Seeking Utopia in Louisiana

The lost story of a group of socialists who built an extraordinary, but flawed, colony…

A socialist project wasn’t supposed to end like this, but no forces of history could have conceived it starting like this, either: a newspaper office bombing, a vice presidential candidate, and the wilds of Louisiana coming together to produce America’s longest-lived, non-religious utopian experiment. Three decades after one man’s dream saw some 10,000 people create a collectivist reality, what had held it together eventually brought it all undone. But was the settlement of New Llano really a failure?

It began with Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s 1887 science fiction novel. The utopian tale was the third largest best seller of its time—behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur—and had a profound effect on socialists and intellectuals. “This mystery of use without consumption, of warmth without combustion, seems like magic,” says the novel’s hero Julian West, “but was merely an ingenious application of the art now happily lost but carried to great perfection by your ancestors, of shifting the burden of one’s support on the shoulders of others.”

West falls asleep under hypnosis in 1887, and wakes up 113 years later in the year 2000. He finds a guide, Dr. Leete, who takes him on a tour of the socialist paradise that is the United States. Looking Backward inspired at least 165 “Bellamy” or “Nationalist” clubs across the country, where enthusiasts would discuss the book and how they could bring its ideas of nationalizing the economy to life. One enthusiastic patron of these clubs—which had largely disappeared by 1896—was Job Harriman.

Idealistic, energetic, and charismatic, Harriman was a high-profile lawyer and perpetual political candidate. He was Eugene V. Debs’ running mate on the Socialist Party ticket for the presidency in 1900, and also ran three times for Los Angeles mayor in his own right. He looked likely to win in 1911, before the men accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building—who he had supported and represented along with Clarence Darrow—pleaded guilty days before the election.

Squarely in the sights of bombastic, staunchly anti-union LA Times owner Harrison Gray Otis, Harriman grew disillusioned with politics and public life. But he was still a true believer, and began looking for alternative ways to work towards the future that Bellamy had imagined. His electoral defeats confirmed to him that “the movement must have an economic foundation,” and he began outlining a cooperative with a higher standard of living than the average man’s. “If this could be done we could use this community as an example by which other communities could be built.”

Harriman convinced a group of socialist activists in Los Angeles to join his project, and set out to find a suitable site for their community. He discovered a failing company which had tried to build an aquifer and attract residents to an area of land in California’s Antelope Valley, at the western tip of the Mojave Desert. Quick to exploit the situation, he raised a small amount of money and cheaply purchased shares that the company was trying to offload. The collective also bought a small socialist rag, Western Comrade, and set about attracting like-minded people to their slice of Eden. In 1914, the most American of socialist collectives was formed by the incorporation of Llano del Rio, and interested members were required to buy stock.

Initially, the board of Llano screened stockholders who wished to apply to become members. By 1917, there were around 1,100 members of the colony. But a water rights dispute with neighbours in the dry desert, a dam planned on a fault line, and the continued agitation of Otis and his newspaper against Harriman saw the group look for a new home.

A broker convinced the fledgling colony to move to the abandoned lumber town of Stables, Louisiana, near the Texas border. Stables had boomed after the Civil War. Pine became king as agricultural work was seen as more stable and skilled than cotton. Many members did not wish to go to the South, so only around 300 made the move to the 16,000 acre plantation they christened Newllano (later New Llano). In addition to the land, the region’s history appealed to the group, having been a part of “no man’s land”—a strip of land contested by Spain after the Louisiana purchase.

Job Harriman

“That created a culture of rugged individualism that still exists today,” says local historian Mary Ann Fussell. “The colonists just kind of fitted in here.” Fussell runs a small museum dedicated to the colony in today’s New Llano, which is nothing like the original.

Cleaved by Highway 171, with dollar stores and fast food chains clinging to the sides, it is a military town serving nearby Fort Polk. The graves of the socialist settlers sit unmarked in a local cemetery, as the colony provided everything but tombstones. Several of the original buildings remain on the other side of the railway track, which is plastered with enough “no trespassing” signs to force a traveller to this part of the country to take them seriously. Few locals know, and even fewer care, about its radical history, Fussell says. The few visitors she receives are there to find out about an extraordinary part of their family history.

Those early adopters of life in Newllano had their faith severely tested. The realtor who arranged the sale of land had guaranteed that 115 Texans would join the project, bringing much-needed livestock as payment. But the Texans were not told about the lifestyle and politics of the group, and they soon clashed with the Californians.

Compounding the tensions, conditions were miserable. It was winter, there was no plumbing, food was scarce, and no one had any money. The Texans promptly left, but not before eating what little food there was, taking their livestock, and leaving the Californians to pull plows in the fields for themselves. Those who could afford to or who could find jobs—the war industry was booming—went back to California, no longer wishing to sustain the others.

Those who remained were welcomed by their new neighbors, with the area’s conservative sensibilities the only sticking point. Newspapers in the neighboring town of Leesville were more worried about the colonists practicing free love than socialism, as many of the colonists were divorcees and single parents, or had applied for divorces when they reached Newllano.

Many of the settlers were recent arrivals from Europe, particularly the East, and had arrived in America with their own set of utopian dreams. Among the most prominent was Theodor Cuno, a German engineer and grandson of a Belgian baron, who had been exiled for his activities. Cuno had attended the First International and frequently corresponded with Friedrich Engels, who wrote of Cuno’s persecution in a 1872 journal article. When Cuno arrived in America, he was part of the Knights of Labor, who wrote the call for the first Labor Day in New York City. He was an old man by the time he and his wife arrived in the colony, and he cemented his status as the unofficial colony philosopher by donating thousands of books and much of his money.

But for all of the personalities that arrived in New Llano, one came to define it and shape it in his image: George T. Pickett. Elected General Manager of New Llano in 1919 after a brief reign by a rival, Pickett took over most of the day-to-day running of the cooperative. Harriman was increasingly away from the settlement, trying to salvage the original site of Llano del Rio, and also chronically ill with tuberculosis exacerbated by Louisiana’s climate.

Pickett was Stalin to Harriman’s Lenin: more interested in immediate survival than evangelizing. Less of a dreamer and more of a doer, he possessed the right attributes needed for their leader, and at the right time. Pickett received full authority for decisions about the colony from the General Assembly, and the body was dismantled. (Llano had its own Trotsky figure too, although he was banished from the colony in 1924, four years before Leon was exiled from Russia.)

In the final break with their spiritual leader, Pickett turned his weekly “psychological meetings” into anti-Harriman rallies. Under Harriman’s leadership, the colony had at times suffered for his absolute democracy. At least one crop of wheat rotted because no decision was made on what to do with it.

Decisive management allied with good fortune. A successful crop followed Pickett’s rise to power, allowing him to consolidate his authoritarian rule. Harriman stayed president until his death away from the colony in 1925. But his position was largely ceremonial after Pickett had taken control, and Harriman’s final years saw him disappointed and searching for answers.

All the while, the power struggle and harsh conditions saw all but 65 of the members leave. The remaining colonists agreed to stop their public spats and put on a unified front to help draw new members to the colony. A former realtor and insurance salesman, Pickett’s skills extended beyond wielding power. He was a remarkably convincing figure, and traveled the country in search of new colonists and raising donations from sympathetic groups. New Llano was dependent on Pickett’s leadership. Year after year, he was easily re-elected under the slogan, “Let George get on with the job.”

Photos and excerpts from New Llano colony publications courtesy of the Museum of the New Llano Colony.

The settlement began to thrive. New arrivals didn’t have to be socialists—some openly stated that they were not. They only needed to buy shares and agree to the rules. Colonists could keep their personal property both inside and outside of the settlement. They were given a house with water and electricity, access to three meals a day at the hotel, or food to cook at home if they preferred, free healthcare and education, and even a full laundry service. Money was rarely used between members. “It was such a friendly care free world to live in after the bread and butter struggle of Los Angeles,” said colonist Viola Gilbert.

While their working conditions with eight-hour days were very good for the time, some work-averse arrivals were quickly moved on. The colony grew to contain around 60 different industries—including a cannery, basket-making, and agriculture—despite there never being more than 600 people living in New Llano at any one time.

Farming was something of an intellectual pursuit, as colonists read widely and practiced the latest scientific methods. They were good neighbors, trying to widen their export market to local farmers, and educating them about new practices they had learned. Pickett also foresaw the oncoming Great Depression that gripped the country in 1929, expanding their farming interests and holdings into areas such as citrus and sugar in the expectation that the looming bust would send keen workers and potential members their way.

Though they lived very much in a society of their own making, they did not exclude themselves from the outside world. The emigres in particular tended to be well-educated, and the colony tried to use everyone’s skills as best they could. Members were also expected to continue to educate themselves and learn from others. Many left for stints of work elsewhere and returned.

Harriman had stressed from the start there there should be a strong social life, and it should not be commercialized. Evenings were said to be filled with lively discussions on porches.

The musings of former colonists often fondly recalled the social activities and entertainment. Music literacy was high, with most people playing one or more instrument. New Llano had its own theater, orchestra, dance band, magic shows, and the awful phenomenon of minstrel shows. Dances every Saturday night were a particular favorite, and all entertainment was open to the public for free.

Children were educated for four hours per day in the school, then worked four hours per day in various industries—a life better than most working-class children at the time, with child labor laws not coming into effect until 1938. New mothers received around two years of maternity leave, and women had full voting rights and could hold any position within the company and colony.

It was a famous female comrade who caused the next serious ruction in New Llano. “Red” Kate Richards O’Hare was the most “charismatic personality that the [socialist] movement possessed other than Eugene Debs.” She had been controversially jailed during World War I, along with a number of other prominent socialist leaders, for violating the Espionage Act. A national campaign saw their release in 1920, and she turned her energy to education. Seeking a fresh start, she announced that she would be visiting the colony in 1923. “Something of a goddess” in socialist circles, Richards O’Hare liked what she saw, and moved her magazine, Vanguard, to the colony to help clear its debts, soon followed by her husband and four children.

They saw New Llano as the utopia they had envisaged before the war and established a much-needed place of higher education in the colony, called the Commonwealth College Association. “To be a worker has, far too often, meant to be condemned to life as a beast of burden,” she told students in a trademark “stem-winder” of an opening speech. “We…revolt against this state of affairs… we refuse to longer permit useful labor to shut us out from the things that make life more efficient and more beautiful.”

But with Pickett, Harriman, Richards O’Hare, and a number of other personalities, the beautiful revolt contained too many egos. Infighting was “immediate and vicious.” There were reports of a divide between “book” socialists and those more practically inclined. Ever the master of the ballot box, Pickett won a colony vote against Richards O’Hare and her allies. Within a year, Red Kate, the Commonwealth School, and a small band of followers had left, moving to Mena, an infamous sundown town in Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains.

Because life in New Llano catered to necessities, not luxuries, the people were comfortable, but not always happy. The basic nature of the food was a common complaint. Disputes were frequently played out in the two newspapers that served Llano, much to the glee of outsiders who wanted to see them fail.

Spiritual life was based on the “golden rule”—do to others as you would yourself—and many were professed atheists. The colony received many letters asking why there were no churches in New Llano. The standard reply was that they didn’t want to choose a denomination, but there were some religious members, including one well-known female Pentecostal preacher.

As for the other cravings of the soul, vice seems to be one of the few issues that did not plague them. Much of the colony’s existence was during Prohibition, but while they grew grapes, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of bootlegging operations or prostitution. The Vernon County Sheriff at one point said that he wished the rest of the residents of the area were as well behaved as the colonists.

But it wasn’t that kind of purity that brought about cracks in the harmony of New Llano. New fault lines emerged between the older colonists, who were happy to let things continue as they were, and younger colonists, who wanted to modernize. They felt that life in the colony had stood still while the outside world had moved on. Reliance on agriculture, in particular, was seen as backwards, and those who regularly travelled to big cities agitated for change. Food became an emblem of their discontent; its dullness and largely vegetarian nature—meat was effectively a seasoning—was a rallying point.

As, increasingly, was Pickett’s leadership. During the Depression, he allowed some people in who were hungry or poor without buying stock, although there were allegations that this was a political move to bolster his numbers rather than altruism. Either way, class division had set in, and both sides argued their case furiously in print.

A leadership figure for the young modernizers emerged, a Texan by the name of Eugene Carl. He had oversight of the accounting books—never a strong suit of the colony—and saw that Pickett’s predicted member boom in the Depression never came. They were overstretched financially, and too understaffed to serve some of their interests in neighboring states, such as the citrus and sugar ranches. They launched a coup while Pickett was out of town, electing a new board to take control of the company.

The most American of beginnings would foment the most American of ends. The great socialist project was a dispute between shareholders and the board, and it went to the courts. Two receivers appointed could not make any headway, and Pickett struck a deal to sell off land to a businessman—though he subsequently filed a suit against him for $13.5 million 10 years later—before the company was liquidated in 1939. Its downfall attracted great ridicule from the outside press, who took glee in the pettiness—and who had been gunning for the colony’s collapse since Harriman set it up in 1914.

The history of New Llano is at once an inspiring and a cautionary tale. Any utopia—an attempt to perfect the imperfectible—seems destined to fall, particularly when subject to so many outside forces beyond its control. It is dreamed into life from the horrors of our damaged world, and is doomed by the temptation for its leaders is to cast an intentional community in their own image.

Illustration by Mike Freiheit

For all of its radical success, New Llano was built on many of the prejudices of the outside world. The earliest colonists had considered opening it up to all, but decided that there was enough resentment towards them as it was without letting in other races (except for Jews, possibly because they attracted so many recent European arrivals.) In California, the $4/day wages that colonists initially received were scrapped as they were attracting “undesirables.”

Famously, the translation of utopia from Greek means both “good place” and “no place”—and to many elderly colonists, the double meaning became all too real. New Llano’s disintegration saw many elderly colonists were left stranded, living out their lives on nothing but the generosity of the people of Vernon Parish, who perhaps remembered the good neighbors the utopians had been. Yet in spite of the miserable ending, the recollections of many former members, and their relatives who visit Mary Ann Fussell’s museum today, show an overwhelming affection for the project and the beliefs that underpinned it.

Pickett, whose authoritarian leadership had both held New Llano together and eventually tore it apart, never stopped believing. He stayed living among the ruins of his Eden—the same place he had once held at gunpoint—until his death in 1959. “I have held the fort for a long time, all alone,” he wrote. “It’s been pretty close to hell.” Historian Yaacov Oved says that Harriman’s faith in a socialist communitarian project also stood to the last. “His experience had made him adopt a more realistic attitude toward the chances of a lonely communal outpost in the middle of a capitalist environment,” Oved says. “He also came to realize the limitations of socialist ideology in altering people’s personalities.”

Thousands of people had come to New Llano because the American Dream had failed them. That the colony eventually fell apart was seen not as a failure, but a beautiful success that human nature was always going to destroy. And in one final twist, the competing factions from the last days of the colony united together, unsuccessfully fighting the receivership and liquidation in the courts for the next 35 years. 

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