Strawberries, American history intertwined in East County
The Fujii Farms berry stand opened a few weeks ago at the corner of Stark Street and Troutdale Road. Just when I begin to think summer will never come, a sign goes up, the stand opens and strawberries are lined up like boxes of red jewels.
On occasion, because it is not nice to spit it on the floor, I have been obliged to eat a California strawberry. They come with pulpy wooden centers that likely help with the shipping them in a truck, but they are faint imitations of a real strawberry.
Real strawberries are grown by the Fujiis and farmers like them. Fujii berries began with immigrant, Bukichi Fujii. Because of racist laws, he could not own his own farm. But Fujii and his wife, Yoshino, had seven children and once an American-born child reached 18, title to the land could be held by that child.
In May 1942, with the nation at war with Japan, Japanese Americans were shattered by a government decision to move all people of Japanese descent, citizens or not, to inland internment camps.
The eldest Fujii son, Kazuo, was serving in the U.S. Army in Texas and was issued a rifle. Further, the act that sent the Japanese away included people of Italian and German descent, but that was ignored.
The Fujiis were supposed to live behind barbed wire in Minidoka in Idaho, but the elder Fujii jumped at a chance to hire his family out as laborers in Nyssa where farmers were crying for help. Technically they were still in Oregon, but apparently no danger to the nation wielding hoes and shovels.
The late Jim Fujii remembered their early incarceration at Portland's exposition center as the most fun he ever had because there was nothing to do but play baseball.
His father/taskmaster interrupted, taking them east on the train to live in a tent and work in other people's fields. Those whose studies at Gresham High were interrupted, attended Nyssa High. There they met up with members of my family, poor white farmers, refugees from the Midwest dust storms, growing sugar beets for the war effort.
Ed Fujii's obituary tells that story: "Facing community hostility, most families had to sell their homes and all properties under short notice and duress, at a staggering loss. The Fujii family, however were able to recruit a neighboring family, Charlotte and Scott Cunningham, to live in the house and take over all farming activities."
Charlotte Cunningham had been the Fujii family's crew boss, organizing pickers, likely driving buses and running day-to-day harvest operations, an ideal summer job for moms. Her son, Scott, later president of the Troutdale Historical Society, remembered the night Bukichi Fujii came to their home asking the Cunninghams, primarily Charlotte, to operate his farm while he and his family were away. Bukichi Fujii was a formidable figure, but Scott remembered seeing tears flowing down his cheeks when the Cunninghams agreed.
Many Japanese farmers lost their farms and crops ready to harvest and would never return. The Fujiis were able to return home at war's end, though they faced shameful "No Jap" signs in most store windows. Two exceptions were Zim's 12-Mile Corner and the Troutdale General Store.
Ed Fujii found his wife in Nyssa in a Hillsboro family also obliged to move there to work. He would later be a produce broker and live a long life in Gresham, dying at 98. He was an announcer at Judo competitions. He liked to bowl and play golf. A successful man.
The last piece of Kaz Fujii's farm land is across from Cherry Park Center in Troutdale and now covered with new apartments. The Jim Fujii farm continues in the hands of his descendants. Real strawberries, grown in the field next door.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.