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Matsuda Farm

The Matsuda farm began as a 10-acre parcel owned by Japanese immigrants Heisuke and Mitsuno Matsuda. The Matsudas purchased it with hard-earned savings in 1929, just before the stock market crash in October that year. Due to anti-Japanese laws that prevented Japanese immigrants and minors from land ownership, the Matsudas purchased the land in the name of an American-born Japanese friend until their son Yoneichi came of age. After years of leasing a different farm, they bought this farm three years after the birth of their daughter, Mary; They built and then moved into the farmhouse in 1931. With the help of hired workers and families, the Matsudas raised a variety of berries and currants, often taking their crops to the Shawnee and Vashon Heights docks to be shipped to Tacoma and Seattle.

During World War II the family was forcibly removed to American concentration camps in Tule Lake, California and Minidoka, Idaho. Yoneichi volunteered for the all-Japanese American 442nd Battalion, serving honorably in Europe and winning a Bronze Star. A trusted Filipino caretaker, Mack Garcia, stayed in the farmhouse during the war and did his best to keep the farm going. After a legal battle with the deputy sheriff who had agreed to lease the land but mismanaged financial matters, the Matsudas retained ownership and returned to the farm after the war, becoming one of the few Japanese American families to return.

Over the following years Yoneichi expanded the farm into a 52-acre parcel of land, eventually making it the third largest strawberry farm on the Island. Together with his second wife Miyoko, his four daughters, and hired workers, he worked the farm for several decades. His efficient and sustainable land management practices earned him a Conservationist Farmer of the Year award in 1957. As Yoneichi approached retirement age and faced lowering strawberry prices, he decided to plow most of the crops under and leave the rest to growing hay. Family lore has it that his eventual “150-year plan” was to create a family forest on the property. The family worked what was to be the last commercial strawberry harvest on the Island. That same year, Yoneichi passed away unexpectedly, suffering a heart attack while on a tractor cultivating strawberries.

When his father Heisuke passed away in 1970, half of the 10 acres went to Mary Matsuda Gruenewald. Together with her youngest son Ray and following her older brother’s dream, Mary decided to convert her 5 acres into a forest of native trees. In 2015, the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust purchased 12 acres of the Matsuda farm, in keeping with the family’s hopes of maintaining it as farmland. Goals for the space include restoring the farmhouse, establishing a farm-to-school program on the Island, and connecting the estate with an island-wide walking public trail system.

Author: Tamiko Nimura

Images

Mitsuno Matsuda (“Mama San”) carrying strawberries.

Photo from the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association.

Matsuda family, c. 1935.

Photo from the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association.

Heisuke and Yoneichi Matsuda

Photo from the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association.

Conservationist Farmer of the Year award article in a 1957 edition of the Seattle Times.

Photo from Bruce Haulman.

Matsuda farm, c. 2015.

Photo by Kate Thompson, Courtesy of Vashon Land Trust

Matsuda farm, c. 2015.

Photo by Kate Thompson, Courtesy of Vashon Land Trust

Matsuda farm, c. 2015.

Photo by Kate Thompson, Courtesy of Vashon Land Trust

Points of Interest Points of Interest icon

Matsuda Barn

Farm work is hard work, especially for farm kids. In the summers, during harvest, around 14-15 boys would stay in the Matsuda barn, rising at 5AM and working until 3:30 in the afternoon. Mitsuno would serve them home-cooked meals, often using fruits and vegetables from the garden. The barn still remains with penciled graffiti comments from the boys who stayed there, including Mary Matsuda Gruenewald’s sons Ray and David.

Yoneichi’s four daughters (Kathryn, Marlene, Sheila, and Marguerite) also worked long hours on the farm; they knew that they were expected to help with the work. In fact, despite growing up on Vashon, they never attended a Strawberry Festival, as these usually occurred during harvest time. One winter, when their father moved the barn from one portion of the estate to another, the daughters remember that they too were enlisted to help: they spent long hours sifting bags of sand in order to make the barn’s new concrete foundation. Although they all moved off-Island after graduating high school, the daughters now credit their father with creating a solid work ethic as a source of strength for building their lives.

Matsuda Pond

How do you grow strawberries on Vashon’s glacial soil? Strawberry plants require proper irrigation methods, and Vashon Island’s growing conditions can make berry harvests difficult. The Island’s open, porous soil at the surface does not hold enough moisture during the growing seasons; moreover, the hardpan beneath the surface hinders proper drainage for the roots. To solve these problems, Yoneichi Matsuda created an extensive system of water storage and irrigation. He had a pond dug in the 1950s, possibly by the same man who dug the Fujioka pond on Vashon, connecting it with a network of grassed waterways which drained into the pond. The pond contains approximately 1,500,000 gallons of water at capacity. Yoneichi’s irrigation and water storage practice, combined with his crop rotation practice (keeping one field planted with grasses and legumes), earned him the Conservationist Farmer of the Year award from King Conservation District in 1957.

Source: Seattle Times article, 1957

Matsuda Forest

As Mary Matsuda Gruenewald tells it, the Matsuda family forest started with some Canadian acorns. On a visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, her older brother Yoneichi brought back a bag of acorns from his in-laws’ tree. He planted a few in his garden, and was surprised to see a row of red oak trees appear shortly afterwards. He did transplant one of the seedling oak trees outside the garden. His nephew David (Mary’s older son) asked him if he was going to plant other trees. Smiling, Yoneichi described a “150-year plan” where he would visit the forests in the Midwest or the Eastern seaboard and gather other seeds. His untimely death in 1985 forestalled the completion of his plan. Mary inherited half of the 12-acre estate after her father’s death in 1970, and did not think much about the land use until 2006. Her younger son Ray had the idea to plant a native forest on the 5 acres, and Mary agreed. Together they used work parties to plant close to 1000 trees, including Douglas firs, cedars, hemlocks, and eventually wild alders and madrones.

Sources: Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, Becoming Mama-San: 80 Years of Wisdom

Stories

Yoneichi Matsuda’s life of service

Yoneichi Matsuda’s devotion to his family’s farmland is unquestionable.

From behind barbed wire at Tule Lake, California, Yoneichi volunteered to serve in the all-Japanese American 442nd Battalion, seeing it as a way to prove his family’s loyalty to the United States. While he went to basic training in Florida, his family was transferred to Minidoka, Idaho. His sister Mary had received clearance to leave camp and become a cadet nurse. Between basic training and his deployment to Europe, Yoneichi risked a brief return to Vashon for a few hours in late December, 1944. Doing so meant that he was breaking wartime travel restrictions on Japanese Americans. Vashon was well within the military exclusion zone, but Yoneichi had to see how the farm was doing.

Yoneichi’s parents returned to the farm in 1946, purchasing plants and fertilizer from suppliers they had used before. However, just before the first postwar harvest, Heisuke was injured in a farm accident and unable to perform physical labor. Thanks to a special dispensation from the American Red Cross, Yoneichi returned home, missing the second victory parade that President Truman had thrown for the 442nd. Though he never spoke of his military service to his loved ones, it was important for him to return for his family, and for the harvest.