Community works to preserve Clarksburg’s Holland Union Gakuen

Holland Union Gakuen. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

CLARKSBURG, Calif. — Located across the Sutter Slough stream in Clarksburg, just off Courtland Road and nestled among a small gathering of trees stands the modest-looking and cherished schoolhouse known among those in this rural Japanese American community as the Holland Union Gakuen.

Built in 1927, hundreds of Japanese American children learned Japanese and gained a better understanding of their culture from this institution. It was also a place where the families could get together and have numerous celebrations, until they were forced to relocate to the concentration camps at the onset of World War II, according to the project manager of the Preserving California’s Japantowns project, Jill Shiraki.

Now, 85 years later, a group of dedicated individuals, including Shiraki, are working toward the preservation, renovation and reuse of this historic landmark.

About 40 people gathered outside the Holland Union Gakuen on May 25 to attend the first public meeting about the preservation efforts for the school. Among them were more than a dozen Japanese Americans who attended the school before World War II.

“I think it’s a good idea that the school is gonna be continuing for some future purpose,” said George Hiromoto, a Clarksburg resident who attended Holland Union Gakuen for 12 years. Hiromoto said learning Japanese at the school helped him a lot with his military job during World War II, as he served with the Military Intelligence Service.

A few local political figures also attended the event to show their support for the project. Included among them were Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) and Yolo County Supervisors Mike McGowan and Jim Provenza.

According to McGowan, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors “stands solidly in favor of supporting this project.”

In a speech for the event, Tom Sakata, who owns the property with his brother Stanley, said the preservation efforts began in 2006 when Mark Wilson, a Clarksburg wine maker who has long wanted to see something done with the school, e-mailed him with the suggestion to preserve the school on behalf of Jim Burchill and Steve Hiromoto. Both have been instrumental in the preservation efforts.

Burchill said that his wife’s grandfather was one of the carpenters that built the school.

Hiromoto, who served as the general event chairman, said the schoolhouse has been a part of his life in Clarksburg. He attended Japanese language school in the late 1950s and was a member of the Holland Doshi Kai organization in the 1980s and 1990s, which met and held events there. In addition, not only did his parents (George and Sachi Hiromoto) attend the school before World War II, but his grandfather (Kiichi Hiromoto) helped finance and build the school.

“(We) need to preserve (the schoolhouse) for the following generations to know about its history and appreciate it,” Hiromoto said in an e-mail.

Sakata said that Wilson’s e-mail helped him to realize that “this historical treasure” stood on their property.

Since then, a few major renovations have been made to the schoolhouse. According to Burchill, a new roof was put on the school last winter and the area in and around the school has also been cleaned up. This effort included getting rid of the bees that once lived inside the school.

Burchill said he plans to repaint the school the same exact color it was painted in 1927.

“The requisite is that the school must absolutely be preserved as it is, with improvements of course,” Tom Sakata said. “It shouldn’t lose its character.”

The event also gave attendees the opportunity to donate money for the cause and to purchase books written by members of the Japanese American community. Shiraki said the proceeds from the book sales will help with the preservation efforts.

The Preserving California’s Japantowns project, which is sponsored by the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council, has also supported the schoolhouse’s preservation efforts. The project is a statewide effort that identifies and documents historic Japantowns from pre-World War II. It also encourages local preservation efforts and helps find ways to protect these places in order to get each town’s unique story told to the public.

According to Project Director Donna Graves, who also attended the event with Shiraki, documenting the Japanese American history in Clarksburg is a current project for their team.

“I think (the Holland Union Gakuen) is an important aspect of the local history both in what it reflects about the farming families (here), but also as a reminder of what happened in World War II,” Graves said.

Graves also said that Japanese language schools like the Holland Union Gakuen were “really central to the life of each Japantown.”

Shiraki and Graves said they were thrilled at the audience turnout for the event. Burchill said a lot had been done that day.

“We got some real good community support and got the word out in Sacramento,” Burchill said. “I think we made some real progress toward saving it today.”

According to Graves, specific plans for the school’s future use have not been determined but she said the Sakatas would like the school to continue to be of use to the community. Tom Sakata said he hopes to transfer ownership of the school and the property to a nonprofit organization.

Hiromoto said the next fundraising event is planned for this September in order to collect the funds needed to create the nonprofit organization that will be in charge of the schoolhouse. He and the other people working on the project hope to organize the nonprofit organization by next year.

For more information on how to donate to the project, contact Jill Shiraki at jshiraki@sbcglobal.net.

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