The “Little-Landers” of San Ysidro

“A little land and a living, surely, is better than a desperate struggle and wealth, possibly.” So said William Ellworth Smythe, using the phrase of Bolton Hall, whose and Three Acres and Liberty and A Little Land and a Living were among the basic works of the back to the land movement. Hall was a single-tax advocate and anarchist, friend and supporter of Emma Goldman, etc. His Free Acres community was one of the single tax enclaves, which attempted a non-state form of Georgism. He was also a promoter of intensive, small-lot farming practices. Smythe followed Hall in some aspects of his radicalism, and admired him enough that the meeting house at one of the “Little Lander” colonies was named Bolton Hall, in an odd double-reference to the reformer and the more famous building. The article that follows is an introduction to the Little Landers, from The World’s Work, XXIII, 1 (November, 1911), 96-100.





FOURTEEN miles south of San Diego. Cal., so close to the Mexican boundary line that bullets from the rifles of the opposing forces fell within the village limits during the battle of Tia Juana, in May, is the little town of San Ysidro, more commonly known as the home of the “Little Landers.” It is a “back to the farm” experiment, adapted to the wants of people of limited means. It is hoped eventually to adapt it to the needs of people of no means at all.

The Little Landers wish to show to families with little money and with little or no farming experience just how they can get to the land without danger of going from bad to worse. The corporation owns about 400 acres, all of which will be sold to persons desirous of engaging in truck farming, flower gardening, poultry raising, and other occupations adapted to just a little land. The price is high, judged by land values in many Eastern communities, being from $300 to $400 per acre. There are now forty families in the colony, with a total membership of 140. The smallest farm consists of a quarter of an acre, and the largest of seven acres, the average being two-and-a-quarter acres. From the experience so far gained, most of the colonists now think that one, two, or three acres (depending upon the size of the family) is sufficient. The ideal is just as much land as the family can bring under the highest cultivation without hiring help.

The problem of acquiring land is simplified by the smallness of the acreage required, and also by the fact that only part of the purchase price need be paid in cash. The balance can be made up largely from the colonist’s earnings. The profits accruing to the corporation are used for public improvements, which otherwise would have to he provided for by taxation. To build a home adapted to the kindly climate of southern California costs very little. The dwellings of some of the Little Landers cost no more than $100. Some, whether from choice or from necessity, live in tents, the cost of which was insignificant.

Similarly there is no need for a large investment in live stock and farm machinery. The live stock is limited to poultry and a cow or a pig or perhaps both. The requisite implements are no more than a spade, a hoe, a garden rake, and a few other inexpensive tools. In the purchase of supplies and the marketing of surplus products, the cooperation of the colonists eliminates the middleman, with his sometimes exorbitant profits, and invariably disproportionate expenses. Even inexperience constitutes no bar to success. The president, the secretary, and other officers of the colony are experienced in all the mysteries of poultry raising and vegetable culture, and count it a pleasure as well as a duty to impart instruction to new arrivals. At the weekly meetings of the colonists, practical questions of any kind may be asked; and the knowledge and experience of all is at the command of each individual.

The Little Landers have steered clear of communal ownership and other fads that have wrecked so many experiments at social betterment. Every man owns his own house, which may be as humble or as pretentious as his means and his inclination direct. Every man owns his own land, plants upon it whatever he pleases, and cultivates it according to his knowledge and ability. There are no restrictions upon the sale or the disposition of property.

Some of the Little Landers have been at San Ysidro for two years, and others for shorter periods. Some families have just arrived. All that have been established for six months or more are making a living, and most of them a better living than many a farmer of the East and Middle West with 160 acres of land or twice that. It is unfortunate that no one in the colony has kept an exact account of receipts and expenditures. “We made a living, paid for our improvements, and have money in the hank,” is the usual reply to a request for a statement of the profits on a year’s labor. That is satisfactory to them, hut not to the searcher after exact information. Each family strives to raise its own food supplies, with the exception of wheat, sugar, and spices. Grain is purchased for feeding to poultry and live stock. Supplies of this kind are bought cooperatively, in car load lots, at minimum prices. For all surplus food supplies grown by the colonists there is a ready market in San Diego. In the early days of the colony, eggs, poultry, vegetables, and other products were sent to commission houses in San Diego for marketing. It was found that sometimes the colonists received thirty-five per cent. of the retail prices, sometimes twenty-five per cent. and sometimes as low as ten per cent. Then a horse and wagon were bought, and a man was hired to sell the products of the colony direct to the consumers. When this plan was put into practice, the net returns to the colonists averaged seventy-five per cent, of the retail prices.

In all this, the one important point is that the Little Landers are making a living, and a little more. It seems evident that what these forty families are doing at San Ysidro millions of families can do in America. There are exceptional people among them: but the most of them are average Americans, driven by ill health, or by advancing years, or by financial reverses, back to the warm bosom of Mother Earth.

Furthermore, each Little Lander is his own boss. He reads of the high cost of living, the encroachments of predatory wealth, tariff agitation, and other issues that are vital to nine tenths of the people of America with comparative indifference, and with growing wonder that his fellow citizens of the republic do not follow the path he has helped to blaze to industrial independence. Every Little Lander has a job, and no man living has power to discharge him, even in times of financial panic and industrial calamity. In the whole community there is not a landlord or a tenant, an employer or a hired man.

The majority of the Little Landers live in the village of San Ysidro, raise vegetables, flowers, and poultry upon their lots, and cultivate whatever crops they desire upon their acres, located within easy walking distance. Others have built their homes upon their acres. In either case, the distance to the social centre of the community is so short that all enjoy the advantages of both town and country, with the inconveniences of neither. The deadly isolation of the farm is banished; but the delights of living close to nature, in the open air and sunshine, are preserved.

They have adopted the initiative, referendum, and recall. An irrigation district has been organized in accordance with the laws of the state; and bonds to the amount of $25,000 will be sold to provide an adequate water supply, as the community grows in population. A very ambitious park system has been laid out. In fact, even now, although the village is only two years old, the park is a marvel of floral wealth and beauty, owing to the labors of George P. Hall, President of the Little Landers, and formerly President of the California State Horticultural Society, in the park is the club house and assembly room, with library, reading room, and general loafing place. Every Monday evening there is a meeting for the discussion of topics of interest to the colonists. Questions are asked and answered, experiences with crops and poultry are related; and reports are rendered by officers and committees. Then there are songs and stories, a discussion of current events, and a lecture upon some educational theme. On Sundays, Rev. Josiah Poeton, Secretary and Manager. preaches a non-sectarian sermon. He is a Congregational minister. He was driven by a nervous breakdown from his flock in old Vermont. The community of Little Landers at San Ysidro was founded by Mr. William E. Smythe, the well-known author and journalist.

Prof. H. Heath Bawden, formerly of Vassar College, who is one of the colonists, is working to show the possibilities that lie unsuspected and undeveloped in an acre of land. He aims to develop a one- acre garden to the utmost possible limit of productivity. He is studying the requirements of each of the important garden vegetables in the way of light, heat, moisture, and chemical constituents of the soil. He aims at vegetable perfection, and thinks it practicable to produce better vegetables and more of them than any one has ever produced before. When he has finished his experiments he will, as far as possible, reduce the practice of the Little Landers to a series of mathematical formulæ, so that any one may know just what and how to grow the best vegetables in the largest possible quantities.

Such colonies may be multiplied indefinitely, provided only that they are established within easy reach of large cities, where a practically unlimited market may be had for fresh vegetables and fruits, poultry products, and other food supplies that can be profitably grown by hand labor upon small tracts of land. The advantage to the cities and to the colonists will be reciprocal. The people of the cities will get fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and poultry at reasonable prices, and the colonists will enjoy the advantage of a steady market, at fair prices, for everything they can produce.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.