Old Palos Verdes Peninsula photo sparks a quest and pulls a community together

The men are wearing neckties. The women are in hats, many of them holding babies. There are 187 people in the black-and-white photograph standing in front of a building, all of them Japanese except for three white people, a man toward the back with a long white beard and two partly obscured women.

The photo was taken Nov. 24, 1923. "Commemorative photograph of the dedication ceremony for the farm cooperative hall at the Port of San Pedro, Calif., U.S.A." is the caption, written in Japanese.

The photo had been hanging on a wall at the Malaga Cove Library in Palos Verdes Estates for as long as anyone could remember, and reference librarian Marjeanne Blinn would often look at it, wondering who these people were. An inscription said they were the members of 40 families, Japanese farmers who grew tomatoes, garbanzos and other crops on rented land on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

But what were their names? Who was married to whom? Who were the children? Blinn found herself wondering.

Japanese farmers

Her curiosity led her to start the 40 Families History Project five years ago. Her attempt to identify those in the photo has grown into a project to write the stories of the Japanese farmers who lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The project looks back on an era when what is now one of the wealthiest areas of Southern California was home, at different times, to about 200 Japanese families who tapped the ocean mists and rain to irrigate their crops. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were sent to internment camps and the era faded just as the photograph did. Few returned to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Now, the photograph is clearer than ever. Enlarged to 8 feet, the framed 40 Families photo stretches across a wall in the Local History Room at Peninsula Center Library in Rolling Hills Estates.

Using interviews, census data, alien registration records from the National Archives, World War I draft registrations and every public record she could find, Blinn and her volunteers have identified 120 people in the photograph, written biographies for about 20 of the families and have recorded several oral histories. They have collected home movies, newspaper articles and photos from the era and plotted out where the farms were situated.

Blinn has taken the photo to reunions of the Palos Verdes Peninsula farmers sent to the internment camp in Poston, Ariz., and has learned the names and connections of several people in the photo from them.

One volunteer is checking 10 reels of microfilmed documents from the National Archives that tell where people headed when they were released from internment camps, cross-checking names with those who lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. They have identified the white people. The man is Henry Ahlemeyer, a missionary, and the women are his daughters, one married, one single.

Sitting at the front of the photo is a 4-year-old boy with close-cropped hair. At 90, Akira Ishibashi is one of the few people in the picture still living. He's hard of hearing, but his walk is steady and his memory of the old days is good. His father, Kumekichi, is standing far to his right in the photo.

A plaque at Founders Park, behind the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Course, marks the site of their home, the Palos Verdes Peninsula's first Japanese American farmhouse, which Ishibashi's father built in 1906.

When he looks at the 40 Families photo, Ishibashi said, "I'm just trying to pick out all the guys I can remember."

Ishibashi, who lives in Torrance, said that landslides have made the section of Portuguese Bend where the photo was taken inaccessible. In the '20s, the area was the center of communal life for the Japanese community, with a Japanese culture school and a judo school.

The community association, he said, "would buy rice by the truckload," and the families would take what they needed. Crop seeds were handled the same way.

Richard Kawasaki, a retired Lomita city planner, whose mother was from a Palos Verdes Peninsula farming family, is the longest-serving volunteer on the project. "The reason I came here first was to learn more about my mother and grandparents," he said.

Hanging on a wall in the library across from the 40 Families is a much smaller photo taken at the Poston internment camp. When its owner donated the photo to the library, Kawasaki said, "He shows it to me and says, 'Your grandparents are here.' " Kawasaki pointed to a woman with her hair pulled back, wearing glasses. "That's my grandmother."

Kawasaki, 67, was born in a camp in Topaz, Utah. He looked at the 40 Families photo and pointed out a tall man on the left with a mustache and a haircut that looks like a raccoon cap. It's Joji Takahashi, he said, probably a community leader. Kawasaki has found records showing the man registered for the draft in World War I, but no evidence of his entering an internment camp.

"I suspect he went back to Japan in the '30s," Kawasaki said.

A girl with her hair parted in the middle and wearing a white lace collar is Mildred Kubota, who wrote a book explaining how she gave up her U.S. citizenship, returned to Japan for 13 years and then regained her citizenship and returned to California.

Two young girls with bowl haircuts who are wearing identical dresses are Mildred's younger sisters. Another photo, taken in 1937, shows one sister, Mary Kubota, when she was a Nisei Week princess in Los Angeles; she is wearing a kimono and holding a bouquet of roses.

That photo was donated by Matsuo Hirose, who lives in Santa Ana. He had heard about the 40 Families project several years ago and visited the library to take a look. While there, he spotted another photo, which showed a farmhouse with the ocean in the distance.

"There's my farm," he told Blinn. His father had leased 64 acres where the Terranea Resort sits today. Hirose also told her the names of his neighbors.

Solving mysteries

As Blinn told the story, Kawasaki walked to the 40 Families photo and pointed to Hirose's father, Sadahei Hirose, a serious-looking man with a mustache.

An article in the Los Angeles Examiner that Hirose donated to the project said his father was arrested in a sweep of 100 Japanese homes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in February 1942 for possessing contraband, although it's not clear what it was.

Sometimes, though, the project has helped clear up mysteries. During his oral history interview with Yukio Motoike, who lived at Hawthorne Boulevard and Palos Verdes Drive, Kawasaki asked, "I heard stories that your dad buried money down there. Is that true?"

Motoike replied, "No. I don't think so."

Kawasaki: "It must have been just a neighborhood rumor."

Blinn, Kawasaki and other volunteers continue their work on the project. Most Tuesdays, Kawasaki shows up at the library to sort through the information. He's about to make another list of names they will send to the National Archives to try to retrieve alien registration records. "We just keep going on," Blinn said.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

To view some of the photos collected by the 40 Families History Project, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/40families/

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