Starting in the late 1940s, the “Chicken Yard of Montecito” held sway as an experiment in living—a neighborhood of iconoclasts and hedonists bound by communal values, a fondness for the arts, reverence for nature and irreverence for nearly everything else.
by Katherine Stewart, Santa Barbara, June/July 2007
The stretch of Mountain Drive from the 300 block east to the 1000 block west, centered around Coyote Road, is predictably scenic, winding through hills lined with eucalyptuses and oaks. Blink and you’ll miss the 30-odd banged-up mailboxes clustered at the base of a dusty turnoff. Who would guess that this sleepy-looking corner of Santa Barbara was once the epicenter of one of California’s most spirited utopian communities, where naked nymphs danced on grapes harvested from the Santa Ynez Valley, then rinsed off in the radical innovation we now know as the hot tub?
A bohemian enclave known for its handmade houses and larger-than-life personalities, Mountain Drive grew out of the dreams of returning World War II veterans in the late 1940s, at a time when American optimism was at its apex and anything seemed possible. It wasn’t a commune or a planned development; in fact, some of its residents were barely on speaking terms. It was, if anything, an uncontrolled experiment in living, a combination of geography and state of mind. What the people of Mountain Drive had in common was a desire to be free of conventional society and lead fun, interesting, natural and aesthetic lives.
Mountain Drive was what the ᾿60s were like before the 1960s—before the Vietnam War made hope turn sour and young people turn against America. By the time the flower children came along, Mountain Drive was already well established. It reportedly became a destination for all the luminaries of the countercultural world, from Dylan Thomas and Ken Kesey to Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Dass—their visits to various friends and acquaintances in the hills of Santa Barbara were something like pilgrimages to pay homage to one’s forebears.
In Paramount Pictures’ 1966 movie Seconds, which starred Rock Hudson, the real Mountain Drivers performed cameos as symbols of a bacchanalian nature cult, exuding a frenzied hedonism no doubt intended to repel movie audiences nationwide. While the steamy hot tub was indeed invented up there, a proper archaeology of the counterculture would show that modern America owes more to Mountain Drive than celluloid depravity and communal baths. A passion for whole foods, green architecture and a certain playfulness in personal style and literary expression were first practiced by Mountain Drivers. But like the road itself, the utopian enclave would not turn out to be quite as simple as it seemed at first glance.
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On a fine summer day in 1948, Bobby Hyde, the unofficial founding father of Mountain Drive—which was a dirt road at the time—hiked up a trail to survey his 50 acres of chaparral. Bobby and his wife, Florence, or “Floppy” as she was widely known, had purchased the land after a hillside fire in 1940. Where other people may have seen a burned-down hillside, the Hydes saw much more, and what they did next is what made them different from typical land speculators. They offered the land to people they liked for token amounts of money—$50 dollars down, $50 a month. Deals were made as verbal agreements, often hollered into the wind as Bobby and his friends trampled through the wooded scrub.
Bobby was a wispy, light-hearted man who was fond of epigrams. One of his later favorites was “A good road is a bad road,” by which he meant that Mountain Drive was better off somewhat inaccessible to outsiders. Born in 1900, he was an artist, a writer and an eccentric. He enjoyed classical music, gardening in the nude and, before moving to Mountain Drive, lived with his family in a cave on Arbolado Road on the Riviera. “Bobby Hyde was an iconoclast,” says Andy Johnson, 49, a local sculptor and stonemason who moved with his family to the Drive when he was 8 years old. “He lived ecological awareness 50 years before it became fashionable. His generosity and Floppy’s were tremendous. And he had a strong moral code of ethics that set the tone for how life was lived up here.”
As fate would have it, Bobby was not the only iconoclast in postwar Santa Barbara. Over at Santa Barbara College, then located on the Riviera, a remarkable group of war veterans was taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to pursue a college education.
There was Frank Robinson, a gifted architect and builder who lived on a boat in the harbor with his pregnant wife, Peggy, before moving to Mountain Drive. A theatrical spirit, Robinson was often said to embody the Drive’s joie de vivre. There was Bill Neely, a forest ranger, avid naturalist and potter. Known for his enthusiasm for wine and women, Neely acted as the pied piper for many of Mountain Drive’s liveliest happenings, playing the accordion and presiding over rituals with pride and pomp. And there was Vernon Johnson, a veteran pilot with an indomitable spirit, despite having lost a leg in the war. Prior to their move to Mountain Drive, Johnson, his wife, Ann, and their eight children had traveled through five continents in a school bus to promote world peace. (Ann later wrote a book about their experiences, Home Is Where the Bus Is.)
These characters and a collection of others all moved with their broods to what was then affectionately called the “Chicken Yard of Montecito,” where they could live freer and more creative lives than the “Flatlanders,” as they referred to downtown Santa Barbarans. “Mountain Drivers seemed to radiate with a secret franchise: wealth without money,” says Dick Johnston, 76, who owned the classical music station KCRW in the ’60s and moved to the area in 1963. “They were unbound. They were free. I was fascinated.”
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The first thing early Mountain Drivers did was help one another build their houses. Bobby Hyde, a great proponent of adobe bricks made from native soil, lent his cement mixer, and everyone would join together to collaborate on the latest homebuilding project, working with adobe, steel, reclaimed lumber and other salvaged materials. “Frank Robinson was a brilliant architect,” says Santa Barbara architect and graphic artist Jeff Shelton, 49, who grew up near Mountain Drive. “He played a part in the design of 30 or 40 houses up there. Most architects have big egos; not Frank. He’d just design smart little buildings that fit people’s budgets and allowed them to have lovely lives.”
From building houses together, it was a short step to the talent that, more than any other, seemed to define the Mountain Drive community—the talent for throwing inspired parties. “Bobby and Floppy would invite everybody in the neighborhood up to their place for a great party once a week, usually on Saturdays,” says Merv Lane, 79, a professor emeritus and sometime writing teacher at Santa Barbara City College, who lives with his wife, Peggy, the former wife of Frank Robinson, in the adobe house he built more than 50 years ago.
Many Mountain Drivers had an interest in winemaking, and the annual Wine Stomp, which first took place in 1952, soon became the community’s signature party. A large wooden vat below Bill Neely’s house was filled with grapes. The men sequestered themselves to choose a Wine Queen, while the women prepared an enormous feast. After the meal, the elected queen, wearing only her grape leaf crown, would step into the vat. Everybody, kids included, would strip down to their grape leaves to join her, and the group would stomp away the afternoon.
After a time, the men fostered a tradition called the Sunset Club. Every Saturday at sundown, they would climb the steep path to Jack Boegle’s house and congregate on the tiled patio. With a view of the coast from Oxnard to Goleta, they’d share wine and gossip. Before long, the women drummed up a gathering of their own, a knitting circle called Stitch and Bitch. And one day in 1962, Bill Neely and ceramist Ed Schertz, conspiring to wage a mock conflict, declared a Pot War. Dressed in Renaissance garb—that is, Renaissance garb as imagined by a pair of mid-20th-century bohemians—they sold their pottery by the roadside, pouring wine into every purchased ceramic cup while musicians with guitars and recorders entertained the growing crowds, and a new tradition had taken root.
The Pot War became the inspiration for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire when Ron and Phyllis Patterson, of KPEK radio, attended one on Mountain Drive and decided to host a similar event near Los Angeles as a fund-raiser. The tradition took hold, and today, Renaissance Faires are held all across the United States. Other celebrations, such as Bastille Day and an annual gathering on the birthday of Scotland’s famed poet Robert Burns, fell into the “any convenient excuse for a party” category. And nobody wanted to miss the pageantry of Twelfth Night, the quasi-pagan ritual celebrating the coming of the Epiphany. Mountain Drivers used the occasion to don their version of medieval dress, consume a gigantic repast, propose numerous toasts and elect a court including a Bean King and Queen, Lords of Insanity and Misrule and a Bishop of Fools. “Mountain Drive was full of unwritten rules,” says Dick Johnston. “You never went into anyone’s house without being immediately offered a glass of wine. And if you failed to offer one, you were chastised for it. Another rule: Nobody wore underwear. I don’t know if it was a spoken rule, but it was certainly a fact.”
As the parties gathered pace, of course, the clothing options grew wider, until clothing itself became optional, if not entirely unnecessary. Many Mountain Drivers, starting with Bobby Hyde, were committed nudists. Indeed, “Mountain Drive formal” was a term that came to mean bits and pieces of formalwear, but not the whole getup. For instance, a man might attend a party wearing a top hat and tails, but nothing else.
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With so much nudity, naturally, the question of sex was never far from anybody’s mind. There was certainly some kind of sexual freedom, but sexual liberation lagged. “Male chauvinism was at its height,” says Dick Johnston. “The consciousness of the men had risen only to the level of the crotch.”
“It was a utopia if you were an ‘alpha male’,” observes Judy Young, 67, whose first husband, Noel Young, was the founder of Capra Press, publisher of the first book on hot tubs and a Mountain Drive associate. “These men spawned dynasties, made their houses by hand and worked whatever their art was. They wanted to have interesting, aesthetic lives, and they did. They all drank heavily and smoked. They thought they could get away with it forever. But like all dreams, it didn’t last.”
Mountain Drive has always been more complicated than it seems. In the search for unconventionality, its freethinking residents fell into certain conventions; in the quest for a natural life, they relied on a considerable amount of artifice. It was a place of sexual freedom and yet of sexual hierarchies; a place that celebrated defiance of authority but had its own share of authoritarian personalities; a place free from the moral strictures of conventional society but with deep moral codes of its own; a place dedicated to healthy living that developed its share of unhealthy habits.
For some, the dream was already starting to fade in the late 1960s. By the ’70s, drugs had become intrinsic to California’s counterculture, if not to the culture itself, and Mountain Drive was no exception. “There was an influx of people who thought that Mountain Drive was a grand place, and didn’t understand the responsibilities that went along with that,” says Sandy Hill, 80, who lives with her husband, Stan, 83. “Sometimes they’d just drop off their kids, expecting you to take care of them. You’d feel bad for the kids, so you’d do it.” She shrugs. “Some of those kids made it and some of them didn’t.”
At its low point, at the turn of the ’70s, several Mountain Drivers were rousted for drugs, and one old-timer was prosecuted for child molestation. In recent years, though, the Drive has started to enjoy a renaissance of sorts. Today it pulses with the desire of its residents to reconnect and reclaim the heritage of a community and creativity that was theirs by right.
“The spirit waxes and wanes, but the collective spirit now is strong,” says Andy Johnson. The Wine Stomp resumed in an informal albeit regular fashion in 2003. “David Lafond, who lives on the Neelys’ old property, has been totally instrumental in recreating the stomp,” says Johnson. “He makes good wine, as compared to the straight-to-vinegar stuff they used to make!”
“Harvesting is a good way to bring the neighborhood together,” says David Lafond, 48, general manager of Lafond Winery, an offshoot of Santa Barbara Winery, which was founded by his father, Pierre, with the help of Stan Hill in 1962. “It also brings us back in connection with the food chain.”
Another striking contrast with the past is how child friendly the culture of the Drive has become. Many events are held specifically with children in mind. During the annual May Fair, children turn out to dance around the maypole. At the yearly Cowboy Campout, young and old dress up in Western wear, sing cowboy songs and tell stories late into the evening. “Back in the 1960s, parents were off doing their own thing and weren’t paying very close attention to us kids,” says Johnson. “Today, however, the kids are the focus. There are 30 or 40 kids at every event. And they’re well cared for.”
Other new traditions have taken hold as well. Just a survey of the latest posters is enough to convince one that the absurdist spirit of Mountain Drive is alive and well. There’s Taco Stand, a crazier fiesta than Fiesta itself; the popular Bocce Ball tournament; and the Croquet Match, not unlike the one in Alice in Wonderland, played with giant wickets made of odd pieces of sculpture and steel.
“Mountain Drive was always a very literary community, and today there is still poetry at every event,” adds Jeff Shelton, who designs and illustrates most of the event posters. The Pot War has returned as an annual winter artisan fair. Mountain Drivers come together to sell their wares, from knitting to baked goods to books.
One wonders how much longer Mountain Drive can survive considering Montecito’s stratospheric housing market. Land in the area can fetch nearly $2 million an acre. Stan Hill says that nearly every day’s mail brings fresh missives from hungry real-estate agents. “They go straight in the trash pile,” he says, firmly. “We have three and a half acres here, and I’d hate to think what they’d go for in today’s climate.” He spreads his hands in a gesture designed to encompass the house and the hillside beyond. “But what could I get that means more than this?” He shakes his head. “We’re not selling. Not for any price.”
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Mountain Drive still has something of the old animus—many residents are uniquely community minded and help one another with home building and other projects—but the times have moved on. Now, at the Wine Stomp and other gatherings, everybody wears clothes. Once the vanguard of ideas, the Drive has evolved into what is fundamentally a very nice neighborhood.
Inevitably, Mountain Drive fell short of its utopian aspirations but is remarkable nonetheless. “It wasn’t always sweetness and light up here,” says Stan Hill. “But we wouldn’t have traded it for anything. We are fortunate to have had interesting lives.”