The Kawamoto-Wipala Farm in Leland, Washington — A Farm for the Ages
By Pamela A. Okano For The North American Post
Editor’s note. As a largely city people today, Japanese Americans have nearly forgotten their agricultural roots. Yet as Okano describes, they live on in our memories, 1-3 generations back.
The best news I got in 2021 came from my cousin Vern. He called to say he had learned that our mothers’ family farm would be preserved as a farm forever. I immediately called my brother Mike. All three of us were ecstatic.
The Kawamoto Farm is in Leland, Washington, an unincorporated area just north of Quilcene. Set on undulating hills and easily visible from Highway 101 which runs through its eastern edge, the property lies next to Lake Leland, where my cousin, brother, and other family members spent many happy hours fishing with my dad and uncles. As a child, I thought it was the most beautiful farm in the area, with the greenest grass, the handsomest barn, and the most spectacular setting. I still think so, even though the land and its buildings now need work.
My mother and I used to visit for days at a time, with my father coming on the weekend to take us home. I remember drifting off to sleep at night, as the crickets chirped, and the coyotes howled. (I thought they were wolves, but hey, I was a 4-year-old city girl.) The faraway traffic echoed through the valley. I remember the faithful gray-and-white dog named Shep, who brought in the cows from the field at milking time. I remember the creamy milk in a stainless steel vat and the Jersey cows—the brown dairy cows that you rarely see anymore — that plodded into the milking room twice a day to give up their rich milk. I remember the chickens in the chicken house, free to wander around as they pleased, and the cats and their kittens whose sole reason for being there was to keep the rats and mice at bay. I remember the big bull that was chained up next to the barn that I was supposed to and did avoid. I remember the smells — the cows earthy yet somehow fresh, the newly cut grass so vegetal in aroma, and the sawdust in the chicken house that had a clean, new wood odor.
I remember when my aunt took me up to the attic to find interesting treasures, like old photo albums, jigsaw puzzles and games. I remember reading my cousin Ray’s high school yearbooks over and over again. I remember my 80-something-year old grandpa making the long walk to the highway every day to pick up the paper and the mail, and later, doing the dishes and sweeping the floors wearing a frilly apron because my aunt was out doing the chores that farm wives do. I remember my grandma propped up on a daybed next to the dining room windows, bedridden from a spinal cord injury caused by a slip-and-fall, and possibly a stroke, which happened before I was old enough to have memories.
I remember watching my 50-something-year old uncle taking my little brother out sledding in the pasture one winter and seeing them both end up face first in the snow. I remember the party-line phone that my uncle would sometimes answer by saying “Joe Kamoto here” (his name was Kawamoto). I remember spending laughter-filled holidays there, watching the uncles fall asleep on the sofa after dinner while the aunties fussed in the kitchen, and hearing Uncle Joe calling his sister Jeanette “Jenny.” (He was the only one who could get away with it, probably because he was her oniisan — elder brother). I remember eating Aunt Jean’s yummy cakes and drinking her homemade eggnog at New Year’s — the best ever, made with truly farm-fresh cream and eggs. And I remember coming home, when we had to cross Hood Canal on the tiny MV Kitsap, sometimes having to wait for hours because of the long ferry line but thinking it was worth the wait.
The story of how the farm came to be, how it has endured this long, and why it is now being preserved is a tale about hard work, perseverance, friendship, sacrifice and a deep appreciation for the land.
The story begins with my grandfather, Kaichi Kawamoto. Born in 1872 or 1873, he grew up on a small farm in Hiroshima Prefecture and then worked as a telegraph operator. But he found he could not make a living in Japan. In 1898, leaving his wife Itsuno behind, he left Japan, bound for North America. Little did they know that it would be eight long years before they saw each other again.
I once asked my aunt, Kaichi’s eldest daughter, why Grandpa had come to America.
Laughing, she replied, “The streets were made of gold.”
Her father quickly discovered that the streets weren’t made of gold, but did find opportunities for anyone willing to work hard.
Kaichi first arrived in Seattle via Canada and worked at various jobs, including logging and railroad work, from Tacoma to Montana. Although he had only eight years of schooling, he had received some English instruction, so quickly picked up the language.
In 1902 or 1903, he ended up in Leland, employed by James Munn to build and service telephone lines, operate a cream separator, work in a sawmill and do whatever else needed doing. The Munns had seven children and one of the things needed was babysitting. The youngest, George, must have been around 3 or 4 years old. Kaichi, called “Kay” by his Caucasian friends, was enlisted.
George would later recall, “He took care of me… Yes, Joe (Kaichi’s eldest child) and I were raised by the same father. Kay was sort of a foster father.“
The Munn and Kawamoto families would go on to be friends for more than 100 years.
In 1906, Kaichi returned to Japan to persuade Itsuno to join him in America. Their firstborn had died as an infant in Japan, so it must have been a great relief to them when their four American-born children — Joseph (1907), Yoneko Jeanette (1908), Yukiye Pauline (1912), and Yoshiko Alice (1917) — all grew to adulthood. The girls’ American names were most likely given to them by teachers when they started school.
The Kawamoto children’s first language was Japanese. They learned English once they began school. Joe, the eldest, was in for a rude awakening when he arrived at Leland’s one-room schoolhouse for his first day of school. He had spent his early childhood playing in the woods near the logging camps where his father was then working, with only his sister Jeanette for companionship. What little English he had picked up, he had learned from teamsters. His teacher quickly told him that that kind of English could not be used in school, although at the time Joe couldn’t understand what she was saying nor why he was being scolded.
Kaichi eventually turned to the logging industry. As a result, the family had to move around Jefferson County frequently to wherever timber was slated for harvesting. The timber crews often consisted solely of Japanese men. Itsuno, who spoke little or no English, would cook for them.
The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 did not spare the family. Joe remembered that almost everyone in the area got the flu, with his father being amongst the last. Kaichi was very ill, but managed to pull through.
Eventually, the Port Townsend Southern Railroad employed Kaichi as foreman of an all-Japanese crew which serviced tracks. Until 1928, when the Olympic Loop Highway (now Highway 101) was built through Leland, there were few roads; if Leland residents wanted to go to Quilcene or Port Townsend, they used the railway. Because of his job, Kaichi had access to a handcar and became popular with local teens when he let them use it to go to dances and parties.
to be continued
Pamela A. Okano is a retired Seattle attorney. When not writing, she enjoys travel, yoga and gardening, Mariners baseball and Husky football.