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2 Farm Giants End Decades of Rivalry With Land Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Boswells and the Salyers, two of the richest and most powerful farming families in America, have ended decades of rivalry and rancor over their San Joaquin Valley empires with a huge land deal in which one colossus will swallow the other.

Fred Salyer, 72, has agreed to sell his cotton and grain empire--about 25,000 acres of fertile San Joaquin Valley soil--to J. G. Boswell for tens of millions of dollars, according to business associates and employees.

The two men themselves are not talking about the deal that would end one of the most protracted and colorful family feuds in California history. Salyer, a stickler for privacy, waved off a reporter in front of his modest ranch house here: “I’ve got no comment.”

He confirmed the sale, effective March 1, in a terse letter to city and county officials that gave no hint of its symbolic importance. The Boswells and the Salyers have been fighting over land and water and control of this part of the state since their forebears--"the Colonel” and “the Cockeye"--first squared off in the early 1920s.

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In this two-company cotton town along California 43, where almost everyone’s bread is buttered by Boswell or Salyer but rarely by both, it was always thought that too much venom and pride stood between the two clans for any deal to be struck. But over the last decade, as his fortunes waned, Salyer grew more open to overtures.

Last week, on the heels of another disappointing crop for Salyer, James G. Boswell II, the largest cotton grower in the world, traveled to Corcoran from his headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles to sit down face-to-face with Salyer.

Salyer initially wanted to sell only part of his empire, sources said, but soon everything was on the table. Boswell sealed the deal with a check that, by some accounts, exceeded $26 million.

“It’s the end of a long chapter,” Corcoran Mayor Jon Rachford said.

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The deal is the talk in diners, hardware stores and barbershops in this town of about 10,000, but only in private.

“We’ve got the state prison now, but this is still a town divided down the middle by Boswell and Salyer,” said one reticent old-timer wearing a seed company hat and munching on a hamburger at Tolbert’s cafe.

He said he had done more than $2 million worth of work on cotton gins belonging to both giants in recent years. “I’d be kind of foolish to say anything,” he smiled tightly. “I don’t want to be tarred and feathered and run out of town.”

At the Brunswick barbershop, where photos of deceased patriarch Clarence (Cockeye) Salyer and his two famous dove-hunting partners, Clark Gable and John Wayne, stare down at customers, barber Jim Cook said he hadn’t seen Fred Salyer in almost two weeks.

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“He usually comes in once or twice a week for a trim but since all this came out maybe he feels uncomfortable coming downtown,” Cook said. “Anyhow, he doesn’t tell me a thing. He’s a very private man.”

Salyer work crews in their green hats and mud-caked white Chevy pickups seemed to be everywhere, warning strangers not to set foot on the boss’s far-ranging lands. “I wouldn’t be snooping around here if I was you,” snapped one young, grim-faced foreman.

A bad mood had gripped the entire company, he said, ever since Salyer broke the word to employees last week that he was selling “lock, stock and barrel” to rival Boswell--the men in blue. Salyer could not guarantee that his 136 full-time and 220 seasonal workers would find jobs with Boswell.

“He drove field to field in his gray Fleetwood,” the foreman said. “It was a sad day.”

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The fear is that Boswell, known as a picky boss, will become even pickier now that workers have lost their one card--the ability to walk a hundred yards across the Santa Fe railroad tracks and sign up with the competition.

Rachford, a real estate man who spent 18 years on Boswell’s payroll as a self-described gofer, said there was little reason to be grim. “The land is still here, the crops are still going to be grown and harvested and ginned. And it’s going to require people to do it.”

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Even by San Joaquin Valley standards, Corcoran is a strange place. Few small towns in the country boast so many millions with so little flaunting of wealth. Perhaps that shyness has something to do with the federally subsidized water that for decades has flowed the cotton giants’ way, and the paper games that both land barons have played to get around the law that limits acreage of farmers who get that water.

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The town itself has nothing but pride, proclaiming to visitors in bold letters: “Welcome to the Farming Capital of California.” It is no idle boast.

Boswell is not only the largest cotton grower in the world but also the largest grower of wheat and seed alfalfa in America. In California alone, the crop value on 129,000 acres of Boswell land was estimated at more than $100 million in 1993. Salyer was 14th on the list of the state’s largest farms, with an estimated crop value of $40 million on 33,000 acres.

Bales of the finest cotton stand row upon row as far as the eye can see, waiting to be turned into Jockey underwear, Fieldcrest towels and L.L. Bean shirts.

Such abundance is a testament to the vision and guile of two pioneers of California agriculture: Col. James G. Boswell, a military and cotton man driven out of Georgia by the boll weevil, and a Virginia hillbilly named Salyer, who skinned mules and carried the cruel moniker Cockeye on account of a fake eye that wandered so far to the left that the glass iris was barely visible.

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Vision was needed because this land, in wet years, was at the bottom of the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi--Tulare Lake. In dry years, when the four rivers ran low, the land could sustain any and all row crops.

Guile was needed because the trick was to control the water, which Boswell and Salyer accomplished with a vast and ingenious maze of levees and irrigation ditches, aided by massive pumps and government-built dams.

Old man Salyer, whose legendary drinking, brawling and carousing is still recalled fondly here, became so enamored of buying land that he frequently ran short of cash and papered the town with bad checks.

Col. Boswell wasn’t quite so picturesque, dividing time between Los Angeles and Corcoran and marrying Ruth Chandler, the daughter of land baron and Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler.

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The two pioneers were friendly as long as they were ganging up on smaller guys, according to locals. But the fight over water and politics often required one to subvert the other.

One year Col. Boswell needed Salyer land to divert floodwaters. Salyer said no. When the harvest was in and Cockeye needed water, he made the mistake of calling on Boswell. When Boswell said no, Cockeye took the water anyway with a few sticks of dynamite in a well-placed levee.

Half a century later, both patriarchs dead, the battle raged on. Now it was the colonel’s nephew and namesake, J.G. Boswell II, facing off against Cockeye’s two sons, Fred and Everette.

The Salyers didn’t think it was fair that the local water district was controlled by Boswell simply because Boswell owned more land. So they took their fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1973, in a landmark decision, the court ruled 6 to 3 that water districts did not have to adhere to the one man, one vote principle that was the bedrock of democracy.

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In recent years, with the death of Everette Salyer, relations between J.G. Boswell II and Fred Salyer have become more amicable. On a number of political issues, including the notion of a Peripheral Canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the two men have joined forces to get their way. Both are old military pilots, according to mutual friends, and respect each other.

In December, after years of bad investments and bank repossessions, Salyer was forced to sell 3,900 acres to Boswell in a $10-million deal, according to local officials. Last week’s big sale, the details of which are closely guarded, was apparently a continuation of those negotiations.

Townsfolk now speculate over what Salyer might keep. Certainly not the two cotton gins or the towering grain silos belching foul gas. They cannot imagine, though, that he would sell his mint-condition aircraft or the 1.3-mile runway that snakes along the highway, which took no shortage of political chits to get built.

One old-timer shook his head: “Old Cockeye is just about turned over in his grave.”

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