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Mukai Farm: A beloved place with an uncertain future

Ken DeFrang, who lives next door to the Mukai Farm and works as its caretaker, says bike riders and pedestrians sometimes come by the Japanese garden to rest and relax. They’re always welcome, he says. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Ken DeFrang, who lives next door to the Mukai Farm and works as its caretaker, says bike riders and pedestrians sometimes come by the Japanese garden to rest and relax. They’re always welcome, he says.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

For years, Mary Matthews, a committed preservationist, worked diligently to protect the Mukai Farm and Garden, a modest homestead with a history that reads like a chapter out of “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

She raised more than $300,000 in county, state and federal funds to purchase the property, once the site of a thriving strawberry-growing and packaging operation run by a Japanese immigrant and his American-born son.

She garnered a competitive $20,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to determine the best way to preserve and restore its one-of-a-kind Japanese garden. She successfully got it declared a King County landmark, a site on the National Register of Historic Places and a key property in then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Save America’s Treasures” program.

Now, eight years after its purchase, the Mukai Farm is, in the words of Mary Thompson, the state’s former preservation officer, “moldering away.”

Many are pleased that Matthews, by way of her nonprofit, Island Landmarks, found the public funds to purchase the house and its showcase Japanese garden, ensuring that the house remained in its historic context. Two years ago, she took it one step farther, purchasing with her own money the adjacent 10,000-square-foot, wood-frame building where the Mukais processed and packaged their strawberries.

But at the same time, top people in the historic preservation community say, the promise of her vision — that the site become “a historic interpretive center open to the public,” as she wrote in one grant application — has not been fulfilled.

Her nonprofit, Island Landmarks, is barely operational. Access to the house is limited to those who happen to walk down its dead-end street, see a small sign listing a phone number and call for an appointment. And the garden, the hallmark of the site, is receiving scant attention, some say.

“I’m extremely upset and outraged by this,” said Thompson, a trustee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “This is a priceless historic resource.”

Thompson is particularly troubled by the state of the garden, considered nationally significant because it was designed and created by a first-generation Japanese woman, a rarity in Japanese culture at the time. Thompson, as well as others with the National Trust, said that Matthews did not complete the terms of her $20,000 grant and never submitted her report outlining the site’s cultural resources and her plans for restoration, as required.

“It’s a tragedy,” Thompson said of the garden. “It’s plant. It’s rock. And it’s deteriorating.”

Jim Kelly, the head of 4Culture, King County’s cultural services agency, said he, too, is concerned. His agency gave Island Landmarks $100,000 to purchase the site and hold it as a public resource.

“It’s just not reached its potential or promise,” he said.

Matthews worked hard to bring the project to fruition, he noted, and was well-intentioned throughout the process. But she hasn’t been able to find the resources or support to take the project to the next level, he said.

As a result, he said, “The property is owned by a nonprofit entity that is basically not operating in the public interest at the moment.”

Matthews, in a lengthy interview from Texas, where she moved a few years ago, acknowledged that her dream for the site has yet to be realized. A former cultural resource specialist for the county, she described herself as a committed preservationist who cares passionately about the Mukai site.

Because of her commitment to the property, she jumped when she found out the adjacent packaging plant was going to be sold at a foreclosure auction two years ago and, with her husband, J. Nelson Happy, shelled out more than $400,000 to purchase the historic site. Now, she’s using her own money to tie the landscape back together again and rebuild the site’s historic context, a process that adds considerably to its value as a historic place.

But other efforts have not panned out, she acknowledged. While she raised the funds to purchase the farmhouse and garden, she’s been unable to raise enough money to operate it as an educational and interpretative site, she said. As a result, she has looked for another entity to take it on — an established nonprofit with a commitment to Japanese heritage and historic preservation. So far, she’s been unsuccessful.

“I went everywhere,” she said, mentioning Yale University, a national Buddhist organization and the Japanese-American Association in San Francisco. “We said, ‘Come and take this. Here it is.’ We had no takers.”

Her supporters on the Island say it’s unfair to criticize Matthews for what some say was a visionary effort to save the Mukai Farm. Indeed, according to some, she’s had a hand in the preservation of nearly every historic site on the Island, from the lighthouse at Point Robinson to the Belle Baldwin house at Fern Cove.

“When I look back at the things that have been saved on this Island, she’s been behind all of it,” said Priscilla Beard, a Vashon resident who knows Matthews well. “Instead of attacking her, the Island should ask how they can support her.”

Some Islanders familiar with the situation, however, are critical of the way Island Landmarks is holding the historic site.

Paul Motoyoshi sought to use the facility last year for a traditional Japanese dinner and tea ceremony featuring Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, the Japanese-American woman and former Islander who wrote “Looking Like the Enemy.” The event was to be a fundraiser for Sustainable Tourism on Vashon, a new nonprofit on the Island.

Matthews initially said yes, until she found out he was charging $125 per person for the event. “The Mukai Farm and Garden is an educational facility,” she wrote to him in an e-mail shortly before the event, “and we cannot be party to an event that is restricted in attendance to only people rich enough to afford $125 per person.”

The event was never held, said Motoyoshi, who said he was distraught by how the episode unfolded. “It felt very much like a racist thing to me,” he said.

Matthews, however, said she felt Motoyoshi wasn’t up front with her about his intentions for the site; she didn’t know how much was being charged until she saw the flier, for instance, or that it was a fundraiser for a nonprofit she had never heard of.

“This wasn’t what we had envisioned,” she said. “We were appalled.”

The Mukai Farm and Garden and its adjacent “barreling plant,” as the Mukais called it, sit at the end of 107th Ave. S.W., just off of Bank Road. It is here that a father and son team – B.D. and Masa Mukai – developed not only a successful strawberry-growing operation but also a freezing and packaging plant that enabled them to be the first on the Island to sell strawberries around the world.

Matthews, in the King County landmark nomination form she compiled, paints a vivid picture of this early 20th century operation — a thriving agricultural scene that was cut short by World War II and the internment order that stripped so many successful Japanese immigrants of their land.

B.D. Mukai, who had come to the United States at age 15 determined to make money, moved to Vashon in 1910 and immediately started growing strawberries on leased land. In 1926, when Masa was 15, the boy — an American-born citizen — was able to do what his father couldn’t: Purchase land. So he bought 40 acres, land where the Mukai family home and barreling plant now stand.

The father and son team was highly successful, and their strawberries were in demand. In order to find a way to sell them to markets farther away than Seattle, Masa Mukai developed a process to freeze and preserve strawberries. And to facilitate the process, he worked with a local contractor in 1926 to design and build the Mukai Cold Process Fruit Barreling Plant, the wood-frame structure that still stands today. The family home — a classic, 1,900-square-foot farmhouse built by a Norwegian contractor — was constructed that same year.

Adding to the beauty of the pastoral site was an extensive Japanese garden designed by B.D. Mukai’s second wife, Kuni — a formal garden that included flowering cherries, shrubs native to Japan, ornate stonework, a meandering pond and a waterfall. According to Matthews’ nomination form, visitors came from throughout the region to visit and photograph the garden.

In 1942, because of Masa Mukai’s connections, he was able to leave Vashon voluntarily two weeks before an executive order forced thousands of Japanese off of their land. As a result, he had enough time to turn his business over to his hauler. But when the family returned after the war, they found their house rented, the garden neglected and an agricultural climate that had changed; the fertile growing areas of Snohomish and Whatcom counties were now favored.

Masa Mukai continued to live there (his father had returned to Japan); but the strawberry-growing days were over — and ultimately, he sold the barreling plant and five acres surrounding it to a bean sprout manufacturing company.

Today, historians say, the Mukai homestead is perhaps the most important site in King County in terms of the region’s ethnic history. What’s particularly noteworthy is the fact that many of the pieces — from the original farmhouse to the formal gardens to the barreling plant — are still intact.

According to Thompson with the National Trust, nothing is left that tells the story of those early Japanese berry-growers on Whidbey Island, and this is the only remaining site on Vashon.

“Everything else is long gone that will ever tell that story. This is it,” she said.

Because of its importance, the agencies that funded the purchase of the farmhouse and garden say they’re disheartened that Matthews has not delivered on her promise or fulfilled all of her obligations under her grant awards.

The National Trust, for instance, gave her several extensions to complete the cultural landscape report it funded by way of its $20,000 grant, said Elaine Stiles, a program officer for the Western Office in San Francisco. The organization at one point also asked that she reimburse it, something her nonprofit, Island Landmarks, said it was unable to do, Stiles said.

“It’s a very sad story,” Stiles said. “It seems there was a lot of effort by a lot of good organizations to make this a showcase project. It seems those efforts did not turn out the way any of us expected.”

Two years ago, the National Trust, the county’s 4Culture and others involved with the project tried to work out a resolution, Kelly with 4Culture said.

After much discussion, he said, they asked Matthews to donate the farmhouse and garden to 4Culture, which would then sell the property to a private owner who was philosophically committed — as well as legally required — to protect the property as a historic site and to open it once or twice a year to the public. The county would put the proceeds from the sale into an endowment, which would kick out several thousand dollars a year in interest — enough money, Kelly said, to maintain the garden and other historic features on the site.

To staff at 4Culture, it made sense, said Flo Lentz, the agency’s lead staff for the preservation office. “We felt that maybe Island Landmarks had lost its steam and that this was a possible solution,” she said.

Matthews, however, disagreed vehemently with the approach.

“It was horrifying to us that the property would ever be sold to a private entity,” she said. “In spite of all the shortcomings of the nonprofit owning it, we still felt we could accomplish the original mission.”

Today, Matthews said, she remains committed to realizing her original vision and believes it’s only a matter of time before she’s able to do so. Her board is now four members strong; she’s the chair of it; other members include her husband, Nancy Silver, who recently moved off of Vashon, and the property’s neighbor and caretaker Ken DeFrang, the only Vashon-based member of the board.

“We’re a small group of people trying to keep it going in the hopes that something will happen,” she said. “If we don’t, we know nothing will happen.”

During a recent tour led by DeFrang, however, the house showed its age. Its exterior paint is peeling, and water stains mark some of the interior walls. The house is virtually empty, save for a few pieces of antique furniture and some Japanese wall hangings and other Japanese decor. Matthews’ black Mercedes sports car, with Texas plates, sits in the house’s garage; it’s there, DeFrang said, for Matthews’ occasional trips to the Island.

Kelly, with 4Culture, meanwhile, said he has also not walked away from the situation. What Matthews has tried to do is tough, he said; fundraising to restore a garden, for instance, is not easy. Still, he said, he feels his agency needs to push harder to see that the terms of the grant award — that it become a site open to the public — are ultimately fulfilled.

“There’s some opportunity here,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is, to be perfectly honest. This has been nagging us for some time. It’s an issue that we have to deal with."

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