Census records of 1920 show that there were quite a few immigrants living in the northeast Seattle neighborhood of Wedgwood that year. Germans who built their own houses and settled in Wedgwood included John Herkenrath, Gustav Morris, and William Voss, who all worked as carpenters. The large extended-family of Joseph Lobberegt had migrated from Holland (a province of the Netherlands) and group members settled along 35th Ave NE in Wedgwood, especially around NE 75th to 80th Streets. Occupations of Dutch immigrants as listed on the census of 1920 included glass work, sign-painting, tailoring and operation of mom-and-pop grocery stores.
In the 1920s the Dutch and German immigrants to Wedgwood were able to purchase property, build houses for themselves, work in any occupation of their choosing, learn English and become integrated into American society, because they “blended in” with other white people. In that time period, Japanese immigrants in Wedgwood were not able to do any of those things because they were marked by their obvious racial difference. Barriers included laws which specifically prohibited Asians from property ownership, so the Japanese most often leased land that they used for farming or for produce sales stands.
In the 1920s in Wedgwood there was a little-known, isolated community of Japanese families who worked at growing vegetables on leased farmland at the present sites of the Picardo P-Patch and Dahl Field.
The Japanese in Seattle in the 1920s
In 1920 the total number of persons of Japanese ancestry in the State of Washington was 17,387. Washington State was more than 97% white and Japanese represented only 1.28% of the population, but they far outnumbered any other minority group including Chinese (only 2,363 on the census of 1920.)
While Seattle’s International District was heavily populated by Japanese who ran businesses such as stores and restaurants, in north Seattle in the period from 1900 to 1920 Japanese families had begun small farming operations, all the way from Ballard on the west to Sand Point on the east. The Seattle City Directory listings show that the first Japanese-operated market selling fresh fruits and vegetables in north Seattle was on Ballard Avenue’s commercial district in 1908.
Since Japanese people were often restricted from participating in markets, the Japanese of north Seattle formed their own cooperative for growing and selling. As north Seattle grew and more roads were put through, Japanese-operated produce stands appeared at major intersections such as NE 75th and 85th on Bothell Way (Lake City Way NE). Japanese growers supplied the Japanese sellers at the market stands. Unlike the Japanese District in what was referred to as Chinatown in Seattle, the Japanese residents of north Seattle were scattered across the area, not concentrated in one place.
On the census of 1920 a group of ten Japanese families, all married couples with young children, was listed as gardeners or “truck farming” at the present site of the Picardo P-Patch on 25th Ave NE at NE 80th Street. Truck farming meant small-scale growing of fruits and vegetables such as beans, beets, carrots, celery, lettuce, onions and tomatoes, planting in rotation so that some could be harvested each day and taken to market.
As of 1920 the Picardo family had not yet acquired the farmland which today commemorates them, the Picardo P-Patch, a city-owned community gardening program. The owner of the property prior to the Picardos, Mabel Barry, did not live on-site but was leasing sections of the land to Japanese farmers.
So, too with the land which today is Dahl Field on 25th Ave NE between NE 77th to 80th Streets, just south of the P-Patch: in the 1920s the land had been divided up into residential and small-farming lots, but few of the landowners as of 1920 lived on-site.
It is generally true of immigrants that they struggle to find employment and they may move from place to place in search of jobs. We also know that since the Japanese of north Seattle usually could not buy property, as renters they were likely to have to move more often. An exception to this rule was the Nishitani family who lived at NE 98th Street on Lake City Way NE. They were able to circumvent the Alien Land Laws by buying their property in the name of their first American-born son, George. The Nishitani family operated the Oriental Gardens nursery business for more than fifty years, until 1970.
A Japanese family who stayed in north Seattle long-term, even though they were not able to buy property, was the Akahoshis, who lived at what is now Dahl Field. The Akahoshis lived on 26th Ave NE, a street which at that time extended all the way across the field.
An immigrant’s story: Rihei Akahoshi
Rihei Akahoshi came to the United States in 1900 at age 21, and for ten years he struggled through various occupations such as cannery work. Finally he settled in Seattle’s International District in about 1909. At that time the district was called Nihonmachi (Japan Town.) The district had many shops, restaurants, hotels and boarding houses which catered to Japanese workers. Mr. Akahoshi went in together with a friend to operate a restaurant near the corner of South Washington Street and Occidental Avenue.
The restaurant was a success and did a good business except for one problem. Mr. Akahoshi and his business partner were very busy with the restaurant operations and they needed a reliable cashier who could work without much supervision. They wanted a white girl to work as cashier so that an English-speaking person would be “out front.” Several employees were hired and then fired because each one “had her hand in the till,” that is, she was pocketing some of the cash from sales. Mr. Akahoshi went to a labor contracting office and asked for an honest young woman to come and work as cashier. The office sent Gerda Engvall, an immigrant from Sweden.
Gerda had come to the USA in 1903 and had been working as a nanny in New York. In the summer of 1909 her employer decided that the whole family would travel out to Seattle to visit the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
In the days before radio and television, world’s fair events like the AYP Exposition in Seattle were of major importance. Businessmen would travel to a world’s fair to see products for sale. Investors would come to a fair to assess the profitability of regions like Seattle or Alaska, which were being promoted at the AYP. Families would plan vacations to attend a world’s fair and they might stay for several weeks.
We don’t know if Gerda’s employer was a businessman or if he had just wanted to come to the AYP as a tourist, but the family spent enough time in Seattle so that Gerda had a chance to look around, and she decided to stay. This was her second bold jump as an immigrant: she had come from Sweden alone, without family, and now she had decided to make another new start in Seattle.
Mr. Akahoshi soon found that Gerda was an excellent employee. She was honest and hard-working, and when not occupied at the cash register of the restaurant she would busy herself with helping in other ways, never standing idle. Gerda admired Mr. Akahoshi, as well, as a hard-working person of good character, and in the midst of working together at the restaurant, Gerda and Mr. Akahoshi decided to get married.
The year was 1912 and the couple traveled to Vancouver, Washington (Clark County) to obtain a marriage license. We don’t know whether they had tried to obtain a license in Seattle and were refused, or whether they simply believed it would be easier in Clark County. They did obtain the license, and they were married in Seattle at the Japanese Baptist Church, which was then located at 661 South Washington Street.
At that time (1912) Washington State did not have laws prohibiting interracial marriage; however, people did have strong opinions on the subject, especially for the unusual pairing of an Asian man with a Caucasian wife. Certainly the Akahoshis would have considered how they would make their way through life, facing discrimination and rejection by some people.
The Akahoshis continued to live in the International District of Seattle until after the birth of their first son. In 1914 they moved out to northeast Seattle where they hoped to make a living in small farming. The house they rented was at 7540 26th Ave NE, which today would be at about the site of the Dahl Field skateboard ramp. The Akahoshi family lived a very rural lifestyle, living without electricity and drawing their drinking water from a spring. They grew vegetables for market and Mr. Akahoshi also had a landscaping business.
A name change and clouds of war
As of 1938 the Seattle City Directory no longer showed any listings for a family named Akahoshi; instead, there were listings for a family named Bordeaux. The Akahoshi-Bordeaux story, passed down through the generations, is in good-natured dispute as to which family member initiated the name change. Descendants of the Akahoshi’s eldest son, Wallace, claim that he was the one. According to the story, Wallace took a suggestion from a schoolmate that he looked “sort of French,” and that he should call himself Bordeaux (a region of France.) Wallace and his brothers did begin to use the name in the hope that it would make life easier for them in a racially-biased world, not to be immediately categorized as Japanese.
As racially-identifiable peoples, the Japanese struggled longer than others (in comparison to white immigrants from Europe) to become fully accepted as Americans. Things got a lot worse with the catastrophic attack of Japanese warplanes on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In his address to US Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy,” and Congress approved a declaration of war upon the Empire of Japan. Although most Japanese in Seattle had lived in the USA for decades and their children were born here, Japanese became the target of fear and hatred because of the declaration of war.
Those of us who lived through the events of September 11, 2001, can remember the horror of that day. Watching on television, when I saw that two airplanes had struck buildings in New York City, my gut response was that the USA had come under foreign attack and that there might be more attacks coming. Other people had gotten the same idea, and panicked office workers fled from tall buildings in downtown Seattle.
People who lived in Seattle in 1941 had a similar reaction after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. As a coastal city, it was felt that Seattle was also susceptible to a bombing raid by Japanese warplanes. Unfortunately some people gave way to irrational fears that Japanese people living in Seattle and all along the West Coast of the USA, were a possible national security threat. Might they try to help the nation of Japan in an attack upon the US mainland? These fears led to Executive Order 9066, that all persons of Japanese ancestry must leave their homes in Seattle and all along the West Coast of the USA, and enter detention camps.
By the spring of 1942 all the Japanese people in Seattle, even those who had been born in the USA, had been taken to an assembly center on the present site of the Puyallup Fairgrounds. From there they were to be sent to live in Idaho for the duration of the war. The justification for this was that Idaho was inland and from there the Japanese would not be able to help the Empire of Japan in any war efforts.
Hysteria and turnip blossoms
In May 1942 concerned citizens living near northeast Seattle’s Sand Point Naval Air Station reported that there was a field of bright yellow flowers blooming directly across the street from the air base. The fields had been farmed by a Japanese family who had already been taken away by the evacuation order. Neighbors feared that the yellow flowers had been left as a “signal” for Japanese warplanes to come and bomb the Naval Air Station.
Upon investigation it was found that the flowers were turnips, a root vegetable with edible greens. Since the Japanese farmer was gone, the turnips had not been harvested and had gone to seed. Just to be safe, military authorities ordered that the field of flowers be mowed so that there would be no bright yellow marking of the location of the Sand Point Naval Air Station.
On the same page of the newspaper that day was an article about a soldier who was visiting his home on Capitol Hill in Seattle and who was very concerned about his good friend and schoolmate, Edward Fujiwara, American-born of Japanese ancestry. Edward told that it made him feel much encouraged to have affirmation from his old friend, a white man. Edward also pointed out that although he was being rounded up like a criminal and sent to a detention camp, one of his brothers was already in military service, fighting for the USA. Perhaps the editor of The Seattle Daily Times newspaper deliberately placed these two articles side by side to show the two sides of racism and war hysteria: fear of turnip blossoms on one side, and loyalty and friendship on the other.
Exceptions to the order
Rihei Akahoshi, age 63, had been sent to the Camp Harmony assembly center in Puyallup along with other Japanese of Seattle, but he had been hospitalized for a heart ailment. Then in August 1942 an exception to the evacuation order was given. Japanese who had a Caucasian spouse would be released, and so Mr. Akahoshi was able to return home to live with his wife Gerda. His health seemed very poor at that time, but Mr. Akahoshi would live to be 95 years old.
Changes at Dahl Field
More major life changes were ahead for the Akahoshi-Bordeaux family after World War Two ended in 1945. Less and less land was available for farming in north Seattle as the city emerged from the war years. As soon as the war ended, soldiers returned home to the USA, married and started families. For this reason the demand for available land to build housing soared in the 1940s and 1950s, and the Wedgwood neighborhood began to take shape as an area of residential housing for young married couples. Some developers, such as Albert Balch, specialized in building small “starter homes” with two bedrooms, and within price restrictions for home loans for war veterans.
The Picardo family began to sell some of their farmland “along the edges,” such as NE 82nd Street between 25th to 30th Avenues NE. NE 82nd Street had previously only been a dirt path going up the hill. When a developer, H.K. Schroeder, started building houses in 1950 on what had been the edge of the Picardo’s farm land, then NE 82nd was finally put through as a street. Picardo’s land on the hillside from 27th to 30th Avenues was sold to developer Albert Balch for his plat of Wedgwood #3. The neighborhood became part of the City of Seattle and acquired a name and identity as Wedgwood.
In 1947 the City of Seattle started improving 25th Avenue NE to become a paved arterial but a serious engineering error was made when they tried to put in water pipes and drainage. No soil testing had been done prior to the excavation work and then it was discovered that what is now Dahl Field, was a peat bog floating on water. Pumping out the water into storm sewers caused the field to sink, which in turn caused damage to the houses there. Some of the houses slid off of their foundations and cracked in half. Three houses which were undamaged, were later moved and are now located at 2609, 2615, and 2625 NE 82nd Street.
In 1949 the City initiated a condemnation action as the easiest way to clear the field area of houses. Owners were offered compensation to either move their houses or accept a payment for damages. This did not go smoothly, and including time for disputes and court actions, excavation work to remove the peat, fill work with new soil, and creation of sports fields and a playground, the process took another seven years. Finally in 1955 the field was ready for use and was named for a Seattle Parks Department leader, Waldo J. Dahl.
Mr. & Mrs. Akahoshi were able to move to another house on 26th Ave NE just north of NE 75th Street where new houses were built after the area of Dahl Field was determined. By that time the couple was past the age for doing farming but they still had a garden and successfully grew dahlia bulbs for market. The couple both lived into their 90s and today their house is lived in by family descendants.
The immigrants: witnesses to history
Although not everyone in Wedgwood had a farm in the 1920s, the stories of the Picardo Farm (now the P-Patch), Dahl Field and the Akahoshi family are a reminder of early days when Wedgwood was very thinly populated and there was land under cultivation.
The Akahoshi-Bordeaux story also is an outline of the history of Japanese immigration to Seattle. Immigrants were often marginalized and allowed to practice some occupations but not others. Sometimes immigrants were restricted to living only in certain areas like the International District. As Japanese immigrants gradually became more assimilated and Americanized, other nationalities took their place on the bottom rung of the ladder. By the 1930s most of the Japanese were gone from the Picardo Farm and Filipinos were listed on the census as the Picardo’s on-site workers. Then the Japanese were removed entirely from Seattle by the evacuation order in 1942, and some never returned.
After the end of World War Two in 1945, enormous social changes took place in northeast Seattle with the influx of new families in search of housing. The rural aspects of Wedgwood disappeared almost completely by the 1950s when the neighborhood was absorbed into the City of Seattle and more streets were put through. Mr. and Mrs. Akahoshi were personally impacted by these processes because in their lifetimes, their rural way of life disappeared.
We can’t say that racial prejudice ended completely after World War Two, but the story of the Akahoshi-Bordeaux family shows their perseverance through obstacles, and that today, their descendants are part of the American fabric.
Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle, by David A. Takami, 1998. 979.7772, Seattle Public Library.
Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle, by David Takami, 1992. 979.7772, Seattle Public Library.
The Green Lake Japanese American Community, 2005. 979.7772 G8238, Seattle Public Library.
Our thanks to the Bordeaux family descendants who contributed their memories for this article.
Densho – sharing the stories of Japanese Americans.
“My Life Story,” by Rihei Bordeaux (Akahoshi). UW Digital Collections, Pacific Northwest Historical Documents.
Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, UW Special Collections.
City Council Ordinance 79175, Condemnation for Park and Playground Purposes, Seattle City Council action of July 31, 1950. Seattle Municipal Archives, city ordinances.
Washington Digital Archives – records of birth, death and marriage.
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience: http://www.wingluke.org/
“Blossoms Marked U.S. Air Station,” Seattle Daily Times, May 11, 1942, pages 1 & 12.
“Marine Cheers Up Japanese Friend,” Seattle Daily Times, May 11, 1942, page 12.
“15 Japanese Released at Camp Harmony,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1942, page 4.