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In Search of Los Angeles’ Lost Socialist Colony, Llano del Rio

It’s a typical summer day in the desert of Southern California. Very little breeze and blazing, unforgiving heat. We’re in the Mojave on an excursion to find the ruins of Llano del Rio, a socialist colony that sprouted up here in 1914. The temperature is well over 100 and it feels even hotter. As we drive past barren fields, a few groves of Joshua Trees and miles upon miles of scrub brush along Pearblossom Highway — that is, California State Route 138 — it’s hard to imagine an off-the-grid band of leftists calling this sunbaked land home over a century ago.

Job Harriman, the founder of this utopian community, ran as Eugene Debs’ Veep in 1900 and later for California governor and twice for mayor of Los Angeles, almost winning the thing in 1911 with 44% of the vote. He likely would have won had he not lent his legal services to the infamous McNamara brothers, who blew up the Los Angeles Times building a year earlier. His association with the McNamaras was the death knell of his political aspirations.

The bombing, which killed 21 Times’ employees and injured another 100, was carried out by J.B. McNamara and organized by his older brother J.J., both Irish American Trade Unionists, who opted for violent coercion as efforts to organize unions in Los Angeles were proving futile. After carrying out numerous bombings of ironworks in the city, at least 110 from 1906-1911, J.J. decided it was time to go after the Times, whose editorial board was vehemently anti-union. An unwitting Job Harriman came to the brothers’ defense and allegedly knew nothing of their guilt when the McNamaras copped a plea with the aid of Clarence Darrow, a renowned lawyer of the time.

After losing another mayoral race in 1913, Harriman decided to abandon city politics and put his Marxist ideals to the test. With the help of a group of like-minded investors, Harriman bought 9,000 acres with water rights in Antelope Valley on the western edge of the Mojave Desert in Los Angeles County. He sold shares to families for $500 cash. It was to be a hard-working, yet playful cooperative full of art and music, and by 1914 over 1,000 people had relocated to the community from Los Angeles and elsewhere. Their dreams were big but the conditions harsh.

“It became apparent to me that a people would never abandon their means of livelihood, good or bad, capitalistic or otherwise until other methods were developed which would promise advantages at least as good as those by which they were living,” said Harriman.

***

Mark, our trusty guide, has been here many times before but assures my wife Chelsea and me that it’s likely to be an adventure. Our dog Joni agrees. She’s a rescue from the streets of Baja, and I’m certain she knows a thing or two about adventure. She’s squirming to get out of the car, anxiously awaiting our arrival. As Mark takes a couple of wrong turns, he recognizes his mistake and backtracks a bit until he spots an old silo.

“Here we are,” promises Mark, as he veers his vehicle to the left and hops over a few rocks down a dusty path, leading to what looks to me like nowhere. “How’s this for a communist paradise?”

Two hundred yards down the dirt road and we finally arrive. Baja Joni is the first to leap out, she has to pee, but the ground is far too hot for her bare paws. She scurries for shade. The pee will have to wait. Chelsea and Mark circle around the back of the rig to retrieve their large format film cameras. Both are working artists, and whatever one may think of this merciless landscape, they find intrigue in its obscurity.

I’m sold. It is a wondrous place. The San Gabriel Mountains flank the horizon, and heavy rains last winter have kept the vegetation more lush than normal for late June. It’s also crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky. I close my eyes for a moment, trying to imagine a full-blown communist colony operating underfoot.

There was a nursery, So Cal’s first Montessori school, an extensive library, a kiln, a bakery, a cannery, a sawmill, a machine shop, fields full of alfalfa, a charming hotel, and a communal dining room. Llano even had a damn orchestra. This wasn’t a New Age hippie commune with free love and acid-induced orgies. This is where a party of anti-capitalists tried to make a socialist life in the desert at the turn of the 20th century. You can almost feel their energy, at least what’s left. Despite Llano being designated as a California Historical Landmark, this place is all but forgotten.

There are no placards or signs. No markings on any maps and it isn’t written about in any textbooks. There’s little indication at all this place has such a rich history. A few of the remaining structures have been graffitied. Bottles and cigarettes have been left inside the silo. No doubt this is a secret hideout for teenagers from nearby Palmdale, but I bet none are aware that if they lived here in 1915 they’d be part of an industrial school known as the Kid Kolony.

Obviously, there are reasons most Californians, even those that roll by this place now and then, don’t know it exists. America is good at burying its subversive history, especially anything that might challenge the status quo. Harriman was a visionary, even if his vision didn’t turn out quite right.

Settlers of the colony were initially promised a wage of $4 per day, an enormous amount for the time, but that was later abandoned and workers’ basic needs were met through labor and chores around the property. The outside world began to know of Llano through the pages of The Western Comrade, a left-wing paper owned by Harriman that portrayed the community as a wonderful, family-friendly commune. The Los Angeles Times retaliated against this depiction and mocked Harriman, calling Llano a fraud and a fake socialist colony.

People still came, leaving the comforts of city life behind. For the first year, most lived in tents, but later adobe structures were constructed, utilizing mostly local materials.

The local adobe clay formed the basic building block of Llano’s earliest residential architecture. A lime kiln was built … and utilized native rock to make cement for construction purposes … The Llano site was remarkably stony. This detriment was turned around by the colonists who built many foundations of stone, since it could be used at no further cost on the site. Circumstance also aided in the construction needs. One day a man was accepted into the colony despite his lack of cash. But he did have a complete sawmill outfit, which was pulled by four yokes of oxen. His equipment, set up in the San Gabriel Mountains above Llano, started producing lumber for the colony’s construction.

***

Chelsea is interested in finding the remains of the lime kiln, tucked away on the side of a bluff. Mark knows the spot. Located along a curvy, paved road, it appears. I imagine the hundreds of people that drive by have no idea what it is, or once was, but they must look on with curiosity. Around the bend, back down the hill, an old chimney pops up. This is where Llano’s hotel sat. By all accounts, it was the hub of activity at the colony. Weekend visitors who were interested in what Harriman and his community were up to would come out to see socialism in action. Members of the Young People’s Socialist League from L.A. would pile in to hear lectures and debate the politics of the day. It was also the meeting place for Llano’s governing body, The General Assembly.

Yet, not all was well with Llano. A batch of dissident settlers known as the “brush gang” wanted to oust Harriman as head of the colony. Local ranchers were also peeved at Harriman, claiming his group was violating local water rights. Their utopia was under siege. After a few lawsuits were hurled at the colony, members of the anti-socialist commission began paying Llano a visit, as well as state commissioners with the intention of shutting Llano down. Just one year in and times were proving rough for the settlers. Fresh fruit and vegetables were hard to come by and in 1915, Deputy Commissioner H.W. Bowman issued a report lambasting the colony for poor hygiene and lack of fresh food. Bowman also claimed that the colony wasn’t shared equally among all members.

Whether this is true or not is hard to prove, but it does seem that Harriman had a bit of a messiah complex. Nonetheless, from 1916-1917 the colony was persevering despite the obstacles. By this time, over 60 departments in Llano were fully functioning, including; “agriculture, architecture and surveying, art studio, bakery, barber shop, bee-keeping, cabinet shop, cannery, cleaning and pressing, clearing, fencing and grading land, dairy, fish hatchery, general store, hay and grain, hogs, horses and teaming, the hotel, irrigation, laundry, lime kiln, library, machine shop, medical department, poultry, printing, post office, rabbits, rugs, sawmill, sanitation, shoe shop, soap factory, tannery, tractors, transportation, tin shop, wood and fuel.”

Even so, the utopian vision Harriman had for Llano was about to come to a bitter end. In the latter half of 1917, a lawsuit stripped away the colony’s water rights. Without access to water, Llano’s fields could not be irrigated and its animals would not survive. Food would soon be non-existent. The aspirations of Llano del Rio was drying up faster than its cisterns.

As Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz:

After the loss of Llano’s water rights in a lawsuit–a devastating blow to its irrigation infrastructure–Harriman and a minority of colonists relocated in 1918 to Louisiana, where a hard-scrabble New Llano (a pale shadow of the original) hung on until 1939. Within twenty-four hours of the colonists’ departure, local ranchers began to demolish its dormitories and workshops, evidently with the intention of erasing any trace of the red menace. But Llano’s towering silo, cow byre, and the cobblestone foundation and twin fireplaces of its Assembly Hall, proved indestructible: as local patriotic fury subsided, they became romantic landmarks ascribed to increasingly mythic circumstances.

***

Something must be done to protect what little remains of Llano del Rio.

Aldous Huxley once lived in a former ranch house in Llano, just down the road from the dilapidated silo. Mark drives passed and tells us he’s met the friendly couple that lives there now. In a way, these desert folks are the present stewards of Llano, even if unknowingly. From their front porch, they can see the crumbling hotel chimney, the silo and rock wall that must have been part of the ranch’s feeding troughs. Huxley, who lived in the house in the 1940s, wrote the Llano settlers he met “had often talked to me nostalgically of that brass band, those mandolins and barber-shop ensembles.”

We climb back into Mark’s vehicle after a short stop near Huxley’s old home. Joni finds a comfortable nap spot and I gaze out at Llano as we drive off into the California light. It must have been a lively place for the short time Llano thrived — bustling with a hope that there was an alternative to the materialism that dominated city life just 90 miles away in Los Angeles.

Job Harriman and his community had conviction. They also had the tenacity to explore what was possible outside the confines of capitalism. Perhaps even more than the structures themselves, that’s the Llano del Rio spirit we must embrace and preserve.

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