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LLano Del Rio Cooperative Colony l914-l918 : Remains of Utopia : How a Renowned Socialist Commune Bloomed and Faded

May 28, 1989|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

Two men, father and son, make their way through a strange desert landscape of vegetation, garbage and stone.

Tony Vacik and Tony Vacik Jr. stop in front of the squat stone towers that dominate the horizon near Pearblossom Highway in Llano del Rio, an unincorporated hamlet of 1,500. The towers--remnants of cobblestone pillars and chimneys around a concrete floor--resemble the abandoned temple of some desert god.

Twenty miles west of Llano are the Antelope Valley boom towns of Palmdale and Lancaster. Each day, bulldozers extend the conquest of the desert by housing developments and shopping malls, sprawling monuments to the power of capitalism.

The ruins on Pearblossom Highway are monuments to a different tradition. They are what is left of the Llano del Rio cooperative colony founded in May, 1914, by Job Harriman, a socialist lawyer who ran for vice president of the United States, governor of California and mayor of Los Angeles, winning about 35% of the 137,000 votes cast in the 1911 mayoral election.

"Socialism didn't rub off much on us kids that was at the colony," said Tony Vacik, 79, his eyes narrowed against the sun and the years. "But it sure rubbed off on the government. Now you got old-age pensions, keeping care of the poor and handicapped, unions, Social Security. That's all they was squawkin' about at Llano."

Target of Newspaper

Harriman's attempt to establish a model community based on cooperative economic ideals attracted nearly 1,000 people to the 2,000 acres in the Antelope Valley. Among them were the family of Tony Vacik, then 5 and now one of the colony's last survivors. After four years, the colony succumbed to a combination of elements, among them internal strife and a host of enemies, including the fiercely anti-Harriman Los Angeles Times.

Despite their historical significance, the ruins have been looted, vandalized and allowed to decay. A Los Angeles County proposal seeking $100,000 in state funds to preserve the site was rejected last month. Seventy-five years after Llano was founded, scholars and many Antelope Valley residents fear that its last vestiges will disappear.

"It was the most important non-religious utopian colony in Western American history," said Knox Mellon of the Mission Inn Foundation, former head of the state Office of Historic Preservation, and an expert on Harriman and Llano. "It was short-lived, but many communal efforts were short-lived. There was a lot of camaraderie and enthusiasm, a belief that utopia was at hand."

Said UC Riverside's Robert Hine, a historian of American utopian experiments: "The myth of the West is the myth of the individual. But the West produced an awful lot of communitarian experiences, a warm, cooperative spirit. We've turned our backs on that part of the Western experience. In this age when we're looking at community and how we preserve community in the face of all the threats, we've got to start looking back at these communities that were efforts to do just that."

Llano del Rio, which means "plain by the river," would appear to be a natural spot for a historical marker or an information stand, but there is nothing.

Broken Glass

A 150-pound plaque designating the site as a California Historical Landmark was erected in 1982 but was stolen two weeks later and has not been replaced. Constellations of broken glass cover the concrete floor of the former hotel and its assembly hall, where fires once blazed in the cobblestone hearths during Saturday night dances. Rusted cans choke the cavity of a water storage tank. There is automobile debris everywhere--spark plugs, radio innards, engine hoses.

County officials and members of the Llano Community Assn. have tried to stop the decay. They have proposed a county park that would preserve the site while providing a center for community meetings and a historical display. County planners say they have agreed to protect the ruins against what Hine describes as his worst fear--that the area could be razed by a developer more interested in economics than history.

But a park would cost money that the county doesn't have, about half a million dollars. And the land where the most substantial ruins are concentrated--the central area of the former hotel, commissary, bakery, post office and horse barn--is owned by two doctors in Illinois.

One of them, Dr. Supachai Pongched of Forest Park, in suburban Chicago, said in a telephone interview that he and the other owner are not interested in a sale or a trade.

As a result, Jim Park, Los Angeles County's parks planning director, said: "Right now it's going to continue to languish in its current state until a trade is consummated or we acquire the property."

Tony Vacik, a lifelong farmer who tends three acres in nearby Littlerock, professes indifference: "Some historic outfit could do something if they wanted to. I don't give a darn."

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