Last updated: June 5, 2018
Walnut Grove Japanese–American Historic District is located in Walnut Grove, in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, a large agricultural area in Sacramento County, California. Walnut Grove served as the center of social and economic life for many Japanese seasonal agricultural workers in the rural Delta area from 1896 to the evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent during World War II.
Before the 1800s, immigration from Asia to the United States was minimal. During the 19th century, however, the United States experienced mass migrations of immigrants from several Asian countries, particularly China. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s Chinese were recruited as a major source of labor for the mining and railroad industries in the western U.S. In the early 1870s thousands of Chinese laborers were hired to work on an extensive levee project in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta constructing a large network of earthen levees which eventually turned 500,000 acres of swamp into some of California's most valuable farm land. The reclaimed land was able to support large farms and the expansion of the pear and asparagus industries creating a demand for cheap manual labor. Many of the Chinese workers stayed in the area and made a living as farm workers and sharecroppers, settling in towns in the region such as Walnut Grove, Isleton, Rio Vista, and Courtland.
The Chinese community in Walnut Grove may have started as early as 1875 and was made up of residents from southern China. During the 1880s and 1890s, Chinese businessmen in Walnut Grove developed a thriving commercial and social center for the hundreds of agricultural laborers who worked throughout the Delta region.
In the early 1880s the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S. The Act barred Chinese "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining" from entering the U.S. for 10 years and forbade Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. Other exclusionary laws aimed at Chinese immigrants were passed by Congress between 1888 and 1902, effectively reducing the number of Chinese entering the U.S.
After the enactment of various Chinese exclusionary laws, Japanese immigrants became increasingly sought after by American businesses. Because of this, the number of Japanese immigrating to the U.S., particularly to the West Coast, increased rapidly. The first Japanese-owned business in Walnut Grove, an udan-ya (noodle shop), was started in 1896 and marked the beginning of what would become a large rural Japanese community.
Walnut Grove, centrally located between San Francisco and Sacramento, served as the commercial and social center for laborers working the farms between Florin, Stockton, and San Francisco. The Japanese in Walnut Grove began to establish a presence in the north part of Chinatown and it quickly became the social and cultural center for Japanese Americans in the Delta. Although other Japanese communities were established in the Delta, they were residential and did not have Walnut Grove's range of services, community associations, and churches that catered to the local Japanese population.
In 1915, a fire broke out in Walnut Grove’s Chinatown, destroying 80 buildings in a three-block area. This resulted in changes in the makeup of Walnut Grove’s Chinese community. Some of the Chinese residents moved one mile north and founded the town of Locke while others chose to remain in Walnut Grove and rebuild. The Japanese immigrants who had been living in Chinatown took the opportunity to build their own Nihonmachi (Japantown) one block north of the Chinese district on land owned by Alex Brown, a local landowner and banker.
Recognizing the need for houses, hotels, and boarding houses, as well as businesses in the new Nihonmachi, Japanese architects and carpenters from all over Northern California volunteered to help with the building effort. Thus, unlike many other California cities, where Asians worked in buildings constructed by European Americans, Walnut Grove developed a Japanese commercial district whose buildings were designed and built by Asians.
The new Nihonmachi in Walnut Grove grew quickly during the 1920s. A period of agricultural expansion and opportunity contributed to the population boom. In Walnut Grove, the number of people in the Nihonmachi swelled on weekends when hundreds of laborers working in the nearby orchards and fields came into town for haircuts, baths, entertainment, and food. Some laborers stayed in rooming houses within the district. On Sundays alone, over 1,000 men would come into Kawa Shima, the local Japanese name for Walnut Grove. By then there were movie theaters, hotels, churches, a variety of commercial services, bathhouses, restaurants, schools, a dentist, and a surgeon.
During this period Japanese associations, the Methodist and Buddhist churches, and the local Japanese American theater all played important roles in the lives of the Walnut Grove’s Japanese residents and seasonal laborers. Community organizations in rural Nihonmachis included the surrounding labor camp workers in their activities, giving them a sense of belonging and home. Potlucks, picnics, plays, meetings, and social gatherings were attended by hundreds of people and were often held on Sundays or during the off season to accommodate the agricultural workers. The Japanese American community in Walnut Grove thrived throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s.
After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, leading to the United States’ entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing all of California and most of the West Coast of the U.S., "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal from these areas of Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry—citizens and non-citizens alike—to relocation camps. The Japanese in Walnut Grove were evacuated, turning its Nihonmachi into a ghost town virtually overnight.
During the war, Filipinos and Mexican laborers, who were brought in by the local farmers to take over the work in the orchards and fields, occupied the Nihonmachi. Most of the original Japanese residents returned to Walnut Grove following the end of the war; however, the majority did not stay longer than a few years. Some moved their families to nearby cities and others returned to Japan. The heyday of Walnut Grove’s Nihonmachi was over.
Today the Walnut Grove Japanese-American Historic District is a rare example of a Japanese American community designed and built by Japanese. The historic district appears almost as it did in the 1920s, with the exception of community gardens on several lots where the original buildings burned down and were not replaced.
The buildings in the Walnut Grove Japanese-American Historic District are reflective of the Asian preferences in everyday architectural design. The narrow streets are lined with wooden two-story buildings with recessed entryways, large windows, and overhanging balconies. The balconies served as porches for the residences on the second floors. Walnut Grove was, and remains, a rare example of California Japanese American 20th century vernacular architecture.
The Walnut Grove Japanese-American Historic District is roughly bounded by the Sacramento River, C Street., Tyler Street., and Winnie Street. in Walnut Grove, CA. For more information, visit the community of Walnut Grove’s website.
Walnut Grove Japanese-American Historic District is the subject of an online lesson plan, Locke and Walnut Grove: Havens for Early Asian Immigrants in California. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Placeswebsite.