Ballarat, at the base of the Panamint Mountain Range in southern California, was founded in 1897 and named after a gold camp in Australia by an Australian immigrant called George Riggins. However, Ballarat wasn’t a gold strike itself; instead, it was a supply town serving the mines in the Panamints.
For its first few years, Ballarat thrived. Some 500 people made their homes in this desolate part of California and the town had seven saloons, a post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels and a Wells Fargo station. But, apparently, no church.
Then, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, mining began to decline. The Ratcliff Mine in Pleasant Canyon, which had been one of the biggest markets for Ballarat, closed in 1903 and the town was soon dying. In 1917 came that final death knell, the closure of the post office. A few hardy characters – including the famous Shorty Harris and ‘Seldom Seen’ Slim hung on, but Ballarat is today most renowned for ‘residents’ who never lived there: the Manson Family.
In the 1960s, Charles Manson and his followers moved into the Barker Ranch south of Ballarat, travelling through what was left of the town to get there. In October 1969, he and others were arrested at the Barker Ranch, Ballarat being the last place Manson was a free man. Today Ballarat has a small store run by Rocky Novak with irregular opening hours, the remaining building are mostly in ruins (a plan in the 1960s to make an RV park here failed miserably and finally petered out in the 1990s) and the only reminder of the Manson Family connection is an old Dodge Power Wagon.
There’s argument over exactly who this belonged to – although it definitely wasn’t Manson himself. Some believe it belonged to Charles ‘Tex’ Watson who broke down in Ballarat trying to escape. While Watson did own one of the two Power Wagons the Family needed to drive up Goler Wash to the ranch (they did get a Chevy school bus up to the ranch, although no-one’s too sure how they did it), and it did indeed stay in Ballarat for a while, it was eventually traded off to Leon Griffin, caretaker at Briggs’ Redlands Camp. Leon took the Power Wagon to pieces and then died.
So, where did the Power Wagon now in Ballarat come from? One theory is that it belonged to Bobby Beausoleil and had been left at the ranch. When the arrests and trials were over, Kirk Barker, owner of the Barker Ranch, moved that Dodge down to Ballarat as a runaround. But no-one seems to know for sure.
Ballarat does have one other claim to a place in popular culture. At the beginning of Easy Rider, when Peter Fonda throws away his Rolex, he did so in Ballarat.