Thinking in Ruins: On the Llano del Rio Experiment
By Laura NelsonMay 21, 2023
Join us at The Black Cat in Silver Lake today, May 21, at 3 p.m. for Remembering Mike Davis.
IN 1914, a group of young socialists drove their Ford Model Ts over the San Gabriel Mountains and into the desert of the Antelope Valley to escape “the unnatural and almost inhuman state of mind” caused by the pressures of industrial capitalism. Disillusioned with formal politics and abstract revolutionary theories, they set out to form a socialist community and to show that another way of living was possible. “Take your first automobile for the valley,” announced an advertisement for the nascent experiment. “There, on the upper table of the grand mesa, will grow a co-operative city of marvelous beauty.” They called their project Llano del Rio, Spanish for “the plain of the river.” Over the next three years, thousands of people made the trek to Llano and down to the expanse of yucca trees—their movements over the mountains a collective rejection of the “creed of capitalism” and a search for a new way of organizing society.
Last fall, I was sitting in my living room with a group of people who had been gathering as part of “L.A. Study Group,” an informal, ongoing space to learn and think about Los Angeles. Mike Davis, whose writing on the city has been formative for so many, had passed away a few weeks earlier; the room was filled with copies of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, his sprawling 1990 study of the competing dreams, visions, and speculations that have made Los Angeles what it is today. We found ourselves fixated on the opening pages of the book, where Davis turns to Llano del Rio. In the 1910s, Los Angeles was hardly a city, yet boosters and politicians were actively crafting the myths and speculative visions that would lay the groundwork for its future. For Davis, Llano was a “utopian antipode” in this polyphony of visions, the traces of its history evidence of a path not taken. Lingering with a revery on this short-lived experiment, he suggested that “[t]he best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future.”
For months after reading City of Quartz, I couldn’t stop thinking about Llano. What compelled people to give up their lives to join this socialist community? What did they find upon arrival? And what were the afterlives of this ephemeral experiment? My attempt to work through these questions sent me on a journey through Los Angeles—to archives across the city, up over the mountains, and to the arid edge of the Mojave Desert—to collect the partial fragments of a dream, to dwell in ruins of past visions.
When Llano del Rio was formed in 1914, there was no blueprint for capitalism’s counterpoint. “What we must know isn’t in any book,” founder Job Harriman recounted. “We’ve got to go out and discover it by trial and error from the ground up, and it’s going to be tough.” After losing a race to become the first Socialist mayor of Los Angeles in 1911, Harriman was frustrated by the futility of formal politics. Increasingly convinced that the only way to win the hearts and minds of the people was to demonstrate a viable alternative to capitalism, he decided to part ways with the Socialist Party, which was working on gradualist reform through the ballot box. Influenced by the writing of Karl Marx and novelists Edward Bellamy and William Dean Howells, he dreamt of a community premised on the values of collectivity and cooperation. Yet he felt compelled to move beyond theory and fiction, to rally other disheartened radicals to join him in creating a socialist oasis in the here and now.
Harriman and his partners bought the defunct Mescal Water and Land Company for $80,000, procuring access to hundreds of acres of desert land about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. Part of this deal included access to local water rights, including the possibility of building a future dam. On a practical level, they set up their socialist venture as a stock-issuing corporation and hoped to recruit 1,000 stockholders who would collectively own the company through $2,000 worth of stock, paying part up front and then slowly repaying the rest with a guaranteed wage of four dollars per day for contributing “useful work” to the community. The idea was that members would choose work—farming, teaching, welding, building homes, cooking—that aligned with their interests and abilities. In turn, they could take advantage of all aspects of Llano: schools, a hotel with regular meals, an assembly hall with ongoing lectures, a general store, a post office, doctor’s offices, a barber shop, and more. At Llano, people would have all the “necessaries of life.”
The earliest members of Llano called themselves “colonists,” “pioneers,” and “empire-builders” of a new socialist world. They envisioned their colony as the “Plymouth Rock of the Cooperative Commonwealth.” Moving to the California desert, specifically the Antelope Valley, they joined a lineage of settlers equipped with ambitious visions and colonial dreams. The land on which Llano was founded had been stewarded for over 11,000 years by many communities, including the Shoshone-speaking Kitanemuk people. Since the 1700s, multiple waves of pioneers—Spanish explorers, American ranchers, and gold-seekers—moved to the valley in search of prosperity, minerals, and an escape from their former lives. Llano del Rio, a part of this history of displacement, land acquisition, and world-building dreams, fashioned itself a different kind of “outpost.”
In a campaign to recruit members, they framed their community as a moral war against capitalism and invited people to join their “Army of Co-operation.” Their main recruitment tool was the socialist publication The Western Comrade, which circulated editorials and advertisements extolling the virtues of the venture. Llano enticed people with a chance to escape the “maelstrom of the struggle for existence,” “multitudinous bills,” the never-ending “roar of fruitless promises,” and the ever-increasing traffic of the city (already a concern in 1910s Los Angeles). Away from greed and rampant individualism, members could “strike and remain struck” from industrial capitalism, becoming the shared owners of the land and the tools of their labor. “Are you tired of the struggle in the cut-through competitive system?” one advertisement asked. Another called upon people to enlist in the war for another way of living: “It is the army of peace, and Llano the outpost of Progress. Will YOU volunteer?”
A haven from the ills of capitalism, Llano also presented itself as a literal paradise. “The climate is delightful,” boasted a piece in The Western Comrade. “Here one is surrounded by the most wondrous of bird, insect and flower life. Here one may sit and draw inspiration for dreams.” Articles and images that circulated in Los Angeles and around the country conjured an Edenic agricultural oasis, with acre upon acre upon of flourishing pears, apples, plums, apricots, olives, walnuts, and figs. Harriman believed that people had an innate desire to get “back to the land,” and promised prospective members that they would be able to live in an environment of “fruit and flowers, milk and honey.”
In addition to circulating newspaper advertisements, Llano employed a sales agent to go around Los Angeles selling its cooperative vision, recruiting members, and taking a cut for each person who signed up. According to one member, the agent was notorious for promising “everything under the sun and heaven on earth” to people who would “sign on the dotted line and give him $500.” At first, new members needed to fill out an application, providing answers to questions like “Do you believe in the profit system?” and “Will solving economic problems ultimately lead to solving the social problem?” This application was later abandoned to expedite getting new members’ down payments. Although people of many racial backgrounds applied, Llano only accepted white applicants. The leaders claimed that their exclusionary policies were “not due to race prejudice but because it is not deemed expedient to mix the races in these communities.”
These early efforts at recruitment were successful; within the first year, hundreds of workers, intellectuals, artists, and dreamers packed their Tin Lizzies and made their way across miles of winding mountain roads. “The people have been coming in faster than ever lately,” Mellie Calvert wrote in a letter in September 1915. “We are so many now we can hardly all get inside at our big meetings.” By the end of that year, there were 499 members.
As people arrived at the socialist experiment, their dreams of a postcapitalist oasis often collided with the harsh realities of life in the desert. Walter Millsap recalls driving over the mountains “dreaming about the marvelous things they were going to do at Llano” and being taken aback when he glimpsed the community from afar: “When I saw that little bunch of dirty tents strung out on the sand, after I had bumped over the boulders of Big Rock Wash, I said, ‘For God’s sake! Is this the place?’”
New members expecting quaint adobe homes and a beautiful climate instead found flimsy tents and tempestuous storms. “Housing was a sore problem,” one member recalled. Families often lived in makeshift shelters for weeks and months: “Mud, rain, wind, cold, and even heat made the tents inadequate and uncomfortable, particularly if they had no floors.” Meeting notes recounted “a maze of confusion, dissatisfaction, and discontent” and a daily torrent of community members complaining about living conditions. The winter of 1915 proved particularly tumultuous. “We had the awfullest wind + rain I have ever seen,” a young girl named Ruth wrote to her sister that December. “It blew the top to the hotel off + part of the dining room. It blew many of the tents down.” She described an old lady named Lona who was drying clothes as she watched her shelter blow away, carried with the tumbleweeds into the Mojave Desert.
Tensions frequently erupted over shortages of food, including staples such as coffee, sugar, and potatoes. A letter recalls a woman from Pasadena “making a terrible howl” at the hotel when she couldn’t get a cup of coffee for a headache. And a couple weeks later, the cook, Mrs. Pickett (“a hot headed little body”), lost her temper and initiated a full-blown fight when a member asked “for the second help of potatoes.” Members who had seen brochures boasting a burgeoning agricultural haven with endless wagonloads of pears, watermelons, cantaloupes, and almonds found a much more monotonous menu. Tony Vacik, who grew up as a child at Llano, later recalled an interminable pasta dinner: “Too much spaghett’, I hope to tell ya.”
Those who vocalized dissent about life at Llano del Rio were known as “crabbers.” A survey of the community from fall 1915 found that “a great deal of so-called ‘Porch Oratory’” was taking place during the day, bringing down the morale of the Llano people. Alongside their everyday frustrations about housing and food, the crabbers expressed concerns about the way the community was being run and wondered whether it was even a cooperative. A group calling themselves the “Brush Gang” began meeting in the creosote bushes and discussed overthrowing the leadership from within, or leaving to form their own commune. They adorned their clothing with small sprigs of sage to identify one another. A leader of the Brush Gang, Frank Miller, described Harriman as “the most unscrupulous person he had ever met” with a “mania power” bent on controlling all aspects of the community. In 1915, he wrote to his daughter about the mounting tensions—the Brush Gang had grown to 83 in number and had set out to “create a true inside of things.”
As criticism swirled within, outsiders also cast aspersions on the community. The Los Angeles Times, a longtime nemesis of Harriman, was the most vocal critic. They published article after article on problems at Llano—with titles like “New Wail from Reds’ Utopia” and “Hopes Blasted in New Colony”—as evidence of the experiment’s inevitable demise. In 1915, the California commissioner of corporations wrote a report on the colony, calling Harriman a “czar,” expressing concerns about the power structures of the community, and arguing that the corporation was defrauding stockholding members by luring them with inaccurate portrayals of the stock values. The L.A. Times quickly issued an article, “Blistering Report on Job Harriman Utopia,” that suggested Llano was on a swift path to implosion.
Yet despite the drama and criticism, new residents continued to arrive from Los Angeles, and defenders argued that people were missing the point if they expected Llano to be a fully formed utopia from the outset. “[Y]ou cannot build heaven in hell,” John Dequer explained. Working within the confines of capitalism and the existing legal system, he argued that Llano needed to run as “a business enterprise, conducted on business principles, for practical results” before it could begin to operate as a socialist oasis. Another booster, R. K. Williams, described how people showed up at Llano “filled with idealism and notions of a weird form of democracy that are utterly out of place in an institution dealing with things and practicalities.” He stressed that Llano wasn’t a “Utopian phantasmagoria,” but was comprised of people “dealing with things of life”—cutting wood, building homes, making food. In order to do anything more ambitious, they first needed to develop a sustainable way of meeting people’s material needs.
For these and other defenders of Llano, the project of cooperation was inevitably long and messy. As Walter Millsap reflected, “They had to start in with what they had and with who they had”; they had to “feel their way” towards utopia. Llano was an attempt to move beyond abstract philosophizing, an environment where people could get their hands into the soil and join the process of making something with others. “Mankind in mass cares little for abstract doctrines,” Dequer wrote. “They would rather hoe a desert into bloom.” While people worked to build homes and plant hundreds of acres of fruits and vegetables to feed the community, they also began to devise and dream new social and institutional structures that they might eventually grow into.
Amidst all the chaos and the frustration, the people who came to Llano repeatedly expressed a shared sense of being in on something together. Harriman believed that the “germ of the new is always within the old,” and that when old institutions “begin to disintegrate, new combinations—new institutions” will begin “to take their form,” moving “along new lines” to meet the needs of those who are constantly creating them.
Millsap recalls struggling to find community in Los Angeles, but when he “got into the social life of Llano,” he finally found people who shared his frustration with the conditions of the industrial world, people who wanted to reimagine social structures. Outside of work, members were “bubbling over with exuberance to have a good time,” participating in choruses, mandolin clubs, orchestras, theater groups, arts and crafts groups, baseball teams, football teams, and a constant program of literary discussions and film screenings. They responded to the most challenging moments—the storms and interminable general assembly meetings—with a defiant conviviality and sense of humor. Millsap recollects “music going on all the time, on every occasion” and people always ready to “go and have a dance.” Mellie Calvert, who was later involved with the Brush Gang, wistfully remembers attending the first Festival and Dance and dreaming with others of what Llano might become:
Because of a shortage of accommodations many young people brought blankets along and after the dance we slept on mounds of new hay that had been piled in the fields. It was a clear moonlit night with wonderfully clear and bracing air, and with bright stars overhead. We felt happy, exhilarated, and confident that Llano del Rio Co-operative colony would, indeed, become a paradise on earth.
Another way that people joined the collective imaginary of Llano was through debating its future architecture. Although the city was initially comprised of temporary tents and adobe structures, there was the hope that once they had the means, they would completely rebuild the community. Architects, including feminist Alice Constance Austin, put together elaborate models for what this new city might look like. In a series of essays called “The Socialist City,” Austin argued that a “Socialist City should be beautiful, of course,” and the people should be fashionably dressed. Shaped by Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 urban-planning book Garden Cities of To-morrow, Austin’s blueprint for Llano included radial streets with an underground conveyer to deliver food and clothing from a communal kitchen and laundry. She hoped these structures might alleviate the burden of domestic labor and enable female colonists to pursue whatever work was most compelling to them. Instead of following “the ordinary individualistic plan,” Austin’s ideal city was designed to reflect the community’s collective values with architectures “elastic” enough for members to continuously infuse their ideas. Prompting lively discussion, Austin’s plans were an invitation to collaborate on dreaming the future structures of Llano.
Another site where people at Llano experimented with new structures was in the creation of their schools. Starting with the premise that “capitalist education” was a “mill” turning out young people “cut and polished to the same size and degree,” they aimed to design schools that would equip young people for cooperation. Prudence Stokes Brown, a disciple of Maria Montessori, led Llano in the formation of multiple schools—a Montessori kindergarten, an elementary school, and an industrial high school— all environments in which children could “learn by doing.” At the high school, students oversaw their own 65 acres of garden, built houses, cooked food, and looked after goats, horses, rabbits and (1,000) chickens. As one member, Scott Lewis, put it, “[F]or the average person a knowledge of chickens is more useful than the ability to conjugate amo,” and “it is better to know how to saw a board off straight than to read Homer.” Llano students also participated in self-governance, debating and shaping the structures of their education. Within all the Llano schools, there was a repeated emphasis on practical learning that could be applied to the work of communal life.
Like other structures at Llano, the schools were works in progress—malleable and changeable institutions that were meant to grow and form alongside those who participated in them. As a community member put it, one should not expect to look at Llano’s schools and find “a finished project, an exhibit that can be expected without finding flaws.” Instead, they pointed to the Industrial School perpetually in process: “It is not stabilized, even. It is not completed. It is crude and experimental.” The schools, like the social architectures at Llano, were dynamic, ever-shifting, and always-in-formation. They were meant to be inhabited by people, in this case students, who would in turn suffuse them with questions and interests that arose from living in a cooperative society.
In the broadest sense, Llano del Rio was an attempt to create a new social world. In a society where the values of capitalism—“Take all you can and keep all you take”—prevailed, Job Harriman wondered if it was possible to create the conditions for another social life to flourish:
Can [“the creed of capitalism”] be overcome by a group of people located in the very heart of such a system, even as it affects the people in that very group? Can a new order of things be established in such a community out of which will grow a new social spirit? Can the pathway to a higher social life be blazed through the thorns and thickets and swamps of capitalism?
Llano del Rio—an imperfect, incomplete project—was an attempt to live out and convene around these questions. Along the way, the thousands of people who moved through Llano—gathering on the porch, sharing meals, dancing late at night, arguing about architectural plans, and helping shape the schools—were all part of its social spirit.
In 1917, as architectural plans for the city were still being debated, the people of Llano del Rio found out that they did not have access to the water they needed. A year before, 20 local ranchers had sued Llano over access to the Big Rock Creek, calling them “socialistic plunderers” who were attempting to “cover the face of the earth.” After a complex and costly legal battle, which led to a curtailed plan to build a nearby dam, it became clear that water would be an insurmountable obstacle. The tensions around water collided with the United States’ entry into World War I. Many members were either drafted or drawn back to the city for higher-paying jobs. With this loss of labor, the numbers at the colony dwindled; leaders of the remaining community made the decision to relocate their venture to Louisiana, where a much smaller New Llano continued for another two decades. Within days of the socialists departing for Louisiana, Llano del Rio was looted by local ranchers. They smashed windows, demolished buildings, and carried off pieces of the hotels, schools, and workshops where people had danced, debated, and tried to enact a different kind of world.
Today, the ruins of Llano remain off of Pearblossom Highway in the Antelope Valley. For over 100 years, this site has been a destination for writers, artists, radicals, and others seeking to glimpse the remnants of an unfinished dream. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis describes returning to Llano del Rio in 1990 “to see if the walls would talk to me.” Instead, he came upon “two twenty-year-old building laborers from El Salvador,” who shared the hopes that brought them to Los Angeles and the realities they had actually found upon arrival.
In their book Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles (1992), Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon, and Lionel Rolfe write about how decades of writing on Llano has “piled distortion upon distortion until a recognizable picture” is no longer a possibility. There is a wistfulness in the years of palimpsestic mythmaking about this community. Some read the failed utopia as proof that another way isn’t possible; others hold onto it as evidence that things indeed might have unfolded differently.
When I traveled out to the ruins of Llano del Rio earlier this spring, I was so carsick on the winding highway of State Route 2 that I felt dizzy when I eventually arrived. Wandering past the stone columns and chimneys of the hotel, I found a place to sit, out of the glaring sun, in the concrete foundation of a silo once built for alfalfa storage. Listening to the hum of the trucks whirling by, I thought of a line from a piece that Aldous Huxley wrote on Llano del Rio in 1953: “What pleasure, on a mild night in May or June, to sit out of doors under one’s privately owned cottonwood tree and listen, across a mile of intervening sagebrush, to the music of Socialists!” What music was I listening for now, following the movements of so many who had come out to this small piece of desert over the last hundred years?
After spending weeks looking through the Llano archives, I found it increasingly difficult to make sense of the dissonance between the projected visions of the community and the criticisms of it, from within and without. At first, I found myself seduced by the all-too-familiar narrative of the imploding utopia—it was satisfying to see hubristic men, aiming to colonize land and establishing a segregated utopia, encounter the limits of their vision. Reading through letters, meeting notes, and memoirs, I saw clearly that the reality for many who came to Llano often lagged far behind expectations. Like the city of Los Angeles, which was built on speculation and booster mythmaking, Llano was also a chimera—a fantasy sold to prospective members as a refuge and escape from their current lives.
Yet, instead of tidily dismissing the project, I found that I wanted to linger in the space between the dream and the failure, to attend to the messy and ever-shifting memories of those who moved through and helped create it. Because at its heart, it seems that Llano was a social experiment shaped and reshaped by the many people—workers, defectors, mothers, and children—who came to the desert to practice into a different world. Even when they were buried in snow, or out of coffee, or embroiled in fights at hours-long general assembly meetings, they continued to try their hands at a society that valued cooperation over individualism. Did these people find what they were seeking in this expanse of desert? Was it worth it to participate in this ephemeral experiment? As I looked and listened, I found traces of their incomplete dreams and visions all around—in letters to loved ones, in photographs, in the glinting shards of broken glass. As one member put it, there is no singular, composite story of Llano: “We must gather as many scraps as we can find.”
In a 1962 Los Angeles Times article, “Banker Has No Regrets Over Socialist Colony,” Gentry McCorkle reflects on giving all his money—his bank interest, his home, $35,000—to Llano del Rio: “I have no regrets about underwriting the venture. I am sorry it failed. I would do it again if I knew it had a chance of success.” After leaving Llano, he returned to banking and “reaped other fortunes under the profit system [he] sought to defeat.”
In a memoir published the same year, Walter Millsap reflects on Job Harriman at the end of his life: “He died a broken-hearted man, bowed down with the tragedy of the human race, and knowing that there would be a long, weary struggle with the changing of habits before mankind would ever find happiness.”
During the summer of 1917, Mellie Calvert attended a picnic with 50 members of the Brush Gang. Despite being many of the colony’s most vocal critics, they expressed their continued “faith in those ideals of co-operation [which] had been strengthened by their experiences at Llano.” The picnic was a celebration of the life they had in the community, and “nobody said anything about being sorry they had participated.”
Trying to recall one of the colony’s May Day celebrations, Millsap laments not having a “phonograph record” memory of his time at Llano: “I am sorry that it is impossible to repeat what was said, or to convey to you the mannerisms, the tones used and the spirit that ebbed and flowed like a wave.”
Laura Nelson seeks to celebrate and co-organize spaces of study and gathering. She is currently a Mellon Humanities and the University of the Future postdoctoral fellow at University of Southern California.
Featured image: Photo of Llano del Rio now, courtesy of the author.
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