By Tamiko Nimura
At one end of the porch of the Neely Mansion there’s a pile of broken bottles, ceramic shards, muddy pieces of metal. About twenty yards away, there’s a charred piece of wood attached to a small house. I am thinking about a conversation I’ve just had with Linda Van Nest, president of the Neely Mansion Historical Association, who has taken me on a short tour of the house. “What’s that Japanese word,” she asks me, “when you are taking the pieces of something broken and making them whole again?” “Kintsugi,” I say.
“Ahhh, yes,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
The Neely Mansion is a restored farmhouse with an unexpectedly multicultural history in Auburn, Washington. Aaron Neely, the son of Oregon Trail pioneers, built the house with his wife Sarah in 1894. Visitors can still see their initials over the fireplace in one of the rooms. Upstairs you can see one of their quilts, made on the Oregon Trail. The Neelys worked the land and lived in the house as orchard and dairy farmers for about 10 years until they moved into “town,” in Auburn. The Gallis, a Swiss American family, farmed the land for about 15 years after that; there’s a room upstairs that’s been renovated and restored to look like the nursery for the two sons who were born there.
In 1914 a Japanese American family, the Fukudas, took over and farmed the land for another dozen years until the stock market crash forced them to leave the farm to seek work in California. (Over 200 descendants of the Fukuda family returned from Southern California in 1994 to celebrate the house’s centennial. They brought a picture of their ancestors which now hangs over the fireplace.) After they left, the Hori family took over the farm and added a traditional furoba, or Japanese bath house. The bath house was relocated in the 1940s by the house’s next and last inhabitants, the Acostas, a Filipino American family.
In the Green River Valley, the area surrounding the Neely Mansion, Japanese American farmers worked a significant portion of the land. At the end of a long day of hard labor, a traditional Japanese bath with water heated by a nearby fire pit was an important place of relaxation. According to the Neely Mansion Historical Association, the Hori bath house is the only known structure of its kind in the area; it has been designated a King County Landmark.
In the 1970s, the Auburn Arts Council acted to save the mansion. Eventually the Neely Mansion Historical Association was formed in 1983. The Association has worked diligently since its formation to restore the farmhouse as a living museum to tell the story of the families who have inhabited the house. Van Nest has been with the association since its inception, and she’s eager to tell visitors about the house’s history. “[When we acquired the mansion,] we had no idea of the depth and diversity of [its history],” she says to me. “It’s a jewel.”
The Association acquired the mansion from the Auburn Arts Council in 1983. Each year since then, they’ve worked piecemeal to bring new systems (indoor plumbing, electricity) to the house. They have also turned to decoration and restoration, eventually turning each room into a place that showcases the history of each family who has lived in the house. As they uncovered each layer of family history in the mansion, the members of the Association were surprised to learn that the small shed next to the house in some of the older pictures was originally a Japanese bath house.
“And we said, “What?” Van Nest tells me, her eyes still wide.
What happened next is a heartening story of community collaboration. The Association applied for grants from the King County arts organization 4Culture to restore the bath house. They’ve been able to contact descendants of the Horis (including son Frank Hori who lives in Seattle). Daughter Mary Hori Nakamura was able to sketch her memories of the bath house interior for the architects. Her sketches are now part of the bath house exhibit. Frank Hori, along with several community members, is now overseeing the restoration process. Van Nest invited Eileen Yamada Lamphere, a retired educator from nearby Kent, Washington, to be part of the committee. “There was a need to make connections to the present-day Japanese American community,” she writes me in an email, “and to add a current perspective to the project. Without question, I joined. This furo is something to be prized and shared with the general public, not to be hidden away or used as a chicken coop.”
For Yamada Lamphere, her work on the committee goes beyond an everyday historical interest; it’s also a meaningful connection to her Japanese American ancestry that’s been hidden and suppressed in the larger history of Green River Valley: “The Issei brought so much of their Japanese ways to America, but their wartime experience forced them to destroy all remnants of that life. The Nisei were brought up to show and prove that they were loyal Americans, and as young adults with young families, they wholeheartedly adopted all-things-American. Fast forward to the present-day, I realize I missed out on some of the truly Japanese traditions. Oh, I had Obon dancing and sukiyaki dinners, and the traditional New Year’s Day food fare. But, I also remember when people knew little about sushi and turned their noses up at a rice ball. To have something like a furo right in our [backyard] is a treasure.”
In November 2015 I had the opportunity to visit the mansion. I see ceramic shards on the porch and the charred beam on the bath house restoration next to the house. The bath house has just been placed back onto its original foundation. Some of the work that’s being done is archaeological, and the Association has been able to recruit volunteers to help with the excavation. Eventually, the results will be moved from the porch and become part of the bath house exhibit.
Also present when I visit are Doug and Laurie Hoggard, owners of the BigFish construction company now at work on the bath house. They, too, have been moved by their part in the restoration. “I feel like the older generations are more connected to this history,” says Laurie Hoggard. “It’s important for younger generations to see that someone cares.” Doug Hoggard agrees: “It’s good to bring them here so that they can see the history in our neighborhood.”
The charred piece of wood that I saw is one of the remnants of the bath house, a place “where the fire probably got too hot,” Doug Hoggard tells me. They’re keeping that piece, though, along with part of the original foundation and fire pit. Much of the lumber that’s being used, in fact, is salvaged from other older buildings. This older lumber will be placed outside in order to recreate the historic look of the building, but newer lumber will be used underneath to allow for greater structural stability.
When the restoration is finished in 2016, the Association plans to hold a grand opening celebration including taiko and koto performances. They also plan to hold a historic book club discussion featuring a local Japanese American work of nonfiction.
For Van Nest and her committee members, the work continues. The focus here is excavation, restoration, representation. “We’ve only begun to tell the Filipino American part of the story,” she says.
All photos are courtesy of Tamiko Nimura.
Editor’s note: The article was originally posted on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei at www.discovernikkei.org. Tamiko Nimura is a Sansei/Pinay writer, originally from Northern California and now living in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at Kikugirl.net.