Bird of Paradise Was a Hen in Colony Founder’s Eden
Independence through egg farms. Twenty-five hundred chickens on every plot. That was the bizarre dream Charles Weeks introduced to the San Fernando Valley 60 years ago.
A visionary pragmatist in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Elbert Hubbard, Weeks believed that science, hard work, a little land and a lot of chickens could set man free.
The founder of successful poultry-based colonies in Winnetka, Ill., and Palo Alto, Weeks looked at the Valley and envisioned a practical paradise of one-acre farms, each with an attractive “garden home,” an enterprising family of good character and 2,500 laying hens raised according to the soundest scientific principles of the day.
Fewer than 500 of the 2,000 farms Weeks envisioned actually were established. And his dream, along with so many others, was eventually shattered by the Depression. But, for a time, it allowed a unique community to flourish in what is now Canoga Park.
A sense of what life was like in that dusty settlement of white Leghorns and tough-minded Utopians emerged from recent interviews with people who grew up there and from written documents, including the Weeks collection in the Urban Archives at California State University, Northridge, and Carolyn Ryan’s history of Winnetka.
In 1922 Weeks, a 50-year-old philosopher-entrepreneur, began building his egg-based Eden along Sherman Way, a wide boulevard lined with palms and roses. It was the only paved road in the West Valley. A trolley called “Big Red” ran down its center and made daily round-trips to Los Angeles.
“Each man must create his own little world,” Weeks liked to say. “None that others prepare for him will ever satisfy.” The Valley community of Owensmouth was the ideal place for little-world building, Weeks argued. Its soil was rich, there was abundant water because of the Owens Aqueduct and nearby Los Angeles was a ready and growing market for the settlers’ eggs.
Weeks disseminated his philosophy of collective self-reliance in a widely distributed magazine called “Intensive Little Farms” and in a book he sold by mail for $1. He described the Valley project with characteristic confidence as “the greatest economic work of the age, bringing peace of mind, health of body and an abundant living to thousands bound in slavery by wage-earning and too much business.”
By the mid-1920s almost 500 families had paid $1,500 each--a steep enough price that Weeks felt obliged to justify it in his literature--for one-acre plots in the Charles Weeks Poultry Colony.
The colony’s carbon-copy farms had one-story houses set back from the road, extensive gardens of vegetables and feed crops, lawns of clover to attract bees and long, narrow hen houses in which the chickens were perpetually penned on the sound theory that they produced eggs more efficiently than free-roaming birds.
The growing community ran north of Sherman Way almost to Nordhoff Street and was bounded on the west by Mason Avenue, on the east by Corbin Avenue.
In his magazine, Weeks told of driving into the Santa Monica Mountains and gazing down on his handiwork. “It lies far below so peaceful and quiet in its green setting,” he wrote in 1924. “We can hardly realize that each little home, as we look down upon it, is a little world of its own where a man and his family work out their plans and purposes.
“If we had a field glass we could see the men planting in their gardens, some hoeing, some feeding green feed to the hens, some trimming their fruit trees, some pruning their berries and perhaps many ladies planting and caring for the flowers around the home and, here and there, the children playing in the sunshine and fresh air.”
Self-reliance did not preclude cooperation. The colonists sold most of their eggs through their Poultrymen’s Assn., which picked up each settler’s eggs at curbside, warehoused them and marketed them under the slogan “The Best from the Nest.” The colonists also had a community center where they met for musical evenings, Thanksgiving dinners and other social and cultural events.
By the early 1930s the colony had begun to crumble as the price of eggs plummeted and fewer and fewer settlers could pay back their bank loans. The upbeat, even smug tone that characterized the first issues of the community newspaper, “Chant-It-Clear,” gave way to stiff-necked determination to ride out the economic storm. “Hang on! Hang on!” urged community poet Mrs. E. Ray Peterson in 1927.
In the same issue, which reported egg prices elsewhere of less than 20 cents a dozen under the headline “Things Could Be Worse,” the Kackle Kolumn ran the following grim joke: Teacher asks Tommy, “If your father was a grocer and had 20 dozen eggs and found one dozen spoiled, how much would he lose if eggs were 50 cents a dozen?” Tommy’s answer: “Nothing.”
With chick sexing, hen cages, million-unit egg factories and other efficiency-enhancing developments still in the future, few colonists, including Weeks, were able to hang on past 1934.
That was the year Weeks, pressured by creditors, left California. It was also the year the bank foreclosed on the one-acre farm of Jasper Jones’ family at Saticoy Street and Oso Avenue.
Jones, 67, a retired electrical contractor who still lives in Canoga Park, recalled that his carpenter-father had raised cows and grapes in the Fresno area before he settled in the colony in 1925.
“Along came Prohibition, and we couldn’t sell the grapes, and he lost that property, and he just moved from one thing to another until he came here,” Jones said. “Hard times kept grabbing at him and grabbing at him,” he recalled. “And it was just the times really. But he survived.”
Like most children in the colony, Jones had daily chores. His included tending the gladioli and other flower beds, gathering eggs and, least welcome, periodically cleaning the dropping boards in the hen houses. Life wasn’t perfect, he said, citing such minor grievances as goats’ milk, which he hated, and the fact that the Joneses never ate an egg that wasn’t cracked.
But it was a charmed existence in many ways, he recalled, marked by friendships among youngsters with much in common, walks in the mountains, neighborhood games in nearby orchards, outings to the beach at Malibu and to local “plunges,” as swimming pools were called, and such country diversions as a half-wild pet fox. Card games were popular in some homes, but were banned in Jones’ house until after his mother, who thought them sinful, died.
The Joneses had an inside toilet and tap water. Small fish occasionally emerged from the faucet.
Lives Centered on School
The children’s lives centered around Winnetka Avenue Elementary School, which opened in 1926 before Winnetka Avenue was paved. The cafeteria room was screened, because the colony raised as many flies as chickens. When times got hard, families who could afford it sent two bag lunches to school with their children, one to give away.
Catherine Mulholland, whose grandfather, William Mulholland, was the Southern California water czar, started at the school in 1933. “I remember little kids in flour-sack underwear,” she recalled in a recent interview. “Kids went to school barefoot. Mother wouldn’t allow me to do that. I felt deprived.”
As times got harder, many of the colonists had to compromise their commitment to self-reliance and work for wages on the Mulhollands’ 700-acre ranch in Chatsworth and Northridge. The boys sometimes “smudged” for her father, servicing the smudge pots put out to protect the citrus and walnut crops through nights that threatened frost. The boys earned 50 cents and sometimes fell asleep the next day in school.
“My first slumber party was on top of a chicken coop,” Mulholland recalled. Of the colonists, she said, “They were basically people of enterprise who ran into a bunch of hard luck.”
Family Viewed as ‘Uppity’
Jasper Jones remembers that he thought highly of the Weeks family, a view not universally shared, especially as the experiment began to falter. He and Charles Weeks Jr. were pals. “Some of the kids thought they were a little uppity and that there was a class distinction, but I never thought that,” Jones said.
The late Anson Dameron supervised the model farm that Weeks set up at Winnetka Avenue and Saticoy Street, which was as close to a tourist attraction as Owensmouth had. There was a solar heater on the roof of the Weeks’ home, another on the roof of the community center. On the model homestead Weeks practiced such forward-looking economies as collecting the chicken droppings and selling them for fertilizer.
Dameron’s 83-year-old widow, Celeste, still lives on Stagg Street in a farmhouse set 100 feet back from the curb, as the Weeks plan prescribed. She and Dameron raised 12 children in the small home, now dwarfed by condominiums. Dameron was an established colonist, a widower with four children, when they began courting. She was a widow living in Texas with two youngsters of her own.
“There was this little ad in Farm and Ranch Magazine that said, ‘Send your name and 25 cents and ask one question and we’ll send you the name of your future mate,’ ” she recalled. She scorned the ad, but a friend sent in her name and the crucial quarter. She and Anson Dameron began a two-year correspondence that culminated in their marriage in 1929. He went to Texas to meet her in person first.
‘47 Wonderful Years’
“We had 47 wonderful years together,” she said. “We decided to try it together to make a home for the children and for ourselves, too.”
“I really think God was with us here,” Dameron said. She lost her husband 10 years ago. Their 12 children, 33 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren survive.
Fit and wearing running shoes, Dameron spoke nostalgically of the old colony days when there were 1,500 hens in the backyard, instead of two. She and her husband slaughtered and salted down a pig every few months, and the children ran after the ice delivery truck, hoping a chunk would fall off so their mother would make ice cream.
Dameron continues to walk to church regularly. But, she noted, “When it’s late of evening I don’t walk any more. You used to could.”
Jasper Jones said he was lucky to grow up in the Weeks Poultry Colony. As long as the colonists worked their little farms and kept the bank at bay, they had food on the table, food they had raised themselves or were able to barter for. They ate a lot of old hens and cracked eggs, but in a hungry time they did not starve.
“I think his dream did an awful lot for us,” Jones said of Weeks.
The colony was idealistic, Jones said, but staunchly commited to capitalism as well. “This was just a good old American situation,” he recalled. “If you wanted to produce more, you could collect more and not just put it in a pot for the rest of the community.
“You were in a community, not a commune. You were there because you wanted to better yourself, and along with that you helped your neighbor.”
Weeks, who held second-trust deeds on many of the farms and had heavily financed the Poultrymen’s Assn., settled in Florida after he left California in 1934. He raised chickens and tropical fruit and became a spear-fishing enthusiast. He liked to quote philosopher Hubbard’s axiom: “Motion must equal emotion.” He did not look back.
Weeks died in 1964 at the age of 91. Four years earlier the Miami Herald had run a photo of him, smiling and standing on his head.