the Manson Family compound today other than a few rusting pieces of metal, a small wood bridge and some dune buggy chassis.  Time and nature have a way of erasing the reminders of the past.


Spahn Ranch Photos - Past and Present


Photoshop combination of past and present Old Stage Coach Road Spahn Ranch
Old Stage Coach Road Spahn Ranch Car Frame
Spahn Ranch (1968) Spahn Ranch Old Stage Coach Road
Trial by Dry Creek Family Bedroom (1969 - LAPD) Spahn Ranch
Aerial View (1969 LAPD) Town Debris in Dry Creek Spahn Ranch (1969 LAPD)
Wood Bridge Mountain Ridge Spahn Ranch
Spahn Ranch (1969 LAPD) Abandon Canoes Dry Creek



Police Raid Ranch, Arrest 26 Suspects In Auto Theft Ring (Sunday, August 17th, 1969) – Los Angeles Times

Trailer at Spahn Ranch Destroyed (Wednesday, December 17th, 1969) – Los Angeles Times

Movie-Lot Satan Portent of Death: Cult Haunts Freak-Out Scene – (Sunday, December 28th, 1969) – Los Angeles Times (Jeanne King)

Helter Skelter (1974)Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry

Hippie (2005) - Barry Miles - Sterling Publishing Company

Santa Susana Pass Historic Park – Historic Overview (March – April 2009) – Alexander B. Bevil (California State Parks)