Before developers carved the land into tiny pieces, before the hungry city of Los Angeles swallowed it whole and belched out a suburb, before it was known to the world as Tujunga--it was Utopia.
At least, that was how William Ellsworth Smythe saw it.
“It is . . . a very beautiful spot, the Vale of Monte Vista, between the Verdugo and Sierra Madre ranges,” Smythe wrote 80 years ago.
So the stately, bearded gentleman with the pioneer’s heart set out to cultivate paradise, to create a colony of hale and hearty folk who returned to the soil, shunning the greed and anonymity of industrial life for “a little land and a living.” Get your acre lot for $800. Escape the big city.
Dozens of families answered Smythe’s call. And the Little Lands colony, the origin of modern Tujunga, would bloom, then wither in less than a decade--but not before becoming a little-known slice of local history as one of the few experiments in Utopian living, if not the only one, within the borders of present-day Los Angeles.
The year was 1913. The horizon appeared bright and boundless as Smythe, an eminent journalist-turned-irrigation champion, looked out on the sunny, wind-swept northern outskirts of Los Angeles.
Later, Smythe would say that “the land selected me,” with its majestic beauty and invigorating air, as he scouted sites for the second of his back-to-nature communities in Southern California.
The first, near San Diego, was flourishing. Set up four years earlier, San Ysidro bustled with more than 110 families that tilled their acre plots, harvested fruit and vegetables, then sold their surplus at the cooperative market on the corner of 6th and B streets in San Diego. The settlement attracted visitors from the world over, from New Zealand to Palestine.
San Ysidro embodied Smythe’s ideal: a modest agrarian community close enough to the city to reap its social and cultural advantages, but far enough away to be immune to its evils.
“A little land and a living, surely, is better than desperate struggle and great wealth, possibly,” Smythe, a passionate orator and well-known writer, told a full house at the Garrick Theater in San Diego in 1908.
Such ideas had become fashionable at the turn of the century among American citizens disenchanted with the increasingly money-obsessed culture around them. The 1,000-member Llano del Rio socialist colony in the Antelope Valley was founded about the same time that Smythe established the Little Lands community--also called by its Spanish name, Los Terrenitos.
“The whole movement was a reaction against the capitalist, competitive industrial society,” said Robert V. Hine, history professor emeritus from UC Riverside and an authority on Utopian colonies in California. “These people wanted to live cooperatively, not competitively.”
In the “Monte Vista valley,” Smythe joined with Marshall V. Hartranft, who had taken an option on the land in 1907. Hartranft had originally envisioned creating “another town like Glendale, with the choicest of citrus districts on the outskirts” and a college and other industries.
Smythe’s dream won out.
He and Hartranft set aside 240 acres for the original town site. The first six lots were sold on March 17, 1913, to buyers who putt-putted into town by “auto stage line,” large chauffeured cars that ran between downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
Within a month, eager Little Landers laid the cornerstone for their rustic community clubhouse on Sunset Boulevard, just north of Michigan Avenue (now called Commerce Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, respectively). Bolton Hall, named for a writer whose works heavily influenced Smythe’s communitarian philosophy, was the focal point of colony life, the scene of town meetings, dances, music and literary programs, and the second library to be established in the Valley.
The building was constructed entirely of stones excavated from the area and cost $7,700. (Today, it houses the local historical society and museum.)
Two hundred nine men, women and children signed the register at the ceremony. Up went the blue-and-white Little Landers pennant.
“That’s the nicest garden soil I ever saw,” said a man who moved to Los Terrenitos from the San Ysidro colony. “The water is the sweetest I ever tasted, and as for the scenery, well, I want to live there the rest of my days.”
The scenery was one thing, the soil quite another.
Littered with granite boulders, gravel and sand, the earth produced lovely country gardens but did not support crops easily. Removing the rocks cost from $500 to $1,000 an acre. “The stones were more numerous in some spots than we had supposed,” Smythe later acknowledged.
“It wasn’t good fruitful land. Sunland was growing peaches and olives and everything, while Tujunga just grows cactus,” said Mary Lou Pozzo, current president of the Little Landers Historical Society.
Smythe’s less-than-ideal agricultural location for his ideal agricultural society haunted him for years. One Little Lander later denounced him for allowing “any dear old lady with $500 or $600 to settle upon a stone pile . . . and try to make a living on it.”
“A little land and a little living,” groused another settler.
Mabel Hatch, who arrived in Tujunga after a long, hot buggy ride from the Sun Valley train station, wept with her father when they saw the land they had bought.
“It was so barren, so unfriendly and so unlike the rolling, green hills of our native Michigan,” she told an interviewer years later. “We could hardly bear it in the beginning.”
But Smythe held fast to his Little Lander beliefs, molded over the course of three to four decades.
Born Dec. 24, 1861, into a wealthy Massachusetts family, Smythe passed up the chance to attend Harvard University and became an apprentice newspaperman at age 16. He was enthralled by journalist Horace Greeley’s writing--a street in Los Terrenitos was named after that boyhood hero--and Greeley’s injunction to “Go west, young man!” rang in his ears.
By 19, Smythe had been made editor at a local paper, moved on to the Kearney (Neb.) Enterprise and eventually landed at the Omaha Bee, where he made his mark on American agriculture and gained national recognition.
Horrified by the ravages of the Great Drought of 1890, especially the sight of horses and cattle being shot by farmers within sight of running streams, Smythe decided to mount an editorial campaign for widespread irrigation--a concept so radical that his bosses insisted Smythe’s articles appear over his own signature in the newspaper.
The editorials turned out to be a resounding success. Their timeliness catapulted Smythe into a career as the country’s “single most influential figure, with the exception of Major [John Wesley] Powell, in the early years of reclamation,” wrote Western author Wallace Stegner.
Smythe organized local and state irrigation conventions, founded Irrigation Age magazine, traveled and lectured extensively.
Marilyn MacGowan of Newport Beach said that her mother, Smythe’s granddaughter, remembered him “walking up and down the living room practicing his speeches. . . . He was very imposing and dignified.”
He wrote numerous articles and several books.
“I had taken the cross of a new crusade,” Smythe penned in “The Conquest of Arid America.” “To my mind, irrigation seemed the biggest thing in the world. It was not merely a matter of ditches and acres, but a philosophy, a religion, and a program of practical statesmanship rolled into one.”
Smythe’s new passion led to his Little Landers creed: that a man could support himself and his family on just an acre of irrigated earth, with a goat for milk, some chickens and pigeons for meat, and all the animals for fertilizer.
But in Los Terrenitos, practice had trouble matching theory.
There was the poor-quality soil. There was also the inexperience of many of the settlers, who rather than being young people with some agricultural expertise were retirees, asthma victims in search of a favorable climate, “lots and lots of spinsters” (said Mabel Hatch), middle-aged bachelors, artisans, professors and journalists.
“They didn’t mind raising the stuff on the side, but they weren’t trying to make a living off it,” said Bill MacGowan of Laguna Niguel, Smythe’s great-great-grandson, who has spent several years researching his famous ancestor. (MacGowan, 38, once moved to Tujunga, unaware of his connection to the place; later, he was married at Bolton Hall.)
Although the Los Terrenitos residents jointly owned the public utilities, water was metered. Capital was scarce for the large irrigation projects needed to carry out Smythe’s vision.
Some of the settlers stumbled under the hardship of the colony’s early days.
“I, for one, didn’t know there was any place in the world where you did not have street lights, ice, gas to cook with and mail delivered to your door,” Hatch wrote afterward. “But we learned! How we learned!”
To assist, the colony had resident experts in various fields of agriculture.
For governance, Frederick M. Ashby, a retired New England schoolmaster and the community’s postmaster, suggested town hall meetings and became the community’s first--and only--”moderator.”
It was Ashby who ran the show.
During the evening meetings, attended by weary residents who trudged up the hill with their kerosene lanterns, Ashby’s smooth and patient manner dealt effectively with the “rattlesnake problem,” with the “mildly haywire” professor who expounded at too much length on grape culture during town meetings, and with the question of whether to install a public drinking fountain.
Smythe was available for guidance on some issues, but packed up his Little Landers of Los Angeles office on Figueroa Street in 1914 to spread his gospel for a new settlement up in Hayward, Calif.
In 1915, two years after Los Terrenitos’ founding, Ashby described it as having achieved “almost miraculous” progress.
The colony boasted “a beautiful clubhouse, an excellent system of roads, 200 or more comfortable if not elegant homes, and upward of 500 souls,” Ashby wrote.
There was also “a co-operative store, a post office . . . a lumberyard, a dry goods store, daily newspaper routes, phones, electric light, direct and efficient stage lines to and from the city, more than 6,000 planted fruit trees and a good many others being put in daily, no idle men, or at least very few.”
But time was running out.
The Great War raged, sapping the community of its able-bodied young men. Gophers plundered the crops, trees refused to grow, pigeons died of disease.
“And the rocks,” Mabel Hatch wrote. “Always and always the rocks.”
In 1917, the dream was crumbling, although more families continued to move to the area.
By then, after hot debate, the Little Landers had changed their settlement’s name to Tujunga, said to be a Native American word for “Village of the Old Woman.” The town meetings had faded into nonexistence, as Ashby grew tired and no one stepped up to replace him. Only $17.30 sat in the town treasury.
Then came the acrid whiff of scandal. Concerned that settlers were being exploited, a state commission on land colonization launched an investigation into irrigation colonies founded by Smythe and others all over California.
Smythe was called to testify.
Ultimately, the settlements escaped rebuke in the commission’s report, which concluded that only government could make such colonies work. But the negative press hurt Smythe’s cause. Backers of a fourth Little Landers colony near Palo Alto pulled out after the commission issued its report.
In Tujunga, the residents discovered that they could abandon the philosophy of a “little land and a living” for a greater fortune in real estate. With Los Angeles growing by the day, many of the colonists--tired of battling the hostile soil--subdivided their acre farms into eight lots, worth between $400 and $800 each.
Critics of Smythe’s vision pounce on the irony that Los Terrenitos eventually fostered suburban sprawl and the very sense of loneliness and isolation its founders had tried to escape. Tujunga incorporated in 1925, but was formally annexed by Los Angeles in 1932.
As for Smythe, he had left California after the Great War ended and become a federal government official. In 1922, at the age of 61, he died in his 5th Avenue apartment in New York.
By January 1925, visiting Stanford economics professor Henry S. Anderson could find only one person still living in Tujunga who had been among the original colonists.
“It was a grand dream that was never fulfilled,” said longtime Tujunga resident Tom Theobald, who arrived in 1920 as a 4-year-old.
Few of Theobald’s neighbors spoke of the Little Landers experiment. Fewer today know anything of the community’s origins.
But that does not mean that Los Terrenitos was an utter fiasco.
“You have to remember that success and failure are very tricky terms,” said Hine, the expert on utopianism. “These people always contend these were the happiest times of their lives. . . . Is that a failure, that you gave people five, six years that were the best years of their lives?”
Perhaps it is here that Mabel Hatch, who may have been the last remaining original colonist found by Anderson, has the final word.
Yes, she and her father cried when they first saw their little plot of land.
“But we made the most of it and soon came to love the West and the hilly slopes of Tujunga,” said Hatch, who died in 1957. “We made our home here and never regretted it.”
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The Hope of the Little Lands
The community of Tujunga began in 1913 as a small Utopian colony founded by William Ellsworth Smythe, a former journalist who believed that a man could support himself and his family on an acre of land. In Bolton Hall, the colony’s clubhouse--now a museum in Tujunga--Smythe’s credo, “The Hope of the Little Lands,” is inscribed on a copper tablet:
That individual independence shall be achieved by millions of men and women, walking in the sunshine without fear of want.
That in response to the loving labor of their hands, the Earth shall answer their prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
That they and their children shall be proprietors rather than tenants, working not for others but for themselves.
That theirs shall be the life of the open--the open sky and the open heart--fragrant with the breath of flowers, more fragrant with the spirit of fellowship which makes the good of one the concern of all, and raises the individual by raising the mass.
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