ANTELOPE, Oregon – Less than half a square mile in area and stuck in the middle of nowhere, this tiny town of 45 residents is hardly a tourist mecca. But since the release of “Wild Wild Country,” the hit Netflix series that documents its takeover by a cult in the 1980s, it has seen a steady stream of curiosity-seekers pass through.
The out-of-towners are easy to spot. They pose for photos near the town sign or outside the Antelope Café, an institution featured prominently in the series (though it’s been out of business for years). There are those who roam the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the colorful characters who starred in “Wild Wild Country” (only one still lives here). The more adventurous will drive another 25 miles along winding dirt roads to visit what remains of the city built from scratch by followers of the controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as Osho or the Bhagwan). If they’re lucky, they may be offered a guided tour of some of the original Rajneeshee buildings by staff of the Christian camp now located on the premises.
“Wild, Wild Country” – the six-part documentary series released by Netflix in March, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival – chronicles the fierce battle that played out here between members of a free-love cult who sought to create a utopian city in the central Oregon desert, and the conservative folks from the nearby town who had no tolerance for their way of life and felt terrorized by their presence.
Following a crackdown on their ashram in India, the Rajneeshees, known for their red clothing, relocated in 1981 to Oregon, where they purchased a huge ranch. Outnumbering the townies many times over, they were able to gain control of the local government. Antelope was subsequently renamed Rajneesh (and the Antelope Café, the only eatery in town, had its name changed accordingly to Zorba the Buddha). But no sooner had the Rajneeshees set up camp than the law enforcement authorities were on their case. When several leaders of the cult were eventually implicated in criminal activities (including a mass poisoning and a plot to assassinate the U.S. attorney for the Oregon district), the local story made national news. In 1985, Osho – who had meanwhile accumulated a fleet of fancy cars, among other riches – fled the commune with his top associates, leaving it to dissolve.
There are no Rajneeshees walking the streets of Antelope today, but there is a place where fans of the Netflix series can indulge their taste for more. Outside a two-story building at the far end of the main street, a handwritten sign advertising “Wild Wild Wild Wild [sic] Country,” beckons visitors. On exhibit in the large, cluttered room on the ground floor is an assortment of memorabilia collected from the four-year period that the Rajneeshees reigned here. And behind a desk in the back corner – with not one but two Israeli flags perched on it – sits Cody Flecker, a Jew from Brooklyn who likes to show off the collection, and in the process, share with visitors his take on events. “There was more going on here than just kumbaya,” he says.
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Suffice it to say that Flecker, a 74-year-old Trump supporter who lives in this historic building (built in 1898 as the headquarters of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, something like the Freemasons), which doubles as a museum, is no big fan of the Rajneeshees. In fact, when they took over Antelope, he was living in Portland, about 145 miles away, but was “under strict orders,” he says, not to visit.
He won’t say who issued those orders but will say why they were issued. “I’d have killed these people,” he explains with a chuckle.
Flecker has been collecting Rajneeshee memorabilia for more than 20 years. But only after the release of “Wild Wild Country” – and the renewed interest the series has sparked in the cult’s history – did he think about putting it on exhibit for the public at large. Among the highlights of the collection are old editions of The Rajneesh Times, in which huge photos of Osho are featured on virtually every page, leaving very little space for actual news. The old newspapers, Flecker recounts, were discovered by chance in a freezer outside the Antelope Café, years after the cult fled Oregon.
There are also books about the Baghwan, photographs of Antelope dating back to the period of Rajneeshee rule, a piece of stationary bearing the logo “City of Rajneesh,” a poster advertising the “Third Annual World Celebration” in Rajneesh, and a timeline of events under the headline “Rajneesh Invade Antelope.”
Some of the items in the collection, Flecker says, were purchased on eBay only recently, but most were contributed by his neighbor and fellow history buff John Silvertooth, the former Antelope mayor, who is featured in the opening scene of “Wild Wild Country.” That opening, modern-day scene, in fact, was filmed right in this room, and visitors who are interested can watch it on a screen installed in the exhibit space precisely for that purpose. Silvertooth, incidentally, is the only current resident of Antelope who was around during the time of the Rajneeshees.
Flecker describes his mission as educational. “People watching the series might get the idea this was all about free sex and drugs, but there was a lot more to it,” he says. “There was also big money involved. When the Rajneeshees came into this little baby town, people here were terribly frightened and didn’t know how to respond. What I’m hoping to do through this museum is to raise awareness of groups like this and the harm they can do.”
To drive his point home, Flecker draws a parallel with something more personal. “It’s like the Holocaust,” he says. “Why do we have all these movies about the Holocaust? Why do we have to show concentration camps? Everybody knows what took place. We show these things because otherwise people tend to forget. It goes in one ear and right out the other.”
Flecker doesn’t advertise his museum, but visitors passing through the town, more often than not, end up at his doorstep. “Yesterday, we had four people show up from Finland,” he relays, “and since the Netflix series came out, we’ve also had visitors from France, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Israel. Antelope isn’t on the way to anywhere, so these are people who are going out of their way to come here.”
On an average weekday, Flecker says, he gets about eight visitors, and on weekends, often three times as many.
‘A bit of a psychic’
The son of Jewish immigrants from Austria, Flecker grew up in a traditional home in Brighton Beach, New York, where he attended Hebrew school until his bar mitzvah. What brought him out to cowboy country? In 1994, he explains, he and his wife Barbara Beasely were vacationing in Bend, Oregon, when almost on a whim, they decided to take a drive to Antelope. While passing through the town, they noticed a “For Sale” sign outside an old Victorian house. Within a matter of hours, they had signed a contract to purchase it.
“Part of the problem is I’m a bit of a psychic,” says Flecker, in his still-heavy Brooklyn accent. “The minute I walked into that house, it was as if I knew everything about it, and I wanted it.” For the next seven years, he and Beasely, a convert to Judaism, would spend their weekends in Antelope, while maintaining Portland as their base. In 2001, they moved all their belongings from Portland to Antelope. They still spend part of the year, though, in Tucson, Arizona, where Beasely holds a teaching position at a local community college.
“We tend to think of Jews as living either in shtetls or in big cities, but very often when they have the opportunity or feel a calling – like Israelis living in the Golan Heights or Judea and Samaria – they go to remote places,” says Flecker, when asked what a Jew like him is doing in a place like this.
Before settling into retirement, Flecker worked as a collection manager for a bank, though he is loath to provide much detail on the pre-Antelope chapter of his life. The most he is willing to divulge is that he spent close to two years in the mid-1970s working in communist Poland and the Soviet Union as a representative of the American Council of Christian Churches, a fundamentalist Protestant organization. In the 1960s, after graduating from the University of New Mexico with a business degree, he spent time roaming around South America. He is not willing to reveal what he did there, though.
Flecker visited Israel only once, in 1995, but follows news out of the country religiously. He says he is pleased that Trump decided to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but frustrated that Israel is not “more assertive” in its dealings with its enemies, especially Hamas. “When someone comes to hurt you, you get them back,” he says.
The Israelis aren’t the only ones who have disappointed him. When the Rajneeshees first moved into the area with plans to take over Antelope, Flecker had hoped that the townies would respond more forcefully. “The people here all carry guns, whether it’s pistols, rifles or shotguns,” he says. “But nobody here ever opened fire on those terrorists. They just believed someone would come rescue them, and I think they still feel guilty about that.”
He points proudly to his latest acquisition. It’s a 35-year-old billboard, acquired about a month ago, advertising a special evening of events at Zorba the Buddha (the former Antelope Café) that included live music, a magic show and a striptease act. Flecker is thrilled to have gotten his hands on it because he believes it proves what he has long claimed.
“I don’t mind the other things, but once you’ve got a striptease act in there – that tells me this movement had nothing to do with religion and spirituality like they would have you believe,” he says. “It was all about business and money.”