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Paradise Lost

Tujunga: It was once Little Lands, a Utopian community founded in 1913 that failed to live up to some expectations.

January 07, 1996|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before developers carved the land into tiny pieces, before the hungry city of Los Angeles swallowed it whole and belched out a suburb, before it was known to the world as Tujunga--it was Utopia.

At least, that was how William Ellsworth Smythe saw it.

"It is . . . a very beautiful spot, the Vale of Monte Vista, between the Verdugo and Sierra Madre ranges," Smythe wrote 80 years ago.

So the stately, bearded gentleman with the pioneer's heart set out to cultivate paradise, to create a colony of hale and hearty folk who returned to the soil, shunning the greed and anonymity of industrial life for "a little land and a living." Get your acre lot for $800. Escape the big city.

Dozens of families answered Smythe's call. And the Little Lands colony, the origin of modern Tujunga, would bloom, then wither in less than a decade--but not before becoming a little-known slice of local history as one of the few experiments in Utopian living, if not the only one, within the borders of present-day Los Angeles.

*

The year was 1913. The horizon appeared bright and boundless as Smythe, an eminent journalist-turned-irrigation champion, looked out on the sunny, wind-swept northern outskirts of Los Angeles.

Later, Smythe would say that "the land selected me," with its majestic beauty and invigorating air, as he scouted sites for the second of his back-to-nature communities in Southern California.

The first, near San Diego, was flourishing. Set up four years earlier, San Ysidro bustled with more than 110 families that tilled their acre plots, harvested fruit and vegetables, then sold their surplus at the cooperative market on the corner of 6th and B streets in San Diego. The settlement attracted visitors from the world over, from New Zealand to Palestine.

San Ysidro embodied Smythe's ideal: a modest agrarian community close enough to the city to reap its social and cultural advantages, but far enough away to be immune to its evils.

"A little land and a living, surely, is better than desperate struggle and great wealth, possibly," Smythe, a passionate orator and well-known writer, told a full house at the Garrick Theater in San Diego in 1908.

Such ideas had become fashionable at the turn of the century among American citizens disenchanted with the increasingly money-obsessed culture around them. The 1,000-member Llano del Rio socialist colony in the Antelope Valley was founded about the same time that Smythe established the Little Lands community--also called by its Spanish name, Los Terrenitos.

"The whole movement was a reaction against the capitalist, competitive industrial society," said Robert V. Hine, history professor emeritus from UC Riverside and an authority on Utopian colonies in California. "These people wanted to live cooperatively, not competitively."

In the "Monte Vista valley," Smythe joined with Marshall V. Hartranft, who had taken an option on the land in 1907. Hartranft had originally envisioned creating "another town like Glendale, with the choicest of citrus districts on the outskirts" and a college and other industries.

Smythe's dream won out.

He and Hartranft set aside 240 acres for the original town site. The first six lots were sold on March 17, 1913, to buyers who putt-putted into town by "auto stage line," large chauffeured cars that ran between downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Within a month, eager Little Landers laid the cornerstone for their rustic community clubhouse on Sunset Boulevard, just north of Michigan Avenue (now called Commerce Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, respectively). Bolton Hall, named for a writer whose works heavily influenced Smythe's communitarian philosophy, was the focal point of colony life, the scene of town meetings, dances, music and literary programs, and the second library to be established in the Valley.

The building was constructed entirely of stones excavated from the area and cost $7,700. (Today, it houses the local historical society and museum.)

Two hundred nine men, women and children signed the register at the ceremony. Up went the blue-and-white Little Landers pennant.

"That's the nicest garden soil I ever saw," said a man who moved to Los Terrenitos from the San Ysidro colony. "The water is the sweetest I ever tasted, and as for the scenery, well, I want to live there the rest of my days."

*

The scenery was one thing, the soil quite another.

Littered with granite boulders, gravel and sand, the earth produced lovely country gardens but did not support crops easily. Removing the rocks cost from $500 to $1,000 an acre. "The stones were more numerous in some spots than we had supposed," Smythe later acknowledged.

"It wasn't good fruitful land. Sunland was growing peaches and olives and everything, while Tujunga just grows cactus," said Mary Lou Pozzo, current president of the Little Landers Historical Society.

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