Big stone pillars can be seen on the highway leading to Pearblossom in the Mojave Desert. The ruins are part of an old utopian colony called Llano Del Rio (Plain of River in Spanish ) and this was going to be one interesting place to explore.
Llano Del Rio was a failed socialist utopian colony that was active from 1914 to 1918 in the California desert and it really intrigued me as to why anyone would attempt to create a living in such a desolate environment. The stone ruins of the buildings and aqueduct are all that is left of an ambitious experiment of a former ordained minister named Job Harriman.
Being impressed by a popular novel called “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy (please refer to our blog post on the Bradbury Building about who else was inspired by the book), Job Harriman decided that it would serve as an inspiration for him and his comrades to create their own self sufficient society.
Job Harriman once ran for the California Governorship in 1898, ran for the Vice President of the United States with Eugene V. Debs under the Socialist Party in 1900, and ran twice for the mayor of Los Angeles in the 1910’s. He was not successful in any of the campaigns.
After his last defeat, he decided to try and establish a collective based upon his socialist principles and invited like minded people with their families to join (Note: This was not offered to people of color or other races besides Caucasian). Beginning with just five families, eventually the colony grew to over 1,000 people in 1914.
They had established various enterprises such as a hotel, sawmill, bakery, kiln, and a print shop to publish their socialist newspaper, “The Western Comrade”. Their biggest and most successful crop was growing 2,000 acres (20 ha) of irrigated alfalfa. Although they owned the water rights to the land, an earthquake later shifted the water flow away and they applied for a permit to build a dam. Well, due to the complaints from local farmers that the community was using too much water and not being too fond of their socialist views, the permit was denied and they were also hit with a bunch of lawsuits. Fighting and disagreements of how to run the colony also added to the strain of staying in the current location, therefore, in 1918, the colonists (60 families) abandoned the California desert and relocated to form New Llano in Louisiana. Job Harriman did not care for the new place and returned to Los Angeles where he passed away in 1925. New Llano only survived to the 1930’s.
Walking around the ruins of the colony, I could see the remnants of buildings with stone fireplaces, concrete foundations, and stairs leading to nowhere, old swimming pools and strange looking holding tanks.
The local granite boulders used to construct the walls were slowly giving way to the harsh desert environment. A pile of old rusted cans have been used for target practice and unfortunately there is some graffiti too. I was glad to have visited and experienced the site because soon, all of the ruins will probably disappear like the colonists did almost 100 years ago.
Along Highway 138 in the Antelope Valley in southern California, there are the remains of a socialist commune created over 100 years ago. It was called the Llano del Rio Colony and it was created by a former minister turned politician/lawyer named Job Harriman who formally launched the commune on May 1, 1914 on land in the southern edge of the Mojave Desert that he purchased in 1913.
Membership peaked in the summer of 1917 at over 1,100 people, but due to a number of different factors, the colony was abandoned in 1918.
Neek and I have driven past the ruins of this commune during a number of different road trips over the years. So we were very excited to get out of the car and explore it for the first time! First thing we saw closest to the road were two massive stone chimneys. Walking between them we could see that while there was no longer any roof or walls, the foundation of the building was still there. Slabs of stone along that foundation could serve as benches. There was also a huge pit that looked like a pool or water storage place.
It was a dry afternoon and walking around the abandoned ruins we definitely got the sense of how hard desert living could be. There was a bit of a walk between the ruins throughout the former commune, but they all had interesting things to see. Not all of the remains were from the commune time, however. Neek and I both were perplexed by the collection of rusty cans left in one of the commune areas. Judging by the age and shape of the cans, as well as the peel openings, they were probably from the 1970s or 80s. Not sure who left them or why!
Walking amid such old ruins, it certainly made me wonder why a place built with utopian ideals didn’t work out. There was the non-utopian rule that this colony was only for whites, though considering how larger American society was at the time, this sort of racial discrimination doesn’t really factor into why it failed then. The main factors were infighting among members who felt it was either not democratic enough, or that Harriman was not socialist enough; a water shortage, along with their application to build a dam being denied; and an ill-fated move by many members to New Llano, Louisiana. All these factors, coinciding with the challenges of the US entering World War I (through which the draft took some of their members) contributed to the demise of Llano del Rio.
It certainly was a fascinating exploration for Neek and me. Though it is a thoroughly abandoned ghost town now, there are reminders all over the place of the commune it used to be. The site is now registered as California Historical Landmark #933. We’re definitely glad we checked it out for ourselves!