Early Days of the Central Valley Project: The Role of Progressive Republicans, Freemasons, and Mormon Irrigators

Gary Stadelman Posz

This article grew out of conversation with colleagues about a speech Governor Earl Warren gave to a conference on water resource development at Stanford University in 1945. In his remarks, the Governor called for aggressive development of California's water resources. Little is known about the background of this speech, most particularly about what prompted Warren to launch so directly and forcefully into this fraught pubic policy domain when he had previously not identified himself with it; this was a high profile move outside of his known political interests and priorities.

I joined this conversation with commentary on the mutually reenforcing influences favoring water development in the West, which essentially pervaded the political space of Warren's career. One cannot claim that the influence matrix I describe here was dispositive in explaining Warren's unprecedented policy pronouncement. Bailing-wire sociology cum political science this narrative might be, yet it identifies significant influences present and operating in California politics when Earl Warren emerged in 1945 as a water development advocate.

The influence matrix I posit --- Progressive Republican legislators, Freemasons, and Mormon Irrigators --- was the driver of water development in the greater American West and in the irrigation colony towns on the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley. This cluster of towns adjoining the Sierra Nevada foothills is where the Central Valley Project (CVP) of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) began to take shape in 1939.

My maternal great grandfather Felix Griggs emigrated from Missouri with his young family to settle this country in 1876. Much of the narrative that follows is based on Griggs family and local history. My father Howard M. Posz served in senior management positions in the USBR from 1940 until his retirement in 1966; so I am also able to relate here something of what I learned over a number of summers on field trips with my father to various CVP projects.
Leading Precursor --- The Senator from Exeter

A key player in the earliest days of CVP history was California Senator Frank W. Mixter, Spanish-American War Army veteran and leading businessman in Exeter, my Griggs family's home town. Mixter was a family friend. He owned the town drugstore, and he gave my mother Mildred Griggs her first summer job there when she was in high school.

How did Mixter fit into California water politics? He was from the outset of his legislative career dedicated to water development, and he rose to power and influence in the Legislature at a critical time in CVP history. His active involvement in water policy dates back at least to 1929 when he was in the Assembly, and he attended an "attorneys water conference." So he was well into it before the CVP became a federal project, and before the Legislature descended in the early-mid '30s into a serious wrangle over "water and power project" legislation for the Central Valley. Emerging from that struggle, he rose to President Pro Tempore of the Senate by end of the decade, before initiation of construction of Friant Dam.

The Masonic Connection

Historian Kevin Starr has described the California Legislature's Republican-Progressive leadership of that era as 'Freemasons in rimless glasses and double breasted suits.' Mixter conformed perfectly to Dr. Starr's characterization, and moreover he had risen by the late '30s to Grand Master of the Masonic order in California. Most importantly, as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, he stood at the head of those legislators for whom water resource development was akin to religion. Mixter quite simply personified the long historical connection of Freemasons with water development in the American West.

I was a member of the Order of DeMolay while at Grant Union High and Sacramento Junior College, and I can attest to the strength of this connection as my father's guest at dinner meetings of the USBR Region II Masonic Club, which at that time numbered about 20 colleagues, all civil and hydrological engineers. I was much impressed by my father's brother-Mason colleagues. They were authentic men of the West who could tell true tales of when it was still truly wild.

Tom Curtis was just such a man. One evening he gave us a first hand account of Pancho Villa's 1916 raid on the Border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Then a young engineer working on a project down in Border country, he had stopped overnight in Columbus. The raiders struck the tiny town in the dark the morning of March 9. Surprised by the Mexicans, U.S. Cavalry troopers stationed at nearby Camp Furlong managed at great risk and with considerable difficulty to arm themselves by breaking into locked weapons storage. Momentum in the action then began to shift. The hail of fire the troopers laid down in the open streets of the town with light machine guns and bolt action rifles drove the Mexicans to attempt to break into buildings for cover, but mostly they were repulsed. Villa's casualties were heavy and he retreated back over the Border within hours. Tom and the others who had harbored in the hotel found when they emerged that the town center was burned to the ground. Parked in front of the hotel, Tom's brand new Model T Ford was riddled like a sieve.

I heard other tales of the West from my father's colleagues, both dramatic and downright hilarious. It was an education.

Exeter's Irrigation-based Prosperity

Mixter's constituents deemed the CVP and specifically an East Side canal to be vital to their economic future. Exeter, and a surrounding cluster of communities along the Sierra Nevada foothills, comprised the world center of Emperor grape culture. There was other irrigated farming, but Emperor grape culture predominated. It was a red table grape with a peculiar varietal characteristic that made it ideal for export: When the fruit was harvested, the stem would dry hard, sealing off water loss from the fruit; its clusters could therefore be shipped long distances packed in cork-lined kegs without refrigeration. Growers shipped Emperors to markets as far distant as Europe. The variety was so popular that, in 1939, an enterprising plant breeder crossed it with the seedless Thompson to produce what we have today: big juicy, flavorful red table grapes without seeds. Heralded by the Exeter Sun and Visalia Times Delta, the seedless Emperor never made it to market because a dangerous world was fast closing in on the 'Home of the Emperor Grape.'

War Clouds Over Exeter

Just how critical irrigated vineyard-orchard agriculture was to Exeter and surrounding East Side towns and how vulnerable they could be to sudden market shifts was revealed just as the CVP was getting underway. Construction of Friant Dam commenced with great fanfare on November 5, 1939, but the project's promised benefit of more surface water for growers was suddenly overridden by global upheaval and calamity. War had broken out in Europe in the first week of September, plunging the Emperor grape business into chaos. The Allies commandeered all transatlantic commercial shipping for war service. Emperor grape shipments were cancelled, even stranded in progress. One major Exeter grower lost a shipment of Emperors bound for Sweden ---  It was his entire crop.

Wartime loss of export markets nearly ruined Emperor grape growers. My uncle, Al Griggs, who grew Emperors on a quarter section just north of Exeter, was forced to quit farming. Leaving family at home, he went up to Vallejo to build housing for workers in Henry Kaiser's shipyards. Uncle Al later pulled up his vineyard and planted navel oranges. Emperor grapes came back for awhile after the war, but my impression is that citrus dominated after the 1939 calamity. Al's granddaughter grows navel oranges near Exeter today. Sunkist has a major packing operation there. The city's website proclaims Exeter to be "home of the best navel oranges in the world."

These developments were reported by the Exeter Sun, a small town paper with a global perspective published and edited by Joe Doctor, another family friend. (Doctor edited and published my grandfather's memoir of pioneer days as a teamster in Tulare County: Leaders, Pointers, and Wheelers; Monroe C. Griggs.) The Sun's masthead proudly proclaimed Exeter "Home of the Emperor Grape."

Some readers may recall that Earl Warren was attorney general when Pearl Harbor was attacked --- and as did Roosevelt ---- he laid a heavy hand on Japanese Americans in California, which he was later profoundly to regret. I do not know whether in the turbulent 1941-45 period Warren had any expressed, direct personal interest in water policy per se. He was focused on other issues, obviously.

Mormons, Freemasons, Engineers and Republican-Progressives in California, An Interlocking Social Matrix

The nexus of Republican-Progressive reform in California and Freemasonry began with Governor Hiram Johnson. As Freemasons and leaders of the Republican-Progressive Party establishment in California, Governors Johnson and Warren conformed precisely to Kevin Starr's description of the party leadership. During Earl Warren's 50 years in the Masonic order he like Senator Mixter rose to Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of California.

Whatever Warren's prior views on the subject, by the time of the 1945 conference they had crystallized into hardline support for water development. This I believe must be explained by the ideological-political matrix in which he lived and worked. Three major groups in civil society formed this matrix of common ideology and interest, and they historically supported water development in the American West: Mormons, Freemasons, and civil engineers. California Republican Progressives were prominent in this aggregation of water development advocates. Notably, membership in these groups often overlapped.

Mormons were the first to use irrigation on a large scale in the American West. They established the first irrigation-based economy in the Western Hemisphere in modern times, colonizing particularly the Intermountain and Southwestern regions with farming communities. Mormon irrigation experts were prominent in the U.S. Reclamation Service, precursor of the USBR. Mormon practice morphed into federal irrigation law.

Two notable California Republican-Progressives came from this Mormon background: Governor Goodwin Knight, and Knight's Legislative Secretary, Paul Mason, my father-in-law. Both came to California as young men and made their way into politics, ultimately becoming close partners in the game.

I don't know details of Knight's early life other than that for a time he made his living as a hard rock miner. Years of cutting rock for dynamite charges with a star drill and hammer gave him a vice-like grip, born out when Knight was assigned to warm up delegates for Dwight Eisenhower's acceptance speech at the 1952 GOP Convention. The two were introduced just before Knight went out to the speaker's lectern to begin his introduction. Ike said that Knight's handshake grip was shocking.

Paul Mason grew up on a dairy farm in Parker, Idaho, in the Mormon colony centered on Rexburg, now a thriving city and the site of Brigham Young University-Idaho. After earning a Master's degree in political science at Stanford in 1923, Paul served on the Senate Desk staff under Joe Beek, eventually becoming Parliamentarian of the Senate. He authored Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure in 1935; it is the standard reference on rules of order and procedure used by legislatures throughout the United States and the world. Paul eventually served as Director of Motor Vehicles in Knight's cabinet. Paul Mason was a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason.

The pronounced visibility of Freemasons in the California Legislature described above is not remarkable. Freemasons were notably prominent in American government during the first half of the 20th Century. Three of the most important presidents of the period, Theodore Roosevelt (who launched USBR's precursor), Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman were Freemasons. Also notable was Henry Wallace, FDR's vice president.

A Republican-Progressive, Wallace was among the senior most Scottish Rite Masons in the country, holding the high honorific 33nd Degree of that order. As the outstanding agronomic scientist of his era (he invented hybridized seed corn), Wallace personified the absolute devotion of Freemasonry to science in service of humanity. This Masonic sanctification of applied science runs all the way back through Albert Einstein to Sir Isaac Newton, founder of modern science and of modern Freemasonry. This belief system, which equates applied science with progress and mankind's general welfare, was the bedrock ethos of water development advocates in the American West. They deemed expansion of irrigated agriculture an axiomatic good.

Freemasonry and Early Civil Engineering --- An Identity

The following link to the April 2015 issue of an Irish engineering journal explains far better than I can the closest historical sociological link in the matrix I describe above --- ties uniting engineering and Freemasonry that trace back to roots of the engineering profession in Medieval Europe. In their beginnings, Freemasonry and civil engineering were an identity, as this article explains.

As related above, these bonds were strong as ever in the Bureau of Reclamation in my father's day. The article is "Upon the level and by the square -- freemasonry and engineering." It is a very interesting piece:



Water Reclamation Circa 1880

Impetus for water development on the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley --- and the societal basis of it --- did not result from operation of bureaucracy or conferences on water policy or networking of the above described socio-political class. It rose spontaneously on the land and in support of an emerging economy created by settlers who emigrated to the Valley after the Civil War. These new arrivals established towns along Southern Pacific's east-side railroad, a line put through in 1888, the year Exeter was founded.

Concentrating on land around Tulare, Exeter, Lindsay, and Porterville, settlers began to homestead and farm, and demand for water rose accordingly. Homesteaders dug their own wells using a windlass, rope and bucket to haul out the dirt. My grandfather dug wells on his own place and helped his neighbors to dig theirs. The water table on his farm near the foothills was at 33 feet. At Exeter it was 22 feet, but it did not yield much water. People later put up windmills and tanks and dug down to the next strata at 50 feet. The shallow water then disappeared, and everyone had to put in windmills and tanks.

Pumps were introduced in the early 1890s. They soon proved successful, making it possible to plant crops besides grain, crops for distant markets made accessible by the new railway. This brought a heavy demand for land leveling. Expanses of land dotted by untillable Mima mounds, commonly called 'hog wallows,' were transformed into flat ground suitable for planting irrigated crops.

My grandfather was highly skilled at working with horses and mules ---  teamster, stage driver, packer, mountain guide --- over his lifetime he did them all, and more, including land leveling. One time, while visiting Exeter on Spring break, I took Granddad for a ride into country out east of Exeter, through Lemon Cove, Orange Cove, Woodlake, and on up to Three Rivers. It was a sunny day, so I put down the top of my convertible. As we sped along in the warm fresh air, Granddad would point out farm after farm whose owners were friends or family in his day. Most were planted in orchards or vineyards, very often on converted hog-wallow ground that he had leveled with two-horse dumper or Fresno Scraper.

We finished up with pie and coffee in The Waters cafe at the eastern edge of the town of Three Rivers where the forks of the Kaweah River join and the road begins to climb into the Sierras. From our table we had a fine view of the Spring snow melt surging past us. Granddad  pointed out a level, gravelly stretch on the bank down stream where in the summer of 1891 he forded the river leading a train of mules packed with provisions for the Army. The force he was helping to supply were troopers of the 4th Cavalry deployed to prevent colonists of a utopian Marxist community from cutting trees in newly protected forest that was to become Sequoia National Park.

Founded by pioneers, these East Side Tulare County towns had developed by 1920 into the home of a strikingly prosperous middle class, and they formed the heart of a growing local economy built on irrigated vineyard and orchard agriculture. This cluster of small farm towns built and supported school systems that routinely sent graduates on to Cal, Stanford, and other major universities, and some of these students were noted athletes. Exeter High School was a football power in the Teens and Twenties.

In 1923, I think it was, the Exeter American Legion football team defeated a San Francisco team to win the California semi-pro championship. Despite the Depression, Exeter in 1939 supported a music teacher trained at Julliard School. High schools staged musical theater productions and classical music concerts. Visalia, the county seat, was home to a symphony orchestra and a junior college, the College of the Sequoias. When war loomed in 1939, aviation training courses taught at the junior college and in conjunction with Visalia Airport grew into a major USAAF basic pilot training center. This intensely productive society was a foundation stone of the California economy. Sacrifices of its sons and daughters helped win the Allied victory in World War II. Water built this remarkable rural society.


Although most voters in this Tulare County electorate probably supported FDR, they nevertheless sent Republican-Progressive Frank Mixter to the State Legislature in every election from 1924 to 1942. Mixter served three terms in the Assembly and four terms in the Senate. Water was only one of Mixter's priorities. With Senator John Foley, he coauthored SB 657 (1939), which established the California Streets and Highways Code.

So I think the answer to when or how Earl Warren got interested in water policy might be lying in plain sight. He rose to prominence in a socio-political matrix wherein support for water development was deemed unequivocally 'a good thing.' Many if not most of his fellow Republican-Progressives --- 'Freemasons in rimless glasses and double breasted suits' --- had always been ready in the Governor's own words to --- 'Harness every snowflake.' This ethos was in the DNA of the matrix that encompassed his party.

Thus it was that Warren had only to open his hand to Brothers in the Craft for political or detailed technical support on water issues. To be clear, in observance of a strict Masonic rule, Mixter and Warren would never have discussed politics or business of any kind in the precincts of the Lodge. My guess though is that Frank Mixter's total commitment to 'harnessing every snowflake' would have been very well known and approved of by a succeeding Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of California.

And there is this: For all we know, Warren had always favored water development. And after VJ Day there was need to crank up a postwar economy, he deemed the political calculus right, and so stepped out to proclaim it.

To wind up this ramble, I will draw the above 'water development matrix' down to its family dimension: My father was interred beside Griggs in-laws at the Exeter Cemetery in 1971. My uncle Al Griggs --- Quarterback on 'Slip' Madigan's 'Wonder Team' at Saint Mary's, and likewise on the 1923 State Champion Exeter American Legion semi-pro football team; High Sierra packer, horse whisperer, rodeo athlete, farmer, and Freemason --- performed the Masonic graveside service for my father, former Chief of Water Use of the Central Valley Project, and 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason.