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Friday, November 19, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Honoring A Pioneer -- Designation Of Mukai Strawberry Plant As A King County Landmark Reminds US Of The Contributions Of Early Japanese Immigrants

The Mukai strawberry-packing plant and home was built on Vashon Island in the early part of the century and is one of the last intact agricultural complexes of the early Japanese immigrants. Yesterday, it was designated a King County landmark, the first associated with county Japanese-American history. -------------------------------------------------------------------

From the time Denichiro "B.D." Mukai emigrated at age 15 or 16 from Japan to America in about 1885, he was always thinking a step ahead to his next money-making move.

So the steamboats got his strawberries to Seattle too late to compete with other growers? He hired his own barge, beating competitors to market by several hours.

So the commission houses cheated growers, knowing farmers with ripe crops couldn't argue? B.D. pioneered a revolutionary new technology: packing strawberries to be frozen and sold directly to the preserves and ice-cream markets. Bye-bye, commission houses.

So, barred from the West Coast as a Japanese American during World War II, son Masahiro struggled to grow seed in Dead Ox Flats, Ore. - but the seed kept blowing away? Masahiro, groomed from childhood to follow his father's maverick footsteps, invented a harvester to capture the seed.

"We had fun" is a favorite refrain of 82-year-old "Masa" Mukai as he looks back on a family saga that tells much of the larger story of early Japanese immigrants and their important role in the county's cultural and economic history.

To highlight that role, King County preservation planners chose the week of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to declare the Mukai complex a county landmark.

Included in the designation are 11 acres including the Mukais' home, a neglected but once famous Northwest Japanese garden, and the 1926 woodframe packing plant (a place with instant nostalgia appeal now being restored and occupied by artists). The plant's original lettering has been reproduced, albeit in jazzier blue-gray: "Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barrelling Plant."

As the application for landmark status notes, Japanese-worked farms once dotted what is now South Park, the suburbs of Bellevue, Kent and Auburn, and Vashon Island. But because of laws that forbade Japanese immigrants from owning land, and because of World War II internment, most of the farmers moved, and almost nothing is left of the farms and buildings that showed how they lived and worked.

It was luck and smarts that helped the Mukais keep the family strawberry business going as late as 1969. Actually, that was long after it was profitable; Masa Mukai just loved it too much to let it go.

In fact, not long after the war was over, his father advised him to sell the business and invest in Japanese stocks. Honda and Sony were two he mentioned.

Masa recalls his father, B.D., with amused affection, calling him "kind of a revolutionist." (Caucasians couldn't pronounce Denichiro, so they called him Ben, which turned into the nickname B.D.)

Masa, born on Vashon in 1911, says B.D. shocked his fellow immigrants by refusing to send his only child to Japanese school and not following many Japanese customs. "He'd say, `A boy born in America should be an American,' though my mother disagreed and tried to teach me a few things," says Masa.

B.D. would exhort Masa to always be a man of his word, never hire anyone to do work he didn't first learn to do himself, and to go to college "not to get a diploma to get a job, but to learn how to think."

B.D. had immigrated first to San Francisco, working as a domestic. He won so much of the family's trust that he was sent to school, where he learned English. He later became one of the youngest men to run his own employment agency.

The importance of strawberries

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, he moved to Seattle, first running a restaurant, then working for one of the Western Avenue commission houses that handled all the area's fresh fruits and vegetables. There he learned the importance of strawberries to the Seattle market. They were the most profitable soft fruit, and required relatively little capital to get into.

Vashon's growing conditions were perfect for early-season strawberries, and early berries made the most money. Because Japanese immigrants weren't allowed to buy real estate, B.D. leased land on Vashon and employed Japanese laborers first. Later Native American and Filipino pickers were in the majority. Mukai was unusual among Japanese in that neither he nor his family - which consisted of his second wife, Kuni (who was the sister of his late first wife), and Masa - had to work the fields themselves.

At that time, the family grew the especially sweet and flavorful Marshall variety. Before the fruit was found by 1927 to be too vulnerable to disease, the Marshall gave the Mukais a good reputation. Hearing of the famous berries, a Chicago company in the preserves and wholesale grocery business came to see B.D. The company was seeking a grower that could produce a large volume of berries and pack them with sugar in barrels for the newfangled technique of freezing.

That was in 1921; B.D. jumped at the chance for another market for his berries besides the unscrupulous commission houses.

He ordered young Masa to join forces with an experimenter who started the Frozen Food Lab in Seattle, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture venture, to find the best way to freeze strawberries.

The Mukais set up their first barreling plant - designed by B.D. in 1924 - on Vashon. The existing plant was built two years later on 40 acres of land that Masa, as a U.S. citizen eligible to buy land, had saved enough money to purchase at $50 an acre.

In 1935, B.D. retired and Masa took over. Masa had not only been an active member of the business since he was 15, but had taken agricultural engineering at Washington State University and business administration at the University of Washington. He quit before graduating, and married Chiyeko Wakasugi, born on Bainbridge Island and a member of an Oregon strawberry-growing family.

B.D. began traveling around the country with his third wife (Kuni had divorced him), and eventually settled in Claremont, Calif.

In 1942 Masa got a tip from an acquaintance, the lieutenant commander of the Western Defense Command, that he should leave home that weekend because all Japanese Americans west of the Columbia River would be forced to evacuate. He voluntarily moved his wife, son Milton, and Kuni. They were the only island family not to be interned.

Masa left the business in the hands of a trusted associate, and they settled in Dead Ox Flats, a farming community just across the Snake River from Weiser, Idaho. At first, he says, they encountered prejudice. At gas stations, it was "no gas for Japs." At a store, it was the same. He embarked on a yearlong public-relations campaign speaking at gatherings in the area "so they'd know we weren't hostile people, (that) we were Americans like them."

He also talked to an increasingly interested audience about introducing row crops to what was then primarily cattle country (after the war, he says, interned Japanese Americans who settled in the region successfully developed row crops, sending the land's value skyrocketing). At the Chamber of Commerce's request, he tested strawberries, but the climate turned out to be too cold.

He ran into an acquaintance with a Seattle seed company, and agreed to raise seed for lettuce and other vegetables on 100 acres he bought. After he invented his own harvester to catch flyaway seeds, he was able to making a living through the war.

After the war, the family returned to Vashon to continue in the strawberry business. But the years of good profits were over. It was hard to get enough strawberries to buy, and the fat nonfarm wages of the war years had lured many away from farming. Also, because of a lot of competition from other packers, the prices were low.

(Chiyeko adds that, with APEC and NAFTA in the news, it's interesting to note that strawberry farms of the big concerns such as Bird's Eye are in Mexico these days.)

Despite B.D.'s advice, they kept on. They built a packing plant in Lynden and leased one in Forest Grove, Ore., both strawberry-growing areas. Masa commuted between them in his own small plane during harvest season.

Other enterprises

He also began other enterprises. He built new homes, but couldn't make a living at that. He began designing septic tank systems, small treatment plants, water mains and pumping stations.

Finally, he sold out the Vashon strawberry operation in 1969, and gradually sold off most of the acreage. In 1979 he retired.

B.D. died in 1973 in Japan, where he'd gone to check on his stocks. After a heart attack, his health didn't permit his coming back to the U.S., and he bought the family's ancestral home, near Osaka.

Masa and Chiyeko still have a home on Vashon, but had to move to West Seattle about six years ago when Masa's health was failing. He's fine now, he says, but it's too much trouble to move all their belongings. He wishes he could be back on Vashon, though.

Of course, he says, Vashon has changed so much. "When I was raised there, I knew everybody else and everybody knew us," he says. "Now there are all kinds of associations and committees, raising Cain about everything, and nobody knows anybody."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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