By William W. Abbott

We all are familiar with the State of California in its role in land planning and development as the uber regulator. But if you turn back the hands of time immediately before World War I, a different picture emerges; that of land developer.

The triggering event was the Wheatland Hop Riot in 1913. The Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) made an early attempt to organize the field laborers. The resulting conflict between growers and laborers resulted in four deaths, with the State of California sending the National Guard to bring law and order to the fields. It was California’s first documented farm labor conflict. The Wheatland Hop Riot, coupled with a national progressive movement to improve the quality of life for farmers, lead to the California State Commission on Colonization and Rural Credits. Concerned with escalating land prices, land speculation and the growing economic gap between tenant farmers and landowners, the Commission’s charge was to craft a strategy to improve rural life.

To implement this vision, the legislature of 1917 passed the Land Settlement Act and created the Land Settlement Board. The Board’s first endeavor involved the acquisition of 6,219 acres in Butte County near the existing community of Durham, and the development of an agricultural colony. Durham was the brainchild of Elwood Mead. An irrigation expert and a leader in Wyoming water rights law, Mead also developed agricultural colonies in Australia. Later, as an instructor at U.C. Berkley, and relying on his Australia experience, he was hired to develop and organize the Durham settlement.

The State, using a multi-disciplinary approach involving numerous agencies, adopted a role which was more than that of just a subdivider. The Settlement Board brought together supporting disciplines such as public health and agricultural practices to increase the likelihood of success.  The State acquired land water rights, graded and planted crops, and built homes. The land was subdivided into various sized parcels based upon agricultural productivity, and through lease-purchase agreements, a community was born. The State actively directed life in Durham, from building homes to supervising agricultural practices. In other words, it was Big Brother meets Farmer John.

The Durham settlement was perceived as a success, and the legislature, in response to the end of the war, redirected the Land Settlement Act towards veterans and launched a second community in Delhi, Merced County. Delhi consisted of an 8,000 acre tract, essentially uncultivated land, and like Durham, had no supporting infrastructure. The town was laid out by a landscape architect from the University of California. Unabashedly, a writer for the Sacramento Bee declared: “In years to come, this town of Delhi, now little but surveyors’ lines and grade stakes, with a new home under way here and there, should attain the fame of Gary, Indiana, that specialty-built city of the Steel Corporation.” In hindsight, the Sacramento Bee was guilty of mild exuberance.

Want more information? Follow the links to period pieces, including Progress Under the Land Settlement Act, 1919, (and corresponding appendix) and How California Helps Men Own Farms and Rural Homes, 1920, as well as maps and photographs. Our next installment will examine Durham and Delhi in greater detail.

Bill Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.