In 1884, the Vashon Postmaster John Blackburn purchased the land that eventually became known as Ober Park. Over the years it was home to the Vashon School (1887), a newer school building after the original burned down (1908), and a community center. Growing up on Vashon in the 1910s, Peggie Nishimura Bain, whose parents owned a farm by Portage, recalled picnics organized by the Vashon Japanese Association. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, it was known as “Community House.” The Vashon Women’s Club acquired the building in 1925, remodeled the school building, and then renamed it the Island Club. Afterwards, in the 1930s, Japanese Americans gathered at the Island Club for picnics, dances, and funerals. In 1937, the Vashon Japanese Association held its 30th anniversary celebration there, featuring Japanese dance performances, “American food,” and a musical performance by Mrs. Nishiyori, matriarch of one of the farming families on the Island. The 1940 funeral of prominent Japanese American community leader and farmer Hatsuguma Tanaka was held at the Island Club.
Tragically, in 1942 the Island Club became also a site of forced eviction for the Japanese Americans from Vashon Island the registration point for the Japanese American community as part of their forced eviction from Vashon Island. The War Relocation Authority ordered all Japanese American families to register there. The heads of households each received their tags with family registration numbers there. Two days later, they were picked up by armed military personnel in trucks at assembly points around the Island and taken to the Vashon Heights ferry dock on the north part of the Island. Mary Matsuda Gruenewald [future link] remembers walking a mile from her family’s farm to the Island Club in 1942, carrying two suitcases. On that fateful walk she remembers seeing her neighbors’ berry and currant and chicken farms; it would have been close to harvest time. She also remembers friends, neighbors, and teachers who were at the ferry dock to see them off. The Japanese Americans were the ferry’s only passengers, and the ferry took them to King Street bus station in Seattle, where they joined other Japanese Americans headed to Pinedale Assembly Center near Fresho, California.
Decades later, on May 16, 2017, Ober Park became a site of historic remembrance for the island’s Japanese American Research Project, which held a 75th anniversary gathering to commemorate the forced evacuation of the Island’s Japanese American population. Plans for a memorial to mark the departure of the Island’s historic Japanese American population are underway.
Author: Tamiko Nimura