Four Boys at Bainbridge Gardens

Four Boys at Bainbridge Gardens

In the 1930's Bainbridge Island was a sleepy cluster of communities each with its own post office, gathering spot, and grocery. A "mosquito fleet" of steamers darted from dock to dock, a relief from the awful condition of the dirt roads, often gutted by rains or dusty from the sun. Bainbridge High School, established in 1928 when two schools combined, served grades seven through twelve.

Perhaps as a result of the unifying effect of one high school, Bainbridge Island was beginning to see itself as a community. Immigrants who, fifty years earlier, separated themselves into homogenous neighborhoods, now were scattered across the Island. Slavs lived next door to Japanese; Italians were neighbors with Finns.

There was no longer a "Yama" or a "Dagotown." All Islanders were proud of the Island's largest industry: strawberry farming, producing two million pounds in 1940, all from Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) farms. At the high school, Nisei (second generation Japanese) were student leaders in sports, academics and government. Close friendships grown from twelve years association in Island schools often crossed ethnic lines.


While most of the island's Nikkei families were farmers, there were a few who had built other business ventures. Zenhichi Harui and Zenmatsu Seko owned and operated Bainbridge Gardens, a nursery and grocery store located off Miller Road. The Nakatas, while operating a berry farm, also ran a barbershop and grocery store in downtown Winslow. Kamekichi Shibayama owned and managed a hotel and apartment complex in Seattle. The Furutas, Katayamas, Kitayamas, Nagatanis, and Takayoshis all operated greenhouses. They grew flowers and produce that were driven to market by truck, an operation known as "truck–farming." Frank Kitamoto commuted to Seattle by ferry and was a salesperson for Friedlander's Jewelry. When the war broke out all of these families lost their businesses.

  • Zenhichi Harui and Zenmatsu Seko (brothers with different last names because Zenmatsu took his wife's last name) became business partners in 1913 and began to build Bainbridge Gardens. The nursery soon grew into the beautiful ornamental gardens shown here.

As was common for many small rural communities, family was a top priority for most Bainbridge Islanders. Running a farm required laborers, so a large family filled with farmhands was beneficial. When walking was the main mode of transportation for the youth on the Island and other families were often miles away, children depended on their own siblings to act as playmates. The oldest children in the family were sometimes translators for their Issei immigrant parents, and soon they became almost like heads of household. Family members depended on each other for support and entertainment.

The following images show some of the young Nikkei families of Bainbridge Island just prior to World War II. They were quite western in their dress and culture. Many of these families, like the Sakais and Hayashidas were becoming comfortable financially when the war broke out. Their farms were at their highest production rate and they had just built new homes. All was put on hold when they were forced to leave.

  • Left to right: Sue, Art, and Nob Koura

After the mills shut down in the 1920s, strawberry farming took over as a major industry on Bainbridge Island. Land that had been cleared of its trees for the lumber industry was taken over by Nikkei farmers. They cleared the huge stumps that were left behind and began to plant crops. Their intensive work ethic paid off. In 1941 there were forty–three Japanese farms on Bainbridge Island with a total of 620 acres in cultivation. Twenty–seven of these farms were owned in part or whole and sixteen were leased. Japanese farms made up 80% of farm production and strawberry farming and processing was the single largest commercial activity on the island. At one point two–thirds of the strawberries grown in Washington came from Bainbridge Island.

Young Filipino men, seeking work on the farms, began to arrive on the Island in the late 1920s. They became the foremen for many of these Japanese farms and soon they too settled down and started families. When the Japanese farmers were forced to leave their land, they turned to their trusted Filipino workers to look after their homes and land while they were away. Due to the presence of people on the land and in the homes, vandalism and destruction was kept to a minimum, which allowed many Nikkei who owned their land to return at the close of the war.

  • The Katayama farm was located at the corner of Cave Avenue and Winslow Way in downtown Winslow.

By 1940 people of Japanese descent made up approximately 8% of the residents of Bainbridge Island. These were primarily young families each with several school–aged children. The following class photos taken in the years before World War Two show a diversified student body with nearly 25% Japanese Americans. The Bainbridge Island schools proved to be a melting pot for the children and grandchildren of immigrants from around the world. Though they did not socialize much outside of school, while in class, on the playground, on sports teams, and as school leaders, these classmates developed friendships that crossed both social and economic lines. Today we are able to identify many of the faces in these photos because these close classmates have not forgotten each other. Several can recognize and name their friends even six decades later.

  • Winslow School. 1924.

There was not much free time for the hard–working Bainbridge Island Nikkei families. This was a close–knit community that depended on each other for support and camaraderie, so they gathered together as much as possible. Social events were often held at the Japanese Hall, located on Grow Avenue. These included the showing of Japanese movies, judo club practice, song and dance performances, and small gatherings such as the dinner held to bid farewell to the first Nisei men who had joined the army just before World War II. Religion was important for many families. Some were Buddhist; others attended the Congregational church in downtown Winslow, and many were active in the Japanese Baptist Church built by Reverend Hirakawa off of Wyatt Avenue. Almost all families required their school aged children to attend Japanese School taught by Mrs. Ohtaki, who was forced to deal with often un–cooperative students who did more socializing than learning.

  • Summer picnics have been a long tradition for the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community. Before the war families lived far apart on this rural island and picnics provided a chance for them to get together, share good food, and relax.

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