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Photos: The Ruins Of A 1910s Socialist Commune In The Desert
Llano del Rio, now nothing more than desert ruins, was once meant to be a thriving Socialist commune. How it came to be, and then not be, is a fascinating story that begins in early 1900s Los Angeles.
The modern-day ruins of Llano del Rio can be found in Llano, just east of Palmdale off the Pearblossom Highway. You can make a pitstop at Charlie Brown Farms in Little Rock, stock up on sundries, and from there, it's only minutes away. Once you get there, you can pull off the road and there isn't much to stop you from wandering around and frankly, there's not much left. How it came to be involves the "crime of the century" and one man's failed mayoral campaign.
Back in 1911, a man named Job Harriman was running for Mayor of Los Angeles. If he had been elected, he would have been the first Socialist mayor. Things weren't looking terrible for him, either. Harriman, who was born in Illinois, was a minster and then a lawyer before turning his attention to politics. In the 1911 primaries, he was securing 44 percent against the current mayor, George Alexander.
However, in 1910, two brothers—John and James McNamara—were accused of committing what the L.A. Times would call the "crime of the century." The McNamaras, both active trade unionists, were accused of bombing the L.A. Times building. The editor of the Times at the time was the conservative, anti-Union Harrison Gray Otis.
The McNamaras would eventually confess to several bombings, but prior to the attack on the Times building, no one was killed. The bombers had wanted the Times bomb to go off at 4 a.m., when the Times building would be empty. However, the timer screwed up and the bomb—consisting of 16 sticks of dynamite in a suitcase—went off at 1 a.m. instead. It was also near natural gas main lines, something the bombers didn't know. Part of the building collapsed due to the dynamite, and a raging fire took care of the rest. And, because Times employees were working on an early edition, 115 people were inside at the time of the bombing. In total, 20 of them were killed and several more were injured. (Note: Some sources report 21 fatalities.)
A private detective narrowed in on the brothers, tracking one to a hotel in Detroit where he was found with dynamite on him. By the time the trial rolled around, Harriman was the promising challenger to Alexander's re-election, but still agreed to help defend the brothers in court. He acted as co-counsel to Clarence Darrow, a notable attorney on the side of labor. Many thought the brothers were being framed as part of a capitalist, anti-labor plot, so support for Harriman remained strong throughout much of the proceedings. Unfortunately for Harriman, the brothers eventually pleaded guilty in the eleventh hour—James B. McNamara to the Times bombing, and John J. McNamara to the bombing of Llewellyn Iron Works. Their admission of guilt ruined Harriman's campaign.
As Darrow left the courthouse after the guilty pleas, an angry crowd pressed in around him. A man spat in his face. The courthouse lawn was littered with badges that read "Harriman for Mayor" and "McNamaras Innocent — Vote Harriman," which had been torn from the lapels of thousands of McNamara supporters.
After his 1911 defeat, Harriman ran again in 1913, this time securing only 26 percent of the primary.
Harriman gave up on politics and decided to try to build a socialist commune instead.
"It became apparent to me that a people would never abandon their means of livelihood, good or bad, capitalistic or otherwise, until other methods were developed which would promise advantages at least as good as those by which they were living," Harriman wrote.
He bought a few thousand acres, plus water rights, in the Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert. Some of the land had already been developed by a temperance colony that had previously lived there. Harriman advertised for residents in social newspapers.
When Llano del Rio opened on May Day, 1914, it was only five families and some animals, but it soon grew. In 1917, the commune was 900 strong with its own monthly periodical, a bakery, a kiln, a cannery, a hotel and a sawmill. Though they held evening dances and participated in some sport, it wasn't much of a party. Those who joined the commune were expected to remain sober and to not curse. And while they were open to feminist ideas, only whites were allowed in.
According to a 1916 advertisement for new colonists:
Only Caucasians are admitted. We have had applications from Negroes, Hindus, Mongolians and Malays. The rejection of these applications are not due to race prejudice, but because it is not deemed expedient to mix the races in these communities.
The downfall, however, came only a few years after the commune's launch. They came up against nearby farmers who accused the commune of taking more water than it was entitled to, resulting in a series of legal battles, which Llano del Rio lost. They also lost younger men to the draft, and ambivalent members to higher-paying jobs created by WWI. That, combined with infighting, led to the commune's demise. Harriman moved the commune to Louisiana in 1918, but soon left to return to L.A. Without him, the commune carried on into the '30s.
Nowadays, you can see several of the structures, though the grounds are mostly covered in broken bottles and rusted cans, with graffiti on the remaining ruins. According to Tom Explores Los Angeles, who also visited the site, there was a plaque at one point designating the historical significance of the area. However, that plaque was apparently stolen only two years after it was installed.