The King is dead; long live the King

The shore lines of Tulare Lake changed and shifted a great deal. If a strong wind came from the north, as it often did, the water would move several miles south, and would move again when the wind changed. Then, when the water level in the lake change, both the lea and windward shore lines shifted long distances. At some point it was possible to wade out into the lake as far as a mile and find the water below our knees. This made it impossible for the Indians to stay in one place permanently and they could roll up their light houses and load them on tule rafts and move in a few hours.
While we were at the lake I noticed one or two houses that have ever since been more or less of a puzzle to me. They were built in the standing tules, and seemed to be woven from the living tules as they stood in place. They were dome-shaped and about ten feet in diameter. I never saw any more of them and I have never since met anyone who had seen one of them. As I remember then, the tules appeared to have been cut away inside the house, but no excavation had been made as was made for the willow houses upstream...Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, Indian Summer: Traditional Life among the Choinumne Indians of California's San Joaquin Valley, Heyday Books, 1993 (Mayfield describing Tulare Lake in the late 1850s.)

...the 20,000 acres in Arizona that he sold in the late 1950s to the Del Webb Development Company. Those 20,000 acres were transformed, with Mr. Boswell as a development partner, into Sun City, one of the nation’s first retirement communities.
“It speaks to his incredible business sense that when his Arizona land was no longer good for growing cotton he was savvy enough to grow houses,” Rick Wartzman, the director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., said Tuesday in an interview. Mr. Wartzman, a former business editor at The Los Angeles Times, is the author, with Mark Arax, of “The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire” (PublicAffairs, 2003)...New York Times, 4-9-09

Some in Phoenix have wondered about the water quality beneath Sun City, but it has a fine hospital named for J. G. Boswell --ed.
Badlands Journal editorial board
New York Times
James G. Boswell II, 86, Owner of Cotton Empire, Dies at 86
James G. Boswell II, who inherited a huge expanse of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley of California, then quadrupled its acreage to create a cotton-growing empire, died last Friday at his home in Indian Wells, Calif. He was 86.
He died of natural causes, according to a statement from his family.
It was the boll weevil’s decimation of the cotton fields of Georgia that sent Mr. Boswell’s uncle James Griffin Boswell, for whom he was named, across the country in 1921. Outside Corcoran, a rural town in Central California, Colonel Boswell (as the uncle preferred to be called) bought the first of what gradually became 50,000 acres. In 1952 he bequeathed his cotton fields to his nephew.
James Boswell II eventually expanded the family’s holdings to approximately 200,000 acres, including 60,000 in the Australian outback but not including the 20,000 acres in Arizona that he sold in the late 1950s to the Del Webb Development Company. Those 20,000 acres were transformed, with Mr. Boswell as a development partner, into Sun City, one of the nation’s first retirement communities.
“It speaks to his incredible business sense that when his Arizona land was no longer good for growing cotton he was savvy enough to grow houses,” Rick Wartzman, the director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., said Tuesday in an interview. Mr. Wartzman, a former business editor at The Los Angeles Times, is the author, with Mark Arax, of “The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire” (PublicAffairs, 2003).
The J. G. Boswell Company currently owns about 150,000 acres in California and, according to Hoover’s Inc., a business analysis company, is the largest producer of cotton in the United States. It supplies textile mills worldwide and has annual sales of more than $150 million.
The company’s expansion has not been without controversy. Its vast, well-tended lands and network of irrigation canals stretch across the bed of Tulare Lake, which was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, four times the size of Lake Tahoe. Early pioneers encroached on the lake to irrigate their farms, a process that Mr. Boswell’s uncle accelerated as he bought more property.
Four rivers feed Tulare Lake. The Boswells forcefully and successfully lobbied for the construction of dams that largely diminished the lake, draining its bed for more farmland.
“He re-engineered the landscape, much to the consternation of environmentalists,” Mr. Wartzman said of the younger James Boswell. “He was a titan with a lot of power in Sacramento and Washington. He genuinely loved the land, and yet he left an environmental record that was very mixed at best.”
Mr. Boswell also introduced techniques that became a model for large-scale farming: lasers that ensured level fields for even water distribution; bioengineering of new and pest-resistant seeds; computerized cotton gins with a capacity to produce 400 bales a day — enough to produce 840,000 pairs of boxer shorts, according to a 2003 article in The Los Angeles Times.
“There was an antiseptic cleanliness to the whole operation,” Mr. Wartzman said. “He pushed the industry in terms of modernizing, from seed to field to gin.”
Born on March 10, 1923, in Greensboro, Ga., Mr. Boswell was the son of William Boswell Sr. and Kate Hall Boswell. When he was a child, the family moved to California to join in his uncle’s enterprise.
After serving in the Army in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Boswell returned to Stanford University in 1946 to complete his bachelor’s degree in economics. There he met Rosalind Murray; they married and had three children. She died in 2000. Mr. Boswell is survived by his second wife, the former Barbara Wallace; his son, James, who now runs the business; two daughters, Jody Hall and Lorraine Wilcox; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Boswell was a complicated, reticent man. He saw himself as a cowboy and was proud that he had lost two fingers in a cattle-roping accident. He golfed with Arnold Palmer. He sat on the boards of General Electric, the Security Pacific Bank and the Safeway supermarket chain. He was chairman, president and chief executive of his company from 1952 until he retired in 1984.
Mr. Boswell did not like to talk about himself or his business.
When Mr. Wartzman and Mr. Arax were doing research for “The King of California,” Mr. Boswell spurned many requests for an interview.
“We finally decided to appeal to his mortality,” they wrote in the book, “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.’ ”

Sacramento Bee
The King of California...Mark Arax. 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."
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."
Los Angeles Times
James G. Boswell II dies at 86; cotton magnate built family farm into agribusiness giant
Heralded as 'The King of California,' Boswell at one point oversaw an empire spanning 200,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley, transforming the industry and influencing pivotal state water policies...Jerry Hirsch,0,7980742,print.story
James G. Boswell II, the intensely private businessman who transformed his family's cotton holdings into California's first giant agribusiness and one of the nation's great farming empires, has died. He was 86.
Boswell died of natural causes Friday at his home in Indian Wells, Calif., according to a statement from the family.
As head of the family-owned J.G. Boswell Co., Boswell ran a company that has dominated California cotton growing for generations and has used its clout to influence land- and water-resource policy throughout much of the state.
He was just 29 when he inherited the company following the death of his uncle J.G. Boswell, the family patriarch. Over the next half-century, he transformed the business and more than tripled the size of the family farm, which peaked about 200,000 acres and now spans 150,000 in the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran. Boswell's labs created new, more productive seeds. Technological improvements to his gins boosted their capacity to 400 bales of cotton a day -- enough to produce 840,000 pairs of boxer shorts, according to a 2003 Times article.
Historians and agriculture economists credit Boswell with creating the template for large agribusiness concerns.
The Boswell business remains one of the world's top sellers of "the extra-long staple cotton that goes into fabric blends and both soft and high-end apparel," said Don Villarejo, director emeritus of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis.
"His legacy is quite impressive," said Villarejo. "He was a brilliant business leader beloved by many of his employees. At the same time, his company was able to be ahead of and often acquire his chief farming competitors."
Boswell also was legendary for using a combination of political clout and legal strategy "to outwit many of the environmental groups that have tried to restrict water deliveries to California agriculture," Villarejo said.
He was an innovative water user, one of the first to employ lasers to level fields so that water flowed evenly and efficiently, said Richard Howitt, an agriculture economist at UC Davis.
Careful water management, including employing agronomists to determine when and how to water, allowed Boswell's farms to produce more cotton with less water than competitors, Howitt said. Many of his techniques were later adopted by other farms.
But even during this period of growth and success for the enterprise, which included diversification into tomatoes and other crops, real estate development and farming in distant Australia, Boswell remained an intensely private man at the head of an intensely private family business.
A rare 1999 interview with two now-former Los Angeles Times writers gave outsiders a sense of Boswell's character.
For years staff writer Mark Arax and business editor Rick Wartzman had attempted to meet the cotton patriarch. But each letter and call was rejected. The two were writing "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire," a book about the family's cotton business, and they needed to talk to him. Finally he agreed.
J.G., as Boswell liked to be called, wanted to meet them on his land rather than in some sterile office. His intent was to show them that the business was only as good as its earth.
Boswell, the pair wrote, "wore a Cal Poly Ag hat tucked low, frayed khaki pants, a flannel shirt and Rockport shoes."
"It was all part of an image that Boswell loved to play up. He had earned an economics degree at Stanford and sat on the board of General Electric and other big corporations, but he fancied himself a cowboy," they wrote in a 2003 Times article.
Boswell attended the Thacher School, an exclusive private boarding school in Ojai, graduating in 1941.
He served in the Army during World War II in the South Pacific before graduating from Stanford in 1946. That's where he met his first wife, Rosalind Murray. They raised their three children in Pasadena, far from the farm. She died in 2000.
The company remains headquartered in Pasadena.
Fancying himself a cowboy and living like a city boy, J.G. proved to be a complex figure. When he reached out to shake the writers' hands, they noticed the missing fingers on his right hand, the result of a cattle-roping accident.
They jumped into an aged Chevy truck for a tour of his holdings. The writers said they traveled half a day and 150 miles but never left the farm. When they asked Boswell how much land he really owned, he responded, "What are you, a tax collector?"
"I'm the bad guy in agriculture because I'm big," he said later. "I'm not going to try to 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 not going to apologize for our size."
Wartzman, now director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, said he was sad to learn of Boswell's death.
"He was an immensely complicated guy, someone who knew every inch of his land but whose company did some pretty awful things to the land," Wartzman said. "It is just hard to farm in an environmentally sound manner at that scale."
The company used its political clout to encourage the building of the Pine Flat Dam to shut the flow of water to Tulare Lake, which at one point was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. The drained lake bed is now farmland, located at the heart of Boswell's sprawling enterprise.
Boswell was born March 10, 1923, in Greensboro, Ga., the son of William Whittier Boswell Sr. and Kate Hall Boswell, and moved west with his parents and his uncles.
He was named after his uncle J.G. Boswell, who married Ruth Chandler, the daughter of Los Angeles Times Publisher and real estate baron Harry Chandler.
With no children of his own, J.G. Boswell picked his nephew to take control of the company he had founded in 1921 with the help of his brothers.
In the early 1980s, Boswell and the company would spend $1 million to defeat the Peripheral Canal, a system proposed to move water to Southern California. He thought it would hurt farming interests.
During the same period, Boswell helped farmers outflank state and game regulators and pump water from excessive snowmelt into the north fork of the Kings River. The move prevented farmland from flooding but also introduced the nonnative predatory white bass into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
At times profane, Boswell liked to be in control. For many years his company extended its influence throughout the San Joaquin Valley by lending money to other growers.
He served as chairman, president and chief executive of the company from 1952 until his retirement in 1984. He remained on the company's board of directors until his death. His son James W. Boswell now runs the business.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Barbara Wallace Boswell; daughters Jody Hall and Lorraine Wilcox; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for April 22 at 1 p.m. at the Corcoran High School Memorial Stadium.