The Beautiful Schemers Who Took Desert and Marsh and Turned California Into an Agricultural Wonder
The letters traveled from Fresno to Constantinople as the First World War was coming to an end. They were written with the purpose of selling a man without a country—my paternal grandfather in this instance—on the idea of California. He had survived the 1915–1918 Armenian Genocide by hiding in the attic of a dwelling he shared with his mother, sister, and brother on the Asiatic side of Constantinople. An aspiring poet, he had his mind set on moving to Paris and studying French literature at the Sorbonne. But the letters, each one more blood red than the one before, kept arriving from Fresno, already known as the “raisin capital of the world.”
They were written by his mother’s brother, the last patriarch left in the family, who had fled Turkey after his wife and two children were killed in a massacre in their village on the shores of Lake Nicea. The uncle had lost everything and yet he had begun to believe, out of some obstinacy deep inside, that a new life was possible in a sunbaked valley in the lee of the Sierra.
“Here find an Eden of pomegranate and peach,” he wrote to my grandfather Aram Arax. “Grapes that hang like jade eggs. Watermelons so capacious that when you finish eating their delicious meat, you can float inside their shells in the cool waters of irrigation canals.” Paris or Fresno, which to choose? That my grandfather chose the latter became one of the longest running jokes in our family. He would find out soon enough that he had been played for a sucker. His uncle could hardly be blamed. The elder had been caught up in the “Golden State” hype, unwittingly enlisted in the legion of promoters proclaiming a new Eden in the Far West. Not since gold rush times had such spectacular tales been told about California.