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Museum tells of two pasts: Antelope’s history made by homesteaders and cult followers

Nestled deep in central Oregon cattle country, about 15 miles off U.S. Route 97, a small town has once again captured public interest.

In the 1980s, Antelope was infamous for being usurped by the cult following of an Indian guru known as Baghwan Shree Rajneesh.

Residents Barbara Beasley and Cody Flecker have committed themselves to digging up and preserving the town’s fascinating past. However, they initially stumbled upon Antelope, and the building that has become their museum, almost by accident.

As they were hunting for a place to retire, the couple traveled through Antelope on their way to explore a nearby town, and Flecker fell in love with a house there.

About a year later, Beasley became enchanted by the building that now houses the museum. The structure dates back to 1898, according to an inscription on the outside wall.

“It was a completely empty ghost building,” Beasley said. “So I opened the door and saw this wood floor and that’s when I knew that it was a good building.”

The couple purchased the building in the late 1990s, Beasley said, and opened the museum about 10 years ago. This year, they’ve seen an increased interest due to the new Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country,” that tells the story of the Rajneeshees.

Built on history

After Beasley and Flecker bought the building, they set about uncovering its past, and in the process discovered the past of Antelope itself. They started with interviewing locals, many of whom are descendants of the pioneer families who first settled the land.

In addition to the date of completion, the building is also inscribed with the letters “A.O.U.W.” “One of the first things we asked was: ‘Who the heck are they?’ ” Beasley said.

The Ancient Order of United Workmen was a social organization founded for the young men who came west in order to work dangerous jobs, like mining.

The organization held dances and social gatherings for members in the building that now houses Beasley and Flecker’s museum and was also a burial society. If a member died on the job, A.O.U.W. member dues would pay for a proper burial and ceremony.

The Antelope building is a rare find. Beasley and Flecker said the only other A.O.U.W. lodge still standing is in Skagway, Alaska.

They’ve found numerous A.O.U.W. artifacts – including hats, pins and the organization’s member handbook – through their own research and for sale on eBay.

Following the cult

The Antelope museum also tells the story of the Rajneeshees.

“There was just stuff hanging around town that had to do with the Rajneeshees and nobody wanted it. Nobody cared, so we just collected it,” Beasley said.

In 1981, the cult following of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, who called themselves sannyasins, came from an ashram in India and attempted to create a planned community in the U.S. by purchasing the Big Muddy Ranch, located about 18 miles outside of Antelope. They built up the land into a fully functioning town, which they named Rajneeshpuram.

The museum displays several pieces of signage from the town, including a sign used for the Third Annual World Celebration of Rajneeshpuram, held in 1984. This festival was a five-day event that invited members of the public and sannyasins alike to meditate, hear Baghwan speak and share their beliefs.

Initially, there was little trouble between the cult members and the Antelope residents, simply a lack of understanding on both sides. This indifference did not last long, however.

The museum is home to a variety of anti-Baghwan memorablia, including picket signs used by Antelope residents to speak out against the cult.

The Rajneeshees had a largely differing worldview from that of the ranchers in Antelope. The practices and beliefs promoted by Bhagwan – such as free love, meditation rituals and a wardrobe consisting solely of shades of red – were viewed as radical and uncouth by the Antelope community.

Beasley remembers when she and Flecker first moved to town in the ’90s, “We didn’t dare wear red clothes in town; it was too raw.”

Though the museum does not display any of the infamous red garb, a key piece of the collection is a mala necklace emblazoned with an image of Baghwan. These pieces of jewelry were worn by all sannyasins.

Zoning regulations pushed the initial apprehension between the communities to evolve into full blown conflict. It became clear to Antelope residents that what they thought would be a small agricultural community was intended to be a large and growing township, complete with a mall and a hotel.

The cult even had its own newspaper, The Rajneesh Times, which mostly featured large images of Baghwan. The museum provides audiences with a look at these publications.

The battle between the two sides escalated and gained national attention as the cult members began to infiltrate Antelope, wearing their signature red clothes and brandishing machine guns. They effectively took over the town of Antelope – renaming it Rajneesh – and attempted to take over Wasco County as a whole.

The sannyasins changed the name of the now defunct Antelope Cafe to Zorba the Buddha. Signs from the renamed cafe are also featured in the museum’s collection.

Though the mission to take over the county failed, they took drastic measures, including poisoning a salad bar in The Dalles, the Wasco county seat. The salmonella poisoning sickened 751 people and hospitalized 45. This event is still regarded as the largest biological warfare attack in United States history.

The sannyasins also plotted the assassination of Charles H. Turner, the U.S. attorney of Oregon at the time.

In 1985, a schism occurred between Baghwan and his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela, who was often the public face of the cult. Baghwan accused Sheela of illegal acts both inside and outside of the commune. Along with some of her loyal followers, she left Rajneeshpuram. Both Baghwan and Sheela were wanted by the police and attempted to flee.

Baghwan was convicted of immigration fraud and given a 10-year suspended sentence, five years probation, and was fined. Sheela was convicted of attempted murder, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud and engineering the bioterrorism attack. She served 29 months of her 20-year sentence and was released on good behavior in 1988.

Baghwan Shree Rajneesh died in 1990, and Sheela now lives in Switzerland.

Baghwan’s following still exists. There is even a Facebook group of more than 800 people, titled Rajneeshpuram Residents, for those who lived in the commune to reconnect.

Antelope today

After the Rajneeshees left, Antelope faded into the background and once again became a quiet ranching community.

But those years have come back to the surface with the release of Netflix’s “Wild, Wild Country,” which depicts the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram. The documentary even features the museum, which serves as the backdrop for interviews with John Silvertooth, the mayor of Antelope.

Overall, Beasley was impressed with “Wild, Wild Country” but wishes that the filmmakers had “dug a little deeper into the people who were here at the time.”

Since the release of the documentary, Flecker and Beasley have re-branded their museum as “The Museum of ‘Wild, Wild Country.’ ”

But Beasley said Antelope residents do not understand the newfound excitement with the Rajneeshee story. She said the local attitude is along the lines of: “Who cares? We’re raising cattle here. We had nothing to do with these guys and we don’t want to. Let’s get on with things.”

Standing on Antelope’s less than busy Main Street, one can hear only an echo of the past and what once was.

“There’s a lifestyle preserved here that I have a great love for. The longer I’m here the more I’m connected with it. I can go outside and it’s absolutely still. It’s completely quiet. There’s lots of wild animals. That history of the pioneers is still alive here,” Beasley said.

For more information about the museum, search for “Ancient Order of United Workmen AOUW Hall, Antelope, Oregon” on Facebook.