SEATTLE — As the sweltering sun beamed down on a team of archaeology students near North Seattle College in late July, they hopped in and out of a hole nearly 5 feet deep to unearth marbles, rusted nails and broken pieces of terra cotta pots.
“It’s no fun digging a hole, but it’s fun seeing what you can uncover in the pit itself,” said student Harley Davidson, 25, of Wedgwood. “You can really build a story and feel the connection to the people that used to live here through what they left behind.”
Davidson was standing at the former site of Green Lake Gardens Co., a flower and vegetable farm run by Shoji Kumasaka and his family from 1919 to 1968. The lush 5-acre lot near North Seattle College was once home to rows of sun-drenched greenhouses filled with Easter lilies, petunias and chrysanthemums. The area was also home to the lively Green Lake Community Center, which served as a space for social connection until Executive Order 9066 was signed in 1942 authorizing the creation of military zones to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. The Kumasaka family was among the estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans who were removed from their homes.
Now, researchers hope to bring renewed attention to the Kumasaka family’s once-thriving hub for Japanese culture and community in the city’s North End. For nearly 50 years, Green Lake Gardens Co. was a place where Japanese Americans in North Seattle cultivated a tight-knit social community even when far from Japantown, or Nihonmachi — the epicenter of Japanese life in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.
“There was something happening on every inch of this property,” said Alicia Valentino, an archaeologist and Edmonds College associate faculty member. “They’re part of the history of the city and that is too often forgotten.”
The artifacts discovered during the site’s excavation led by Edmonds College and North Seattle College staff will later be moved to the Burke Museum for preservation. The Kumasaka family was widely known for selling their produce and flowers at Pike Place Market. The family owned the property until the late 1960s when they sold it to North Seattle College, which converted it into Barton Woods Park.
In its heyday, the space hosted dinners, plays, a Young People’s Club and sports leagues such as basketball and baseball, according to the family-penned book, “The Green Lake Japanese American Community.” In doing so, the Kumasaka farm became a community hub for Japanese American residents and business owners and a place where new immigrants could establish roots in the area as well as forge social connections through activities including judo, theater and art.
“Rarely did they serve a meal without extra people in attendance,” Valentino said. “There was always someone who was stopping by, someone who had just arrived in the country who would pop in for a meal, for a night to get situated before they moved on.”
Japanese American youth were a big focus of the center’s programming, according to Bea Kumasaka, 84, the granddaughter of the farm’s late owner, Shoji, who now lives in downtown Seattle.
So far, researchers have discovered remnants of the community center, which was destroyed in the 1940s, as well as artifacts, including a cast iron toy boat, a student’s perfect attendance pin, Depression-era tax tokens, glass and fragmented pieces of porcelain rice bowls. The findings on the lot paint a much larger portrait of a farm that was filled with family and friends, Kumasaka said.
“There (were) always so many people, so much activity and so many things going on,” said Kumasaka, who was incarcerated with her family in Puyallup and Minidoka, Idaho. “I’m surprised that they didn’t find more, particularly … when we were interned, you couldn’t take any more to camp than you could carry.”
An overlooked history
The dig at the site also highlights the widespread contributions of Japanese Americans to Seattle’s local food, arts, politics and culture, which have long been overlooked or minimized in historical accounts, said Rahul Gupta, the director of education and tours at the Wing Luke Museum.
The Kumasaka family and other local Japanese American farmers also connected Seattleites to produce at a time when vegetables were an afterthought on the American dinner plate, Gupta said.
“The Kumasaka family was important to more than just their own community,” Gupta said. “By being able to see the family legacy, we gain a sense that much more happened in history than we realized.”
Dozens upon dozens of residents flocked to the lot for social gatherings while family members maintained the farm’s operations. Kumasaka said the scents of humid greenhouses and fresh-cut celery are permanently ingrained in her memory.
“Even now at 84, I catch a whiff of those smells, I’m immediately back on the farm,” Kumasaka said, adding that the aromas make her happy and are a “really pleasant memory.”
World War II incarceration
While the Kumasaka family was incarcerated in Minidoka, a fire caused by an overheated potbelly stove burned down the Green Lake Community Center and vandals extensively damaged the farm’s greenhouses. When the family returned to the farm after four years of incarceration, Kumasaka said her grandmother, Matsumi, who operated and managed the greenhouses, mourned the lot’s deterioration and the years she nurtured it.
“I vividly remember her tears coming down her face when she looked at the farm for the first time after the war and said, ‘I have to start all over again,’ “ Kumasaka said.
In the years after incarceration, many Japanese Americans experienced heightened anti-Asian racism and hostility, which forced some people to eventually flee the country, Gupta said. From 1943 to 1946, more than 20,000 Japanese Americans applied to leave the U.S. for Japan, according to the Japanese American nonprofit Densho. However, at least 4,724 people left for Japan directly from the camps, though many later returned to the U.S., data shows.
Despite these challenges, the Kumasaka family stayed to build a legacy. As a community leader and entrepreneur, Shoji was influential in “encouraging families coming out of incarceration to take the risk and come home,” Gupta said.
In the years since the farm shuttered operations, Bea Kumasaka has continued to share her family’s story to assist research on the history of Japanese Americans in Seattle’s North End. Today, at least 300 descendants of the Kumasaka family are still living in Seattle.
“It’s an immigrant success story,” Kumasaka said. “They overcame a tremendous amount and thrived.”
A legacy for generations
Meanwhile, back at the site, students Lex Ingram, 30, of Queen Anne, and Morgan Canyon, 21, of Matthews Beach, sat on the grass, sorting and cleaning artifacts such as leather and glass with a toothbrush. The students said they felt grateful to hold the objects, which showed that the family persevered.
“They were able to continue their place in the community,” Ingram said.
As the team grabbed shovels and got their hands dirty to examine the history of the Japanese Americans who flourished on the property, Valentino said it’s important to remember that the family’s life is not just buried below the surface — but is still here.
“We’re digging up these histories, but this history is all around us,” Valentino said. “These people didn’t just disappear. They’re in the community today.”