Before Ted Koppel featured it on Nightline; before the Phil Donahue interviews; and before the national magazine coverage, Rajneeshpuram was known as “Muddy Ranch” or “The Big Muddy.”
Spread over 64,000 acres in eastern Oregon’s rural Wasco and Jefferson counties, the vast, hilly range was purchased in the fall of 1980 by the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center for $5.75 million and registered as a “Cooperative Corporation.”
Wasco Electric Cooperative, 92 miles from the ranch in The Dalles, provided electric service to the campus. The resident of record was a guru known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial Indian spiritual leader who led the commune and is the subject of the popular Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.
When I started as the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association manager in the summer of 1985, the now well-known events at Rajneeshpuram were almost over. But in 1981, they were just getting started.
The residents of nearby Antelope, population 40, thought Muddy Ranch an odd location for the Rajneesh to settle. Ma Anand Sheela, the cult leader’s tough-talking personal secretary and chief of staff featured prominently in the Netflix series, picked the remote and rural location to ensure that “peoples’ neuroses did not bother Bhagwan’s vision or his work.”
When Rajneesh arrived at the ranch in summer 1981—fleeing India amid accusations of smuggling and tax evasion—scores of followers, known as sannyasins or Rajneeshees, had already begun building a compound. Soon after that, more followers poured in, and the ranch population grew into the thousands. The compound was then made an incorporated town that included Antelope and was renamed Rajneeshpuram, puram being a common suffix for cities in India. Rand McNally listed the town in its 1982 maps.
As Rajneeshpuram grew, so did its electricity needs. Wasco Electric had earlier served Muddy Ranch, which consisted of a few out buildings and an irrigation system. The infrastructure needed to serve the expanding compound, however, was substantial.
Many co-op members, particularly those in Antelope, had grown suspicious of the group, whose practices included a highly libertine lifestyle within the compound and an increasingly confrontational manner outside it. The growing dissent among residents around Rajneeshpuram meant many neighbors were ill-inclined to allow their property to be used for co-op rights-of-way to serve the compound.
Wasco Electric Co-op board member Art McGreer, his son Kelly, and Kelly’s wife, Rosemary, were among the most vocal opponents. Kelly, who would later be elected to the co-op board, eventually consented to the right-of-way after being threatened with a lawsuit by the group.
As it turned out, the suspicions of the McGreers, who were also prominently featured in the Netflix show, were well-placed. Years later, documents recovered from the ranch showed a plan by cult members to poison Rosemary for her outspoken opposition.
Art Thomsen, then the co-op manager, was required to extend service under state law and the “obligation to serve” requirements of the Rural Electrification Administration. Thomsen opted to require Rajneesh to pay upfront the cost of extending 7 miles of 69-kV line, a new substation, and 40 miles of distribution line. Jeff Davis, then the co-op line-staking tech and now the co-op’s CEO, pegged the cost of the new facilities at $1 million to $1.5 million.
Mistrust of the group extended to the electric bill as well. Neal Harth, a co-op director at the time, recalled that Thomsen would personally go to the ranch each month to collect payment, which, at its height, exceeded $750,000. The Rajneeshpuram load eventually grew to 2 MW, easily the co-op’s largest commercial account.
Davis and Dan Van Vactor, the co-op’s attorney at the time, say co-op relations with the group were generally cordial, and co-op personnel had full access to the ranch, including a yard for inventory. Others visiting the ranch weren’t as fortunate. They were either denied entrance or tracked by Rajneeshpuram police carrying rifles. Some who displeased Ma Anand Sheela would return to find their car tires slashed.
Looking back, Van Vactor suggests that the decision to require upfront payment on the service infrastructure costs likely kept Wasco Electric out of bankruptcy when the Rajneeshpuram dissolved in 1985, owing some $9.8 million to various creditors.
Before the group’s demise, members, who felt local officials were working to thwart the expansion of the compound, would be accused of everything from immigration fraud to bioterrorism for spreading salmonella at salad bars in The Dalles. Sheela eventually pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault for her role in the bioterror attacks. She was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and paroled after 29 months.
In 1985, Rajneesh attempted to flee to Barbados to escape illegal immigration charges. He was captured, found guilty, and sent back to India.
Without the Bhagwan, the ranch fell apart. An auction was held to pay creditors. Items included 93 Rolls Royces, A-frame guest houses, and thousands of tents used in celebrations.
In 1991, Montana-based billionaire Dennis Washington purchased Rajneeshpuram for $3.5 million and donated it to Young Life, the Christian youth ministry. Kelly and Rosemary McGreer still farm several hundred acres in Antelope.
Kelly’s final comment in Wild Wild Country: “I’m looking forward to when I never have to think about this again.”
Mark Glaess is a former general manager of both the Oregon Rural Electric Association and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association. He started his career as legislative director for the Nebraska Rural Electric Association.