J. Rupert Mason and the Legacy
of the California Irrigation Bonds
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
It was in 1975 when Eugenie Mason decided that enough was enough.
Since 1929, along with many other citizens of California, she had
received no income from her holding of 6 per cent bonds issued by the
El Caminho Irrigation District. Not a cent of interest; not a dime off
the capital. And after four decades of litigation and lawsuits, the
District authorities were still stalling.
With drastic action clearly called for. Mrs. Mason sought the aid of
California's Attorney-General -- and the final phase of a marathon
battle to establish a basic principle in the State's lax laws had
The fightl-back against official chicanery and legal gobbledegook had
begun for Eugenic Mason as far back as the early 1930s, when the
leading role had "been played by her husband, financier J. Rupert
Mason, an acknowledged expert on California's irrigation law.
But the struggle acquired a new dimension in 1936 when Rupert Mason
began to realise the extent to which the California Irrigation
District Act owed its origins to the philosophy of Henry George.
Mason well knew that, under the Act, any Irrigation District in
California (of which there were some 120) issuing Slate bonds to
finance an irrigation scheme was required to service the bonds by
making an annual levy on the value of the land benefiting from the
He knew, too, that this annual levy made it unprofitable for the
owners to hold such land idle.
But he had never fully realised two other important facts.
First, that in adopting such a scheme for financing public works --
one based on "benefits received" -- California, among all
the states of the world, stood virtually alone. A study of vast land
reclamation projects all over the world -- in Italy, Spain, Peru,
Chile, the Philippines, China, Egypt, Greece, Java and Australia --
showed Mason that, in hardly any case, was the cost of public
improvements charged upon the benefited land as in California.
Ii was as if California had determined, in some form, to follow the
thinking of one of its most illustrious citizens.
o Second, it rapidly dawned on Rupert Mason that it was this very
process of levying a charge on land values that made the price of land
in the Califomian irrigation districts lower than corresponding land
elsewhere. It was this levy, entirely on its own, that made land in
California more easily available 10 small farmers and home seekers
than in other states of the U.S.A.
In a flash of insight, he saw that California would still be a
sleepy, semi-arid land of vast Spanish-style estates -- as Spain is
to-day -- had it not been for the "land-tax" provisions of
California's irrigation laws.
THIS SUDDEN perception of the full significance of Henry George's
leaching had a dramatic effect on the 50 year-old Californian. He
joined other prominent Americans in pressing for land value taxes to
replace State sales taxes. He met advocates of land-value taxation
from Britain. Denmark, Australia and other countries. And in 1949 he
became President of the International Union for Land-Value Taxation
and Free Trade.
But well before his full awakening to the potency of land-value
taxation, Rupert Mason had made his name in defending the Californian
irrigation law. Since the 1890s, there had been a succession of
attempts, by powerful interests. To kill or emasculate the law. In
1895, for example, landowning interests had attacked land-value
taxation as "communism and confiscation under the guise of law".
It had taken a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to confirm that the
irrigation law of California was constitutional.
But the landlords and speculators had kept up the pressure. Their big
chance came with the 1929 economic crisis when property values
dramatically slumped. Ai that time, many country mortgages in
California were hold against land in the irrigation districts (which
covered five million acres) and the mortgage interests appealed to the
Stale courts, and then to Washington, to have the land-value levies
take second place to the mortgage interest payments.
In both venues they came up against J. Rupert Mason. He fought them
all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually emerging triumphant with
a favourable Supreme Court ruling in 1935. But the mortgage interests
had still not finished, and some years later, after a number of
changes in the Supreme Court's composition, they tried again. This
time they achieved some success, the Supreme Court ruling that States
could set aside local government bonds in favour of mortgages if such
action were sanctioned by a Federal court.
Since then, recorded Mason bitterly in 1959, "the federal courts
have imposed 'death sentences' on valid, binding and unpaid local
But in one of California's irrigation districts -- that of F,l
Caminho in Tehama County -- Rupert Mason was able to continue the
fight for the interests of the bondholders and for the landowners to
pay their rightful dues. The El Caminho authorities had defaulted on
their bonds in 1929 when, according to the Red Bluff Daily News.
properly values in the district plummeted below the land debt. But
even though these land values subsequently recovered (and now stand at
about four times the total levies due on them) the District
authorities still made no move to collect the dues and pay off the
THE CASE was still proceeding at the time of Rupert Mason's death in
1959 and might then have disappeared under a cloud of legal dust --
but for his wife Eugenic. A bondholder herself, she decided to fight
on and, moreover, to call in the State Attorney-General when, after a
further frustrating 16 years, the negotiations with the El-Caminho
authorities broke down.
Mrs. Manson's cri-de-coeur to the Californian Attorney-General proved
a master-stroke. The State lawyers filed suit in September 1976 and,
before the year's end, had obtained a judgment from the Tehama County
Superior Court ordering the irrigation district to pay their debts to
Such, however, is the snailpace of U.S. legal processes that it was
not until 1982 that the inevitable appeal was heard.
The appeal court upheld the judgment and ruled that the El Caminho
Irrigation District should proceed to assess the land values in its
area in order to pay off the sum - estimated at over $2.4m -- which it
owed to the holders of its unpaid bonds. This ruling was finally
confirmed by the California Supreme Court in March 1983.
With the Supreme Court's decision, after eight separate lawsuits
since 1938, the Masons' long struggle has been crowned with success. A
special accountant is now being appointed by Tehama County to
supervise the assessments in the El Caminho District.
For Eugenic Mason, the result is a complete vindication of the dogged
stand taken by her husband and then by herself over that almost
interminable forty years.
She told Land & Liberty: "To me, it has beerr a truly
historic saga and the most important decision of the Californian
courts. It sets a vital precedent in land tenure and shows that
landowners are not above the State law." Certainly, throughout
California today, there will be many holders of local government
securities, as well as small farmers and home-owners, who would gladly
drink a toast to the State's land-value irrigation law - coupled, of
course, with the names of Rupert and Eugenie Mason.
1. Red Bluff Daily News, 30
2. Sacramento Bee, 28 October, 1982. (The Sacramento Bee
is the newspaper on which Henry George worked at the time of writing
Progress and Poverty in the 1870s. He was given much support
at the time by James McClatchy, the newspaper's founder.)