New Llano Cooperative Colony
More than ten thousand people participated in America's longest-lived socialist community, the New Llano Cooperative Colony located south of Leesville in Vernon Parish.
More than ten thousand people participated in America’s longest-lived Socialist community, the Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony, from 1917 to 1939, located south of Leesville in Vernon Parish. The cooperative aimed to provide for its members not only a steady living but also a high quality of life through education and social services. At its peak, the colony achieved significant successes before falling into debt and discord.
Founding in California
Llano (pronounced “YAW-no”) Colony was the brainchild of Job Harriman, a prominent lawyer and seminarian who had served as Eugene Debs’s running mate on the Socialist Party ticket in the presidential election of 1900. After two narrow defeats in elections for mayor of Los Angeles, California, Harriman believed that the mainstream press and big business portrayed socialism so negatively that victory could never be won at the ballot box.
Instead Harriman decided that people would be convinced of the benefits of socialism only if they could see its methods applied successfully in real life. This idea evolved into Llano Colony, a self-supporting Socialist experiment designed to provide “equal wages, equal educational and social advantages, and equal comforts, including housing and commissary furnishings.” Deploying his well-honed speaking talents and charisma, Harriman found ready backers. Capital was raised by selling stock to members who joined the colony, and in 1914, twenty thousand acres of land were purchased in the Antelope Valley of California, northeast of Los Angeles.
Members were required to purchase two thousand shares of colony stock, paying at least twenty-five percent up front (this fee was later reduced in Louisiana). Membership money bought goods the colony needed to get the enterprise under way. Everyone over the age of eighteen was assigned a job, but people were allowed to change occupations if they proved competent. The colony advertised wages of four dollars a day ($1.50 more than the usual rate in California at the time), but this could not be met until the colony was self-sufficient. In the interim, the pay was set at two dollars a day—one dollar would be applied to food and housing, another to unpurchased stock, if there was money available, but this was usually not the case.
People who joined the Llano Colony came from all walks of life, from most states in the Union, and from foreign countries. Because the cost to join in California was so high, members tended to be from the middle and upper-middle classes. Some members paid by installments or traded their way into the colony, allowing people of lesser incomes to join.
Principally, the colony advertised in Socialist newspapers, so most members were attracted to the philosophy of Harriman’s experiment. However, members were not required to join any party or union. Seventy percent of the males hailed from farming and business sectors. The rest were professionals, factory and construction workers, clerks, and miners. No statistics list women’s pre-colony occupations, but surviving records indicate several were architects and professors.
Race and ethnicity were certainly factors in the colony’s demographics, particularly when the colony moved to Louisiana. The cooperative’s bylaws did not state any racial restrictions, but an official letter from the California period specifically indicated that “Mongoloids and Negroids” were not admitted. The colony did accept Jews, though—a very progressive step at the time.
Within three years of the cooperative’s founding in California, Harriman had attracted more than one thousand residents to Llano, far too many to sustain with the limited water resources available at the edge of the Mojave Desert. Neighboring ranchers began to protest that the colony was using more than its share of water, and they resented being outnumbered by Llano voters. The colony board realized that for Llano to survive, it would have to move. In 1917 a chartered train transported more than two hundred colonists, their households, and their many industries to a defunct lumber mill town in west Louisiana called Stables, soon renamed New Llano.
Members who moved to Louisiana were philosophically torn about the race issue in the South. A number felt that no one who wanted to join should be turned away, especially blacks, with whom the colonists sympathized intellectually. But some expressed concern that the migrating group of Northerners and Socialists might already be rocking the boat, and admitting African Americans as colony members in the segregated South might scuttle the whole venture. In the end, New Llano did not include black people.
The Louisiana Economic Experiment
The first years in Louisiana were the hardest. Harriman, suffering the final stages of tuberculosis, was soon forced to return to California. Many others departed in the first year, leaving a core group to salvage what was left. From this group emerged George Pickett, the man who would be the colony’s only other general manager until it went into receivership in the late 1930s.
Whereas the intellectual Harriman envisioned Llano to be a totally self-supporting cooperative in keeping with its status as a social experiment, Pickett, a former insurance salesman and real estate agent, saw an opportunity to raise money by selling colony-made goods to their neighbors. Harriman sparked the flame; Pickett figured out how to stoke it. Pickett’s abilities were rewarded by fierce loyalty among these early colonists.
Bringing new industries and skills to the rural hill country of west-central Louisiana, New Llano immediately established a rapport with its neighbors. Louisiana’s first artesian ice plant became one of the most successful ventures, drawing customers from throughout the area to purchase blocks of ice. The colony opened the first library in Vernon Parish, among the best in the state at the time. The blacksmith shop had an exclusive contract for the Kansas City Southern Railroad’s metal work in the region. New Llano’s veneer plant turned out some of the finest woodwork in Louisiana, and the cobbler shop produced the most comfortable shoes. The cooperative community was also the first town in Vernon Parish to have electricity.
The colony transacted its business with outsiders through cash or trade. If a Leesville resident brought in grain to be milled, the colony would either take a percentage of the grain or accept cash. This money provided the colony with funds for necessities like oil and fuel. Nonmembers found prices at New Llano extremely reasonable because the cooperative paid no employee wages and did not pursue steep profits.
A Political Alternative
The residents of the area also appreciated the cooperative colony because of political sympathies that lingered from the nineteenth century. Forty years before New Llano’s arrival in Vernon Parish, the lumber business was one of the South’s most profitable industries. The owners controlled every aspect of their companies, including the workers: whole populations were carted from one mill town to the next; wages were paid in company scrip, usable only in company-owned stores; and the stores’ prices were often fixed so that the workers fell into debt. As a result, some of labor’s first union organizing occurred in Louisiana, and west Louisiana became the site of one of the first labor strikes in America.
During this period, Louisianans supporting the unions voted with the Populist Party. By 1900 many west Louisianans considered themselves Socialists. In fact, during the 1900 presidential election—the very ticket that featured Eugene Debs and Job Harriman—more Socialist votes were cast per capita in Louisiana than in almost any other state. In spite of the lumber companies’ concerted efforts to quash dissent, long and bloody strikes continued for decades, attesting to the disenfranchised workers’ commitment to the unions’ social reforms.
By 1916, a year before the New Llano Colony moved to Vernon Parish, much of the region’s old-growth timber had been harvested, profits fell, and the companies began to sell off what they could. In 1917 the Gulf-Anderson Lumber Company arranged a sale of one of their abandoned mill towns and twenty thousand acres to the Llano Socialists, and the people of Vernon Parish soon recognized that the cooperative enacted many of the social reforms they themselves had fervently supported against the lumber companies.
Innovative Social Services
The social programs at the colony proved to be decades ahead of their time. The services were free and staffed by the members themselves. Seventy-five years before the Family Leave Act was passed, colony mothers had the option of taking up to six months off from work after the birth of a child. When they returned to work, child care was provided. Years ahead of its time, a feminist revolution touched down in west Louisiana. Women as well as men were free to work in any job they were capable of performing. Some women chose the sawmill; others opted for more traditional jobs in the cafeteria or the sewing room. Leadership positions remained predominantly male, however.
Education was a primary concern of the colony. After four hours of study, the older children applied classroom knowledge through four hours’ work in some related industry. This distributive education was so successful that colony children who transferred to public schools often skipped two grades. At the cooperative school, children might learn about construction, design irrigation systems, or produce a newspaper. Alternative opinions were encouraged in classroom discussions, even if they differed from the teacher’s, as long as the students could substantiate their positions. Adults availed themselves of night classes on topics as varied as philosophy, psychology, and the latest scientific farming techniques.
New Llano’s medical care was provided by a chiropractor, Robert K. “Doc” Williams, the only medical professional in residence. He was highly regarded in the colony and later in Leesville, where he and his wife, Cecil, practiced after the cooperative’s demise. Older people no longer able to work were cared for by the community. When the 1918 flu epidemic felled people throughout the parish, not one colonist died. New Llano members attributed their relative good health to the cooperative’s goat’s milk and a near-vegetarian diet.
New Llano was famous in its time. More than 10,000 people called it home at one time or another. In 1933, during the Great Depression, Sen. Morris Shepard of Texas introduced a bill to establish a federal corporation to organize self-sustaining agricultural and industrial cooperative communities financed by bond issues in an effort to alleviate unemployment. The only cooperative representative to address the Senate subcommittee was George Pickett.
Victim of the Times
Despite its utopian aim, Llano del Rio was not a perfect world. Human nature and history ultimately took their toll on the colony. The colony’s history was sandwiched in between two of the country’s worst depressions. The depressions compelled many to consider the Llano colonies as a viable alternative to an unstable life on the outside. In the late twenties, the colony in Louisiana enjoyed some of its most prosperous years. It established several satellite colonies, including a produce farm in Premont, Texas, a cattle ranch in Gila, New Mexico, and a highly profitable rice farm in Elton, Louisiana. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, New Llano was overextended and, like so many businesses around the country, faced financial ruin.
Disagreements about how to pay off debts factionalized the members. In 1937, paralyzed by its tangled finances and enmities, New Llano filed for bankruptcy and was placed into receivership. The first receiver was declared non compos mentis and removed. The colony assets were so grossly undervalued and undersold at the receiver’s sale in 1939 that lawsuits ensued for the next forty years.
Like many other utopian communities, the Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony was written off as a failure. Historian Robert Hine points out, however, “When two-thirds of American businesses fail within their first three years, do you call capitalism a failure? Llano lasted twenty-seven years,” a good run for any corporation.
For a whole generation, the Llano Colony practiced what the rest of the American Left preached: a livable wage, an eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, quality education and cultural opportunities, social security, affordable housing, and food and health care for all in return for an honest day’s work—ideas considered not just radical but subversive in their day. Perhaps the most surprising fact is that the Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony lasted so long not in its initial home of California, a state with a reputation for tolerance and liberality, but in conservative, rural Louisiana.