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Bird of Paradise Was a Hen in Colony Founder's Eden

November 29, 1985|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Independence through egg farms. Twenty-five hundred chickens on every plot. That was the bizarre dream Charles Weeks introduced to the San Fernando Valley 60 years ago.

A visionary pragmatist in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Elbert Hubbard, Weeks believed that science, hard work, a little land and a lot of chickens could set man free.

The founder of successful poultry-based colonies in Winnetka, Ill., and Palo Alto, Weeks looked at the Valley and envisioned a practical paradise of one-acre farms, each with an attractive "garden home," an enterprising family of good character and 2,500 laying hens raised according to the soundest scientific principles of the day.

Fewer than 500 of the 2,000 farms Weeks envisioned actually were established. And his dream, along with so many others, was eventually shattered by the Depression. But, for a time, it allowed a unique community to flourish in what is now Canoga Park.

A sense of what life was like in that dusty settlement of white Leghorns and tough-minded Utopians emerged from recent interviews with people who grew up there and from written documents, including the Weeks collection in the Urban Archives at California State University, Northridge, and Carolyn Ryan's history of Winnetka.

In 1922 Weeks, a 50-year-old philosopher-entrepreneur, began building his egg-based Eden along Sherman Way, a wide boulevard lined with palms and roses. It was the only paved road in the West Valley. A trolley called "Big Red" ran down its center and made daily round-trips to Los Angeles.

"Each man must create his own little world," Weeks liked to say. "None that others prepare for him will ever satisfy." The Valley community of Owensmouth was the ideal place for little-world building, Weeks argued. Its soil was rich, there was abundant water because of the Owens Aqueduct and nearby Los Angeles was a ready and growing market for the settlers' eggs.

Weeks disseminated his philosophy of collective self-reliance in a widely distributed magazine called "Intensive Little Farms" and in a book he sold by mail for $1. He described the Valley project with characteristic confidence as "the greatest economic work of the age, bringing peace of mind, health of body and an abundant living to thousands bound in slavery by wage-earning and too much business."

By the mid-1920s almost 500 families had paid $1,500 each--a steep enough price that Weeks felt obliged to justify it in his literature--for one-acre plots in the Charles Weeks Poultry Colony.

The colony's carbon-copy farms had one-story houses set back from the road, extensive gardens of vegetables and feed crops, lawns of clover to attract bees and long, narrow hen houses in which the chickens were perpetually penned on the sound theory that they produced eggs more efficiently than free-roaming birds.

The growing community ran north of Sherman Way almost to Nordhoff Street and was bounded on the west by Mason Avenue, on the east by Corbin Avenue.

In his magazine, Weeks told of driving into the Santa Monica Mountains and gazing down on his handiwork. "It lies far below so peaceful and quiet in its green setting," he wrote in 1924. "We can hardly realize that each little home, as we look down upon it, is a little world of its own where a man and his family work out their plans and purposes.

"If we had a field glass we could see the men planting in their gardens, some hoeing, some feeding green feed to the hens, some trimming their fruit trees, some pruning their berries and perhaps many ladies planting and caring for the flowers around the home and, here and there, the children playing in the sunshine and fresh air."

Self-reliance did not preclude cooperation. The colonists sold most of their eggs through their Poultrymen's Assn., which picked up each settler's eggs at curbside, warehoused them and marketed them under the slogan "The Best from the Nest." The colonists also had a community center where they met for musical evenings, Thanksgiving dinners and other social and cultural events.

By the early 1930s the colony had begun to crumble as the price of eggs plummeted and fewer and fewer settlers could pay back their bank loans. The upbeat, even smug tone that characterized the first issues of the community newspaper, "Chant-It-Clear," gave way to stiff-necked determination to ride out the economic storm. "Hang on! Hang on!" urged community poet Mrs. E. Ray Peterson in 1927.

In the same issue, which reported egg prices elsewhere of less than 20 cents a dozen under the headline "Things Could Be Worse," the Kackle Kolumn ran the following grim joke: Teacher asks Tommy, "If your father was a grocer and had 20 dozen eggs and found one dozen spoiled, how much would he lose if eggs were 50 cents a dozen?" Tommy's answer: "Nothing."

With chick sexing, hen cages, million-unit egg factories and other efficiency-enhancing developments still in the future, few colonists, including Weeks, were able to hang on past 1934.

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