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Range War: The Disciples Come to Antelope

Antelope townspeople cast a wary eye on red-clad newcomers

Courtesy of Netflix

Antelope, Oregon, a town of forty people, barely noticeable in the sagebrush-scattered, semiarid country of central Oregon, doesn’t usually have its town council meetings covered by CBS News. But since disciples of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought a 64,000 acre ranch nearby and set up a headquarters in Antelope itself, the town has found itself not only on television but also extensively covered in national magazines and major metropolitan newspapers.

Despite the intense media fascination with the new settlers, residents of Antelope feel that their story has been lost in the shuffle. They feel that both the size and the nature of the operations of the Bhagwan, an Indian philosopher who has blended Hinduism with the human potential movement, are likely to alter life in their corner of the state permanently.

The new owners of the ranch are in the process of building a medical center, an elementary school, a cafeteria, and a swimming pool. Mobile homes are being installed, and new arrivals appear almost daily. Rajneeshpuram (“City of Rajneesh”) may become the world’s largest spiritual farming co-op.

But for the dream to come true, enough housing permits would have to be obtained from Wasco and Jefferson counties (the ranch sits in both), and problems with the townspeople of Antelope would have to be resolved. The council meeting filmed by CBS, a showdown between Rajneesh representatives and local citizens, focused on whether the town council should grant the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center a business license for a mail-order publication outlet. Against stiff opposition, the license was approved, but local leaders stressed that it was temporary.

Antelope citizens feel threatened by the red-clad devotees. Their long-somnolent town is suddenly encountering a group of international urbanites with gleamingly expensive and outlandishly new equipment: sophisticated farm machinery, spanking new mobile homes, Rolls Royces. And the newcomers are looking to buy more commercially zoned land, contacting the owners of the property near their headquarters.

The newcomers’ attitude toward problems also differs from the usual approach in Wasco County. With substantial income from book sales, international meditation centers, and donations (including sizable gifts from Learjet and Baskin-Robbins heiresses), they feel confident that they can deal with any difficulties that might come up. “If I can’t get more housing permits,” says Sheela Silverman, the main spokeswoman for Rajneeshpuram, “I’ll get the best lawyer in America to contest the decision.”

Comments Margaret Hill, the mayor of Antelope, “They probably could overpower us. With $2,000 in our treasury, what could we do? How could we fight them with their millions?”

Given the intensity of feeling, townspeople were particularly interested in the arrival of the white-robed Rajneesh himself, now sometimes seen riding in his Rolls to and from Antelope. Needless to say, when the spiritual master was stopped for going sixty-eight miles an hour in a fifty-five mph zone, it was Topic A in Antelope.

—Oregon Magazine, November 1981

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.