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Reading 2: Life in Walnut Grove

Walnut Grove became a center for both Chinese and Japanese agricultural workers in the Delta. The town was started in 1851 by John Wesley Sharp, who was instrumental in building one of the levees along the Sacramento River. He built a boat landing and a hotel for travellers on the river, and eventually constructed a lumber mill, brickyard, armory hall, ferry, school, and a general store with a post office in the back. All these businesses attracted settlers to Walnut Grove, and when Sharp died in 1880, the town was thriving.

After Sharp's death, the heirs sold a large portion of the estate to Agnes Brown and her son, Alex. By 1890, Alex Brown ran the hotel, a cattle ranch, a store, a warehouse, and cultivated 4,000 acres of crops. He was also U.S. Postmaster and an agent of the Southern Pacific Railroad line of steamers, Wells Fargo and Company Express, and the Western Union Telegraph Company. Brown, a highly successful entrepreneur, was involved with commerce, agriculture, shipping, banking, and private utilities--enterprises which were carried on by his sons.

Brown was a staunch supporter of the Chinese American and Japanese American communities in Walnut Grove. He provided financial backing to several Asian businessmen and rented land to others at reasonable rates. The Chinese community, which may have been established as early as 1875, grew during the 1880s. Chinese businessmen developed a commercial and social center for the hundreds of Chinese laborers who worked throughout the region. Although these laborers usually lived near their jobs, they came into town on their days off. Similarly, Japanese businessmen, wanting to serve the area's agricultural workers, began settling in the northern section of Walnut Grove's established Chinatown about 1896. By 1905, Japanese were farming approximately 80 percent of the land in the Walnut Grove vicinity.

When a fire broke out in the Asian section of town in 1915, Brown provided two tug boats that hosed water on the fire for two days. After the fire, the Japanese rented land from Brown, and built their own community north of Chinatown. Brown himself constructed a building with space for 14 businesses, organized a water company, and supplied water and sewer facilities to the two Asian districts (as well as to the small European American district). Recognizing the need for houses, hotels, and boarding houses, as well as businesses, in the new nihonmachi, Japanese architects and carpenters from all over Northern California volunteered to help with the rebuilding effort. Thus, unlike many other California cities, where Asians worked in buildings constructed by European Americans, Walnut Grove developed a Japanese commercial district whose buildings were designed and built by Asians.

By the 1920s, hundreds of Japanese laborers flooded the town every weekend. One Japanese woman who owned a barber shop remembered that on weekends, when the town was teeming with people from nearby farms, she often cut hair from dawn to dusk with no breaks. She estimated that every Sunday 1,000 men would come into Kawa Shima, as the local Japanese community called Walnut Grove. By then there were two movie theaters, a Japanese Association, Methodist and Buddhist churches, a variety of commercial services, schools, a dentist, and a surgeon.

Brown sought to attract more European Americans to Walnut Grove by building a new section of town known as Brown's Alley, but the population remained primarily Asian during its early years. Walnut Grove became the only town in California with two complete Asian communities functioning within a European American-managed community. The Chinese section suffered another devastating fire in 1937, but rebuilding began immediately. By the 1940s, however, the Chinese population was rapidly aging and dying out due to the strict immigration restrictions that did not allow them to replenish their numbers. During World War II, the Japanese became the victims of Executive Order 9066, which forcibly removed them--citizens and non-citizens alike--to relocation camps. Although most of Walnut Grove's Japanese residents returned after the war, they did not stay long. Some moved their families to nearby cities and others returned to Japan. The heyday of Walnut Grove was over.

The Brown family is no longer involved in community businesses, but the influence they had on the development of Walnut Grove remains evident in the town's historic districts. Although many changes have occurred over the years, the majority of Walnut Grove's original buildings are still standing. Today the Chinese Masonic Lodge (the Bing Kong Tong Benevolent Society) is privately owned and not open to the public, and the Japanese language school serves as a community center. The Buddhist church is still a contributing part of the town. The Alex Brown General Store (now "The Big Store") is still open to the public under the present proprietors, the Lee family. The town's convenient location and emphasis on tourism attracts summer boaters on the Delta waterways. The surviving late-1930s Chinese buildings, and the Japanese district that looks much as it did in the 1920s, remain as a testimonial to the memory of a once-thriving community.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What businesses were controlled by Alex Brown?

2. How did Brown help the Chinese and Japanese immigrants?

3. Where in Walnut Grove did the Japanese first settle? Why did they move?

4. Why did Japanese from other areas help in the building of a nihonmachi in Walnut Grove? How did their involvement help make the Walnut Grove nihonmachi unusual?

5. Why did Walnut Grove begin to decline in the 1940s?

Reading 2 was compiled from Mary L. Manieri, "Walnut Grove Chinese-American Historic District," "Walnut Grove Japanese-American Historic District," and "Walnut Grove Commercial/Residential Historic District" (Sacramento County, California) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; and Tushio Sakai and Carol Branan, "Walnut Grove Gakuen Hall," (Sacramento County, California) National Register Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1980.

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