Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 17, 1999
East Palo Alto's early seeds of utopiaPoultry farmer Charles Weeks envisioned a community based on livestock
by Steve Staiger
California's attraction to utopian communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is evident in the number of California communities and ghost towns with utopian-flavored histories. Point Loma and Anaheim in Southern California, Sonoma County's Fountain Grove and Holy City near Los Gatos all trace their history to the establishment of some form of a utopian vision. Usually in reaction to the growing industrial economy, most of these utopian communities emphasized a self-sustaining, scientific-based agricultural economy for their residents.
In 1916, Charles Weeks established in East Palo Alto his version of utopia with his "one acre and independence" plan for living off the land, by which family farmers could grow and earn enough to support their families.
Weeks was born on an Indiana farm in 1873. In 1904, he came to California and purchased 10 acres in Los Altos. His plan for raising poultry in Los Altos failed because his farm did not have an adequate water supply.
In 1909, he relocated to a five-acre farm on the outskirts of Palo Alto, near Hamilton Avenue and Newell Road. He discovered that chickens could be raised in compact houses without the long chicken runs previously thought necessary. His small farm was extremely successful, attracting visitors who came to study the "Weeks Poultry Method".
One visitor was socialist utopian William E. Smythe, who promoted a vision of independently owned small farm communities. Residents of these communities would work together while sharing facilities, new technologies and marketing efforts. Charles Weeks adopted Smythe's utopian ideals and set about establishing his version of such a community.
In 1916, he began purchasing agricultural land across San Francisquito Creek from his Palo Alto farm. The community, Runnymede, was ideally situated for the utopian plan to succeed. There was an abundant water supply and perhaps some of the finest soil in the entire state. Most important was the community's location near the urban markets of the San Francisco Bay Area. Too many of the other utopian dreamers located their communities far from any sizable market for their products.
Weeks divided his tract into one acre and half-acre parcels, advertising the parcels with the slogan "one acre and independence," which was also the title of his book detailing his poultry method. He believed that 2,500 hens on one acre could yield $5,000 per year net and still leave room for fruit trees, berries and grape vines, as well as a small house. Remember that this was $5,000 per year before the federal income tax.
Weeks was not only a visionary but an entrepreneur. He wrote and spoke extensively to promote his utopian community. As a demonstration project, he established the Charles Weeks Poultry Farm on the property. He also published a monthly magazine called Intensive Little Farms, which was distributed throughout the country, attracting additional buyers.
Initially, Runnymede was quite successful. About 600 acres were developed by Weeks and sold in small parcels. Eventually, 250 families lived and farmed in the community, which stretched from Bay Road to San Francisquito Creek and from Cooley's Landing to Menalto Avenue. Within five years, 1,200 people were living in Runnymede. While the land sold quickly, turnover was high, as new residents found that life in Runnymede was hard work. Many residents stayed and thrived for years, but other parcels remained vacant, owned by real estate speculators instead of farmers.
In the early 1920s, Weeks' interest in Runnymede diminished as he began to promote a new colony, Owensmouth, outside of Los Angeles. By 1923, he was no longer living at Runnymede. His son ran the operation for a while, but in his absence the colony became less stable. The cooperative Runnymede Poultry Farms Inc., which marketed the eggs, went into liquidation. Eventually the local water supply became less reliable as salt water began to contaminate the wells.
In the late 1920s, an epidemic hit the chicken farms, killing most of the cash crop. Many of the remaining farmers turned to other agricultural interests, such as raspberries. With the Great Depression in the 1930s, Weeks lost almost everything. Eventually, he went to Florida, where he grew papayas and raised fishing worms, spending his time skin diving until his death in 1964.
Certain physical evidence remains of Weeks' vision of utopia in East Palo Alto. Essential to his farming plan was an abundant water supply, and there are many remaining tank houses in East Palo Alto that were built by colony farmers to irrigate the crops and supply water to the homes and chicken houses.
But the most distinctive landmark left by Charles Weeks is the layout of the one-acre plots. Because he wanted the parcel owners to feel they were part of a community, with neighbors as close to one another as possible, he lined the streets of Runnymede with long, narrow one-acre parcels whose short sides faced the street. This gave the neighborhood the appearance of a normal suburban development, even though the lots were extremely deep. This appearance can still be seen today on many of East Palo Alto's streets.
Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association writes "A Look Back" once every two months.