Father had me take the wheel on our way to Bakersfield that morning.
I knew it was because he wanted to think over what had happened
at the water meeting last night.
The day was cold, crisp, and bright. A long eared jack-rabbit
loped through the sage brush that skirted the highway.
"When I first came to Kern County, fat herds roamed where
jack-rabbits had hardly existed before," he reminisced. "Vineyards
and orchards thrived where the toiling of farmers had labored
in vain to produce scanty crops of wheat and barley. Poverty and
hard times took the place of prosperity. The Land Company had
introduced irrigation to the land, with its three hundred miles
of canals and over a thousand miles of large laterals, watering
two hundred thousand acres! There was no place in the world where
so large a body of land could be watered from one source. But
there wasn't the population then to be taken care of. It was all
one farm watered from one source.
Now we have to look to other regions where there is too much water
for the locality, we have to transport it long distances to take
care of the too little that is here.
When the great estates of my youth were divided and the cattle
ranches gave way to the colonies, where one estate was divided
to make many farms, the people have to turn to sinking wells instead
of using one central canal system and so the water level gradually
Now, we must replenish the source and where there is too much
water we will have to move it away, correcting the evil of floods
"Oh, I see," I said.
"That is what so many farmers fail to note. If they have
a good well and are taken care for the moment, they do not see
the greater need of other farmers. Why when Shafter began as a
settlement in 1914, the water level was at its highest in history.
Wells were drilled less than two hundred feet, some at ninety.
They could use electric motor-driven centrifugal pumps then. But
in 1917, when we first came here, along came the drought and the
pumps had to give way to turbine pumps. With all these small-farm
operations, the Kern River waters were shut off and pumping had
to be resorted to for surface irrigation.
"Farmers gradually approached the deadline where costs met surplus
gains and so, you see, men have abandoned the fields to the jack-rabbits
and the poor, disheartened, hard-working people are driven from
the farms that had once offered so much promise to their hopeful
hearts. Now do you understand why we have to harness our lives
to God's power and have him show us how we can use the abundance
of rainfall, the too much rainfall in the northern part of the
Valley, up around Mt. Shasta, to water this far end at the lower
part of the Valley? This country will blossom again as the rose,
mark my word. It was a garden when I was a young man, and it will
be a garden when my grandchildren are young men!"
I loved it when he talked of latching on to God's power. As a
child it has thrilled me to hear him speak of God as a next door
neighbor. It was the first time he had spoken so in months, I
felt the discouraging days were over the grey clouds had drifted
past, and the sun was smiling upon the Valley. I felt I was a
child again, sitting beside him in the two high-wheeled cart,
driving past the cherry orchards to Hayward, owning every hillock
and valley, every stream and river. Father had accepted the responsibility
of these grey acres and they were his--his to make green again.
We passed the Kern River, with the fringe of green, passed the
old County Hospital, down bustling Chester Avenue. I always hated
to walk down Chester Avenue with him because he would stop to
shake hands with so many people that the hours dragged into half
a day and I wanted to get home.
As we parked the car and took to the street on which the bank
was located, he stopped to shake hands with an old friend. I heard
him say, "Charlie, you are just the man I wanted to see today."
"Well I'm always glad to see you," was the reply.
"We had a meeting--an irrigation meting--last night. You
are the President of the California State Irrigation Association,
"Yes, I am."
"Well now, we want to do everything out in Shafter that we
can do to help move this along. I want to volunteer my services.
If I can help in any way, please call upon me."
"It strikes me we do need you. If you can preach the gospel
of irrigation as you preached that old-fashioned gospel, we can
certainly use you to enlist the help of every man, woman, and
child in the state to get the water California needs."
As we went to the law offices of Mr. Barlow, I could see Father
was in his old form again.
"How slowly man moves," William declared. "I can
remember going to Sacramento in the eighties to work on the Haggin
ranch. What a clamor the State Legislature made that year over
what they called the 'most important subject of the year--irrigation'.
Think of the years irrigation has been our number one problem.
Yet we have not resolved it to this day"
"Indeed," William continued. "Thirty-five years
ago they realized the state's number one need was water. Without
it there could be no prosperity. They know it today, but wicked
and powerful men with their selfish interests have deprived millions
of prosperous farm homes." William spoke vehemently, being
alert to prove his point. "Selfishness, the curse of the
"Now you are talking like a preacher," Barlow said,
but in a kind, reproving way.
"Yes, and I am a preacher. How have you politicians solved
it with each little group looking out for his own interest, resorting
to bribery and chicanery to put his particular private measure
through? You know that I am right, Charlie. Don't you?" He
was looking at him in that intent way he had which seemed to pierce
straight into a man's inner conscience.
"Yes, Bill, how well I know it! I was just reading of an
example of it--about the time you were working in Sacramento.
You should be familiar with the story the BEE printed," and
he held up a clipping and read from it. "the state should
handle it in an intelligent manner so that their waters would
not go to swell the waters of the Pacific."
"To think that we are still using this valuable water to
swell the Pacific!" William broke in.
Barlow put the paper down with a shrug of his shoulder to express
his feeling of disgust.
"Let's see, you were congressman then, weren't you?"
"No, that came ten years later," Barlow replied. "But
I was always interested in the water problem even before I got
into politics," he explained. "You must remember we
followed the English law of riparian rights. I remember Senator
Sax saying then that if the Constitution was amended so as to
allow the owners of land not contiguous to the streams to use
all the water that is running to waste, that was all that would
"He said that in 1885?"
"In 1885 and today it still isn't passed, and still that is
all that is needed."
"Today or in 1885, that will solve the problem," William
prophesied, for he felt the solution to the water shortage was
in utilizing the waste rather than tapping the underground supply.
In this he disagreed strongly with many of his neighbors who felt
all one had to do was tap the percolating supply. He had seen,
in Shafter, how quickly this could be exhausted when a drought
came. "But the use and right of water should be a public
one. All water should be public property and subject to public
control. When we transfer the abundant water in the North to the
South, we will be on the right track."
"Now, you are forgetting riparian law is the law of California,"
Barlow reminded. "It isn't so simple to change now. I would
involve too much litigation."
"It is more effective to change the hearts of the people,"
William said simply. "Do that and you do not have to worry
about the laws. Don't do that and still change the law and it
won't work any better. You have to inspire people to want to look
to the needs of others and work in harmony with one another--those
who don't need water giving to those who do. When man works in
such harmony it becomes easy to use the forces of nature God offers
us. Love is the dynamo, believe me, Charlie. That is why I am offering
you my services to do what I can."
"To change the hearts of the people?" Barlow raised
his eyebrows quizzically. He was trying to connect this philosophy
of love with the politics of water.
"Yes, to change the hearts of the people."
"And where will you get irrigation from that?"
"Where have you gotten it from legislation, Charlie?"
Barlow ignored the question. He was not disagreeing: he was only
searching for the answer. "I started to tell you about how
they tried to get irrigation through in 1885."
"Yes, I interrupted. You were talking about those clippings
you were reading. Go on."
"Here's an article from the MARYSVILLE APPEAL. 'The proposed
bills and constitutional amendment will condemn the rights of
riparian owners and throw the waters of the State into one grand
pool in which the great land grabbers are to share and share alike
. . .'
You see, we have always held a dog-in-the-manger attitude. Some
would have rather cut off their nose to spite their face. I'll
read on, 'The irrigation scheme is communistic in its conception,
but in its results, it merges in a monopoly . . . '
"Well of course, Miller and Lux were at the head of one interest,"
William pointed out. "They had the riparian rights and Haggin
and Carr were at the other, holding the appropriative rights.
The whole riparian battle was waged right here in Kern County
you know, and Haggin lost the legal battle, but after he had proved
this desert could be made to blossom like a rose, by irrigation.
I was working for Haggin at the time."
"Yes, our first legislature had already accepted the Common
law of England and that advocated riparian rights," Barlow
reviewed the matter.
"That's why I say the only way you can put a proper water
plan in effect is by changing the hearts of the people. We all
know riparian laws are not practical for California. We have to
make the people look at it from an unselfish viewpoint. In adopting
this law our founders did not foresee our parched acres and they
"I'm not so sure now but that you are right," Barlow
agreed. "I'd like to hear how you propose to do it, but before
you get into that, let me read you a few of these clippings about
our early struggle for irrigation. The you will understand what
we are up against." Barlow showed him the clippings. "In
1885 . . . the ALTA."
"That was a San Francisco paper," William observed,
taking it and handing it back.
"Yes, and its on this matter of riparian rights. It says:
'They (the riparian proprietors) want to use the water for irrigation
and they don't want anyone else to use it. They wish to take all
they need and let the rest of the water run to waste. Such colossal
hoggishness is well calculated to make credulity stand aghast
and even to paralyze indignation!'"
Barlow shoved the paper aside and said, "There were a million
people in California then. They said they could add another million
with water on the land, but they were fought by owners of great
cattle ranches who didn't want the small farmers to come into
the Valley. The entire press voiced the demand for enactment of
irrigation laws then, but it didn't do any good."
"Selfish interest," William said, nodding his head.
"It's the same today."
"I knew you would say that. The next clipping gives an accurate
account of just what happened at Sacramento and the way it was
"What's the paper?" William asked.
"SAN JOSE MERCURY."
"I have read it many times."
"The irrigationists blindly trusted the justice of their
cause only to learn that coin is more potent than patriotism,"
Bill smiled knowingly.
"You may know this first hand, but I want you to hear it
again because politicians are not too different today. The paper
says: 'They did not know much about the average California legislature
(referring to the irrigationists). They were so earnest they believed
they would have little difficulty.'
Now I'm going to read you the newspaper's report of how early
legislation on irrigation was lost.
'The committee had a consultation and concluded they would have
to make a proposition to Bill Higgins. They met him downtown,
took him by the arm, led him into a shadow.
"Say, Higgins; we have got to have your help in this irrigation
fight of ours."
"Is that so? What is there in it?"
"There is damn little in it, but I'll tell you how we are
fixed. We did not think there was going to be any need of money
to get our bills through, and all the money we raised was twelve
hundred dollars (for committee's expenses, transportation, rent
for headquarters, printing, board, etc.). This was intended to
pay for the committee's expenses while here, but we have concluded
to pay all our own expenses, and give you the twelve hundred dollars,
if you will help us."
"Twelve hundred is a small sum, I usually get five times
that amount, but if you're so poor, I'll take it."
"That's why it went through the Assembly so easily, but they
learned that to get it through the Upper House they had to raise
"An editor, a former member of the Legislature, went to some
of the wealthier members of the irrigationists and said he knew
how to put a bill through and got them to put up five thousand
"The next day, with grip sack in hand, he put in an appearance
at the headquarters in the Clung Building on New Hope Street.
"Tom Reynolds, a noted lobbyist, had been indicted once for
getting away with funds in the Secretary of State's office. He
asked Reynolds to help him.
"Reynolds said: 'What's in it?'
"Can't you do something for patriotism?" the editor
"Patriotism be damned. I'm not here for my health. But if
you want anything in the Senate done . . . " and he mentioned
a member of the Legislature from San Francisco.
"Well, I have five thousand dollars, that's all," the
"He will take your case."
"You will see him."
"All right. I'll see he takes it."
Reynolds did as he said. He went to the San Francisco Senator
who took the job but said he would have to work through Higgins.
On seeing Higgins he straightway told him he was getting five thousand
dollars to do what he could to put it through.
"Five thousand dollars" gasped Higgins.
'The Senator saw he had put his foot in.
"I put it through the lower house for twelve hundred, while
the Senator got five thousand," Higgins cursed the irrigationists.
'Then the editor sought out Reynolds.
"Lie me out of it."
'Higgins met the editor and stood him in a corner and demanded
an explanation. The editor took the train home and returned the
five thousand dollars to the donors. "It wasn't enough to
"'It's safe enough to say,'" Barlow continued reading,
"'that when the Legislature meets again, the irrigationists
will have an organization of more experienced lobbyists. Anyone
who expects to get important legislation like this through a California
Legislature without coin, doesn't know much about the secrets
William was quietly thinking. Finally he said slowly but with
great earnestness, "there isn't enough money in the state
to beat the power interests, but there is something more powerful
"What is it?"
"You mean changing the people's hearts again?"
that very thing. I would convince the people they have to lay
aside selfish interests and think in terms of what homes in the
Valley will provide, and the work it will give the returning soldiers,
of the soil it will put into production. Let me tackle it, Charlie.
Let me be your lobbyist. I can handle those fellows. God wants
me to tackle it."
"You will make a good one. No one has the eloquence of persuasion
the same way you have, or maybe it's as you say, you have God.
But, as a matter of curiosity, what makes you think God wants
you to do it?"
"Charlie, I was a poor boy. I began in the workhouse in England.
I worked in the mines as a lad. I worked for child labor laws
here in California, for the eight-hour laws for women, but it
has not been enough. I have always worked for the poor man but
I see a different need now. I know now I have to awaken myself
to the needs of all men, for all men without God are poor. I realize
that now as I never realized it before. I see a need all men have
to work together, and when we do we will find it easy to handle
this perverse nature. The hardest thing to handle is this selfishness
in man. I used to believe it was the rich who selfishly crushed
the poor because they were helpless, but in my years ranching
in the Valley I have seen this same fearful thing in all classes.
I find each one, in his own way, is controlled by his own interest
and afraid of his neighbor. But I think I can point out how we
must all pull together to achieve the goal we all need so much."
"All right, Mullen," Barlow agreed. "Go to the
state Irrigation Association headquarters in Sacramento on Monday.
Get acquainted with the Marshall Irrigation Plan which is what
we are trying to get through as an initiative measure. Study it.
Learn all about it. When you are prepared, preach the gospel of
irrigation to everyone you can reach. You might start on the farmers
first as you are one of them now. Then tackle the rest. I guess
there isn't a man in the state who has a wider acquaintanceship.
You've convinced me, with God's help, you'll get them on your
William's eyes twinkled hopefully and he extended his hand. Barlow
knew from the sturdy grasp the man meant to succeed.
"I've been a politician a long time but never used the tactics
of evangelism before," he said as William stood at the door,
his hat in hand. "You were a corker at taming wild horses.
I've heard about your success at taming wild men, too. If you're
half as good at this as you were at either, you'll do all right."
William creased the center fold in his hat, rolled the broad brim
in his right hand, then he took hold of the gold chain and looked
at his watch. "It's time to go."
He walked away proud and tall, with a spring in his step. Nearing
sixty, he still carried his stalwart body with an astonishing
erectness and held his head high.
It was late November. The black clouds were gathering. "There
is anger in the sky. Torrents of fury will pour upon the earth
and into the sea, and God has given me a job to do."
I was used to my father talking in metaphor. It was the preacher
in him, I thought. I was familiar with that unconquerable look
on his face. I knew important accomplishments were ahead.
"I'm going to Sacramento," he told me on the way home.
"I'm going to lobby for a state water plan. We're going to
reach every man and woman in California and enlist their help
and then we are going to get the cooperation of every legislator
at the capitol and then I'm going to enlist the Governor's help.
With God's help we will move the rain."
So that was it. There would be battles. Thunder and lightning
and torrents of rain would fall upon man's thirsty acres, but
in the end the wild waters would be harnessed and quietly driven
to another land. He had been thinking of this for a long time and
now the time had come when it had to be done. I could see there
was not even the slightest doubt it couldn't or wouldn't be accomplished.
They might have been working on it for half a century already.
Greed and jealousy and bribery may have blocked the way before,
but when William set out to tame wild nature, he always ended
up by making it tractable. No longer would wild rivers lose their
waters to the sea. God was mending the broken cistern and it was
to be filled with living water.
"You will win. I can see in your face. You will win,"
"Yes, we will win. We have God's promise."
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