Monday, March 28, 2016

A Town Founded By Chinese, or Not?

A Town Founded by Chinese or Not? 

So when exactly did the Chinese come to Locke? Well, interestingly enough, the story changes over the years depending on who you talk to. In James Motlow's book "Bitter Melon," Ping Lee, son of Lee Bing, claimed that the Chinese built Locke in 1914, after the great fire in Walnut Grove that destroyed all of its Chinatown (pages 32-34).

In articles all over the Internet, websites and even some books, the fire allegedly took place in 1914, 1915 or even 1916.

In August of 2015,  I was contacted by Mr. Motlow after I had been quoted in the Central Valley Business Times, backing up Martha Esch's claims that Locke was not exclusively a Chinese town, and that many other people of various backgrounds called the town home over the years. After asking Mr. Motlow about the rampant discrepancies online in dates of the Walnut Grove fire time frame, he graciously emailed me a few copies of the old newspapers of the time that finally puts this question to rest!  Sure enough, the date of the Walnut Grove fire occurred on October 7, 1915 as stated in the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Union archives.

How  Did The Fire Start? 

Walnut Grove-  Fire which started, according to the best information, through the introduction of a lighted cigarette into a cleaning establishment, wiped out Walnut Grove's Chinatown today with a loss of $100,000 and only the shifting of the wind late in the afternoon saved the remainder of the town from destruction. At 5 o'clock the flames were under control, but were still burning in places.

When the fire first started water was thrown on the gasoline and the flames immediately spread all over the shop. Twelve hundred dollars were stolen from one of the big establishments in Chinatown, and practically the whole available force from the Sheriff's office has been called to Walnut Grove. The deputies besides endeavoring to catch the thieves, will prevent any possible disorder.

The fire broke out in the Oriental quarter just before noon, and although every effort was made to save the Chinese homes and stores, the wind swept everything before it. Although Alex Brown's two fire boats were called into commission and worked heroically to stem the blaze, the north wind forced back the fire fighters. Chinatown fell before the assault, and the saloon of Bob Rhodes followed.

Then the fire boats received unexpected aid from an unexpected quarter. The wind shifted, and turned the blaze back on itself. As a result the streams of water from the fire boats were sufficient to down the flames. The loss was practically confined to the Oriental section of Walnut Grove. The hotel, store, bridge and the residences of the Americans are standing unhurt.

Dye brothers own most of the property on which Chinatown stood. It is not known how much Insurance they carried or whether they or the Chinese intend to rebuild."---  October 8, 1915


Destruction of Chinatown resulted in $100,000 loss- Dye Estate and Alexander Brown heaviest losers- Modern Buildings will replace 85 structures consumed in flames-

Walnut Grove (Sacramento County) October 8- The destruction of Walnut Grove's Chinatown by fire yesterday afternoon resulted in a loss of approximately $100,000. It was stated today little insurance was carried.  The biggest losses were sustained by the Dye estate and Alexander Brown, the former's being about $24,000 and the latter's about $10,000. Eighty-five houses and stores were consumed by the flames, in addition to several barns and smaller structures. Rebuilding will start at once, it has been announced and the new buildings will be fully modern.

Started From Oil Stove- The blaze started in a Japanese woman's house near the river. She was cooking fish on an oil stove. she left the room for a few moments, and when she returned the room was a mass of flames. The fire spread rapidly, and was carried almost to the heart of the business section..... It was reported that ashes fell in Woodbridge, seventeen  miles away.  The town was saved by streams of water from fire boats, after a bad wind had veered."--- Sacramento Bee, 10/8/1915


When the argument comes up about who started Locke, and who it "belonged to," you will always find that books and articles state the town belonged to the Chinese but that because they couldn't officially "own" property that is why they didn't own their homes in Locke. Yes, there were laws in effect back then excluding mainly Japanese, and Chinese from owning land, this was no different than how things were in Walnut Grove, where many of the Chinese and Japanese had been living prior to moving to Locke.

Still the fact remains that there is no conclusive evidence to show that had the property been available, that the Locke family would have ever sold it to anyone, Chinese or non-Chinese. In fact, in an oral interview transcribed and readily available to the public, Connie King admitted that she had approached the Locke family, long after the laws preventing the Chinese from owning property were overturned, wanting to buy her home, and that they refused to sell. The fact was that Locke belonged to the Locke family and the family intended to keep the property, the estate, together. They never had any intention to sell.

Another issue I have with this whole "exclusively Chinese" story is that there is documented evidence that shows there were other people (non-Chinese) living in Locke around the same time that it was claimed to be "founded by and exclusively for the Chinese."  There are also records showing many Chinese immigrants were claiming to have been born in the U.S. (by way of fake papers) which allowed many of them the ability to own land and businesses regardless of their national status. One of those being Lee Bing.

In the book "Bitter Melon" by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow, the authors interviewed Ping Lee, the son of Lee Bing** (early resident of Locke),  who claimed that his father had four or five ranches* and that he "bought a lot of land" because, as it reads, "That law [ about Chinese not owning land] was pretty flexible."-- pg 34.  

So, did the Chinese exclusively start the town of Locke (Lockeport)? According to the documents and records I have found, I would have to say "no."  I believe the Chinese played a big part in helping the town grow, but to say that they solely founded the town, I would have to disagree. I believe that over the years, as time went on the town's population might have became primarily Chinese, but that from 1915 up until the 1930's there were lots of non-Chinese residents living in the boundaries of Locke. So that means there were all sorts of people living in Locke in its early years.


*old parcel maps of the Delta also show  Lee Bing's name as owning a section of land on the other side of the river in Walnut Grove near Ryde. In fact, he is listed in several directories as also living in Walnut Grove and is listed as a registered voter, too.

**The 1900 Census shows Lee Bing working as a "servant" for Alex Brown (of Walnut Grove). His records on the Census and following Census records have him listed as being born in California with Chinese born parents although that is not accurate, as he immigrated to the U.S. in 1893 -according to Ping Lee's interview.

(Copyright 2015- J'aime Rubio,

Who Approached George Locke First?

Who's Idea Was It? 

Who thought of moving to Locke first? The answers may surprise you. You see, there is an alternate story that has been circulated and even published over the years, stating that the Japanese were actually the first to think of moving to Locke as a group. Originally, a large amount of Japanese were also living in Walnut Grove's Chinatown. After the fire they were displaced, and no longer wanting to be associated with the Chinese, they approached George G. Locke about moving to his land first.

According to Eiichiro Azuma, the curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, his published work,"Interethnic Conflict under Racial Subordination: Japanese Immigrants and Their Neighbors in Walnut Grove, California, 1908-1941" the story is clearly presented.

Azuma cites sources documenting that after the fire in Walnut Grove, the Japanese immigrants wanted to disassociate themselves from the Chinese all together. Despite what many may assume, the two cultures were very much different and did not get along. After the fire the Japanese wished to rebuild, but this time they wanted a Japantown. Unfortunately the Japanese were divided. Some wanted to rebuild on the Dye brothers' land in Walnut Grove, while others eyed the property of George Locke. Cited sources used by Azuma state that "George Locke demanded $20,000 from the Japanese for the construction of a new living quarter. If they agreed on it, he promised to provide a maximum of $10,000."  The Japanese are the only ones to provide such evidence, and the dates coincide with the Walnut Grove fire, as it was only about a week after the fire that this is mentioned in various papers at the time. The Chinese have not provided any written documentation that the idea to move to Locke was their own. (Japanese Association of Walnut Grove, “Kawashimo Nihonjinkai Kiroku,” October 15, 1915 in JARP; and Nichibei Shimbun, October 18, 1915.) 

According to Azuma, once the Chinese heard that the Japanese were planning to move to George Locke's land, they quickly approached George Locke and "hastily signed lease contracts on the most convenient lots on Locke's land."*  There was a personal issue between both groups, one having complaints against the other. The Japanese thought of the Chinese as greedy and "menacing", who lived in filthy conditions and made their money by promoting undesirable practices (ex; gambling halls.)

Likewise, the Chinese thought the Japanese to be vulgar and would not let their children play with Japanese children at school. The opinion of the Japanese people was that the Chinese were "conspiring" against them at all times. From pushing the Japanese farm workers out (who were working the agricultural areas of the Delta since the early 1900's), to quickly flooding into the town of Locke, the animosity between the two groups didn't end there.

There were some Japanese that chose to stay in Locke, despite the high population of Chinese who moved there from Walnut Grove. For one, a Mr. Wakayama opened a barber shop in Locke after being displaced in the Walnut Grove fire.  For this choice he was "excommunicated" by his people, and a letter was sent to his home village in Japan, to shame his family for his "misdeeds." After several years, he was able to clear his name by writing a letter of apology to the Walnut Grove Japanese Association. Wakayama was not the only non-Chinese resident in Locke, though, there were many others.

(*there has been no written documentation presented proving the Chinese signed lease agreements with G. Locke, although the story has been orally passed down.)

(Copyright 2015- J'aime Rubio)
--originally posted on October 5, 2015 (Dreaming Casually)

The Structures In Locke -- Western All The Way

False Front Architecture,  American-Western Design
If you visit the Delta town known as Locke, you will notice one thing, it looks exactly like any other ghost town found in the west. The only difference now is that there has been signs put up over the years with Chinese writing or designs decorating the exteriors of the buildings.

The town of Locke was built on the Locke family's land, by Caucasian contracters and carpenters, although many Chinese did live and operate businesses there.

The National Registry for Historic Places file for Locke stated "the buildings were mostly erected by Caucasian contractors along conventional lines typical of the region." One of the carpenters who helped construct the buildings in Locke was Cleveland Hill, a native of North Carolina.

Did you know that the architecture used for the majority of the buildings in Locke consist of the false front design? Yes. In fact, this design was one of the most popular styles found in your typical ghost town.   "From the Canadian to the Mexican borders, hardly any commercial building-store, saloon or livery stable- was built differently after lumber came to hand. The false front appears to have been, more than anything else, a product of unabashed braggadocio, a desire to appear substantial and imposing. Since this medacious facade- which perhaps included a massive cornice overhanging frankly phony windows- hoodwinked nobody, it was a nearly useless conceit. Nevertheless, the facade did frequently serve as a sort of billboard where the proprietor could blazon forth his business title and advertise his wares."--- The Old West: Townsmen, 1975.

(Copyright 2016- J'aime Rubio,

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Life for the Kuramoto's

Locke Boarding House
The Locke Boarding House which sits at the corner of Locke Road and Main Street, in Locke, predates the other structures in town by at least a couple of years. According to the NCCSAH the structure was more than likely constructed in early 1910; However, the State Parks Department's website clearly points out that this structure was actually built in 1909, meaning it predates all the buildings in Locke. 

It's been thought that the earliest use was as a lodging structure for laborers, more than likely accommodating the Southern Pacific workers, and the workers at the G.W. Locke packing shed on the same property nearby. So far, not a lot of information in regards to who ran the boarding house prior 1921 has surfaced besides a few newspaper articles dating back to 1915, that mention "dormitories" on the Locke property that were used for their workers at the packing shed. The first family we are certain that ran it as a true boarding house, with rooms for rent,  was the Kuramoto family.

Almost all mentions of this building include that the house has not been associated with Chinese residents of Locke. 
The boarders typically were Caucasian or Japanese, with occasional Filipinos and Indians (Hindu).  According to Peter Cowan, whose father ran a trucking yard in South Locke in the 1950's, many of this building's transient residents were Oklahoma truckers who worked for his father. Peter Cowan said that he also lived in this same boarding house for awhile. Mr. Cowan owns a large portion of South Locke still today (2016), which was part of the Union Oil Company Railyard in the early 1900's, then a few decades later became his father's trucking yard.

The Beginning of Sam's Rooms

Sukiei Kuramoto, Nobu Kuramoto, their daughters Matsue, Kikue and son Eimi came to the United States and the family eventually ended up in  Locke around 1921, when they bought the boarding house, naming it Sam's Rooms. According to interviews with Sam Kuramoto, he claimed that his father loved the name Sam, and that later when he was born in 1928, that is why his father also called him Sam. They also had another daughter, Haruko who was 7 years older than Sam.

The Kuramoto's lived in the downstairs of the boarding house, on the backside of the structure, while the upstairs had the rooms for rent. While maintaining the boarding house, the Kuramoto's also worked in the agricultural field, traveling to Lodi and Stockton to pick grapes and strawberries, or packing asparagus and pears in the packing sheds nearby. At times the family would be gone all week, so the younger children were at home and learned quickly to run the boarding house if needed, while their parents were gone. In interviews Sam Kuramoto claimed that his mother didn't believe in locking the doors to their home, so many times they would come home to find that their furniture or belongings had been stolen. They blamed it on the Chinese residents.

(There was an animosity between the Japanese and Chinese in Locke, which stemmed from various reasons which I will go into further detail in an upcoming blog post.)

By 1936, the patriarch of the Kuramoto family, Sukiei died, leaving Nobu a widow, with children to raise by herself. She continued to run the boarding house by herself, and managed to work in the fields picking fruit and vegetables to make ends meet. Working as a single mother, during the Great Depression, Nobu still had time to maintain a beautiful garden just behind the house, on the east side. There she grew vegetables with beautiful flowers surrounding it.

By the time that the bombing of Pearl Harbor took place, there were rumors that the Japanese might be sent away to camps. According to the interview with Sam Kuramoto for the States Parks, he states that his mother panicked about this, and took everything she owned anyway related to Japan and burned it. She had taught her children they were born in America, and to be proud to be American, so it was apparent that she wanted to prove her loyalty to the country they were living in.

Unfortunately, when the time came in April 1942, the Kuramoto's were forced out of their home and sent to a detainment facility in Turlock. They would spend about three months there, before being sent to the Gila River facility in Arizona.

Gila River Camp

Located 36 miles southeast of Phoenix, sits the ruins of what once was the Gila River War Relocation Center, which once held over 13,000 Japanese-Americans.  Consisting of two separate camps, Butte Camp and Canal Camp, the internment facilities were originally built to house only 10,000 at full capacity.  Despite strict objections from the Gila River Tribe, the site was still used and the camp was constructed over a short two months, and opened on July 20, 1942.

Internees, as they were called, were brought in from as far as the Northern California Delta region, as well as the Central Valley area near Fresno and as far South as Los Angeles. Approximately, two thousand internees from an internment camp in Arkansas were also brought in to add to the population at Gila River. Although it was considered one of the least oppressive camps of its kind, due to the fact they only had one watchtower and the barbed-wire fences didn’t last, it was in no way what you could call “comfortable” living.

Butte Camp had a little over 800 buildings, while Canal Camp had approximately 400. Among the facilities on site were administration buildings, a hospital, living quarters or barracks, mess halls, laundry houses, warehouses, police offices, latrine and shower houses, churches, school houses as well as other buildings to maintain the camp. Shower rooms consisted of a room with a dozen shower heads or so, in a community shower atmosphere. The latrine rooms were just rooms consisting of toilets without stalls or separating areas for individuals. Some living barracks were divided by blankets and sheets or tarps used as makeshift walls that separated one living area from the next.  The term “shikata ga nai”, translated as “it cannot be helped,” was used often to summarize the Japanese internee’s feelings of helplessness in their living conditions.

The Kuramoto's spent 3 years at Gila River until they were able to move to Minnesota to join Nobu's oldest daughter, who had been released and given a job. The family remained in Minnesota until 1949, when Sam joined the Army. They never did return to their home in Locke, although he later recalled driving by on one of their visits to the delta region many years later. 

It is hard to imagine being ripped from your own home and taken to a strange place, and having no certainty of what lay ahead. One can only speculate how difficult it must have been for Nobu to be strong for her family during such a trying time.  It is said that when the Kuramoto's were sent to the internment camps, their neighbor Jack Ross (who lived in the house just north of them) took over the boarding house for them. He also ran the gas station and auto mechanic shop in Locke. Now this building is owned by the Department of Parks & Recreation and is used as a museum. 

Whenever I visit Locke, the boarding house is usually the first place I visit. Now, every time I see it, I will be reminded of the lovely family that made this house a home, and the sad struggle this family faced during such trying times.

(Copyright 2016- J'aime Rubio 

Sac Union, July 1915
1930 Census Records,
Family Search
Public Records,
NCCSAH newsletter, 2009
Transcribed Interview of Sam Kuramoto by Dr. Ettinger, Oral History Project (DPR)
Interview with Martha Esch (about Peter Cowan)
United State Japanese Americans Relocated During WWII, 1942-1946 database
Photos: Locke Boarding House, J. Rubio (Copyright 2015)
Gila River Camp - National Archives; photographer Hikaru Iwasaki (1945)