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June 17, 2009 > History: 'Little Landers' Colony in Hayward

History: 'Little Landers' Colony in Hayward

By Diane Curry, Curator

A unique subdivision sprang up in the hills above Hayward in 1916. Called "Hayward Heath," this utopian community was one of several experimental colonies conceived by journalist, author, and activist William Ellsworth Smythe in the early 20th century. In the first years of the 1900s, known as the Progressive Era, many people across the country advocated for social, political and economic change. Smythe was one such person who advocated "A Little Land and a Living" as a way to improve people's lives by giving them economic stability. His idea was to create communities where people could support themselves and their families by cultivating an acre of irrigated land. In 1909, he established the first colony not fair from San Diego named San Ysidro. Within a few years, 116 families, about 300 people, settled and achieved modest success in making a living on the colony's 120 acres. The success of San Ysidro led Smythe to establish a second colony, Los Terrenitos, north of Glendale in Los Angeles in 1913 and the first colony in Northern California, Hayward Heath in 1916.

Hayward Heath, possibly named after a village in England noted for its agriculture, was a tract of 2,300 acres just above the current Cal State East Bay. Smythe along with other investors formed the Modern Homestead Association and sold one to five acre plots at Hayward Heath at prices ranging from $325 to $1200. Sixty families took up the offer. As with all the Little Landers colonies, the community was close to a larger town so that the colonists could, in theory, have a market for their goods. The colony was just six miles from greater downtown Hayward, but high up on their hill with rough dirt roads and access to only a few vehicles the colonists must have felt much farther from civilization. One colonist, Mrs. Hartley wrote in her memoir We Were This Way, "I always like to say that as we moved on the hill, the Indians were departing on the other side. On moonlight nights, groups of coyotes held meetings around the yard. Quartets in fine voices provided the entertainment. A howling time was had by all, inside the house and out." The colonists came from all walks of life. Mrs. Hartley said, "When the subdivision was started and the promoters were advertising [the] 'Little Land, Little Living' slogan, young people and old came to try this new way of life." Many like the Hartleys were city folks with little knowledge of how to live off the land, but they were willing to work hard and learn.

The colonists faced some unexpected problems though. In addition to the bad roads was the inadequate water system. Mrs. Hartley said, "The pipes were second-hand and too small from the beginning. The pumps broke down as often as they ran, and always in a summer heat wave, so the people on the hilltops were high and dry. As the lots were sold the system became overloaded and the people suffered." The colony elected their own water agent to maintain and repair the water system as well as to collect fees. They had a variety of agents over the years, but an even, steady flow of water did not come until long after the majority of the residents had moved away.

Another problem for the colonists was the extremely high winds on their hilltop. The land was mostly bare of trees so there was no shield from the wind racing off San Francisco Bay and up the hill. Fierce windstorms wreaked havoc on houses and people alike. Mrs. Hartley describes one incident, "Miss Nichols invested $600 in a cabin on the side hill below us. It was plain clapboard, most unattractive, and the wind kept it aerated in the winter. Well, for $600 you can expect, but not get, a Taj Majal! Included in the price of the cabin was the privy. ....If the wind was just right, Miss Nichols was blown right up and in through the door with no effort on her part. One night the wind did more than that. It blew the privy away with Miss Nichols in it." Miss Nichols survived the incident calling it "'a ghastly and frightful experience.'"

Finally, the colonists had to fight with the bad terrain. Mrs. Hartley commented, "'A little land' was literally true, since 80 percent for the land was rock." Some of the acreage was better than others and different colonist experimented with different ways to make money off their land-chickens, rabbits, pigs, an experimental mushroom farm, fruit and nut trees, and any other type of crop imaginable. Some managed to eke out a living from their land while others had to supplement their incomes with jobs in town. Several men worked at Hunt's Cannery, another man was the headwaiter at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and even Mrs. Hartley's husband Ted worked in heavy construction on projects like the San Mateo, Bay, and Golden Gate bridges to make ends meet.

Even with the hardships that came with the homes they had chosen, a sense of community prevailed. Mrs. Hartley said, "There was something magic about the hilly terrain. Of course, some people left for one reason or another, but others came. They were from all walks of life." All the people she describes seem to be truly unique with little in common with one another other than the desire to make a living off their own land. Still they managed to form a community where most people looked out for one another and helped where they could. They built a schoolhouse for their children that also doubled as the community clubhouse for meetings and social gatherings. They had volunteer firefighters and their own water system. They managed well on their own. The only business in nearby Hayward that interacted with the colonists on their own turf was Holmes Grocery Store who sent a delivery truck up the hill to the colony every Thursday.

The Little Landers experiment, in general, was a failure. All colonies were constructed on bad terrain with poor water capabilities. But more importantly, very few colonists were able to make a decent living off such small acreage. The idea of only owning and cultivating enough land that one person could take care of on their own without hiring assistance seemed like a good idea but in reality just was not economically feasible. Most colonists, including those at Hayward Heath, moved away within a few years seeking other opportunities. Only the Hartley family stayed on their land on Grandview Road long after the Little Landers colony disappeared. Over the years, Mr. Hartley had built an extensive series of outbuildings on their property and fixed up the house. They planted numerous trees to help with the wind and provide shade. They poured a lot of cement to help make their muddy yard navigable during the winter. While Mrs. Hartley spoke periodically of her loneliness on the hill, the antics of her neighbors and family seemed to have kept her happy and entertained. So while this utopian experiment failed for the majority of those who participated, at least one family made their own happy ending.

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