‘The Norton Trilogy’ by Jack August, Jr.

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“The Norton Trilogy” digs deep into the desert climate of Arizona through the eyes of three generations of John Ruddle Nortons, a family who has been cited as agricultural innovators in the West during and after the turn of the 20th century.

August explains how the lives of John R. Norton (1854-1923), John R. Norton, Jr.

(1901-1987) and John R. Norton III (1929-present) shaped a region that helped supply the United States with cotton, vegetables, and livestock throughout World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and modern agribusiness.

ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to Books & Co. I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined today by Jack August, Jr., talking about his most recent book, "The Norton Trilogy." Welcome, Jack.

JACK AUGUST: Nice to be here.

ALBERTO RIOS: "The Norton Trilogy"! It made me laugh. When I started reading it it's all about water.

JACK AUGUST: Quite a bit. It's a story of how three generations of John Nortons came to Arizona, went through the trials and tribulations of the depression and a very difficult agricultural economy and then finally in this generation, the third generation, flourished and became agribusiness Titans and in many ways serves the country and the state and they ultimately became great philanthropists to this day in Arizona and the west. The fourth character is water itself.

ALBERTO RIOS: Or the desert depending on how we want to view what we're talking about here.

JACK AUGUST: Yes, originally the subtitle was going to be "The Norton Trilogy," a history of water and agribusiness in the American southwest, but we figured brevity is beauty, therefore just "The Norton Trilogy," but it's an exploration, rumination on the role that agriculture played in the growth and development of this region. It even reflects back, as you know, to Native Americans and the southwest.

ALBERTO RIOS: That gives us a good starting point. When we say irrigated agriculture we're talking about that in reasonably contemporary terms even going back to the 1800s when water was diverted and different strategies were employed to make an arable area, correct?


ALBERTO RIOS: I have a curious question. Who said it was okay? Who owned it? Where did water come from? Where did it go to?

JACK AUGUST: The Americans brought with them the constitutions in their hip pockets. When this area became part of the United States, out of the come pro mights of 1850 subsequent to the war with Mexico, we suddenly had a new sovereign. With it the laws. So in the west prior appropriation or first in use, first in right governed the use of water. You had to put it to what's called beneficial use. Still a powerful term in legal lexicon of water. So speaking about "The Norton Trilogy" and the development of this region, the salt river valley, we have people in the late 1860s and '70s realizing a new military presence out here designed to open up the mining areas that had been kind of located, you have the military here in the post-civil war period, what do they do? They turn from fighting the north and south they fight Native Americans for the land. They needed to serve a population. So quickly a confederate deserter, Jack swelling, and a group of unsuccessful miners saw there was old canals --

ALBERTO RIOS: Just as you say that, this area -- people today have a hard time understanding why Phoenix exists.


ALBERTO RIOS: About what you're describing, this was plates where the water was.

JACK AUGUST: Yes, it was. They saw the Salt River, diverted it north, they were able to get a crop in in the winter. Sold a little bit of that hay to the military, thus a new irrigated agricultural empire was born. It took off pretty quickly. By 1870, the next decade we suddenly have a developing -- I don't know if we would call it urban, but a small city of a couple thousand souls. With that the need for variety of other goods and services.

ALBERTO RIOS: When you talk about water and this burgeoning or nascent urbanism predicated on water --

JACK AUGUST: Predicated on water.

ALBERTO RIOS: You also have a very interesting discussion in the book about what is ultimately then, at that point, the myth of rugged individualism. You had to suddenly be dependent on each other to survive.


ALBERTO RIOS: That was because of water.

JACK AUGUST: Exactly right. As you see, the life of the first Norton, who participates in one of the two great game-changing historical events in this region, in what is now central Arizona, now the sixth largest city in the country, one was in 1884 after he arrived to Phoenix with a man named W. J. Murphy, who was a big promoter, there was no bureau of reclamation, no federal help some of the people had to bind together. They also went to outside sources outside banks in San Francisco, the east coast, Chicago, even Europe, to try to finance these water delivery systems as there was a greater need. The first game change was John Norton, the first, was the foreman of the Arizona canal. Anyone who lives in Phoenix knows the 40-mile canal from granite reef dam, comes out of the Salt River into the valley, it diverted water across the northern part of the valley. It was huge. We had easterners, an eastern governor named Frederick Tridle, who championed and sold Arizona just as we still try to sell Arizona to eastern investors. We go through a period of cooperated agriculture. Then we get into corporate agriculture. Corporate water, which it's just water, becomes too difficult. It's too expensive. How do we convey this life-giving source to land to benefit a growing population? So finally --

ALBERTO RIOS: It was in a hostile environment.

JACK AUGUST: Oh, boy. Yes.

ALBERTO RIOS: So management became crucial for husbandry. However we want to refer to it. Became crucial. It led us I'm assuming then to the dam.

JACK AUGUST: Roosevelt Dam, the first of -- the second great game changer. Roosevelt and the formation of a group called the Salt River Valley water users association, the first five federal reclamation projects under the reclamation act of 1902, which basically provided federal support for the building of water and hydroelectric power as it turns out. Infrastructure in the west for the next, say, 50 years into this century. Mr. Norton was there when Theodore the talker, I call him, Theodore Roosevelt said this is one of the most important things in my administration.

ALBERTO RIOS: He said one of the two.

JACK AUGUST: Panama Canal and Roosevelt dam. The first John Ruddel Norton is here during the development of water and statehood.

ALBERTO RIOS: I wonder if you could make that equation, that water or the control of water created statehood.

JACK AUGUST: One could argue that in part. Also political will of the people. Arizona and New Mexico had a hard time becoming states for political reasons because they would elect senators from the opposite party of the president and Congress, so they didn't want to do that. There was even talk at one point of them coming in as one state called Montezuma. New Mexico voted for it, Arizona against it. But that went by the way side. By 1912 both areas come in as states. We had marshals, the first big challenge in water supply and storage, and again, this is business of Arizona then is agriculture, big agriculture for export.

ALBERTO RIOS: Agriculture then was alfalfa. We don't think of that today, but alfalfa, it was the quote from the Arizona Republican, that great line, alfalfa was king, cotton was queen, and every dairy cow a princess.

JACK AUGUST: That's correct. That really covers what was then a diversified agricultural economy. World War I changed everything. You see the slash in prices. We don't really recover from that depression until 1925. Four years later the big crash. The second John Norton, Jr., has to deal with that. But he was able to build upon the good name his father had made. He was popular guy, became Maricopa County supervisor during the territorial period, kind of rivaled -- wanted to run for Congress as sheriff against Carl Hayden. Didn't quite get there. He was an old states rights Democrat. By the time the next John Norton comes on board he's still a Democrat but between 1929 and 1940 as we crawl out of the depression, historians argue about that, World War II is upon us, the second John Norton has built a basically a big local empire in conjunction with partners in California, and we see Arizona and California having kind of a common agricultural economic destiny together. So he does that. By that time he becomes Democrats for Dewey. We see the rise of the Pinto Democrats in John Norton, Jr.

ALBERTO RIOS: It was also an interesting sociological shift where that conservation credo of the greatest good for the largest number of people for the longest period of time starts to change.

JACK AUGUST: It does. Progressive era changes and in many was the exigencies of World War II alter the American west and this region also. I think we see change, a generation of change in five years. Five years during the war. Huge demand for agricultural products.

ALBERTO RIOS: Can I shift back to World War I?


ALBERTO RIOS: I think if I remember correctly that's when cotton became vital to the national war effort of all things.

JACK AUGUST: Airplanes.

ALBERTO RIOS: It was World War I that gave us almost what would become the crop of the future.

JACK AUGUST: Absolutely. That's a very good point. I'm glad we doubled back to talk about that. We also have the names of Litchfield and Goodyear become imprinted on the history of this region, particularly the Salt River valley because that's the period when they come in and really put their economic footprint here. It rebounds to Arizona's benefit during World War II as well. They are here for a generation. They kind of repurpose their agricultural produce for other means in World War II.

ALBERTO RIOS: I would like to remind our viewers you have been watching Books & Co. I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined by Jack August, Jr., talking about "The Norton Trilogy," which is this family of the Norton family, and their impact on the development, really action of Arizona, especially through water and irrigated agriculture. I want to go back for a moment to that discussion of cotton, though. I found it quite a fascinating discussion because I think we would have thought of cotton given the 1800s, for example, as the south. Something changed. It had to do with the grace of this environment rather than what we might think of as the horrors of the heat.

JACK AUGUST: Yes. Exactly. It was vital for this particular kind of cotton that went well for military purposes in World War I. By that time, I think Arizona, if I'm not mistaken, I'm sure I'll hear the fourth largest cotton producer in the country during those decades. 20s through the '40s and '50s. Longer growing season.

ALBERTO RIOS: A different kind of cotton. That was a game changer.

JACK AUGUST: It really was. Cotton was big. Still, we still see some down by the areas of Coolidge, Florence, that area.

ALBERTO RIOS: Thriving still.


ALBERTO RIOS: Desert snow when you see it. You see it along the highways. The fact that you grow these things, alfalfa, cotton, these things, and that you have livestock led us to something you start to bring up as well, transportation. How do you move these things to where they need to go?

JACK AUGUST: Transportation. The railroad getting into Phoenix by 1923 and suddenly those -- the west valley and the east valley and elsewhere, you could get that crop in and ship it and with refrigerated railroad cars and technological innovation suddenly Arizona lettuce grown can make it to the tables of Chicago and New York in a couple of days. Same thing with cattle and earlier? The century, 20th century, sheep. So Phoenix was uniquely geographically located to be a trance shipment place for all these goods. We flourished.

ALBERTO RIOS: It was a big, open area of space. We could do a lot of the content providing growing the cotton, growing the cattle and it was a place of the imagination then, I think.

JACK AUGUST: Absolutely.

ALBERTO RIOS: Arizona. The Nortons, they saw it too. They saw -- they see it through a business perspective. That's one way to see it. I think there are some things that get left out in that perspective, of course, but they bring some things to the table that helped move Arizona forward that I think we are indebted to them for.


ALBERTO RIOS: I wonder, though, you mentioned Native Americans. There are other people affected by the appropriation of water rights or just water usage. That's on the one hand. Also you mentioned the prior use, first use ethos. We're at the end of the Colorado River even before we count Mexico. We have a couple of things going on here.

JACK AUGUST: We have a lot of things going on. There's the basin. There's the law of the river, which is not just a law of the river, it's congressional, legal cases, we still are wrestling with what's called the winners decision. Lawyers will know the 1908 decision that Congress -- I think it's about seven pages long. When you created Indian reservations you created a prior water use.

ALBERTO RIOS: Reasonable expectation.

JACK AUGUST: The Indians, Native Americans of Arizona, have the most Indian tribes in the United States. We have to take care of that water allocation first. So just within Arizona it's taken as have fast I'll and dexterous legal mind to work agreements. We're still working it out.

ALBERTO RIOS: That would seem to be not business oriented but people oriented. That starts to confuse the different pure ways of practicing something like business, right?

JACK AUGUST: That's right.

ALBERT RIOS: But of course it's part of how we live in the world. It's interesting to see that the law has struggled with that mightily.

JACK AUGUST: Mightily.

ALBERTO RIOS: That it's going on to this day.

JACK AUGUST: In fact, yes, I'm involved in several of those cases.

ALBERTO RIOS: Arizona versus California. That lawsuit. Maybe we should talk about that for a second.

JACK AUGUST: Okay. I have written a book on it.

ALBERTO RIOS: Now I know you have. It's a big deal. It has come to define Arizona so many ways. Created a war or in the process we went to war with California.

JACK AUGUST: It's comedic but it shows how serious Arizonans considered their rightful share of the Colorado River. You have to go back to the 1920’s and '30s, Arizona, hard to believe, was a democratic state. Mostly states’ rights southerners. Where the Colorado River pass through Arizona that was their water. No one else had the right to put water to beneficial use except Arizona. Well, that wasn't what Congress wanted or intended with the passage of the law in 1928 that affected that. So governor B.B. Moore, a pediatrician, two-term governor, when Congress okayed the building of Parker dam, the construction workers started building the dam and he sent the national guard in the middle of the summer, so the construction crews had to save the national guard that was there to attack them. A comedy of errors but symbolized Arizona's increasing frustration for being on the dry side of the river, as they say.

ALBERTO RIOS: There are many stories about that episode. I don't know if pistols or rifles were drawn.

JACK AUGUST: It was the real deal.

ALBERTO RIOS: We can laugh about it now. Water was always serious business.


ALBERTO RIOS: Clearly. In the process of all of this wrangling and the law, what happens to Mexico?

JACK AUGUST: Mexico under a treaty in 1944 has the right to 1.5 million-acre feet out of the system. It can come on both the upper basin, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and parts of Utah and New Mexico, small parts, and then the lower basin, Nevada, Arizona and California, to provide that amount. Together. So that has been problematic.

ALBERTO RIOS: I was going to say, but good luck.

JACK AND AUGUST: Quantity and quality as well.

ALBERTO RIOS: Quality another interesting issue. That leads us to the next sort of development, the central Arizona project.


ALBERTO RIOS: Maybe you can talk about that just a moment.

JACK AUGUST: Well, the brief way.


JACK AUGUST: It has been a dream since 1890 when the editor of the Kingman newspaper wanted to divert water from the Grand Canyon down to the arid --

ALBERTO RIOS: You could do it on a map.

JACK AUGUST: That's what they said. Yes. But we had one figure, an important person in Arizona history, biographer, Carl Hayden, who was born in 1877 and spent the large part of his great congressional years, most of it in the Senate, seeking legislation to do that. Arizona versus California, longest court case in American history, from 1952 to 1963. Briefly, Arizona won the case as it were and for five years we had enough water based on that ruling to -- it was feasible to construct the central Arizona project. Senator Hayden at age 90 was able to see the bill signed and passed away and took another 20 years to get the ditch built between Phoenix and Tucson.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's a big canal.

JACK AUGUST: A big canal from near Lake Havasu City --

ALBERTO RIOS: A diversion project. We have seen smaller versions. This is a huge --

JACK AUGUST: 300-plus miles. Yes. It has been -- it's altered the demographics and the history of the American southwest. The Pacific southwest.

ALBERTO RIOS: That's a great phrase, by the way. It was a phrase new to me. I think you coined it. The Pacific southwest.

JACK AUGUST: Yes briefly, take a long historical view, then the short one. After the war with Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico came in from 1850 to 1863 as New Mexico. Civil war exigencies in the north enabled the split, so Arizona and New Mexico, though they were pretty similar region geographically, topographically, nevertheless as time went on turned their back to each other. So New Mexico's influence, economic influence, maybe cultural influence, they look toward Texas and Oklahoma, where Arizona, I think you grew up in Arizona you took a vacation to San Diego or something like that.


JACK AUGUST: Slowly but surely we became oriented, we had our backs turned to one another and Arizona's orientation, cultural, economic and otherwise, looked toward California and the Pacific coast. John Norton, Jr., and III, as they developed their economic empire looked to California and the Blythe area. Palo Verde irrigation district has the longest standing water rights in the Colorado River system. He was interested in those water rights.

ALBERTO RIOS: Curious historical footnote.

JACK AUGUST: Arizona, they were paying California's legal team they were rooting for Arizona. All the Arizona expatriates were on the California side of the river. But the Nortons expanded their empire into the central valley and other portions of California and it's that Pacific southwest economy.

ALBERTO RIOS: Playing into that is the foot node of the Gadsden Purchase, which added something. I have a question of you as an historian. As an Arizonan I have always heard that was meant to give us access to water.


ALBERTO RIOS: To the gulf.

JACK AUGUST: What happened was, Santa Ana, who had been president many times from the 1830s, he was president at the time, and negotiations with the Mexican Senate had undergone -- had been maybe two or three months in the making. We were going to have the United States was going to get the area down by where rocky Penasco was and we would have a port. But Santa Ana said we couldn't get a land bridge from Sonora, he would be over thrown again. I don't know how many times. It was a political issue having to do with the Mexican Senate and the Mexican press, which was powerful and forceful. So a political issue within Mexico led to the compromise border where we, Arizona and the United States, has access to that coast. But it was discussed and it was on the table.

ALBERTO RIOS: It would have changed everything.


ALBERTO RIOS: Whole different Arizona.

JACK AUGUST: Whole different Pacific southwest. We may have been more comfortable with the term in its own way.

ALBERTO RIOS: I want to finish by just underscoring one line that I thought was just wonderful. It's almost casually presented at the beginning of the book. You say much of the land is irrigated and Green, but the desert as the Nortons realized did not go away.

JACK AUGUST: I only endorse that sentence and I'm glad I wrote it.

ALBERTO RIOS: I'm glad you wrote it too. There's something enduring and constant about the place. People can do all the things they choose to do to it, but it seems to take care of its own business, as it were. Thank you for joining us.

JACK AUGUST: Thank you for reading the book.

ALBERTO RIOS: We have been talking with Jack August, Jr., who has been talking to us about water and his book, "The Norton Trilogy." Thank you for joining us. I'm your host, Alberto Rios. Please join us next time, when we will be bringing you another good book. Thank you, Jack.

JACK AUGUST: Thank you.

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