Japanese Settle on Signal Hill
For many years Signal Hill was part of the vast rancho of Los Cerritos settled by Japanese who established wonderful berry and cucumber farms on its heights. Like many settling in the Long Beach/Signal Hill area, the Japanese were relatively new arrivals, many came via Hawaii.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Hawaii began luring Japanese laborers to work on its booming sugar plantations. This was because native Hawaiians, introduced to the diseases of white men, were dying faster than they were being born. There was a severe labor shortage on the Pacific coast when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was implemented. Wages were substantially higher than in Hawaii. As a result, many of the Japanese left Hawaii for California when their contracts ran out.
In all of Southern California there were only 58 Japanese in 1880, but by 1900 that number had increased to 481. Among those 481 were twelve men from Wakayama, Japan, who had arrived in the San Pedro area in March of that same year. One of the men happened to turn over a boulder, near the beach, and, to his astonishment, found an abalone. From this find sprang a Japanese community that eventually thrived on Terminal Island.
Japanese farmers came to the area around 1905, many of them tilling the soil in small plots of land around and on Signal Hill. Not content to remain farm laborers, the Japanese began to buy up agricultural lands, which the Chinese had rented for years, and to organize the industry on a highly efficient basis. By 1913 the Japanese population of Los Angeles County was listed as 11,500. Farm land owned in California by Japanese, 12,726 acres, assessed in 1912 at $609,605. Farm land leased by Japanese was 1800 acres (LA Herald 4/22/1923).
Whites, threatened by Japanese success as independent farmers passed the California Alien Land Law of 1913 which banned those born in Japan (known as Issei) from purchasing land in California, but it did allow them to lease acreage for up to three years and keep the land they held if under a corporation. Subsequent state laws in 1920 and 1923 did away with this corporation loophole, and in 1924 the Federal Immigration Act of 1924 banned all immigration from Japan.
New Method of Raising Winter Crops Originates on Signal Hill
|Plasticulture, shown here, originated on Signal Hill|
Many of the Japanese who farmed Signal Hill lived between Orange and Temple and Orange and Cherry. Their surnames included Kato, Ujeda, Niito, Yamada, Shimizu, Uyemotto, Shimazu, Nishimurri, Suzuki, Uehero, Horano, Minesake, Tanaka, Yasadeke, Kodayashi, and Ogimatsu, according to the U. S. Census. In 1912 these Signal Hill gardeners decided to implement an idea given them by A. G. O’Brien who had come up with a novel way to make money during winter. The Los Angeles Times (3/24/1912) described the scene on Signal Hill:
As fast as long strips of sheer cotton can be stitched together, the sides of Signal Hill are being clothed with white. Already thirty-eight acres are screened from chilling dew and a sometimes too-ardent sun for the growing of tender vegetables and strawberries for the winter market. In the past two weeks 132,920 yards of cloth have been sewn together and tacked to frames over seed and plants in the ground. The areas of whitened gardens present a strange sight. It does not require a very great stretch of the imagination, passing the gardens in the moonlight, to liken them to snow-covered hillsides.
The cost of covering the ground with the muslin cloth was around $200 an acre. O’Brien, the Times reported, had made a profit of $4000 on two acres of cucumbers and strawberries under cloth within the last two months alone. This new idea required hardly any cultivating. After irrigation, the ground kept in moisture. The process of covering the ground was fairly easy:
- A one-inch plank was placed around the area to be enclosed and at intervals of every six feet, cross pieces were placed to support the cloth.
- Eyelets were then placed along the edges of the cloth, fitting on hooks in the planking, to help remove the muslin during irrigation, cultivation and picking.
When O’Brien took his cucumbers to the Los Angeles market in late January, his produce was snapped up at prices four times greater than during the summer, when cucumbers were normally being harvested. He kept his secret for over a month before a Japanese farmer who had leased six acres adjoining O’Brien’s decided to copy him. The idea soon spread. By March 1912 there were about 25 acres of cucumbers, and over ten acres of strawberries under cloth. (Muslin would later be replaced by plastic, aka plasticulture)
In August 1916 the Los Angeles Times reported the Signal Hill Cucumber Association was asking for bids on 20,000 yards of muslin and 300 cucumber crates. This would make Signal Hill the largest agricultural district in the country growing crops under cloth. The Times went on to reveal that Signal Hill growers had furnished more cucumbers the previous year than any other area of the country with the exception of the Imperial Valley. However, during the coming winter Signal Hill farmers were expected to exceed Imperial Valley’s record when they put seventy additional acres under muslin for the raising of cucumbers. When this was done the south slope of Signal Hill would be almost completely covered with muslin. This additional covered acreage would allow Signal Hill farmers to increase the previous year’s output of 320 carloads of cucumbers to 500.
The July 4, 1920 Los Angeles Times pronounced Signal Hill the cucumber capital of the state. In 1920 alone 60 acres produced 55,000 boxes.
How was the cucumber crop harvested? It took between 50-70 days from planting to picking. Several crops could be planted on the Hill during the year with the use of muslin. During the heat of the day they would lift the edges of the cloth to provide ventilation. During harvest Japanese pickers would go through the fields with sacks capable of holding 40 pounds of cucumbers draped across their shoulders. A packing shed was set up at the edge of the field with Japanese women doing most of the packing, in addition to helping in field work.
The Cucumber War
Like other communities, the Japanese settlement on Signal Hill had disagreements that often resulted in violence.
In May 1917 ten armed guards were ordered by Sheriff Cline to watch the ranch of Tsuchisaburo Kato, a Japanese Signal Hill farmer, who claimed that $20,000 of damage had been done to his crops by enemies who employ "poison plotters.” Investigators for the district attorney sought evidence against those who allegedly poisoned Kato’s cattle and ruined his crops by spraying the plants with poison and tearing acres of plants up by the roots. Kato charged that other Japanese had formed a blackmail syndicate and that unless he joined their organization the poison war would be continued against him. Kato claimed that efforts were made to have him join the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers Association and that when he failed to comply he was told that he would be ruined financially. (LA Herald 5/17/1917)
At issue was the fact that Kato’s cucumbers grew so well on Signal Hill that they were the first ones to make it to market. As a result his produce commanded top prices. Other retailers were upset that he would not hold back on selling his produce so all could share equally in the profits. Kato preferred to remain independent, particularly since his soil and location made it possible for him to harvest the earliest cucumbers.
After a search which lasted for more than two weeks, H. Kanzaki, was arrested in Coachella Valley. S. Fujishimi, president of the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers Association, and J. Inukai, secretary of the body, were called as witnesses before the grand jury. Following a grand jury investigation, Kansaki, director of the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers’ Association, was charged with having participated in the $20,000 destruction of the crops and fined.
Life was not easy for the new immigrants. In January 1917, the body of Nagiach Nishizaun washed ashore in Long Beach. Nishizaun, a well-educated member of an aristocratic Japanese family, had left notes indicating he was going to commit suicide. His friends said he brooded over the fact that he could never be anything but “a little brown man” in America.
The Signal Hill Japanese community suffered another setback in December 1918 when a devastating fire hit the residence of cucumber farmer T. Kiama who resided at Summit and Temple on Signal Hill. The Japanese custom of using direct heat applied under the tub for heating bath water caused the tragedy. The floor of Kiama’s home caught fire. He was nearly caught in the conflagration, but managed to escape from his home scantily clad, arousing neighbors. The flames from the house soon spread to the other buildings, consuming three small cottages and a barn before they burned out. In addition to the houses and furnishings a quantity of hay and $l500 worth of new cloth, to be used to protect cucumbers from frost, was burned. Situated outside the city limits, the local fire department could not get to the fire very quickly. Fortunately no one was injured. (LA Herald 12/28/1918)
However, there were frequent joyous moments in the Japanese community. In July 1918, for example, 30-year-old H. Imamura, who had lived at Pine and Nevada for 16 years, left for San Francisco to claim his bride. They had grown up together in Japan, and vowed when 14-year-old Imamura left Japan, that they would wait for the other. Imamura arrived in California penniless. He worked hard, saving enough money to buy a truck. He then used the truck to gather fruits and vegetables selling them at a profit. In 1918 he leased 40 acres of land north of Willow Street on Signal Hill to grow potatoes. He decided he was now settled enough to ask his girl to join him.
Cucumber Patch Becomes America’s Richest Town
The July 6, 1924 Los Angeles Times featured this headline: “Cucumber Patch Becomes America’s Richest Town: Signal Hill, Garden Plot of Three Years Ago, Now Marvel of Petroleum World.” In 1916 sunrise Easter services began to be held on the summit of Signal Hill, worshipers climbing or driving up the winding roads and narrow trails to sing praise to the risen Christ. But in 1921 things changed. Black gold was discovered. Houses, streets and sidewalks were covered with sticky black tar; rocks that came up with the gushers broke through roofs and windows. The time to leave had come. Fortunately, many left rich, having leased or sold their Signal Hill real estate. Yet things remained the same in the adjoining gardening district for a while. In the shadow of the derricks, farmers in 1921 were still tilling the land and planting their crops. Celery was the big cash crop of the year, grown along with berries to the east of the hill where the soil was favorable to such produce. To the west of Signal Hill acres of muslin could be seen covering acres and acres of cucumbers. The thin material helped diffuse the rays of the sun and accelerated the growth of the vine. Recent rains assured the farmers of a plentiful year and they were wearing smiles just like those of their new neighbors whose oil wells had just “spudded in.”
|Discovery well, Signal Hill|
But by 1924 things had changed. In 1921 there were 11,000 square yards of muslin protecting the shoots in the cucumber beds, and Signal Hill was one of the most noted cucumber growing areas in the country. All this was before the farmers and home owners who loved the beauty of the Hill were aware of the oil that lay beneath them. Soon the Japanese farmers were displaced, their farm leases not renewed, many moved to Torrance, Downey and Artesia. Within three years of the oil bonanza the farm fields were gone replaced by oil wells and a new city---Signal Hill.
The 3-square-mile city of Signal Hill was born April 22, 1924. The vote on incorporation was 334 in favor and 211 against. With an assessed valuation of $35,000,000 it was the wealthiest city, per foot, in America. Having only 1500 population, the town’s per capita wealth, based on the assessed valuation, was $23,333. Mrs. Jessie Elwin Nelson was the new city’s mayor---the first female mayor of Southern California. Trustees included Dr. Arthur E. Pike, Lloyd Williamson, Vernon W. Vore, Ray J. Miller, George H. Cooper, who was also City Clerk; and Anna Goodyear, Treasurer.
City Attorney Don C. Bowker explained their goals: “We want a good modern town when the derricks are gone. We contemplate building a city hall, a fire department, a library, schools and a jail, maybe.”
Oil operators said their wells would be producing for fifteen years or a little longer. When the oil derricks were gone even a small lot which sold for $20,000 or more when the oil boom came would be worth a handsome amount as home sites. Reporter Syl MacDowell described the future city: “Homes in a hilltop city, set apart like an Andes kingdom and overlooking a panorama of harbor and industrial activity such as early settlers never imagined.”