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[Photo]Historic image, date unknown, of landscape of the Mukai Cold Processing Fruit Barrelling Plant
Photograph from National Register collection

written by: Mary J. Matthews

The Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barrelling Plant, centrally located on Vashon Island in King County, Washington, retains historic importance as a rare, intact example of a property associated with the history of Japanese American settlement in Washington. Covering 4.8 acres with the surrounding Mukai residence, buildings, and landscape features, the Mukai Cold Processing Fruit Barrelling Plant stands as a testament to the Mukai family’s dream of owning and operating a successful strawberry processing and packing business. The beginnings of the Mukai family history in the United States is in many ways representative of the Japanese experience in the Pacific Northwest. Denichiro Mukai was the first of the family to come to the United States, immigrating from a farming community near Osaka, Japan, to San Francisco at the age of 15 in the late 19th century. Americans were unable to pronounce Denichiro, which became shortened to Ben, and then further altered to the nickname B. D. By all accounts, B. D. was a talented, aggressive, and financially ambitious individual. His first position in America was that of a domestic with a wealthy sheep farmer. The family rewarded his hard work by sending him to school, where he learned English. After leaving his first employers, Mukai worked in a variety of positions in San Francisco, including acting as a police interpreter and the head of an employment agency. Sometime after turning 21, B. D. married a young Japanese woman named Sato Nakanishi. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, B. D. and Sato settled in Seattle, Washington, and opened a restaurant on Fourth Avenue. Eventually leaving the restaurant business, B. D. went to work for Walter Bowen and Company, a Western Avenue commission house on “Wholesale Row.” It was here that he was introduced to Vashon Island strawberries, which would later play a prominent part in the Mukai family business.

[photo]Historic image, date unknown, of the entire Mukai residence
Photograph from National Register collection 

In 1910, B. D. and Sato moved to Vashon Island and started growing strawberries on a small parcel of land near the center of the island. Japanese immigrants were well established on Vashon Island by the time the Mukais moved there, beginning with the Sakai and Hoshi families. When B. D. Mukai began his first strawberry farming on the island, he started in the position of a tenant farmer, hiring other Japanese as laborers and pickers. Although he was not the only Japanese farmer to supervise Japanese laborers, he was in the minority. The majority of Japanese-American farmers began their careers in agriculture as laborers. The Mukais set up their first Barrelling plant in 1924, where they began the first preserving and shipping of strawberries for the wholesale market to be done on the island. The successful development of the canning industry soon allowed B. D. to quit sending strawberries to the Western Avenue market altogether, revolutionizing the industry. Soon the Mukai’s strawberries were being shipped all over the world by large distribution companies such as John Sexton and Company. In 1926, B. D.’s son, Masahiro (later shortened to “Masa”) was born. By 1926, when Masa was fifteen years old, the Mukai s moved their successful strawberry processing operation and purchased the 40-acre site where the Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barrelling Plant was constructed. This plant is important historically as an example of the strawberry industry in the Puget Sound Region, especially on Vashon Island, in the period from 1926 to 1942. When Masa reached high school age his father encouraged him to experiment in various farming techniques to improve the berry crop. One of his major projects was the freezing and preserving of strawberries, which would eventually provide a solution to the Mukai farm’s overproduction. B. D. later sent Masa to work at a station set up by the United States Department of Agriculture at the Spokane Street Cold Storage in Seattle. It was there that Mesa experimented with slow, fast, and semi-solid freezing for the wholesale market. Masa would also receive an engineering degree from Washington State University.

The Mukais finished the construction of their new plant, home, and garden just before the onset of the Great Depression. During the Depression years, the Mukai Barrelling Plant established a financial reputation that belied economic conditions in the rest of the country. The plant provided work for 400 to 500 people seasonally, including pickers, including American Indians arriving from Vancouver Island by canoe. In the early 1930s, the company name was changed to Mukai and Son, and in 1934 B. D. left his home and business to travel, eventually settling in California. In 1968 he went back to Japan for a visit, and after several months Masa received orders to sell his father’s property, close his bank accounts, and send him his proceeds. The immigrant who had so vehemently embraced America had gone back to Osaka and had purchased and restored the family’s ancestral home. He died there in 1973. After B. D.’s departure from Vashon Island, Masa ran the fruit barrelling plant. He gradually gave up farming and concentrated on the canning and freezing business, depending upon local berry production. In 1937 he married Chiyeko Wakasugi, whose family farmed strawberries on Bainbridge Island. In 1938 the business office was moved from the house to the present brick building. Masa changed the name of the plant to the Vashon Island Packing Company, or VIPCO, upon the advice of his distributors.

[Photo]Mukai formal garden
Photograph from National Register collection

World War II was devastating for the Japanese-American berry farmers, both on Vashon and elsewhere. Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942, affected all Japanese-Americans living west of the Columbia River. Every Japanese family on Vashon Island was given two weeks notice that they would be interred. Most of the island families were moved to the Puyallup Fairgrounds and then dispersed to northern and central California, Wyoming, Idaho and other internment camp locations. In the days after Pearl Harbor, Masa kept in close contact with the Lieutenant Commander of the Western Defense Command, a personal acquaintance. He was notified two weeks before the evacuation order and was able to leave Vashon Island voluntarily, being the only voluntary evacuee on Vashon to do so. After leaving his business in the hands of his hauler Morris Dunsford, the Mukai family packed their belongings and moved to the Snake River Valley in Idaho to Dead Ox Flats, across the river from Weiser, where Chiyeko’s brother lived. During his stay in Idaho, Masa became a respected member of the community, working in the seed industry until 1945. The Mukai family returned to their Vashon Island operation in 1946, but Masa found that his strawberry business was no longer profitable due to the rise in transportation costs. Instead, he began to design sewer systems, water distribution mains, and went into pipeline construction and home building. Slowly, Masa began selling his Vashon island properties, until finally in 1969 he sold the plant to a bean sprout manufacturing company. The properties have had several owners since then.

Mukai Fruit Plant–Packing House
Photograph from National Register collection 

The Mukai Agricultural Complex is sited at the end of 107th Avenue S.W. and faces east, overlooking what were once strawberry fields. The Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barrelling Plant, designed by Masahiro Mukai and built by local contractor Deb Harrington, as well as the local small brick office building designed by B. D. Mukai, and the residence, another design of B. D. Mukai’s are included in the Mukai Agricultural Complex area. The Fruit Barrelling Plant is a one-story wood frame building. The plant is an excellent vernacular example of agricultural industrial architecture, and the house is a well-preserved example of eclectic vernacular architecture with Arts and Crafts and Neoclassical elements of a type built throughout the Pacific Northwest in the late 1920s. The foundation of the two-story house is concrete, and a full basement features a two-car garage on the north. Constructed in a modified ell-plan, the Mukai residence possesses multiple gable roofs sheathed in wood shingles. The formal garden, also included in the historic area, retains interest as a vernacular expression of the adaptation and blending of traditional Japanese garden elements and plant materials with American suburban residential landscaping. It retains most of its original design and many of its original plantings. In its prime, the Mukai garden attracted visitors from on and off the island and was photographed for postcards. The garden also served for notable social functions when tea parties were held to view the cherry blossoms in the early spring.



Seattle Times Article: Full Story

Masahiro Mukai, Farming Pioneer

By Sally Macdonald

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

Masahiro Mukai’s friends remember a shrewd and confident businessman who hopped about the state in his own plane or drove the back roads of Vashon Island sitting tall behind the wheel of a sleek car.

Except for the small plane, it is a description that also would have fit Mr. Mukai’s father, Denichiro. Together the Mukais, father and son, were pioneers in a strawberry farm that became one of the region’s most lucrative and innovative.

The younger Mr. Mukai, called Masa by those who knew him, died Tuesday at his home in West Seattle after a stroke and heart attack. He was 88.

“He was a man in the old sense of the word,” said Mary Matthews, director of a committee that has been working to restore and preserve the Mukai property as a historic site. “He was confident – some would say arrogant. He always seemed taller than he was.”

Mr. Mukai was born on Vashon in 1911. His father had immigrated to the United States around 1885, and, after brief stays in San Francisco and Seattle, settled on rental plots on Vashon, where he grew strawberries.

In 1926, when Mr. Mukai was 15, his father bought 40 acres in his son’s name. Japanese citizens couldn’t own property, but Mr. Mukai, born in America, could. The Mukai farm became one of the first in the nation to experiment with freezing berries so they could be sold in other parts of the country and Europe.

Mr. Mukai was groomed from childhood to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was not sent to Japanese schools, as most of the children of Japanese immigrants were. Mr. Mukai once told a newspaper reporter it was because his father believed, “. . . a boy born in America should be an American.”

“They both had this feeling there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do,” said Matthews. “They had a certain presence that nothing ever changed.”

Mr. Mukai studied agricultural engineering at the University of Washington but quit. “He told me they couldn’t teach him anything he didn’t already know,” Matthews said.

Mr. Mukai and his family were among the few people of Japanese descent on the West Coast to avoid being sent to internment camps during World War II. His father was in Japan when the war broke out and was trapped there until the fighting was over.

Back home, Mr. Mukai was tipped off to the internment plan by a friend in the military. He left the Vashon berries in the hands of a trusted associate, and moved his family to Idaho. They settled in a community on the Snake River called Dead Ox Flats, and began trying to turn dry cattle country into farmland.

In an interview in The Seattle Times six years ago, Mr. Mukai told of the prejudice and mistrust he encountered in Idaho during the war. He had trouble buying gas and food. He countered with a public-relations campaign, speaking at community gatherings “so they’d know we weren’t hostile people, (that) we were Americans like them.”

In a series of recently taped interviews with Matthews and other volunteers from the preservation committee, Mr. Mukai told how his father didn’t have papers to return to the United States after the war. Mr. Mukai met him in Mexico and smuggled him across the border.

Mr. Mukai “had this Japanese concept of filial piety that’s really a deep respect and duty to family,” Matthews said.

The elder Mukai eventually moved back to Japan and died there in 1973.

After the war, the family returned to Vashon, but strawberries weren’t the lucrative crop they had once been. Prices were low and workers were leaving farms for the industries that sprang up after the war. But the Mukais built a packing plant in Lynden and leased one in Oregon. During harvest season, Mr. Mukai commuted between them in his plane.

The Vashon farm was designated a King County landmark in 1993 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The preservation committee is raising money to purchase and restore the house and a traditional garden planted years ago by Mr. Mukai’s stepmother. This year, the Legislature set aside $150,000 for the project.

Mr. Mukai was an astute businessman, but he was also a kind one, said Ken DeFrang, who bought part of the Mukai property in 1984.

A few years ago, DeFrang, a Boeing worker, was out of work for a while during a strike. He’d seen it coming, he said, and had saved money to make his house payments to Mr. Mukai.

“He mailed the payment back to me, saying we didn’t know how long the strike was going to last and I might need that money,” DeFrang said. “He said I could pay him when it was all over.”

When DeFrang went back to work, he sent the back payments to Mr. Mukai, along with $200 interest. Mr. Mukai took the payments, but sent the $200 back.

Mr. Mukai is survived by his third wife, June; his son and daughter-in-law, Milton and Clara Mukai; and a grandson, Ted, all of Seattle.

A memorial service was Saturday. Remembrances may be made to the Mukai Farm and Garden, P.O. Box 13135, Burton, WA, 98013, or a charity of choice.


Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.