by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When Walter P. Temple announced his Town of Temple project in spring 1923, one of its heavily advertised features was the ability to raise chickens and have garden plots on one-acre lots on the periphery of the community. He was hardly alone in targeting prospective buyers in this way as the booming real estate market in the first years of the Roaring Twenties included such similar developments as Fontana Farms in the Inland Empire and the subject of today’s post, the Runnymede Colony in the western San Fernando Valley.
Runnymede (the word is derived from “mede” for meadow and “runieg” or council island) is a famous locale in Surrey, southwest of London, where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Not quite as well-known was the Runnymede Colony in south-central Kansas, southwest of Topeka and along the Oklahoma border, where an attempt was made to establish a kind of agricultural utopia around 1890.
In 1916, Charles Weeks established a poultry-raising colony, named Runnymede, at Palo Alto, not far from Stanford University, and within several years relocated to the San Fernando Valley, most of which was annexed to the City of Los Angeles just the prior year and which was connected to the Los Angeles Aqueduct when that instrumental enterprise was completed in 1913.
Weeks’ new venture in what was then called Owensmouth (Walter Temple owned property there, as well) and which is now Winnetka followed the model of the Palo Alto development and promoted the idea of independent and profitable farming with support, educational instruction and other aspects provided through his organization.
In August 1922, just prior to Temple’s establishment of his townsite, the Runnymede Poultry and Berry Development Company announced its Runnymede #3 project, with #1 being the Palo Alto forebear of between 200-300 homes and farms returning between $1,000 and $3,000 of net income annually, though a Los Angeles Express article covering the news did not state where the second one was situated. In any case, it was stipulated that there would be 1,000 lots at what was referred to as Encino, which is actually to the south, with a first unit of 160 acres to be developed near the “Los Angeles-San Francisco highway,” that is, Ventura Boulevard, and future expansion assumed. Another unit of about 140 acres was released for sale by the following spring and, by November 1923, there were five units
The operating model was that each resident/farmer would raise poultry and berries, handled by a purchasing and marketing association and saving between 10-30% on supplies acquisitions, and it was added that “in the Runnymede sales plan featuring the Runnymede enterprises, each colonist is assured the minimum expenditure for required supplies and the maximum return for his various products.” It was promised “that a little land, intensively cultivated, will produce a better living than any wage can buy.” There were “specialists [to] advise and direct them,” including J.F. Collins, one of the early Palo Alto colonists and who built some 90% of the homes there. Prices were to range from $2,500 to $10,000, including the construction of a house, with no down payment and terms structures like rent.
For those wanting to see the site, touring car trips from downtown Los Angeles were sent out daily starting at 10 a.m. and color slides and movies were also available for viewing at the downtown office at Hill and 8th streets. An illustrated brochure was also mailed with the sending in of a coupon attached to the advertisements. By spring 1923, Warren C. Daniel was co-owner with F.G. Hoffine and was the general manager at Runnymede and called it “one of the greatest examples of intensive farming the the West” and said the concept “finds its greatest activity where rare combinations of fertile soil, equable climate and highly desirable living conditions make the land of great value.”
In summer 1925, there was a change in that Daniel acquired 200 acres from Emory Brace with frontage along Reseda Boulevard north of Sherman Way, bringing the total of the Runnymede project to 600 with 321 residences housing some 1,700 people completed, and an office was opened in a new business structure at that intersection of Reseda and Sherman. Around this time, the Runnymede Sales Company was established with headquarters at Spring and 6th streets in Los Angeles (it soon moved to the same building where aerial photographer Robert E. Spence was located, across Spring Street and 8th from where Walter Temple invested in two commercial buildings, the Great Republic Life and National City Bank structures.) Finally, the addition to the project was advertised as the “Runnymede Colony De-Luxe” with a soft opening on 26 July.
An ad from the prior day played on the theme of “The Hens That Lay Golden Eggs” and how “our story opens with the paradox of a beautiful Country Valley within the limits of a Great City. Here dwells a colony of people who have discovered How to Live” and free of the fear of unemployment, of economic fluctuations, and of advancing years “creeping on to destroy earning power.” There was no landlord to evict them and “the wolf of hunger never howls there,” with a testimonial from A.C. Lindholm about the net profit of $2.83 for each of his 600 hens, who produced over 95,000 eggs in nine-and-a-half months
As for Daniel, who was assisted by Douglas H. Riker, “an experienced, progressive business man,” he was “the man whose Runnymede Plan has enabled these people to realize the dream of thousands of far-sighted men, a home that is a business, and life close to the bosom of nature,” a veritable early 20th-century version, perhaps, of the Jeffersonian ideal of American farmers, albeit of the micro-farming variety. The foundation, it was added, was “Practical Co-Operation” married to “Absolute Independence”. With “fair intelligence,” and openness to watch and learn, and a modicum of “faithful” diligence, success could be had by the buyer with the proper application of the Plan.
It was noted that with ideal soil for chickens (at a thousand to the acre), abundant “aqueduct water,” residence within the city limits of Los Angeles (the population of which had reportedly doubled in half a decade), proximity to what was called “America’s playground” in terms of recreation, and, most importantly, there were “no swanking [swanky] mansions and sweltering hovels side-by-side,” but, rather, “sturdy, honest homes of a simple, kindly, industrious folk, always ready to lend a hand to aid, or proffer the judicious advice which is the fruit of experience.” A “demonstration acre” was opened off Ventura Boulevard for prospective buyers to see a working model of the idea chicken ranch under the Runnymede concept.
A month later, Riker provided his own sales pitch in the pages of the Express, in which he hammered home the point of “own a business—be your own boss, work for yourself—and you become lifted from the ranks of wage earners to a dais, as it were, where you command respect, a deference and a position in the business world,” in other words, a capitalist, even if on a small scale. Of course, a Runnymeder might get up earlier, go to bed later, and work harder than others “but he is working for himself—the great desideratum of most men—and on that account holds his head a little higher . . . and steps a little livelier.”
In February 1926, an article, presumably paid for by the promoters, in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News boasted that denizens of Runnymede did not have to buy much produce because of the bounty they raised on their “Acre of Happiness,” as one ad put it. It was claimed that there were “crisp green heads” of lettuce, “young asparagus adrip with juices, and chock-full of vitamines [sic],” tomatoes denoted as “love apples,” potatoes the size of walnuts, and peas—all of which constituted “the gifts the gray clouds bring as they pour the elixir of life into the valley dust.”
Today’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is “The Progressive Runnymeder,” an eight-panel pamphlet published on 27 February 1926 and which was loaded with more boosting of the project. One panel proclaimed that “Progress Runnymeders Push Development” through the stories of several residents and their work in raising poultry and rabbits. One, A.K. Forbes was said to be “a well-known culinary expert, formerly connected with the Ambassador Hotel,” which opend in Los Angeles earlier in the Twenties, while J.E. Bauman, who owned five acres, was said to be “one of the outstanding successes in the Colony, which is noteworthy in that he had no previous farming experience.” New water and gas mains were also being installed to allow owners to have “all modern conveniences” in their residences.
Two panels were largely devoted to a testimonial from James Carter, a poultry farm owner of note from St. Louis who said “I’ve made a thorough survey of Runnymede Colony and studied the Runnymede plan. I am amazed at the advantages here . . . I cannot see how conditions could nbe improved for the poultry-producer.” He was quoted as assuing that “from a business standpoint alone the poultryman is assured of a 100 per cent more profit” than would accrue from the business in the midwest.
Another panel contained a statement by Lee W. Miller, president of the Bank of Reseda, who wrote that he sold the first 160-acre unit of Runnymede to Daniel and stated that he had “seen the value of acreage in this colony adance from a few hundred dollars until at the present time acres facing on Ventura Boulevard in Runnymede Colony are worth thousands of dollars.” Miller added “that the new Runnymede Colony De Luxe is located in every way better than the original Runnymede Colony” and that he expected sales and values to continue upward.
Notably, the range of income stated in the pamphlet was from $40 to $400 a month, providing amounts of profit per hen, with as many as 2,500 of them per acre, as well as amounts for rabbits and pigeons. The demonstration acre had 750 White Leghorn hens, 2000 pigeons, 500 rabbits, and 50 capons (a castrated rooster). It was asserted that, with the colony “just one hour from Downtown Los Angeles,” the husband could go in to work every day (via Cahuenga Pass), while “his wife attends to the little farm” and, presumably, the house, as well. Prices were as low as $895, with 20% down and $20 per month, while values of undeveloped land were said to have grown by a quarter a year averaged over a decade. It was reported that one gent almost doubled his investment in two years for his acre.
The three-reel movie, of about an hour’s length, made of the project was said to generate excitement with “a dignified elderly gentleman” quoted as intoning that “there is more real drama in the picture I’ve seen this evening, than in any dollar show running in town!” His wife added that M.C. Summers, the sales manager and a former director a regional poultry producers association, “certainly has the ability to make plain to one the life at Runnymede, and the way in which the colonists there can succeed.”
A panel was devoted to Summers’ folksy style, very similar to the homey pitches proferred by oil speculator C.C. Julian at the same time. Obviously a fan of the American pastime, Summers offered a henhouse full of snappy writing, of which here is a sample:
This is going to bat with you the minute time is called, and I’m not joking when I say it’s putting money in your pockets before you start! Babe Ruth socks the pill for a home, but he’s got to run, hasn’t he? Well, we go to bat with you on our service, and a little running on your part starts you scoring in the first inning, with the pennant just ahead.
I’ve got all the facts and figures on Runnymede, where any hard-hitting fellow can win. Give me a chance to put you next to the low-down on a big league game while there is still some choice acreage. Let’s play ball!
With a delivery like that, how could someone resist? The sales company had branches in Glendale, Hollywood, Huntington Park, Inglewood, Long Beach and San Francisco (the front of “The Progressive Runnymeder” has a stamp from that latter office), but, by the end of the summer, advertisements and articles on the project rather suddenly stopped, though it wasn’t the end of Runnymede.
The Runnymede Finance Corporation, which controlled the entirety of the project, had some grand plans, including “an extension college for the teaching of poultry husbandry” to include instruction facilities and a dormitory for fifty students on the Muller ranch on Reseda Boulevard between Saticoy Street and Roscoe Boulevard, though the institution never got further than the idea stage. In late summer 1929, the firm had $92,000 of permitted building projects, including several poultry houses and a canning plant, in process since the beginning of that year and it was stated that Runnymede was the largest chicken ranch and processing facility on the planet.
The crash of the stock market in New York two months later brought about the Great Depression and suddenly the Runnymede project cratered. By late 1930, the company was in receivership and a deal was made by which J. Hartley Taylor’s milling company too over the operation of the 120-acre ranch. Subsequent investigations, however, revealed (not unlike what happened with Julian and his oil scheme) problems with the operations of the Runnymede Finance Corporation, whose president was Douglas Riker. He and sales manager, William T. Wallace, were indicted by a federal grand jury for defrauding, to the tune of $4 million, some 2,000 investors purchasing stock and units in the firm and who suffered heavy losses when bankruptcy ensued.
After being convicted in spring 1935, Wallace was given three years’ probation after showing that he made modest sums in income and commissions, while Riker was given three years at McNeil’s Island in Puget Sound near Tacoma, Washington (from the hen house to the big house as the Los Angeles Post-Record pithily put it). Ironically, the basic operational plan of the company proved to be workable under Taylor, who turned the Runnymede ranch into a successful business.
Approaching a century since the Runnymede project was launched and with the post-World War II suburban housing boom transforming the area that is now known as Reseda, all that is left of the colony are scattered acre lots and street names, including Runnymede, Ingoman, Strathern, Arminta, Keswick, and others. “The Progressive Runnymeder,” however, is a relic of an interesting element of western San Fernando Valley and greater Los Angeles agricultural and community planning history.