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San Ysidro's Little Landers

Every man an acre! Every man a king!

Little Landers at clubhouse, 1909 (front row: Smythe fourth from left, Hall fifth from left). San Ysidro became one of the birthplaces in California of the initiative and recall rights.
Little Landers at clubhouse, 1909 (front row: Smythe fourth from left, Hall fifth from left). San Ysidro became one of the birthplaces in California of the initiative and recall rights.

“ A commune. Yeah! A commune. The first in San Diego. Probably the first in California. Might have been the first in the world!” This guy beside me at the Don Felix Cafe on San Ysidro Boulevard waxes lyrical. “Just look out that door, buddy,” he says. “Ten yards down the road. To the left. That’s where it all began.”

Half-acre farm at Little Landers, c. 1912. “Handkerchief farming” farmers don’t have to be isolated. They can live and work near each other and near the town.

So, okay, I put my sandwich on hold and get up and look out through the damned door. Then I’m glad I did. Three buildings down I see what looks like an old Midwestern farmhouse with a little veranda and a sign, painted over but still visible.

“Hotel San Ysidro.”

San Ysidro Hotel, 1909. "Speakers stood upon the hotel porch and lighted the fires of social, intellectual, and spiritual aspiration."

It looks familiar.

“That’s where they had a dream, a kind of radical socialist dream, and you know what? For a while it worked. It really worked, big time. For a while they were coming here from all over the world to see if this was the way to go. ‘Every man an acre! Every man a king!’ ”

San Ysidro Hotel, 1994. Well, hotel...more like an old flophouse for poor, elderly gents.

Now I remember. I heard about this thing back in 1987, when I was drinking with my buddy Frank in San Ysidro in the late, lamented Grady’s Keg, which we liked because it was the “last bar in America.” Half the old boys in here had stumbled across the road from the hotel. Well, hotel...more like an old flophouse for poor, elderly gents like Jesus Payan and Jesse Rios, who had spent their lives working in the California fields. Gabriel Avalos, son of a Colima vaquero, who migrated here for the good life and spent his good life working in factories. They took me across the street, showed me their lime-colored, narrow rooms, each old bedroom split in half so the landlord could double the number of elderly workers from the fields and from the Caliente racetrack who stayed there, eking out their days at $140 a month in the place they said you never came out of but on a stretcher.

Little Landers Market, Sixth and C Streets, San Diego, c. 1911. Now the population stood at 116 families, about 300 people, growing and selling through their own Little Landers market.

I remember it now. The building used to be a clapboard house. Dilapidated, but recognizable as a two-story 19th-century farmhouse. The kind that said, “Out of the wilderness we have created order.” This place used to be the Belcher Ranch and before that the Ybarra Rancho. And wasn’t this the ranch where Sr. Ybarra was killed and two of his young daughters were abducted in an Indian raid back in 1873?

Margaret Lashlee pulls a fig off an old tree. “The Little Landers used to eat from this same tree.”

Since I was last here, they have committed the crime of yellow stucco. Aluminum windows. And replaced the white picket fences with ferocious iron grills that look as if they’re there to keep people in as much as to keep the rest of us out.

And yet this farmhouse, I know, was once the center of a movement that, like the guy said, made the name San Ysidro famous throughout the country, the world, and helped mold such visionary programs as the Israeli kibbutz and similar projects as far away as Australia.

Joyce Hettich: “The Hispanic people here downplay the Little Landers, because basically they weren’t allowed to become a part of it.”

And all inspired by San Diego Union journalist William E. Smythe and his friend George P. Hall, the paper’s gardening columnist.

It is January 11,1909. The little train, purchased secondhand from Chicago’s elevated line, has chugged the 14 miles down from San Diego on its way to an overnight rest at the border. It is loaded with curious, gawking people. “San Ysidro! Belcher Ranch! Distribution day for the Little Landers!” announces Mr. Armstrong, the well-loved conductor of this small local line. It pulls up under a stand of eucalyptus trees right in front of the ranchhouse. Tents to shelter the expected overflow have been erected alongside it, and in the background the hills leading to the mesa are as bare as they were when Father Serra came tramping over their crest and as they will be 80 years on, when border patrols will spend their nights chasing would-be immigrants.

A welcoming committee waits on the veranda for everyone to arrive. Forty-seven-year-old William Smythe is at the center. The 69-year-old Hall stands next to him. This is the culmination of dreams that journalist Smythe, also founder of the National Irrigation Congress and renowned orator, has been nurturing since before the century began. A new land rush, but on a miniature scale. A return to the land for the disillusioned industrial masses, but to farm intelligently. Not isolated in lonely farmhouses but in close-knit communities, and near towns, and on small lots.

As he writes in his tract inviting settlers:

The most insistent demand of the people in the United States at the present time is for ownership of a home with freedom from industrial slavery and security against want. Involved in this is a feeling that the cost of living is too high. It is generally conceded that this demand can be met only by systematically planning for added numbers of families to make their livelihood from the soil.

Smythe has been involved in getting people “back to the land” for more than a decade, lecturing to Eastern city families sick of the dirt and the small wages and the struggle. But now here in San Ysidro he promises to answer the prayer of every American family: “A home of our own. A job of our own. A life of our own. A roof from which no landlord can dispossess us and a reliable answer to our prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ ”

He has been inspired to start his community partly by the story of Samuel Cleeks, who tilled one acre of land at Orlando, in the Sacramento Valley, for 30 years, harvested an incredible range of crops, made a good living, and even had a surplus that allowed him to put away several hundred dollars in savings each year.

This, Smythe realizes, goes against the era’s scorn for such “handkerchief farming,” but he is egged on by the fact that handkerchief farming yields one great advantage. Its farmers don’t have to be isolated. They can live and work near each other and near the town. They can throw away the careless soil-wasting techniques of middle America’s mono-crop farmers and scientifically maximize the use of the land to produce crops and make their money by supplying the town with its daily meat, vegetable, and dairy needs. He has invited people to come and learn equality, to pioneer his new concept: “A Little Land and a Living Surely is Better than Desperate Struggle and Wealth possibly.”

The cry is for conditions that will meet the call for freedom, independence, security, fresh air, with some of the advantages of the city. These the Little Landers Colony aims to supply. Intensive cultivation and use of the land makes possible a living from a small area and the small area makes possible an ideal social and intellectual life — the life of God’s out of doors with all the advantages of neighborly contact with others.

Social and intellectual life are to make the difference. To encourage it, settlers must buy two kinds of lots from the 550 acres of Belcher Ranch land he has bought: a residential lot of 50 by 120 feet for $250, and a one-acre farming tract for from $350 to $550, depending on how near the fertile Tijuana riverlands it is. Smythe believes this new micro-farming will require a sophisticated mind, so he intends to add a lively program of philosophy and arts and discussions. It’s a pioneering movement, but a middle-class one.

Today, as the train pulls up at the Belcher Ranch, he’s not surprised to see the numbers. In San Diego’s Garrick Theater, on Fifth Avenue, he has used his acknowledged oratory powers to harangue crowds of Easterners who had come west looking for the illusory “good life” and who were returning east in droves.

This life, Smythe assures the crowds, is just 30 minutes south, in a place called San Ysidro after Visigothic Spain’s saint of small farmers, the one who, whenever he fell asleep at the plow, could always count on a little help from the angels.

So today is the culmination of years of talking and persuading. Today the people will choose the lots where they will make their lives. The new arrivals see that streets and parks have already been delineated by plow furrows, and the town lots and acre lots are marked out by stakes.

“Welcome!” calls Smythe from the veranda, and launches into a speech. “Here in San Ysidro,” he tells them, “we are going to build the future greatness of San Diego upon the everlasting granite of human industry rather than the shifting sands of speculation.... If we succeed in this noble experiment, San Diego should become the capital of an empire of Little Landers!”

As the breezes gently blow the ladies’ long skirts, George Hall promises settlers from the city he will make sure they get expert advice on how to become commercial growers, even if they have never planted a pea in their lives.

“The first colony meeting,” Smythe writes later, “was held in the open air within 30 minutes of the arrival of the pioneer party. Speakers stood upon the hotel porch and lighted the fires of social, intellectual, and spiritual aspiration which have ever since been burning.”

Then comes the moment. People step forward, one by one, and pick a number from a hat. Whoever gets number one gets first choice of property. A builder named J.W. Lewis gets number one. He is already involved; he has the contract to build the first Little Lander house.

For the next several hours, people scurry over the land, deciding which parcel they want to make their lives on. Smythe assures everyone that soon he will have sewage and water lines, a park, and graded dirt roads.

It doesn’t happen quite like that, of course. For a start, the people who have risen to Smythe’s bait tend to be elderly gents who have little cash, have lived their lives in cities, but have childhood dreams of returning to the land. There are some families, but there are also a remarkable number of single women following the spawning women’s movement and setting out on lives of their own. There are also plenty of people who have been given a tiny stipend by a family that wants them “out of their hair,” who need a “cultural environment” where they can feel useful without paying out too much to live.

Despite the motleyness of the crowd, the first year sees remarkable results. The San Ysidro Inn, as Smythe has named the Belcher farmhouse headquarters, becomes the place where people stay while they’re waiting for their own homes to go up. Its dining room is also a place to gather to discuss business, at which all members have speaking and voting rights. The first and third Monday nights are devoted to the often hot discussion of colony affairs. The second and fourth to dancing, singing, philosophy, and political discussions, even Spanish lessons. It all helps seal the cohesiveness of the group. On Sundays there are church services, and on Thursday afternoons a women’s club meets for music, games, and conversation. All part of the Smythe ideal of breaking down social barriers and creating a feeling of equality — heady stuff for 1909. Everyone donates books so a library can be set up. They start a community school and church, all in this busy first year.

But there were problems. The water pump that Smythe had promised wasn’t big enough to irrigate all the lands, especially the ones far from the river. And there were money problems, but Smythe had set up a board of expert farm advisers to help people into successful growing. A truck would pass by each property every morning and pick up vegetables or rabbits they wanted to sell to San Diegans, then the goods would be taken to town and hawked house-to-house.

But by the fall of 1910, the water problems had taken their toll. Of the original 100 families, only 38 remained. The Little Landers Corporation was $14,000 in debt. At the Monday night meetings, the families wanted big changes. Mainly they wanted the corporation, whose management board had paid for the acquisition of the Belcher Ranch lands and made all the big decisions, to be closer to the “real problems” —like water— that were holding the farmers back.

In December 1910, they got their wish. A new San Ysidro-based corporation, Little Landers, Incorporated, was formed. All but the main banker were true tillers of the “Little Lands.” Smythe, now vice president, made things even more democratic by bringing in the radical concept of the New England town meeting, and San Ysidro thus became one of the birthplaces in California of the initiative and recall rights. If you were 21, one of a family owning land in the colony, and paying $1 annual membership, you could participate in the Monday night business meetings and elect or recall officers; very democratic for the time.

Most important, the new corporation got better terms on its mortgage on the Belcher Ranch lands. This cleared the way to form an irrigation district that could finance a decent waterpumping system.

At last Smythe’s handkerchief-farming principles seemed to work — at least for some. A couple of years started producing success stories, recounted in Smythe’s writings and told years later by one-time Little Landers. Mr. L.E. Scott came to San Ysidro at the age of 63 after a life as a journeyman shoemaker in Brockton, Massachusetts. He decided to work only one-sixth of an acre. “Although I stay on the job all day,” he told Smythe, “I do not work half the time, nor do I call it hard work. In fact, I am having the easiest time of my life.”

Scott said that, as for food,

I live very much as I did at the restaurants, boarding houses, and private families where I boarded for many years, except that I eat less meat and more eggs and vegetables. That I am in no danger of starvation will appear when I say that 1 keep in store meat, fish, about all kinds of groceries and other supplies usually found in a family, a good stock of jam and jelly made by myself from my own blackberries and guavas, and my place furnishes a bountiful supply of fresh eggs and vegetables the year round.

I can get in my garden today, March 24th, ten varieties of vegetables, with strawberries and guavas for dessert, peppers for seasoning, horseradish for a relish, parsley to garnish my dishes, and plenty of roses, geraniums, and nasturtiums to decorate the table. I live in a little cabin furnished to suit my needs and prefer it to a palace.

C. J. Young was 65 when he came to San Ysidro with $250 to his name. He had to work part-time as a carpenter while his trees and gardens were becoming productive, but three years later the acre of bottomlands near the river that he had bought were producing richly, he was completely out of debt, and owning property with a market value above $1000. “I consider myself in all essential aspects as well off as the richest man in the United States,” Smythe says he told him:

I cat three meals a day and have a good appetite, whereas the richest man is troubled with indigestion. I sleep well nights; the other fellow has insomnia. I have more hair on the top of my head, all my own, while the other fellow wears a wig. And if that rich man should try to tell me on election day that unless his candidate for president were chosen he would shut down business and starve me to death, I would look at him in the eye and tell him to go to — that is, to emigrate to a warmer climate.

J.M. Mills was 54 when he heard about Smythe’s dream of the “Little Lander, Spiritual Man of the Soil.” He had been a chief accountant at an Omaha packing house. He had seen older colleagues being kicked out to make way for younger, lower-salaried men. He knew his time was coming, so one day in late 1908 he resigned and jumped aboard a train bound for San Diego. According to Smythe, Mills still carried a grievance against his former bosses. “It annoyed him that they didn’t kick him out 15 years earlier. He keeps thinking of where he would be now if he had 15 years of intelligent labor in making a self-supporting home on an acre of land behind, rather than before, him.”

Unlike many of his neighbors, Mills decided not to specialize on a single product like winter vegetables or poultry. (The aim for many was the “$2 hen,” one that would produce $2 worth of eggs and/or meat in a year. They reckoned they could raise 500 hens per half-acre.) Mills chose to diversify, so he always had something ready that the townspeople of San Diego or Tijuana needed. Wrote Smythe:

He frequently serves his friends with a fine dinner, such as would cost at least a dollar and a half a plate at a good restaurant, and then triumphantly announces: “Got everything except coffee and sugar right off this acre, and have never yet had time to get the whole acre into cultivation.” Such a dinner generally includes vegetable soup, capon chicken, all kinds of vegetables and fruits, and winds up with strawberries and cream. By this means, and by the sale of the surplus of his various products, he makes a comfortable living for himself and wife on his acre.

The one man to raise livestock was Philip Sanger, who had helped build the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego before coming down to San Ysidro in 1911. He and his partner raised 2000 goats on the upland pasture next to his tract. He was the first to sell goats’ milk in San Diego, through the Little Landers’ store at Sixth Avenue and C Street. He was still living in the San Diego area in 1959, probably the last surviving Little Lander.

Smythe, in the widespread propaganda he sent around the country, wasn’t so ruthless as to deny that the early years were difficult for all, and many fell by the wayside. From the original sale of 100-odd plots, by 1910 only 38 families were still living in San Ysidro. Partly because they needed to earn money right away, many, especially the single women, commuted to San Diego to work. Much ground, bought by speculators, lay fallow, awaiting buyers.

Still, once Smythe and Hall managed to cure their biggest problem — water — with a new 40-horsepower engine and centrifugal pump to carry subterranean water to a high holding reservoir from which all could draw, the colony started to take off again. At the end of 1911 there were 69 families; 1912 saw construction of 47 new houses. Now the population stood at 116 families, about 300 people, growing and selling through their own Little Landers market.

“After years of struggle we stand on solid ground,” Smythe speechified at a reception celebrating the green light for the new water system:

I predict that on the day the San Diego (Panama-California] Exposition opens its doors we shall present an interesting exhibit of a thousand people living on less than 500 acres with a more intensive cultivation not only of soil, but social, intellectual, and spiritual life than ever known in the history of civilization, and this will be the lasting achievement of San Ysidro. Its real glory will consist in its nation-wide, worldwide influence in behalf of a refined life upon the soil.

His words sound pretentious, but news of the success of the cooperative had indeed spread. In March 1912, the Minister of Lands for Australia’s state of New South Wales, Miel Nielson, made a special trip to see the experiment. He told Smythe he found the colony “the most important demonstration of the life of the people on the soil” that had ever come under his observation:

In the first place, the unit of land ownership adopted here is as sound as it is unique. uSo much land as one individual or family can use to the highest advantage without hiring help — a community without a landlord or a tenant, without an employer or a hired man!” In Australia we have said that “a man should have as much land as he requires for a comfortable living,” but some men seem to think they require a thousand acres for that purpose, and that means servile labor in the bunkhouse. Your rule makes inevitably for a free people.

Not much later, the head of the experimental stations of the Zionist colonies in Palestine, Mr. A. Aaronsohn also came to investigate the Little Landers. He too saw lessons he could use. He told Smythe how “horrified” he was at the general soil waste in America, but by contrast, “In your vision you have foreseen that in the near future these conditions cannot prevail, and you have undertaken to show immediately what the future agricultural generations will have to do.”

By 1915, the year George Hall (then president of Little Landers, Incorporated) died, there were 500 residents. Their gardens flourished, the market in San Diego was doing fine. San Diego had come to regard then* as a permanent piece of the social and economic landscape, especially since their reputation was now international and people were begging for information on how to set up similar colonies.

And yet the Little Landers have disappeared. What happened?

For anyone wandering San Ysidro today searching for signs of the Great Experiment, those signs would be hard to find. The plan of the intimate village surrounded by its fields has been smudged over by decades of border-driven development. In empty lands down by the Tijuana River, a giant eared jackrabbit dashes across the road and into the undergrowth. Could he be a descendant of one of the Belgian hares some of the Little Landers grew for market? In the flatlands below the clusters of factory outlets and condos, a pall of dust rises from the great stretches of vacant, dead-looking earth. It’s a surreal car chase. Two green-and-white Border Patrol cars close in on someone they must think has hopped the border. They screech across what must have been some of the prime “bottom acres” where the most prosperous Little Landers farmed.

Call the owners of the Hotel San Ysidro, to see if we can view the kitchen and dining room where those early meetings of the Little Landers took place. Uh, no. It might disturb the old tenants.

Drive toward the open territory of no-man’s land, above the trolley lines. There on Mesa Avenue we find an old house with a stone chimney and lots of old cars being fixed up in the yard.

Beautiful! I recognize it immediately. It’s the first house built for the Smythe family. They had their housewarming here on the Fourth of July, 1909, even though the home still had only one room, with tents serving as bedrooms and kitchen. All the colonists came and welcomed their community’s First Lady into her new home and new life. Mrs. Smythe responded by starting the Thursday afternoon socials for the San Ysidro wives, a gathering that evolved into the San Ysidro Women’s Club.

Her husband wrote in 1911:

In the big fireplace at one end of the room blaze big logs. There are books aplenty and pictures one loves. There are bunches of holly given us by a child, and the big generous writing table and (blessed thought) time to write. East and north of the bungalow rise the foothills of the Coast Range — a mile and a half south lies Mexico, and, silvering the sunset gleams, the great (Kean sparkles five miles west. Little farms dot the lovely valley. Little acres compose the town.... The kind friend who built this room provided windows north, south and west where we sit and view the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them….

Eighty-five years later, the house has been enlarged but is pretty much the same. The back rooms look similar to the tents they replaced. And there’s still that lovely great cobblestone chimney.

A couple of fairly robust guys come across the road and want to know what we’re doing here. An explanation about the house’s past doesn’t mean anything to them.

We cross the trolley lines down a street called West Park Avenue. It is settled, sylvan, and sleepy — until we have to pull over for another wild Border Patrol chase slamming past us. This is the land, between East Park and West Park Avenues, that Smythe and Hall had dreamed of as the centerpiece of their new town. George Hall bought the strip and donated it as a park, running up either side of today’s San Ysidro Library. This is where the schools and community halls were to be. This is where they eventually built their Redwood Hall, to be their social center. Its two-fireplace chimney had two mottoes inset, one, from Walt Whitman, read, “I loafe and invite my soul.” The other read, “For the dear love of comrades.” Hall even paid for an oversize statue of Ulysses S. Grant for the park, imperiously pointing toward Mexico (he had fought in the Mexican War). The idea was partly patriotic, partly political. The great man’s son was an important member of San Diego society and had just pushed through plans for building the fabulous hotel on Broadway named after his father.

The 10-foot statue stood in the garden of Hall’s house, at 233 West Park, for months, then was eventually erected in the park, but was pulled down during the First World War to give the copper to the war effort.

The house stands today, unchanged. It is owned by the López family. Manuel López invites us in. He was brought up here, went to school here, but says he was taught nothing about the Little Landers or the statue that sat in his garden.

Down at 136 West Olive, another of the Little Landers’ houses survives, pretty much as it must have looked in 1910. Benny Arellano and his family are having a barbecue. No, they have never heard about this Little Lander “commune.”

But it is up on Willow Road that we hit pay dirt, the house of C.J. Young, the carpenter who ended up happy and secure enough in the colony that he was ready to tell every politician “to emigrate to a warmer climate.”

Margaret Lashlee, who now owns Young’s house, and her friend Joyce Hettich, an 88-year-old retired San Ysidro teacher and unofficial local historian, are the people I’ve been looking for: someone to explain what ended the Little Lander experiment.

The house is warm, intimate, caressed by established trees and bougainvillea. Margaret pulls a fig off an old tree. Then another, and another, and another. She comes hack to the shady patio table and gives us each one. Mine is sweet, pink, and juicy inside its little pouch. Nothing like the ones you buy in packs or cans. The tree, she says, is a Little Lander tree, 77 years old. Like the 77-year-old bougainvillea across the patio, it's still producing. “The Little Landers used to eat from this same tree,” Margaret says. “Even before we entered World War I.”

Margaret Lashlee herself is one of the last connections. It sounds prosaic enough. She is president of the San Ysidro Women’s Club. But that club, one of many that the Little Landers started back in 1909, is the only one to survive.

I ask Joyce why so few people in San Ysidro seem to be even aware of the Little Landers. “The Hispanic people here downplay the Little Landers,” she says, “because basically they weren’t allowed to become a part of it.”

As it happens, Little Landers members amended their bylaws in 1910. They wanted it specifically forbidden to allow “Orientals, Negroes, and Undesirable Aliens” to own property in the colony.

How can you square such utopian ideals with such blatant racism? “I think they were all creatures of their time,” says Joyce. “They were all Midwesterners. They may have felt threatened, living so close to the border. They were uncomfortable with non-Anglos. They felt in competition with them. It’s a pity. My experience of 49 years here in San Ysidro is that we have all gotten along just great.”

Indeed, in the record, William Smythe doesn’t sound racist, although he often harangued his opposition in San Diego for raising “upon every flagstaff the white flag of surrender to the excellent Chinese and the admirable Japanese who have been good enough to come here and raise something for us to eat." And when describing how the colony’s San Diego agent peddled the day’s output from door to door “in competition with Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, and Portuguese,” he smugly relates that “price and quality being equal, the consumer gave preference to the Little Lander with his American citizenship, his education and high ideals.”

Perhaps those bylaws are reason enough for present-day San Ysidro to ignore the Little Landers.

Yet here, up East Park Avenue beyond the library, away from the stream of border traffic, the warmth and neighborliness of William Smythe’s dream remains. This house, the bougainvillea that shades the patio, that fig tree — and Margaret’s position as president of the San Ysidro Women’s Club — all are direct connections with the Little Landers’ time. Something of the dream also survives with them. “Did you know that our thermometer only moves ten degrees, less than anywhere in San Diego County?” says Joyce. “I’ve had only two freezes since I’ve been here — 49 years. I see what attracted the Little Landers. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

But what happened to the Great Experiment? Why are there no more Little Landers? “The river,” says Joyce. “They made one big mistake.”

It’s December 1910. The Little Landers are at one of their heated meetings, changing not only the rules of entry, but also the entire constitution, to give them more power in deciding their own future. After water, the main element missing down here is people, the “right sort” of people. To attract more of them, the 38 pioneer families persuade their new governing body to change Smythe’s rule that a family must buy a lot in town for the home and also a separate lot of farm acreage to grow its products. Now they will allow people who work in San Diego to buy just a town lot to live on.

The flip side of the new rule is that people who just want to farm can buy a “bottom” acre near the river and build their homes on it too. This despite the well-known facts that a flash-flood in 1891 destroyed the little riverside American town of Tia Juana, and another in 1895 was even more disastrous. Was it the vision of money in the new shareholders’ eyes that allowed them to wink at the ban on building in the valley floor?

Other seeds of destruction are being sown. The Mexican Revolution is just breaking out. By 1914, when bandits raid Tecate, killing the postmaster, people are becoming frightened. Especially when the army advises the Little Landers they couldn’t help them and tells the community to organize its own militia.

The very communal nature of the experiment is being challenged by human nature, too. When the 67-household cooperative set up shop at Sixth and C, all should have been to their advantage: there was no middleman; the producers reaped all the profits. But the one element they can’t work out is the variation in the quality of their produce. The vegetables from the fertile bottomlands are better than the vegetables from the mesa land above today’s trolley line. Mesa landowners say they work just as hard to produce their vegetables and want to be paid the same. Then some people complain that a few hard workers were carrying a lot of lazier people, but all were benefiting equally. Families start withdrawing from the community market to sell independently. Even though land ownership had always been private in the colony, one bedrock element of the scheme was the need to act together in the marketing of their products, as a single cooperative. In February 1915, the cooperative breaks down. Suddenly the Little Landers are just another group of small independent farmers. Very small independent farmers.

Then, in the light of bogus land schemes elsewhere in California, the press starts asking questions about Smythe’s motives. A reporter for Country Gentleman magazine describes Smythe not as a prophet, but as just one more slick, profit-minded real estate promoter, out to beguile naive East Coast Americans into laying their money down to try the market-gardening that, it was well known, the “Orientals” could do twice as efficiently.

Then the state commission on land colonization and rural credits label the Little Landers experiment an “object lesson in commercial exploitation of the indigent and ill-informed elderly.”

But the event that does more in two hours to kill the Little Landers colony than any other is the “Hatfield Flood.” In January 1916, soon after rainmakers Paul and Charles Hatfield seed clouds for the San Diego authorities, there is a cloudburst upstream. In the early morning, the Tijuana river is suddenly a roaring crest of brown water. It destroys 25 houses and the pumping plant; 100 families lose their homes and crops and livestock, and Mrs. Max Kastner and her sister-in-law, Anna Kastner, drown as someone tries to evacuate them by boat from their floodplain home.

The first cloudburst is just the beginning of a week of general flooding. The bottomlands, the main productive area, are ripped out of the Little Lander colony.

The spirit seems to be sapped from the Little Landers, too. The continued border violence of the Mexican Revolution exacerbates the mood. Then, the Great War begins involving young American men and creates employment opportunities elsewhere, just as the suburbanization of San Diego reduces the arable land available.

When the great flu epidemic hits, with their best lands compromised, somehow the spirit of the Little Landers disappears. Even the energetic William Smythe leaves his beloved village after the death of his wife. When Little Landers, Incorporated, fails to pay its state franchise tax in 1917, the colony’s town meeting-style government, indeed the colony itself, is dead. “A little land and a living,” it seems, was not enough after all.

Also, by the end of World War I, most Americans can’t be bothered to work intensively by hand on a concentrated acre of crops. By the time the Roaring ’20s are under way, people are caught up in the technological potential of America. They are mobile. They want the latest thing. They don’t want to be stuck hoeing dumb lettuce plants and feeding rabbits 365 days a year. They’ve had 150 years of farming and are fed up with it, no matter how bad the workshop boss may be. America has survived the war well and is ambitious. Weeding plants, whatever the ideal, just isn’t cool anymore.

And yet now, 80 years later, we still haven’t solved the problem of urban living. There are thousands of people without homes or a living; millions more living under stress of jobs with no guarantee or future, and the high cost of living that Smythe’s followers sought to escape is still here. Among the first settlers on colony ground was Professor H. Heath Bawden, a one-time teacher at Vassar. He became a passionate proponent of the whole Little Lander idea. His defense, dated as it is, resonates just as much today, nearly a century later:

People want some SWEETNESS AND LIGHT in their lives! There is a very tangible material demand that is beginning to be made by the millions of men all over our country who are tired of trying to compete with the modern industrial machine in which not only their lives but that of their wives and children are being slowly crushed out or permanently mutilated by unsightly surroundings... And one key to the correction of the great evils of the present period lies in the return to the soil, the return to economic independence, the return to self-supporting homes, the return to healthful sanitary living conditions. This is the Gospel of God’s Greatest Outdoors — the BIG IDEA of the Little Lands!

Driving back down into the river of traffic that is San Ysidro Boulevard, crawling with the northbound cars past the Hotel San Ysidro. I can’t help thinking of Señior Ybarra, taking an arrow, perhaps; of his daughters screaming as they are hauled away to the mountains. I see the Belcher family, their horses tied outside this very building, laughing as they eat breakfast in the big farmhouse kitchen in the back there. I hear William Smythe’s famously resonant voice booming out welcome to the nervous pioneers. I taste again the rich sweetness of Margaret Lashlee’s Little Lander figs, straight off the old tree. Maybe, I think as we finally pick up speed and whiz past his one memorial, Smythe Avenue, the man had a point.

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Little Landers at clubhouse, 1909 (front row: Smythe fourth from left, Hall fifth from left). San Ysidro became one of the birthplaces in California of the initiative and recall rights.
Little Landers at clubhouse, 1909 (front row: Smythe fourth from left, Hall fifth from left). San Ysidro became one of the birthplaces in California of the initiative and recall rights.

“ A commune. Yeah! A commune. The first in San Diego. Probably the first in California. Might have been the first in the world!” This guy beside me at the Don Felix Cafe on San Ysidro Boulevard waxes lyrical. “Just look out that door, buddy,” he says. “Ten yards down the road. To the left. That’s where it all began.”

Half-acre farm at Little Landers, c. 1912. “Handkerchief farming” farmers don’t have to be isolated. They can live and work near each other and near the town.

So, okay, I put my sandwich on hold and get up and look out through the damned door. Then I’m glad I did. Three buildings down I see what looks like an old Midwestern farmhouse with a little veranda and a sign, painted over but still visible.

“Hotel San Ysidro.”

San Ysidro Hotel, 1909. "Speakers stood upon the hotel porch and lighted the fires of social, intellectual, and spiritual aspiration."

It looks familiar.

“That’s where they had a dream, a kind of radical socialist dream, and you know what? For a while it worked. It really worked, big time. For a while they were coming here from all over the world to see if this was the way to go. ‘Every man an acre! Every man a king!’ ”

San Ysidro Hotel, 1994. Well, hotel...more like an old flophouse for poor, elderly gents.

Now I remember. I heard about this thing back in 1987, when I was drinking with my buddy Frank in San Ysidro in the late, lamented Grady’s Keg, which we liked because it was the “last bar in America.” Half the old boys in here had stumbled across the road from the hotel. Well, hotel...more like an old flophouse for poor, elderly gents like Jesus Payan and Jesse Rios, who had spent their lives working in the California fields. Gabriel Avalos, son of a Colima vaquero, who migrated here for the good life and spent his good life working in factories. They took me across the street, showed me their lime-colored, narrow rooms, each old bedroom split in half so the landlord could double the number of elderly workers from the fields and from the Caliente racetrack who stayed there, eking out their days at $140 a month in the place they said you never came out of but on a stretcher.

Little Landers Market, Sixth and C Streets, San Diego, c. 1911. Now the population stood at 116 families, about 300 people, growing and selling through their own Little Landers market.

I remember it now. The building used to be a clapboard house. Dilapidated, but recognizable as a two-story 19th-century farmhouse. The kind that said, “Out of the wilderness we have created order.” This place used to be the Belcher Ranch and before that the Ybarra Rancho. And wasn’t this the ranch where Sr. Ybarra was killed and two of his young daughters were abducted in an Indian raid back in 1873?

Margaret Lashlee pulls a fig off an old tree. “The Little Landers used to eat from this same tree.”

Since I was last here, they have committed the crime of yellow stucco. Aluminum windows. And replaced the white picket fences with ferocious iron grills that look as if they’re there to keep people in as much as to keep the rest of us out.

And yet this farmhouse, I know, was once the center of a movement that, like the guy said, made the name San Ysidro famous throughout the country, the world, and helped mold such visionary programs as the Israeli kibbutz and similar projects as far away as Australia.

Joyce Hettich: “The Hispanic people here downplay the Little Landers, because basically they weren’t allowed to become a part of it.”

And all inspired by San Diego Union journalist William E. Smythe and his friend George P. Hall, the paper’s gardening columnist.

It is January 11,1909. The little train, purchased secondhand from Chicago’s elevated line, has chugged the 14 miles down from San Diego on its way to an overnight rest at the border. It is loaded with curious, gawking people. “San Ysidro! Belcher Ranch! Distribution day for the Little Landers!” announces Mr. Armstrong, the well-loved conductor of this small local line. It pulls up under a stand of eucalyptus trees right in front of the ranchhouse. Tents to shelter the expected overflow have been erected alongside it, and in the background the hills leading to the mesa are as bare as they were when Father Serra came tramping over their crest and as they will be 80 years on, when border patrols will spend their nights chasing would-be immigrants.

A welcoming committee waits on the veranda for everyone to arrive. Forty-seven-year-old William Smythe is at the center. The 69-year-old Hall stands next to him. This is the culmination of dreams that journalist Smythe, also founder of the National Irrigation Congress and renowned orator, has been nurturing since before the century began. A new land rush, but on a miniature scale. A return to the land for the disillusioned industrial masses, but to farm intelligently. Not isolated in lonely farmhouses but in close-knit communities, and near towns, and on small lots.

As he writes in his tract inviting settlers:

The most insistent demand of the people in the United States at the present time is for ownership of a home with freedom from industrial slavery and security against want. Involved in this is a feeling that the cost of living is too high. It is generally conceded that this demand can be met only by systematically planning for added numbers of families to make their livelihood from the soil.

Smythe has been involved in getting people “back to the land” for more than a decade, lecturing to Eastern city families sick of the dirt and the small wages and the struggle. But now here in San Ysidro he promises to answer the prayer of every American family: “A home of our own. A job of our own. A life of our own. A roof from which no landlord can dispossess us and a reliable answer to our prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ ”

He has been inspired to start his community partly by the story of Samuel Cleeks, who tilled one acre of land at Orlando, in the Sacramento Valley, for 30 years, harvested an incredible range of crops, made a good living, and even had a surplus that allowed him to put away several hundred dollars in savings each year.

This, Smythe realizes, goes against the era’s scorn for such “handkerchief farming,” but he is egged on by the fact that handkerchief farming yields one great advantage. Its farmers don’t have to be isolated. They can live and work near each other and near the town. They can throw away the careless soil-wasting techniques of middle America’s mono-crop farmers and scientifically maximize the use of the land to produce crops and make their money by supplying the town with its daily meat, vegetable, and dairy needs. He has invited people to come and learn equality, to pioneer his new concept: “A Little Land and a Living Surely is Better than Desperate Struggle and Wealth possibly.”

The cry is for conditions that will meet the call for freedom, independence, security, fresh air, with some of the advantages of the city. These the Little Landers Colony aims to supply. Intensive cultivation and use of the land makes possible a living from a small area and the small area makes possible an ideal social and intellectual life — the life of God’s out of doors with all the advantages of neighborly contact with others.

Social and intellectual life are to make the difference. To encourage it, settlers must buy two kinds of lots from the 550 acres of Belcher Ranch land he has bought: a residential lot of 50 by 120 feet for $250, and a one-acre farming tract for from $350 to $550, depending on how near the fertile Tijuana riverlands it is. Smythe believes this new micro-farming will require a sophisticated mind, so he intends to add a lively program of philosophy and arts and discussions. It’s a pioneering movement, but a middle-class one.

Today, as the train pulls up at the Belcher Ranch, he’s not surprised to see the numbers. In San Diego’s Garrick Theater, on Fifth Avenue, he has used his acknowledged oratory powers to harangue crowds of Easterners who had come west looking for the illusory “good life” and who were returning east in droves.

This life, Smythe assures the crowds, is just 30 minutes south, in a place called San Ysidro after Visigothic Spain’s saint of small farmers, the one who, whenever he fell asleep at the plow, could always count on a little help from the angels.

So today is the culmination of years of talking and persuading. Today the people will choose the lots where they will make their lives. The new arrivals see that streets and parks have already been delineated by plow furrows, and the town lots and acre lots are marked out by stakes.

“Welcome!” calls Smythe from the veranda, and launches into a speech. “Here in San Ysidro,” he tells them, “we are going to build the future greatness of San Diego upon the everlasting granite of human industry rather than the shifting sands of speculation.... If we succeed in this noble experiment, San Diego should become the capital of an empire of Little Landers!”

As the breezes gently blow the ladies’ long skirts, George Hall promises settlers from the city he will make sure they get expert advice on how to become commercial growers, even if they have never planted a pea in their lives.

“The first colony meeting,” Smythe writes later, “was held in the open air within 30 minutes of the arrival of the pioneer party. Speakers stood upon the hotel porch and lighted the fires of social, intellectual, and spiritual aspiration which have ever since been burning.”

Then comes the moment. People step forward, one by one, and pick a number from a hat. Whoever gets number one gets first choice of property. A builder named J.W. Lewis gets number one. He is already involved; he has the contract to build the first Little Lander house.

For the next several hours, people scurry over the land, deciding which parcel they want to make their lives on. Smythe assures everyone that soon he will have sewage and water lines, a park, and graded dirt roads.

It doesn’t happen quite like that, of course. For a start, the people who have risen to Smythe’s bait tend to be elderly gents who have little cash, have lived their lives in cities, but have childhood dreams of returning to the land. There are some families, but there are also a remarkable number of single women following the spawning women’s movement and setting out on lives of their own. There are also plenty of people who have been given a tiny stipend by a family that wants them “out of their hair,” who need a “cultural environment” where they can feel useful without paying out too much to live.

Despite the motleyness of the crowd, the first year sees remarkable results. The San Ysidro Inn, as Smythe has named the Belcher farmhouse headquarters, becomes the place where people stay while they’re waiting for their own homes to go up. Its dining room is also a place to gather to discuss business, at which all members have speaking and voting rights. The first and third Monday nights are devoted to the often hot discussion of colony affairs. The second and fourth to dancing, singing, philosophy, and political discussions, even Spanish lessons. It all helps seal the cohesiveness of the group. On Sundays there are church services, and on Thursday afternoons a women’s club meets for music, games, and conversation. All part of the Smythe ideal of breaking down social barriers and creating a feeling of equality — heady stuff for 1909. Everyone donates books so a library can be set up. They start a community school and church, all in this busy first year.

But there were problems. The water pump that Smythe had promised wasn’t big enough to irrigate all the lands, especially the ones far from the river. And there were money problems, but Smythe had set up a board of expert farm advisers to help people into successful growing. A truck would pass by each property every morning and pick up vegetables or rabbits they wanted to sell to San Diegans, then the goods would be taken to town and hawked house-to-house.

But by the fall of 1910, the water problems had taken their toll. Of the original 100 families, only 38 remained. The Little Landers Corporation was $14,000 in debt. At the Monday night meetings, the families wanted big changes. Mainly they wanted the corporation, whose management board had paid for the acquisition of the Belcher Ranch lands and made all the big decisions, to be closer to the “real problems” —like water— that were holding the farmers back.

In December 1910, they got their wish. A new San Ysidro-based corporation, Little Landers, Incorporated, was formed. All but the main banker were true tillers of the “Little Lands.” Smythe, now vice president, made things even more democratic by bringing in the radical concept of the New England town meeting, and San Ysidro thus became one of the birthplaces in California of the initiative and recall rights. If you were 21, one of a family owning land in the colony, and paying $1 annual membership, you could participate in the Monday night business meetings and elect or recall officers; very democratic for the time.

Most important, the new corporation got better terms on its mortgage on the Belcher Ranch lands. This cleared the way to form an irrigation district that could finance a decent waterpumping system.

At last Smythe’s handkerchief-farming principles seemed to work — at least for some. A couple of years started producing success stories, recounted in Smythe’s writings and told years later by one-time Little Landers. Mr. L.E. Scott came to San Ysidro at the age of 63 after a life as a journeyman shoemaker in Brockton, Massachusetts. He decided to work only one-sixth of an acre. “Although I stay on the job all day,” he told Smythe, “I do not work half the time, nor do I call it hard work. In fact, I am having the easiest time of my life.”

Scott said that, as for food,

I live very much as I did at the restaurants, boarding houses, and private families where I boarded for many years, except that I eat less meat and more eggs and vegetables. That I am in no danger of starvation will appear when I say that 1 keep in store meat, fish, about all kinds of groceries and other supplies usually found in a family, a good stock of jam and jelly made by myself from my own blackberries and guavas, and my place furnishes a bountiful supply of fresh eggs and vegetables the year round.

I can get in my garden today, March 24th, ten varieties of vegetables, with strawberries and guavas for dessert, peppers for seasoning, horseradish for a relish, parsley to garnish my dishes, and plenty of roses, geraniums, and nasturtiums to decorate the table. I live in a little cabin furnished to suit my needs and prefer it to a palace.

C. J. Young was 65 when he came to San Ysidro with $250 to his name. He had to work part-time as a carpenter while his trees and gardens were becoming productive, but three years later the acre of bottomlands near the river that he had bought were producing richly, he was completely out of debt, and owning property with a market value above $1000. “I consider myself in all essential aspects as well off as the richest man in the United States,” Smythe says he told him:

I cat three meals a day and have a good appetite, whereas the richest man is troubled with indigestion. I sleep well nights; the other fellow has insomnia. I have more hair on the top of my head, all my own, while the other fellow wears a wig. And if that rich man should try to tell me on election day that unless his candidate for president were chosen he would shut down business and starve me to death, I would look at him in the eye and tell him to go to — that is, to emigrate to a warmer climate.

J.M. Mills was 54 when he heard about Smythe’s dream of the “Little Lander, Spiritual Man of the Soil.” He had been a chief accountant at an Omaha packing house. He had seen older colleagues being kicked out to make way for younger, lower-salaried men. He knew his time was coming, so one day in late 1908 he resigned and jumped aboard a train bound for San Diego. According to Smythe, Mills still carried a grievance against his former bosses. “It annoyed him that they didn’t kick him out 15 years earlier. He keeps thinking of where he would be now if he had 15 years of intelligent labor in making a self-supporting home on an acre of land behind, rather than before, him.”

Unlike many of his neighbors, Mills decided not to specialize on a single product like winter vegetables or poultry. (The aim for many was the “$2 hen,” one that would produce $2 worth of eggs and/or meat in a year. They reckoned they could raise 500 hens per half-acre.) Mills chose to diversify, so he always had something ready that the townspeople of San Diego or Tijuana needed. Wrote Smythe:

He frequently serves his friends with a fine dinner, such as would cost at least a dollar and a half a plate at a good restaurant, and then triumphantly announces: “Got everything except coffee and sugar right off this acre, and have never yet had time to get the whole acre into cultivation.” Such a dinner generally includes vegetable soup, capon chicken, all kinds of vegetables and fruits, and winds up with strawberries and cream. By this means, and by the sale of the surplus of his various products, he makes a comfortable living for himself and wife on his acre.

The one man to raise livestock was Philip Sanger, who had helped build the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego before coming down to San Ysidro in 1911. He and his partner raised 2000 goats on the upland pasture next to his tract. He was the first to sell goats’ milk in San Diego, through the Little Landers’ store at Sixth Avenue and C Street. He was still living in the San Diego area in 1959, probably the last surviving Little Lander.

Smythe, in the widespread propaganda he sent around the country, wasn’t so ruthless as to deny that the early years were difficult for all, and many fell by the wayside. From the original sale of 100-odd plots, by 1910 only 38 families were still living in San Ysidro. Partly because they needed to earn money right away, many, especially the single women, commuted to San Diego to work. Much ground, bought by speculators, lay fallow, awaiting buyers.

Still, once Smythe and Hall managed to cure their biggest problem — water — with a new 40-horsepower engine and centrifugal pump to carry subterranean water to a high holding reservoir from which all could draw, the colony started to take off again. At the end of 1911 there were 69 families; 1912 saw construction of 47 new houses. Now the population stood at 116 families, about 300 people, growing and selling through their own Little Landers market.

“After years of struggle we stand on solid ground,” Smythe speechified at a reception celebrating the green light for the new water system:

I predict that on the day the San Diego (Panama-California] Exposition opens its doors we shall present an interesting exhibit of a thousand people living on less than 500 acres with a more intensive cultivation not only of soil, but social, intellectual, and spiritual life than ever known in the history of civilization, and this will be the lasting achievement of San Ysidro. Its real glory will consist in its nation-wide, worldwide influence in behalf of a refined life upon the soil.

His words sound pretentious, but news of the success of the cooperative had indeed spread. In March 1912, the Minister of Lands for Australia’s state of New South Wales, Miel Nielson, made a special trip to see the experiment. He told Smythe he found the colony “the most important demonstration of the life of the people on the soil” that had ever come under his observation:

In the first place, the unit of land ownership adopted here is as sound as it is unique. uSo much land as one individual or family can use to the highest advantage without hiring help — a community without a landlord or a tenant, without an employer or a hired man!” In Australia we have said that “a man should have as much land as he requires for a comfortable living,” but some men seem to think they require a thousand acres for that purpose, and that means servile labor in the bunkhouse. Your rule makes inevitably for a free people.

Not much later, the head of the experimental stations of the Zionist colonies in Palestine, Mr. A. Aaronsohn also came to investigate the Little Landers. He too saw lessons he could use. He told Smythe how “horrified” he was at the general soil waste in America, but by contrast, “In your vision you have foreseen that in the near future these conditions cannot prevail, and you have undertaken to show immediately what the future agricultural generations will have to do.”

By 1915, the year George Hall (then president of Little Landers, Incorporated) died, there were 500 residents. Their gardens flourished, the market in San Diego was doing fine. San Diego had come to regard then* as a permanent piece of the social and economic landscape, especially since their reputation was now international and people were begging for information on how to set up similar colonies.

And yet the Little Landers have disappeared. What happened?

For anyone wandering San Ysidro today searching for signs of the Great Experiment, those signs would be hard to find. The plan of the intimate village surrounded by its fields has been smudged over by decades of border-driven development. In empty lands down by the Tijuana River, a giant eared jackrabbit dashes across the road and into the undergrowth. Could he be a descendant of one of the Belgian hares some of the Little Landers grew for market? In the flatlands below the clusters of factory outlets and condos, a pall of dust rises from the great stretches of vacant, dead-looking earth. It’s a surreal car chase. Two green-and-white Border Patrol cars close in on someone they must think has hopped the border. They screech across what must have been some of the prime “bottom acres” where the most prosperous Little Landers farmed.

Call the owners of the Hotel San Ysidro, to see if we can view the kitchen and dining room where those early meetings of the Little Landers took place. Uh, no. It might disturb the old tenants.

Drive toward the open territory of no-man’s land, above the trolley lines. There on Mesa Avenue we find an old house with a stone chimney and lots of old cars being fixed up in the yard.

Beautiful! I recognize it immediately. It’s the first house built for the Smythe family. They had their housewarming here on the Fourth of July, 1909, even though the home still had only one room, with tents serving as bedrooms and kitchen. All the colonists came and welcomed their community’s First Lady into her new home and new life. Mrs. Smythe responded by starting the Thursday afternoon socials for the San Ysidro wives, a gathering that evolved into the San Ysidro Women’s Club.

Her husband wrote in 1911:

In the big fireplace at one end of the room blaze big logs. There are books aplenty and pictures one loves. There are bunches of holly given us by a child, and the big generous writing table and (blessed thought) time to write. East and north of the bungalow rise the foothills of the Coast Range — a mile and a half south lies Mexico, and, silvering the sunset gleams, the great (Kean sparkles five miles west. Little farms dot the lovely valley. Little acres compose the town.... The kind friend who built this room provided windows north, south and west where we sit and view the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them….

Eighty-five years later, the house has been enlarged but is pretty much the same. The back rooms look similar to the tents they replaced. And there’s still that lovely great cobblestone chimney.

A couple of fairly robust guys come across the road and want to know what we’re doing here. An explanation about the house’s past doesn’t mean anything to them.

We cross the trolley lines down a street called West Park Avenue. It is settled, sylvan, and sleepy — until we have to pull over for another wild Border Patrol chase slamming past us. This is the land, between East Park and West Park Avenues, that Smythe and Hall had dreamed of as the centerpiece of their new town. George Hall bought the strip and donated it as a park, running up either side of today’s San Ysidro Library. This is where the schools and community halls were to be. This is where they eventually built their Redwood Hall, to be their social center. Its two-fireplace chimney had two mottoes inset, one, from Walt Whitman, read, “I loafe and invite my soul.” The other read, “For the dear love of comrades.” Hall even paid for an oversize statue of Ulysses S. Grant for the park, imperiously pointing toward Mexico (he had fought in the Mexican War). The idea was partly patriotic, partly political. The great man’s son was an important member of San Diego society and had just pushed through plans for building the fabulous hotel on Broadway named after his father.

The 10-foot statue stood in the garden of Hall’s house, at 233 West Park, for months, then was eventually erected in the park, but was pulled down during the First World War to give the copper to the war effort.

The house stands today, unchanged. It is owned by the López family. Manuel López invites us in. He was brought up here, went to school here, but says he was taught nothing about the Little Landers or the statue that sat in his garden.

Down at 136 West Olive, another of the Little Landers’ houses survives, pretty much as it must have looked in 1910. Benny Arellano and his family are having a barbecue. No, they have never heard about this Little Lander “commune.”

But it is up on Willow Road that we hit pay dirt, the house of C.J. Young, the carpenter who ended up happy and secure enough in the colony that he was ready to tell every politician “to emigrate to a warmer climate.”

Margaret Lashlee, who now owns Young’s house, and her friend Joyce Hettich, an 88-year-old retired San Ysidro teacher and unofficial local historian, are the people I’ve been looking for: someone to explain what ended the Little Lander experiment.

The house is warm, intimate, caressed by established trees and bougainvillea. Margaret pulls a fig off an old tree. Then another, and another, and another. She comes hack to the shady patio table and gives us each one. Mine is sweet, pink, and juicy inside its little pouch. Nothing like the ones you buy in packs or cans. The tree, she says, is a Little Lander tree, 77 years old. Like the 77-year-old bougainvillea across the patio, it's still producing. “The Little Landers used to eat from this same tree,” Margaret says. “Even before we entered World War I.”

Margaret Lashlee herself is one of the last connections. It sounds prosaic enough. She is president of the San Ysidro Women’s Club. But that club, one of many that the Little Landers started back in 1909, is the only one to survive.

I ask Joyce why so few people in San Ysidro seem to be even aware of the Little Landers. “The Hispanic people here downplay the Little Landers,” she says, “because basically they weren’t allowed to become a part of it.”

As it happens, Little Landers members amended their bylaws in 1910. They wanted it specifically forbidden to allow “Orientals, Negroes, and Undesirable Aliens” to own property in the colony.

How can you square such utopian ideals with such blatant racism? “I think they were all creatures of their time,” says Joyce. “They were all Midwesterners. They may have felt threatened, living so close to the border. They were uncomfortable with non-Anglos. They felt in competition with them. It’s a pity. My experience of 49 years here in San Ysidro is that we have all gotten along just great.”

Indeed, in the record, William Smythe doesn’t sound racist, although he often harangued his opposition in San Diego for raising “upon every flagstaff the white flag of surrender to the excellent Chinese and the admirable Japanese who have been good enough to come here and raise something for us to eat." And when describing how the colony’s San Diego agent peddled the day’s output from door to door “in competition with Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, and Portuguese,” he smugly relates that “price and quality being equal, the consumer gave preference to the Little Lander with his American citizenship, his education and high ideals.”

Perhaps those bylaws are reason enough for present-day San Ysidro to ignore the Little Landers.

Yet here, up East Park Avenue beyond the library, away from the stream of border traffic, the warmth and neighborliness of William Smythe’s dream remains. This house, the bougainvillea that shades the patio, that fig tree — and Margaret’s position as president of the San Ysidro Women’s Club — all are direct connections with the Little Landers’ time. Something of the dream also survives with them. “Did you know that our thermometer only moves ten degrees, less than anywhere in San Diego County?” says Joyce. “I’ve had only two freezes since I’ve been here — 49 years. I see what attracted the Little Landers. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

But what happened to the Great Experiment? Why are there no more Little Landers? “The river,” says Joyce. “They made one big mistake.”

It’s December 1910. The Little Landers are at one of their heated meetings, changing not only the rules of entry, but also the entire constitution, to give them more power in deciding their own future. After water, the main element missing down here is people, the “right sort” of people. To attract more of them, the 38 pioneer families persuade their new governing body to change Smythe’s rule that a family must buy a lot in town for the home and also a separate lot of farm acreage to grow its products. Now they will allow people who work in San Diego to buy just a town lot to live on.

The flip side of the new rule is that people who just want to farm can buy a “bottom” acre near the river and build their homes on it too. This despite the well-known facts that a flash-flood in 1891 destroyed the little riverside American town of Tia Juana, and another in 1895 was even more disastrous. Was it the vision of money in the new shareholders’ eyes that allowed them to wink at the ban on building in the valley floor?

Other seeds of destruction are being sown. The Mexican Revolution is just breaking out. By 1914, when bandits raid Tecate, killing the postmaster, people are becoming frightened. Especially when the army advises the Little Landers they couldn’t help them and tells the community to organize its own militia.

The very communal nature of the experiment is being challenged by human nature, too. When the 67-household cooperative set up shop at Sixth and C, all should have been to their advantage: there was no middleman; the producers reaped all the profits. But the one element they can’t work out is the variation in the quality of their produce. The vegetables from the fertile bottomlands are better than the vegetables from the mesa land above today’s trolley line. Mesa landowners say they work just as hard to produce their vegetables and want to be paid the same. Then some people complain that a few hard workers were carrying a lot of lazier people, but all were benefiting equally. Families start withdrawing from the community market to sell independently. Even though land ownership had always been private in the colony, one bedrock element of the scheme was the need to act together in the marketing of their products, as a single cooperative. In February 1915, the cooperative breaks down. Suddenly the Little Landers are just another group of small independent farmers. Very small independent farmers.

Then, in the light of bogus land schemes elsewhere in California, the press starts asking questions about Smythe’s motives. A reporter for Country Gentleman magazine describes Smythe not as a prophet, but as just one more slick, profit-minded real estate promoter, out to beguile naive East Coast Americans into laying their money down to try the market-gardening that, it was well known, the “Orientals” could do twice as efficiently.

Then the state commission on land colonization and rural credits label the Little Landers experiment an “object lesson in commercial exploitation of the indigent and ill-informed elderly.”

But the event that does more in two hours to kill the Little Landers colony than any other is the “Hatfield Flood.” In January 1916, soon after rainmakers Paul and Charles Hatfield seed clouds for the San Diego authorities, there is a cloudburst upstream. In the early morning, the Tijuana river is suddenly a roaring crest of brown water. It destroys 25 houses and the pumping plant; 100 families lose their homes and crops and livestock, and Mrs. Max Kastner and her sister-in-law, Anna Kastner, drown as someone tries to evacuate them by boat from their floodplain home.

The first cloudburst is just the beginning of a week of general flooding. The bottomlands, the main productive area, are ripped out of the Little Lander colony.

The spirit seems to be sapped from the Little Landers, too. The continued border violence of the Mexican Revolution exacerbates the mood. Then, the Great War begins involving young American men and creates employment opportunities elsewhere, just as the suburbanization of San Diego reduces the arable land available.

When the great flu epidemic hits, with their best lands compromised, somehow the spirit of the Little Landers disappears. Even the energetic William Smythe leaves his beloved village after the death of his wife. When Little Landers, Incorporated, fails to pay its state franchise tax in 1917, the colony’s town meeting-style government, indeed the colony itself, is dead. “A little land and a living,” it seems, was not enough after all.

Also, by the end of World War I, most Americans can’t be bothered to work intensively by hand on a concentrated acre of crops. By the time the Roaring ’20s are under way, people are caught up in the technological potential of America. They are mobile. They want the latest thing. They don’t want to be stuck hoeing dumb lettuce plants and feeding rabbits 365 days a year. They’ve had 150 years of farming and are fed up with it, no matter how bad the workshop boss may be. America has survived the war well and is ambitious. Weeding plants, whatever the ideal, just isn’t cool anymore.

And yet now, 80 years later, we still haven’t solved the problem of urban living. There are thousands of people without homes or a living; millions more living under stress of jobs with no guarantee or future, and the high cost of living that Smythe’s followers sought to escape is still here. Among the first settlers on colony ground was Professor H. Heath Bawden, a one-time teacher at Vassar. He became a passionate proponent of the whole Little Lander idea. His defense, dated as it is, resonates just as much today, nearly a century later:

People want some SWEETNESS AND LIGHT in their lives! There is a very tangible material demand that is beginning to be made by the millions of men all over our country who are tired of trying to compete with the modern industrial machine in which not only their lives but that of their wives and children are being slowly crushed out or permanently mutilated by unsightly surroundings... And one key to the correction of the great evils of the present period lies in the return to the soil, the return to economic independence, the return to self-supporting homes, the return to healthful sanitary living conditions. This is the Gospel of God’s Greatest Outdoors — the BIG IDEA of the Little Lands!

Driving back down into the river of traffic that is San Ysidro Boulevard, crawling with the northbound cars past the Hotel San Ysidro. I can’t help thinking of Señior Ybarra, taking an arrow, perhaps; of his daughters screaming as they are hauled away to the mountains. I see the Belcher family, their horses tied outside this very building, laughing as they eat breakfast in the big farmhouse kitchen in the back there. I hear William Smythe’s famously resonant voice booming out welcome to the nervous pioneers. I taste again the rich sweetness of Margaret Lashlee’s Little Lander figs, straight off the old tree. Maybe, I think as we finally pick up speed and whiz past his one memorial, Smythe Avenue, the man had a point.

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