Pilgrimages to a Galaxy Far, Far Away: Rancho Obi-Wan

This post marks the beginning of what will be a series of posts updated periodically as I visit locations that are interesting or important as a fan of Star Wars. Places that will be featured in upcoming posts will be the Redwood Forest where some of the scenes on Endor were filmed and Star Wars Celebration in Orlando. It is my hope that these articles will both give you a sense of what these places are like and maybe even inspire you to plan your own trip! May the Force be with you!

img_2874Steve Sansweet leading a tour through Rancho Obi-Wan.

From the beginning, Rancho Obi-Wan was not what I expected. From its Guinness World Record status as the largest, privately-owned Star Wars memorabilia collection in the world to Steve Sansweet’s own legendary status as a collector, it would be easy to imagine Rancho Obi-Wan resembling a traditional museum with each item cataloged and firmly ensconced in a place it hasn’t been moved from in years and Steve Sansweet as the museum director with a stern look and a cross face that warns you to not even think about touching anything. In reality, Rancho Obi-Wan is not the pristine, warehouse storeroom of a rabid collector. It is a hope chest filled with historical artifacts from various Star Wars films, collectibles that have gained an almost legendary reputation after having so many of their kind thrown unceremoniously into the garbage by moms around the world, and fan-made creations that tell stories of the impact Star Wars has had on people around the world. It’s Steve Sansweet’s collection, but it’s more an intimate celebration of the saga and its fans than it is a merchandise mountain Sansweet himself has amassed.


A Darth Vader costume pieced together from film-worn and fan made components

The easy reference to make when looking at the stacks upon stacks of memorabilia in Rancho Obi-Wan is to that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark after the Ark has been neatly packed up before being sent back to be forgotten amidst all the other artifacts. There are times when Rancho Obi-Wan feels as immense as that warehouse. When you start the tour and are greeted by a life-size Darth Vader wearing a hodge-podge of film-worn and fan-made costume elements, and all you can see are rows and rows of shelves piled high with figures, plushies, and statues extending all the way to the back of that cavernous warehouse, you can feel a little overwhelmed. I don’t like the allusion to the Raiders warehouse though because none of the artifacts Steve Sansweet has unearthed and collected have been lost in the stacks. Each film-used memento has its own story about how Sansweet rescued it from being tossed out with what the filmmakers thought was the “rest of the garbage.” Every piece of rare memorabilia has an anecdote about how fate and overzealous moms conspired to make it more desirable to collectors than the other items surrounding it. For all the Kenner action figures, vintage C-3PO cereal boxes, or first edition posters that I saw, it was the stories of Sansweet digging through the left-overs on set or interacting with his sellers that had me enraptured. Soon I felt less overwhelmed and more like I had just heard a call to adventure, as if Mr. Sansweet was my very own sweatshirt-clad, Star Warsy, Indiana Jones.


A beautiful set of Star Wars sauce dishes from Japan

Each Indiana Jones film traces his exploits across continents by showing a plane traveling across a map on his way to excavate a new find. Just as Dr. Jones’s most interesting cases often take him to faraway places, some of Sansweet’s more beautiful items are those sold in places many of us will never be able to visit. One of my favorites is a beautiful set of Japanese sauce dishes that merge the culture and artistic style of Japan with the iconography of Star Wars. The plates feature such images as a serene flight of the Millennium Falcon soaring over a field of rice and a quartet of Jawas standing (for what must be their family photo) in front of Mount Fuji. The value in these pieces is not in dollar (or yen) value but in the connection between people from all different corners of the globe through the common language of Star Wars.


A set of ceramic R2-D2 and X-Wing statues by artist Calvin Ma

Throughout all of his globetrotting adventures, Indiana Jones remains a man of the people. He does not bend the laws of physics or use the Force to win the day. He’s just a man who uses his wits and his will to fight against those forces that seek to use history and archaeology to oppress others. Rancho Obi-Wan is clearly a place made for and by the fans. Aside from the obvious, monetary connection that it is funded from donations by fans, Rancho Obi-Wan is a celebration of the fans and the way that Star Wars has inspired them. Many of the most impressive treasures on the shelves are these home-brewed (sometimes quite literally) items that demonstrate both the creativity of the artist and the passion to use art to connect ourselves more deeply with that galaxy far, far away. It’s during stories of custom lightsabers made by a father and son or ceramic sculptures of astromechs and X-Wings made to help a fan deal with personal struggles that Sansweet’s eyes light up the most, because while Star Wars is a commercial juggernaut, that is not its power. The power of Star Wars is the way that the love and craftsmanship of its creators and the stories of its characters can inspire us. It calls a father to work with his son to figure out how to make a lightsaber out of wood, so they can re-enact their favorite duel. It provides hope when we feel lost in the Death Star trenches of our own life because it tells us that sometimes we have to not listen to the doubting voices and just trust in ourselves and something greater to win the day. That’s the power of Star Wars.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can give Rancho Obi-Wan is that my wife enjoyed visiting. While she’s a pretty big Star Wars fan in her own right, she’s not the type of woman who likes to window shop. I was worried that our trip up north to Petaluma to essentially window shop someone else’s collection would bore her and leave me in her debt for doing something that was so clearly a “me thing;” instead, I found her caught up in Sansweet’s stories, taking pictures of various items that caught her interest, and gleefully running over to a an old Star Wars pinball machine to play a few games. I think that’s because Rancho Obi-Wan, for all the recognition it deserves for being the merchandise mecca of Star Wars fandom, feels as much like the home of your best friend as a museum. It’s in the handshake and pictures taken with a legendary fan like Steve Sansweet at the end of your tour. It’s right after he has reminded you that he’s just a fan like you by talking about what he thinks about recent trends in toys or the events of last week’s Star Wars: Rebels. It’s ironic that a museum that could have become nothing more than a reminder of the ability of Star Wars to turn a buck reminds fans that all the vinyl-robed Jawas in the world (and the $53,000 they can bring at auction) isn’t what Star Wars is about.


If you are interested in finding out how to become a member of Rancho Obi-Wan and taking a tour, please visit http://www.ranchoobiwan.org/

As I add new articles about new locations to this series, I will update this map with the new places I've visited. I will also include descriptions of interesting stores and tasty eateries that I have tried out, too. After all, no trip is complete with some great food!


What is your favorite Star Wars collectable you own and why is it so special to you? Share with us on Twitter at @mapplebee7567 and @farfarawayradio using the hashtag #SWtreasure !