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The Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony

When driving through the desert on Highway 138, you might see the ruins of some old buildings sitting abandoned amongst the Joshua Trees. However, if you were to travel this route a little over 100 years ago, you would have instead seen a community of idealistic individuals all taking part in an ambitious, but ultimately failed, experiment in socialism. Between 1914 and 1918, around 900 individuals lived in a socialist colony in the southeastern corner of the Antelope Valley, near where Pearblossom sits today.


Ruins of Llano Hotel. Stone pillars and chimney.
The ruins of the Llano Hotel.
A view of the Llano Cooperative Colony. Small cottages clustered along a dirt road and fields. Larger workshop in the foreground.
View of the Cooperative Colony from the Hotel Llano.

Founded by Job and John Harriman, the Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony has been called the most important non-religious utopian colony in Western American history. Author Aldous Huxley described the colony as the “desert Ozymandias,” in reference to the Percy Shelley poem, due to the heights of its ambition in the face of its ultimate failure.


Job was an ordained minister and attorney from Los Angeles. Handsome, charismatic, and “starry-eyed,” he was also an aspiring politician, running for California governor (1898), Vice President of the United States (1900), and mayor of Los Angeles twice (1910s). Despite Job’s ambition, he was defeated in each election, in large part because of his Marxist leanings.


Llano colonists watch old automobiles driving on a dirt road. Job Harriman sits in the front passenger seat of the lead car.
Job Harriman (front passenger) riding into Llano del Rio.

When Los Angeles would not have him, Job struck out into the Mojave Desert, planning to make his mark in a different way. On May Day of 1914, Job and a contingent of fellow socialists founded the experimental colony in Llano del Rio. Its purpose was to create a utopian community where everyone worked together and took care of one another.


A large group of Llano del Rio colonists pose together for a photo.
Llano del Rio group portrait

These first colonists stayed in tents initially, but permanent housing was quickly constructed along with all kinds of other amenities. Schools, workshops, and even a hotel were constructed to service the growing community. The colonists bought up land and brought in fruit trees and livestock. They dug out irrigation ditches and cleared the fields. Together the people living within the Llano Colony worked to grow produce to sell. The money earned by the colony was used communally—everyone had a share in both production and profit. 90% of the food consumed by colonists was food that they produced themselves.


But it wasn’t all work and no play. The colony members formed a variety of clubs and organizations. The Live Wires Dramatic Club performed plays, and a number of bands were formed, including a brass band and a barber-shop ensemble. In the wide open desert, the sounds of the bands’ music could be heard by non-Socialist neighbors of the Cooperative Colony.


A group of men and women standing outside, some in costume and with props.
The Live Wires Dramatic Club

Children crowd around an older man who is telling them a story.
Story Time

A man sits by an old fashioned printing press.
Llano del Rio Printing Press

Colonists sought to bring modern life out to the desert with them. This included such things as a printing press, automobiles, and even an airplane. The aircraft leads into one of the more memorable aspects of the Colony’s history: the burnt plane mystery.


In 1916, one of the colony members bought parts to build an airplane. Together with other members, they constructed a working plane - one of the first in the Antelope Valley. Despite being operational, it ultimately never took to the air. In the early morning of September 22, 1916—the same day that the aircraft’s first flight was scheduled to take place—the plane was mysteriously destroyed in a fire. It was never discovered who had destroyed the plane, whether it was other colony members or someone from outside the community. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but it surely put a damper on the spirits of the people that had constructed the plane.


Despite the success of the Colony’s early days, cracks soon began to show. Job Harriman had been a brilliant attorney, but was not as talented at running a growing desert community. The plan had been for the community to grow food on community-owned farms that could then be used to feed everyone and fund projects. However, the farms never produced enough to pull in an adequate profit, and the Colony was kept afloat by members’ savings. As those savings dwindled, life in the Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony became a lot harder.


Huxley, who spoke to some of the former colonists, wrote, “there was a sense of shared high purpose, a sustaining conviction that one had broken out of an age-old prison and was marching, shoulder to shoulder with loyal comrades, towards a promised land.” This hope sustained the Colony in its early days, but as time wore on, more and greater problems arose. Job Harriman had a poor understanding of water supply. The Big Rock Creek could not supply enough water to sustain the thousand colonists and grow enough produce to generate income for the community.


A water canal dug by the Llano colonists, empty and dry.
Llano water canal

As they continued to struggle, many people grew disillusioned with the utopian ideals of the community and left. In the end there were “too many people, too little water, and no money,” (Huxley). The Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony broke apart after just four years, with many members returning to ordinary lives.


200 of the still optimistic colony members left to seek greener pastures in Vernon Parish, Louisiana and started the “New Llano” Cooperative Colony. New Llano was much more successful than the original Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony, with members pooling resources and sharing ownership of a newspaper, broom factory, sawmill, ice plant, and sheet metal factory through the Great Depression, up until 1937. With almost two decades of operation, the New Llano Cooperative Colony was arguably the most successful socialist colony in the United States. Though New Llano has since left its socialist roots behind, the town still exists today with a population of about 2,500 people.


Sources:


MOAH Collections

Huxley, Aldous. “Ozymandias: the Utopia that Failed.” Fortnight. April 27, 1953.

“'New Llano Colony' museum opens Saturday.” KPLC7 News. August 24, 2013. https://www.kplctv.com/story/23247607/history-of-new-llano-socialist-colony-to-be-highlighted-at-new-museum/


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