mark_arax_king_of_california

The King of California

JG Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire

Mark Arax & Rick Wartzman

J.G. Boswell was the biggest farmer in America. He built a secret empire while thumbing his nose at nature, politicians, labor unions and every journalist who ever tried to lift the veil on the ultimate “factory in the fields.” The King of California is the previously untold account of how a Georgia slave-owning family migrated to California in the early 1920s,drained one of America ‘s biggest lakes in an act of incredible hubris and carved out the richest cotton empire in the world. Indeed, the sophistication of Boswell ‘s agricultural operation -from lab to field to gin – is unrivaled anywhere.

The King of California: JG Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire

The King of California is a rich, colorful history of California centering on the untold story of America ‘s biggest farmer, J.G. Boswell, who controls more than $1 billion worth of water rights and real estate in the heart of the state.

Over the past fifty years, Boswell has built a secret empire while thumbing his nose at nature, politicians, labor unions and every journalist who ever tried to lift the veil on the ultimate “factory in the fields.” Now eighty years old, with an almost pathological bent toward privacy, Boswell has spent the past few years confiding one of the great stories of the American West to Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman. The King of California is the previously untold account of how a Georgia slave-owning family migrated to California in the early 1920s, drained one of America ‘s biggest lakes in an act of incredible hubris and carved out the richest cotton empire in the world. Indeed, the sophistication of Boswell ‘s agricultural operation–from lab to field to gin–is unrivaled anywhere.

Much more than a business story, this is a sweeping social history that details the saga of cotton growers who were chased from the South by the boll weevil and brought their black farmhands to California. It is a gripping read with cameos by a cast of famous characters, from Cecil B. DeMille to Cesar Chavez.

 

Praise for The King of California: JG Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire

“Passionate, fair-minded, thought-provoking and groundbreaking…Thoroughly moving, deeply rendered and utterly trustworthy.”

Los Angeles Times

 

“With obstinate bravura, [Arax and Wartzman] rip down curtains that have veiled this valley…For scope and readability, these guys shine.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 2, 2003.

 

“A landmark and improbably entertaining book.”

The San Francisco Chronicle

 

“A meticulous narrative of the rise of the cotton magnate James G. Boswell…”

The New Yorker, November 10, 2003.

 

“A remarkably detailed and eye-opening portrait”

The Washington Post

 

“An alluring and fascinating account… a rollicking tale…”

Raleigh News and Observer, January 11, 2004

 

“Fascinating…Arax and Wartzman are talented writers.”

National Public Radio’s “Day to Day” 

 

“Intelligently fair-minded.”

The Economist

 

“An outstanding book … Arax and Wartzman leave us an appreciation of Boswell despite his considerable warts.”
— California Lawyer

 

This meticulous narrative of the rise of the cotton magnate James G. Boswell begins in the nineteen-twenties, when his family was driven from Georgia by boll-weevil infestations and brought its plantation ways to California’s San Joaquin Valley. Not to be defeated by nature again, the Boswells leveed and dammed Tulare Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, to the point of extinction. In its six-hundred-square-mile basin they grew cotton, while in Los Angeles office towers they built one of the country’s largest agricultural operations, swallowing small farms and multimillion-dollar subsidies with equal vigor. Arax and Wartzman strive for evenhandedness but acknowledge the costs of Big Ag—such as evaporation ponds with selenium levels so high that ducks are born with corkscrewed beaks and no eyes, and the recurrent “hundred-year floods,” stubborn attempts by the old lake to reassert itself.

Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

 

You may never have heard of him, but J. G. Boswell controls the biggest farming empire in America. In the early part of the twentieth century, his family moved from Georgia to California, where they drained one of the country’s biggest lakes, Tulare Lake, and planted cotton. Soon their cotton empire became the richest and most technologically sophisticated on the planet. This book is many stories, all rolled into one epic. It’s the story of the Boswells from the 1800s to the present day; of cotton farming in America; of California itself; and of the evolution of race relations as the country dragged itself out of the era of slavery and, not at all smoothly, into the modern era. Written in a lively style that matches the bigger-than-life qualities of its subject, the book is far more exciting than you might think the story of a cotton farmer would be. With proper marketing, it could smash through genre barriers and become the Seabiscuit of agricultural biography!

David Pitt, Booklist