For denizens of the Pacific Northwest, the summer months of June through August mark the season for cherries, boysenberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
Long before large-scale fruit growing became a successful staple of the region’s economy, Japanese-American immigrant families pioneered the first strawberry farms in the Puget Sound region in the early 1900s.
Throughout the West Coast, farmers of Japanese descent became the backbone for the fruit-growing enterprise. In Southern California, alone, Issei or first-generation immigrants virtually built berry-farming into a $1.3 billion industry. Typical of that generation were the Hayashida and Nakao families on Bainbridge Island.
When Hisako Hayashida’s grandparents first settled on Bainbridge Island to farm in 1908, Issei Japanese-American immigrants, were unable to purchase land. Like many Issei farmers, her family had to lease land as the 1924 Immigration Act prohibited the sale of land to Japanese and other Asians.
Prior to World War II, the first Japanese who arrived on the island in the 1880s worked as laborers with immigrants from China, Finland, Australia, Italy, and elsewhere at Port Blakney Mill Company, founded by Captain William Renton. Japanese-Americans performed the dangerous work of clearing the land and removing huge tree stumps left behind from the logging of old-growth firs. In the early 1900s, much of the land on Bainbridge Island was stumpage from the Blakely Mills days.
“It was hard work clearing the land with dynamite and horses, and then getting rid of the glacially-deposited rocks,” said Hayashida, whose married name is Matsudaira. Like the Sakuma family, which had been first began growing berries in 1915, the Hayashidas were among the first Issei generation to begin growing strawberries. The Sakumas eventually moved their business to Burlington, becoming the largest strawberry farm in Skagit Valley, Sakuma Brothers.
“Many Japanese families can be credited with clearing Bainbridge since they had to move to other locations when their leases were up,” she said. “In many cases, the family had to wait until their American-born son or daughter was of age before buying land under the family name. Some families bought land, but under the name of a Caucasian friend.” Many of the leases were five to seven years.
Hayashida’s maternal grandparents eventually purchased about 20 acres of land and grew currants, strawberries, tomatoes, and other produce to sell at Pike Place Market. Her grandfather worked on the land until he earned enough money to return to Japan in the late 1920s. His oldest daughter, Shigeko Nishinaka, bought the land.
“She got married and lived on the land and raised her children,” Hayashida said. “When her husband, Frank Kitamoto, said that he would not send the daughters to college, Shigeko started farming in the early 1950s.” Eventually she became successful raising raspberries, selling the berries to produce markets in Seattle and Frederick and Nelson. As she grew older, she raised Christmas trees.
“My father’s parents raised strawberries,” Hayashida said. “As the boys grew older, they took over much of the clearing of land and farming. When my grandparents went back to Japan, the older boys stayed and took over the farm. The two youngest boys went back to Japan with them.”
"The sons bought 20 acres when the family home was under her uncle’s name,” Hayashida said. “My father, although he was the oldest, was born in Japan and could not own land. Later they bought another 40 acres about four miles from the house and cleared the land.” The family began planting strawberries and soon established the largest strawberry farm on Bainbridge Island. The great specialty of Bainbridge was the Marshall strawberry, large and juicy and not meant to be a keeper. (These delicacies are very hard to find today.)
But the incarceration of West Coast Japanese during World War II dealt a devastating blow to Japanese families, not only on Bainbridge Island, but also other farming communities on Vashon Island and Bellevue.
The Bainbridge Island families were the first of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans nationwide sent to World War II internment camps under President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066. Most of those relocated were American citizens. A total of 227 Bainbridge Island men, women, and children were herded onto a ferry on March 30, 1942 and shipped off to relocation center camps, where they would spend up to the next four years.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!