Millions Of Dollars Make Family Feud Friendlier -- Family Rancor Ends With Huge Land Deal

AFTER 70 YEARS OF rivalry, the world's largest cotton grower is buying out another California dynasty.

CORCORAN, Calif. - The Boswells and Salyers, two of the richest and most powerful farming families in America, have ended decades of rivalry and rancor over their California 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 - an estimated 25,000 acres of fertile San Joaquin Valley soil - to J.G. Boswell for tens of millions of dollars, according to business associates.

The two men themselves aren't talking about the deal that would end one of the most protracted family feuds in California history.

Salyer confirmed the sale, effective March 1, in a terse letter to city and county officials. Boswells and Salyers have been fighting over control of this part of the state since their forebears - "The Colonel" and "The Cockeye" - first squared off in the early 1920s.

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

Last week, on the heels of another disappointing crop for Salyer, James Boswell II, the largest cotton grower in the world, traveled from Los Angeles to meet with Salyer.

Salyer wanted to sell only part of his empire, sources said, but soon everything was on the table. Boswell sealed the deal with a sum that, by some accounts, exceeded $26 million. "It's the end of a long chapter," said Corcoran Mayor Jon Rachford.

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.

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 world's largest cotton grower but America's largest grower of wheat and seed alfalfa.

Such abundance is a testament to the vision and guile of two pioneers of California agriculture: Col. James Boswell, a military and cotton man driven out of Georgia by the boll weevil; and a Virginia hillbilly named Clarence Salyer who skinned mules and bore the cruel epithet "Cockeye" for a fake eye.

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

Guile was needed because the trick was to control the water.

The fight over water and politics often required one to subvert the other. A half-century later, both patriarchs dead, the battle raged on.