The King of California

This story is taken from Sacbee / Opinion

The King of California
Special To The Bee
Published Sunday, Apr. 12, 2009

He was the biggest farmer in America and the last of California's great land barons, a man who had drained an inland sea and made the rivers run backward as he carved out the richest cotton patch in the world.

How his family had brought their Southern plantation to a corner of the West in the 1920s was a story of astonishing vision and will and the flouting of nature, not to mention a parade of hubris. Yet J.G. Boswell was quite determined to die without ever telling it.

"You don't get it, do you?" he snarled at me during a phone call in 1999 to discuss the idea of a book about him. "I don't give a damn about my legacy."

He died April 3 at the age of 86, still clutching the notion that he could take a $10 million cotton subsidy check from Uncle Sam and remain a rugged individualist, that he could amass a 200,000-acre farm in the middle of California and "own" 15 percent of the Kings River, and still righteously bristle at the suggestion that he had built an "empire."

"What are you, a tax collector? I abhor the word 'empire.' It's a word for nations, for civilizations. Why do you have to get into this whole damn 'big' thing anyway?"

Boswell had built the most highly industrialized cotton operation in the world and grew more irrigated wheat, safflower and seed alfalfa than any single farmer in the country. Now he was aiming to do the same with onions and tomatoes. Though he would deny it, he dictated California water politics in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. I was drawn to his story for the simple reason that he had created the quintessential "factory in the field," from laser-leveled earth to gleaming gins to labs that minted new varieties of seeds – all of it rising out of the bottom of what was once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.

I was born in Fresno and spent years as a journalist poking into the crannies of the San Joaquin Valley, but I had never glimpsed Tulare Lake, at least not with water in it. Dams thwarted the four rivers that fed into the basin. The rivers were no longer rivers but rather precise bands of irrigation water. Along their straitjacketed banks, Boswell had planted massive pumps to make sure that no water flowed where he didn't want it to flow. Even so, once every decade, and sometimes more often, when a heavy winter gave way to a hot spring, the snowmelt would shoot down from the Sierra and push past the contrivances of even Boswell. Near his hometown of Corcoran, a remnant of the old Yokut lake would come back to life.

In the flood years of 1997 and 1998, I drove for miles and miles across a flat expanse of Kings County, past vineyards and almond orchards, past dairies and alfalfa fields, until the road suddenly quit at the base of a huge earthen wall. It was a dike not unlike the dikes of Holland. The air filled with the faint smell and sound of ocean. Climbing atop the muddy embankment, gaping at the lake's big belly, I felt lost for a moment, dizzy with vertigo. Was this the heart of California cotton country or the New Jersey shore? The lake was brown in parts and pure blue in others, and the speed with which nature had found its old self was a wonder to behold. The sun glinted off flocks of mud hens, pintail and mallard ducks, giant blue and white herons and pelicans scooping up catfish.

On the drive home, I wondered what kind of dreamer would pick such a spot after watching the boll weevil devour his family's cotton fields back in Georgia. Was God's 100-year-flood, which arrived each decade, a lesser wrath than pest?

The dreamer in question was a wildcatter named J.G. Boswell, one more Southerner who had landed West wearing the title "Colonel." He was the uncle who founded the company in 1921 and insisted on a culture of stealth: "As long as the whale never surfaces," the family motto went, "it is never harpooned."

The colonel married Ruth Chandler, the disobedient daughter of California's most powerful clan, but they had no children. So when it came time to turn over the Corcoran fields and gins – and all the water rights he had collected with them – he handed over the keys to his nephew and namesake, J.G. Boswell II ("Call me Jim"), fresh from Stanford University. To prove his mettle, the kid promptly got into a cattle roping accident on the family spread in Arizona and lost the two middle fingers on his right hand.

For the rest of his life, Jim Boswell enjoyed "flipping the bird" by implication, making his enemies (tree huggers, union pinkos, journalists) guess what gesture he was intending with the upward thrust of his hand.

He was 76 years old but still running the show when I first appealed to his sense of history, and then vanity, in the hope that he might talk to me and my co-author Rick Wartzman. Boswell was living in Ketchum, Idaho, but flying into Corcoran on a regular basis to oversee an operation that punched out 146,000 bales of the finest cotton a year – enough fiber to make 840,000 pairs of boxer shorts every day. For two years, he wanted no part of our book. Then during one phone conversation, I let it slip that the old-timers of Corcoran were portraying his father as the town drunk.

"My dad had a problem, that's true, but you'd be wrong to reduce him to some stumbling drunk."

So as a way to keep us straight with certain facts, he invited us out for a tour of the land where he hunted Yokut arrowheads as a kid. We piled into a beat-up Chevy truck and barreled into an immense engineered landscape where the earth hardly rose or fell an inch as it rolled out – the secret heart of California.

At some point, it occurred to us that we had traveled half a day, a distance of some 150 miles, and never left his farm. Nearly every road, field and irrigation canal belonged to Boswell and every worker we passed and he waved to was a Boswell worker, and every truck, tractor and leveler for which he politely moved to the side of the road bore the same diamond-B logo.

To hear him tell it, he had more than doubled the size of his uncle's company through a series of chance encounters with desperate sellers. He went looking for none of it.

"I'm the bad guy in agriculture because I'm big," he explained. "And I'm not going to try and fight it. I can't change an image and say, 'Well, I'm righteous and good and all that.' But I'm telling you, I'm proud of what we've built."

No one paid farmworkers a better wage, and several of his top men, experts in agronomy and hydrology, had become millionaires. Like the boss, they weren't showy. But because Boswell had swallowed up all but a handful of competitors, Corcoran had the feel of a stunted company town. He tried to right things with his considerable philanthropy, but it wasn't enough to close the gap between rich and poor. A community of big farms simply didn't spread the wealth like a community of smaller ones.

He understood where our book was headed, the contradictions that defined him as well as his empire. Yet once he agreed to cooperate, he never broke his word to meet us again and again on the land. One afternoon, to our surprise, he even landed us an interview with Fred Salyer, his main rival in the lake bottom for more than half a century, whose family was even more contemptuous of the press than the Boswells.

I'll never forget the encounter. It took place in a small office next to Salyer's airplane hangar, all that was left of the Salyer empire after Boswell had bought him out. Fred Salyer sat silent for several minutes and then began to narrate a tale of how his father, Clarence "Cockeye" Salyer, had been the gunman in one of the most infamous unsolved murders in California history, the shooting death of a cotton striker in Pixley in fall 1933. Cockeye had asked his son to light up the coal forge and melt the gun so no cop could ever trace it. The son followed orders, and Cockeye got away with murder. But the son had kept the forge all these years so he might one day donate it to the local museum.

Boswell did extract one promise from us – that we would show him the manuscript before turning it in to our publisher. This way, he might correct any wrong dates and other missed facts. I remember arriving at his Corcoran cabana after he had read the manuscript – not once but twice. I walked in and there sat the pages on the breakfast table, full of yellow Post-its. We went through them one by one. He didn't like the way we had portrayed his power when it came to defeating the peripheral canal in the early 1980s and other water issues; he didn't like that we had documented a feud between him and his son, who had told us his father would never hand over the reins until the day he died; he didn't like it that we had given so much attention to the plight of the black Okies, who had come West to follow the cotton trail. In each instance, I told him these weren't changes we could make.

"Well then," he said. "This title. 'The King of California.' It's a deal breaker. If it sticks, I'll never talk to you again."

"It's a helluva title, Jim," I replied. "What would you suggest to replace it?"

"How about 'A King of California?' "

"A king? Who in the heck is going to read that?"

"Well then," he said, pondering. "How about 'The King of Kings?' "

"Jim," I said, trying not to chuckle. "I think that one's been taken."

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Mark Arax, a staff member of the California Senate majority, is a co-author of "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire." He is the author of a new book, "West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State."