Pando

A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, Pt 7: Corcoran (Exit 334)

By Yasha Levine , written on September 8, 2015

From The Oligarch Valley Desk

PreviouslyPt 6: Cowschwitz (Exit 334)

It’s 7:00 pm, and I’m sitting at a motel overlooking downtown Corcoran, California, a tiny farm town in the heart of the Central Valley about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Downtown Corcoran isn’t much— just a single street a few blocks long, filled with empty storefronts, a pizza joint, a couple of liquor stores and two discount stores serving strictly poor Latino clientele. Looking out the window, I can see a lone Ford truck cruising down the street and a group of loud railroad workers getting hammered on Bud Light tallboys down in the parking lot.

Out beyond the window, green fields and orchards stretch way out into the horizon. The land is flat, dusty and vast, and nearly all of it is owned by just one family.

Here in Corcoran, everything except the air belongs to the Boswell clan, an old slave-plantation family hailing from the state of Georgia. They diversified their cotton plantation operations out of good old Dixieland, moving to California over a century ago and quickly amassed the largest cotton farm in the nation—a “farm” that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas described as a “corporate kingdom undreamed of by those who wrote our Constitution.”

In the process, the Boswells married into the powerful Los Angeles Chandler family, spun out real estate development subsidiaries, built entire towns, exploited generations of migrant workers, bought politicians, acquired ownership of enough water to supply millions of people and used the government like their own private charity. The Boswells’ farm empire— including the town of Corcoran—was built on Tulare Lake, what used to be the largest freshwater lake this side of the Mississippi River, until the family convinced the federal government to dike, drain and turn the vast body of water into an endless expanse of private irrigated farmland—all at the expense of the taxpaying public. This accumulated wealth and power has been passed down from one generation to the next, and shows no sign of waning.

Standing at the bottom of Lake Tulare, it’s hard to believe that I’m in the middle of what once was one of the largest freshwater lakes in United States. Now it’s mostly fields. Fields and a sprawling new prison complex, the largest and most violent state prison in California where, it was revealed by the Los Angeles Times, guards regularly staged gladiator fights between prisoners for sport.

Lake Tulare used to be a sight to behold. During the summer months it would all but disappear, but then in winter and spring it would grow to an immense size as it filled with runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

All that started changing in the 19th century with the arrival of anglo settlers and ranchers. They saw the lake as a threat to prime farm and grazing land, and began to contain it with dikes and channels, diverting the water for irrigation. The federal Swampland Act law defined this as “reclamation” of swampland, and gave away the “reclaimed” land for free. Best of all, the federal government eventually lifted restrictions on how much free lake-bed land a person could get under the Swampland Act. By the end of the 19th century, a handful of people had “reclaimed” most of the land in Tulare Lake.

James Boswell was born in Georgia, into an old Southern plantation family that had been in the cotton and slave business since the 18th century. The southern cotton cash crop was being decimated by an infestation and young Boswell was sent out west to Southern California to expand his family empire and set up the family’s west coast operations in Corcoran.

Lake Tulare was always a pain in the ass for Boswell and other growers in the area. Despite their wealth and resources, the private dikes, barriers and channels erected by the farmers were no match for the powerful surge of water that would rush down from Sierras in extremely wet years. They needed the government’s help to create a more permanent system to control the water and keep the lake at bay. There was only one problem: if this project was handled by the Bureau of Reclamation, which normally handled irrigation and dam-building projects, Boswell would have to meet the maximum-acre laws set out by the federal Reclamation Act—which maxed out at under 1,000 acres per farmer. So the growers hit up on a novel idea: they’d pretend like they weren’t damming a natural lake, but simply erecting barriers to prevent natural disaster. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, which wasn’t bound by the restrictions, could build the project, and thereby skirt the pesky laws designed to prevent the federal government from bailing out oligarch farmers.

And that’s exactly what they did, despite opposition from Congress and two presidents: FDR and Harry Truman.

From the early 1940s, Boswell and his clique of farmers began damming rivers in Lake Tulare, opening up farmland, diverting water to the Boswells and turning the family into hereditary billionaires overnight—all at taxpayers’ expense.

The main beneficiary of this “flood control” project was James G. Boswell, who took over the family company from his uncle in the early 1950s and used the new access to water and land to vastly expand the size of the J.G. Boswell Company and diversify the business, expanding into tomatoes, wheat and dairy farms. Boswell also spun off multiple real estate development subsidiaries that built whole towns as far away as San Diego and Arizona, where he built Sun City, the nation’s first McTractHome retirement community.

Today, the Boswells are probably the largest cotton growers in the U.S. They are also the second-largest growers and packers of tomatoes, and one of the largest producers of tomato paste in the world. The family agricultural operations alone generate nearly $400 million in sales a year. But water remains the principle Boswell asset, around which everything else is built.

In the 1980s, Forbes magazine valued the family’s water rights at $1 billion, but they are worth much more today. Water rights are treated like private property rights: they can be sold, leased, donated and/or passed on from one generation to the next. Those water rights are still tightly controlled by the Boswell family today.

Environmentalists and nature lovers have never forgiven the Boswell family for destroying one of the coolest, most beautiful spots in California. So J.G. Boswell decided to try and rewrite history.

According to Mike Arax’s “The King of California,” Boswell funded a short propaganda film celebrating the destruction of Lake Tulare. It was the inversion of the films cranked out by Soviet propagandists celebrating the industrial achievements of the proletariat in harnessing and breaking nature to serve the greater good. Here, all the benefits of progress flowed to just one small family: 

“Once it ranged over 600 square miles, the uncontested master of the valley. Now it’s become the lake that was; its waters controlled, its bottom reclaimed. Once master, it’s now servant. Once desolate, it’s now fertile. The difference is man… Simply by moving into the twentieth century, the American farmer has become a giant. No longer does he serve the land. The land serves him.”

“Him,” as in J.G. Boswell & Sons. J.G. Boswell pretended he was a tough and simple John Wayne pioneer type. He was gruff, swaggered around in a cowboy hat and showed off his two missing fingers, which he supposedly lost a cattle-roping mishap. But he was no simpleton.

J.G. Boswell was a Californian aristocrat, groomed and trained from birth to preside over American corporate boardrooms. He formed joint ventures with top global companies, including partnering with Dow to develop and patent a new type of cotton seed. He sat on the boards of General Electric, Safeway and Security Pacific Bank, a large bank that was swallowed up by Bank of America in the 1990s. Infamous downsizer-in-chief Jack Welch was a big fan of J.G. Boswell: “A very independent, outside-the-mold thinker. Just a maverick sort of guy.” 

With fans like Jack Welch, it’s not surprising that J.G. Boswell didn’t share his wealth with the local community. In fact, he got tired of dealing with farmworkers, who always demanded higher pay, and cut employment as much as possible. He put a lot of money into automating his farm operation as much as possible and he grew crops that could be machine-harvested with fewer than 300 employees manning the controls.

J.G. Boswell died in 2009. His son, James G. Boswell III, now runs the company from the family compound in Pasadena, California. Young J.G. has yet to make his mark on the company, but he’s unlikely to be worried that it will go out of business anytime soon. Even if demand for cotton and tomatoes disappeared tomorrow, he’ll always have land and those precious hereditary water rights that he can sell to thirsty cities, or he can back real estate projects of his own.

With that in mind, the newest Boswell has been busy pushing through a massive real estate development on the eastern edge of the family’s property in Oligarch Valley, making sure it’s ready by the time the real estate bubble starts to come around. The Boswells are calling it “Yokohl Ranch.” Named after a local band of wiped-out natives, it’ll be a luxury subdivision geared towards outof- towners that will contain 10,000 homes, three golf courses and a mall.

I stop at a restaurant on 6th Avenue on the edge of town, a simple diner serving a hybrid of Mexican and American food. Located just down the street from J.G. Boswell Company HQ and a giant Boswell tomatoprocessing plant, it seems like the perfect place for Boswell employees to get lunch. It’s just past noon when I arrive, but the place is nearly empty.

I order a couple of carne asada tacos and chat up the waitress to solve the mystery: the J.G. Boswell Company has rebuilt its old headquarters and the new building includes a cafeteria with its own private chef. “It’s not for regular workers. No it’s for… for the big shots,” she said, stammering. “It’s not so bad, but business has dropped off noticeably.”

“Big shots” is a relative term. J.G. Boswell automated his farm operations so efficiently that much of it is run by a small army of trained workers and a platoon of college-educated engineers and managers. I guess these college educated types needed to be lured with more gourmet food than can be found in a humble diner.

The waitress didn’t have much to say about that, seeming more concerned about the massive Corcoran State Prison across the street from Boswell’s tomato plant.

“I have two daughters, they carry mace and cellphones just in case,” she said, still stammering. “My husband likes to watch shows about prisons… we always see it…” She described in fragments a couple of recent escapes from the prison. Corcoran is not an easy place to get out of. It’s surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of farmland with an almost nonexistent population. It’s hard to blend in. One guy who escaped was caught when his girlfriend started bragging on Facebook that her man was out of jail and that she’ll be seeing him very soon.

The line cook doesn’t have a problem with the J.G. Boswell Company’s private cafeteria. 

“I know a guy who works there. I taught him how to use the grill at Chili’s where I worked with him. He says they don’t pay him enough to make ends meet, but I don’t know. I’d love to work there,” said the cook. He’s tall, a bit overweight and has the physique of a Samoan football player. He’s chowing down on a hamburger at the front counter. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and where did it get me: I started at $4.75 an hour and now make $7.50.” 

“I’m trying to figure out a way to get a job at the prison right now. That would be sweet,” he said, shaking his head.

What did he think of the Boswell family? 

“My uncle has a copy of the book about the Boswells. It’s called “The King of California.” You should check it out if you’re interested. Uncle won’t let anyone borrow it because he’s afraid he’ll never get it back, but I read parts of it. They came from Georgia. You know this used to be a lake, right?” 

“Do people here like them?” I asked again.

“Sure, people respect him,” he said of the J.G. Boswell who died a few years ago. “He’s real people friendly. Donated to the community all he could.” 

Locals respect J.G. Boswell and they respect Corcoran State Prison, the most violent and deadly prison in California. Prosecutors can’t even successfully try cases involving prison guards around here, even when they have ample evidence showing that guards staged rapes and deadly gladiator fights between inmates. The reason? “Jurors in the state’s rural heartland tend to be sympathetic to guards because prisons provide as many as 10,000 jobs in the region, accounting for much of its non-farm employment,” explains the New York Times.

To be continued...

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Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.