Death of a Colony
MARCH 01, 1958 by VOLLIE TRIPP
Mr. Tripp, retired from the building business, now devotes full time to travel, writing, and promotion of free enterprise.
Job Harriman, noted lawyer, J friend of the late Clarence Darrow, was an ardent socialist, and he tried to promote at least two communal colonies. One colony, planted in Antelope Valley, in the barren country north of Los Angeles, failed for good reasons. The loose desert soil would not grow crops, and the weather was too cold for most things. The pitiful remnants of stone foundations may still be seen here, the evidence of much hard work by someone.
Along in the early twenties, Mr. Harriman bought the Ramona Ranch, just three hoops and a hop over the hills from our old homestead, in Riverside County. Thither he moved the Antelope Valley colony, now abandoned to the coyotes and desert jack rabbits.
This Ramona Ranch had an abundance of gravity water which cost nothing. It had perhaps a hundred acres of fertile river bottom soil, several hundred bearing apple trees, as well as plums, pears, peaches, and other fruits. There were huge shade trees on the place, many good farm buildings, and quite a few farm implements. Coming to this pleasant well-watered valley should have raised the spirits of the most dour among them, after their former bleak prospects in the desert.
News that we were to have a communal colony for neighbors created the greatest interest. Soon we called on the folks to see how the colony operated. They were very friendly, and all eager to explain their economic theories.
There were, as I recall, about 24 members in the colony, ranging from young children to several people over 60. They prepared their meals in a big community kitchen, ate together at one long table. The women took turns at K.P. duty. Everyone seemed enthusiastic about his new life, where "all for one and one for all" was a cardinal principle.
Here competition would be done away with in favor of cooperation. Communization was the only antidote for the cruel, wicked, heartless capitalist system. From now on it would be: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need" — and so forth.
We came to know some of these folks quite well. Nice folks they were, too. Take the Woosters. Wooster was a tall grave bean pole of a fellow, well versed in philosophy, political theory, with a smattering of science, and a sincere belief in communal life. He was a kind of general overseer. Mrs. Wooster kept the colony books and helped manage the domestic details. She was quite young, alert, curvaceous, as well as vivacious, and not a bit hard on the eyes.
Then there was a fellow named Farmer, and his little girl, about 13. Farmer was a professional gardener. It was his duty to provide the colonists with nice, fresh green vegetables. Handy sort to have in a colony, this Farmer fellow.
There was an old lady whose name escapes me. Apparently senile, she often had a "call" to declaim at length, a rambling diatribe "agin" things in general, with emphasis on her poor treatment at the hands of those about her. The others paid no attention to her, and she often found herself preaching to empty chairs. Undaunted, she kept on till unwound.
We got to know the Taylor family best of all, J. Peter, Mrs. Taylor, and the several young children. J. Peter was a tremendous man, at least 6’4", weighing well over 220, thin. He, too, was "well versed" in history, philosophy, economics, law, and the theory of socialism.
You could go over to the colony most any time of day and find the folks expounding profoundly on various economic and political theories. The shade of the big umbrella trees was fine for expounding, in the long hot summer days. Leading the discussion, most likely, would be J. Peter Taylor. He had a natural gift for that sort of thing. Farmer, the gardener, was seldom to be found among the debaters. He was too busy working with his vegetable patch.
To join the colony, you had to dig up a thousand dollars. J. Peter used to boast how his wife took in washing to help raise this considerable sum. From time to time Mr. Harriman came down from his big city office to check on things. Supposedly, he doled out grocery money for his subjects, since the colonists continued to eat and no one worked outside.
Spring came. We expected to see soil turned, crops planted, the apple trees pruned and cared for. It was our understanding that the colony hoped to produce nearly all their own food, with enough surplus to buy sugar, spice, coffee, and the like. This money would be placed in a common pool, the joint property of all, to be used for the common good.
June came and went. Then July and August. Still no plow disturbed the eager fertile loam. Weeds grew taller and taller. The premises took on a doleful half-deserted look. The men of the colony continued to polish apple boxes under the big shade trees, discuss endless socialist theory, and cuss the wicked capitalist system. Only cheerful spot on the ranch was Farmer’s garden, now resplendent with ripening melons, corn, squash, tomatoes, and other good things.
Disaffection with Mr. Harriman now began to be whispered about. He did not come down from his big city office as often as before. When he did come, the money he left was inadequate for the collective needs. Came a day when Mr. Harriman did not come down at all anymore.
Adulation now turned to fury. Had he brought his people to this place, only to let them starve? What about the thousand dollars they’d given him? What about the Ramona Ranch? But Job Harriman could not be found to answer their questions.
The next blow fell when Farmer up and left, just like that, taking his little girl with him. I was sorry to see Mr. Farmer leave. I thought his little girl was real nice. No one knew why Farmer left, though I have a theory or two.
Fortunately for the colonists, he did not take his garden with him. For a little while yet the colonists continued to eat the ripening corn, squash, and things. But there came a time when the last of Farmer’s turnips and things had been pulled and eaten. The colony now faced an "exceeding misery."
The Woosters, astute people, recognized trouble when they saw it coming down the road. They left for parts unknown. One by one the others left. All but Peter Taylor.
Peter was made of sterner stuff. He vowed he’d sit there till a certain place froze over. Or, until he got his thousand dollars back.
Now, my father, Dan Tripp, was not a man to sit by and let a family starve. Many the sack of vegetables, side of bacon, gallons of milk found their way to the Taylor’s table from our place. Even better for Pop: here was a CAUSE. Virtue outraged. Justice trammeled. Innocence persecuted. We took up the Taylor cause with a vengeance.
Mr. Harriman had undoubtedly made a down payment on the Ramona Ranch, expecting to pay the balance when due from sale of membership in his colony. I personally doubt that he had any other intention in the world. I believe he was sincere in his beliefs and had only the best interests of his people at heart. Certainly he was a warm, friendly man, an interesting man.
But the money could not be raised. The legal owners wanted their ranch back. They ordered Taylor to move. He would not.
It is difficult to dispossess a family under any circumstances if they’re determined to stay. Taylor was determined. The law puts the legal owner to much inconvenience, delay, and expense. But in the course of events, about two years, as I recall, Taylor and his lawyer had used up all their legal recourse. The Taylors were to be put out into the county road, by force, if necessary.
However, the representative of the legal owners, as a last gesture to avoid force, offered Taylor all the furniture in the house where they had been living, plus $250 in cash, if he would sign quit claims and go away quietly. At Pop’s urging, he accepted the offer.
We had a ton truck and agreed to haul Taylor’s things to San Jacinto, about 25 miles north. We went over the next morning. It was a sad, tense time. The owner was there. Taylor’s lawyer was there. Mrs. Taylor was crying. The children were hushed and frightened. As a youngster, I was deeply impressed and shocked at this treatment of a poor family by rich and "soulless men."
The owner, on advice, refused to pass over the $250 directly to Taylor. He insisted it be paid through a third party. Funny thing, this law. Pop was suggested as an intermediary. There being no objection, the money was handed to him, and a second later he passed it over to Taylor.
As the last of the furniture was loaded onto our truck and as we were about to leave, Taylor suddenly jumped out and ran back into the house. With a mighty heave he yanked out the kitchen sink and came running with it. The owner blinked but said nothing, doubtless glad to be rid of him, at any cost.
But this sink thing brought me up short. By all the rules of the game, it was a part of the house. It was not furniture to which he was entitled. So my hero Taylor, the sage, the prophet, the epitome of justice and abused innocence, had a flaw or two on his own account. I was upset about this. It just about ruined my simple classic hero-villain concept of things. From now on, thinking about such matters would be much more complicated.
So ended Job Harriman’s Ramona Rancho communal experiment. Another theory, beautiful in a dreamy sort of way, went up in smoke, or down in ashes, as you prefer. It had failed for the same reason Governor Bradford’s communist experiment had failed, some 300 years before.
Communization just isn’t natural. It doesn’t meet man’s needs, hopes, ambitions, or temperament. Nor can a little communism succeed any better, though obviously a small dose isn’t as lethal as a big one.
Here, if ever, the basic idea of communism had a fair chance to prove itself with a minimum of interference from external forces. The colonists found themselves among friendly interested neighbors, anxious to help any way they could. The ranch was fertile and could easily have produced food in abundance for all, with a ready sale of surplus to take care of money needs.
Farmer, the only one of the dozen or so able-bodied men willing to work, simply grew tired of feeding the rest, and quit. I fear he was a capitalist at heart.
The others lacked incentive to do much for themselves because they could see no direct, compelling personal reason for doing so. Why should they? They had "social security." If one man could not, or would not, pull his load, the others would. At least, they were supposed to.
It failed, too, because something in man rebels, and finally dies, when his personality and individuality is taken from him, and he’s merged into "the group." We have a right and a sacred obligation to be ourselves, to work out our own destiny, and to see the total result of our effort. Man wants to be able to stand back and say: "This I have done." The experiment failed for other reasons, any one of which would have doomed it from the start.