Deep in the Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County, directly off State Route 138, are the forlorn ruins of a sunbaked, desert ghost town. Large stone chimneys, once the focal point of a cozy hotel, rise into the dry, clear blue sky, almost seeming to touch the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. Beige dirt roads lead to crumbling beige walls, cisterns full of trash, and the rough stone foundations of long-gone homes and workshops. There are no people, only the occasional scurrying lizard, whose movements are amplified in the still, silent air. These ruins serve as the collective tombstone of Llano del Rio, the briefly bustling socialist colony founded nearly a hundred years ago.
Job Harriman—handsome, earnest and charismatic—was the face of socialism in California around the turn of 20th century. A perpetual candidate, he mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the governorship of California in 1898 and the vice presidency of the United States in 1900. He ran twice for mayor of Los Angeles, and almost certainly would have won in 1911, if the men accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times—who he had supported and represented—had not pleaded guilty days before the election.
After another failed mayoral bid in 1913, the 55-year-old Harriman, wearied by politics and the constant harassment he suffered at the hands of powerful enemies (including Harrison Gray Otis, the bombastic and conservative owner of the Los Angeles Times), began to look to a future outside of LA. He dreamed of a socialist colony, where cooperative living could thrive and serve as an example to others while still staying within the bounds of capitalist norms. “It became apparent to me,” he recalled, “that 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.”
Harriman formed a plan for the colony centered around these beliefs. He would form a corporation with which to buy land for a cooperative settlement. Each new resident of the colony would be required to buy $2,000 worth of shares, and then would be assigned a job that would pay her or him a good living wage. Looking for money, he took this idea to Gentry P. McCorkle, a socialist banker from Corona. “If you will join me and a few other of my friends,” he told McCorkle, “we will build a city and make homes for many a homeless family. We will show the world a trick they do not know, which is how to live without war or interest on money or rent on land or profiteering in any manner.”
McCorkle thought Harriman’s vision made sound economic sense and agreed to join him in his venture. The new corporation began to search for an ideal place for the colony. According to McCorkle, they were presented with the perfect location one day at their offices in the Higgins Building in Downtown Los Angeles:
Mr. James L. Stanley, the old man of the mountain, came into the office one morning and asked to see the boss. He had gray hair and wore long whiskers. He looked like a ‘possum’ more than a man, but he had a good story for us. We loaded ourselves into an automobile, and, in three hours we were standing beside the Big Rock Creek where the water from it came rushing along by us … The Antelope Valley looked to be as large as the Pacific Ocean … some of this adjacent land was set out to Bartlett pear orchards and a few acres were set out to alfalfa. There were but three dwelling houses in sight. Ten thousand acres had nothing but jack rabbits and stink weeds and could be bought for one dollar an acre … We paid Mr. Stanley $25 for his day’s work and his information and proceeded to buy Llano Del Rio Ranchero.
The land, much of which was owned by the Mescal Land and Water Company, had once been the site of a failed temperance colony. It was virtually worthless, and the “starry-eyed” socialist grossly overpaid for the honor of owning around 9,000 acres of boulder-strewn desert landscape. However, included in the purchase were the essential water rights to Big Rock Creek. The Mescal Land and Water Company was officially reorganized into the Llano del Rio Company on October 10, 1913. For good or bad, Llano del Rio was theirs.
Harriman and his cohorts, including holdovers from his mayoral campaigns, set about finding settlers for their new colony. Ads were placed in the Western Comrade, LA’s new socialist magazine, which would eventually be printed at Llano. One ad touted a booklet written by Harriman:
Are you tired of the competitive world? Do you want to get into a position where every hour’s work will be for yourself and your family? Do you want assurances of employment and provisions for the future? Ask for the booklet entitled Gateway to Freedom. Subscribe to the Western Comrade … and keep posted on the progress of the colony.
The widely disseminated Gateway to Freedom promised a wage of $4 a day to new settlers, an impressive salary at the time. Harriman’s adversaries at the Los Angeles Times derided the booklet, “which in flowery language pictures the beauties and blessings on the contemplated colony in Antelope Valley.” They mocked the full-length picture of Harriman on the title page and questioned the socialist bona fides of the colony, since the booklet stated confusingly that “this is not a co-operative colony, but it is a corporation.”
Despite the Times’s derision, the colony soon found many willing to buy into the Llano dream. Millie Miller, Harriman’s stenographer, was the first to buy a colony stock certificate, partially with shares earned through her work with the Llano del Rio Company. Others quickly followed, and the hard work of clearing land and laying irrigation ditches began. The work was done by future residents, many exchanging their labor for shares in the corporation.
By May 1914, excited colonists began to move to the isolated new settlement, 90 miles from Los Angeles over rough, treacherous roads. From all over the country and all walks of life, they were tied together by the dream of a better, more equal society. “We felt happy, exhilarated, and confident that the Llano del Rio Co-operative Colony would, indeed, become a paradise on earth,” Miller remembered.
The colony grew rapidly. By October 1915, there were 500 people living at Llano, mostly in makeshift tents (in which most would reside until the colony’s demise). When at Llano, Harriman also stayed in a tent, which he scandalously shared with colonist Mildred Buxton, while his wife Theo stayed in Los Angeles.
Construction of more permanent structures began in earnest during the summer of 1915. The colonists often used local resources:
The local adobe clay formed the basic building block of Llano’s earliest residential architecture. A lime kiln was built on the side of a bluff in a canyon south of the colony, 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.
In early 1915, the hotel, which would become the focal point of social life at Llano, was completed. “The first community building, the hotel, combined cobblestone foundations with native boulders and frame walls,” the authors of Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles write. “This structure, in addition to living quarters for bachelors and arriving members, contained a large dining room assembly hall with fireplaces. Colonists gathered around these hearths on cool winter evenings before blazing juniper fires.”
The assembly room became a beehive of activity and intrigue. Curious tourists and weekend visitors from progressive organizations like the Young People’s Socialist League would file in for meals and lectures. The General Assembly, Llano’s nominal governing body, would meet in the large room, practicing “democracy rampant, belligerent, unrestricted.”
Life was proving to be hard at Llano. Fresh fruits and vegetables were often scarce, and the long work hours were punishing in the relentless desert sun. A rival faction—known as the “brush gang” for their clandestine outdoor meetings—began to call for the ouster of Harriman as de facto leader.
Lawsuits against the colony were filed by some early defectors, and dissatisfied colonists began to go to the press. Neighboring ranchers also began to sue the upstart colony over their alleged water rights to Big Rock Creek. All this noise caught the attention of the state Commissioner of Corporations. As early as the spring of 1915, representatives of the anti-socialist commission, including Deputy Commissioner H.W. Bowman, began to visit Llano.
In December 1915, Bowman issued a scathing report on the less-than-year-old settlement. He claimed that there was not enough food at the colony, and that “although it is assumed that supplies are furnished to the colonists at cost, such is not always the fact.” He derided Llano’s hygiene, stating, “the only bathtubs or sanitary toilet appliances in the colony are those which still lie crated among the debris in the scrap pile behind the carpenter and machine shop.”
He reserved his most biting commentary for Harriman himself, which the Los Angeles Times reported with glee:
The general statements usually made by the colony’s promoters cannot safely be accepted without qualifications and explanations. The same is true of much of the company’s literature … There is a studied effort to induce the belief that the influence of each stockholding colonist in the control of the colony’s affairs is equal to that of any other. The fact is that the colony is almost autocratically dominated and controlled by one man, Mr. Harriman.
However, the commission gave the Llano del Rio Company the right to keep functioning, provided “a true copy of the permit shall be exhibited and delivered to each prospective subscriber for or purchaser of said securities.” Harriman’s enemies didn’t care. “The Modern Moses,” the “Oligarch of Misrule” was continually taunted in the Times, with headlines celebrating every defection and lawsuit.
However, to the close to 800 colonists living at Llano, all of this turmoil didn’t really matter. Over 1916 and early 1917, through backbreaking work and sacrifice, the colony began to coalesce into a seemingly fully functioning village. According to Bread and Hyacinths:
By 1917, over 60 departments functioned under division managers. A representative list of economic activities included: 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.
The inventive elementary school was led by Prudence Stokes Brown, who had studied under education pioneer Maria Montessori. Secondary education was supplied in the form of an industrial school, where teenage girls and boys were taught skills seen at the time as appropriate to their sex. “The boys have their managers of departments, make their own laws, try their own culprits and acquire a sense of responsibility,” an in-house publication reported. “Boys, who have seemed to be incorrigible, have transformed into loveable, tractable, good natured workers.”
Adults also partook in continuing education classes and joined social and craft clubs. Writer Aldous Huxley, who lived near the colony in the 1940s, wrote that former colonists “had often talked to me nostalgically of that brass band, those mandolins and barber-shop ensembles” that made Llano life unique. There were also plenty of eccentric personalities to entertain, like the Zorne brothers, who built an airplane around an old Model T motor to the fascination of their fellow colonists—only for it to mysteriously burn to the ground after a failed test run.
Llano chronicler Robert Hine described one of the colony’s largest scale celebrations, presided over by a seemingly confident and jubilant Harriman:
The May Day festivities of 1917 commenced at nine o'clock in the morning with intra-community athletic events, including a Fat Women's Race. The entire group of colonists then formed a Grand Parade and marched to the hotel where the Literary Program followed. The band played from a bunting-draped grandstand, the choral society sang appropriate revolutionary anthems like the `Marseillaise', then moved into the Almond Grove for a barbecue dinner. After supper, a group of young girls injected the English into the radical tradition by dancing about the May Pole. At 7:30 the dramatic club presented ‘Mishaps of Minerva' with newly decorated scenery in the Assembly Hall. Dancing consumed the remainder of the evening.
Sadly, by that May 1917—though most residents didn’t know it—Llano had been a dead colony walking for almost a year. Although Harriman was often accused of being the colony’s virtual “czar,” the rigidly democratic nature of the General Assembly also led to dysfunction. The 1917 crop of alfalfa was lost, because the General Assembly had failed to authorize its harvest. The continuing lawsuits from disgruntled shareholders and alleged mismanagement by McCorkle also took a toll on the colony’s finances.
But Llano’s real death knell had actually come in July 1916, when the colony’s application to secure their water rights and build a dam to help irrigate their fields was denied by California Commissioner of Corporations H.L. Carnahan. “Your people do not seem to have the necessary amount of experience and maybe the sums of money it will involve,” he wrote. “The application is denied.”
After the ruling, Harriman and his remaining partners began quietly looking for a new home for the colony. By fall of 1917, they had found a suitable new homestead—an old mill town in Louisiana they named New Llano. By early 1918, Llano del Rio had been involuntarily forced into bankruptcy and most of its colonists had begun to leave, some for New Llano. On March 30, 1918, the Los Angeles Times, hypocritically waxing poetic about its failed nemesis, reported that the last community meal was being served in the hotel that evening:
At sundown tonight, Llano del Rio, which in its heyday had nearly 1000 souls, will simmer down to a deserted village containing just sixteen men … The town itself begins with a pretentious cobblestone hotel and men’s dormitory, a large bath-house for men and the administration building and post office. It moves on, across the street, to the industrial center, where there is a machine shop, a blacksmith shop and a sawmill … All over this portion of the townsite are the remains of what were homes, wrecked buildings, and the frames that once supported canvass that provided shelters for colonists. At the upper end of the town stands the temple of weaving arts. A weather-beaten loom stands outside in the burning sun. The temple was to send Llano weaves to the socialist world far and wide. Just now it houses an old bed, a couple of broken chairs and a pine table.
Job Harriman moved to New Llano (which lingered until the 1930s) before returning to Los Angeles in ill health. He died virtually penniless in 1925, his dream for a better socialist future still improbably intact. Aldous Huxley, speaking of the Llano colonists he knew who had remained in the Antelope Valley decades later, poignantly described them as:
… older, sadder, possibly wiser—and all of them bore witness to the happiness of those first few months at Llano. Housing, to be sure, was inadequate: food monotonous, and work extremely hard. But there was a sense of shared high purpose, a sustaining conviction that one had broken out of an age-old prison and was marching, shoulder to shoulder, with loyal comrades, into a promised land.