By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
An important piece of Japanese American history in north Seattle is literally rooted in the ground of the North Seattle College campus.
Last year, an archaeology class led by Dr. Alicia Valentino, associate faculty of Edmonds College, uncovered remnants of what used to be part of Bea Kumasaka’s old family farm, the Green Lake Gardens Company. They continue their efforts this year at the same site.
In 1911, the Kumasakas leased a small farm with greenhouses at 85th and Latona Avenue. They operated that until 1919 when they moved to what is now North Seattle College (current excavation site), and occupied the farm until 1968 when the whole area was bought up for the construction of North Seattle College.
Kumasaka, the oldest living sansei member of the Kumasaka family, was born in 1938. Her family was living on the farm which is now a park and nature area owned by North Seattle College.
Kumasaka lived at the farm until she was 3 years old, forced to move to the internment camps, and then returned when she was 7.
“We were really fortunate in that because of the alien land laws that existed. We couldn’t purchase and own land in the U.S. until the alien land laws were repealed in the 1960s to 1970s. But when we moved onto the farm, we leased it and had a long-term lease. Then in 1928, when my father turned 60, they actually bought the property in his name and so we were one of the 10% of the Japanese American population that actually owned their homes at that time,” Kumasaka explained.
It all started with Kumasaka’s father’s grandfather. As a young man, he studied silk production in Tokyo. Both sides of the family were established in Fukosha province, but he went to Tokyo for education as a young man. When he was there, he had an epiphany and became a Christian.
He became a devout Christian and later in life, when he had all of his kids, he sent his family to the U.S. They came here to establish a Christian Japanese community in Seattle, Kumasaka recounted.
“The site was intended to be a farm but my grandparents and parents were regular members of the Japanese Presbyterian Church in Seattle,” she added.
Their main crop was celery. They grew one crop of celery per year and the rest of the farm was devoted primarily to greenhouses.
The family started with a few greenhouses but later expanded and added a total of eight large commercial greenhouses after the war.
The site was an active farm but also housed a community center for Japanese residents. The community center was a sanctuary for the local Japanese community to study arts, theater, and judo and served as a meeting place.
“My grandfather donated it to the north end Japanese community to be used as a community center,” she said.
It became the hub of the Japanese American community north of the ship canal.
In 1952, Kumasaka’s father passed away and her mother was charged with operating the farm business.
“My mother is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known. She was a real inspiration to us. When my father died, she had to take over running the farm. My grandmother was still alive and this was really her baby, but she was quite elderly,” Kumasaka said.
Kumasaka said that her mother, Sayo Tanagi Kumasaka, was three months pregnant with her younger brother when their dad died. She also came down with polio shortly after her brother was born and had to go to weekly therapy sessions in Licton Springs for a year.
Kumasaka’s mother never had a bank account, didn’t know how to write a check, didn’t know how to drive, but she persevered and took everything on despite dealing with the worst of circumstances.
“She made it a success. She took the farm and expanded the business, and even gave keynote speeches at the University of Washington and at an international flower growers conference. She’s just remarkable—she did everything she could do to raise her four kids and survive,” Kumasaka said.
Discovering pieces of history underground
Valentino shared that the former home of the Green Lake Gardens Company was discovered in 2016.
The company she worked for was hired to do an assessment for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
“They were planning the pedestrian bridge project over I-5 and in the course of doing that, they had a few ideas of where it would land on the west side of the highway and one of the landings was in Barton Woods,” she said.
“As part of our assessment, we looked into the history of the property and we found that the Kumasakas had lived there,” she said.
They found photos of the area and learned that there was activity up until the 1960s. They conducted field work—they dug shovel probes into the property that were scattered across the land, examined the dirt to see if there were any cultural materials. They found a lot of debris in the ground, but most of it was mixed up.
Much of what was unearthed was left behind by the Kumasaka family. According to Valentino, the farm didn’t come out of the war in great shape. The family had to get the farm back up in working order and in the course of a lot of grading and moving dirt around, things were churned in and mixed up.
She shared that the top three feet consisted of mixed up debris including tons of broken glass from the greenhouse and flower pots.
Valentino shared that there were 11 people who worked on the site for 19 days last year and 14 people who worked 18 days this year. Each field season is about four weeks and they’re out there for seven hours a day, five days a week.
“I was really happy finding pieces of some hand painted porcelain rice bowls. To me, it indicates that they were trying to keep a traditional table setting and possibly eating traditional foods,” she said.
“To have something like that was very personal and it gives us a little window into their lives there,” she added.
Valentino had a connection at the Burke Museum and they were kind enough to curate the artifacts for free.
“The artifacts have been brought back to Edmonds College. We will process and catalog them in the fall. Some students will do that in a class they can take. Once everything is cataloged and a report has been written, many of the artifacts will be sent to the Burke Museum for permanent curation,” she said.
Valentino is really happy with how the program turned out.
“Students and colleges are excited. The outreach from the community has been great. I’m happy that we’re able to excavate this type of site and to expose the students to this history, which a lot of them didn’t know about. That’s really important and I’m glad we’re able to bring that forward to make people aware,” she said.
Valentino shared that the former department head had a vision to develop an archaeology program prior to the pandemic. He wanted to develop the program and had a different site in mind to excavate, but there were some challenges with it. Valentino thought of the current site and realized it would achieve many of their goals so they chose this site instead.
Their goals included a physically accessible site to allow students to get there easily via public transportation, walking, driving, or riding their bikes. Another goal had to do with landowner permission—getting access to land can be problematic but North Seattle College was excited and it was easy to access the property. And from Valentino’s personal standpoint, it was important to find a site that was from the historic period that she specialized in: the 1850s to the present day.
As for future plans, Valentino shared that they are taking next year off, but presumably they’ll be back doing the field program in 2025 at the same site, or a new one.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.