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The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire [Kindle Edition]

Mark Arax
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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. J. G. Boswell is the biggest farmer in America. Over the past fifty years he 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.


Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

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

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 8442 KB
  • Print Length: 560 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (September 30, 2003)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0034XRFNK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,136 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A grand sweeping book. October 21, 2003
Format:Hardcover
I couldn't put this book down! Arax did it again. This is a grand sweeping history of the J G Boswell Company and the Tulare Lake bottom they farm. A few times the book described events and people I personally knew and they got it exactly right. This is a good balanced history and a story that really needed telling. For most people the San Joaquin Valley is almost a complete blank, for many who live here it is precisely where the plantation meets the rancho. Reading this epic book about JG Boswell will go a long way towards explaining why and whatever happened to the biggest lake west of the Mississippi.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LARGEST LAKE IN THE US DRAINED FOR AGRICULTURE January 23, 2004
Format:Hardcover
Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman have compiled and written a wonderfully comprehensive book on the struggle between man and nature as well as on man and the political machine. The story of J.G. Boswell and the taking of Tulare Lake is nothing short of an incredible tale of how a family of humble beginnings could become the largest farming operation in the United States. Arax and Wartzman are to be congratulated for their survival through years of research and writing of a book that will remain a classic of California history for years to come. Seen by many who are connected with the Boswell empire as a threat, the book lays out the details of how the company systematically gained thousands of acre feet of water rights in a drought-threatened San Joaquin Valley. It is a well rounded book telling a fantastic true story. The Boswell company should be proud of their success as should Mark and Rick in theirs. Booksellers in the San Joaquin Valley can't keep it in stock and have sold thousands of copies to local residents. It is a story that people want to know about.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous historical, political, and social epic November 8, 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book centers around three generations of Boswells as they migrated from Green County Georgia to Kings County California and became the largest producers of cotton in the world, without becoming a household name.

The book also tells of the natural, social, and political histories of the San Joaquin Valley from the days of indigenous peoples and the first Spanish invaders to the present day.

The epic is a fascinating study of twentieth century American history, society, economics, business, finance, management, politics, public policy, labor relations, mechanization, technology, modernization, and nature.

The more personal stories of family, romance, crime, and punishment read more like a good novel.

Some have found the authors liberally biased, but as a conservative, I found the authors well balanced in their presentations of all sides of the stories.

As others have said, the scope is huge and the research extensive. As someone who was born and raised in Kings County California, I found this heretofor unknown local history to be quite fascinating. Nevertheless, I believe this book will have broad appeal to many readers.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surfaced and Harpooned April 26, 2005
Format:Hardcover
This far-reaching book is quite an accomplishment in biography and investigative journalism. Arax and Wartzman cover the history of the immense Boswell farming company of California, and the two guys named J.G. (the founding uncle and the current chairman, his nephew) who built the company into the largest cotton operation on Earth. Through cutthroat competitive instincts and political wheeling-and-dealing, the Boswells amassed tens of thousands of acres in California's Central Valley, and were instrumental in eliminating what was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, as the former Tulare Lake was transformed into a festering network of levees, canals, and cesspools dedicated to the mass production of cotton. Thus, the Boswells built the area's environment, culture, and economics for their own profitability.

The book also serves as a great exploration of the business of factory farming, detailing the racism and poverty experienced by Black and Mexican workers, as well as the shifty agricultural and hydrological politics of Big Ag in California - as the Boswells and their competitors/allies buy politicians, stack laws and regulations in their favor, and claim flood control as a reason to alter the natural course of rivers and to completely drain the vast Tulare Lake. Best of all, we see how big business really works out West, with the hypocrisy of so-called rugged outdoorsmen (actually pampered CEO's) who incessantly rail against government interference while also taking in millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies that are meant to help the little guy. This book is immensely informative but does often get tied up in unnecessary details, such as descriptions of petty political shenanigans in the construction of a nearby dam.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well Worth A Read January 21, 2008
Format:Paperback
As a transplant to California, I picked this book up out of historical curiosity and, from that perspective, it does not disappoint. The story of the Boswell Company's growth and not-infrequent run-ins with regulators and legislators is an interesting, eminently readable history of California itself.

Water rights and agriculture policy are, rather dry subjects in and of themselves, but told as part of the story of this interesting family and company, they come to life.

The only drawback of the book is that the authors can barely conceal their utter contempt for their subject. In numerous places, they abandon all journalistic detachment and express their opinion as fact, usually in a blistering condemnation of their target.

Consider this screed against former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis on page 83: "Otis was a fourth-rate publisher and first-rate bully who used the columns of his disgraceful newspaper to spill bile and venom at organized labor and an infinite list of enemies, real and imagined."-- Fact or Opinion?

The authors' inherent bias notwithstanding, they did a good job of research and crafted an engaging narrative.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Wonderfuk service and products
Published 1 month ago by Charlene Bridges
5.0 out of 5 stars KING OF HISTORY TOO!
I AM A NATIVE NORCAL GUY. LOVED READING ABOUT THE HISTORY OF CENTRAL VALLEY AG. DIDN'T know much about cotton than thread counts, Turkish bathrobes , and fine sheets. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Frank Reginato
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Capture of California's Sordid Past and Sordid People
I always wondered where such virulent racism came from in California. Why, it traveled across the U.S. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Crystal Pyramid
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Good little spot of California history here. Cotton is no longer king but the stories are timeless. This is not the California you know.
Published 3 months ago by Robert Horowitz
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read
Great historic read about the developing of the agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley in CA, from the 1920's to the 1940's.
Published 4 months ago by Pamela Scott
5.0 out of 5 stars Accurate title!
I bought this for my wife, who grew up in the Central Valley of California.
Boswell was always a powerful presence there, but she had no idea how powerful he was throughout... Read more
Published 5 months ago by james
5.0 out of 5 stars Period History Well Covered
Informative story during a period not heavily covered. Many folks are still around that can remember much of this. Recommended
Published 7 months ago by Ricko
1.0 out of 5 stars Nice Hatchet Job
Be warned: This is primarily a one-sided story of the "evils" of "Big Ag" in California. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Timothy Price
4.0 out of 5 stars Jacob Pulfer's Review of Arax & Wartzman's "The King of California"
Customer Video Review
Length: 9:43 Mins
Published 8 months ago by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr.
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book about a man building a very private empire.
Very interesting book about a man who accumulated a vast swath of California land to use for crops. Goes into detail about his getting over his competitors, and the use of... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Rona
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