Buying Power
By Trudy Wischemann
11:33 am,
June 13, 2024

Last week, after writing “Money Rules,” where I suggest we change some of the rules permitting money’s power, I found myself reading a book on one of the earliest large-scale, corporate industrialized farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley, Miller & Lux. I’d found a reference to it in a recent law journal article called “Aquifers and Democracy: Enforcing Voter Equal Protection to Save California’s Imperiled Groundwater and Redeem Local Government” by Louise Nelson Dyble (2017.) The current challenges we’re experiencing over groundwater are directly related to the problems she sets forth in the article.

The book she referenced is David Igler’s “Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920.” It has a particularly revealing chapter about the lawsuit known as Lux v. Haggin (1881-1886) which established the dual system of water rights (both riparian and appropriative) in this state. Overall, however, it’s the story about Henry Miller, a German immigrant who arrived in San Francisco with nothing but some change in his pocket and his craft as a butcher, who built an empire with land, water and pure German will. There’s romance in the story of Miller & Lux, and I found myself wondering why we admire people who build such empires.

I think we secretly envy a certain kind of blindness to consequences, seeing it as freedom. In some books, Henry Miller is portrayed as heroic in his conquest of nature, re-routing water to produce cattle feed for his gigantic herds, turning tule swamps to farmland, feeding hungry mouths in San Francisco. In those portrayals we rarely see the dead wildlife and waterfowl, the displaced farmers and low-paid laborers. The benefits are shown while the costs are left out of the picture. 

Igler’s portrayal is more balanced and intended to report the impacts whose legacies are still with us. But I think he, too, falls prey to the seductive power of corporate willfulness. He clearly shows where Miller’s buying power extends to the government officials in land offices and county seats, garnering lands intended for settlers and water rights others might use for greater economic benefit. Savvy to what a hungry, desperate man might do, Miller even bought off bindle stiffs who might torch his haystacks by establishing what was called “the Dirty Plate Trail,” where on his ranches anyone could get a meal after the regular workers ate, eating off their dirty plates.

But Miller seemed blind to the human consequences of his acquisitions. While managing a clever (illegal) take-over of public lands in eastern Oregon and running into public opposition, he genuinely questioned his foreman “Do the people feel that we want more than our rightful share of the government domain?” He then de-fused that opposition with some charitable building projects and by hiring away managers from other ranches, rooting local acceptance of the Miller & Lux brand as the Pacific Livestock Company. (It should be noted that some of Miller’s men were jailed for these illegal practices, but that Miller was never charged.)

What I missed in Igler’s telling of the story, focused on corporate power, was the influence of the rise of small farmers on the San Joaquin Valley’s east side before the turn of the century and their cooperative power through the rise of irrigation districts. Those districts appropriated water upstream from Miller’s riparian lands on rivers from the Tule northward to the Tuolumne. As Miller’s empire began to fail, Igler clearly depicts competition from Chicago’s Big Five meatpackers at the turn of the century as a causal factor. The rise of Progressivism also contributed, when government officials with a little more ethical starch weren’t as subject to Miller’s buying power. But Igler is mute about the social power of the valley’s east side created by small farms. 

We still gaze with amazement, even lust, at the buying power of the empire builders, closing our eyes to the costs to others whose buying power is limited, even stripped away. Let us change focus and use our social power, fast.

Trudy Wischemann is a woman with little buying power who writes. You can send her your recipes for refocusing c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247. This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of the Mid Valley Times newspaper.

About the Author

Trudy Wischemann
Local writer of the column ‘Notes From Home’