Once a utopia for Socialist visionaries, century-old Llano
Del Rio is now just dust in the High Desert wind by ELISABETH GREENBAUM KASSON
As one travels east into the desert on Pearblossom Highway, just past rickety towns and careworn ranches, the spectral remains of a utopian colony called Llano del Rio appear through a haze of dust. Two river-rock chimneys, positioned like faceless Moai, and an eerie length of wall are all that are visible from the road.
The stone edifices break up the scrubby surfaces of a landscape interspersed with cairns of trash, buckwheat and sage. A confluence of politics, economics and human frailty generated the rise and fall of what used to stand here, and it has sparked enough interest to fill at least one book and countless chapters in others.
Utopias are propelled by political motivation; their creation is a moral judgment on the existing state of affairs. California, always at the cusp of reinvention, responded to the chaos of the dawning of the industrial age by spawning the largest number of utopian colonies in the country. One of the most celebrated was Llano del Rio, brainchild of Indiana-born Job Harriman, who arrived in San Francisco in 1886 a minister and lawyer seeking both a higher moral ground and the ability to make a substantive change. Instead, he evolved into a vocal agnostic and Socialist.
Harriman was not a gentle theorist but an activist in the truest sense, embodying a muscular idealism in response to an economic system so anarchic an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. population had been abandoned to extreme poverty and another 40 percent to conditions just a notch above. His journey to the colony’s creation as an answer to the era’s pitiless capitalism was as epic as his biblical namesake’s.
In 1896, when Harriman moved south, Los Angeles’ working poor were roiling in discontent. Los Angeles Times owner Harrison Gray Otis was vehemently anti-labor, an antipathy that most likely began when Times typographers walked off the job in 1890. Otis was unrelenting in his efforts to crush the nascent movement, working behind the scenes to encourage the city to pass ordinances restricting the right of assembly and public protest. By then, Harriman, having survived high-profile politics and the criminal defense of notable leftists, emerged as the state’s premier free-speech attorney. And he was in Otis’ sights.
The Times responded to Harriman by lambasting the people and organizations whose civil rights he worked to uphold. But he was not bowed. He ran for mayor of L.A. twice—in 1911 and 1913. The paper called a potential Harriman mayoral win “an orgy of evil.”
It was the loss after his first attempt at the mayor’s office that led Harriman to create Llano. He had fallen 800 votes shy of the majority and been forced into a runoff. The timing was sensitive: While Harriman was running, he and his famous colleague Clarence Darrow were also defending the McNamara brothers, the labor activists accused in the notorious 1910 bombing of the Times.
“Part of the story of Llano is that Harriman thought he could make something out of Los Angeles,” muses Paul Greenstein...“and when he couldn’t, he went to the desert to make something new out there.”
Harriman was blindsided when, just before the runoff—and without his knowledge—Darrow negotiated what many believed to be an insider, Otis-approved plea bargain that sent the McNamaras to prison.
The blowback was furious, killing Harriman’s chances. Two years later, he came in third in the mayoral election, and his political ambitions withered. The losses reinforced his conviction that a sea change was needed in the way people viewed their work and their value. He envisioned a cooperative, self-supporting community that would generate like-minded colonies across the country.
“It became apparent to me,” Harriman said in the introduction to Ernest S. Wooster’s Communities of the Past and Present, “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.”
With that same purposefulness, Harriman launched Llano del Rio. On the heels of the 1913 mayoral loss, he and a small group of supporters put money down on the $80,000 purchase of 10,000 acres from the nearly bankrupt Mescal Water and Land Company, 20 miles from Palmdale on a not particularly fertile piece of desert.
Paul Greenstein has been fascinated with the Harriman/Llano story since 1963, when he first spotted the colony’s ruins on a family trip to the desert. “Part of the story of Llano is that Harriman thought he could make something out of Los Angeles,” muses Greenstein, coauthor of Bread & Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, “and when he couldn’t, he went to the desert to make something new out there.”
Advertisements were placed in left-wing publications. The first colonists, arriving in May 1914, were all Young People’s Socialist League members. Nearly 100 came from all over the country, seeking an opportunity to make the dream a reality. By the following spring, the population had diversified and more than doubled.
But utopia isn’t free. In an irony not lost on Harriman and his supporters, it was an uncomfortable financial necessity that to fund the enterprise, members had to invest before they could join. The buy-in was 2,000 shares, priced at $1 each. The minimum cash down payment was $500, with the balance payable from the member’s earnings over the next six years.
Each member was paid $4 a day. Of that, $1 went toward stock; the remainder would be applied to daily expenses such as food and shelter. Any unused funds would be credited to the colonist’s account and payable when Llano realized surpluses.
Llano’s board of directors, headed by Harriman, provided leadership, but the day-to-day management was left to a general assembly and what grew to be 60 committees, each with its own administration and agenda. It was an unwieldy, fractious system, and while the enthusiasm was there, the realities became challenges. Between late 1914 and early 1917, the colony grew to nearly 900, but building couldn’t keep pace. Many new members arrived unprepared for the rough surroundings.
In spite of the difficulties, Llano del Rio was a vibrant, industrious place by all accounts. Photos depict a wondrously, rustic Craftsman village, populated by apple-cheeked children and smiling workers. At its height in 1916, it housed one of the first and largest Montessori schools in California.
There were May Day celebrations, a theatrical society, book clubs, a shooting club and a choral group. Fields of alfalfa, corn and grain appeared on the desert floor, and pear orchards started to grow. A dairy, sawmill, limekiln, soap factory, tannery and machine shop provided employment. There was even a hotel.
But utopias are notoriously difficult to sustain. The colony became a victim of its own success, and the rapid growth aggravated the existing organizational problems, as well as the byzantine mix of personalities. The group’s inability to effectively harness the area’s limited water supply became a critical issue. Complicating matters, Harriman divided his time between Llano and Los Angeles. His wife, Theodosia, had opted to stay in the city, and he was still practicing law in his downtown office.
Utopias are notoriously difficult to sustain. The colony became a victim of its own success, and the rapid growth aggravated the existing organizational problems.
Internal struggles that had been simmering under the surface began to boil over. Greenstein describes a group of disgruntled members, dubbed the brush gang, who took issue with Harriman’s interpretation of Socialism, noting that “they were like the Bickersons.”
The lack of productive communication became so disruptive Llano’s final alfalfa crop went bad in the field when committees could not agree which would order its harvest. “As if the water and infighting weren’t enough,” he says, “when WWI happened, it sucked the manpower out of the community. By the end of 1917, it had become an old-age home for radicals to invest in, but that’s not growth.”
According to Michael McLendon, a professor of political science at Cal State L.A., when it comes to utopias, imagination has a way of sanitizing the discomforting aspects of life. Harriman had built the city, and people had come, but he hadn’t prepared for the intricacies of human nature.
“The real world is stubborn and hard to cleanse of complicated injustice,” he says. “Utopians have a sense that humans are perfectible, but demanding equality doesn’t eliminate envy and want.”
Harriman’s ambitious venture was fading, but his model for change would achieve one final transformation. Ultimately, Llano could not sustain itself without reliable water. After it was decided the community would relocate, 20,000 acres were purchased in rural Louisiana. It’s estimated that about 100 colonists and anything that could be repurposed was packed and shipped off to New Llano. The community thrived well into the 1930s, its abandonment eventually caused largely by the economics of the Great Depression.
Enough materials were left behind in California for a small group of colonists to continue to nurture the struggling pear orchards. That plan came to a complicated end. G.P. McCorkle, a wealthy, left-leaning banker and Llano investor, had grown impatient with his lack of financial return. He began paying cash for shares from other members. He attempted to foreclose on the property and usurp control so he could continue the orchard project “without the Socialist element.” Harriman fought back, achieving a Pyrrhic legal victory. McCorkle’s gambit had essentially bankrupted all that was left.
Harriman would travel to New Llano in 1918, returning to Los Angeles when the Louisiana weather played havoc with his health. By 1925, when he finally succumbed to complications from tuberculosis at 64, he was mostly forgotten, his legacy eclipsed by the go-go market of the flapper era and the short memory of Angelenos.
With the passing of decades, it would be easy to dismiss Job Harriman as just a dreamer instead of the product of a resolutely brutal period in U.S. history, to which he responded by doing everything in his power to make meaningful change. He was integral in developing a movement that roused millions to action and eventually altered the way we do business.
For now, only the bones of Llano remain. Greenstein occasionally makes the drive to visit the foundations. “It’s all still out there. From the road it’s hard to see, but if you walk around the desert floor, you’ll find it. Walk a quarter mile out into the desert, and you’ll see more and more. It doesn’t look like anything until you get to it.”
ELISABETH GREENBAUM KASSON has written for Documentary, the L.A. Times and more. A former Bostonian, she now falls asleep to the sound of the freeway and will drive a ways for good coffee and a better doughnut.
Images courtesy Paul Greenstein