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The King Of California
J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire
By Mark Arax
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J.G. Boswell was the biggest farmer in America. He built a secret empire while thumbing his nose at nature, politicians, labor unions and every journalist who ever tried to lift the veil on the ultimate “factory in the fields.” The King of California is the previously untold account of how a Georgia slave-owning family migrated to California in the early 1920s,drained one of America ‘s biggest lakes in an act of incredible hubris and carved out the richest cotton empire in the world. Indeed, the sophistication of Boswell ‘s agricultural operation -from lab to field to gin — is unrivaled anywhere.
Much more than a business story, this is a sweeping social history that details the saga of cotton growers who were chased from the South by the boll weevil and brought their black farmhands to California. It is a gripping read with cameos by a cast of famous characters, from Cecil B. DeMille to Cesar Chavez.
What the Critics Say About
The King of California
"A passionate, fair-minded, thought-provoking and groundbreaking book" One of the 10 best nonfiction books of the year
—Los Angeles Times
"[A] landmark and entertaining book"
One of the 10 best books of the year
—The San Francisco Chronicle
"A tour de force. . .told with unflinching clarity"
—The Seattle Times
A remarkably detailed and eye-opening portrait"
—The Washington Post
"[A] mediculous narrative"
—The New Yorker
"A rollicking tale. . . Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman have discovered a throwback to the days of robber-baron capitalism. In an alluring and fascinating account. . .they do for agribusiness what A. J. Liebling did over 40 years ago for Earl Long and Louisiana politics"
—Raleigh News & Observer
"Time will show it will be a classic"
(quoting author and historian Kevin Starr)
"As drama, The King of California is positively gripping. The narrative is tight, brilliantly conceived, fast paced and, simply put, nearly impossible to put down"
—Business History Rrview
"For readers seeking a weave od corporate history, family biography and insight into the devil's bargain Americans ahve made with big agriculture, there is no more colorful a tale than The King of California"
—The Chicago Tribune
"Excellent. . .It is perhaps the best treatment of the history and influence of corporate agribusiness on water and labor issues, the environment and how these issues have historically impacted on the Western political landscape since McWilliams' Factories in the Field"
"While this tale is highly readable and entertaining, the authors have left barely a stone untouched in researching their topic. This is at once a work of analytical journalism and exhaustive scholarship"
—San Jose Mercury News
"[A] remarkable story. . .it has that feel of authenticity that only comes with show leather"
"Many stories, all rolled into one epic. . .Written in a lively style that matches the bigger-than-life qualities of its subject"
"I call it the nonfiction Grapes of Wrath"
"Masterful reporting, invigorating narrative, a deep understanding of California and how it works—this is a flat-out wonderful book about growing cotton and making a fortune in the San Joaquin"
"A driving, thumping, lively, smart and savvy revelation of the Wild West empire of cotton—cotton!—in California, of all places. Who knew? Arax and Wartzman have written a powerful book and written it beautifully"
"Money. Politics. Hubris. Murder. This story has it all. And the thing of it is, it's all true. So richly reported. Such masterful storytelling. It kept me up nights. The King of California is epic in scope, a bird's-eye view of one individual's pursuit of the American dream, and the lives and land destroyed in the wake of that quest"
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman
Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without
written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address PublicAffairs, 250 West 57th Street, Suite 1321,
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Book design by Jane Raese Set in 10-point Utopia
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Arax, Mark, 1956–
Wartzman, Rick, 1965–
The king of California: J. G. Boswell and the making of a secret American empire/ Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
1. Boswell, James Griffin. 2. Boswell family. 3. Pioneers—California—San Joaquin Valley—Biography. 4. Cotton farmers—California—San Joaquin Valley—Biography.
5. Businessmen—California—San Joaquin Valley—Biography. 6. San Joaquin Valley (Calif.)—History—20th century. 7. Cotton growing—California—San Joaquin Valley— History—20th century. 8. Agricultural industries—California—San Joaquin Valley— History—20th century. 9. San Joaquin Valley (Calif.)—Economic conditions—20th century. 10. San Joaquin Valley (Calif.)—Biography. I. Wartzman, Rick. II. Title. F868.S173 A73 2003
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Coby, for being a writer's wife.
For Randye, because I love you madly.
What the Critics Say About
The King of California
The Cotton Kingdom
The Little Sahara
The Lake of the Tules
The Little Kingdom of Kings
White Gold, Black Faces
River of Empire
Lobbyists, Politicians, Payola
The View from the Forty-sixth Floor
Death in the Homeland Canal
Mark Arax is an award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Rick Wartzman is the paper's business editor. Arax is the author of In My Father's Name, abut his search to find his father's killers. He lives in Fresno. Wartzman was previously with The Wall Street Journal, where he served as White House correspondent and founding editor of the weekly California section. He lives in Los Angeles.
Never seen no cotton like this here California cotton.
Long fiber, bes' damn cotton I ever seen.
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
We had been chasing Jim Boswell for the better part of two years, trying to find the right words that might persuade him to talk. He was a man who had spent half his life safeguarding the family lore. He had once gone to the unusual lengths of hiring a Hollywood screenwriter to gather the stories of his mother and father and kin way back in Georgia. But the stories, covering a century, never saw the light of day. Boswell took the voices of his southern past and locked them away in the basement of his California headquarters where they had been gathering dust for more than twenty years.
Now, at age seventy-six, he had no reason to break the tradition of secrecy that began with his uncle, Lieutenant Colonel J. G. Boswell, the founder of the company. "The Colonel created a culture around the idea that if you ever talked about it, you'd have to give up the game," one Boswell cousin recalled. At family gatherings, they talked about the virtue of stealth this way: "As long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned."
We tried to convince Boswell that his tale was more than a family tale. We appealed to his sense of history and patrimony, to that piece of the quaint South that still seemed to survive in him, even though he had spent a lifetime conquering the West. None of it worked—not our strokes to his vanity, not the sheer persistence that his friends said would win him over, not even the writer's little extortion: "This book is going to be written without you and the voices of your critics will echo only louder." His response was to slam the door shut. We finally decided to appeal to his mortality, a sales pitch he cut short like this: "You don't seem to understand. It won't bother me in the least if I die and this story is never told."
So it came as some surprise when one day we found ourselves sitting right beside him in a beat-up Chevy truck, his hand with the missing fingers guiding the wheel, barreling straight into the forgotten middle of California. We had met him that morning—"Be here at 5:30 and don't forget your pencils to take down all my lies"—in the small farm town of Corcoran, where his land and memories crisscrossed in the clay bottoms of an old lake. It sat in the county of Kings on the western flank of the San Joaquin Valley, a land pinched by mountains and rolled out flat and never ending. We drove for miles and miles across immaculate fields where he had hunted Indian arrowheads as a kid, and then he mercifully stopped to let us take a stretch. We had come to rest on a giant earthen levee, a feat of engineering akin to something in Holland, and he stood on the dusty dike and gazed out across the empire he had snatched from a great inland sea.
It was late winter, a few weeks before planting, and everything before him was open earth. Mammoth machines clawed and leveled the land, and crop dusters with their jet engines wide open plowed through the sky. Every square and treeless stretch of it was his, but even as he stood in the bright sunlight, it was hard reading pride in his face. He had a way of keeping even longtime friends and his children guessing, something always held back in the pale blue eyes and thin-lipped smile. The same Boswell face stared out from the portraits of his Scottish forebears, slaveholders and gentlemen farmers who had been chased out of Georgia by the boll weevil in the 1920s and grafted a piece of their cotton plantation onto this immense land. They had brought the South—its mint juleps, its chow chow relish, its tarpaper cotton picker shacks—out West.
He wore a Cal Poly Ag cap tucked low, khaki pants, a flannel shirt and Rockport shoes, not exactly the slops of a farmer about to get dirty with his land and not exactly the outfit of the absentee corporate landlord that his critics accused him of being. His voice, like the irrigated fields that ran past him to the horizon, hardly rose or fell an inch. And yet he had made it perfectly clear since the first cup of coffee that morning that he didn't appreciate our line of questions, didn't enjoy this exercise of show-and-tell. He was here under protest, agreeing to talk only after we let it drop that the old-timers of Corcoran were portraying his long dead father as the town drunk, a man who could pound nine straight beers without going to the bathroom and still had more sense besotted than a lot of guys do cold sober. Keeping us straight with certain facts about his father—his drunkenness was explained away by family members as a means of numbing "the misery of hemorrhoids"—was one thing. Entertaining questions about the size of his farming operation and wealth was quite another.
"What are you, a tax collector?" he said, shooting down our question of how much land he really owned. In a tone of half-lecture, he explained, "I abhor the word 'empire.' It's a word for nations, for civilizations. Why do you guys have to get into this whole damn 'big' thing anyway?"
At some point that afternoon it occurred to us that we had traveled half a day, a distance of some 150 miles, and we had never left his farm. Our route, a slight zigzag across the old lake bottom, took in but half of it. We visited the first cotton patch of his father and uncle and the farm where his brother, Billy, an even harder drinker than his dad, died before his time. We passed the long-gone tent cities of black sharecroppers from Oklahoma and Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi who had migrated not north to Chicago or Detroit in the 1940s but followed the cotton trail west to the gut of California. We crossed the levees built by the boom-and-bust pioneers through eighty years of reclamation and flood, each dike a little higher than the next to keep the floodwaters on their neighbor's land. And then we passed the faded camps of Mexican migrants and white Dust Bowlers who journeyed to the San Joaquin Valley for no better reason than they knew how to chop and pick cotton. Each turn of land raised another ghost.
"That was all Rowan, and right behind it was Flynn. Just to the north of it was Chatom. And north of that was Schwartz," he said, rattling off the old farmers and the giant sections of land named for them. He pointed to a Boswell crew raising the levee along the left bank of the Tule River. "Now if you still had all the original owners over on the right side, they'd be panicking today to see us building up that levee."
"Why? Because when the big flood hits, the water's gonna come their way?"
"That's right," Boswell said.
"So why isn't anyone panicking now?"
"We own it all."
We had driven the equivalent of Washington to Philadelphia, though it seemed pointless to measure it that way, and nearly every road, field and irrigation canal belonged to Boswell, and every worker we passed and waved to was his worker and every truck, tractor and leveler for which he politely moved to the side of the road bore the same diamond-B logo. The goofy grin on a few of their faces made you wonder if they even knew who the old guy waving at them was.
He was the biggest farmer in America and the last land baron of California, and he saw no good in playing it up. His 200,000 acres in the middle of the state, just part of his domain, may have ranked as one of the biggest land grabs in the modern West but, to hear him tell it, the product of guile and vision it was not. A chance encounter here and a little seller's desperation there and, presto, tens of thousands of acres just fell into his lap. The fact that he had built the most highly industrialized cotton operation in the world and had grown more irrigated wheat, safflower and seed alfalfa than any single farmer in the country and was aiming to do the same with onions and tomatoes, well, the fewer people who knew about that, the better. It was not by accident that Boswell had changed a 200-year-old American institution, altered the way cotton was grown, picked, ginned and marketed, and hardly anyone outside Kings County knew his name.
James Griffin Boswell II—"Call me Jim"—had taken a cue from his uncle, the family patriarch, who founded the company from the back of a jitney in 1921 and then married into one of California's most powerful and polished clans, the Chandlers of Los Angeles. Colonel Boswell was a little martinet of a boss who liked to tease his wife, the willful Ruth Chandler, that the men in her family—land developers and publishers of the Los Angeles Times—were soft and weak and not half the man he was. The Colonel had no children by Ruth or his first wife, a beautiful and brooding poet who died young, but on long voyages to sell Boswell cotton across the world he groomed his nephew and namesake in the wisdom of lying low.
The Boswell empire was a secret empire that stretched over the years from the middle of California to Arizona to Oregon to Colorado to the outback of Australia, where Jim Boswell had taken his uncle's pioneering spirit and built a world-class cotton industry from scratch. The no-man's-land he inhabited in the San Joaquin Valley, reaching across Kings, Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, was a forbidding place—howling desert one day, stinking marsh the next—but it had submitted long ago to his will. The basin had served as a receptacle for three great migrations of workers. The black and white Okies fleeing the sharecropper system were preceded and followed by even bigger and more sustained waves of migrants from Mexico. Each group of workers huddled in the basin's plywood shantytowns, and the growers turned back every union's attempt to organize them. After calming labor for good in the 1950s, in part by treating his workers better than any other grower, Jim Boswell went about creating a marvel of science and automation, hiring top graduates from the best agricultural colleges in the West.
His biotech labs minted new brands of seeds. His precision gins, every bit the industrial wonder of Boeing or U.S. Steel, punched out 400 bales a day of the finest cotton—enough fiber to make 840,000 pairs of boxer shorts. Towels by Fieldcrest, turtlenecks by L.L. Bean and underwear by Jockey began in these fields. He saw to it that nothing went to waste. The oil milked from the leftover seeds went to Wesson and Frito-Lay. Even when he could squeeze no more out of his fields in Arizona, he still turned them into gold, helping build the first big retirement community in the country, Sun City. The extent of his wealth was a matter of mystery, in part because he lived without ornamentation. By some estimates, his water rights alone were worth billions of dollars, a stockpile eyed with greed on the other side of the mountain by a Los Angeles still hell-bent on expansion.
Few of his contemporaries had ever challenged him. On one of the rare times he was sued by fellow farmers and made to answer questions from a hostile lawyer, he seemed to regard the entire proceeding as a joke. He opened his testimony by wisecracking that he was a cowboy—and he had the missing fingers to prove it.
While he liked to play up a rough-grained image, Boswell was a Stanford University graduate who swapped ideas with the erudite at the Aspen Institute, partied with the elite at Bohemian Grove and counted Arnold Palmer as his golf partner. During one round in Australia, Palmer watched a frustrated Boswell hack his way through the first six holes. On the seventh hole, Palmer couldn't resist offering his friend a bit of straightening out.
"Jim, if you move your right hand up a little bit. . . ."
This was Boswell's bad hand. "Palmer," he said, "when I want your advice, I'll ask for it. You play your game. I'll play mine."
When it came time to protect his water rights, he assembled one of the most effective lobbies either the state legislature in Sacramento or the U.S. Congress had ever seen. His boys unseated a congressman who didn't quite see the regulation of big farms his way, and they persuaded the secretary of the interior to tear out the teeth of an eighty-year-old federal reclamation law, all in the name of keeping Boswell territory in one piece.
For fifteen years, Boswell served on the board of General Electric, where Chairman Reg Jones and then Jack Welch came to count on him to provide a view different from that of his more button-down peers. Boswell could dissect a balance sheet with the best of them, but his real value to GE was that he came at problems from the vantage of a man out of the old West. "A shooter, a fisherman, a hiker of trails, a strategist and long-term planner" in the words of Jones. "A very independent, outside-the-mold thinker," Welch said. "Just a maverick sort of guy."
If Jim Boswell had built the quintessential "factory in the fields," it bore no resemblance in his mind to the villainy drawn by writers Frank Norris, Carey McWilliams or John Steinbeck, whose narratives of social injustice and corporate farming all met in the lake bottom. Like his uncle, Boswell had left Corcoran early on and ran things from afar. He chose to live and work in Los Angeles, Arizona, and Idaho, and his style was to give plenty of rope to his top managers and show his face maybe five times a year, shooting in on the company jet. Still, Corcoran was home, the place where his mother and father and brother were buried. The community of 10,000 billed itself as the "Farming Capital of California," though on the outskirts of town one old cotton field had given rise to the deadliest prison in America, a 6,000-bed lockup where guards in high-tech booths shot and killed inmates for fist fighting, the same place that Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, and Juan Corona also called home. During picking time, the cotton clung to the prison's razor wire, chinaberry trees, tumbleweeds, oleanders and telephone wires, and it snagged on railroad tracks and old ladies' hair and floated like gossamer through the thick air and hung like wet socks after a hard rain. Months later, cotton was still blowing, dirty little balls clumped at the side of Highway 43. Cotton here. Cotton everywhere.
That first day with Boswell, we took care to steer clear of subjects that might displease him and put a stop to our conversation right there. The idea of dealing with reporters struck him as so needless and foreign that when you called company headquarters, there was no PR flack to answer even the most basic question. If they were lucky, reporters might be referred to corporate counsel Ed Giermann, a man so dyspeptic that he returned maybe one out of ten calls, and then only to say, with an unmistakable glee, that the company's comment was "No comment."
That morning, looking for ways to break the ice, we mentioned to Boswell how cotton debris from past harvests adorned the drive into town. The bits of white stuff on the side of the road hardly seemed a blight on Corcoran. This was, after all, a place that announced itself to the world with a skyline of grain silos five stories tall and countless metal farm shops, all in shades of industrial gray. Boswell, though, took offense. Leftover cotton, whether it belonged to him or some other ginner, messed with his notion of cleanliness. His crews took care to rake, sweep and pile all errant cotton in the fields and ginning yards, making bales out of detritus. No fiber, he assured us, had blown into town or been lost on the drive to market.
"Now cleanliness is the main thing. Our philosophy is that it's easier to keep something clean than it is to keep it dirty. . . We're not farmers. We're implementers. And nobody can implement better than we can."
The giant levee where we had come to rest that afternoon cut across the confluence of three of the four rivers that met on his land. So complete was nature's bending that the absurdity of where he was standing, smack dab in the bottom of a lake, or rather what was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, no longer struck him. He and a handful of farmers before him had sucked Tulare Lake dry and made its rivers run backward. No landscape in America—not the cotton South, not the grain belt of the Midwest, not the cane fields of Florida—had been more altered by the hand of agriculture. It was a landscape every bit as engineered as the Mississippi Valley, and far more intensively cultivated. The scale was so unheard of that they had to invent their own one-of-a-kind machines, monster "moon buggies," to suck water out of canals and hurl it across the fields.
- On Sale
- Feb 16, 2005
- Page Count
- 240 pages