LLano Del Rio Cooperative Colony l914-l918 : Remains of Utopia : How a Renowned Socialist Commune Bloomed and Faded
Two men, father and son, make their way through a strange desert landscape of vegetation, garbage and stone.
Tony Vacik and Tony Vacik Jr. stop in front of the squat stone towers that dominate the horizon near Pearblossom Highway in Llano del Rio, an unincorporated hamlet of 1,500. The towers--remnants of cobblestone pillars and chimneys around a concrete floor--resemble the abandoned temple of some desert god.
Twenty miles west of Llano are the Antelope Valley 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. They are what is left of the Llano del Rio cooperative colony founded in May, 1914, by Job Harriman, a socialist lawyer who ran for vice president of the United States, governor of California and mayor of Los Angeles, winning about 35% of the 137,000 votes cast in the 1911 mayoral election.
“Socialism didn’t rub off much on us kids that was at the colony,” said Tony Vacik, 79, his eyes narrowed against the sun and the years. “But it sure rubbed off on the government. Now you got old-age pensions, keeping care of the poor and handicapped, unions, Social Security. That’s all they was squawkin’ about at Llano.”
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Harriman’s attempt to establish a model community based on cooperative economic ideals attracted nearly 1,000 people to the 2,000 acres in the Antelope Valley. Among them were the family of Tony Vacik, then 5 and now one of the colony’s last survivors. After four years, the colony succumbed to a combination of elements, among them internal strife and a host of enemies, including the fiercely anti-Harriman Los Angeles Times.
Despite their historical significance, the ruins have been looted, vandalized and allowed to decay. A Los Angeles County proposal seeking $100,000 in state funds to preserve the site was rejected last month. Seventy-five years after Llano was founded, scholars and many Antelope Valley residents fear that its last vestiges will disappear.
“It was the most important non-religious utopian colony in Western American history,” said Knox Mellon of the Mission Inn Foundation, former head of the state Office of Historic Preservation, and an expert on Harriman and Llano. “It was short-lived, but many communal efforts were short-lived. There was a lot of camaraderie and enthusiasm, a belief that utopia was at hand.”
Said UC Riverside’s Robert Hine, a historian of American utopian experiments: “The myth of the West is the myth of the individual. But the West produced an awful lot of communitarian experiences, a warm, cooperative spirit. We’ve turned our backs on that part of the Western experience. In this age when we’re looking at community and how we preserve community in the face of all the threats, we’ve got to start looking back at these communities that were efforts to do just that.”
Llano del Rio, which means “plain by the river,” would appear to be a natural spot for a historical marker or an information stand, but there is nothing.
A 150-pound plaque designating the site as a California Historical Landmark was erected in 1982 but was stolen two weeks later and has not been replaced. Constellations of broken glass cover the concrete floor of the former hotel and its assembly hall, where fires once blazed in the cobblestone hearths during Saturday night dances. Rusted cans choke the cavity of a water storage tank. There is automobile debris everywhere--spark plugs, radio innards, engine hoses.
County officials and members of the Llano Community Assn. have tried to stop the decay. They have proposed a county park that would preserve the site while providing a center for community meetings and a historical display. County planners say they have agreed to protect the ruins against what Hine describes as his worst fear--that the area could be razed by a developer more interested in economics than history.
But a park would cost money that the county doesn’t have, about half a million dollars. And the land where the most substantial ruins are concentrated--the central area of the former hotel, commissary, bakery, post office and horse barn--is owned by two doctors in Illinois.
One of them, Dr. Supachai Pongched of Forest Park, in suburban Chicago, said in a telephone interview that he and the other owner are not interested in a sale or a trade.
As a result, Jim Park, Los Angeles County’s parks planning director, said: “Right now it’s going to continue to languish in its current state until a trade is consummated or we acquire the property.”
Tony Vacik, a lifelong farmer who tends three acres in nearby Littlerock, professes indifference: “Some historic outfit could do something if they wanted to. I don’t give a darn.”
But Vacik’s reminiscing is affectionate, spiced with mischief and profanity. He recalls fistfights, rattlesnake bites and bronco-busting under the tutelage of the Llano blacksmith, a “half-breed Cherokee” named Bigelow.
Vacik also said he knew and played with actor John Wayne, formerly Marion Morrison (“the Morrison kid”), whose family lived in the Antelope Valley for a time and whose horse, Vacik said, “smelled like a glue factory.”
Vacik said he has vivid images of playing the trumpet in a colony band and baseball with the colony team, of the monotonous diet forced by Llano’s isolation and economic hardships.
“No ‘frigeration in them days,” Vacik said. “Beans’d keep. Spaghetti’d keep. Too much spaghett’, I hope to tell ya.”
Tony Vacik’s father was an avowed socialist who came to California via his native Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. Anton Vacik became good friends with Harriman, a major national figure in the socialist movement at the turn of the century.
Harriman was the Socialist Labor Party’s California gubernatorial candidate in 1898 and labor leader Eugene Debs’ running mate on the Socialist Party presidential ticket in 1900. During the following decade, Harriman, a compelling speaker, built a strong base of socialist and labor union support in Los Angeles. According to Mellon, Harriman’s ideology was a kind of “right-wing socialism.” He continued: “He saw a fusion between socialism and trade unions. He was willing to make compromises.”
Harriman’s legal and political careers fused during the celebrated McNamara case in 1910, when a bomb killed 20 men in the alley behind the Los Angeles Times, which was a leading opponent of organized labor at the time. Harriman aided Clarence Darrow in the legal defense of John and Joseph McNamara, two of the Midwest union organizers accused of carrying out the bombing.
At the same time, Harriman mounted a strong campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. But the abrupt confession of the McNamara brothers shortly before the election was decisive in his loss to George Alexander in December, 1911.
The unsuccessful electoral bids contributed to Harriman’s decision to shift his politics to the economic arena. According to historians, he envisioned a community that would exemplify a socialist triumph of equality and cooperation over capitalistic competition. Llano del Rio--a barren area near Big Rock Creek, which Harriman and five partners purchased for about $80,000--would be a “gateway to the future.”
Harriman’s magnetism and considerable stature in Los Angeles labor circles moved a collection of left-wing activists, farmers and union members to make the arduous trek to the Antelope Valley. New members were initially required to buy 2,000 shares of the Llano del Rio Corp., with $500 cash as the minimum requirement. They earned $4 a day, $1 going toward unpurchased stock and the other $3 to be paid in cash when and if the colony realized a profit. As time passed, the colony accepted more and more members unable to pay up front, and the wage system dissolved. Food and other necessities were provided in exchange for work.
Homes were made of wood or adobe; crowding required some families to live in tents. There were three schools and a post office. The colony’s board of directors oversaw a thriving assortment of economic activities that reflected the colony’s temporary success in overcoming the harsh terrain. One of the two Llano newspapers, Western Comrade, published in 1917 a list of 60 departments within the colony including agriculture (alfalfa, corn, pear orchards), a dairy, a lime kiln, a printing press and a sawmill, where Vacik’s father worked.
In his 1953 book “California’s Utopian Colonies,” Hine praised the colony’s achievements in education and particularly agriculture. “The total agrarian accomplishment cannot fail to inspire respect, and the prosperous condition of the Antelope Valley to this day may be in part explained by Llano’s agricultural pioneering.”
There has been a good deal of discussion by historians and journalists about the factors contributing to Llano’s fall. Vacik gives this analysis: “It’s hard to get people to cooperate, y’know. They got to bucking Job Harriman. Some of ‘em got lazy. You’ve always got loafers and deadbeats; they had them there like you have them everywhere.”
Hine and Mellon say the fundamental difficulties of cooperative life produced debilitating disputes.
There were complaints that, rhetoric aside, managers were “more equal” than workers. The colonists from farm backgrounds, who tended to be less ideological but more technically adept, criticized the questionable effort of some of the former political and labor activists. 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.”
And for all Harriman’s oratory and charisma, there were factions that considered him a heavy-handed autocrat and revolted against his leadership, some of them abandoning Llano.
“The colonies that succeed best are religious colonies, where there is a higher leader,” Hine said. “The leadership you can put up with because there is something else higher and more meaningful than in a purely secular colony.”
In Llano, Hine said, “the problem was that they weren’t looking for people who had a commitment that transcended self or community. They were looking for people who wanted to live a better life, get out of the city, find a job. These are not things that are necessarily tied to the concept of group life.”
Two intertwined problems came from outside: a water shortage and harassment by Llano’s numerous enemies. Colonists discovered in 1917 that their calculations of available water were incorrect because a geological fault was diverting part of the supply on which they had counted. Moreover, neighboring ranchers hit Llano with so many lawsuits over water rights that Harriman found himself spending more time at the colony’s Los Angeles office dealing with the litigation than in the Antelope Valley.
The Los Angeles Times also had a role in Llano’s woes, according to historians.
The Times’ distaste for Harriman and Llano is clear in its coverage of the period. Especially after his defense of the suspects in the McNamara bombing, Harriman personified the enemy in the eyes of Times Editor Harrison Gray Otis, Mellon said.
Articles about Llano showed little sympathy for the cooperative experiment: “More Trouble in ‘Desert Utopia.’ ” “Oligarchy of Misrule.” “Llano del Rio, the Seat of Socialist Trouble.” “Work Hard, but Get No Money.”
By 1918, Harriman found a new site for utopia in Leesville, La. Most of the colonists, including the Vaciks, moved to “Newllano.” They left behind a skeleton crew that watched the shady financial dealings of Gentry P. McCorkle, an unscrupulous member of the board of directors, hasten Llano’s collapse, according to several histories.
The Louisiana experiment endured into the mid-1930s, suffering from incessant financial problems and hostility from natives who disapproved of the colonists’ ideas of economic and racial equality.
Harriman, whose longtime affliction with tuberculosis had improved in the dry climes of the Antelope Valley, could withstand only several years in the damp Louisiana location. He returned to California, where he died in 1925.
Tony Vacik stayed two years in Louisiana before the family returned to the Llano area. Until World War II, Vacik said, he would periodically stop to talk to groups of former colonists holding reunions at the deteriorating site. He says the memories remain strong, but the ideology does not.
“I wasn’t much of a socialist, y’know. Had a little bit in me, but not much. Didn’t used to think some guy ought to own land and do nothing with it. Around here they’d own, wouldn’t sell it, wouldn’t lease it. I always said the government oughta own it and lease it to us fellas.”
Vacik does not think a Llano-like experiment would work today.
“Not enough cooperation,” he said. Then he recalled the impressive cooperative methods of a Japanese farmer for whom he worked in the 1920s. “If you was Japanese or something, it probably might work,” he said.
Hine said the continuing lesson of Llano goes beyond the success or failure of the individual venture. The present world climate of East-West rapprochement and Soviet and Chinese moderation represent a pursuit of the same ideals to which Llano aspired, he said.
“The whole world is looking for that kind of thing, isn’t it? You’ve got the whole socialist thrust, but increasingly they are seeking a channel closer to what we’re searching for. Something between the extreme of individualism and the extreme of group action.”