Destination California: Exploring history, culture at Wakamatsu Farm

Destination California

PLACERVILLE, Calif. (KTXL) — Escaping civil war and hardship in Japan, a brave group of samurai, workers and a Prussian arms dealer John Henry Schnell embarked on a journey to America’s Pacific Coast in 1869.

Their travels lead them to the lush, rolling hills of present-day Placerville where they established a tea and silk farm called Wakamatsu. 

Wakamatsu Farm is the site of the first Japanese colony in the United States. The first Japanese-American was born there, and it’s the site of the first to be buried here.

“The gold rush brought a lot of people, and everybody is looking for riches and everything,” said Susan Reiko Morioka Bertram, an American River Conservancy volunteer. “They started here because they wanted to live here, and they wanted to bring the culture here.”

People touring The Graner farmhouse will get to see all the artifacts and historical pictures that have been found throughout the large property, and upstairs, they’ll get an idea of how the colonists lived 150 years ago.

“It just shows history that a lot of us didn’t know about for quite a while” Japanese American Citizens League Sacramento Chapter President Janice Yamaoka Luszczak explained. “You hear about immigration. You study it in high school, but to have it actually be here, and to know that people lived here, worked here. I just like to see what we have and make the most of it.”

Many visitors who come from all around the world are even able to trace their ancestors who worked and lived on this sacred land.

“We believe that this is a photograph of Matsugoro Ofuji. His descendant contacted the conservancy a few years ago and asked us if we had any information about him, doing a high school report. She has also joined us and been out here,” said Melissa Lobach, the American River Conservancy development manager. 

Wakamatsu Farm is a 200-acre property. So, other than the farmhouse, there’s also beautiful farmland to see, miles of trails to walk, and they all lead to a very inspirational and emotional location. 

Okei San, a young woman who left her home in Japan to care for the Schnell family’s children, stayed at Wakamatsu until she died in 1871. Her story is one of great perseverance through the unknown. 

Every night when she was done with her chores, she would go up to this hill and face Japan,” Reiko Morioka Bertram explained. “So, there’s a headstone in Japan, and there’s one here in the United States that face each other. She represented all the strength of character that it took to come all the way across without any family, without knowing anybody, and stay and make it part of your life.”

Perhaps one of the other most captivating sites at Wakamatsu is the sacred keyaki tree, brought by the colonists as a tiny sapling. It has grown into one of the largest living keyaki trees in the U.S., representing the tremendous growth of Japanese Americans and their culture that started right at Wakamatsu. 

“This is a part of California history,” Reiko Morioka Bertram said.

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