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A Vision in Ruins

The dusty remains of Llano, a failed utopian town, are nearly 85 years old.

April 23, 1999|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a stretch of the Pearblossom Highway in the Antelope Valley sits a Salvador Dali-like landscape dotted with windowless walls, waterless pools and roofless public buildings.

These structures made of field stone, cement and brick are remnants of a utopian community built from 1914 to 1918 and then abandoned almost overnight. On May 1st, the town--known as the Llano del Rio Cooperative--marks its 85th anniversary. The community, just off the highway near 165th Street, was founded in 1911 by unsuccessful Los Angeles mayoral candidate Job Harriman.

In his day, Harriman was a political lightening rod--like the present day's Jerry Brown, Ralph Nader and Jesse Ventura rolled into one.

Harriman lost a bid for mayor in 1911 on a minority-party Socialist ticket when he received 35% of the vote.

He had previously run for governor of California and even vice president of the United States with Socialist running mate Eugene V. Debs. But most voters were alienated by Harriman's ideas of sharing the wealth and his defense of radical labor groups.

Nevertheless, he was able to persuade more than 1,000 people to join him in creating a town from scratch on 20,000 acres of flat scrubland he had purchased in the Antelope Valley.

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Harriman's goal was to provide a real-life demonstration of his theories about cooperative socialist living. Participants contributed about $500 each for equipment and tools and then built a sawmill, lime kiln, dairy, cannery, bakery, printing plant, hotel, office building, barns and houses.

Residents of the cooperative also planted and irrigated about 500 acres of land, where they grew alfalfa, corn, pears and carrots.

In 1934, movie director King Vidor filmed a fictional account of Llano called "Our Daily Bread," which is available on video.

The Llano experiment faltered amid internal squabbling about money and work assignments. But what ultimately brought the community down was a 1918 lawsuit filed by neighboring farmers that took away the cooperative's right to use water from Big Rock Creek--the area's only water source at the time. In Vidor's movie version, Llano residents are victorious in their fight to win back their water rights.

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In real life, Llano lost and the cooperative's buildings were abandoned within weeks. Many residents moved to a site in Louisiana they dubbed New Llano, which existed until 1938. Harriman died in 1925.

The remains of the California Llano buildings, much damaged through the years, are visible on the north side of Highway 138 between 165th and 175th streets, next to a modern hamlet that has kept the name Llano.

California State Historical Marker Number 933 was dedicated on the site 10 years ago, but vanished mysteriously two weeks later.

Since, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to turn the site into a Los Angeles County park.

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