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Llano del Rio: From Utopia to Ghost Town

Maypole Festivities in Llano del Rio | Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection/Yale Beinecke Library
Maypole Festivities in Llano del Rio | Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection/Yale Beinecke Library | Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection/Yale Beinecke Library
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It is difficult for our modern sensibilities to conceive of any possible reason for well over a thousand souls to tear up their prior existences — essentially giving up all they owned — to move to a bleak spot on a little-used map of the California desert known as the Llano del Rio Co-operative Colony.

At the time Llano del Rio was formulated, workers had battled for reasonable working hours for decades, but an earthshaking change wouldn’t happen until years into the future, with the help of Henry Ford. Ford’s greatest invention wasn’t the assembly line, or the Model T, but rather the 8-hour work day, which in so many ways single-handedly put into motion our current consumer culture. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that the 5-day/40-hour work week at a living wage was put into practice. We have progressed from those times to where today’s human almost universally can fulfill nearly every need, imagined or real, at the touch of a button, or with a verbal command into a modern day version of a vaunted Dick Tracy-era wrist radio.

In the 1910s, when Llano was established, things were very different. The average worker labored between 10 and 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and the financial rewards of their labor were rarely enough to support a family. Simply put, Llano offered a way out of the “circle the drain” life of most Americans. More importantly, it did so while forcibly demonstrating to the rest of the world — before the Russian Revolution and during the same time of Palestine’s kibbutz — the validity of dreams.

Could there have been a better place for these dreams than in California? And, in that time and place, Southern California?

Socialism, which has only now — 100 years later — just begun to recover from its near destruction by both the forces of right wing reaction and left wing Bolshevism, was the topic of the day. The widespread acceptance of socialism as the accepted inevitable future is almost incomprehensible to us today. Christian socialists, cowboy socialists, and socialist miners were bastions of contemporary conservative culture gone mad with visions of a just and equitable world. It was a world where ancestors of today’s alt-right waved the red flag. Girard, Kansas — not Berkeley — was the home of the Appeal to Reason socialist newspaper, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin — not Greenwich Village — featured a socialist government. Farmers throughout the Midwest rallied to the cause of the coming inevitable revolution.

In many ways, the background to this was the battle between The Los Angeles Times, which was the mouthpiece of employers under Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, and the West Coast union movement emanating from San Francisco but centered in Los Angeles. Southern California’s prime spokesman was an Indiana-born lawyer named Job Harriman, a veteran of the concept to align the union movement with the Socialist Party’s political aims.

Harriman had also frittered away his time as storekeeper for the Altruria colony outlet in Sonoma County. Unitarian minister Edward Payne founded a brief flame of a colony based on both Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” and its companion piece, William Dean Howells’ popular fiction of the future “A Traveler from Altruria.” Harriman, who had trained for the ministry, and was also a believer in the socialist future, was a good fit, but the project wallowed in inexperience, and expired soon after.

In a way, the apex of the union/socialist movement in America began with the bombing of The Los Angeles Times on October 1, 1910. As part of a long-term national bombing campaign directed by officials of the Indianapolis-based structural steel union, the Times bombing was the first action that resulted in the loss of life. The detective agency headed by William J. Burns, who represented the manufacturer organizations, had long had a high-ranking union official “mole” in on the bombings, and was quickly able to round up the perpetrators, James B. and John J. McNamara, along with Ortie McManigal (the planter of the infernal device) and other co-conspirators.

The case bore a resemblance to the then-recent trial of union leaders in the case of Moyer, Haywood and Pettibone, who were accused of the ex-governor Frank Steunenberg’s dynamite murder. Famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow (in a case that would in many ways prove his undoing) and associate lawyer Job Harriman came to the defense of the McNamara brothers.

But Harriman also had other ideas. The coalition of local union leaders and socialists brought together by the McNamara trial was the fruition of Harriman’s long-held ideals, and together they sought the goal of socialism in action, and to capture the upcoming mayoral election in the City of the Angels.

Girls gathered in front of hotel | Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection/Yale Beinecke Library
Girls gathered in front of hotel | Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection/Yale Beinecke Library

There was a problem. The McNamara brothers were guilty, and guilty beyond a doubt. Harriman, the unions, and the socialists had essentially been tricked into aligning themselves with — and backing — a dead horse. Harriman not only lost the election, but the Socialist Party and the union movement had been thereafter tarred with the feathers of anarchy and destruction.

Which leads us back again to adversity and Llano. With the group he had assembled for his mayoral candidacy, Harriman purchased land in the Southern California desert near Littlerock, California. He formed a corporation and advertised for stockholders and colonists to populate the dream of a new and just tomorrow. 

The word went out to the world that here was the culmination of self-determination, the product of one’s labor going directly into the betterment of self and community.

Capitalist socialism — try that one on for size, you saviors of the status quo and the almighty dollar!

The ruins of Llano del Rio, California | Binksternet
The ruins of Llano del Rio, California | Binksternet

Beginning in May of 1914, the first settlers to begin building their future were members of the Young People’s Socialist League (or YPSL). Tents provided the first housing, and coyotes, rabbits and Joshua trees were still the majority stockholders. Yet by the colony’s first anniversary celebration, there were dances ‘round the Maypole, music from the in-house mandolin orchestra, and speeches from the platform. Colonist (and former Harriman secretary) Mellie Miller would remember years later how residents “felt happy, exhilarated, and confident the Llano del Rio Co-operative Colony would, indeed, become a paradise on earth” (“Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles” by Paul Greenstein).

To quote English writer and novelist Aldous Huxley, who had lived in Llano’s backyard in the early 1940s, “In co-operative communities dawns are peculiarly rosy. For this very reason, midday is apt to seem peculiarly stifling, and the afternoons intolerable and interminable.” In his essay on the community, Huxley went on to use the poem “Ozymandias” as his guidepost, concluding his views on the experiment with, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Counterintuitively, failure leads people to come together in hard times and adversity, while success often brings death to the institution. Rival factions and jealousies battle for the little piece of cake acquired, as some do the work and others do battle. Harriman found this to be the case at Llano. Attacked from without by the locals and the press of the Los Angeles Times, combined with the coming involvement of America in the World War, physical problems with the site itself — and discontent from within by protesting colonists who felt that their pet facet of the socialist diamond was not adequately represented — all led to the dissolution of the colony. The death blows of a colony director — or a wolf — resulted in the abandonment of the properties, and ultimately the end of the dream.

But of course, we must ask: Did it end? Does it ever end? The question of Llano’s success is ever paramount to us today. A century has wrought myriad changes in our social system, with many of the reforms championed by the Llano systems taken for granted in our current world — to a degree that those rights fought for and championed a century ago are being used today to dismantle those very same rights.

San Gabriel mountains frame shell of ill-fated Llano del Rio colony | George Brich/Valley Times Photo Collection courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
San Gabriel mountains frame shell of ill-fated Llano del Rio colony | George Brich/Valley Times Photo Collection courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Henry Ford realized famously that treating his work force well would keep them buying consumer goods (notably his cars) and keep the flames of progress from his factory walls.

It is telling that Llano’s move to Louisiana in 1917, while saving the colony from ruin for another 20 plus years, took it from its California roots to a period of relative stability as a sort of retirement home for aging radicals. The fire of California was gone with the move, along with the departure and death of Harriman as leader.

That fire, though always subject to both corruption and ridicule, is what brought us all to California. In its many manifestations for good and evil, that fire brought us here, and will continue to do so till we lose our own fires.

Top Image: Maypole Festivities in Llano del Rio | Paul Kagan Utopian Communities Collection/Yale Beinecke Library

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