Local History – May 2010

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” May 2010.

A Japanese Journey
by Lauren Coodley

How many Japanese immigrants were living in California at the turn of the 19th century? What were the chances that one of them would travel to Napa, and that his son would record the story of that trip?  Just such a journey was documented when Clarence Iwao Nishizu was interviewed in l982 about his immigrant father’s experience working at an upvalley vineyard.  Clarence Nishizu’s father came from a poor farming family in the village of Tachibana to San Francisco around 1902:

He went to work on a farm for a person by the name of Wheeler in Napa County, at a place called Zinfandel Lane, near the town of St. Helena. My uncle was there too. He worked for Mr. Wheeler who became rich by inventing and making cream of tartar, which is potassium bitartrate, a white crystalline compound with an acidulous taste, made by purifying argol, an ingredient of baking powder. After that he was the originator of manufacturing sulfur which was used for dusting grape vines to prevent rust and mildew.

By 1900, about two thousand Japanese immigrants already lived in San Francisco, while 500 or so had found a home in Southern California. By the turn of the century, Japanese laborers began to be increasingly important to the success of California agriculture. Yet, as the Chinese before them, they were viewed with suspicion. Lin Weber writes:

The few citizens with the courage to oppose public opinion did so at some peril. The Wheeler family allowed a number of Japanese workers to live on their ranch on Zinfandel Lane. Threats were made, and it was feared that ‘strong sentiment in certain corners’ would result in violence to ‘rid the community of the Japs.’” (Napa Daily Journal, February 2, l904)

The Wheeler family chose to ignore the pressure, and John Wheeler encouraged Mr. Nishizu to bring other neighbors and relatives to work on the farm. Mr. Nishizu’s son Clarence describes two of them:

Taichiro Ueno and Mr. Koheiji Fujino came to Napa at the age of sixteen. My father told me that Koheiji was more interested in leaning on the shovel and talking to his fellow countrymen than working. One day Mr. Wheeler told my father to send Koheiji over to his house so he could work as a school boy [live-in worker] and help in domestic duties around the house.

Mr. Wheeler traveled daily from St. Helena to San Francisco, where he took young Fujino to study at the grammar school there. Most likely, the two traveled on the Southern Pacific Railroad, boarding in St. Helena and disembarking in Vallejo, where they could ride a ferry across the bay. Once they arrived in San Francisco, they could take a streetcar to their destinations.  After he finished school, Fujino would go to the Bohemian Club on Taylor Street, of which Mr Wheeler was a member:

While he waited at the Bohemian Club, the ambitious Fujino learned the art of mixing drinks for the customers and became a good bartender, practicing English at the same time. When Mr. Wheeler returned, Fujino would ride back with him to their residence in St. Helena where he helped with the cooking and other household duties.

Clarence Nishizu always remembers a story about the fabled Fujino:
One night young Fujino came and banged on the door of the bunkhouse where everyone had just gone into bed and said, “I got a chicken here, let’s eat some chicken gohan.” Gohan is rice cooked with shoyu, which is a special dish in Kasuya Gun. Everybody got out of bed, cut the chicken’s head off and enjoyed the chicken gohan and had a grand time. Apparently, young Fujino was tired of eating American dishes at the Wheeler residence. He was supposed to go back to the Wheeler house that night, but he pleaded with his friends to let him stay overnight.

One of the casualties of the San Francisco earthquake in l906 was John Wheeler’s cream of tartar works. Shortly after that misfortune, Mr. Nishizu left St. Helena for Colorado hoping to go into farming for himself, but ended up working as a sharecropper. In l907, his relatives arranged for a young woman he had never met to come to the United States to marry him.

A few years later his bride gave birth to a son, Clarence, who remembers his parents’ pilgrimage back to St. Helena in search of Mr. Wheeler: “In 1927, during the summer vacation after my sophomore year in Anaheim High School, my family went to Yosemite and, afterwards, to Napa County to see Mr. Wheeler.” The Southern Pacific Railroad provided passenger service to Napa until l929, so the trio likely would have traveled up from Los Angeles on the train.  The family found Mr Wheeler in his home, and they were pleased when he recognized Mr. Nishizu. Son Clarence comments, “Mr. Wheeler was a kindly and considerate person, but he was very frugal in spite of his wealth.”

In 1991 at the age of eighty, Clarence Nishizu and his wife Helen repeated the family pilgrimage, journeying one last time upvalley:

We stopped at the old Wheeler house, which is over one hundred years old, and knocked at the door, but nobody was home. The stately mansion still stands like the day it was built with an ornate stone wall around the outside of the house. As I stood on the raised porch and looked through the window, I visualized eighty-five years ago when young Koheiji Fujino was working in that kitchen.

The Nishizus wanted to find out what happened to Mr. Wheeler. They visited the St. Helena Grower’s Foundation and spoke with the secretary, who recalled that her father had once worked for Mr. Wheeler and that Raymond Vineyards had bought the property in 1974.  She sent the couple there to learn more of the story.

As early as 1914, Napa politicians were warning voters of the disaster for California’s grape and wine industry if Prohibition became law. J.H. Wheeler joined other small farmers to form the Napa County Viticulture Protective Agency. By 1916, prohibition proponents from the Anti-Saloon League bought advertising on Napa’s electric train cars. Even the California Grape Protective Associations condemned saloons, and an outraged John Wheeler and other vintners withdrew from the Association in protest. When Prohibition passed in 1920, Mr. Wheeler was prepared to go into the grape juice business. But, by 1923 he changed his mind, ripped up his grapes, and planted walnut trees. Clarence Nishizu concludes:

As I left the winery I recalled the story of the late night chicken supper that Mr. Taichiro Ueno told me twenty-five years ago.

Takikomi Gohan with Chicken recipe can be found at http://japanesefood.about.com/od/rice/r/mixedrice.htm

Excerpts from interview with Mr. Clarence Iwao Nishizu by Arthur A. Hansen for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, on June 14, 1982. Edited by Mr. Nishizu and published in 1991.

Interview and photograph discovered by Librarian Stephanie Grohs.

Lin Weber, Roots of the Present: Napa Valley l900 to l950, Wine Ventures Publishing, 200l. For more on Japanese contribution to California agriculture see California: A Multicultural Documentary History by Lauren Coodley, 2008.



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