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Island strawberries...fit for kings and queens

A year or so ago, Lucy Ostrander, ace documentary filmmaker and researcher, was collecting photos for a project about Fumiko Hayashida, 98. Her family operated one of the largest strawberry farms on the island before World War II.

Lucy found a photo and wondered whether it was of the strawberry cannery.

I hated to disappoint her, but it was the Winslow Wharf. You could see Winslow Shipyard’s spar pole in the left background.

Margaret Franks, daughter of Eagle Harbor Transportation Co.’s co-founder, and I made detail drawings of the wharf. It was once the center of island commerce at the foot of Madison Avenue. It’s a marina now.

I recalled that conversation recently during a phone call with Debra Grindeland, a heritage collection volunteer for the island’s Japanese American community.

“You researching the cannery?” she asked. “I’m sending you a photo.”

It was the same one! I looked at it for a long time, this time wondering as I should have before...

“Where’d you find this?”

“It was in Fumiko’s family album.”

“When was it taken?”

“It’s in the album with photos taken the year before folks had to leave the island because of World War II. A note on the back says it was ‘taken two years ago’ and shows ‘how we ship strawberries’”.

That was strange. Except for local fresh orders and truckloads to the mainland by ferries at Blakely Harbor or Fletcher Bay, most strawberries in the 1930s were shipped by barges towed by Nels Christensen’s “La Blanca” or “Hannah C” from the cannery, located a half-mile up the bay. This photo showed a huge shipment of several truck loads. Why would anyone have photographed this? Unless...

I called Debra and Lucy: “You know what I think you have? The Royal Shipment! The big one the oldtimers all talk about – the strawberry shipment to British Columbia in May 1939, for the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England!”

On library microfilm, a June 2, 1939 Bainbridge Review headline cheered: “Bainbridge Island Plays Role in Royalty’s Visit.” The story reported “high honor bestowed on Bainbridge farmers” when a request from Vancouver, B.C., was filled exclusively by Bainbridge growers with 800 cases of Marshall strawberries.

I remembered an interview with Art Koura. His 190-acre family farm was the largest in the post-war years. He once filled an order for 1,000 flats for a Seattle supermarket. The logistics were a huge challenge. Everyone on the island and mainland who could pick was recruited. They began at 4 a.m. with flashlights and worked around the clock. Weather and everybody cooperated.

The 1939 shipment had special challenges. Several farms were needed to fill the bill. Yuki Katayama Omoto, whose family grew berries west of Grow Avenue, and others agreed the trucks in the photo were like the ones farmers had then . Kay Nakao recalled how she jumped around from plant to plant and only picked the very best berries for this shipment.

Though local Marshall strawberries were renowned as the sweetest, juiciest and largest then grown in the Pacific Northwest, they had a short shelf life of maybe two days. Shig Moritani described how 800 wooden berry boxes like those in the photo had to be specially made to hold two layers of cartons.

A Seattle Times photo essay described how “900 to 1,000 Indians from Vancouver Island” camped out to help pick berries on Bainbridge that summer. The 165-foot freighter “Indian” transported the harvest to B.C. Puget Sound Freight Line historian, Jim Lovejoy, said the vessel seen loading the cargo in the photo was the fastest in the fleet. She no doubt went directly port-to-port.

The Indian’s elevator could adapt to any dock’s height for easy unloading. She was not refrigerated. Akio Suyematsu recalled that “special permits and permissions” cut governmental red tape for the royal, international delivery.

On May 29 after a morning drive among 500,000 cheering greeters along Vancouver streets, appetites were ready for a royal luncheon at the two-week-old Hotel Vancouver. Orchestral anthems preceded mayoral toasts of dry sherry and a menu “Fit for a King” – crab cocktail, tomato bouillon, crown of spring lamb, Fraser River veggies (read: Bouquetlere of Fraser Valley). the freshest fruit in season (our island’s Marshall strawberries) and a demitasse. Flavors mingled with scents of roses and 2,100 gardenias.

Back on Bainbridge that Memorial Day weekend of 1939, berry pickers and farmers took to the fields, driven by rhythms of nature that take no holiday. That year’s six-week cannery season packed 1.45 million pounds of berries. A year later, almost 2 million pounds of berries were processed.

For decades, island strawberries infused life up and down the coast, including pickers, farmers, planters, cultivators, field hands, shippers, truck drivers, processors, buyers, sellers, ice cream makers, consumers, restaurants, barrel makers, box makers, packers, canners and cultural tourists. Even kings and queens ate our berries, not to mention babies sucking berries as their mothers picked.

Berries evoke strong feelings from families and descendants who may not have survived here except for the collective community efforts and expressions whose ramifications went far beyond the Island and run deep within the island’s soil and soul even today.

Gerald Elfendahl is an island historian and frequent contributor to the Review.

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