The subject of much fame, the tiny town of Antelope had obscure beginnings. The origin of its name is unclear, though it likely comes from the early 1800s. Supposedly, American explorers and settlers encountered a large population of pronghorns, also called antelope, in the green creek valley. True or not, sometime later a settlement bearing the name Antelope appeared on local records.
By the 1870s, the small town lay along the Dalles Military Road. This stagecoach route connected The Dalles on the Columbia to gold mines in Canyon City. Antelope served as a coach and freight stop, on the way to Sherar’s Bridge over the Deschutes River. Shortly thereafter, its name was cemented as a post office was established, and Antelope was incorporated as a town in 1901. Around the same time the Columbia Southern Railroad connected towns on the Columbia to nearby Shaniko, a few miles north of Antelope. The town’s population boomed, and then deflated over time. Antelope became a quiet ranching town for eight decades, home to no more than a few dozen people.
The situation changed dramatically in 1981 when the Rajneesh Movement arrived in town. Devotees of the Indian mystic Shree Rajneesh were recognizable by their orange, red, maroon, and pink clothes. It was an international movement based on positivity, joy, free love, and a valuation of science and mysticism over religious dogma. The group had a sizeable cash flow since the teachings of the Bhagwan were recorded in record-selling books. With these deep pockets the Rajneesh Movement bought the 64,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch just outside of Antelope. They also began buying up lots in the town proper. The movement aimed to create a utopia in the desert.
Within a year the ambitions of the movement became visible to all. Over 7,000 people moved to the Big Muddy Ranch, including the Bhagwan himself. It was renamed Rajneeshpuram Commune and incorporated as a separate community. As more Rajneeshees moved to Antelope, more of the town’s original residents sold their lots and left. The old-timers panicked, and held a vote to disincorporate. This would have prevented the town, including its school, from being taken over by the movement. By the time of the vote, however, too many Rajneeshees had moved in and the measure failed. The movement then held another vote to change the name of Antelope to something with clearer origins: the town of Rajneesh.
The movement thrived for a few years, but in 1985 it fell apart after criminal revelations. Leaders of Rajneeshpuram were arrested for attempted murder in one of the United States’ first bio-terror attacks. Salmonella was used to infect salad bars in The Dalles restaurants. Aiming to influence a local election in their favor, the movement had poisoned hundreds of people. The Bhagwan was deported in 1985 after the convictions of his staff, who were found guilty of the attack. The Oregon commune was destroyed in September of that year.
Soon after, the remaining residents of Rajneesh voted 34-0 to return the town’s name to Antelope. Rajneeshpuram fell into disrepair after the movement left. In the 1990s the commune reverted to ownership of the state. Oregon sold the land to a Montana billionaire who then donated it to a Christian parachurch organization. Many of the commune’s structures remain on the site, reused by a new group of devotees.
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