The Visit of Mary Fels to California

Edward P.E. Troy

[Reprinted from the Single Tax Review, September-October 1915]

Since the adjournment of the Joseph Fels Fund and Single Tax Conference at San Francisco, a few weeks ago, Mrs. Joseph Fels and her party, Mr. Daniel Kiefer, Chairman of the Fels Fund Commission, Dr. John W. Slaughter, of the University of London, Professor Earl Barnes, of Philadelphia and Miss Gertrude Heubsdi, sister of the well-known publisher of New York, have been visiting and speaking at public meetings in San Francisco and the neighborhood, on Single Tax, suffrage and like questions.

Desiring to see the results of the partial application of the Single Tax in the irrigation districts of California, Mrs. Fels invited me to become her guest and guide in a tour of the great San Joaquin Valley in Central California. We left San Francisco on last Wednesday, September 1st, for the city of Stockton, ninety miles from the former place. There the Single Taxers, G. M. Ross, Captain William Simpson and others, had gotten the Chamber of Commerce interested in the visitors, and the entire party were taken in automobiles about the city and through a part of the delta district, seeing some of the fifteen hundred miles of sloughs and canals that provide transportation for the farmers in that reclaimed section of California.

A meeting was held at night in the public square, Mr. Ross introducing the party to the audience. About two hundred and fifty persons were present. The deep interest the people of that city have in the Single Tax was shown by this large audience remaining standing, listening to the speakers and asking questions for more than two hours. Mrs. Fels was the first speaker, after the introductions. Her soft, gentle voice immediately won the sympathy and interest of her hearers; while her profound knowledge of economics brought home the truth of the Single Tax most convincingly. She said in part:

"This war will bring Single Tax and other great reforms. Suffrage for women, in England, France and Germany is sure, for the women of those nations are living suffrage today. It will not have to be given them. They will demand and receive it. The Single will come, and it must come, for the reason that with no other system will the nations be able to pay their enormous war debt. Best of all, the big estates of Europe will be broken up, and the men who are fighting now for home and country will as a result find that they really have a home to fight for when the land is free. These men are soldiers now; they won't return to take up again the yoke of slavery. They are emancipated once and for all time."

Professor Earl Barnes dealt with the Single Tax as not only a fiscal measure, but as a movement based on fundamental conceptions of justice, which must inevitably lead to wider thinking, and a more generous brotherhood of man. He illustrated his talk with incidents from the life of Joseph Fels, showing how he was driven from individual aid of those who needed help, through cultivation of vacant lots and small holdings, to a realization that the work was too vast for the individual, and must be worked out by the community through the Single Tax.

Dr. Slaughter reviewed the present movement in England for land value taxation, the adoption of the 1909 budget by the Parliament, and the curtailment of the veto power of the House of Lords which resulted from it. He told of the effect of the monopoly of the natural resources in England when the war broke out, raising the cost of living of the working people, without any increase in wages, and causing the great strikes among the munition and coal workers. He said that the common people of England had no desire for this war. The privileged classes were in a position of facing wars outside or difficulties within.

I closed by calling the attention of the audience to a proposed constitutional amendment in California which would give the legislature power to "create subjects of taxation," thus permitting the restoration of antiquated forms of taxation like taxes on windows, doors and chimneys. It gives the legislature power to make anything the "subject" of taxation, even the right to stand on the sidewalk, or to wear a straw hat. It is backed by the representative of the greatest land monopolists in California - the [unreadable] County Land Company, owning 428,000 acres, and the Southern Pacific Company, which owns about 10,000,000 acres, including 1,000,000 acres of timber land.

Questions were then asked, and answered by Mrs. Fels and others.

From Stockton, the party journeyed to Sacramento, where the Church Federation, Rev. E. Guy Talbot, secretary, and a staunch Single Taxer, provided a noon luncheon, after which Mrs. Fels and the others made short talks. The balance of the day was spent in an auto ride about the city, and visiting a large fruit cannery and Sutter's Fort, where the American settlers in the 40' s sheltered themselves from the Indians. In the evening a public meeting was held at the High School Auditorium, under the auspices of the Church Federation. From Sacramento the party journeyed down the Valley, through Stockton to Modesto, where a meeting was held that had been arranged for by the local Socialists, The story of this part of the trip I shall defer to a later date. Mrs. Fels and the rest of the party are very much impressed with the deep interest manifested by the audiences which they addressed throughout California.


Mrs. Joseph Fels and her party had intended to take the coast route from San Francisco to Los Angeles; but, on learning that by going on the San Joaquin Valley route, they would have an opportunity to visit the Single Tax irrigation districts of the State, a change was made in the programme. They arrived in Modesto on Sept. 3, having traveled some eighty miles from Sacramento on two electric railways. Mr. P. L. Wisecarver, Secretary of the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, met the party with autos, and the afternoon was spent in driving about the Single Tax Modesto Irrigation District.

In this district no land was idle. Every acre was producing some fruit or vegetable. The diversity of the farming made the trip very interesting. The farmers here raise five and six different products on twenty acre tracts. A row of raisin grapes will be followed by a patch of alfalfa, then com, next cantaloupes, peaches, beans, berries of all kinds, garden vegetables and many others that cause a constant change in the scene, so that one is never tired of driving about these farms.

We saw one section that seven years ago was a vast wheat field of 1,700 acres, which now is covered with beautiful homes, and has an attendance of 114 children at its public school. Mrs. Fels and Daniel Kiefer were picking ripe almonds off the tree in the orchard, and all of the party ate them. They became the providers of the party, and Mrs. Fels gathered some ripe cantaloupes from the vines, which we all enjoyed.

The Modesto Chamber of Commerce had delegated Mr. Sol. Elias, one of its members, to read a paper at the Single Tax Conference at San Francisco. In that paper Mr. Elias laid stress on the fact that the exemption of improvements and personal property from taxation, and the collection of the revenue of the district by a tax on the value of the land, had tended to cause a subdivision of the lands of the district, and brought great prosperity to the town and country. Mr. Elias visited Mrs. Fels at the Hotel Modesto, and in conversation at the table said that the Single Tax had its disadvantages as well as its advantages. Mrs. Fels asked him what this bad effect was. He said that the exempting of improvements from taxation caused men who had money to invest to take a chance that they would not take if the improvement were taxed. As a result, two new hotels had been built in the town, when there was need for but one, and neither hotel prospered.

Mr. Elias also said that the exempting of buildings from taxation caused many persons to erect dwellings for rent. As they are of modem construction, tenants moved out of the old dwellings, leaving them vacant. These vacancies reduced rents in all dwellings, and as a consequence, land values in the town have gone down, and a lot can be purchased now for less than before, although the population has increased. Mrs. Fels told Mr. Elias that she did not consider the reduction of rents and of land values an evil condition.

During the evening a meeting was held in the public square of the town, which had been arranged for by the Socialists. Mrs. Fels, Dr. John W. Slaughter, Professor Earl Barnes and I spoke. Much interest was manifested by those present, and many questions were asked, especially by the women. During the day a visit was made to the office of the irrigation district. Mr. Charles Abbott, who has been Secretary of the district for twenty years, told that in the beginning land and improvements were assessed. In 1911, the owners of the land, who lived in the district, had, by vote, adopted the Single Tax. They are so well satisfied with it that they would not go back to the old system, which they call "the double tax." Modesto has more small homes about it than any other city of its size in California, due to the Single Tax.