Barn lost in WWII internment proposed for historic registry

ARLINGTON — The Nakashima farm is quiet now.

The machinery that milked cows and tilled the land has stopped humming. The herd of Guernsey milk cows is long gone. Children who once filled this farm with hard work and chatter have moved on.

The only sounds left are the rustle of overgrown grass and the whoosh of an occasional car passing on Highway 9.

The Nakashima barn is empty.

Its history, however, remains — ingrained in the old wooden slabs and rusty nails that have held the barn together for nearly a century.

Built by relatives of the founder of Seattle, the barn has withstood the internment of its Japanese-American owners during World War II. It has lived through the modernization of the dairy industry and, more recently, it has survived a decade of abandonment.

Now the barn is poised to become one of the first on the state’s new Heritage Barn Register, and is the only one being considered to have been owned by Asian-Americans. The barn also is being nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

“There are a lot more unique barns in Snohomish County,” said Tracy Tallman, vice chairwoman of the Snohomish County Historic Preservation Commission, who has spent more than 100 hours researching the barn. “There are some beautiful barns if you drive around, but this is important. It’s an important historical site.”

Though county records date the barn to 1920, Tallman believes it was built 12 years earlier by Daniel Waldo Bass when he converted the land six miles north of Arlington from a logging camp to a dairy farm.

Also in 1908, Bass, the grandson of Oregon pioneers, married Sophie Frye, the granddaughter of Seattle founders Arthur and Mary Ann Boren Denny.

Kamezo and Mije Nakashima began operating the farm almost as soon as it was established. For about 30 years, the Japanese immigrants and some of their 11 children lived on the farm and worked the land. They were one of just two Japanese farming families in Snohomish County at the time, and likely the only one to operate a dairy.

George Nakashima, now 88, remembers milking cows in the family barn when he was five, and helping his siblings harvest hay.

“It was a lot of hard work,” he recalled. “It was all labor.”

Kamezo and Mije Nakashima sent a few of their children back to Japan to connect with relatives and attend school, while others stayed in Arlington. The older Nakashima kids graduated from Arlington High School, where they played sports and acted in plays, according to Loren Kraetz, a retired Arlington teacher and dairy farmer.

Anti-Asian land restriction laws and citizenship restrictions prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property.

So the Basses were unable to sell Kamezo and Mije Nakashima the farm.

In 1936, they transferred the deed to one of the Nakashimas’ sons, Takeo Nakashima, who was an American citizen and around 24 years old at the time.

Five years later, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor blasted apart the peaceful life the Nakashimas had built on the farm.

Shortly after the attack, Kamezo Nakashima marched into City Hall and turned over guns and a partial box of dynamite, said Kraetz, whose mother graduated with one of the Nakashima girls.

It wasn’t enough to save their farm.

With internment imminent, the Nakashimas were given just 10 days to sell more than 1,000 acres of land that spanned Snohomish and Skagit counties, and included a barn, a farm, and dozens of registered Guernsey cattle.

They sold it all for around $10 an acre to a man who visited the farm looking to buy a bull, according to Tallman.

“They gave the farm away,” said George Nakashima, who has lost all but three of his siblings. “They didn’t have that much time to sell or anything and no one really came forward at that time because that was a bad thing to do.”

Most of the family was separated and sent to internment facilities in Idaho and California.

George Nakashima had already been drafted into the Army and served in Italy. He wasn’t sure exactly was happening to his family while he was away and because letters were his main means of communication — and he couldn’t write Japanese and his parents didn’t know much English.

“I thought it was a terrible thing really, but there was nothing you could do at that time,” he said from his Renton home. “You’re good enough to be in the service, but you’re not good enough to stay there (on your land)…”

Even while on furlough in California, he told people he was Chinese to avoid the rampant discrimination of the time.

When the war ended, work was hard to find, so George Nakashima became a florist. His parents ran a hotel in Seattle. They never returned to farming.

“I think it’s important to honor the Nakashima family,” Tallman said. “It was a tragedy, what happened to them. I’m sure their descendents would still be working the farm today if it hadn’t been for the forced internment of the Japanese.”

George Nakashima said he doesn’t really care if the barn is salvaged and placed on this Heritage Barn Register. He’s only visited the farm only once since his family was evicted.

There is nothing there for him to see, he said. The damage has already been done.

“The farm is just a shell of itself now,” he said. “We went to look at it and it’s just a barn. I don’t know if it needs a history.”

Snohomish County bought 83 acres of the former Nakashima farm in 1996 and plans to begin transforming it into the north trailhead of the cross-county Centennial Trail in fall 2008, said Tom Teigen, the county Parks and Recreation director. While the county’s first priority is getting the trail laid, it’s also considering developing the barn for visitors.

The Governor’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is scheduled to vote Friday on the first 158 barns to be included on the Historic Barn Register. The Nakashima barn is one of seven barns in Snohomish County preservationists hope to see included.

The register is intended to honor barns of historic value and make them eligible for $400,000 in state grants. State officials originally hoped to give barns on the register a historic marker, but because of budget constraints, the barns will get a certificate instead, state architectural historian Michael Houser said.

“The idea was really kind of to document the barns’ history, raise the public profile and try to capture information about our disappearing cultural resources,” he said. “With the grant program we hope we can keep more of them standing into the next generation. They’re vastly disappearing from the landscape.”

With its arched metal roof, the Nakashima barn is a good example of gambrel style architecture, Houser said. Plus it’s the only barn scheduled for the register that was owned by Asian-Americans, he said.

Tallman hopes that the barn’s inclusion on the register would speed up repairs and motivate Snohomish County to post signs explaining the barn’s layered history.

For now, the barn sits alone. Separated from Highway 9 by a locked gate and a gravel driveway, its concrete floors are littered with hay and a few beer cans. Pieces of tractors sit abandoned in fields that haven’t been plowed in years.

For now, the Nakashima barn is silent.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or

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