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Mukai Farmstead and Garden

The Mukai Farmstead and Garden was established in 1926, when the Mukai family purchased property just west of the Vashon commercial core to expand their strawberry farming operation. The family built a residence and numerous outbuildings related to their fruit production and processing. They also cultivated fields for berries, grew a small kitchen garden, and established a formal Japanese garden. The Mukai Farmstead and Garden is significant for several reasons: as a unique representation of Japanese American settlement, a successful berry production and processing facility in the Puget Sound, and a rare example of a female-designed Japanese formal garden.

Established in 1926, the Mukai Farmstead and Garden contains the residence and gardens of the Mukai family as well as the business office and fruit processing plant for the family’s agricultural operation, the Vashon Island Packing Company (VIPCo). Located on Vashon Island, just west of the Vashon commercial core.

Japanese immigrants arrived to the United States in increasing numbers throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, searching for their own economic opportunities while meeting the growing demand for cheap labor in the West. Prior to settling at this property, the Mukai family lived elsewhere on Vashon Island, relocating there from Seattle to pursue strawberry farming. At first, Denichiro (B. D.) Mukai worked for other growers, later leasing land across the road from the Mukai Farmstead and Garden. When his son Masahiro (Masa) was 16 years old, the family bought the land in his name, because of restrictions on land ownership by Japanese-born residents. Born on Vashon Island in 1911, Masa was a U. S. citizen. The family established the Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barreling Plant in 1926, which, surrounded by berry fields, served as the heart of their strawberry packing operation. Established in 1926, the Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barreling Plant served as the heart of the strawberry packing operation, with berry fields surrounding. Later renamed the Vashon Island Packing Company (VIPCo), the business added the small office building in 1946, after Masahiro had inherited the business. His father, B. D. Mukai, designed the house in the late 1920s while his second wife, Kuni, designed the formal gardens.

Images

Ca. 1927 view of B. D. Mukai’s strawberry fields and farm.

Source: Washington State Historical Society

Historic view of the NRHP listed Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barreling Plant.

Source: Washington Dept. of Archaeology and Historic Preservation

Video

Historic footage circa 1934 courtesy of Kushi Family Home Movie Films and University of Washington Special Collections.

Points of Interest Points of Interest icon

Mukai House

The house provided the family living quarters and served an integral role in the overall design of the site and relationship with the front lawn and the Japanese garden. After purchasing the property in 1926, by 1928 the family had a residence built on the property. According to Sunstrom, B.D. roughly sketched his ideas on a paper bag and handed it to the Norwegian contractor, Olas Severson, who was building many houses on the west side of Vashon, to build.

Site development was more than the creation of an ‘American’ front lawn. Given that the site was naturally sloping to the west and the south away from the roadway (107th Street SW) and the barreling plant, the home’s aspect is impressive. The garage, at about elevation 373 feet is not cut into the grade – rather the grade is build up 4-5 feet to provide a prominent aspect for the first floor of the home (elev. 381 feet), and raised 2-3 feet above the grade of the road. The extent of fill is significant. An ambitious rockery running north south along the property line, and angling west towards the house supports and celebrates this grade change and perfect lawn.

The spaces and features of the house remain remarkably intact. They offer visitors an opportunity to step back through time and connect with the buildings historic associations and functional associations with the Japanese garden.

Barreling Plant

The success of the Mukai family strawberry operation lay not only in the tenacity of its owners, but their embrace of progressive techniques. Not only did the Mukais experiments with new farming techniques but they also worked to fine tune the berry preserving process. Masa spent some time working at Seattle’s Spokane Street Cold Storage to understand freezing techniques. Small fruit, like strawberries, do not have a long shelf life and an abundance of fresh fruit on the market would force farmers and distributors to drop their prices to sell their product. Farmers began preserving berries (e.g. canning and barreling) to extend their marketability. The introduction of freezing as a preservation method allowed the berries to retain much of their original color, flavor, and even scent. While at the Spokane Street Cold Storage facility, Masa experimented in various freezing methods, to add to the sugar preserving method already in use at the barreling plant. The Mukais incorporated freezing into their berry operation by packing the berries into wooden barrels, using a ratio of 2-1 of berries to sugar. These barrels, which contained 300 pounds of strawberries and 150 pounds of sugar, were then sent to the Spokane Street Cold Storage in Seattle to be frozen.

Japanese Garden

The Japanese garden consisted of north and south gardens and designed as site features separate from the house. Installation at a later date of an access road removed the majority of the south garden. The north garden remains as a prominent and historically significant feature of the site.

The north garden was likely initiated with or soon after completion of the house, and completed over a 2-year period, by B.D. and Masa, with the likely (and considerable) assistance of agricultural laborers. The majority of rocks were obtained from the Mukai’s fields and neighboring properties.

Agricultural Fields

Well adapted to the cultivation of strawberries, Vashon Island became a prime producer of the fruit. Of the numerous crops grown on Vashon, strawberries are particularly well-suited for the island’s sandy loamy soils. John Cage Gorsuch likely started the first commercial strawberry operation on the island, with Gorsuch planting strawberries on his property in the early 1890s. Gorsuch harvested 6,120 pounds of strawberries from each of his 3 acres in 1896. Other farmers on the island followed suite and began growing strawberries themselves. By 1907, advertisements appeared in the Seattle Daily Times with the Vashon Island Fruit Growers’ Association needing help from several hundred berry pickers for strawberry, raspberry, and cherry crops. In 1912, the Vashon-Maury Federation of Clubs sponsored the first Vashon Strawberry Festival.

Vashon soon became known for their strawberries, predominantly the Marshall variety. The Marshall Strawberry was known for its deep, dark red color and bold flavor. James Beard, famed American foodie, even declared the Marshall the most delicious strawberry every grown. Their high sugar content, while delicious, made them difficult to harvest, ship, and store. Advances in refrigeration and shipping allowed berry production – strawberries, and the Marshalls, in particular – to flourish. The Vashon Island and Lake Washington Berry Associations shipped the first railcar load of strawberries from Seattle to Butte, Montana, in June 1904. Shipping the berries out enlarged the market for growers while also allowing for surplus berries to be sold rather than going to waste. Processing the strawberries, or “sugaring” them, allowed the berries to ship even further and to be used in preserves, pies, and ice creams.