The Bohemian Club

A Long Standing Exclusive Club

Most people who have lived in the northern California region, particularly Sonoma County, just a short drive north of San Francisco, have heard of the Bohemian Club. Chances are, many people not residing in the area may never have heard of it. It’s been in existence for well over a century but it’s mystique remains. The mystique really centers around two things. The membership of the Bohemian Club might be considered the elite of the elite. It really depends what your personal definition of elite is.

california redwood trees

California Redwoods

The other element of mystique is how closely the gatherings each year, in the middle of a beautiful redwood forest, are so guarded.

A Beautiful Yet Very Remote Location

In the middle of the coastal redwood forests of Sonoma County California is one of the oldest and most private of members only clubs you’ll find on the face of the earth. The Bohemian Grove’s 2,700 acre campground is located at 20601 Bohemian Avenue, in Monte Rio, California. Monte Rio is a very small settlement along the Russian River, in the middle of a beautiful recreation area enjoyed by river rafters, campers, hikers and Sonoma wine country tourists. This heavily redwood forested area is one of Sonoma County’s busiest during the summer vacation months. The area is also very near the Pacific coast and it’s summer temperatures are quite moderate because of this.

The Bohemian Club was founded in 1872 although not at it’s present location. The first summer camp out occurred in 1878 when members held a going away party for it’s founding member, Henry Edwards, a stage actor, who announced that he was relocating to New York City. The group got together again the next summer even without Edwards and the summer camp out continued ever since. In 1878, members first gathered for the camp outing in Marin County just north of the San Francisco Bay entrance. By 1882 the members of the Club camped together at different sites in both Marin and Sonoma Counties which included the popular tourist site of Muir Woods in Marin and a site near Duncan Mills in Sonoma County which is between Monte Rio and the Pacific Ocean.

russian river

Beautiful Russian River near Bohemian Grove

One thing for sure is that this area of western Sonoma County is a great place to spend a few weeks during the summer. The Russian River which flows through it is a big attraction.

The Bohemian Grove site in Monte Rio California was rented by the Bohemian Club in 1893 and it’s influential and wealthy members finally purchased that land and more from a successful Sonoma County logger named Melvin Cyrus Meeker.

Keeping the Journalists at Bay

Unfortunately for tourists, the Bohemian Grove was and still is off limits to anyone not a member. Not to be denied, some journalists over the years have penetrated the club gatherings. To give you some perspective of the membership of this highly elite, all-male club, it’s members over the years have included every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge, Luther Burbank, Jack London and CEO’s of industry. More recent members have included Walter Cronkite, both George Bush’s, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, James Baker and David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton and they say Barack Obama. There are many others in addition to these. The Bohemian Club membership is filled with many names you’re familiar with and many you’re not.

russian river mouth

Mouth of Russian River at Pacific Ocean

An ironic story concerning one journalist’s alleged infiltration of this gathering occurred in 1991 when the People Magazine San Francisco bureau chief did get into the club and did write a story of his experience. The problem was that when he tried to publish the story it was held back by upper management. It seems that among the membership of the Bohemian Club was the upper management of Time Warner who owned the publication. The official stance from the Bohemian Club is simply that this annual event is merely a time for private fun among it’s membership and guests. Many non-members have long maintained that official business is indeed conducted there. They contend that policy speeches are regularly made by both members and guests. There have also been long time rumors that Bohemian Club members had bragged that the Manhatten Project itself was actually conceived at it’s annual camp site. I’m not sure this will ever be known for certain. The Manhatten Project occurred too long ago. When the “powerful” and let’s say “influential” conduct secret meetings shielded from the press, any rumor can emerge.

There are so many alleged instances of non-members getting into the Bohemian Grove during it’s annual summer event that they are almost too many to list. Supposedly, reporters, who are officially admitted as guests, pledge not to print what they see and hear. There are so many media owners and CEO’s attending that it’s not difficult to extract a pledge. Some people alleged to witnessed the meetings, however, went on to report on what they saw and heard. To give you another perspective on the exclusiveness of this club, President Richard Nixon was quoted as saying, “Anybody can be President of the United States, but very few can ever have any hope of becoming President of the Bohemian Club.” – President Richard Nixon, 1972.

monte rio california

Monte Rio California sign on River Road

Author Mike Hanson wrote a book on the Bohemian Club entitled “Bohemian Grove: Cult of Conspiracy“. Hanson points out…”They secretly meet for seventeen days each July in a remote “sacred grove” of ancient redwood trees in the deep forests surrounding San Francisco. Some 1,500 in number, their membership roll is kept secret, but includes the super-rich, blood dynasty member families of the Illuminati; heavy-hitting corporate chieftains and high government officials”. Hanson’s book further states that…”Now the truth can finally be revealed. Mike Hanson is a first-hand eyewitness who has been inside the Bohemian Grove. In the summer of 2000, Mike secretly “infiltrated” the Grove with radio talk show host Alex Jones. They filmed several hours of footage, including the entire “Cremation of Care” ritual, which will be published in full here for the first time”.

There were several other stories published concerning the activities at Bohemian Grove. One of the most active publications on this subject was the old “Spy” magazine which was in business for a relatively short time, 1986-1998. The publication claimed to have also infiltrated the camp outs.

Some of the Activities

In addition to the so-called secret meetings among the elite, there are a few things that go on each year at he Bohemian Grove which can be considered entertainment for the attendees. Since the year 1902 the Grove has featured a full theatrical play production. During the Second World War years the plays were suspended but started up again in 1946.

jack london winery cottage

Old Winery Cottage where Jack London passed away in 1916, Sonoma County California

Another well known activity held once each summer is the “Cremation of Care” ceremony. This event began all the way back in 1881. The Cremation of Care at first was part of the play production and then became a separate event starting in 1913. This event includes a 40 foot hollow owl (reported by one source to have the voice of the late Walter Cronkite), the exorcising of a Demon and a High Priest. While probably not something practiced at most summer camps, it does sound like a sensible and worthwhile endeavor and something perhaps the lesser elite of society might wish to adopt at their summer camp outings.

The Protesters Take Note

It goes without saying, a private club of this nature that gathers behind closed doors each summer, draws it’s share of protesters. Being this close to San Francisco doesn’t hurt either. As an example, the Press Democrat newspaper, located in nearby Santa Rosa California, reported in 2011 that about 45 protesters, not exactly an “Occupy” crowd, gathered at the entrance to the Bohemian Grove on July 13th. The paper mentioned the possible connection to a You Tube video calling for a peaceful protest. The You Tube video supposedly named the gathering “Operation Bohemian Grove“. Nevertheless, a few sheriff’s department deputies were stationed there to make sure it was peaceful.

guerneville california

Guerneville California on the Russian River

Back in 2005, the Sonoma County Free Press, reported that July of that year would mark twenty five years of protest at the exclusive mens only club in Monte Rio on the Russian River. Going back even further, the same Sonoma County Free Press pointed out that in 1981 a network of peace, environmental and justice groups had formed a coalition named Bohemian Grove Action Network (BGAN) formed to call attention to what they referred to as the “good old boys” club. Apparently, one of their top issues were the “Lakeside Talks” which have over the decades included presidents, CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, the head of the World Bank as well as military leaders. BGAN considers these public policy talks given without public scrutiny.

On the more bizarre side of stories, the November 1989 edition of the now defunct Spy Magazine featured photos it claimed were Bohemian Grove men dancing around dressed up as women.The magazine went on with other very weird details which push the imagination to the limit. I think you might want to check the sources on this one before accepting as fact. Nevertheless, this 1989 story probably helped sell magazines.

Not sure that private talks at closed gatherings like the Bohemian Club are necessarily illegal, In fact they’re not, but they certainly give conspiracy theorists food for fodder. What policy direction emerges from these annual summer gatherings in a redwood forest, if any, is pure speculation and because there virtually is no press coverage, other than reporting the gathering itself had taken place, the speculation for sure will continue.

Unfortunately the Bohemian Grove isn’t a Sonoma County California tourist destination, although at times a very scenic protester destination, however there are other nearby wine country vacation spots you’ll certainly enjoy such as Monte Rio, Guerneville, Sebastopol, not to mention the many wineries located throughout Sonoma County.

Two additional articles from Trips Into History you’ll find interesting are Sonoma County Getaways and the historic Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Farm site in Sebastopol California.

(Phootos from author’s private collection. Jack London old Winery Cottage is in the public domain)

Sonoma County California Getaways / Bodega Bay and Guerneville

Bodega Bay And Guerneville

Having visited Sonoma County California several times, what many refer to as Wine Country, I can tell you there are manyl fun, picturesque and historic low cost side trips you can add to your visit. One of those is Bodega Bay which is due west of Santa Rosa on the coast. Take your camera because you can get some very good pics at Bodega Head which is a state park. Bodega Head is a short drive around the bay past the marinas and up over a hill. It attracts a lot of visitors and includes some very scenic walking paths. Park your car and have picnic because it’s got great coastal views.

bodega bay california

Crab Pots lined up at Bodega Bay Marina getting ready for crab season

On a clear day you can see all the way to Jenner in the north or down to Point Reyes in the south. If you drive north of Bodega Bay along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll also pass by some terrific vistas with beautiful beaches. Good place to sit down for an hour or two and read a book. The Pacific coast at this particular spot is simply beautiful and if you decide to stay awhile, there’s some excellent choices among lodging in Bodega Bay. Because the town is right on the ocean, the weather in Bodega Bay is generally cooler than just a few miles inland. It’s one of the reasons why people flock there during the summer months.

Russian Fur Trappers

Bodega Bay was visited as early as 1809 by the Russians and they ventured even further south to the north part of San Francisco Bay as part of the Russian-American Fur Company. Their business was fur trapping and there was never an aim to colonize the area. The Spanish presence up to the San Francisco Bay area halted any further advance southward. The best reminder of the Russian occupation of the area today is farther north along the coast at Fort Ross which is now an excellent fort/museum and worth the drive up the coast.

lucas wharf at bodega bay

Lucas Wharf Fish House. Great place to buy fresh seafood.

Bodega Bay is also a large fishing port and often times you can purchase fresh crab at the marina dockside across the bay.. There’s also a terrific fresh seafood store on the water at Lucas Wharf which sells seafood brought in daily by local fishermen. If you’re looking for an excellent fresh seafood restaurant then Lucas Wharf is where you want to go. Excellent seafood dinners and moderately priced. It’s a casual restaurant perfect for a family. Also directly across the road from Bodega Bay’s marina you’ll be able to enjoy fresh chowder. It’s a popular tourist stop and the temperatures remain about 15 to 20 degrees cooler than inland. It’s an excellent respite from the summer heat that can invade inland Sonoma County.

The Russian River Town of Guerneville

Another nice stop in the summer, especially if you have kids in tow is Guerneville. Guerneville is located on River Road which runs west from Santa Rosa to the ocean. The town was a popular tourist destination for San Franciscans in the late 19th century. Guerneville was connected to the San Francisco ferry’s by the San Francisco and Great North Pacific Railroad.

the birds schoolhouse

Old schoolhouse in Bodega California seen in the movie "The Birds"

Even after rail service ended in the 1930’s Guerneville remained quite popular for people in the Bay Area who drove there by automobile. Jones Beach is in Guerneville on the Russian River where you can rent a kayak for a very small price and float on the river all day. It makes for a very relaxing time. The town also has one of the best pizza restaurants around. Guerneville is another great place to get great pictures..

There’s another interesting attraction in the town of Bodega which is about 5 miles inland from Bodega Bay. When you enter the town from the east, immediately to your left is a road up a hill which has what appears to be a restored old schoolhouse called The Potter School. Also in the town of Bodega is St. Theresa’s Church. Both of these sites were featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic move “The Birds“. While the setting for the movie plot line was Bodega Bay, much of the shooting was done in the town of Bodega itself. I can attest that on my many trips to both Bodega and Bodaga Bay the birds were quite friendly.

You’ll also be interested in our Trips Into History articles The Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Farm in Sabastopol California and the Tsunami of Crescent City California.

These are very historic California coast getaways and all stops make excellent  additions to your Sonoma Wine Country visit.