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The Winning of Barbara Worth


The Dreams of Irrigation

by Milford Wayne Donaldson 

On April 27, 2002 the Squibob Chapter of E Clampus Vitus dedicated a new California Registered Historical Landmark #1034 (a monument and plaque) at the site of Harold Bell Wright's home and studio, which he called "Tecolote Rancho,"  in the Imperial Valley.  In connection with that ceremony, Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, Grand Noble Historian of the Squibob Chapter #1853, E Clampus Vitus, edited a 32-page booklet on Harold Bell Wright's experience in the Imperial Valley.  In addition to the narrative below, the booklet included:

1.   "Introduction," by Quentin Burke, president of the Harold Bell Wright Society;

2.  "Harold Bell Wright: Popular California Author," Carol Hann's article from the Fall 1989 edition of The California Book Collector, Vol. 1, No. 2;

3.  "Who Was Harold Bell Wright?" Gerry Chudleigh's introduction from this website,

and the narrative below by the society's historian.  Included on this website by permission of the author.

Narrative by Milford Wayne Donaldson, from Material Dreams, Southern California Through the 1920s by Kevin Starr and History of  Imperial Irrigation District and the Development of Imperial Valley by M. J. Dowd.

As a hard rain the week before swamped everything near El Centro, early in the day on August 27, 1909 the El Centro Daily Free Lance reported the following story:

Torn by conflicting demands on his aesthetic nature by two separate artistic callings Harold Bell Wright, novelist and painter, chose between the two last week in his home at Tecolote Rancho east of El Centro. Hoping to put forever behind him the painter part of his artistic nature, Mr. Wright went to his studio and ruthlessly tore down and carried out every picture he had painted, every canvas he had sketched, his easels, frames, studies, all his oils and colors, his palate and knife, his turpentine, mahl stick, sketch books and water colors and threw them all in one big heap; then he touched a match to the heap and $500 worth of materials went up in smoke.

As a large-scale irrigated desert subculture, the Imperial Valley of 1910 nurtured its distinct version of the Southern California experience. The inland desert supported cities, towns, urban institutions, farmlands, and local worthies. The Imperial Valley even had its own inland ocean, 45 miles long, 17 miles across, 83 feet deep, for a total of 410 square miles and six million acre feet. The Salton Sea was now the largest inland body of water in the State of California. It was also an exact re-creation of Lake Cahuilla of ancient times, likewise created by a westering Colorado. Ironically, had the Salton Sea not been brought into being by the rampaging Colorado, it would have had to be developed in some form or other as an inland sump for excess flows and normal irrigation runoff. The heroic floods of 1905-1907 had accidentally brought the Imperial Valley into ecological balance. The Salton Sea also reinforced the Biblical metaphors implicit in the redemption of the Imperial by providing an analogy to the Dead Sea of the Holy Land. Vast, smooth, saline, beginning abruptly at the edge of the desert in assertion of water against aridity, the Salton Sea offered the deepest possible metaphor of the region. In time, stocked fish would bring life to these waters; but no amount of stocking, however successful, could fully transform the Salton Sea into a purely natural body of water. A sump for diverted Colorado River waters that had finished their course through the head-gates and canals through the very earth itself and now rested, still, exhausted, saline from soil leachings, after having given life to the valley, the Salton Sea asserted on a macro-ecological scale William Ellsworth Smythe's notion that irrigation offered human beings the opportunity to co-create with divinity itself.

This, as a deeply humanistic enterprise with theological overtones, was how Harold Bell Wright, a Disciples of Christ minister turned novelist, depicted the creation of the Imperial Valley in his 1911 best-selling novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth. A combination of ill health and dissatisfaction with the restrictions of his calling led Wright in 1908 to settle on the Tecolote Ranch near the City of Holtville in Imperial Valley, in an effort to regain his strength through an outdoor life which would also leave him time to write. A year later, Wright produced the first of his successful novels, The Calling of Dan Matthews, based on his own search for role and vocation. He then turned his attention to the epic of reclamation in the Imperial Valley. Appearing in 1911, The Winning of Barbara Worth sold 175,000 copies in its first two years of publication. Wright's novel tapped that amalgam of progressivism, profit, and religiosity so deeply lodged in the mainstream American identity of this era. The novel also offered a "gloss" on the Imperial Valley experience which Wright, a populist preacher ever in touch with his audience, contrasted with the hand-to-hand struggle to create life in the desert.  Like the best-selling novel Romona in the previous generation, The Winning of Barbara Worth functioned as a vehicle of self-identification through an explicit parable reinforced by underlying cultural and religious metaphors.

The heroine of Wright's novel, Barbara Worth, is literally born of the desert, having been rescued from La Palma de la Mano de Dios (the Hollow of God's Hand) at the age of four by banker Jefferson Worth when her settler parents lose their way in the desert and die of thirst and exposure. Barbara is thus raised as the foster daughter of the leading citizen of the Imperial Valley. Now in her early twenties, she is in every respect the "Imperial Daughter" of the Imperial Valley: a tall, outdoorsy Girl of the Golden West who speaks fluent Spanish and spends much of her time riding the desert on horseback. Barbara, who symbolizes the desert, has four men in her life, each of them embodying one aspect of Wright's parable: her foster-father Jefferson Worth, a banker committed to the work of private capital applied to reclamation (Wright considered his novel, among other things, a sermon on "the ministry of capital"); the Seer, a mystical Smythesque reclamation advocate ever dreaming of desert utopias and new moral order created by irrigation; Abe Lee, a local surveyor in love with Barbara; and Willard Holmes, a New York engineer based on the life of Henry T. Cory, scouting possible reclamation projects for eastern interests. In the course of the novel, Jefferson Worth manages to keep the financing of the Imperial Valley under local control. The Seer manages to convince eastern bankers that reclamation is more than a risky investment; it is the cutting edge of civilization itself. New York engineer Willard Holmes, after first coming under the spell of the desert, manages to turn back the flooding Colorado, assisted by local resident Abe Lee. Barbara, in turn, chooses the educated New Yorker Holmes over local boy Lee to be her husband and the father of her children. Wright's parable is obvious. Reclamation needs eastern money, technology, and brains; but it also needs local control and commitment. The desert cannot be merely invested in or even watered. The desert must be lived in imaginatively with a transcendental vision of place. Reclamation was once a communion and a conquest. "The desert waited," so ran the inscription over the main entrance to the Barbara Worth Hotel in El Centro, quoting Wright's novel, "silent, hot, and fierce--its desolation holding its treasures under the seal of death against the coming of the strong ones."

One such strong one was W. F. Holt, the prototype of Jefferson Worth and the friend to whom Wright dedicated his novel. In making Worth the paragon of responsible local control, Wright was ignoring the irony that it was the locally based California Development Company (CDC) that had perpetrated the disastrous Colorado River, plundered its own assets, and endangered land titles through falsifications that later came to light. No matter: the impressive W. F. Holt, the founding entrepreneur of Imperial Valley other than George Chaffey and the original CDC investment group, was the logical choice to stand in as Barbara Worth's foster father. Born in Missouri, Holt had migrated to Colorado and southwestern Arizona. He later went to Redlands, California. Visiting Imperial Valley out of curiosity in 1901, the young banker saw his opportunity. Let CDC control the water, Holt decided, he would develop the infrastructure-- the gas, electricity, the telephones, the banks, stores, hotels, newspapers, ice machines, and local railroad tracks--all of which Holt and his brother Leroy proceeded to do. By 1910, when Wright was writing, the Imperial Valley was Holt country: the Holt Power Company, the city of Holtville itself, Holt this, Holt that. From this perspective The Winning of Barbara Worth represented Wright's effort to baptize and make holy his friend W.F. Holt's overt or silent participation in so many aspects of the Imperial Valley's economy. Holt, after all, was the supreme practitioner of what Wright described as the ministry of capital.

Things had turned out well for W. F. Holt, and for others as well, through all the perturbations of clogged canals, flooding, and title disputes. During the go-go years of growth, the Imperial Valley functioned as the truck garden of Los Angeles, a source for food for the growing city, tended inevitably towards an equally large-scale, increasingly centralized form of agriculture later described as agribusiness.

Environmental historian Donald Worster finds in the Imperial Valley clear proof that in ages past and present irrigation by its very nature produces not Smythe's localized land-holding yeomanry but bureaucratic centralism and vast estates. The peculiar financial structure of the Imperial Valley, moreover, in which water stocks equaled water equaled land, allowed speculation rapidly to consolidate large holdings through the acquisition of water stock from settlers unable to go the distance. It did not take long for the Imperial Valley, eventually subsidized by the reclamation-built All American Canal as well, to become dominated by the same landowner class already present in 1900 when Harrison Gray Otis and his partner Moses H. Sherman purchased a 700,000-acre ranch adjacent to the Imperial Valley and extending into Mexico.

Below the Mexican border, Otis and Sherman's California-Mexican Land and Cattle Company drew its water gratis, no water stock needed, from the Imperial Canal. Rockwood and other CDC directors likewise availed themselves of this Mexican privilege. By 1904 land below the Mexican border, much of it American-owned, was consuming free of charge seven times as much Colorado River water from the Imperial Canal as was being used in the valley itself.

The Winning of Barbara Worth, written by Wright in 1911 when he was living in Imperial Valley deals with issues of irrigation portrayed by W. F. Holt and the conflict between Wright's noble value as attributed to westerners and the practices of eastern financiers.

Included on this website by permission of the author.

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This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
Copyright 2000-May, 2011 by Gerry Chudleigh
Last updated 05/26/11