In 1968, the Manson Family moved into George Spahn’s dilapidated Southern California ranch. The next year, they committed mass murder.
It was the perfect place to get away. Nestled in the mountains with the remains of a western-themed movie set, and boulder-strewn pathways perfect for horseback riding, Spahn Ranch was an idyllic retreat.
Visitors also enjoyed the isolation the ranch provided. In Chatsworth, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the ranch left people with a sense of removal, especially since the views gave way to scenic mountain landscapes and sprawling, rolling fields.
Yes, Spahn Ranch was the perfect place to get away – especially if you were planning a murder spree. And Charles Manson was planning a big one.
Spahn Ranch Before Manson
Before the idyllic vista played host to the crazed Manson Family cult, it served a much less sinister function: a movie set.
In 1947, Lee and Ruth McReynolds purchased a 55-acre plot of land at the western edge of Los Angeles County. On this land, they opened a trading post and built a Western-themed movie set. The Iverson Movie Ranch nearby had been the location for films starring John Wayne and Buster Keaton, and Lee McReynolds hoped to catch some of the overflow.
McReynolds built his sets, but in 1953 sold them to a man named George Spahn, who owned it until his death about 20 years later.
George Spahn had a successful milk business in Pennsylvania, where he was born. By the time he took his wife and 11 children to sunny California, he had grown his enterprise to 35 cows, five wagons, and seven houses.
After hopping over to the West Coast, Spahn operated a ranch out of North Hollywood and grew to be a major supplier of livestock and Western props for motion pictures. He soon split with his wife, who took the kids, and got together with an ex-circus performer named Ruby Pearl.
As the owner of the ranch, Spahn added several more Western-themed sets. Several B-movies were filmed at the Spahn Ranch. Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw was one of the most notable, along with several episodes of TV’s hit Western Bonanza.
But as Westerns began to lose popularity, Spahn was forced to diversify. Spahn Ranch became primarily a tourist spot, and horse rentals helped keep Spahn’s business afloat. The ranch was perfect for horseback riding:
Once on a steed, visitors encountered a strange “path that led along a cool, trickling stream,” past collapsing shacks with their inhabitants of out of work stunt cowboys and barefoot, ragged toddlers. Other trails led up through the hillsides, through groves of oaks, with their gnarled roots reaching into dry riverbeds, higher still to the rim of the rocks overlooking the smog-shrouded valley.
But in 1968, it played host to a mystical, maniacal cult leader and his band of loyal followers, who took advantage of the ranch’s isolation to plot a gruesome series of murders.
The Manson Family Arrives
In 1968, Charles Manson was freshly homeless and looking for lodging for his “family,” a group of young people who had chosen to follow his mystic teachings and wild lectures. The isolated ranch in outside LA was the perfect place.
By then, George Span was 80 years old. He’d spent the last 15 years as a dairy farmer, running the horseback riding rentals from his home on the ranch and living a relatively quiet life in the isolated landscape.
The Manson Family, on the other hand, had lived in anything but relative quiet. For the past year or so they’d driven down the California coast in an all-black Volkswagen minibus, dumpster dived for food around LA, and partied with Dennis Wilson, the drummer and co-founder of The Beach Boys. After a falling out with the Wilson, the Family was on the move again.
Charles Manson was intrigued by Spahn Ranch’s isolation and rugged terrain. He thought it would be the perfect place for his cult of 13 women and five men.
George Spahn was happy to have a group of young people move in, especially when they offered to exchange labor for lodging. An old man, Spahn was going blind, and had increasing trouble moving around on his own. He was all too happy to have a group of able-bodied youngsters around to help him and Ruby maintain the ranch.
And — of course – he was keen on Manson’s trove of young women. Having his way with Manson’s female followers was part of the deal.
Living In Harmony
Over the months that the Manson family lived on the Spahn Ranch, George Spahn and the Family developed a rapport. Spahn gave many of the Family members nicknames, many of which family members would later become known as to the public.
Spahn assigned the nickname “Squeaky” to Lynette Fromme — Spahn’s favorite who served as his “eyes” and de-facto wife — after the noise that she’d to make when he ran his hand up her thigh. Charles Watson was called “Tex” after his Texas accent, which Spahn recognized immediately.
But while Spahn enjoyed the young newcomers on his ranch, and indeed spent hours chumming around with them, he was blithely unaware of the horrors they were plotting.
Charles Manson’s most infamous teaching among his cult was his premonition of “Helter Skelter.” Named for the Beatles song of the same name, Manson believed Helter Skelter was a dawning apocalyptic race war. He believed that in the coming years, the black population and the white population would begin a war, one which would result in the effective end of the white population.
During Helter Skelter, Manson’s family would hide underground in a hole in the desert. After the end of the war, when it was revealed that the black population had won but were incapable of effectively governing themselves, Manson would emerge from hiding, ride in on a custom dune-buggy, and save them all.
Though he had been preaching the dawning of Helter Skelter for years, the Spahn Ranch was the first time that he was able to fully immerse his followers in his wild beliefs. Spahn Ranch had no newspapers, no clocks or regular visitors, allowing Manson to enforce a sense of timelessness in his followers that made them even more susceptible to his influence.
And, unfortunately, poor old George Spahn was along for the ride.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: The True Story
Despite the fact that the Tate-LaBianca murders were planned at Spahn Ranch, Manson Family members hid out at the ranch following the bloodshed, and George Spahn had been sexually entangled with several of the Manson family ladies, Spahn never faced any charges for involvement with the crimes. Charles Manson was even arrested at Spahn Ranch in August 1969.
Spahn lived on the farm for a year following Manson’s arrest until a wildfire burned down most of his ranch in September 1970. Four years later, Spahn died and was buried in Eternal Valley Memorial Park.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he remains entirely forgotten when it comes to that infamous summer murder spree. For those who are grossly fascinated with Manson’s life, it is not just Manson’s followers who are of interest, but also those who hovered just outside of his proverbial black hole, and somehow managed to avoid being sucked in altogether.
In August 2019, we may get a peek into some of those lucky few, when Quentin Tarantino releases his Manson-adjacent flick Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. The film will take place in the summer of 1969, when the Manson Family was at their peak of drug-filled orgies, conspiracy theories, and murderous rampages.
Spahn Ranch Today
Today, not much remains of the Spahn Ranch. After being ravaged by the 1970 wildfire, as well as another one years later, the land was re-purchased by the state of California. Now it’s mostly dirt and brush.
If you look closely enough, however, signs of the Manson family and their ever-present groupies still remain. Carved into boulders strewn across the lands are large X’s, similar to those carved into the foreheads of the family. In one cave in which the family was known to have taken a photo, someone has carved the words “Manson Family Cave.”
It seems that while nature has attempted to erase all signs of the Manson Family’s time at Spahn Ranch, there will always be those who are determined to remind us.
After reading about Spahn Ranch, the base of the Manson Family, learn more about the summer Charles Manson and his Family spent with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Then, see what the infamous Manson Family members are up to today.