Llano Del Rio: A Vision in Ruins

Driving along Pearblossom Highway (Hwy 138),  it’s just you and maybe a few hundred cars and trucks passing by in both directions.  Perhaps lost in thought, or just concentrating on surviving the drive, you look ahead and the roadway becomes a beacon to place unknown to most people, even though they may pass it every day.

You’re approaching the ruins.  Soon, you will know what others don’t.  The history of a failed dream.

About five miles east of Pearblossom, or ten miles east of Little Rock, you see the place.  It recalls a landscape reminiscent of Hiroshima after Little Boy was dropped in 1945.  Somber.  Alone.  A town without people.

Slow down and pull in.  Get out, lock your car and take a walk through time.  Welcome to the Socialist community of Llano Del Rio.

 

Handy Facts to Know:

1.  “Llano” is pronounced “Yawn-oh.”

2.  The desert has its share of nefarious characters, so please lock you car.  It’s a long walk back to town.

3.  Spring is upon us and the rattlesnakes are getting busy.  None will give you warm fuzzies, especially the infamous Mojave Green.

4.  If you drove through Little Rock and didn’t stop at Charlie Brown Farms for a date shake, ostrich burger, or amusing trinkets, you’re missing a trip onto itself.

Pearblossom Highway runs through the heart of Llano.   It’s soul is all around you.  Nearby, some people still call the land home.  They even have a Post Office.  Survivors or just stubborn, it’s hard to say.   The ruins are what catches your eye.  They’re all that is left of Job Harriman’s failed social experiment that he called the Llano Del Rio Cooperative.

 

These structures, made of field stone, cement and brick are remnants of a utopian community that was a dream in 1911, and a reality from 1914 to 1918.  One day in that last year, the reality came home to roost, and the dream was abandoned almost overnight.

 
 

Fast forward.  On May 1, 2017, the town known as the Llano del Rio Cooperative marks its 106th anniversary.  Comrade Harriman founded his community on the first of May for a sentimental reason. 

 

In 1904, the International Socialist Conference in Holland decreed the first of May as “May Day,” in commemoration of the infamous “Haymarket Riots” in Chicago, twenty years earlier.  Most likely there won’t be a parade in Llano, but they used to be popular in the USSR.

 

May Day parade in Red Square, Moscow.  Apparently, the local hardware store only had one color of paint back in the 1960s and 70s.

 

THE ADVENTURES OF JOB HARRIMAN

 

When he developed the idea for the Llano Del Rio community in 1911, Job Harriman was already famous in his own right.  in 1900 he was the vice presidential candidate on the Socialist Party ticket along with Eugene Debs. 

 

 

Early Social Democrat Bromance

They lost the election and  William McKinley became president, until his assassination at the hands of an anarchist in 1901.  At the time, Theodore Roosevelt was McKinley’s vice president, and immediately assumed the most important office in the land.

 

   BULLY FOR TEDDY

So, what do you do when you lose the biggest election in the free world?  Remember, Disneyland was decades away.  If you were Job Harriman, you run for mayor.  Mayor of Los Angeles.  Twice.  

By this time in his life, Job Harriman was a complete convert to Marxism, having much earlier quit his other job (Job’s job?) as a Christian minister.   Even for the newly Godless Harriman, bigger plans were in store.

IRONIC INTERLUDE:  SOCIALISM BUYS SOME LAND IN THE DESERT

After his career in politics came to halt, Job Harriman was able to persuade more than a thousand future comrades to join him in creating a socialist utopia on 20,000 acres of flat scrub land he had purchased in Antelope Valley.   

 

Initially, the Del Rio co-op was staffed by a crew of five, who were later joined by a team of horses, a cow, and five pigs.   Others would soon arrive.

IRONIC INTERLUDE, THE AFTER THOUGHT

When Job and friends arrived, the area around Llano was covered by many Joshua Trees.  A few still remain, having been thinned out by local farms, groves and ranches. 

 

So, inquiring minds want to know, did Mr. Harriman know that the desert tree (really a plant) received its name from Mormon settlers who imagined that the branches, seeming reaching for the sky, were the hands of Joshua, reaching for heaven?   If he did know, did he call it the Marx Tree?   Just a passing thought.

 

 

COVER BOY FOR THE WESTERN COMRADE

 

“The Western Comrade”

“The Western Comrade,” a periodical expounding the virtues of Marxism, was published from 1913 to 1918. Never really a independent journal, it existed solely to promote the Llano Del Rio community.

 

 The Board dictated all rules and regulations.

 

The political stability of Llano was threatened by internal power struggles between the Board of Directors, which was composed of seven (and eventually nine) members and the General Assembly, which was composed of all of the Llano Company’s stockholders, the members of the colony.

 

Though the Board was efficient, it caused political dissent. Llano’s “Declaration of Principles” proclaimed “equal ownership, equal wage, and equal social opportunities.” However, Llano was not run in a democratic manner.

 

Architect Alice Constance Austin proposed a conscious feminist design for the future Socialist City.

For the women involved, Llano del Rio promised a gender neutral environment.

 

Architect Alice Constance Austin proposed a conscious feminist design for the future Socialist City that featured a nongrid circular spatial plan with centralized communal kitchens, laundries and daycare, built-in furniture, and other modern innovations that minimized housekeeping while relying heavily on modern technologies such as electricity. 

 

Women were meant to equally participate everyday governance and politics of Llano.  Freeing them from daily toil of “woman’s work” was the first step in doing so.

 

                                                                                             Courtesy of the West Antelope Valley Historical Society.

LLANO DEL RIO COMES ALIVE

 

As more comrades arrived, Llano by the river started to take on the appearance of a thriving community in the desert.   A community center for the hosting of dances and assemblies was constructed. 

 

In fact, the rock pillars of the center still stand today.    In fairly short order a post office, dairy building, and laundry facility and a blacksmith shop were also built on the colony’s site. 

 

 

Blacksmith Shop in Llano del Rio, California. Courtesy of the West Antelope Valley Historical Society

 

In addition to many buildings and living structures (shared, of course), a fairly innovative water irrigation system was built.  Water would later become the issue du jour.  Initially though,  it came down to passing the background requirements, and agreeing to live the utopian dream.

 

 

Old water irrigation system at Llano, now filled in with sand. Nature abhors a vacuum.

 

                  The Western Comrade, November 1914. Courtesy of the City of Lancaster Museum/Art Gallery

 

PASSING THE AUDITION

 

To become a member of the colony, a neophyte communist was required purchase (a contradiction in mutually exclusive terms?)  exactly 2,000 stock shares and to reside at Llano at the par value of $1 per share. Colonists were allowed to buy a maximum of three fourths of their stock shares on credit. 

 

Applicants for membership were required to be idealistic, industrious, and sober (sober in the desert?  Another contradiction?).   To ensure standards were met, applicants needed three references, written ideally by a local union president or secretary. Questions testing an applicant’s dedication to socialism were also part of the entrance procedure. 

 

KLAN LEANINGS?

 

As a short-lived, inclusive experiment in American socialism, Llano Del Rio may have been successful—but in terms of fostering an authentically egalitarian community free of racism it had failed.    In The Western Comrade’s April 1916 issue a full-page advertisement titled “A Gateway to Freedom through Co-operative Action” states at the bottom of the call “Only Caucasians are admitted.

 

We have had applications from Negroes, Hindus, Mongolians and Malays. The rejection of these applications are not due to race prejudice, but because it is not deemed expedient to mix the races in these communities.”

 

Indeed, the founders may not have intentionally intended to promote racial prejudice as the advertisement suggests, but offered no opportunity for people of color to join the colony.

 

 

Los Angeles Times 18 July 1916

 

 

WHEN THE WATERS CAME AND WENT

 

During the early period of Llano, Harriman had secured large amounts of water for the growing colony. Though in theory Llano had enough water to sustain itself and to grow, much of the water could only be accessed by building a dam.   The community applied to California for a permit to build a dam. 

 

However, the California Commissioner of Corporations denied Llano’s application to construct a dam saying, “Your people do not seem to have the necessary amount of experience and maybe the sums of money it will involve.”  Oh fine.  What more could go wrong?

 

 

BICKERING AT THE O.K. COMMUNE

 

The damn dam issue was just one problem.  In spite of the idealism of new converts, the colony suffered from its share of avarice, laziness, internal bickering and factionalism, as well as theft and other human traits.  

 

Although governed by a general assembly composed of  sixty or more separate committees, each with its own administration and agenda, the Central Committee was charged to handle daily affairs, and a minority of Llano-ites became dissatisfied with overall governance.  

 

“Factionalism sabotaged the business of daily living,” said Alan Hensher in his book ‘Ghost Towns of the Mojave Desert.’

 

 

LLANO DEL RIO, THE SEQUEAL

 

When the inevitable result came, and Llano began to implode for reasons ranging from idealism to economics, the community left California in a rush, and relocated to the small town of “Stables” in a remote Louisiana Parish.   Soon renamed “New Llano,” the community remained a socialist style coop until 1939. 

 

Like its California parent, New Llano collapsed under its own policies, and thereafter became just plain old New Llano, Louisiana.  It’s still there today.  In a ironic and just turn of events, the population of New Llano is almost 50 percent African-American.  Take that, comrade Harriman, you old racist communist!

 

 

VISITING LLANO DEL RIO

 

We can assume that Llano Del Rio is on private property.  While there are no visible signs stating this, it’s a good, and safe, guess.  There are homes nearby, and we’re sure that the residents keep an eye on things.  Still, you’re probably okay to just wander around.  

 

Sadly, we see the usual signs of vandalism out there when we visit.  Graffiti, litter and other items are there.  A sad reminder that the past is being destroyed, piece by piece.  There are many great photo ops, since most of the rock structures still stand.  

 

 

 

                    Please wipe your feet before entering.

 

 

BEFORE BRAVE NEW WORLD, IT WAS JUST A HOT OLD DESERT

 

 

                           Llano was once the home of English writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.

SAVING HISTORY ONE STONE AT A TIME

Some dreams do not die easily. Over the years, there has been a handful of neighbors in the unincorporated community of Llano who wanted to save the historic location from development.  Twenty miles west from Llano are the boom towns of Palmdale and Lancaster. 

 

Each day, bulldozers extend the conquest of the desert by housing developments and shopping malls, sprawling monuments to the power of capitalism.  The ruins on Pearblossom Highway are monuments to a different tradition. The site is now registered as California Historical Landmark #933. 

 

Even songs have been written about historic Llano Del Rio!

 

 
 
Tony Vacik, 79, was one of the last survivors of Llano Del Rio. Vacik spent several decades farming his land in nearby Little Rock. He loved to regale visitors with countless tales of Llano. LA Times 23 Mar 1999

  TRIVIA . . . YOU HAVE TO HAVE TRIVIA!

 

Q: Has Hollywood ever told the ill-fated tale of Llano? 

A: Why yes, Virginia.  In 1934, movie director King Vidor filmed a fictional account of Llano called “Our Daily Bread,” which is available on video.

Q: Has anyone ever written a song about Llano? 

A: You bet, Betty. Here are the lyrics for your listening pleasure.

Llano-Llano
Llano-Llano
Llano-Llano
Goin’ out to Llano

Llano Del Rio
Try to find Utopia
In the stucco grids
And the tumbleweeds

You got to love that pear blossom
Itll kill you just like possum
Have you been to the rock foundations?
Where it’s mostly known just for the speed

Llano-Llano
Llano-Llano
Llano-Llano

Goin’ out to Llano
Goin’ out to look for Aldous Huxley
There between the power lines
And the purple flowers of mescaline

If you really want to
You can practice Esperanto
But in the land of pronto
The wind it tastes like gasoline

Llano-Llano
Llano-Llano
Llano-Llano

Goin’ out to Llano
Llano Del Rio
Goin’ out to Llano
Llano Del Rio

Goin’ out to Llano
Llano Del Rio
Goin’ out to Llano
Llano Del Rio

Songwriters
Charles Thompson

Published by
SPIME SONGS

              This epithet on a wall at the ruins of Llano del Rio says, “It was not all flowers she had on her mind.”
Citations:

 

 

Jaylyn

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comments
  • The fact that ideas of Socialism will always be renewed by coming generations is sad. People who promote this flawed idea are very well intentioned and idealistic, but operate on emotion instead of rational thought, and recognition of human nature is ignored. Socialism has failed miserably with every attempt and millions have suffered and died under it’s yoke. History shows us that the natural state of the world, whether we like to admit it or not, is toil and misery, but in a relatively short period of time American Liberty and the free market system has lifted more people out of this misery than any other system ever developed. When individuals are free to pursue their own interests and talents, innovation and creativity is unleashed and standards of living are elevated expediently. It’s tragic that so many people, though well intentioned, do not recognize this. When you think about it, Capitalism is not actually a system at all. It’s what happens naturally between a free people.

  • I really enjoy your site and adventures; I’ve been out to various places in the Mojave dozens (upon dozens) of times over the years and still, with each feature you post, I learn something new and acquire a new destination to check out. Please keep them coming!

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