Going out to Llano
Llano del Rio
Try to find utopia
In the stucco grids and the tumbleweeds
You got to love that pear blossom
It’ll kill you just like possum
Have you been to the rock foundations?
Where it’s mostly known just for the speed
—“Llano del Rio,” by Frank Black and the Catholics
Eighty-eight miles down the road to Sin City lies the rubble of a project the goal of which was to abolish sin itself. And every weekend, thousands of casino-bound travelers pass it by with the same attention they might give to an overheated vehicle on the side of the long and desolate highway. A sand-covered enigma with a history known only to the select few who choose to seek it out, the Llano del Rio colony is a testament to the “old, weird America,” as it has been dubbed—the America of messiahs and schmoozers, of apocalyptic pamphlets and fiery stump orations colored at once by both a starry-eyed realism and a pragmatic utopianism. If time is taken to plumb its depths, it is also a fascinating point of study for all those interested in the concept of political exit, and a sobering reminder of the need for any such exit to be grounded in a philosophical anthropology that views man as a fallen creature, bounded by the restrictions of his nature and limited in his pursuits on earth.
In 1913, Job Harriman was a tired and broken man. He was, in that year, the most popular socialist politician in California, to be sure, but a tired and broken man nonetheless. After a long and tumultuous political career that garnered him attention from around the world, Harriman possessed all the fame he would ever need; it was the victory—the inevitable victory prophesied by Marx—that was sorely lacking.
He made his first run for office in California’s 1898 gubernatorial race, as the Socialist Labor Party’s candidate for governor. Then in 1900, he entered the national stage by joining Eugene V. Deb’s presidential bid with the Social Democratic Party as his nominee for Vice President. Finally, in 1911, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles, in one of the most contentious and talked-about mayoral races in America up to that point, losing to incumbent candidate George Alexander by a smaller than usual margin.
And he would have won it, too, if the system hadn’t been rigged by the capitalists. You see, at the turn of the 20th century, the streets of Los Angeles were a bloody battleground in a war between the forces of capital and the forces of labor, with each side constantly trying to outdo the other in a series of covert and overt contests involving bribery, espionage, political machinations, and the occasional stick of dynamite. Or at least that’s how Harriman saw things. As far as he was concerned, the business establishment had been out to destroy him from the very beginning. That is why he had been tricked into joining the defense team of the McNamara brothers, two of the union workers suspected to be involved in the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and men who seemed clearly innocent, until they mysteriously confessed one day in a whimpering statement that reeked of blackmail. Before this confession of guilt, Harriman was poised to win the election easily, with news outlets across the nation raving about the impending socialist future of Los Angeles. But after the startling admission, fear of radicalism swept over the city and his reputation was so badly damaged that his Progressive challenger was able to narrowly come away with the victory.
This loss was the final straw that pushed Harriman over the line. Electoral politics were a sham, a hoax intended to deceive the masses into accepting the pre-approved choices laid out for them by their industrial masters. In order to truly affect radical change and dismantle the empire of capitalism in America, he had to take matters into his own hands. He had to do the only logical thing left to do—he had to become a capitalist.
No one is entirely sure of when Harriman first got the idea of forming what would come to be called “the most important non-religious utopian colony in Western American history,” but the uniqueness of his plan cannot be stressed enough. Sure, Europe might have its New Lanark or New England its Brook Farm, but these projects were, however revolutionary for their time, still tainted with many of the reactionary assumptions of the Old World. And that is why they had failed. The Western frontier, on the other hand, was the land of new beginnings and self-determination, the land of making things work and “changing history instead of merely interpreting it.”
To many of the utopian socialists of yore, the idea of starting up a community as a joint-stock company with the explicit goal of outcompeting capitalistic communities by offering the promise of a life free from competition would have seemed like a contradiction in terms. But in 1913, that is exactly what Job Harriman did, in a move that would have made any Silicon Valley-ite proud. In October of that year, after scanning various regions of California for a suitable location, he and several associates purchased 9,000 acres of land along Big Rock Creek in Southern California’s Antelope Valley, bringing Llano del Rio (“the plain by the river”) into reality.
From the very outset of the venture, Harriman was determined to make the colony entirely self-sufficient by bringing as many industries to the new community as possible, and although the desert location was remote and isolated from any nearby town or center of commerce, his success in doing so was remarkable. By 1916 alone, Llano would be able to boast of dozens of different industries. As writer Kate Sennert puts it, “You would have encountered something of an Eden—two- thousand acres of corn and alfalfa fields, pear and apple orchards and vegetable gardens; poultry, dairy goats, hogs, cattle and horses; and a thriving community boasting its own printing press, cannery, brick kiln, barber shop, post office and [California’s first] Montessori school.” And these are just a few of the many early achievements of the colony, the list could go on.
Government of the community was to be run in the only way consistent with the egalitarian principles assumed by socialism: a direct democracy was set up with all power being vested in a General Assembly through which each citizen would have a voice. In addressing the question of whether or not the colony’s constitution would be robust enough to ensure good governance, one colonist said succinctly, “There is no constitution.” Rather, the community would be run on a Declaration of General Principles, which are worth printing in full:
- Things which are used productively must be owned collectively.
- The rights of the Community shall be paramount over those of the individual.
- Liberty of action is only permissible when it does not restrict the liberty of another.
- Law is a restriction of liberty and is only just when operating for the benefit of the community at large.
- Values created by the Community shall be vested in the Community alone.
- The individual is not justly entitled to more land than is sufficient to satisfy a reasonable desire for peace and rest. Productive land held for profit shall not be held by private ownership.
- Talent and intelligence are gifts which should be rightly used in the service of others. The development of these by education is the gift of the Community to the individual, and the exercise of greater ability entitles none to the false rewards of greater possessions, but only to the joy of greater service to others.
- Only by identifying his interests and pleasures with those of others can man find real happiness.
- The duty of the individual to the Community is to develop ability to the greatest degree possible by availing himself of all educational facilities and to devote the whole extent of that ability to the service of all.
- The duty of the Community to the individual is to administer justice, to eliminate greed and selfishness, to educate all and to aid any in time of age or misfortune.
The only catch to all of this noble talk about the individual prostrating himself before the needs of the community—there would be a fairly hefty initial fee to join the colony, because after all, a business had to be concerned with the bottom line. To become a citizen of Llano del Rio, one had to purchase 2000 shares of stock in the company at about $1 a share; however, in order to guarantee that an oligarch didn’t take over and turn the colony into merely another capitalist kingdom, members could not buy any more than the 2000 shares they had originally purchased.
The colony opened to the public on May 1st, 1914 (May Day, of course), with the “Marseillaise” blaring, the Red Flag waving, and the whole world watching. Job Harriman, though he had left public life, had certainly not been forgotten by the public, and one can only imagine the suspense and excitement that must have gone along with the uncovering of the latest scheme of the man whose boldness and ingenuity had never failed to disappoint. Applications for citizenship poured in, with the number of admitted citizens reaching 150 in less than half of a year. By 1917, the population had exceeded 1000. A monthly magazine called The Western Comrade was set up to document the progress of the new worker’s paradise, and before long, it was being circulated not only nationally but internationally, filled with glowing and adulatory commentary by contributors that consisted of many of America’s top intellectuals and literati, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, and Clarence Darrow being just a few. True to the spirit of the colony’s Declaration of Principles, a real, organic and healthy community seemed to develop within no time. There were theater troupes and literary societies, barn hoedowns and ballroom dances under the sagebrush moon. The Llano del Rio brass band was the best damn band in all of Southern California, and the Llano Sluggers baseball team “became the Antelope Valley’s undefeated champions.”
It appeared as if the dream that Job Harriman had fought for all those years was finally coming to pass, and that all of the endless battles, all of the trials and tragedies had been worth something after all. That he would no longer have to struggle vainly, like the biblical character he has so often been compared to, in a series of tests that he didn’t understand. For a brief moment in time at least, it looked as though his own unique brand of socialism would conquer the world.
So what happened? How was Paradise lost in that Elysian valley beneath the San Gabriels and the Tehachapis? That is a good question, and one that different people have sought to answer in different ways over the years. Some will tell you it was World War I that swept through, carrying away all the able-bodied men and sapping the community’s productive capacity. Others will say it was the loss of water rights to Big Rock Creek that did the colonists in. These answers have their merits, but by far the most compelling explanation is the most simple one, the one that has wrecked many a project of human ambition, and which conservatives have always known well. Human nature took its course, like it always does, and not even the most adequate planning could have stopped it from doing so.
After a particularly severe and unplanned for snowstorm blew through one winter, the General Assembly went scrambling to decide how the colony’s housing and food resources, which had hitherto been abundant enough to hedge against bickering, ought to be purchased and divided up to address the first real shortage the colony had faced. As you can probably guess, there were many people with many different answers to these questions, and each was convinced that their way was the right way. In no time, intense political factions within the colony had formed, with groups like “The Fresno Harriman Bunch” and “The Brush Gang,” being some of the most prominent voices in debates. Unsatisfied with the chaos and discord that this brought to daily life within the community, Harriman and the Board of Directors started to lay down an iron rule, a move which only fomented more dissent amongst the citizens. This so infuriated many colonists that eventually there was an uprising that has come to be known as the “Brush Gang Rebellion” (I’m not kidding), an attempt to restructure the government along the true “ethical, democratic, and cooperative principles of socialism.” In response to this preposterous show of defiance, Harriman exiled the group’s leader, Frank Miller, prompting the voluntary departure of numerous other colonists dissatisfied by Harriman’s “czar-like” rule. Meanwhile, Llano became afflicted with socialism’s age-old problem: laziness. (No, it’s not just a Reaganite bromide.) According to Sebastian Rotella, writing in the Los Angeles Times, “Several accounts describe a Comrade Gibbon, an International Workers of the World veteran so notorious for avoiding physical labor that colonists came to call shirking ‘Gibbonitis.’” It would be wrong to say that it hit everyone immediately, but within a very brief period of time most people realized that the colony was doomed, just three short years after it began.
It was with a heavy heart that Mr. Harriman announced late in 1917 that the community would be closing up and moving to western Louisiana, to start things off on a fresh footing and to salvage what little remained of that dying vision. Very few of the original enthusiasts actually made the move, however, and the “New Llano” colony, as it came to be called, which lasted until the late 1930’s and gave the current Louisiana town its name, turned out to become what has been aptly described as little more than “a retirement community of aging eccentrics.”
It must have been quite a sight to watch those huddled masses fleeing from the desert valley as fast as they had poured into it on that first bright May morning. In a huddled scurry, they grabbed what they could, and what they couldn’t take was gradually stripped away by vandals throughout the early 1920’s. With that, Llano del Rio, the sight that had the whole world watching, was completely abandoned, never to be inhabited again except by tumbleweeds.
One might think that the undertaking of one of California’s most influential statesmen would go on to occupy a prominent place in the history books, or at least merit something like the attention that a state park or even a town museum receives. But in fact, aside from bits and pieces of obscure scholarly work that has been done over the years, the colony’s history has been preserved largely only through the distorted and apocryphal folk tales of the locals. The only thing that the government of California ever did to commemorate the enterprise of one of the states’ most beloved adopted sons was put up a small plaque at the site in 1982, which was destroyed shortly after and never replaced.
In their largely sympathetic account of the life of Harriman and the history of the colony (which I’ve been drawing heavily from) titled Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, authors Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon, and Lionel Rolfe provide a great glimpse into the extent of this historical deterioration with an anecdote:
As though the colonists had never existed, the desert marched in relentlessly to reclaim its own, leaving nothing untouched but the skeletal stone that had been Llano del Rio’s foundation. One of the authors of this book first saw these strangely noble stone relics during family car trips when he was a child in the 1960’s. In the ensuing decade the pilgrimage remained in his mind, and when he went back as an adult in the mid-1970’s, he made it a point to try to find out what the ruins were. In roadside diners and gas stations, in gift shops and at vegetables stands, he asked local people what they knew about the lone chimneys on Pearblossom Highway.
Many answers were forthcoming: “That was some quack doctors house—he made millions selling patent medicine in the ’20’s.” “I’ll tell you what that was—a German colony.” “Some sort of dude ranch.”
A cloud of local mythology enveloped the site, indicating that something out of the ordinary had indeed transpired there; but in the absence of hard facts, the author was left to draw his own conclusions.
Perhaps the biggest thing to happen to the area since 1917 was the ironic arrival of Aldous Huxley, no stranger to the subject of utopia, who moved into a nearby town in the early 1940’s and became intrigued by the story of the lost colony, going so far as to track down and interview any of the former colonists he could find in an attempt to patch up the missing record to the best of his ability. Yet Huxley was hardly a nostalgic admirer of the communal experiment. In an essay about his discovery titled “Ozymandias, the Utopia that Failed,” he masterfully paralleled the story of Harriman and his creation to Shelley’s famous 1818 poem about hubris and the futility of human endeavors.
But these days, with no acclaimed British writer in the area to shed light on its past, Llano del Rio remains again a mysterious pile of debris, left behind by the Train of History its supporters had waited so long to board. Nearly a hundred years later, there is only the sporadic company of Valley girls come to take desert selfies and the occasional band of high-schoolers in search of a place where they can blaze in peace. Indeed, as I lean against the cobble-stone chimney of the community’s old hotel and look out into the alluvial waste at the conclusion of a pilgrimage of my own, I get the feeling that I am the only person who has made one in a long time. And as I begin to mull over the words of a 1915 issue of the Western Comrade, all I can do is laugh.
Only the big truth — and for this era the most important truth — that Man is God, the only God, each his own God; inherently and potentially self-sufficient, by nature more kind than unkind…his native impulses trending upward toward the light, toward an ever increasing refinement…Only as this truth permeates human consciousness and drives out the deadening christian dogmas of external deity (authority) and original sin, is there reasonable hope for a decenter and kinder world.