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The king who didn’t want to be known

Times Staff Writers

In the middle of California, in a county called Kings, his empire rises from the bottom of an old lake.

It was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, a land of 10 million geese. In the spirit of his forebears, he sucked the lake dry and made the rivers run backward, carving out the biggest cotton farm in the world: 150,000 acres of pancake-flat earth.

Three epic migrations -- peasants from Mexico, Okies from the Dust Bowl and black sharecroppers fleeing Jim Crow -- had trekked across the landscape to work his family’s fields.

He changed a 200-year-old American institution, altered the way cotton was grown, picked, ginned and marketed, yet hardly anybody outside Kings County knew his name.

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And that’s exactly how Jim Boswell wanted it.

He was the last land baron of the West, the biggest farmer in America, the King of California -- and he was determined to keep the whole thing wrapped in secrecy.

We, though, were equally determined to tell his story.

Like many a journalistic inspiration, ours began over a couple of cold beers. It was August 1997, and we were sitting around in a backyard in Fresno, marveling at what a wide-open saga the Great Central Valley was.

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As we nursed our longnecks that summer evening, the conversation kept circling back to one name: J.G. Boswell. Both of us knew from our reporting that nobody epitomized the valley’s wealth and power like he did. We also knew that nobody more embodied a privacy obsession.

We decided to reel in Boswell by sending him an earnest letter, describing our plans to write a full-blown account of him and his family and all that they had built with the help of those migrants. This wasn’t going to be some hatchet job, we assured him.

“We are not blowing smoke, Mr. Boswell.... The two of us are committed to this book and to getting the story right.”

He never bothered to write us back. We followed up with a phone conversation a few days later. It lasted but a couple of minutes. The old guy wasn’t rude, but he got to the point: Buzz off and leave me alone.

So we started digging without him.

Yet even coming up with names was tough.

The newspaper archives on Jim Boswell were dreadfully thin. His company had been the subject of numerous stories over the years -- nearly all of them dealing with one hot-button issue or another: fat crop-subsidy checks or water wars. But the only time Boswell had said more than a few words to a reporter was in 1989, to Forbes magazine.

We mined for clues wherever we could. Around the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran, on the edge of the Tulare Lake bed where Boswell had the bulk of his holdings, people knew the basic threads of his story. We followed them, one by one, all the way back to Greene County, Ga., the old cotton kingdom from which the Boswells hailed.

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A stab-in-the-dark phone call to the local library in Greene County led us to E.H. Armor, Jim Boswell’s octogenarian cousin and one of his last kin still left in Georgia. Armor turned out to be a fount of information about a clan that had been made wealthy by cotton long before it headed West.

On a visit to Georgia, we found Armor living in the same house where he had been born and raised. A husky man with a long face, he had made one room a shrine to Dixie, and he genuflected at the shelves that bore the memoirs of Robert E. Lee and a first-edition copy of “Gone With the Wind.”

Armor recalled the three Boswell brothers who had moved to California, chased westward by the boll weevil in the 1920s: J.G. Boswell (Jim’s uncle and founder of the empire); Bill, Jim’s dad; and Walter, the oldest.

As the months rolled on, we kept writing to Boswell, hoping that our sheer persistence might win him over.

*

Oct. 16, 1997

Dear Mr. Boswell:

It is certainly not our intention to be adversarial. But you should also know that we aren’t simply going to fold up and go away, either.

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We can only hope that over time -- as we prove to you that we are serious about this project and have no hidden agenda or preconceived notions -- you will at least agree to get together and share some of your memories with us.

*

Boswell’s reply was the same as before: Go to hell.

Still, we kept scratching at the story, turning our gaze toward the Boswells long dead, especially Jim’s uncle J.G.

An imperious military man known as the Colonel, J.G. had launched the company from the back of his Buick and had married into one of the most elite families in California, the Chandlers of Los Angeles.

The Colonel and Ruth Chandler -- the daughter of Los Angeles Times publisher and real-estate baron Harry Chandler -- lived in a 12,000-square-foot mansion in San Marino while he milked the land around Corcoran. The estate was so grand that Barbra Streisand would bound through it in the film “Funny Girl,” calling out to Omar Sharif: “It’s the perfect home for a millionaire.”

The Colonel and Ruth had no children, and so the keys to unlocking their story were Ruth’s kids from an earlier marriage. Her daughter, Sue, indicated that she’d be helpful. Then she contacted the Boswell Co. and decided the better of it.

Fortunately, Sue’s brother took a different stance. Warren Williamson, affectionately known as Spud, couldn’t care less what Jim Boswell thought of our project. He loved the Colonel, and he said that he felt privileged to have known two truly great men in his day: his grandfather, Harry Chandler, and his stepfather, J.G. Boswell.

Williamson did more than just regale us with stories about his stepfather, however. He also gave us fresh leads to track down: the names of agents in Europe who had brokered cotton sales for the company, old bankers who had helped Boswell survive the Depression, and others from the early days.

Some of them agreed to talk; others didn’t. Either way, it was now becoming a game for us -- ringing up people who were sure to tell Jim Boswell of our probing calls. We took no small pleasure in haunting him.

*

April 16, 1998

Dear Mr. Boswell:

We have signed with a publisher and are proceeding full steam ahead on the project.

We also wanted to remind you of two things: First we have no hidden agenda and no ax to grind. Second, this is certain to be a better book if you agree to talk with us.

Thanks, once again, for your consideration.

*

As time ticked by, we realized that the story we were trying to tell wasn’t just Jim Boswell’s story. It was also the story of all those who had picked cotton in the Tulare Lake Basin -- men and women who had served as the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s novels, Dorothea Lange’s photographs and Merle Haggard’s music -- in the decades before the fields were mechanized.

The more such voices we gathered, the more we sought to convince ourselves that maybe we didn’t even need Boswell. Deep down, though, we knew that was folly.

*

May 7, 1998

Dear Mr. Boswell:

Despite all the progress we’ve made, we’ve also run into lots of folks who won’t talk with us due to your resistance. This has put us in a real bind: We have gone out of our way -- and will continue to go out of our way -- to find as many voices as possible who can speak from the point of view of the company and the family. But sooner or later, if we don’t succeed in getting you to cooperate, the balance will inevitably tip; we’re going to wind up mostly with voices that accentuate the controversies.

Once again, we hope to hear from you soon.

*

We heard nothing.

And so we continued, cajoling the townsfolk of Corcoran to tell us all they knew. Eventually, another story line surfaced: Bill Boswell, Jim’s deceased father, had been the town drunk. He could down nine straight beers, we were told, and never once have to go to the bathroom.

It made for great gossip. We had a hunch that it might also make for great leverage.

We called Jim Boswell and told him how the people of Corcoran were remembering his dad. Surely, we told him, his capacity for Coors couldn’t be the whole story.

The line fell silent. Then suddenly he began to talk -- about his father and his uncle and how they had worked together to start the whole enterprise on a small piece of ground just outside town.

The door was finally open.

Boswell ultimately invited us to join him in Corcoran -- as long as we were willing to get up before the sun did. “Be here at 5:30,” he said, “and don’t forget your pencils to take down all my lies.”

It was late winter 1999, just a few weeks before planting. We had been chasing Jim Boswell for the better part of two years.

He wore a Cal Poly Ag hat tucked low, frayed 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.

He reached out to shake our hands -- and we couldn’t help but notice the missing fingers. He had lost of couple of digits in a cattle-roping accident. The middle of his right hand looked like a pig’s foot.

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.

Boswell had inherited the empire at age 29, when the Colonel was on his deathbed. Over half a century, Boswell had turned his uncle’s cotton farm into a wonder of science and automation. His biotech labs in Corcoran minted new brands of seeds. His precision gins punched out 400 bales of day of the finest cotton -- enough fluff to make 840,000 pairs of boxer shorts.

We hopped into his beat-up Chevy truck and headed straight for the forgotten gut of California. The land was pinched by mountains, and it rolled out flat and never ending. At some point that afternoon, it occurred to us that we had traveled half a day, a distance of about 150 miles, and we had never left his farm.

We asked him how much land he really owned, and he took his eyes off the rutted road and glared right at us. “What are you, a tax collector?” Boswell asked.

“Jim, you can’t get around the fact that you’re the biggest farmer in the country. How in the heck are you going to get around that?”

“I’ve gotten around it damn well without you guys for 50 years,” he replied.

Boswell would come to bemoan his cooperation. He even offered to throw some cash at us, if we’d just go away. “I hope I’m dead when this book comes out,” he said. “I just don’t see any good coming out of this.”

His reluctance grew over the next four years as we asked ever tougher questions about government subsidies, environmental degradation and the inexorable poverty of a company town. Jim Boswell was, for better or worse, about as far from the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer as you could get.

In the end, however, Boswell would not only tell his men to speak with us, he would grant us complete access to the company archives. Best of all, he would keep meeting us on his land -- winter, spring, summer and harvest. It was like everything he had done his whole life: Once Jim Boswell made up his mind to cross a bridge, there was no turning back.

“I’m the bad guy in agriculture because I’m big,” he said. “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.”

We may have hooked him with a chance to rehabilitate his father’s memory. But Boswell’s pride had gotten the best of him. We had snared his ego, as well.

*

Based on “The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire.” Copyright 2003 by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman. Published by PublicAffairs of the Perseus Books Group.

Arax is a Times staff writer in Fresno. Wartzman is the paper’s business editor.


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