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The berry that loved Bainbridge

Whatever happened to the tasty Marshall strawberry?

By all accounts, the Marshall strawberry was the tastiest, juiciest strawberry around.

Hundreds of acres of the Marshall variety once covered Bain­bridge, and the island was largely known for the berry.

“Marshalls are probably the only strawberry to me that tasted good,” said Art Koura, who was born in 1918 and remembers picking berries on his parents’ farm. “Marshalls had a very meaty heart, and tender skin.”

By contrast, Koura says, today’s strawberries are so hard “you could play marbles with them.”

Yet today, the Marshall strawberry is effectively gone; delicate and less productive, it declined in the face of more commercially viable varieties.

But the Bainbridge Island Historical Society hopes to bring back Marshalls in a limited way.

And the Filipino-American Strawberry Festival this Sunday descends from 1948 when strawberries – especially the Marshall – defined Bainbridge Island.

Those who grew the Marshall still recall the majestic berry.

“(Marshalls) grew so large 12 filled a heaping pint,” said islander Lela Sidley, who farmed on Bainbridge from 1948-1961. “They were tastier and sweeter; you didn’t need as much sugar on them.”

The strawberries were so well known that when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England visited Vancouver, B.C., in 1939, 800 crates of Bainbridge Island strawberries were ordered for the royal table.

Koura and Kay Nakao remember the royal order well.

“Each farm picked ‘X flats,’” Nakao said. “We jumped around and picked the best ones.”

Island historian Jerry Elfendahl says island berries were packed in barrels with sugar syrup – as many as 500, 55-gallon barrels per day in the peak 1930s. The processing plant was where the Pavilion stands today.

In her book, “Bainbridge Thru Bifocals,” Elsie Frankland Marriott estimated that 1926 agriculture on Bainbridge Island brought in over $100,000 annually with strawberries making up $75,000.

When farmers of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes during World War II, many farms were saved by the Filipino farm hands.

“Filipino farmers were vital – (they) saved the industry during World War II, and helped it build. Native American field workers and pickers played an essential role,” Elfendahl said.

After the war, the industry recovered to near pre-war levels.

J.D. Dwyer, director at the Washington State Department of Agriculture in 1957 reported that island farmers cultivated nearly 225 acres of strawberries in 1952.

Berry fields covered what is now the Wilkes School campus, the Village shopping center, the library, St. Cecilia Catholic Church, both sides of Weaver Road and Meadowmeer Golf Course. The Nakao family alone had 60 acres where Bethany Lutheran Church, Bainbridge High School, Commodore West and Commodore Lane are today. Bainbridge ranked sixth in the state for berry production in 1955.

Yet for all their flavor, the Marshalls had a very short harvest period of two to four weeks depending on the weather.

“Their success for harvest came with the weather,” said Junkoh Harui, Bainbridge Gardens co-owner. “Sometimes it would rain or get rot or disease. Some years were very tough, and didn’t get much at all.”

Harui, who as a youth picked berries on his parents’ farm for five hours a day, recalls school letting out just so kids could go pick berries – it was that important economically. The Haruis and their neighbors the Kitamotos and Matsushitas helped each other out at harvest time.

“The crop came out so quickly, so you had to pick berries as fast as you could,” Harui said. “It was hot, miserable and back-straining.”

Despite their flavor, Marshalls could not hang on commercially, because they were highly perishable and not as productive as other varieties.

Marshalls “kept” for two days at most. Sidley recalls getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to pick strawberries for market that same day. Without refrigeration, Marshalls left overnight would get darker or soften.

Each year, strawberry plants would send out runners with new plants at their ends. By the third generation of plants, they produced less fruit and smaller berries.

“In the beginning, all farmers grew Marshalls, but then Marshalls started to peter out and didn’t produce a lot in the end,” Sam Nakao said.

Nakao’s family switched to Northwest strawberries, which were more productive.

The Northwest variety was not as large and tasty as Marshalls, but was firmer and kept longer. Other new varieties proved to be “everbearing” – producing fruit all summer – or better for freezing.

Kay Nakao says she dreaded picking the fields of Northwest berries; whereas the Marshall stems could be easily snapped off, Northwest stems had to be twisted.

“The hulls were so hard to pick off,” she said. “It was hard on the fingernails.”

By the time Lela Sidely retired from farming in 1961 to work for Washington State Ferries, Marshalls were gone from the island.

“No commercial farmer would want them because (they’re) too fragile to raise commercially,” Koura said.

Today Marshalls are no longer grown commercially or available at nurseries, but instead are considered “heirloom” plants; the few that survive on Bainbridge are owned, appropriately, by the Bainbridge Island Historical Society. Elfen­dahl presented BIHS with the plants, which were from the Eastern Washington farm of Frank Koba, a former island strawberry farmer, via Leroy Tudor.

The plants were kept outside the old museum site on Strawberry Hill Road, but Junkoh Harui’s wife Chris moved them for protection when the museum as moved downtown.

She even coaxed them into bearing fruit for the first time in some while. So earlier this month, Junkoh gathered former island berry farmers for a strawberry taste-testing; the farmers, BIHS member Jack Swanson said, were quick to pick out the Marshalls from other varieties.

The farmers reportedly said the berries had the right color, bumpy shape, delicate skin – and most importantly, the taste of a Marshall.

Harui cautioned that it was not possible to be sure if the plants were pure Marshalls or descended from the variety.

But once the museum is settled into its new location, curator Erica Varga says, there will be an outdoor display that includes a plot of Marshall strawberries and the equipment that was used to farm them.

BIHS plans to make the plants available to the public this fall, that they might be propagated on the island once again.

Kay Nakao said she does not wish the Marshalls were back. Strawberry varieties she has tasted on the Burlington farm run by the former island farming family the Sakumas are sweet and juicy enough to satisfy her.

But for some, there is no substitute.

“There has never been another strawberry like a Marshall,” Koura said.

Strawberry Fest

Lela Sidley, who farmed with the Filipino community on Bainbridge until 1961, was the Strawberry Festival’s first queen in 1948.

“Because the island was so small, they decided to have a strawberry festival,” Sidley said, “and they wanted the Filipino-Americans to participate. Being the newcomer in, ‘48 they picked me.”

Sidley says it was a huge event back then. So many came over from Seattle, the WSF had to click count the number of foot passengers and halt boarding at the ferry’s passenger limit.

The festival tradition continues this Sunday hosted by the Filipino-American Community Association from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 27 at the Filipino-American Hall on High School Road. Great Filipino food – adobo (marinated pork), lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls), grilled/barbecued chicken and pancit (stir-fried noodles) – and the famous Strawberry Delight served from 11 a.m. Program begins at 1 p.m. and features the coronation of the Strawberry Festival Queen and cultural dances. Information: Rudy Rimando, 842-7402.

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