Friday, April 30, 2021

When chili peppers were king

Chili peppers drying in the sun, the traditional method to dry chilies before Masami Sasaki perfected the use of an assembly line process for dehydrating at his Huntington Beach warehouse complex. (Postcard image, Anaheim Public Library)

    Huntington Beach weathered the Great Depression better than many communities, partly due to one hot reason: chili peppers. Chili peppers were first planted in the Anaheim area circa 1890 and their popularity as a crop ballooned into major enterprise for Orange County. The estimated crop value in 1919 was over $1 million and, by 1921, Orange County was the top producer of chili peppers in the country. 

   "The commercial cultivation of chilis is almost wholly confined to a small territory in Southern California, between the mountains and the sea," reported the California state legislature in 1921. "...the bulk of the chili peppers produced in the United States are from Orange County." 

   The state report noted there were 5,300 acres in Orange County planted in Mexican chili, California chili, and sweet peppers, or pimiento. (Journals of the Legislature of the State of California, Volume 4, 1921).

RIGHT:  As is the case a century after the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, hopeful rumors of antidotes spread like wildfire. One rumor was that chili peppers acted as an antiseptic and that workers in chili pepper canneries were immune due to the pungent odor of chilies. Peppers were good for the cuisine and for Orange County farmers, but not a cure for the flu. (Santa Ana Register, October 28, 1918)

The chili pepper kings

   Known as one of Orange County's chili pepper kings, Masami Sasaki farmed peppers in the Garden Grove, Smeltzer and Wintersburg Village farmland, setting up his pepper drying operation in Huntington Beach. Sasaki's compound of chili pepper dehydrating warehouses was on ranch land owned by William Newland, east of present-day Beach Boulevard and north of Adams Avenue. The warehouses were located where the Newland Shopping Center is today, at the north end.

LEFT: An advertisement in the Santa Ana Register boasted of the "one million dollar pepper crop" industry, citing Masami Sasaki, who "lives south of Garden Grove," as one of the major pepper producers. (Santa Ana Register, April 24, 1923). 

   Sasaki was born in Hiroshima, Japan, and immigrated to the United States in 1907 at age 19. By 1929, Sasaki's chili pepper dehydrating operation was described by the Santa Ana Register as "the largest pepper drying plant in the world", with a growing annual output of a quarter of a million dollars.   

   Preserving California's Japantowns--a statewide project that documented historic resources from pre-World War II Japantowns--reported that "by the 1920s, Japanese Americans were responsible for half of all chili production." They also perfected the method of dehydrating peppers to move them to market quicker, much like Henry Ford's method for manufacturing Model Ts.

   "They had modern dehydrators with heat from a gas furnace blown through a tunnel stacked with chili trays, which dried in a day or so as compared to the about two weeks it took to dry chili pepper in the old kiln dryer," explained Clarence Nishizu in his 1982 oral history with California State University Fullerton. 

RIGHT: As chili peppers became a lucrative crop, chili pepper thievery became a growing concern. The targets of chili pepper thefts reported in the Santa Ana Register were the biggest producers: Japanese American farmers. The Smeltzer Japanese Association in Wintersburg Village and local growers offered rewards for information leading to the arrest of thieves who stole from local chili pepper drying houses. (Santa Ana Register, July 15, 1929)

LEFT: Chili peppers were precious cargo in 1929. A few days after Black Friday, this advertisement for Firestone Tires boasted their tires could handle a load of "15 1/2 tons worth $4,280." (Santa Ana Register, November 3, 1929) 

Chili peppers during the Great Depression

   Just five days before the Great Depression stock market crash on October 25, 1929, Sasaki completed major improvements to his pepper operation in Huntington Beach

   "M. Sasaki and associates have just completed and put in operation at their pepper drying plant here, the first commercial pepper dehydrating plant for peppers ever operated on a commercial scale," reported the Santa Ana Register on October 20, 1929, adding the dehydrating equipment was from the Chapman Dehydrating company, makers of most of the fruit dehydrating plants in California. The equipment cost Sasaki a whopping (in 1929) $15,000 to install and the faster drying time saved him $30,000 annually. 

ABOVE: Scenes from chili pepper production in Orange County from the 1933 publication, Echo, produced by the Nisei (second generation) associated with the Smeltzer Japanese Association in Wintersburg Village. Local residents recall the pungent odor of roasting chilies vented from the dehydrating warehouses on the Newland Ranch land off Beach Boulevard. (Echo, 1933)

    "The pepper plant pay farmers near Huntington Beach over $100,000 a year in land rentals, the pepper growers paying the highest rental on land of any agricultural industry," reported the Santa Ana Register in 1929, adding the local pepper crop was sold all over the nation and that Sasaki's annual output from his dehydrating plant was 40 train carloads and that he also shipped "immense quantities" of peppers for canning. "It is said the majority of the pepper crop is produced in Orange County, with the Huntington Beach district leading in production."  

   The chili pepper crop returns of over $800,000 in December 1929, following the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash two months earlier, were greeted with enthusiasm in Huntington Beach. Sasaki's dehydrating and drying operations on the Newland ranch were credited with processing 600 tons for market, roughly two-thirds of the local pepper crop. Chili peppers were providing jobs and revenue during the Great Depression.

RIGHT: The Santa Ana Register reported a 1000-ton crop at the end of 1929, with the majority of chili peppers processed by Masami Sasaki and his associates, Yamamoto, Yoshikawa, Aoki, and Tatsukawa. Sasaki's drying warehouses were on land leased from William Newland off Hampshire Avenue, the old name for the section of Beach Boulevard near present day Adams Avenue. (Santa Ana Register, December 30, 1930)

LEFT: Dried chili peppers were quickly bought up by the spice industry, including companies like Ben Hur, Gebhardt Chili Powder Company, and C.B. Gentry Chili Powder company. C.B. Gentry located their onion dehydrating operations near Masami Sasaki's pepper drying warehouses in Huntington Beach. C.B. Gentry, founded in 1919, also produced onion and garlic powders. The owner, George Clausen, hired Japanese Americans returning from WWII incarceration in 1945. (Santa Ana Register, August 1, 1933) 

A community leader
   Sasaki was one of the "prominent Japanese" reported by the Santa Ana Register to be invited as a regular speaker at Huntington Beach High School Parent Teacher Association meetings in the 1930s.  He also had been part of a local Business Men's Association, supporting the formation of an Orange County Red Cross chapter in 1917.  

   For the Nisei (second generation), he was an advisor to the Orange County Young Men's Association, coaching them about how to get ahead in business. He also helped organize the first Japanese American Citizens League chapter in Orange County and served as president of the Smeltzer Japanese Association, which met in Wintersburg Village. Sasaki was embraced as a local community leader.

   One of Sasaki's and his business associate, Kamenosuke Aoki, generous acts was to offer his warehouse for local students to learn martial arts, circa 1930. Orange County's martial arts' team won awards and was invited to be part of the first martial arts demonstration at the Xth Olympiad in Los Angeles in 1932. 

RIGHT: Masami Sasaki provided practice space for an award-winning martial arts group taught by Yaju Yamada in the Aoki warehouse at Sasaki's Huntington Beach chili pepper production complex, circa 1930.  Orange County judo students were invited to participate in the first Olympic martial arts demonstration at the Xth Olympiad in 1932 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Photo snip, Center for Oral and Public History, California State University Fullerton, PJA 260) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ©

War and loss
   In April 1941, "well known pepper grower" Masami Sasaki was a featured speaker, along with Reverend Sohei Kowta of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, at a large community banquet at the Huntington Beach Memorial Hall honoring Japanese American youth who had enlisted in or were drafted into the U.S. military. 

   Other speakers at the 200-person banquet included W. H. Gallienne of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce, Col. M.B. Wellington, and G. Nakamura of the Central Japanese Association of Southern California, for which Sasaki had served as vice president. The event included a violin solo by Mary Toyoda of Santa Ana and a koto performance by a Miss Takahashi of Los Angeles.

   Eight months later on December 7, 1941, Sasaki was arrested by the FBI and taken first to the Santa Ana jail.* Sasaki's prominence and success as a businessman, his role as a community leader in numerous organizations, and his connection with martial arts put him on a list. 

   With the arrest and incarceration of community leaders in the agricultural industry, "wartime incarceration of Orange County's Nikkei farmers led to a 75-percent drop in chili production" by 1942.** The removal and incarceration of Japanese American farmers opened the door for those who would take advantage of the loss.

Possession of farms and equipment
May 1942, with only days before Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from Orange County, the Wartime Civil Control Administration announced that "Japanese farm machinery will be kept in motion on west coast land through direct transfer to new operators or redistribution by cooperating equipment dealers." 

LEFT: Masami Sasaki with a truck loaded with chili peppers, circa 1937. (Photo courtesy of Walk The Farm, Tanaka Farms)

   Those unable to sell their equipment in the remaining days were told to give it to equipment dealers or agents with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Equipment frequently was sold for pennies on the dollar. Equipment deemed "abandoned" could be possessed and sold through the California Evacuated Farms Association under provisions of Section 5(b) of the Trading With the Enemy Act, an indication that all Japanese Americans, including U.S. citizens, would be treated as the enemy. 

      The total number of farms operated by Japanese Americans in the four states in Military Area No. 1 (Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington) was 6,664, but involved only .3 percent of the total farm acreage. The FSA reported in 1942, "These percentages, however, give an entirely misleading indication of the importance of Japanese farming enterprise in the area. The average value per acre of all farms in 1940 was $37.94, whereas that of Japanese farms was $279,96. This difference in value is due primarily to the fact that Japanese agriculture has been a highly intensive and productive enterprise."

BELOW RIGHT:  A complex of warehouses on the William Newland ranch land, circa 1938, including the Masami Sasaki chili pepper dehydrating operations. The warehouses were located on the east side of Beach Boulevard, north of Adams Avenue, the location of present-day Newland Shopping Center.

   "The estimated value of crops grown by Japanese farmers in 1940 in California was $32,317,700," continued the FSA. "it may be fairly stated that the Japanese people were the most important racial minority group engaged in agriculture in the Pacific Coast region. Their systems of farming, types of crops, and land tenure conditions were such that their replacement by other farmers would be extremely difficult. Highly technical personnel would be required to handle such a transition...

   Laurence I. Hewes, Jr., Regional Director for the FSA reported on June 5, 1942 to Col. Karl R. Bendetsen, on the "agricultural phase of the Japanese evacuation" in Western Defense Command Military Area No. 1.

   Hewes wrote, "For purposes of historical interest and the record, it should be borne in mind that the undertaking involved, namely that of transferring, during a period of ten weeks, the farming interests of 6,789 farm operators and 231,492 acres of intensively cultivated land is probably one of the most dramatic events in the agricultural history of the United States. No function heretofor [sic] performed in so short a period in the domestic affairs of the United States can compare in magnitude and intensity with the Japanese evacuation in Military Area No. 1."

Ten weeks
In ten weeks, the farms and equipment of Japanese American farmers had been transferred or possessed by the U.S. government. 

   Sasaki and his business associates gave "power of attorney to Mr. Monroe, president of the Garden Grove National assign the ongoing chili business and the dehydrator operation," recalled Clarence Nishizu in his 1982 oral history with California State University Fullerton. Nishizu also was in the chili pepper business and had been one of the martial arts students at the Sasaki warehouses.  

   "Mr. Monroe, according to Iwao Aoki, consented to let Yoshimura's Caucasian neighbor take control of the whole property including the chili growing operation," remembered Nishizu. "This fellow became very wealthy by taking over these farms. After all, with the Japanese growers gone, he had control of chili growing and dehydration." 

Fighting for civil liberties
Sasaki was taken from the Santa Ana jail in Orange County to Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center, Montana, then to a detention center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then to the Amache prison camp, Granada, Colorado, and finally, to Tule Lake Segregation Center, California. 

   At Tule Lake, Sasaki, was among the 5,500 prisoners forced to sign papers regarding repatriation to Japan or renunciation of citizenship in the United States. The government planned to remove the citizenship of U.S.-born Japanese Americans and then deport them to Japan. This included those who had never been to Japan. Sasaki helped lead a legal effort to halt the deportations and protect civil liberties.

   American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Wayne Collins worked for years to restore the rights of those who would be known as "renunciants." The renunciants included children made to sign documents at legal disability (minors with no representation). Among the recorded counter affidavits submitted by Wayne Collins was the affidavit of Masami Sasaki testifying that he was made to sign documents under duress. 

 LEFT: The American Civil Liberties Union News reported on the legal cases of the renunciants, specifically mentioning Masami Sasaki. (American Civil Liberties Union News, Volume XL, December 1946)

   The renunciations were voided as they were forced "under pressure of duress and coercion induced by actions of the United States Government" and that their hearings were unfairly conducted and lacking in procedural due process, and that the law applied was unconstitutional.***  

   Subsection (i), of Section 801 of Title 8 U.S.C.A. was added to Section 801 by the Congress on July 1, 1944, prescribing the "means of losing United States nationality." It was a law specifically created during World War II to remove citizenship of Japanese Americans for the purpose of deportation, or as the federal government referred to it, "involuntary departure."

   In his 2009 oral history interview for Densho Digital Archive about the renunciants, Tetsujiro "Tex" Nakamura describes Sasaki as "a well-established man in Southern California." Nakamura recalls Sasaki saying, "We can't let all these kids go back to Japan. Find a lawyer in San Francisco and see if we could stop the deportations." 

RIGHT: ACLU attorney Wayne Collins in his San Francisco office, ca. 1942.  (Photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

   The Tule Lake prisoners organized with ACLU attorney Collins, who came to Tule Lake to talk with them about their constitutional rights. Collins filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, in which Sasaki is named as a plaintiff. To fund the lawsuit, they collected small amounts from prisoners, raising between $80,000 to $90,000 from thousands of incarcerees to form the Tule Lake Defense Committee.

   "In the San Francisco U.S. District Court we won the case against deportation on Nov. 13, 1945, but the government soon appealed the case and it then went to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.," Tex Nakamura told Rafu Shimpo "Senior Moments" columnist Phil Shigekuni in 2013. "...the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mass class action suit for 10,000 renunciants could not continue, and we were then referred back to the San Francisco U.S. District Court. Each renunciant had to be filed individually and tried individually. It took 10 years to restore all of the renunciants’ citizenships, but it was done!

   In 1952, Wayne Collins announced the renunciations were void by court action. Citizenship for U.S.-born Japanese Americans was restored.

   "You may now register as a voter and vote at elections. You can purchase and lease land and buildings, hold public office, obtain civil service positions and hold public employment on the same basis as any other citizen," wrote Collins. "You cannot be classed or treated as an alien. You cannot be required to register as an alien or to apply for an alien registration card. You can obtain a California fishing license and all other licenses on the same basis and on the same rates as other citizens."

Rebuilding a life
Sasaki did not return to Huntington Beach after his release from Tule Lake.

    Walk The Farm, a project initiated by Orange County's Tanaka Farms, reports that Sasaki "invested in real estate after the war. He owned and operated the New Olympic Hotel and later the Miyako Hotel in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.

   He again involved himself in civic activities, serving as chairman of the Evergreen Cemetery Preservation committee, raising funds for a monument to commemorate Nisei servicemen  killed in action, serving on the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, and helping raise funds for the New Hompa Hongwangi Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.

RIGHT: Masami Sasaki, representing the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, assists with a friendship flight of food and relief aid heading to Nagoya, Japan, following Typhoon Vera. The humanitarian effort was coordinated with the City of Los Angeles and U.S. military. (Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1959)

   In 1984, Masami Sasaki was recognized with 38 pioneer Issei of Orange County at a tribute banquet emceed by Tritia Toyota with KNBC-TV.

   The Issei honored included Wintersburg Japanese Mission clergy, Reverend Kenji Kikuchi, and Wintersburg Village goldfish farmer, Henry Kiyomi Akiyama. Honors included messages from President Ronald Reagan, California Governor George Dukemejian, Orange County Board of Supervisors, state legislators and city councils, and recognition scrolls from the Consulate of Japan. A year earlier, a federal commission issued a report condemning World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government, stating it was a result of race prejudice, wartime hysteria, and political expediency, following a history of anti-Japanese agitation and legislation.

   "You are our nurturing generation, the one who has passed on our heritage, who paved the way (in America), who led us through the troubled and confused times of the internment," said Ernest Nagamatsu to the group. The tribute was organized by the Bowers Museum Foundation's newly formed Japanese American Council, noting that the Japanese American community's origins in Orange County date back to 1893 yet the history had not been recognized.

   When it was time for Masami Sasaki, age 97, to receive his honors, he strode up to the podium "a frail, but still stately-looking man," reported the Los Angeles Times, adding that "he charmed the crowd with a candid admission that he had forgotten what he was going to say, 'but thank you anyway.'"  From the chili pepper fields and warehouses, to the legal fight for the civil liberties of thousands, Sasaki's work, advocacy, and civic deeds were his statement.

ABOVE: Thirty-eight surviving Issei (first generation) of Orange County at a banquet in their honor in 1984. Huntington Beach's chili pepper king Masami Sasaki, Wintersburg Japanese Mission's Reverend Kenji Kikuchi and his wife, Yoshi, and Wintersburg Village goldfish farmer, Henry Kiyomi Akiyama, were among the honorees. (Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1984)

*Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Communications Section, Los Angeles bureau telegram to Washington, D.C.
**Preserving California's Japantowns
*** (Tadayasu Abo v. Clark, 77 F. Supp. 806, N.D. Cal. 1948) 

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