Japanese Laborers in the fields of the Delta, c. 1905
Photograph courtesy of the Ira Braun Cross Collection, the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley
The rural Sacramento-SanJoaquin Delta region of Sacramento County was the last concentration of rural Chinese in California. Chinese immigrants to the region in the late 19th Century provided labor for an extensive levee project surrounding the Sacramento River, turning swampland into some of California's most valuable farmland. The Delta soon became the pear capital of the world, while in the early 20th century the region produced nearly 90% of the world's asparagus. Chinese and Japanese immigrants provided the unskilled labor the agricultural industry required, by the 1880's a majority of California's farm laborers were Asian immigrants. Pear orchards still comprise a significant part of the natural landscape, as do the flat agricultural fields bisected by the river and the rising levees. While much of the built environment consists of individual farm clusters, the small communities of Locke and Walnut Grove speak to the presence of Asian Americans in the Delta region.

Established in the last quarter of the 19th Century, the Asian section of Walnut Grove served Chinese and Japanese laborers. While most were boarded in barracks adjacent to the fields, hundreds of these immigrants would come to Walnut Grove on Sunday, their one day off, to conduct business, make purchases and relax. A terrible fire destroyed the Asian section of town in 1915, after which the Japanese established a separate community. Walnut Grove served as the center of social and economic life for many Japanese agricultural workers in the Delta region until 1942, when they were relocated to internment camps during World War II. After the 1915 fire, Japanese architects and contractors from around the state volunteered their services to rebuild. As a result, the Walnut Grove Japanese American Historic District was the only Japanese community (nihonmachi) in California designed and built by Japanese Americans. It consisted of boarding houses, bathhouses, barber shops, restaurants, saloons and pool halls for the largely male population. The buildings within the historic district are rare examples of vernacular Japanese American architectural design, and their simplicity reflects the preferences of Asians in their everyday lives, as opposed to the more elaborate style reserved for public buildings. The Walnut Grove nihonmachi experienced its greatest growth in the 1920's, when the agricultural market was booming and Japanese women finally immigrated to join their husbands. The community has remained undeveloped and unchanged since the 1940's, although most of the original occupants who returned after their internment did not stay longer than a few years. Two of the remaining five businesses were started before the 1915 fire, Kawamura's Barber Shop and Hayashi's Market are still operated by the original families.

Walnut Grove Chinese-American Historic District
Photograph by Mary L. Maniery

The buildings of the Walnut Grove Chinese-American Historic District date to the late 1930's and early 1940's. Chinese from the Sze Yip region of China rebuilt their neighborhood after the 1915 fire, while the Chungshan Chinese established the town of Locke up the river. Again in 1937, a fire destroyed most of the community. The Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District reflects this period of rebuilding following the second fire, when Walnut Grove became the last Chinatown established in the Delta before the Chinese were dispersed into the mainstream of California life. Walnut Grove was the only Chinese American community where stucco and Art Moderne/Modernistic architectural styles were adapted through the use of lighting, geometric patterns and Chinese elements to reflect specific Asian preferences. During this time, the Walnut Grove branch of the Bing Kong Tong (Chinese Freemasons Hall) was the most important social organization for Chinese American's throughout the Delta. This group helped men find work, managed labor relationships, regulated gambling, provided mail and bank services, and when necessary sent one's remains back to China for burial or helped Chinese return to their native land.


Locke Historic District, Main Street

The Locke Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, represents the largest, most complete example of a rural-Chinese American community in the United States. Locke was established in the early 20th Century by the Chungshan Chinese unskilled laborers displaced by the 1915 Walnut Creek fire. Locke's first residents were adult male immigrants who secured a verbal lease for 9 acres of land from a local pear farmer, George Locke. The town was laid out along the edge of the river's levee, across from asparagus packing sheds built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1909. Caucasian contractors built 45 narrow vernacular frame buildings in just two years. All the buildings were one and two-story wood frame structures, often unpainted, with inexpensive corrugated metal roofs. More permanent materials were considered too expensive and unnecessary to Locke's Chinese residents who worked in the asparagus fields, canneries and the adjacent packing sheds. At that time, immigrant Chinese could not legally own land, and many still hoped to return to China with their profits to support the families that remained behind.

Locke Historic District, River Road
Photograph by James B. Gardner

The topography of the levee resulted in an interesting building form in Locke. Several two-story structures were banked into the levee and had prominent entrances from both River Street, on top of the levee, and Main Street, at the levee's base. Covered staircases were built in the narrow, steep alleys in between each of these building. River and Main Street constituted Locke's commercial district and in the early years served the transient labor force. Lee Bing, one of Locke's founders started a restaurant on Main Street, that was sold to Italian American Al Adami in 1924. "Al the Wop's," a saloon and steak house, has been in continual operation since and is one of Locke's most famous establishments. During Prohibition several speakeasies were established in Locke, and combined with the lack of police force, it became known as wide-open town. The Depression and increased agricultural mechanization reduced the need for unskilled farm labor, and many second generation Chinese-Americans have left Locke for other opportunities.

While many of Locke and Walnut Grove's buildings remain unchanged, the composition of the towns' residents have become more diverse. Only a few Chinese and Japanese families live in their historic Walnut Grove neighborhoods while Locke faired better than other communities because of its close ethnic cohesion. The remaining historic districts afford unique insights into the Asian-American experience, which makes them a significant part in understanding the ethnic dimension of American life.

The Walnut Grove Japanese American and Chinese American Historic Districts are located in Walnut Grove, California. They both lie between River Road and Tyler Street and are divided by C Street, the Japanese District extends north to Winnie Street, the Chinese Distirct extends south to Bridge Street. The Locke Historic District is one mile north of Walnut Grove bounded off of River Road and is bounded by the Sacramento River, Locke Road., the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Levee Road.

National Asian-Pacific Heritage Month Home

 

 

Comments or Questions

NEP