BY CHIZU OMORI
The Olympic Music Festival, voted “Best Classical Music Festival” by the Seattle Weekly, boasts a location on “a turn-of-the-century dairy farm nestled on 55 acres of tranquil farmland on Washington’s beautiful Olympic Peninsula,” according to their website.
What few music lovers know is that this festival, now celebrating its 22nd season, takes place on the former dairy and vegetable farm of a Japanese immigrant, Jiso Iseri, who established his farm some 91 years ago. The barn, built by Iseri in 1934, is where the concerts take place.
The beginnings of the festival on the Iseri farm is one of the stories recollected by Jiso’s daughter, Hanako Hamada and daughter-in-law, Iwako Iseri, wife of Jiso’s son Isamu. Jiso Iseri came to the United States in 1897 at age 19 to work for a railroad company. Three years later, he brought over his five brothers, Masayuki, Heiju, Hisashi, Chukichi and Takashi from their home province of Kumamoto Ken on Kyushu Island, Japan. Jiso married Shima Asaki, also from Kumamoto Ken, who came as a picture bride in 1905. The brothers developed a dairy farm in a town then known as Thomas, near Kent.
Looking at a 1913 family portrait taken of the brothers and their wives and children shows a handsome Jiso with his handlebar mustache, attired in a business suit, along with his brothers. Their wives look like prosperous housewives in their Sunday best wearing large, lovely hats, the children are also dressed in attire of that period, ribbons in their hair and holding onto leashes of wheeled toys. There is pride in their bearing and an air of well being and confidence. They could pass for any other middle class American family except for their Asian faces.
In 1914, Iseri purchased 120 acres in a town called Dabob, which is now Quilcene. It was done under the guardianship of a friend, Charles Johnson, due to the Alien Land Laws. Later, an additional 40 acres were purchased and when Sakaye, the oldest son, turned 21, the ownership of the farm was transferred to him. Hay, lettuce, strawberries potatoes and other vegetables were grown, and the farm prospered.
Jiso and Shima’s marriage produced seven children: Sakaye, Yayeko, Miyeko, Iwao, Hanako, Isamu, and Shigeko. As was the custom in many Japanese families, three of the children were sent to Japan with their uncle Masayuki and his family to be educated and they graduated from the sixth grade in Japan before returning to the United States.
Hanako was the fifth child, and of her early life on the dairy farm, she said, “We had to get up early in the morning and milk cows. I started helping out at age four, feeding livestock, tending strawberry fields.” She remembers how rural the area was, with bears appearing around the edges and with woods as part of the farm where, in the fall, matsutake mushrooms were plentiful in the pine woods on their farm.
Hanako recalls that her father was a very good farmer and a strict father. “Everybody worked very hard,” with over 50 milk cows to tend and all the crops to tend. In 1934, work on a big barn began and was completed in 1935. Jiso and his son, Isamu worked with a contractor to complete this barn, the very barn now being used for the Olympic Music Festival.
“We were the only Japanese family in Dabob and we were treated bad by the others,” Hanako remembers. In school, they experienced direct discrimination. But their hard work made the dairy a very successful operation, supplying milk for the region, including the Bremerton shipyard. Many Japanese took up dairy farming and supplied a large percentage of milk in this region in those early days.
As did other Japanese Americans on the West Coast, the Iseri family suffered the consequences of the Internment of Japanese Americans after the beginning of World War II. Forced to sell the cattle for a pittance, the Iseris were taken to the concentration camp, Tule Lake. The government seized the farm and divided it up into five parcels that were sold and they did not see a penny of the proceeds of the sale. All that they had worked so hard for was taken away.
After World War II ended, Iseri, discouraged by his losses, chose to return to Japan. His children decided to go with him and at the end of 1945 they all boarded the General Gordon, a large ship at Portland along with thousands of others that fateful journey. They settled in rural Kumamoto but Hanako and Isamu with their proficiency in English got jobs in urban settings.
In 1958, Isamu Iseri decided to return to the United States with Iwako, his Japanese wife. Jiso and Shima came with them. Iseri was able to revisit the site of his former farm. He wanted to stay and live in the area, but it wasn’t possible. Shortly after, he passed away. In later years Isamu and Iwako did strike up a friendship with Alan Iglitzin, executive director of the Olympic Music Festival, who had been searching for the Iseris, and they have gone to concerts in their old family barn.
Hanako returned to the United States in 1998 to live with her children. She also revisited the family farm, and she said that she cried upon seeing the barn. She also mentioned that the shame connected with their Tule Lake experience had kept them from talking about the past, but she says that things have changed in the last few years, so it is easier to bring up such matters.
Isamu passed away in November of 2004, but Iwako and Hanako still go to the concerts as guests of the musicians and Alan Iglitzin.