Dropping in on Rancho Obi-Wan, one of the most amazing private collections of Star Wars memorabilia in the world.
Just a little over 40 miles north of San Francisco lies a sleepy little community that was once known for its chicken farms. Dubbed “Chickaluma” and “The Egg Capital of the World,” Petaluma, California, was renowned for its chicken-processing plants; one of the largest, built in the 1930s, still stands in the center of the town. Many of the buildings in the town are also historic, dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although the town has since become a junior Silicon Valley, with more technology startups than chickens per capita, it’s still a sleepy, quaint little place.
Just outside the mini-metropolis, down a tree-lined country road lies a small ranch that was once home to more than 30,000 famous Petaluma chickens in four large 30′ x 100′ hen houses. The chickens are long gone and the redwood-framed structures have been converted into a museum. No, not a chicken museum, but something far more culturally significant than poultry: Star Wars memorabilia.
This is Rancho Obi-Wan, a life’s work, mecca of collectibles and memorabilia and the home of Stephen J. Sansweet, perhaps the most rabid collector of Star Wars objects and ephemera on the planet.
A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of the books “From Concept to Screen to Collectible,” “Star Wars: The Toys Postcards,” “I’d Just as Soon Kiss a Wookie! The Quotable Star Wars” and “Star Wars Encyclopedia,” Sansweet worked as the Director of Content Management for Lucasfilm, an opportunity that allowed him to be at the center of all fan activity, where all his fellow collectors were. As a result, his own personal collection grew and he ended up purchasing the property in Petaluma in 1998, primarily because of the four hen houses and the amazing amount of space they would allow him to display his collection.
“By the summer of 1999, we finished the framing and drywall and were putting up the racks,” Sansweet recalls. “I had friends helping me to put it all together and they were all saying this should become a museum. That was a difficult concept for me; this isn’t a museum in the strictest sense. People can’t really just pay to walk through and look at all of the collection. It’s about sharing my experience, why a certain item is part of the collection. It’s about me leading them through and giving them the funny stories, the goofs, the amazing finds, how this fits into pop culture, why that was done that way, can you believe this? I share my experience, knowledge, passion and stories — and that’s the experience of Rancho Obi-Wan. We decided to make it a membership museum — the whole idea was to give a broad view of Star Wars merchandise and its worldwide impact.”
Friends eventually convinced Sansweet to form Rancho Obi-Wan as a formal company, a nonprofit membership organization where members can schedule a private tour of the collection with Sansweet. The membership fees are only used to help with the upkeep of the museum. “This is my personal collection,” Sansweet explains. “It doesn’t belong to the company. I have an annual lease of the collection to Rancho Obi-Wan for zero dollars, and no ROW monies go toward building the collection at all.”
Sansweet retired from Lucasfilm in 2010 and now writes books and runs Rancho Obi-Wan full-time.
Driving up to the property, you first encounter the white fence that surrounds the grounds and the large white iron gate decorated with a metal cutout of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Once you get inside the first converted hen house, up a small flight of stairs, you’re greeted at the top with a small bookshelf centered with a bust of Sir Alec Guinness as Kenobi. At the touch of a button, Sansweet starts an audio recording from James Arnold Taylor, the voice of Obi-Wan for The Clone Wars animated series.
With a kind of wink-wink wry humor that’s reminiscent of the Disney Jungle Cruise or the Universal Studios back lot tour, Taylor implores guests to “stretch out with your feelings, but not with your hands.” He describes Rancho Obi-Wan as a “splendid hive of fun and thrillery” and notes that guests have “taken their first step into a larger world” where they will see things beyond imagination while also warning that “a visit here can lead to feelings of intense jealously.”
After the recording, the tour takes a hard right to show the bathroom, both for utility purposes and for the start of the collection. Inside the bathroom are shelves jam-packed with 30-plus years of Star Wars-related toiletries. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, paper cups, perfumes, soaps, shampoos, shaving cream, bath bubbles, body wash, adhesive bandages, lotion, lip balm and even toilet paper — all officially licensed products of the Star Wars universe.
Beyond the loo comes a quick tour of a hallway of posters, which comprise only an iota of Sansweet’s near 3,000 different posters. Next in line is the flat storage room, where the rest of the 3,000 posters are carefully stored in architect files and dozens upon dozens of spiral notebooks hold trading cards, postcards, stamps, food wrappers, greeting cards, various card games, cardboard cutouts, stickers, and all kinds of random flat items that include bottle caps, film frames, phone calling cards, gift cards, plus much more. In this room, one starts to get a sense of the expanse of Sansweet’s collection. There could easily be 20,000 items here alone.
Backing out of the flat storage room, Sansweet leads me into the library, a room perhaps 10′ wide by 20′ long and stuffed with bookshelves filled with every novel, comic, technical manual and movie storybook imaginable in 37 different languages, including Braille. Already, the expansive nature of Sansweet’s collection is impressive, but it’s not over yet, not by a long shot.
Sansweet then leads me to a closed door where, with another remote, he starts the famous John Williams Star Wars fanfare and opens the door.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan and fairly significant collector, myself, I cannot stifle my gasp when the door opens. I’m first greeted by the sight of a 6′ statue of Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, complete with glowing lightsaber. Behind him may as well be a well-stocked Toys“R”Us with nothing but Star Wars toys. Shelves upon shelves packed to the brim with various licensed and unlicensed bric-a-brac bearing the Star Wars name.
Taking a sharp left from the entrance, I’m greeted by life-sized versions of the cantina band who, upon another remote activation, begin to play with mild animation. “These were part of a soda fountain display at the FAO Schwartz in Las Vegas and were sold in the bankruptcy proceeding,” Sansweet comments.
Hanging on the wall behind the band is an actual door from the Mos Eisley cantina set, purchased for $100 from a farmer in Tunisia, who was, ironically, using it as a door to his chicken coop.
The tour continues past glass cases filled with officially licensed prop replicas along with some screen-used props, including a hand from C-3PO from The Empire Strikes Back and a prototype blaster used to photograph Boba Fett for the Kenner action figure packaging. Once you get to the shelving, the real breadth of the collection begins to be seen. “We estimate that what you see here is about 10% of the overall collection,” Sansweet muses. “My friend and associate, Anne, came to Rancho Obi-Wan to catalog the entire collection. We estimated that would be a six-month job… but she’s been here now six-and-a-half years. She’s gotten married and both she and her husband are now part of our family.”
Indeed, Anne and her husband live on the Ranch. In more than half a decade, Anne has cataloged an estimated one third of all of Sansweet’s collection, over 90,000 items.
“There’s a lot of stuff,” he says with a smirk.
When asked about an estimated value for his collection, Sansweet cringes. “There’s no estimated value… I don’t know how to do that and it sort of freaks me out. I’m always surprised by what people will pay for some things. I have sold things, of course, to help pay for the museum and the expansion. When someone makes you an incredible offer, even if it’s for something you love, you have to consider that. I was the steward for many wonderful props for many years, and sometimes they have to go on to different homes. I can enjoy something for 20 years, and hope that the buyer can also enjoy it for another 20. I still have everything that is truly important to me.”
I muse that it might be wise for me to take my wife to Rancho Obi-Wan, if for no other reason than to see that I’m not quite as loony-birds as she thinks. “I’ve saved a lot of relationships,” Sansweet chuckles. “A couple will come, sometimes both collectors, sometimes just one hardcore collector, and the other will look around and say, ‘OK, honey, I get it. I can live with it… just don’t ever get like this!’”