Forty-one miles south of Fresno, on California’s Highway 99, a dilapidated sign hangs over the burning blacktop that reads “Tagus Ranch: World Famous.” At its base, graffitied walls hold up an abandoned building surrounded by knee-high weeds, needles, and trash. These ruins are all that is left of the empire that once stood in the forgotten heart of California. Scattered memories of the Ranch dot the landscapes of small towns like Tulare, where streets and senior citizen villages bear the namesake of Tagus’ owner, Hulett C. Merritt.
In early 1949 as the shift away from wartime production slowed economic growth in the South, my great-grandparents (Glen and Lucille) began looking for new opportunities. Glen’s wartime jobs at a military training field and an ammunition factory in Oakridge Tennessee dried up, and he went back to tenant farming on a plantation just outside of Elaine, Arkansas. An uncle who lived in California kept sending word of the great opportunities out west — “money was growing on trees!” he said — so by November, they decided to leave their home in Wabash, Arkansas and flee to California. They sold Mack and Dick — the two work mules — along with a wagon, an old Dodge pickup, and all of the personal items that wouldn’t fit in the car. With the money, they bought a 1949 Ford coupe, filled it with six children and four adults, and departed for Route 66. They followed in the footsteps of the dust-bowl refugees, chasing the same Golden State American dream.
On the road, things went relatively smoothly until they crossed the California border. Just outside of Tehachapi, the fan belt on the Ford snapped and the car quickly overheated. My grandfather and his brother were ordered to take two canvass desert water bags and find water. They walked east, up a bluff, and discovered a small stream cutting a thin valley. The water kept the car cool until they trudged into the great San Joaquin Valley. After a few days staying with relatives in Firebaugh, my great-grandfather was promised work at Tagus Ranch, so they loaded the car back up and drove east to their new home — a two room “cabin” in a labor camp with no furniture, no household items, nothing. Six children slept in one room, the adults in the other. The next day, they all stepped into the thick valley fog and went to work — both children and adults. The youngsters could find piece-rate work in the orchards, cotton fields, or packing houses, and older workers found meager hourly wages. For the rest of his youth, my grandfather’s world was Tagus Ranch. The family lived in the labor camps, bought groceries at the Tagus company store, and the kids went to the Tagus School and played on the Tagus baseball team.
Although the new arrivals wouldn’t have known, by the 1940s Tagus Ranch had already lived through its heyday. Its inception dates back to 1912 when Hulett C. Merritt Sr., a multi-millionaire and one of the nation’s wealthiest men, bought the first 3,000 acres of what would become Tagus Ranch. Merritt was far from the exemplar of the hard working American farmer that gained wealth by the sweat of his brow — he was born into wealth. His father, Louis J. Merritt, helped to discover the massive Mesabi iron ore range in Minnesota which, in 1890, was the largest iron mine in the world. By the time he was 28, Hulett sat on the board of US Steel — with JP Morgan and Carnegie — and was one of the largest stockholders in the corporation. He was a cutthroat businessman who had a reputation for not paying his bills. Numerous people to whom he owed money won lawsuits against him, and even then, he tried to dodge the check. Things got so bad that in 1919, a warrant for his arrest was issued because he failed to appear in court after losing a civil suit for not paying a bill. But this didn’t stop him. Three decades later he was back in court at least twice for failing to pay bills.
Despite the numerous instances of corruption, by the 1920s Merritt had expanded Tagus Ranch to 7,000 acres and by the 1930s — amidst the Great Depression — Tagus became the largest producer of deciduous fruits and berries in the world. In harvest season, the fruits were packed, loaded on rail cars, and sent throughout the country. Even the elite patrons of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria could be found eating the juicy bounty packaged by impoverished children at Tagus Ranch.
The 7,000 acre empire of orchards did not enjoy the extensive water storage or irrigation systems of today, and thus commenced an unprecedented water pumping bonanza. More than 65 wells were thrust deep into the soil and sucked over 87 million gallons of water per day, which flooded into the flaky soil and crept back down to the rapidly dwindling water table. In 1949, on the menu of the Ranch restaurant, Merritt boasted that Tagus used four times the amount of water per day than the entire city of Pasadena, California. Today, rural farm towns around Tagus are literally sinking because of extensive groundwater extraction.
For many years, the hundreds of workers at Tagus Ranch — nearly all families like Steinbeck’s Joads in The Grapes of Wrath — were paid in scrip money redeemable only at the company store. Thus, the payroll always landed back in the cash registers and bank accounts of Merritt. The labor camps and schools segregated by race and most of the dwellings were nothing more than an unplumbed shack with a dirt floor. Newcomers lived in tents, hoping to eventually work their way into a home. The nicest dwellings were reserved for skilled workers and foremen.
Despite the imperious attitudes of local elites, the labor camps were filled with creative and resourceful people. Many escaped the Ranch to look for better opportunities by jumping railcars that carried freshly picked fruit. Others spent the evenings concocting and drinking home-brewed hooch to catch a brief respite from the daily drudgery. On one occasion, the workers were ordered to clear a piece of land and prepare it to plant another orchard. The main obstacle was a large stump of an ancient oak tree in the middle of the field. My grandfather’s boss, a former coal miner and self-declared expert in explosives, dug a hole underneath the stump and roots and packed it full of dynamite. When he set off the charge, the stump blasted so high into the air that, according to my grandfather, “it looked like an asteroid coming down.” Problem solved.
The children that spent their adolescence at the Ranch often worked from the time they could walk. For fun, they played baseball and occasionally burglarized the giant warehouse where Merritt kept his valuable antiques. The warehouse break-ins were driven more by curiosity than need or malice. Examining the riches of the local patrician could sometimes be hard to pass up, and despite a few trinkets being pocketed, nobody ever got in trouble. To escape the blazing summer heat, they swam in the newly melted snowpack that rushed down from the Sierra Nevadas and into the ranch via Packwood Creek. Today, the creek sneaks under Highway 99, unnoticeable to travelers and locals alike, looking indistinguishable from the countless other mundane irrigation canals that snake through the valley. The oak trees that dot the banks of the creek and served as anchors for rope swings are among the only natural specimens that have endured the ravages of time.
Although many who lived on the Ranch have fond memories of fun, friendships, and work, the Ranch’s early decades were also characterized by vulgar inequality and strife. In fact, Tagus Ranch was the epicenter of a labor uprising that spread throughout the state and threatened the entire agricultural industry of the west coast. In early August 1933, hundreds of workers walked off the job demanding a 40 hour workweek and a wage of 35 cents per hour — a sizable increase from their 17 cents hourly wage. The strike quickly spread to Merced, Oroville, Chico, and Santa Rosa, resulting in about 5,000 workers in total out on strike. Canneries in Armona and Hanford, whose sole supply of fruit was Tagus Ranch, were forced to shut down temporarily. One reporter dramatically captured the scene: “Peaches in some of the largest orchards in the country began to rot on trees today as a swiftly spreading strike by pickers assumed grave proportions.” Dozens of highway patrolmen from nearby counties were sent to Tagus Ranch and the Tulare County District Attorney even asked the governor to send national guardsmen to keep the peace.
Merritt did not stand down easily, however. He recruited strike breakers from the rolls of welfare departments in Fresno and Visalia, and filed injunction proceedings against 200 strikers, ordering them to leave their homes in the labor camps if they continued to strike. More than a dozen families were forcefully evicted from the labor camps in an appalling fashion, their homes ransacked by Merritt’s men and their household goods dumped alongside Highway 99. A lead organizer, Pat Chambers of the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU), was arrested for “disturbing the peace.” At least two people were killed and eleven others were wounded in the confrontations between vigilantes and workers.
After a few days, with Tagus and other ranches throughout the valley shut down, and nearby canneries sitting idle, official mediation began. Because there were at least 500 Mexican workers on strike, the Mexican Consul from Fresno participated in the mediation process, along with Merritt, strike leaders, and state labor mediators. During the negotiations, Merritt dismissed questions posed by Chambers, refusing, in his words, to “dignify any criminal or communist organization.” Nevertheless, by the end of the month, Merritt agreed to pay a 25 cent hourly wage, effectively ending the strike. The 1933 conflict at Tagus inspired Steinbeck’s 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle. It is also rumored that Tagus Ranch was model for “Hooper Ranch,” in The Grapes of Wrath.
After the end of the 1933 strike, the agricultural barons could not yet let their guard down. Less than a year later, in July 1934, another general strike was called which was to start at Tagus Ranch and spread throughout the valley and state. When they got word of the impending strike, farm owners reportedly “prepared for war.” Rumors circulated of “vigilante committees” being formed to “take care of radicals.” Henry Mitchell, organizer from the CAWIU claimed that 400 workers were prepared to walk off the job, demanding a wage of 40 cents per hour. One grower responded that he would rather watch his grapes “rot on the vines” before paying 40 cents per hour. Nevertheless, not all growers were as pompous and showed signs of alarm. At Tagus Ranch, Merritt ordered the construction of a moat, three feet deep and four feet wide, to surround the ranch in order to keep out organizers and strikers. He also went through the grueling task of handpicking his hundreds of workers to ensure that there were no “agitators” in his fields. The Madera Daily Tribune reported that ranchers “in various sections of the valley were… sleeping beside their haystacks with shotguns because of rumors [that] communists intended to burn the stacks.” Although workers ultimately opted not to strike, it was clear that the 1933 uprising left a lasting aura of fear amongst the agricultural barons of the valley.
In the early 1940s, Merritt embraced a new opportunity to exploit cheap migrant labor and enthusiastically opened Tagus Ranch to the Bracero program, a government program that imported laborers from Mexico. The program was initially aimed at filling the labor shortages caused by the war, but lasted long after the war ended. At Tagus, the Braceros were segregated to Camp Two and a local Mexican woman from the Ranch was given the task of preparing their meals according to strict government guidelines.
Frequent visits from immigration officials and Bracero labor contractors prompted large flights of Mexican workers deep into the orchards, leaving nothing but rows of empty picking ladders and sunburnt white faces that did not have to worry about immigration status. On one occasion, as they picked fruit on their ladders, my grandfather and his brother watched one of these exoduses as immigration authorities entered the orchard. When they got to my grandfather and his brother, authorities asked them to come down and show their documents. Once they got to the ground, the authorities glanced at their white faces and realized that no papers were needed.
The war years launched Hulett C. Merritt into the status of a Gilded Age tycoon. He began splitting his time between his mansion in Tulare — aptly named “Merritt Manor” — another mansion in Santa Barbara, and yet another in Pasadena on the street that locals referred to as “Millionaires Row.” Although he had a reputation for not paying bills, he lavishly spent money on a collection of antiques and art that was worth millions of dollars.
Aside from the Okies and Braceros, the war brought another new and unique labor force to Tagus Ranch: Nazi prisoners of war. Roughly 400 Germans captured in North Africa were shipped to Tagus Ranch to pick apricots and cotton. It was a good investment for Merritt, who was always on the lookout for cheap labor. Merritt paid the government $2.25 per day for the use of POW laborers, which was far cheaper than his other workers. The POWs lived in a permanent prison camp that was, according to one local reporter, “under the complete supervision of an armed military police unit.”
By the 1950s, the ranch was in fatal decline. Merritt Sr. died in 1956, leaving $6 million to his heirs and an art collection worth $5 million, which his children promptly sold. The next year, large swaths of Tagus Ranch were sold off to the highest bidder. In 1958, nature helped expedite the decay when a fire destroyed the popular Tagus Ranch Restaurant. The next year Merritt Manor was leveled. Throughout the 1960s, more and more parcels of land were sold, and by 1964, the Ranch office was officially closed. By the late 1950s, few families still lived in the former labor camps, including my own. When my father was born in 1960, the first home that he knew was at Tagus Ranch.
Although it has largely disappeared from view, there are many lasting environmental impacts of Tagus Ranch’s heyday. Among them are the noxious aftereffects of drenching the land with pesticides. Tagus set a precedent for large-scale pesticide use, and the debts are still being paid today by the region’s vulnerable. Every year, valley residents suffer from the highest rates of respiratory problems in the nation and elders — including my grandfather — regularly succumb to strange lung diseases that medical professionals claim to not understand. For decades, valley towns have topped the lists for the worst air quality in the nation.
Aside from the rapidly diminishing physical ruins and the haunting oak trees that — against all odds — still grace the landscape, the remnants of Tagus Ranch live mainly in the memories of those who lived or worked there. In something like a high school reunion, the dwindling population of aging Tagus veterans gather every few years to share memories and artifacts from their years at the Ranch. Over hotdogs and Bud Light, they exchange stories about their first girlfriends, boyfriends, and hangovers. They catch up on who died since the last reunion and share old photographs dug out of dusty attics. Before she died in 2008, every year my great-grandmother attended the reunion and repeated the story about leaving Arkansas after hearing that Tagus Ranch was a place where money was “falling off the trees.” Perhaps it was, but it didn’t land in the pockets of the workers in the labor camps, most of whom made just enough to scrape by. At the reunions, the humble participants express what is clearly the most common trope of the Tagus Ranch collective identity: “everybody was poor, but we didn’t know it.”
The legacy of Tagus Ranch has been all but forgotten, but the pillage of land, water, and people in the central San Joaquin Valley continues unabated. Like Tagus, the central valley is most often forgotten by Californians who imagine their state as consisting of those urban pockets on the northern and southern coast — the central valley is flyover country. A few years ago, media discussions regularly centered on how Los Angeles and the Bay Area could waste less water to eke through the drought, while the fact that industrial agriculture in the valley uses roughly 80% of California’s developed water supply — in an awesomely wasteful fashion — went unmentioned. The pesticides and other air pollutants that give countless valley children respiratory and/or developmental disorders before they can walk has become an accepted part of life. Today, the central valley’s urban and rural areas — some of which still look strikingly similar to the Tagus Ranch labor camps — hold some of the highest levels of concentrated poverty in the nation while the owners of industrial agriculture are among the richest people in the country. Even the amazing artist and writers of the valley — Phil Levine and William Saroyan to name just two — are more famous in New York City than Fresno.
Despite Tagus Ranch’s many legacies, and even the labor uprising that caught Steinbeck’s eye, the ranch has rarely made it into public or scholarly discourse. Nevertheless, its rich history could serve as a source of knowledge and a point of reference for the many issues facing California today: water usage, industrial agriculture, pesticide pollution, rural race relations, migration and migrant labor, and many others. Instead, the only legacy of Tagus Ranch resides in the old rusty sign hanging over Highway 99, and in the dry, dirty air carrying the spoken memories of Tagus veterans at the annual reunion at Mooney Grove Park. Just across the street, hunched-over farmworkers pick fruit under the scorching valley sun.
Matthew Ford is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, State University of New York – Stonybrook.