HISTORIC GRAVESTONE: Conservancy considers donating artifact

The original Okei gravestone. photo by Melissa Lobach

The American River Conservancy is contemplating whether to donate an invaluable Japanese American artifact or keep it under its care. Over the course of two months, Japanese Americans, historians and other stakeholders have weighed in on the potential fate of a gravestone commemorating the first Japanese person to be buried on U.S. soil.

According to the conservancy Okei Ito, a Japanese teenager, was part of the ill-fated Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony — which arrived in 1869 — in what is today Placerville, Calif. The teenager remained on the farm with one other colonist after the colony disbanded and she died shortly after.

Her grave, as part of the farm, was sold by the Veerkamp family in 2010 to the American River Conservancy, then under the direction of Alan Ehrgott.

The site gained recognition as a California Historical Landmark in the 1960s and through the efforts of the ARC was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Elena DeLacy, executive director of ARC, said the property is “an embodiment of American River Conservancy’s core values of conservation, education and stewardship.”

The original headstone, however, was damaged by a century of being out in the elements and has since been replaced by a replica at the gravesite.

While there is no immediate need to preserve the original headstone, which is housed in the second floor of the Graner farmhouse onsite, DeLacy and Melissa Lobach, ARC’s development manager, said their organization is unable to restore or effectively display the artifact with the resources at their disposal.

They also expressed their general concerns about keeping the property safe. In order to help their board of directors decide what to do, the ARC staff started gathering public comment on whether the conservation organization should consider donating the artifact to an organization that is better equipped to do so.

DeLacy said the donation dialogue developed through conversations with the Japanese American National Museum. She said the ARC has considered potentially donating the artifact to the museum in Los Angeles and the State Archives in nearby Sacramento, but community members have mentioned a number of other destinations, including the California Museum in Sacramento, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and even the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, Calif. Others have called on the ARC to keep the stone in place.

Some say the stone should be donated to an organization like JANM so that the Wakamatsu Farm story can be told elsewhere and attract more visitors to the site itself, but others argued the gravestone need not be given away to achieve those ends.

“One thing is what’s called its intrinsic value,” Julie Thomas, curator of the Japanese American Archival Collection at Sacramento State University, said during a May 24 Zoom meeting. “It has no research value, if it’s taken out of context.”

Karen Ishizuka, chief curator of JANM, said she would rather see the stone remain in place, but also added that, as an environmental conservation nonprofit, the ARC is not necessarily a historical society capable of funding and maintaining a museum-grade artifact.

“It’s a really, really difficult decision, … that’s why museums are around in the first place, to be able to take care of things that individuals cannot,” Ishizuka told the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone. “And so in many cases, it does have to go outside of the community. But given that this particular object has so much connection, I mean literal connection to the land, as well as emotional connection to the people around, it would be great to see if it could stay on the land.”

Ishizuka went on to say the conservancy had done what it can by taking the original headstone out of the elements and housing it inside. She said that alone was “doing quite a bit” and that the main question remains whether the organization can adequately mend the object and has the financial resources to maintain it.

DeLacy said her organization cares for 12,000 acres along the upper American River and upper Cosumnes Rivers near Sacramento. The Wakamatsu Farm consists of just 272 acres and “takes probably the lion’s share of (staff and financial) resources.”

In a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly, DeLacy elaborated that the conservancy is able to bring in funds to help support activities done at the site, but said they run at a $50,000 annual deficit, primarily due to a $1.2 million loan the organization took out to purchase the property.

“We know that every year we have to find the funds to pay down that loan and that’s fine. That’s a given. That’s sort of built into our operating costs at this point,” DeLacy said.

She added that the Wakamatsu Farm also requires a great deal of the staff’s time.

She called the farm a “hub of activity” for the community, and said around 50 volunteers are active in maintaining the site.

“Which is phenomenal, but we need staff to direct those energies,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it necessarily takes away from other things, but it’s an added … responsibility. It pushes our capacity to the limit.”

DeLacy also noted some security and safety issues in housing the artifacts on site. While no artifacts have been stolen, she said a cash donation box and a car have been stolen from the site in recent years. She also said someone entered the property late at night to smoke cigarettes and caused a five-acre fire near the gravesite about a year ago.

Some community members suggested that the stone might have to be donated to ensure it is kept safe.

“I really wanted it to stay on the property, but in thinking it over and for the safety of the headstone, I see that maybe it has to go to a site that can safeguard it better. But I would like it to go to a site that’s Japanese connected, if at all possible, and that they promise that they will display it and not hide it away,” Satomi Edelhofer said during the meeting.

The Wakamatsu Farm currently lacks access to the Internet. In order to install a security system, ARC would have to pay for both the initial cost of installation, and an ongoing expense to maintain it. DeLacy said it is a difficult expense to consider since the site is already running at a deficit. Improvements would need to come from the organization’s general fund. Fundraising specific to the Wakamatsu Farm does not come close to matching its needs.

“I know it’s been a long and heavy lift for ARC, and that you’ve done a wonderful job in working to preserve the site,” Barbara Takei, another Japanese American community member, said. “Times have changed in the last 15 years in terms of looking at preserving sites of people of color. The complexion, literally, of the state legislature has changed dramatically. And, so as a long-term solution, I think what’s appropriate is for the site to become a State Park, and to be able for the State Park use its resources to preserve the stone. As far as an interim solution, I would think that the appropriate place to keep it would be with the State Archives.”

The ARC and the state of California have worked closely in the past. Their offices are currently located in the nearby Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, Calif. The State Archives also houses a number of artifacts from the farm previously donated by the Veerkamp family. The family purchased the property after the colony disbanded, and lived there for multiple generations.

DeLacy added that the ARC had initially planned to transfer Wakamatsu to the State Parks system, but the 2008 financial crisis killed the discussion. She said the state would now require an endowment to pay for the ongoing maintenance of a property before they would consider taking over the farm.

DeLacy said the State Archives would be a safe destination if the ARC needed to donate the stone, but added it would likely be stored in a vault somewhere and inaccessible to the public. Ishizuka meanwhile said JANM would extensively vet a potential donation to ensure they can house the gravestone in their collection. Even if they say they can, Ishizuka told the Nichi Bei Weekly they cannot promise to permanently display it either.

Still others felt it is spiritually a taboo to move the stone offsite. Ishizuka noted a Buddhist priest said the idea of displaying a gravestone in the museum was “kimochi ga warui” (not a good feeling), and longtime Wakamatsu Farm docent and volunteer Herb Tanimoto expressed similar feelings:

“So, to me, moving the headstone, I just don’t know how the spirits on the property would feel about that,” he said at the meeting.

In an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly, Tanimoto elaborated that he wishes to see the stone remain at the farm and see it made more accessible.

“Leaving the original stone outdoors exposes it to further weather deterioration. However, considering it had stood for 140 years, with the one incident of the crack being the only noteworthy damage, and the inscriptions placed on it in 1885 remaining fully readable, I am comfortable with it outdoors or indoors on the Wakamatsu Farm,” he said.

DeLacy said the organization will compile the public comments it receives, and give it to the ARC’s board of directors, who will then debate the next steps. “What I want to get across to everybody in the community, is that we’re trying to do our best, the best we can with our limited resources, and the dialogue that we have initiated surrounding Okei-san’s gravestone is part of that process and to really help our leadership team, including myself, and our board understand what the right thing to do is,” she said.

The ARC is accepting thoughts on the potential donation at https://app.donorview.com/eVxZw through June 17. People may also e-mail their comments to wakamatsu@ARConservancy.org.

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