Auburn’s Own Monument to White Supremacy

Like any cemetery, the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery (previously known as the Slaughter Cemetery) is scattered with monuments of various shapes and sizes. Standing prominently among them is an oversized but otherwise innocuous boulder. This very large rock does not mark a grave, but affixed to its face is a simple bronze memorial plaque. It reads, “In memory of the Pioneers of Slaughter.”

“In memory of the Pioneers of Slaughter”

Although the prominence of this monument is unexplained, it seems straightforward enough—a common sentiment toward a community’s founders. Pretty bland, in fact. What could it possibly have to do with white supremacy?

Like so many of the monuments under discussion currently, the story doesn’t come into focus until you begin to ask when these monuments were erected and why. In this case, the rock itself was placed in the early 1960’s as an act of defiance. At that time, Auburn was moving forward with a plan to widen and straighten Auburn Way, and the improved roadway would require space from the western edge of the cemetery.

When first announced, this plan didn’t inspire much controversy. After all, the cemetery, at that time, was known informally as The Japanese Cemetery—a remnant of the vibrant Japanese and Japanese-American community that was sent to prison camps, just twenty years earlier, for the duration of WWII. At the war’s end, local civic groups formed in Auburn to discourage the newly released families from returning to the White River Valley. These efforts were largely successful. It’s estimated that only one in ten Japanese families ever returned to our area. The remaining Caucasian population had little concern for gravesites of people that many still viewed as the enemy.

But as the plans for the roadway progressed, local groups realized that the cemetery still included more than just Japanese graves. Although most Caucasian burials had been moved to Mountainview and other local cemeteries as they opened (because of flooding at the old cemetery downtown), there were still a handful of burials representing some of Auburn’s earliest white settlers—“pioneers,” in other words, a label that was clearly not intended to include the early Japanese arrivals to our area. The thought of disturbing these important “pioneer” graves, unlike expendable Japanese graves, was a great affront to Auburn’s white community. It was only then that resistance to the road project began to foment. The protests ultimately culminated in the placement of the oversized boulder directly in what would have been the bulldozer’s path.

Although Auburn abandoned the plan to straighten the road at the expense of the cemetery, the community felt they should do more to ensure the cemetery’s on-going protection. It was then that they held a brief ceremony to formally re-name the cemetery, not “The Auburn Cemetery,” but “The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery,” to underline the presence of important graves of the community’s white founders in perpetuity. At the same time the plaque we see today, also honoring the community’s “pioneers,” was placed on the stone that ultimately prevented these white graves from being disturbed. And so it sits today, a memorial to the fact that even in death, our Japanese neighbors were never seen as important as their white counterparts.

Cemeteries and City Politics—Lessons Learned

Landscaping plant encroaching on Jizo, August 2016

Landscaping encroaching on Jizo, August 2016

It was more than four years ago now that the City of Auburn announced that they had engaged the services of a professional historian to produce a landmark nomination for the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery. Once completed and accepted, this document would thereafter serve as the City (and King County’s) officially endorsed history of the cemetery.

This decision wasn’t exactly a surprise, but I will admit I was stunned by the communications (or lack thereof) that the City indulged in during the period they planned for this event. Based on this red flag, I decided to not pursue a role in the process, but wished the best success for their consultant. I was happy that a professional would be handling this important matter, although I was dubious about how adequately she’d be able to research the complex history of this very unique place during the six months before the draft was due.

That initial deadline was missed. More than a year after that deadline, I realized I still hadn’t heard anything regarding the overdue nomination. I contacted the supervising department at City Hall to request an update. They didn’t respond. So I contacted the mayor’s office—and was again ignored. I contacted the director of the White River Valley Museum to ask what the status was. She did respond. But her response, oddly, was only that she had no idea what the status was.

So I continued to wait, realizing that, if the process was taking this much time, at least the resulting nomination would be as thorough as it possibly could be.

And I continued to wait.

And wait.

After three full years, and knowing that the City had already demonstrated that it was not interested in responding to requests even from one of its own citizens on this topic, I made a decision to take the County at their word that “anyone” may nominate a location for landmark status (KCC 20.62.050a) and submitted my own draft nomination. I honestly didn’t want to take on the project at this point. My goal instead was to spark what might have been an awkward communication from King County to the City of Auburn asking them to please get their shit together; otherwise, the county commission could end up in the unenviable position of having to deal with two separate nominations for the same cemetery at the same time—or worse, accept a sub-par “citizen” nomination if the City’s promised professional version did not soon materialize.

I, of course, have no idea if such a conversation ever took place. I do know, however, in the matter of a couple of months, I was advised that Auburn’s professional consulting historian had finally brought the project across the finish line. Halleluiah! Now I would see what her fee and four years of waiting had bought.

So, here at this point, you may be thinking I’m ready to perform an autopsy, holding each dissected part of this document up to the light in order to expose and measure its flaws. And that’s not what this is about. Yes, I have some major disappointments with this document: chief among them that there was evidently no attempt to translate the approximately 100 kanji tombstones which comprise the heart of the cemetery. Together, their transcriptions amount to a primary resource which was completely ignored only because it was evidently inconvenient, over the course of four years, to engage a translator. I know of no professional historian who would say that all primary resources should be consulted, unless they are written in a language that you don’t personally speak. The nomination now moving forward contains inaccuracies that would have been revealed had this obvious step been taken. Of course, translating the tombstones (not to mention the kanji that virtually covers the flanks of the jizo statues) is, to my way of thinking, something the City of Auburn should have done years if not decades ago. They took over the management of the cemetery by 1965, yet never thought it was in anyway important to know the names and dates on the tombstones? Even today? Auburn really hung their consultant out to dry on this one.

But that (and other issues) aside, the nomination form is what it is: a compilation of existing resources (the English-language ones, at least) that ticks all the required boxes. In that finite respect, it is thorough and it is well written. Parts of it are quite impressive. The consultant certainly did a far better job in producing the nomination than I would have had the patience to do. And, most of all, it will carry forward the landmarking process, belatedly endowing the cemetery with the protections it certainly deserves.  And I remind myself that, at the end of the day, this is what is important.

So that said, why am I writing this manifesto today? Mostly to highlight that the City of Auburn made this one of the least transparent and least inclusive exercises I’ve seen performed by city government. Their disinclination to respond to even simple requests for updates is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m not even going to attempt to document every instance of their failure to communicate because it would serve no purpose here other than to try your patience—it’s a pattern with roots reaching all the way back to 2011 when I first raised the question of obtaining landmark status for the cemetery with the Julie Koler (then of King County’s Department of Natural Resources & Parks). And my fear is that the City is going to follow this same M.O. moving forward.

With official landmark status, the City may now have access to funds to initiate any number of projects at the cemetery. I’ve heard mention of ideas from restoring the Jizo statues to even renaming the cemetery to acknowledge a stronger connection to the historic Japanese community. My concern is that, as happened in the nomination process, these projects too will be done in an information vacuum. There is no evidence in the nomination whatsoever that there was any attempt to interview or even contact the living people who are the diaspora of the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery—the very community whose history the process was meant to preserve. Their family experiences, their input—their very right to be informed—were completely ignored during the nomination process. With no researched investigation into what they might be able to add to the historic record, they were deemed irrelevant to the process.

There is the tendency among cities to believe they have exclusive purview when it comes to matters of recording cemetery history or moving forward with restorations. After all, they are acting with good intentions in representing the best interests of the family descendants. Or at least they assume they are. And cities often feel no obligation to confirm the veracity of this assumption. After all, we live in a mobile society; people move away. Many descendants made that choice and, by doing so, they lost the right to express their opinions on cemeteries they rarely, if ever, visit.

There’s something to be said for this practical stance, or at least there was during the days before online genealogy databases and Google searches. Today, it’s not all that difficult to trace the descendants of those buried in what appear to be abandoned graves. And if there’s any doubt that we should, we need to remind ourselves that in the case of the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery, these families didn’t simply make a decision to move on to greener pastures. They didn’t leave to pursue their own agendas. They left only because we exiled them, en masse, because of our own wartime hysteria. To now exclude them with a shrug from these processes is to penalize them—again—for the discrimination that our community inflicted on them in the past.

So, Auburn, if your plans include restoring Jizo statues, please tell me you’re planning to contact Tora Kato’s living, vibrant descendants to advise them of your intensions. If you are going to rename the cemetery, please tell me you’ll contact the living, concerned descendants of Madison Hopkins, James Hart, and George Scott (all of whom are interested in this cemetery as an outgrowth of their own family research) before making any final decisions.  Tell me you’ll proactively make a fully translated transcript of the cemetery readily available for the living, caring descendants of the Togamis, Sagaras, and Otsujis—instead of just filing such a document (if you ever produce it) away in the museum’s research library.

In the case of the Japanese community, we are the sole reason these families initially lost contact with their ancestors’ resting place. We don’t get to now behave as if we have an exclusive right to make decisions affecting their family plots because they aren’t here to speak on their own behalves. We don’t get to assume that our best intensions equal their best interests, no matter how obvious we believe this conclusion to be.

We need to do better, Auburn. We need to do so much better.


Kristy Lommen


Founding Member Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Association of Gravestone Studies

Editor, website


Kanji Tombstones – The Photo Project

Our most recent project is the creation of a photo catalog of the kanji tombstones in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery. This is an important project—because so many of these stones (over 100) were poured from the same mold, it is difficult to tell them apart. They all, of course, have individual inscriptions, but to those of us who are not Japanese speakers, it’s difficult to distinguish these stones by their inscriptions. Add eight or nine decades of weathering, and the stones start to lose almost all sense of identity.

To remedy this situation, we invited a friend and professional photographer—Cherie Renae of Monmouth, Oregon—to visit the cemetery last year to create a photo record of each stone’s inscription. Using special lighting and computer enhancements, Cherie was able to create a set of high definition photographs that, in almost all cases, are far more legible than even the stones themselves when viewed in situ.

Our vision is to create a catalog page for each stone including a large reproduction of its high-definition photograph (a sample page appears below). The page will also include a “row detail” across the top of the page that illustrates the stone’s location relative to the English-language tombstones in its vicinity. A box for the translation is included along the side, followed by any notes regarding the individual (or their family) that we might know from sources beyond the tombstone inscription itself.

We envision providing a copy of the finished catalog to the office at the Auburn Mountainview Cemetery (which administers the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery) as well as the White River Buddhist Temple, which has historically represented Auburn’s Japanese community. Both are called upon regularly to field genealogy-related requests, and this catalog should assist them in fulfilling that role, as well as helping descendants in locating an ancestor’s specific tombstone.

Our final purpose is one we hope will never be needed: to help identify and/or restore stones that are stolen or vandalized—a situation that occurs in cemeteries far too frequently. As of this date, if a set of these kanji tombstones—displaced for any reason—had to be restored to their original positions, there would be little documentation available to assist in accomplishing this task. This catalog should provide cemetery personnel with a tool to aid in their restoration efforts should such a sad eventuality ever come to pass.

In summary the goals of this photo catalog project are:

1. To provide translations of kanji inscriptions on these tombstones

2. To provide the most legible record possible of untranslated elements for possible future translation (kaimyo names, primarily)

3. To preserve the information from the inscriptions beyond the life spans of the stones themselves (most are now over 80 years old and exhibit various stages of erosion)

4. To provide a tool for non-Japanese speakers to locate specific stones in situ at the cemetery

5. To preserve the historical elements of the inscriptions (nengo date notations, old-style kanji, warashi/mizuko designations) that reflect the culture of Auburn’s historic Japanese community at the time the cemetery developed

6. To provide a tool to assist cemetery personnel to repatriate or restore these tombstones if such a project ever becomes necessary

7. To instill an appreciation for the unique community that these stones represent by more tangibly associating them with the individuals and families who uniquely contributed to Auburn’s culture and history

Although the project is in progress at this point, we would be happy to hear from any descendant of the families represented among these graves if they would like to have a copy of the page featuring their family’s tombstone(s) for their own records. Please contact for further information.


Black Beauty’s Legacy

Learning a second language is a bit like returning to childhood. One finds oneself chanting an unfamiliar alphabet until it becomes second nature while, at the same time, immersing oneself in the endless process of acquiring new vocabulary words, just as a toddler does. Eventually one learns to read from books that are mostly pictures, returning to childhood realms of scaly dragons or perhaps small animals dressed in fetching Victorian frocks. From there, chapter books eventually wean the leaner off of imaginative illustrations and onto weightier texts and subjects.

bela joeThis was the position I was in several years ago as I learned the Esperanto language. I had passed the picture book phase and was ready to take on chapter books that could more fully develop a story. The books I found included titles such as La Sorcisto de Oz, La Adventuroj de Alicia en Mirlando, and even Winnie-la-Pu. The same familiarity that might have helped you identify these titles as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie-the-Pooh helped me find my way through the narratives. Comprehension goes up immeasurably when one knows the general direction of the story. In fact, I wasn’t sure I was ready for a novel-length book—even a children’s book—that didn’t offer me that comforting air of familiarity. But that’s precisely when I discovered Bela Joe, an antique Esperanto book offered for sale in an online auction. I took a chance on this unfamiliar book and placed a low-ball bid. As you might imagine, there is very little competition for children’s literature in Esperanto, and the book soon arrived at my door.

Although I had never heard of Bela Joe (or Beautiful Joe, its title in English), I discovered that it was a best-seller in its day. Originally published in 1893 by Canadian author Marshall Saunders, Beautiful Joe was, in fact, the first book to ever sell more than a million copies in Canada. It was the story of an unloved puppy born in the run-down stable of the horse who pulled the morning milk wagon through their small hometown. The cruel milkman who owns the stable abuses his animals, eventually killing all of Joe’s littermates (described in horrific detail) before turning his evil attentions on poor Joe. In a drunken rage, the milkman pins Joe, calls for a hatchet, and hacks off the helpless puppy’s ears and tail. The disfigured, desperate puppy is then rescued by the children of a neighboring family. Because his appearance is so appalling, they give him the ironic name “Beautiful Joe.” The remainder of the novel recounts Joe’s gratitude for his new family and his adventures with the adoring children—told in his own words.

Interesting subject matter for a kids’ book, don’t you think? I’m not sure any modern day publisher could be convinced to market such a dark story as children’s literature. But in the late 1800’s, publishing a book like Beautiful Joe wasn’t just a good idea, it was actually just one example of a growing genre of similar, first-person narratives told from the perspective of abused animals—a genre that had been spawned, single-handedly, by the resounding success of a similar novel published in 1877: Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty.

Although you probably haven’t heard of Beautiful Joe, there is little doubt that you have at least a passing familiarity with Black Beauty. It’s the imaginative story of a horse, told in his own words, who was born on a bucolic farm in England. The story begins with his memories of his mother and companions living an idyllic life on an estate where they are well cared for and happy. Unfortunately, Beauty’s fate soon takes him away from rural comforts; he is brought into the midst of urban squalor in London, forced to earn his keep pulling a carriage under the most depressing and difficult circumstances.

bearing reinSewell describes in great detail some of the common practices in the carriage horse industry of her day, always from the perspective of the helpless animal forced to endure them. She describes how the fashion of the times called for docked tails on horses, and the pain this procedure caused as it was inflicted without any medications. She also took issue with the practice of using blinkers (those piratical eye patches frequently attached to bridles) to partially block the horse’s vision; through Sewell, Beauty complains about how awful it is to perform his job under this needlessly inflicted sensory handicap. But perhaps most harrowing is Sewell’s description of the bearing rein, a piece of harness that runs from the bit in the horse’s mouth through the top of the bridle and then down to his withers, creating a sort of pulley system. The leverage created by the rein forces the horse to hold his head up and keep his neck fully arched, an unnatural position that prevented horses from leaning forward into the work of pulling. The resultant air of military attention appealed to the fashion-conscious Victorians, but the impact on horses, over time, was crippling. And all of this was so much easier for readers to grasp when told from the victim’s own viewpoint. In fact, the outrage spawned by Black Beauty resulted in a movement to ban the bearing rein altogether.

Unfortunately, as with most experiences from early childhood, we tend to forget such details and retain just the feelings they inspired. When we think of carriage horses, we tend to think of them as pitiful, tortured creatures, suffering at the hands of uncaring humans. We don’t pause to analyze if the circumstances that lead to these conclusions are still valid, if they ever were. And since few of us have any direct experience of the lives of carriage horses, this legacy of pity and outrage that has been handed down to us by Black Beauty remains the single, unchallenged—perhaps even unconscious— source of our beliefs about the lives of these animals. It has become immutable part of the hive-mind for those of us living outside of the world of working animals.

Because of the current controversy in New York surrounding the fate of the Central Park carriage horses, I’ve given some thought to the seeds of outrage that Anna Sewell unknowingly planted with her best-selling novel. I’ve been analyzing Jon Katz’s photos of these horses to help guide this analysis. Since I live on the opposite side of the country, this is as close as I can reasonably get.

In Katz’s photos, I see no evidence that carriage horses are forced to endure tail docking. But is this because the practice was recognized as cruelty or because it simply passed out of fashion? Do we physically alter other animals to satisfy the whims of fashion? Certainly there are dog breeds that traditionally endure ear docking even today. Unlike in Victorian England, these procedures are presumably carried out by veterinarians and under anesthesia. Some animal lovers would argue passionately that the practice is nevertheless cruel, but, since there is still enough demand for the practice that it endures, it would be difficult to reach that categorical conclusion. Regardless, since we no longer dock carriage horses’ tails, it’s a moot point.

Sewell described Black Beauty suffering from the restricted vision resulting from the use of blinkers. I see blinkers present in every photo that Jon Katz has published of carriage horses in harness. If the practice of restricting a working horse’s side vision is cruel, why does it persist today?

BlackBeautySmallThe answer, of course, goes to the anthropomorphism of animals. When we imagine ourselves laboring in the streets with artificially restricted vision, of course we’re alarmed. How could any person be expected to carry out his work efficiently—or even safely—under those circumstances? But have we ever considered the impact of sensory stimulation on horses? Anna Sewell, unfortunately, lived far too early to review the studies that eventually explored this issue. Certainly Dr. Temple Grandin, in far more recent times, has helped the public to understand that reducing sensory input endured by animals in stressful situations, is, in fact, one of the more humane things we can do for them. She has revolutionized the livestock industry by designing processes and equipment that intentionally limit stimulation. Blinkers on horse bridles operate on the same, ultimately beneficial, principle. Some may think them cruel, but we could just as easily argue that forcing horses to work in an urban environment without their benefits would be the real cruelty.

Bearing reins, despite the ardent intensions of Sewell’s fans, also persist into the present day. I’m no expert on horse tack and livery, but such reins appear to be evident in several of Katz’s photos. That said, they do not appear to be employed to force the horses into maintaining an unnatural posture. Unlike the illustrations from Sewell’s day, the reins in Katz’s photos appear to have a great deal of slack between the top of the bridle and the horse’s withers. Without interviewing carriage drivers, I couldn’t tell you what their true purpose is, but I suspect it’s the same as the reins used on any riding horse—to establish communication between the animal and the human, a means for the human to communicate direction to the horse or to tell him when to slow or stop. It does not appear that the rein is being used to force the horse to “stand at attention.” I see no evidence of cruelty by its presence in these photos.

Black Beauty obviously had a profound impact on the carriage horse industry, but, even more importantly it touched a nerve with the general public. It virtually propelled the nascent Humane Society movement from sleepy beginnings in England across the Ocean to North American and even beyond to Australia. Beautiful Joe, in fact, was written as a contest entry for one of these early societies in New England; the society had sponsored a writing contest in order to generate sympathy for the sorts of animal cruelty highlighted in Black Beauty (which is why Beautiful Joe was set in Maine rather than the author’s native Canada). Even in the few years between the publication of the two books, the carriage horse had become such an entrenched symbol of animal cruelty that Saunder’s created the tone for Joe’s “autobiography” by first describing the horrendous conditions and treatment endured by the friendly milk horse in scenes already potently familiar from Black Beauty. Saunders actually referenced the presence of Sewell’s book in the home of Joe’s saviors. Even by that time, less than 20 years after Black Beauty was published, the carriage horse had become the virtual poster child of the entire humane movement.

This legacy was built on unshakable narratives, delivered by appealing and pathetic first-person protagonists and served to most of us at a time in childhood that predated objectivity or analysis. In some cases, the narrative had been designed to support specific political goals. For better or worse, carriage horses remain firmly harnessed to Black Beauty’s legacy even today. If these modern horses require liberation, perhaps we can make an attempt to liberate them from our own childish beliefs built on the agendas of a previous century. Only then can we begin to look at their circumstances with any semblance of objectivity.

Japanese Cenotaphs

By the time Chiyokichi Natsuhara established himself in this country with a wife and family of his own, his parents had passed away back in Japan. Realizing that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to offer prayers at their graveside to honor their spirits, Chiyokichi erected a stone to their memory in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.  It’s prominently located in what is today the Natsuhara family plot at the front of the cemetery’s original Japanese section.

Such a memorial, erected at a place other than the burial location of the remains, is called a cenotaph. When erected in cemeteries, cenotaphs can be virtually indistinguishable from actual gravesites, often causing confusion as to who exactly is buried in the cemetery. Despite the potential for confounding future generations, cenotaphs are not uncommon in American cemeteries; they seem to be especially popular in cemeteries that served Japanese American communities in the early part of the last century.

It seems odd that practicing Buddhists would be inclined to erect these monuments. Their death and burial rituals are focused on releasing the deceased person’s spirit from the corporeal body and physical plane of existence. Unlike Christians of that earlier era, Buddhists had no expectation that the dead would literally rise again at a final judgment. On the contrary, they practiced cremation—even though it was considered both an exotic and suspect practice by their white neighbors—to destroy the body and encourage the spirit to depart the physical realm.  Cremation was such a strongly ingrained part of Japanese culture, that even Issei Japanese who converted to Christianity would usually still follow traditional cremation practices.

The assignment of a “kaimyo” at death is an extension of this Buddhist outlook. The “kaimyo”—a sort of posthumous name that the person would be known by in the afterlife—was assigned by the priest at the time of a Buddhist’s death. The belief was that the spirit would be continually drawn back to the physical realm as the surviving friends and family inevitably invoked the name that served that person during their physical life. By changing the name to a new, unfamiliar name at death, this unintended nagging of the dead was cleverly avoided, allowing the departed spirit to more fully separate from its former, physical existence.

After death, the deceased was honored with prayers—prayers often transported to the person in the spiritual plane on the ephemeral smoke of burning incense. Prayers to the ancestors were frequently offered at home alters specifically maintained for this purpose.

With this emphasis on the spiritual rather than physical existence, it might seem odd that cemeteries and tombstones played even a nominally important role in the lives and deaths of early Japanese immigrants, yet they certainly did. In addition to home alters, prayers would be offered in the public venue of the cemetery, especially during community events such as Obon Odori festivals.  Likewise, a public monument recording the deceased person’s name, kiamyo, and date of entry into the spirit realm (in other words, the date of death), was an important remembrance, not just for the family, but for the community at large. And while these monuments usually served to mark the burial place (or, in the case of Buddhists, inurnment place) of the physical remains, that function was actually incidental. The main emphasis was on establishing a place of both private and public remembrance of the deceased person’s time on earth.

As a result, erecting a tombstone in a local cemetery to serve as a memorial and ad hoc alter for offering prayers and burning incense was an important feature of Japanese burial practices, even when the loved one’s cremated remains were not present. Cenotaphs were erected in the Auburn cemetery for precisely this reason. After the local Japanese community was displaced due to the internment of World War II, many families erected cenotaphs in cemeteries in the communities they gravitated to at the war’s end.

Most people are well aware, as they search cemetery records for traces of their family history, that the absence of a tombstone does not necessarily mean that there is no body there. What we also have to remember is that, just because there is a tombstone present, one cannot necessarily conclude that it marks a burial location.

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.

Happy New Year to Anna from Charles—January 2, 1907

Even if it had been a novel I was holding in my hands, I couldn’t think of a more intriguing opening: Happy New Year to Anna from Charles, Jan. 2, 1907. The images that inscription inspired—the questions! Chief among them: Who was Charles? Who was Anna? Despite the photo album’s obvious age and musty odor, there was no way I could stop myself from turning the pages. They were, of course, filled with the sort of images you might expect from turn-of-the-century Washington State: families posed on porches for special occasions, high-buttoned boots and starchy collars, grey-scale ghosts from times gone by.  But there was one additional feature that made the album irresistible to me. In gracefully scrolling Palmer penmanship, someone (Anna presumably) had playfully captioned several of the album’s photos. She’d written, “Snooks and Unky Fred,” beneath a photo of a small child (dressed as if to pose in a Morton Salt ad) standing beside a wooden-faced young man. “Our ‘Lodge’ in the Wilderness,” labeled a decidedly unglamorous, snow-bound cabin. Most useful of all, “Grandpa Wahlgren” appeared beneath a whiskered gentleman who had probably been at his prime during the last days of the Civil War.

Snooks and Unky Fred.

Snooks and Unky Fred.

Bless your heart, Anna, I thought to myself. You gave me all the clues I need.

For less than $10, I bought the album from the bored teenager manning the Antique Arcade that Saturday and brought it home.

Family photos of this vintage are precious to me—and not just photos of my own ancestors. One of the greatest joys I’ve ever experienced is being contacted by descendants of families I’ve written about on the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website. I used to dread finding messages from these people in my inbox, scared that they would be offended that I had written about their ancestors in such a public forum.  But the reality of these communications has been just the opposite. Instead, the descendants are often thrilled that their loved ones have been remembered, and they share memories and details that flavor the stories in a way that the dried crumbs of vital statistics never could.  And, sometimes, they contribute scans of their own family photos to illustrate the website. I treasure these photos. For me, they bring the stories to life, often elevating them from plain-Jane obituary to textured biography.

Looking through Anna’s precious photos in that antique store, I felt the same urge to rescue that many people feel when confronted with a lost puppy marking time at an animal shelter. I had a visceral need to take that album home and care for it—to bring those faded images into the world where they could be admired, and maybe even reunited with the family who had carelessly lost track of them. If I didn’t do it, who would?

Over the next few weeks, using the handful of clues Anna had left behind, I slowly pieced together the story of her and Charles’ lives.

Grandpa Wahlgren

Grandpa Wahlgren

Anna Christina Naslund had been born in Sweden, but came to America with her family while still a young girl. Several of her younger siblings were born in Kansas where the family first settled. By the early days of the 20th Century, however, the Naslunds had relocated in Washington State. Here, in 1904, on a warm July Wednesday, both Anna and her younger sister Ida married their sweethearts in a double wedding ceremony.

Ida’s beau was named John Bravo, but I know very little about him. Anna, however, married Charles Abraham Wahlgren and moved with him to the small, logging community of Sedro Wooley, Washington. By New Year’s Day of 1907, Anna and Charles had been married for almost three years and had a baby boy named Nelson. Later that same year, Anna would give birth to their second child, a daughter named Vernet. Eventually four children would be born to the couple.

During their Sedro Wooley years, Anna corresponded regularly with her friend Freda Naylor. A large portion of her photo album is devoted to snapshots and clippings that Freda sent to Anna to keep her up-to-date on her own family’s doings. Anna seemed to have also maintained a close bond with her baby brother Fred Naslund. He appeared in several of her photos and is undoubtedly the “Unky Fred” posed alongside the indomitable “Snooks.”

Charles and Anna lived typical lives for their time. He worked as a moulder in a foundry, and she, of course, was a wife and mother.

By 1930, Charles and Anna were living apart. He had relocated to Seattle with their son Nelson who was, at that time, a department store salesman. Charles continued his work as a foundryman in Seattle. It’s impossible to say if this separation was the result of a marital rift or simply a relocation to facilitate a career opportunity. Either way, Anna rejoined Charles sometime before the 1940 Census. They remained in Seattle the rest of their lives; Charles passed away in 1955 and Anna followed in 1968. They are buried together in Seattle’s Evergreen Washelli Cemetery.

Tragically unlabeled! Is this Anna and her two sisters? Charles' three sisters? Will we ever know?

Tragically unlabeled! Is this Anna and her two sisters? Charles’ three sisters? Will we ever know?

The point of all this genealogical research was to identify families who might be interested in the photo album’s contents. There were three: The Wahlgrens, the Naslunds, and the Naylors. I created basic family trees for each and uploaded them to one of the online genealogy sites. I then attached scans of every photo that I could identify to individuals within those family trees. Anyone researching those families should run across the trees and discover the attached photos. These can be copied onto their own trees and be made available to additional researchers. I’m pleased to see that this copying & spreading process has already begun. The more people who have access to these family photos, the more likely they are to survive into the future.

My fondest hope is that I someday hear from a descendant of Charles and Anna—some grandchild or great-grandchild who has developed an interest in family history—someone who will be pleased to take custody of Anna’s album with its original photos and will give them the care and preservation they deserve.

Until then, the images are out there, released into the public domain, where I hope they will continue to delight others the way they have delighted me.