J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman

Good book if you’re interested in South Central California or love the writing of Mark Arax as I do. He writes about South Central California for the LA times and other books, I’ve read 3 of his 4 books now. It took me awhile to get to this one because to tell the truth, I though it looks boring. And even after I had it I waited several weeks to actually read it.

J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire
By Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman
2003 / 592 pages
Read by James Patrick Cronin 19h 29m
Rating: 10 / biography, big farming and the environment
(Both read and listened)

For over 50 years I lived only about 20 miles from the boundary of Boswell’s lands and 30 miles from Corcoran, his ranch headquarters. I’d heard about Boswell since I was about 18 or so? but I can’t say I knew much about him.

But the book is by one of my favorites authors.  I’ve not read anything else by Rick Wartzman but I’ve read two of Mark Arax’s books, West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, And Killers In The Golden State and  The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California.  I might should go catch up by reading his first book,  In My Father’s Name: A Family, a Town, a MurderA Family, a Town, a Murder, but not yet.  

This book was published back in 2003 and I’m sure if I Googled around I’d find more that’s happened since. – like JW Boswell died in 2009 and finally handed the firm over to his own youngest son, James G. II.  

The book is way more than James Griffin’s’s biography though although it does start back in Georgia where he and his first wife came from. It’s also a history of the Central San Joaquin Valley of California.  It’s not presented in exactly chronological order.  It opens with the authors interviewing JW early on in the 21st century.  That family is notoriously private so it took the writers some time to even get an interview, much less what they wanted.  

But the book also travels back in time to the days of the Indians then the Missions then Gold Diggers and the genocides all through it. Then came the cotton growers from the defeated Southern US, and the wheat growers, see Frank Norris The Octopus, and finally the fruit, nut, and vegetable growers (like the Resnicks) Some ex-slaves came to work on the cotton farms, some Indians and Mexicans came for the work. I understand they tried Chinese labor but it didn’t work. And of course the John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath Okies (and Arkies and Kentuckians and Texas and so forth) came. This is how the area got its seriously Southern attitudes and twang and foods. (My parents moved us here during the early 1960s – I was 16 and coming from North Dakota had never had a taco -lol!)

This is the country of the Disney movie McFarland which was based on the real teacher in McFarland, only 34 miles away.

But if they came for work there was a LOT of work; a lot of dirt and water had to be moved to get it right for planting cotton and it’s never been right enough to satisfy the Boswells. The floods and the droughts came because that’s what California water is, unpredictable cycles of flood and drought – and now most often it’s drought. There was alway something more to buy or sell or make or build and Boswell ended up creating the biggest privately owned farm in California, if not the US.  And he has other businesses as well, like ginning and milling cotton,  real estate and more ranches in Arizona and other places.

His farm operation was one of the first businesses in Corcoran which eventually became a “company town” with JG as “The King” living in Pasadena. But when you’re that big then, inevitably, comes the politics and with farming there are going to be environmental concerns and then there are feuded and law suits that go with owning a lake bed turned into a huge farm operation. The book dives right into all of it. Every bit was fascinating to me.

But I have to admit there are a couple problems I had with the book.  First it’s very long and complex and I got the Jameses mixed up.  There’s JG Boswell, the old man who came to California in 1915 and settled in Corcoran and Pasadena. He was married twice and had stepchildren but there’s also JW Boswell, his brother’s son who did take over. JW also has a son and that’s JGII.  The chronology doesn’t help this problem with names because it might go from interviewing JW to a longish Indian story and then back to JW’s story and it gets into a back story about JG. Arax and/or Warzman digress a lot. I suspect it’s Arax because of my experience with his other books. That’s okay – I digress right along with him.

But at about 2/3 or the way through I realized I was hopelessly confused between JG and JW and started over with the Kindle version to go along with it. I did much better the second time but the confusion about those two characters is there – I had to be careful. 

The authors digress a lot.  I’ve read 2 of Arax’s prior books and I tend to thin the digressions are from him because he just loves to go with his flow.  Wartzman is the business editor at the LA times (where Arax covers the Central Valley) and a lot of the business and legal narrative were most likely from Wartzman’s hand.  

This took me at least 4 days of heavy reading to get through but I was fascinated – the whole thing.  

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