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Spahn Ranch: How a Western Movie Set Became the Home of the Manson Family

Today, Spahn Ranch is known as the dusty commune where Charles Manson indoctrinated the Manson Family and members of the cult plotted the Tate-LaBianca murders. But before the ranch was associated with tragedy, it was a piece of Hollywood history.

Several westerns, from B movies to A-list projects, were filmed at the Spahn Movie Ranch. According to Den of Geek, the movies filmed at the 55 acre ranch include The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell, and Gregory Peck's Duel in the Sun. Even television classics, such as Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and Zorro, are believed to have been filmed there.

So how did this quaint ranch at 12000 Santa Susana Pass Road, where the Lone Ranger once roamed, go from a Hollywood haven to the site of a murderous plot?

The History of Spahn Ranch

This is the Spahn movie ranch near Chatsworth, a Los Angeles suburb, shown Dec. 11, 1969, where Charles Manson and his "family" of hippies lived at the time actress Sharon Tate and seven others were slain. (AP Photo)

According to Curbed LA, the ranch was originally homesteaded by farmer JR Williams in 1885. Following Williams, the ranch was passed around to a number of different owners. In 1947, Dr. Sharon M. Atkins sold the property to Lee and Ruth McReynolds, who transformed the property into a Western movie town in an effort to compete with the Iverson Movie Ranch, where John Wayne and Buster Keaton had filmed.

In 1953, the couple sold the property to rancher George Spahn, who rented out the property to industry folks filming Western flicks. (Spahn was known as the go-to man for Western film props.) But as the public interest in Western movies began to fade, so did Spahn Ranch. Spahn kept the ranch afloat by hosting weekend cowboys and tourists who were eager to visit the ranch and go on horse rides through southern California.

The Manson Family Takes Over

Two members of the Charles Manson "family," Pat, left, and Rocky hold three Appaloosa horses at the George C. Spahn ranch where Manson and his followers once camped, shown March 19, 1971. Only a few of the members remain at the ranch now located 40 miles northwest of the Los Angeles courtroom where Manson has been on trial for 10 months in the slaying of Sharon Tate and seven others. (AP Photo/George Brich)

In 1968, after a falling out with The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, who had let Manson crash at his Sunset Boulevard home, the Manson Family arrived at Spahn Ranch. Spahn agreet to let them stay at the ranch in exchange for helping with upkeep. The women of the Manson Family tended to the then 80-year-old Spahn, who was nearly blind. Among these women was Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who later attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.

Unbeknownst to Spahn, Manson started indoctrinating his followers with talk of an apocalyptic race war he called "Helter Skelter," named after The Beatles song.

The Manson Family Murders

As Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi writes in his true crime book Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders, in August of 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, under the direction of Manson, invaded the home of actress Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski and murdered Tate, hairstylist Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Wojciech Frykowski and Folgers coffee heiress Abigail Folger at 10050 Cielo Drive.

The following night, Manson drove Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten to 3301 Waverly Drive to murder Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Linda Kasabian was present during the murders but didn't take part. Kasabian later became a star witness during the trail.

On January 25, 1971, Manson was convicted and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court invalidated all death sentences prior to 1972. Manson died in prison in 2017.

Susan Atkins was convicted and spent life in prison until her death in 2009.

After two retrials, Leslie Van Houten was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy. She was denied parole in 2019.

Patricia Krenwinkle is the longest-incarcerated female inmate in the California penal system.

Tex Watson was convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. He's been denied parole multiple times, most recently in 2016.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Spahn Ranch is depicted in the 2019 Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywoodstarring Brad Pitt and Leonardo Dicaprio.

In one eerie scene, Pitt's character Cliff Booth visits the hippie ghost town to visit George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and has a less than friendly interaction with the Manson crew.

"It's the production design [by Barbara Ling]. One of the best sets I ever had of any of my movies was rebuilding the Spahn Ranch," Tarantino told IndieWire. "And we did a wonderful job casting those gals. It's scary and it is creepy. We're not doing anything to make anything scary or creepy, it just is. It's a wonderful alchemy we captured and I didn't break the mood."

Spahn Ranch Today

In 1970, a wildfire destroyed much of Spahn Ranch, including the buildings that were once featured in Hollywood westerns.

Today, Spahn ranch is part of California's Santa Susana Pass State Park in Chatsworth.

A boulder marked "Manson Family Cave," near the cave where the Manson family members took their famous photo, is one of the only reminders of the site's dark past.

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