In May of 1914 — 107 years ago this month — a small, yet vibrant socialist colony on the edge of Los Angeles County took root that is worth revisiting. In the Age of Covid-19, and with the continued violent assault on black and brown people across the US, one must visualize a more peaceful, egalitarian future, where healthcare is free and police are non-existent. The seeds of revolution are all around us, they just need planting. – JF
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 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 charismatic 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 been victorious 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 covertly 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 L.A. 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,” declared Harriman.
Mark Ruwedel, our trusty guide, has been here many times before but assures Chelsea Mosher and me that it’s likely to still be an adventure. Our dog Joni agrees. She’s a rescue mutt from the streets of Baja, and I’m certain she knows a thing or two about risky undertakings. She’s squirming to escape the car, anxiously awaiting our destination wherever that may be. As Mark takes a couple of wrong turns, he recognizes his mistake and backtracks 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 bumpy dirt path, leading to what looks to me like the middle of nowhere. “How’s this for a communist paradise?”
Two hundred yards down the 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. The smog of L.A. is a distant mirage. 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 hall. Llano even had a damn orchestra. This wasn’t a New Age hippie commune with free love and acid-induced orgies (not that there is anything wrong with that). 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 of it. Despite Llano being designated as a California Historical Landmark, this unique place is all but forgotten.
There are no placards or signs. No markings on any maps and it isn’t written about in any guides or textbooks. There’s little indication at all that this place has such a rich history. A few of the remaining structures have been graffitied. Bottles and crushed cigarette butts litter the silo. No doubt this is a secret hideout for rebellious 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 what existed here. America, if anything, is good at burying its subversive past. Harriman was a visionary, even if his vision didn’t turn out quite the way he intended.
Settlers of the colony were initially promised a wage of $4 per day, a substantial 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 feisty left-wing paper owned by Harriman that portrayed the community as a wonderful, family-friendly commune. The Los Angeles Times retaliated against this rosy depiction and mocked Harriman, calling him a fraud and Llano a fake socialist enclave.
Still, they 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 tracking down the remains of Llano’s lime kiln, tucked away on the side of a rocky bluff. Mark knows the spot. Located along a curvy, paved road, it appears. I imagine the hundreds of people that drive by this relic 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.
Despite its vibrancy, not all was well with Llano. A batch of dissident settlers known as the “brush gang” wanted to oust Harriman as head of the socialist collective Local ranchers were also peeved at Harriman’s antics, claiming his group was violating local water rights. Their utopian desires were 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 socialist. 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 goods were not shared equally among all members.
Whether this was true or not is hard to prove, but it does seem that Harriman had a bit of a messiah complex and there is evidence the social structure of the village was stratified. 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 their water rights. Without access to fresh water, Llano’s fields could not be irrigated and its animals would not survive. Food would soon be non-existent. The ambitions 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.
Writer 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 resides in Huxley’s old farmhouse. In a way, these desert folks are the present stewards of Llano, even if unknowingly. From their front porch, they can glimpse the crumbling hotel chimney and 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 dusty vehicle after a short stop near Huxley’s old home. It’s finally starting to cool a bit and Joni finds a comfortable nap spot. I gaze out at Llano as we drive off into the dimming 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 a budding 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 surviving structures, this the Llano del Rio spirit we must embrace, preserve, and ultimately cultivate again, and a good start would be to hand this land back over to the inhabitants who predate Harriman’s socialist experiment — the desert coyote and Shoshone.
Photos by Joshua Frank.