Llano del Rio: A Utopian Dream that Flowered and Wilted in the California Desert

About 40 miles north of Los Angeles lay the ruins Llano del Rio, an experiment in sustainable farming and communal living. All that remains of this once thriving colony are a few stone pillars and freestanding fireplaces, weathered by the blistering sun and dry winds of the high Mojave Desert. The site is registered as a California Historical Landmark, but little has protected it from looters and vandals. Some even say it’s haunted.

It’s hard to envision now, but if you traveled the same stretch of Pearblossom Highway back in 1916, you would have encountered something of an Eden—two-thousand acres of corn and alfalfa fields, pear and apple orchards and vegetable gardens; poultry, dairy goats, hogs, cattle and horses; and a thriving community boasting its own printing press, cannery, brick kiln, barber shop, post office and Montessori school.

6a00d8341c630a53ef01630515a42b970d-800wi

Like many communes of the 1960s­ and ’70s, Llano del Rio strove for self-sufficiency. By growing its own food, living simply and working for the common good, the colony hoped to prove, by example, that it was possible to “live without war or interest on money or rent on land or profiteering in any manner.”[1]

Every member was offered housing, health care and education for their children. Everyone who was physically able was given a job and no one went hungry. At night colonists relished their free time, watching plays put on by the dramatic club or dancing to their “notorious ragtime orchestra.”[2]

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 3.39.22 PM

Llano was an experiment in gender equality, too. Women and men could choose any job they pleased, receiving equal wages. To limit domestic labor, houses were designed without kitchens and had built-in furniture. Children were raised in communal daycare. The aim was to encourage women to spend more time in the public sphere and engage in colony politics[3].

Llano’s designer and architect, Alice Constance Austin, drew up elaborate plans inspired by Britain’s garden city movement: cooperative housing for ten thousand people, surrounded by “greenbelts”––large parks and gardens––and a city center free of congestion. Breaking with the traditional urban grid system, she designed Llano’s streets in a circular shape instead.

6a00d8341c630a53ef01630515a412970d-800wi

According to the Western Comrade, Llano’s self-published newspaper, the place was a veritable paradise:

An abundance of clear, sparkling water coming from mountain springs is sufficient to irrigate thousands of fertile acres. The climate is mild and delightful, the soil is fertile and markets are not far distant.

The Llano del Rio Colony is a horticultural, agricultural and stock-raising enterprise, with such manufacturing as will supply the needs of the colonists, with perhaps something to sell when the Colony has grown.[4]

Hundreds of people from all walks of life—from rural farmers to educated idealists to the urban poor—were drawn to the utopian promise of this “gateway to freedom.” As the late historian Paul Kagan put it, “Men and women came to Llano to leave behind their worries about job insecurity, unemployment and the chaos of crime and pollution spawned by the great cities.”[5]

But was it really paradise or merely a mirage? Like so many utopian experiments, Llano was something in between.

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 3.59.46 PM

The colony was founded in 1914 by Job Harriman, a prominent lawyer and socialist from Los Angeles. Harriman had enemies—primarily L.A.’s political machine and The Los Angeles Times. Twice Harriman had run for mayor of Los Angeles on the Social Democratic Party of America ticket. The first time, in 1911, he almost won thanks to the  enormous backing from the labor unions. This support posed a threat to Times owner Harrison Gray Otis, an oligarch of early Los Angeles who was vehemently anti-union.

The two had a history: A year prior to the election of 1911, the Times building was bombed, killing 21 people. The paper called it the “crime of the century.” The bombing suspects were known union members. Harriman, considered the best socialist lawyer on the West Coast, agreed to represent the suspects. As the election grew nearer he distanced himself from the trial—but it was already too late. Without Harriman’s knowledge, Otis and the Times brokered a plea bargain with the judge and the suspects confessed. Three days short of Harriman’s expected victory, his political ambitions were sabotaged. He eventually grew disillusioned with politics and set up a socialist colony instead.

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 3.35.19 PM

Llano del Rio officially opened on May Day, 1914 with a handful of bright-eyed families, a few horses and some pigs. Within less than a year the population increased to 150.[6] Despite its location in the Antelope Valley’s harsh, arid climate, the colony’s agricultural endeavors were enormously successful. In their first year, the colonists were growing 75 percent of their own food and even more by the following year.[7]

“Their enthusiastic labor,” writes urban scholar Mike Davis, “transformed thousands of acres of the Mojave…By 1916, their alfalfa fields and modern dairy, their pear orchards and vegetable gardens­­––all watered by a complex and efficient irrigation system––supplied the colony with 90 percent of its own food (and fresh flowers as well).”[8]

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 3.39.38 PM

While the statistics are impressive, colonists sometimes went long stretches of time eating nothing but carrots. The food was homogenous and children were threatened with malnutrition. Many of the colonists lived in tents as the population ballooned, while funds for building their utopian city flowed in more slowly. Nights on the alluvial plain could be cold and bleak. [9]

One of the biggest problems the community faced was an inadequate water supply. Despite claims in the Western Comrade, it was not the nearby Rio del Llano—a snow-fed stream issuing from the San Gabriel Mountains[10]—that irrigated the entirety of their farmland. Prior to establishing Llano, Harriman and his collaborators bought water rights to the newly constructed Los Angeles Aqueduct, which pumped water from the north to Southern California. Some of that water was diverted, however, as Llano’s land sat on the San Andreas fault line. As its population grew to nearly 1,000, the colony’s lack of available water threatened its very existence and the process for obtaining additional water rights proved just as corrupt as Los Angeles politics.

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 4.12.29 PM

As Llano documentarian Beverly Lewis points out, “The Los Angeles Times never let up on Job Harriman.” It published a regular stream of negative articles about the colony that made neighboring ranchers suspicious. Llano became entangled in lawsuits. Banks wouldn’t lend it money. Dreams of a garden city vanquished.

All this is not to say that the Llano experiment was a failure. True, after four years in the desert, the colony packed up and relocated to Louisiana where the soil was genuinely fertile and neighbors kinder. There it faced new obstacles, but mostly flourished for the next 20 years.

Richard. V. Hine, an expert on utopian communities, writes of Llano, “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.”[11]

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 3.37.12 PM

Even if Llano wasn’t the Promised Land, it was an honorable attempt to create one. It influenced a whole generation of idealists later in the century. Twin Oaks, an extant hippie commune founded in Virginia in 1967, named one of its buildings after Llano.[12] Many of the ideas espoused by Job Harriman and Alice Constance Austin have gained traction in the past hundred years—if not kitchen-less houses, certainly gender equality, universal health care and ecologically sustainable living are among them.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this experiment it is that true self-sufficiency can be a perilous goal. A drought or an earthquake or a corrupt political system can turn a hostile neighbor into your greatest ally. Nature is impervious to human intention, no matter how noble minded. No man’s Eden is an island—especially in the middle of the California Desert.

Published in the Fall 2013 issue of Wilder.


[1] Job Harriman quoted in Robert V. Hine, “California’s Utopian Colonies” (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1953), 117.

[2] Mike Davis, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” (New York: Verso, 1990), 10.

[3] Dolores Hayden, “Two Utopian Feminists and Their Campaigns for Kitchenless Houses,” Signs 4, no. 2 (1978), 286.

[4] Advertisement in the Western Comrade, May 1917, 2.

[5] Paul Kagan, “New World Utopias: A Photographic History of the Search for Community” (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), 118.

[6] Kagan, 119.

[7] Kagan, 126.

[8] Davis, 9.

[9] Kagan, 121.

[10] Robert V. Hine, “The Naming of California’s Utopias,” Western Folklore 12, no. 2 (1953), 134.

[11] Robert V. Hine quoted in Sebastian Rotella, “Llano Del Rio Cooperative Colony 1914–1918: Remains of Utopia,” The Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1989.

[12] Timothy Miller, “The ’60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond” (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 13.