CLARKSBURG, Calif. — Passing through acres of vineyards along the narrow country road, we are mesmerized by the serene rural landscape and miss the turn. We double back to find our way, and spy in the distance, a forlorn wooden-framed structure with mint julep painted trim that otherwise matches the silhouette of the old gakuen we recognize from a historic photo.
As we step out of the car, three stray mutts of different shapes and sizes that seem to be caretakers of the property greet us. For Donna Graves and I, having surveyed historic Japantowns across California, the precious intact Japanese schoolhouse represents a hidden treasure that ties together years of community history and represents a common vestibule for Japanese immigrants who would pool resources to build a place for community to gather and for the children to learn Japanese language and culture.
Here, at Courtland Road and Elk Slough, the Issei built the Holland Union Gakuen in 1927. And more than 80 years later, the family whose land it was built upon, has an interest in exploring avenues for preserving its history, reuse and stewardship.
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Prominent Issei farmer Tatsuki Sakata toiled the land, first on Merritt Island, then in the Holland-Clarksburg region from the early 1900s. In 1927, Sakata donated a portion of his land for the building of the Japanese school.
At the height of his farming enterprise, Sakata worked nearly 1,200 acres; and his second son Fred, a U.S.-born citizen, owned 100 acres. At the onset of World War II, Tatsuki Sakata was picked up by the FBI and incarcerated in Santa Fe, N.M. His wife Yaeko died in 1943; and all that remained after the war was the 100 acres.
In the 1950s, T. Sakata opened “Tom’s Fountain,” a snack bar restaurant located at the corner of Courtland Road and Jefferson Boulevard.
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While standing in front of the abandoned buildings, and looking at a framed panoramic photo of the Holland community gathered in front of the schoolhouse and teacher’s home, we are reminded of those who were forced to leave this site prior to World War II. For preservation advocate and community leader Paul Osaki, the connection to the site runs deep as the teacher’s house was the home of his paternal grandparents in the 1930s. Isao and Tomi Osaki served as the teachers for the Japanese school prior to the war.
Returning several years after the war, the Osaki family found that the school had been broken into and most of the belongings were gone. Finding a photo of his parents on the porch of the teacher’s home with his dog Teny, Wayne Osaki reflects, “Seeing this image of my dog brought a lump to my throat, and I wondered, as I had many times before, whether she found a home with a good family. The things the thieves deemed worthless were the things we cherished most.” [“The Tanto” by Wayne and Sally Osaki from “Making Home From War,” Heyday Books, 2011]
When we enter the silent building, the light behind us infuses in and we see outlines of a familiar setting, a main gathering hall, raised stage, and small kitchen. The well-kept facility remains as if it were recently occupied. A stray dog that had greeted us earlier follows Paul in and later, he recounts, “I entered in the dark and turned to find the dog right behind me. It was as if an offspring of Teny was there to greet me — as if to tell my father ‘Welcome Home.’”
Farming in Clarksburg
Following the war, the Japanese gakuen (school) remained the gathering place for community celebrations, such as a New Year’s party, picnics and Japanese movie screenings. Janet Sakata, whose father and brothers operated Sakata Brothers in the Courtland-Clarksburg region, remembers, “During the warmer months, the men dug a huge hole. I remember a large pit, big enough to fall into, in which would be placed wood logs and twigs. Earlier in the week, my mother took us to an area, which had a tree with long skinny branches. We would cut the branches so we would have a long pole to cast our weenies over the open fire pit. Nothing like a hot, roasted dog.”
The Sakata Brothers had canning contracts with HJ Heinz Company and Campbell Soup. When Janet’s father became ill, her brothers Barry and Allen took over the operation. The main crop was tomato, but they would rotate and grow feed corn. Noting the perils of farming, she explains, “The tomato growing season began in March — if the ground was dry enough to till, and went on into the harvest in August or September, afterward the ground was tilled again, before the rains, readying the land for the next year. Farming was tough. Our farm land in Prospect Island flooded several times. Once the flood waters got into the island, it had to be pumped out, and waiting for dry land could take months.”
Remembering his father Noboru and Uncle Bob, who farmed tomatoes for Campbell Soup for more than 45 years in the Clarksburg area, Kenji G. Taguma also vividly recalls his summer escapade. “I spent two full summers working alongside my father and uncle on the harvester, waking up at 4 a.m. and breathing in all those lovely pesticides and fertilizers that came rumbling along the conveyor belt where we picked off the bad tomatoes (and sometimes snakes and rodents),” said the former resident of West Sacramento, Calif., which is located 10 miles north of Clarksburg in Yolo County. “It was taxing in the hot Sacramento Valley summer, where there was no shade to escape to when the tractors broke down.” As Taguma reflected on his early childhood days, picking tomatoes by the basket, he offers his homage, “We really owe our lives to that fertile Clarksburg soil, which helped to provide our livelihood for so long. It was such a humble, yet honest profession. I’m really proud of my agrarian roots.”
Preserving California’s Japantowns will be collecting photos and memories, documenting artifacts and conducting interviews on the Holland Union Japanese School and community. If you are interested in getting involved or have information to share, contact Jill Shiraki at email@example.com or (510) 277-2164.
A winter tradition in Clarksburg
By TOM SAKATA
The dense fog of a mid-winter morning usually hid most of the dirt path that led from our home, adjacent to the Japanese schoolhouse, to my grandfather’s home. Some 70 yards away, his small house was nestled among five giant oak trees at the edge of a three acre walnut orchard.
Near his house were fruit trees that he planted in pairs, many years ago — orange, pomegranate and apple. Off the pathway on the left and half way to grandfather’s were two persimmon trees.
When ripe, one tree’s oranges were sour, the other sweet; one pomegranate was red and sour, the other, green with translucent, sweet kernels; the apples were sweet and wormy, but great for pie. Mom made the ultimate apple pie.
Around New Year’s, nearly barren of leaves except for the oranges, the trees still had spent fruit on them except for the apples which were long gone. Sadly, the oranges were orange, but rather soiled, and the pomegranates were cracked wide-open, exposing dull withering seeds. However, the persimmons were a contradiction; there was ethereal beauty in the muted orange fruit hanging from skeletal branches, the image made dynamic by slowly drifting fog.
Ten yards from my grandfather’s house stood a large two-story building, which was home for a large Japanese family and a 442nd veteran. The unpainted structure of grey wood appeared rickety, ready to succumb to a fabled wolf’s puff. The outside staircase to the second floor threatened to cave if burdened with anything over fifty pounds.
Next to these two homes was a clearing bordered by an undisciplined stand of bamboo and the fruit trees. Here, early one foggy winter morning, a small group of my parents, relatives, neighbors and friends set up to make mochi. Everything was damp. Everything seemed a shade of grey. The cold was enough to form crusts of ice on the few scattered water puddles. The only clues of warmth were peoples’ breaths, the flame from the cooking fire, steam from the cooking rice, the rice in the pounding vessel, the large blobs of hot elastic mochi, and of course, the social atmosphere.
The process was intensive. The men transferred a basket of steaming cooked rice to a large dished-out vessel. The rice was kneaded with several wooden poles, then repeatedly pounded with wooden sledges and folded until a large homogeneous glutinous lump emerged. At the makeshift table, the women transformed the single mass into soft round loaves, smaller ones for eating, and larger ones for offerings. Mochi!
At last, patience and whining were rewarded as the women gave out fresh mochi to the children who readily consumed their share — pulling, chewing and sometimes, choking.
For me, mochi is not merely a special seasonal treat, but rekindles a childhood memory of a tradition experienced in a unique winter setting at my Clarksburg country home — some 60 years ago.
Tom Sakata, a retired Boeing engineer, resides with his wife, Lorraine, in Seattle. He and his brother, Stanley, are owners of the family property and the historic Holland Union Gakuen in Clarksburg, Calif.