(WVUE) - When the members of a California commune needed a place to start a new colony, they made the unlikely move to western Louisiana. It happened 100 years ago in Vernon Parish, and it was an experiment in socialism that lasted for more than two decades.
It may be one of the more unusual beginnings of any town in Louisiana. Located near the entrance to the Army base at Fork Polk, New Llano got its start in 1917.
"Politics is a whole lot different from what it used to be," said New Llano Mayor Freddie Boswell. "Here in New Llano we're fortunate. We have all nationalities. We probably have more than any other part of the state."
But Boswell thinks most of his 2,800 residents really don't know much about their town's history.
"Now a lot of people say, 'Oh that was communism, that was bad.' But it wasn't," Boswell said.
"The double L is a Y. 'New Yanno,' is the way, but they just refer to it mostly as Yanno," said Martha Palmer.
Palmer is the local expert on the colony of New Llano, having interviewed some of the original settlers. But after a water shortage in California, the communal group bought 20,000 acres in western Louisiana.
"Self-sufficient is what they wanted to be," Palmer said. "Everyone worked, even children."
Palmer has collected some of the hand-crafted items made by the colonists.
"The doll furniture was mine as a little girl here," Palmer said. "The baskets were made here."
"You bought your membership, and then you became an equal owner, so you owned a share of all of the industries, all of the houses and everybody had a job and they produced what they needed," said Mary Ann Fussell.
Fussell runs the New Llano Museum, which tells the story of a town where everyone worked for the common good.
"It's probably the longest-lasting cooperative colony anywhere that was not actually based on religion," she said.
The colonists were eager to spread the word about their cooperative way of life, and they did that by publishing newspapers.
New Llano founder Job Harriman was the first socialist party candidate for vice president in 1900.
"He was running against McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, which he never expected to be able to beat them," Fussell said. "But he did just want to spread the word about socialism."
The colony folded in 1939 with heavy debt, disputes over leadership and the hardships of the Great Depression. Its attempt at utopia lasted 22 years.
"I think it was really exactly what they were looking for," Fussell said. "They had freedom to express themselves and to do really whatever they wanted."
Today, only a few of the colony's buildings remain, their original purpose nearly lost to time. The story of this unusual place is now told through the old photos and displays in the New Llano Museum, which has a video collection of colony members telling their personal stories.