Happy Birthday, Bonnie Jean Hermann

Finally Found Books, Auburn WA

Finally Found Books
Auburn WA

Last week I attended the opening of Finally Found Books. They moved to a location literally just around the corner from my house! While there, I discovered an antique book with an inscription that I could work with. Like a tombstone, it included a full name and date, and implied a Washington location. Every book includes a story between its covers, but a used book often has a story that can’t be found within its pages—the story of its previous owner.


If Wenatchee, Washington is synonymous with one thing, it’s apples. In early September, when Bonnie Jean Hermann celebrated her fifth birthday, it would have been harvest time. The air would have been redolent with the crisp scent of cider and spiced applesauce. Even in 1930, as the Great Depression tightened its death grip on the American economy, Wenatchee autumns would have been alive with the activity of the local orchardists and itinerant workers who flocked in each year to harvest the crop.

Bonnie’s father Harry Hermann, the owner of a local drug store, was able to support his family while remaining in Wenatchee year round throughout the Depression. Her mother Lorena no doubt tracked the family’s expenses carefully, making it her mission to stretch every dollar as far as possible during those challenging days. Still, Lorena was able to purchase a special book and lovingly inscribe it for her youngest daughter on her special day: “Happy Birthday to Bonnie Jean Hermann from Mother, Sept. 4, 1930.”

Burgess Animal Book for Children

Burgess Animal Book for Children

With no pictures except for its beautiful cover, The Burgess Animal Book for Children would have been an ambitious gift for such a little girl, but Bonnie had two older sisters. Kay was only 7 years old in 1930, but at age 12, oldest sister June could have easily spent time reading out loud to the littler girls.

As the years passed, the Hermann girls, one by one, graduated high school in Wenatchee. However, sometime after 1942 Harry relocated the family to Seattle where he passed away in 1948. Although her two sisters eventually married and established homes of their own, Bonnie Jean remained with her beloved mother for the rest of the older woman’s life. Lorena died in Arizona in 1977; we presume Bonnie Jean was at her side.

What became of Bonnie after that? There was evidence that while she was living in Phoenix in 2001, she acquired her sisters’ interest in the family home back in Wenatchee. After that, she disappears from the available records. She could still be alive, living her life anonymously, maybe in Arizona, maybe in Washington State. I can’t find her.

But I found her book tonight.

Happy Birthday, Bonnie Jean Hermann—wherever you are.


Finally Found Books, Auburn WA

Welcome to Auburn,
Finally Found Books!

An American-Born Japanese Girl Scientist

Alternate post title: Dr. Ruby Hirose, American Chemist and Microbiologist

Photo of Dr. Ruby Hirose from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Dr. Ruby Hirose. Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

This photograph of Dr. Ruby Hirose has been maintained for decades in the archives of no less than the Smithsonian Institution. Although undated, the associated copy and her evident age would suggest it was taken in the mid-1940s when she was working in the Midwest for Merrell Laboratories. She was probably in her late 30’s or early 40’s at the time it was taken and had long since earned her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati.

As Dr. Hirose worked tirelessly to advance vaccine technologies to improve the quality of life of her fellow Americans, her father and siblings were imprisoned in American internment camps for the crime of having Japanese ancestry at a time when Japan was our enemy. Why wasn’t Dr. Hirose herself subjected to similar confinement?

Only Japanese and Japanese-Americans (62% of those interned were American citizens) residing on the west coast were subject to internment during the War. Had there been any possibility that a Japanese submarine could have docked silently off the coast of Ohio under the cover of darkness, nearby Japanese communities would undoubtedly have been viewed as potential spies for the Japanese Empire—just as they were on the west coast—and “evacuated” to the most remote and harshest corners of the country until the War’s end.

While we might like to believe that Dr. Hirose was exempted from internment due to her status as a full-fledged American citizen or because of the importance of her work to her fellow Americans, such was sadly not the case. Only an accident of geography kept Dr. Hirose from enduring the same fate as the rest of her family during the War.

Dr. Hirose died in Pennsylvania in 1960, having never married. She was survived by one brother and two sisters. One sister, Toki, was married to Dr. Isaac Kawasaki of  Hawaii; he is credited with suggesting to General Emmons (the Commanding General and Military Governor of Hawaii during the War) that interning the Japanese in Hawaii would be the wrong course of action—not on constitutional or moral grounds, but simply because it would have been impractical. The General evidently heeded this advice; there was no “evacuation” of Japanese or Japanese-Americans from Hawaii—despite the attack on Pearl Harbor that initiated the war with Japan.

After her death, Dr. Hirose’s brother and sisters arranged for her remains to be returned to Washington State. She is buried in the family plot alongside her parents in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.

Full summary from the Smithsonian Archives:

Biochemist and bacteriologist Ruby Hirose researched serums and antitoxins at the William S. Merrell Laboratories. In 1940, Hirose was among ten women recognized by the American Chemical Society for accomplishments in chemistry, and later made major contributions to the development of vaccines against infantile paralysis. The original caption to this photograph read: “A hay fever sufferer herself, Dr. R. Hirose, American-born Japanese girl scientist on the research staff of the Wm. S. Merrell biological laboratories, has found a way to improve the pollen extracts used to desensitize hay fever sufferers. … The idea of treating the pollen with alum to increase its effectiveness developed while Dr. Hirose was working on alum-precipitated toxoid for protection against diphtheria.

Peeling Back the Layers of Place – The Sakagami Farmstead

Have you ever stood in a public place and wondered what it would look like if you could peel back the layers of time? If you could grab a corner of the present and pull it back like wallpaper to catch a glimpse of a previous year, or a decade, or even a century? What might you find just beneath the surface of the Right Now?

garden center

Let me introduce you to this place. This is the garden center at my local big-box chain store. At least, I think it’s a picture from my hometown. This is a place so generic that it probably looks exactly like the garden center in your town’s version of this store. Intentionally so—the store’s designers have capitalized on customers’ sense of the familiar in order to make it more comfortable for them to spend their money. It’s an effective strategy but one that has erased any sense of uniqueness of place, any sense of locality, and certainly any sense of history. This garden center is a perfect example of how so much of our sense of place has become homogenized in modern times. From offices, to stores, to schools—the places where I live so much of my life have become indistinguishable from the places where you live yours—regardless of the number of miles that may exist between us. I don’t think of this phenomenon as being either good or bad—it’s simply our approach to “place” in the present.

But I can go into this particular garden center pause in its aisles while my imagination drifts back into history. Although I may be surrounded by harried mothers pushing toddlers in shopping carts or befuddled men clutching sweaty scrap-paper shopping lists, I can take a moment to visualize this place as it once was. I can, in effect, grab a loose corner of the present and peel it away to reveal the past. I can do this because I was sent the photo below by a man whose ancestors used to occupy these very same acres. And this is what I see:

Sakagami Homestead 1921 White River Auburn  (2)
This remarkable photograph was sent to me by Mark Sakagami, a man I have corresponded with in the past regarding the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website. He recently came across this photo in a trunk and recognized the infant in its center as his father, dating the photo to 1921 or 1922. His dad is pictured here with his own parents and siblings at their family farmstead. Mark was good enough to send me a copy, and I’m so glad he did.

What’s remarkable about this photo, in addition to the irreplaceable family images at its center, is its indisputable sense of place. Although this is western Washington, there’s not a tree in sight. Instead, we can see a fenced area in the far background, probably a berry crop of some sort. In fact, every inch of land in this scene is under cultivation. Not a scrap of yard surrounds the unclad little house; the plowed furrows come right up to its walls. The small space in front appears to comprise a vegetable garden, probably grown there for the family’s own use. In 1922, Issei Japanese like Mark’s grandparents were prevented from owning or even leasing land in their own names by our state’s racist alien land laws. The Sakagamis were instead tenant farmers, growing potatoes and making use of every last inch of land that they could just to make ends meet.

There is something desolate about the house, naked of paint or even siding, and even about the field, leveled and lined into maximum production. But at the same time, there is a balance of hopefulness in the Sakagamis themselves, posed as they are for this informal portrait. They’ve dressed in what are probably their best clothes; they’ve brought a chair into the yard to better position themselves for the cameraman, and they seem somehow content there as they look toward the photographer, and beyond him to the road, and beyond it to the little cemetery where they have already buried lost loved ones. They have, in so many ways, put down roots in this strange land, this less than welcoming place.

Do you think they could have imaged a day when everything they saw around them would be sealed under pavement? When their farm would be buried under a store that existed solely to sell impractical things like grass seed and lawn sprinklers, insect candles and gnome statues? Extravagancies like petunias and pansies?

We wander through such wonderlands every day, rarely even thinking about the pedestrian miracles that have already come to pass. Those wonders will remain forever imperceptible to those of us who refuse to cultivate our sense of place.