Cultivating Hope at the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony
Agriculture is the real mother lode of El Dorado County. While people from all over the world came here in search of gold, it’s been the richness of the soil that has maintained populations over the ensuing years.
In 1869, the mild climate and favorable growing conditions lured John Henry Schnell and a group of Japanese craftsman, farmers, and samurai from Aizuwakamatsu, Japan, to a 160-acre farm site in Gold Hill that they purchased from Charles Graner. Known as the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the settlers brought thousands of tea plants, millions of tea seeds, mulberry trees, silk worms, and other crops from Japan in hopes of developing a thriving farm.
For the members of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, founded on June 8, 1869, the dream faded two years later. Drought and contaminated ditch water killed their crops, they ran out of funds, and the Japanese laborers were leaving in search of better-paying jobs. In 1870, in the midst of the triumphs and defeats of the colony, Jou Schnell, Japanese wife of colony founder John Schnell, gave birth to a child named Mary who is believed to be the first Japanese American birthright citizen. In 1871, it is presumed that John traveled back to Japan to raise money for the struggling colony. He was never heard from again.
The colony disbanded, and the people either returned to Japan or faded into the patchwork of California society. Two of the colonists who remained in the area—Okei Ito and Matsunosuke Sakurai—were taken in by the neighboring Veerkamp family. Okei developed a fever later that year and died. She is buried on the hillside that now overlooks Gold Trail School and is the first Japanese woman and immigrant buried on American soil. Matsunosuke died in 1901. His funeral services were held in the Emmanuel Church in Coloma—the same church that hosted the funeral of James Marshall—and is buried in Coloma’s Pioneer Cemetery. The American River Conservancy (ARC), in conjunction with California State Parks, recently placed a new marker on his grave.
The Veerkamps acquired the colony property in 1873 and retained ownership of it until 2010 when it was purchased by the ARC. The farmhouse, located at 941 Cold Springs Road, is the original structure built by Charles Graner in the 1850s. The large tree next to the house is a Japanese elm planted by the colonists.
The ARC will be celebrating the sesquicentennial of the founding of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the first Japanese colony in America, from June 6-9.
WakamatsuFest150 will showcase traditional and modern Japanese American culture, music, and theatrical arts, and culinary delights. Special guests and dignitaries, local farmers, historians, and naturalists will share their knowledge of the past, present, and future of Wakamatsu Farm and surrounding El Dorado County. In addition, docents will share the stories of the Japanese colonists who farmed the land.
Artifacts from the colony, including the Wakamatsu banner and a tanto, or small samurai sword, will be on display during the festival. These objects were retained by the Veerkamps for many years prior to being donated to the collections of California State Parks.
Each day of the festival will feature a special theme. Thursday, June 6, is for children with fun activities for all ages. On Friday, June 7, the Japanese tea culture will be explored. Activities on Saturday, June 8, will focus on the history of Wakamatsu Farm, including speakers from Japan who will share Japanese perspectives about the colony. On Sunday, June 9, authors of the Wakamatsu story and Japanese American farmers will be featured.
by Jerrie Beard
WHAT: Celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Japanese colony in America with food, art, music, performances, demonstrations, discussions, and more.
WHEN: June 6-9 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
WHERE: 941 Cold Springs Road, Placerville; Note: Public parking is at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
For complete festival information, including ticketing and parking, visit arconservancy.org/wakafest150.
Strong as Silk: The Story of the Gold Hill Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Colony Prose & Poems by Brigit Truex (pages 122-131)
The Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Colony Farm, America’s First Issei: The Original Japanese Settlers (provided by the ARC)
ARC press release and media kit on the festival