Archeological plans come together for digging up 90-year-old Japanese immigrant village

Before it burned down, Yama was a bustling village of Japanese immigrants who worked at the Port Blakely Mill.

From the 1880s to the 1920s it was often referred to as “Japan-town,” and it sat nestled between other ethnically-centralized villages that surrounded the mill in its heyday.

There were Hawaiian, Scandinavian, Spanish and Suquamish tribe settlements filled with families and bachelors all connected to the mill.

But today, Yama remains the only preserved workers’ village of its kind on Bainbridge, and perhaps the most maintained historical Japanese immigrant site in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the years, city officials and members of the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Parks and Recreation District have hesitated to develop the land for its historical value.

So, at just a little more than 90 years old, the site is still largely untouched modern history — the perfect undertaking for the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, the Kitsap County Historical Society and archeologists from Olympic College.

Which is why the organizations have teamed up and enlisted the help of volunteers to embark on a three-year archeological dig for artifacts that can fill in the blanks of oral history.

“We think that it’s a great program because it involves kids, and it also does important work on a site that is very important both for the island and nationally,” said Hank Helm, the executive director of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum.

Pending approval by the parks district, which owns the 7-acre site, work could begin as soon as this summer.

The district board expects to take a vote at its Aug. 7 meeting, but members have already expressed support for the project.

At last week’s meeting, the board agreed that it could wait the three years the museum needed before the district constructs a long-planned trail through the site.

By waiting, the museum can use the archeological project to recommend a historical trail route through the site with educational signage.

At the height of its life, about 300 people called Yama home.

Photos and long-time Bainbridge residents tell of a time when Yama had a Baptist church, a Buddhist temple, a hotel and corner store. Inside the hotel was also an ice cream parlor run by the hotel proprietors, the Takayoshi family.

Though the buildings that made up the hamlet have long turned into rubble beneath overgrown vegetation, just below the surface, the land is still spattered with remnants of the life once lived off of Blakely Harbor.

With the help of community volunteers and Olympic College students, the three organizations plan to conduct a site survey.

The crew will comb the former village using a grid system which will help to identify principle features of the community, structure remains and trash pit areas.

The survey will allow the group to reconstruct a map of the village which will open the doorway to begin more focused fieldwork of the community’s internal design and households.

“Many of them, after the mill closed, started farming on the island,” Helm said of the immigrants who populated Yama.

“A lot of them raised strawberries, which is important to the island. Many of them were also the first to go to the internment camps.”

Helm explained that Yama’s residents were in more than one way founding members of Bainbridge Island and a significant chapter in American history.

By excavating pottery, porcelain, metal and glass and uncovering paths and cisterns, the group will be able to reveal how this community of immigrants adapted to life on Bainbridge and at the Port Blakely Mill.

Preliminary work for the project has already begun though.

In 2010, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum received a $50,000 donation from a Bainbridge resident who lives near the site.

The resident wanted the money to go toward preserving Yama.

The museum had a few false starts on an archeological dig since then, but this year, Helm said, he was approached by the executive director of the Kitsap County Historical Society and Museum whose husband is an archeology professor at Olympic College.

Interest in the project has since snowballed.

Students at Olympic College are being trained in research techniques and fieldwork.

Members of the Bainbridge Island Historic Preservation Commission and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community have also offered support.

So far, the task group has completed the paperwork to nominate the site to the State and National Register. The nomination is currently under review.

To conduct the research, Helm said, $8,600 of the funds donated in 2010 have been set aside as seed money.

From there, it will apply for grants and ask the participating organizations to help in fundraising.

“Down the road, we hope that we can get kids involved who want to get their hands dirty and do some archeological work,” Helm said.

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