What’s next for Hunter S. Thompson’s Owl Farm?
November 27, 2016
A writer's retreat, a private museum, a public off-site gathering place for the Gonzo faithful and a brand of cannabis products are all in the works at Owl Farm, the iconic longtime home of Hunter S. Thompson in Woody Creek.
The author's wife, Anita Thompson, took over ownership of the property this summer and now has big plans for the rustic homestead and birthplace of gonzo journalism.
"I'm excited," she said. "It's a lot of fresh starts."
OWNERSHIP AND POT
In June, Anita Thompson bought Owl Farm — the Woody Creek property that Hunter Thompson frequently referred to as his "fortified compound" in his writing. The 42-acre property includes the modest two-bedroom home where Thompson lived, wrote and raised peacocks from the mid-1960s until his death by suicide in 2005, and an adjacent cabin.
Under the terms of a trust that the author had set up before his passing, Anita had the right to continue living on the property for the rest of her life but it would be owned by the Gonzo Trust — a legal entity overseen by his appointed attorneys and trustees.
"The unintended consequences were that I had to be married to the trustees, where any time I had to do a repair I had to have a conversation with these lawyers," Thompson explained of her motivation to buy it.
The sale that closed in June gives her full ownership and control of the property. The appraised value of her occupancy rights was $3.7 million, which exceeded the $2.55 million appraised value of Owl Farm. She struck a deal with the trustees to buy the property back from the trust for $500,000 (with funds she said she borrowed from friend and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay). At the same time, Thompson gave up her rights as a beneficiary of her husband's book sales but gained full ownership rights to the "Gonzo" logo and to Thompson's likeness.
"So I own the house, the property, the logo and Hunter's likeness," she said. "And now I can protect it, as I always have, but now I can do it with full ownership."
Her first project with the author's likeness, she said, will be a Gonzo brand of cannabis to be sold in recreational marijuana dispensaries.
"Since it became legal I get approached probably once a month by cannabis growers, dispensaries," Thompson said. "I've had probably 10 meetings in the last three years and I always ended up saying 'No' because it's the same story every time: somebody wants to slap Hunter's name on their strain."
Thompson said she has, however, saved six different strains of cannabis that the "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" author actually smoked. She is now working with a cannabis company to grow those strains — or hybrids of them — and sell them to the public. She said she was glad that she held off on partnering on a marijuana brand until it could be done right.
"If I put Hunter's name on somebody else's strain I can never go back and say, 'No, this is the authentic one,'" she explained.
She also had been reluctant to go into the cannabis business because her focus, in the decade after Hunter Thompson's death, was on preserving and promoting his literary legacy. She was fearful that his notorious hard-partying lifestyle might overshadow his contributions to literature.
"For 10 years we were always careful to steer the conversation back to Hunter's work," she said. "Because it was never guaranteed that Hunter's work would be appreciated into this generation."
It's clear now that his legacy as a prose stylist, comic genius and incisive chronicler of his times is solid. Along with popular biographies and memoirs, over the past decade, Hunter Thompson's work, she noted, has become a popular subject for academic study and remains a literary polestar for young rebel readers. With that stature secure, she is more amenable to embracing his wild side.
"I was always steering toward his work and away from his lifestyle, but now I feel like I can talk more openly about his lifestyle," she said. "I'm proud to do it now. Before, it was a little too risky."
She added with a laugh: "I'm looking forward to being a drug lord."
The Hunter Thompson legacy is also living on in two scholarships that Anita recently established in his name for journalism students at the University of Kentucky and for military veterans at Columbia University.
MUSEUMS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE
Profits from the cannabis deal, Thompson said, will help fund renovations at Owl Farm to turn it into a private museum and a writer's retreat.
In early August, she spent three days at the Hemingway Preserve in Ketchum, Idaho, where Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway's last home still stands and is managed by the Nature Conservancy. She is aiming to model the future of Owl Farm after the private museum and nature preserve she studied there.
"I learned a lot when I went to Hemingway's place," she said.
A portion of the house at Owl Farm would serve as a retreat for writers and others working in the gonzo milieu. She is not yet taking applications and is still figuring out the process of evaluation by which she would select who would be granted a stay at Owl Farm, she said. It may end up being by invitation only.
"I would look for applicants like journalists, artists, political activists," she said.
Renovations are currently underway to seal the retreat area of the house off from the museum section, which would preserve the famed kitchen and command center where Hunter Thompson wrote and which he covered in handwritten notes, photos, memorabilia and other items.
Thompson herself will still call Owl Farm home, she said, but will move into the adjacent cabin on the property.
Her working plan is to also have a public museum space elsewhere, in Woody Creek or in Aspen, that would give fans a place to honor Thompson.
"I saw, after visiting Ketchum, how important it is to have a public space, a museum, with items like typewriters and clothes and books and papers," she said. "Somewhere people can feel welcome. I can't do that here (at Owl Farm). It can't be public. It would be a zoo."
The preserved Owl Farm would be open to visitors by appointment only. She is tentatively aiming have it ready by May 2017.
Thompson had previously floated the idea of also opening the property as a public museum and bed and breakfast. She scrapped that concept as the onerous task of running a commercial property and the toll it would take on the home became clear. She may, however, open it up to some paying guests, she said, to raise funds for writers' residencies and for the museum.
On the trip to Ketchum, she also returned a pair of elk antlers that Hunter Thompson stole from the Hemingway house in 1964. He had traveled there on assignment for the National Observer to write about Hemingway's last days (the story he penned about the trip, "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum," is collected in his 1979 anthology "The Great Shark Hunt"). The writer had intended to return the antlers himself, Thompson said.
"We wanted and intended to take a road trip and quietly return them," she said. "We never did. So I just wanted to do that for Hunter. And for karmic reasons — not to have stolen antlers and expect people not to love Owl Farm to death. … I couldn't honestly expect people to behave properly if I had those stolen antlers."
After symbolically returning the antlers to the Hemingway home in Ketchum, they were shipped to Hemingway's grandson, Sean, in New York.
Eventually, Thompson said, she would like to place a conservation easement on the rest of Owl Farm to preserve forever the pristine sloping acreage where Hunter Thompson's ashes fell after being shot out of a 153-foot tall cannon there in August 2005. In recent years, she has converted the base area where the cannon was constructed into a meditation labyrinth.
With all that's ahead at Owl Farm, this appears to be a turning point.
"Here in Woody Creek, it's like a new chapter for Hunter's legacy," she said.