Wakamatsu Colony Festival to Be Held on May 19

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SACRAMENTO — The American River Conservancy (ARC) and Sacramento JACL are hosting a fundraising event entitled “Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Festival” on Saturday, May 19 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 941 Cold Springs Rd., Placerville (about 40 miles from Sacramento).

The event will begin with a memorial service at the gravesite of Okei, a young woman who was part of the colony, led by Rev. Kenneth Hasegawa.

The gravesite of Okei, a member of the Wakamatsu Colony, who died at age 19 in 1871.

A cherry tree planting ceremony with Consul General of Japan Hiroshi Inomata will be followed by various cultural demonstrations, such as the singing of “Haru ga Kita” by Gold Trail Elementary School pupils, drumming by Placer Ume Taiko, and sushi and wine sampling. The event will close with folk dancing to “Aizu-Bandaisan.”

This historic colony site was first settled by Japanese pioneers from Aizu Wakamatsu (Fukushima Prefecture) in June 1869. They arrived in California with a great shipload of mulberry trees, tea plant seeds, fruit tree saplings, paper and oil plants, rice, bamboo and other crops to establish the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm. This group purchased the Gold Hill Ranch, planted their crops and became the first Japanese colony in the United States.

Among the approximately 22 colonists were former samurai, servants, and others who wished to start a new life in America after a devastating civil war (Boshin Sensou) during the Meiji Restoration period. Okei was a 17-year-old babysitter for the leader of the colony, merchant John Henry Schnell, an early member of the Prussian Embassy in Japan.

In spite of their efforts, the Wakamatsu Colony failed within two years of its start. Schnell left for Japan with his Japanese wife and two daughters to seek financial support, but he never returned. Meanwhile, Okei, who began working for a neighboring ranch owned by the Veerkamp family, grew sick and died shortly after Schnell left.

In the early 1920s, the Japanese American community began a resurgence of interest in the Wakamatsu story. Local Japanese Americans started to tend Okei's gravesite in 1924 and emphasized the story of the Wakamatsu Colony as the beginning of Japanese immigration.

In 1969, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan celebrated the colony's centennial by proclaiming the site to be California Historical Landmark No. 815. The history of the colony has recently been found to be “nationally significant” by the National Park Service.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) recently stated, “To many Japanese Americans, the Wakamatsu Colony is as symbolic as Plymouth Rock was for the first American colonists. The Gold Hill Wakamatsu Collaborative now has the historic opportunity to acquire this land and preserve the legacy of these early Japanese Americans.”

In introducing the Gold Hill-Wakamatsu Preservation Act (H.R. 4108) to Congress, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) notes that the Gold Hill Ranch “is the only property associated with the immigration of samurai following the Meiji Restoration.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also endorsed the project.

The former colony site has been located on private property over the past 137 years. In 2007, ARC launched the Gold Hill-Wakamatsu Colony Campaign along with the Sacramento, Placer and Florin JACL chapters. Approximately 150 Rafu Shimpo subscribers also contributed to the campaign.

The ARC successfully acquired the 272-acre parcel of land for $3.2 million in 2010. The park is targeted to open in 2019. However, the ARC still owes the family approximately $1.3 million.

ARC Executive Director Alan Ehrgott states, “We are making the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm a place of understanding, mutual respect and a place to share the joy of cultural diversity and friendship.”

Tickets for the event are $20 general, $10 for youth; advance tickets are $15 general, $7 for youth. Admission is free kids under 10 years old. Food and beverage are not included in the ticket price. For more information, contact ARC at (530) 621-1224 or visit www.arconservancy.org.

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