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Old Japanese-American building on move in Eatonville

Old Japanese-American building on move in Eatonville

The historic little building, the "Tofu House," representing the time when Japanese Americans lived in Eatonville, was transported across town with a truck to its new location at Mill Pond Park. It will be restored to tell the story.
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The historic little building, the "Tofu House," representing the time when Japanese Americans lived in Eatonville, was transported across town with a truck to its new location at Mill Pond Park. It will be restored to tell the story.

There’s a lot of small-town history along the streets of Eatonville.

On Friday morning, that was truer than usual.

Movers took the last-known building from the town’s pre-World War II Japanese-American community about a mile on city streets to Mill Pond Park, where the South Pierce County Historical Society hopes to turn it into a small museum.

The cupola was temporarily removed from the steep-roofed 16-by-18-foot building, which is believed to be about 110 years old, before it was moved to its new spot alongside the Van Eaton cabin, the town’s first home.

“It takes about 4 feet off it,” historical society president Bob Walter said recently. “It makes it easier to clear the wires.”

Friday’s move was the second attempt to move the building; the first, set for Oct. 26, was postponed after movers found a rotted beam under the building that needed immediate repair.

The building was the middle dairy milkhouse at the Eatonville Lumber Co., where it was operated by a Japanese-American family, Walter said. The mill had 30 to 40 Japanese-American employees who lived in a camp on the back side of the mill.

The dairy closed in the 1930s, Walter said, but the Japanese-American families used it for cold storage, which is how it got its nickname, the “Tofu House.”

Eatonville’s Japanese-American population was ordered into internment camps in 1942. None of the families returned to Eatonville.

“Most of Eatonville has forgotten about this portion of our history,” said Walter, a 67-year-old retiree who has lived in the area since 1975. “We’re hoping that this building and the exhibits we can create in it will preserve the history for Eatonville residents and tourists who come through town.”

Dixie Walter, Bob’s wife and an Eatonville resident since 1960, was editor of the weekly Eatonville Dispatch in the 1970s when she found a trove of letters from Chet Sakura, a Japanese-American resident sent to Camp Harmony in Puyallup before being moved to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho.

The letters had been published in the Dispatch, telling of the experiences of Sakura and his family during their internment.

“I was just floored,” she said. “I knew there had been Japanese in Eatonville, and I knew they had been taken away — I had no idea what had actually happened. I wasn’t raised on the West Coast, where this took place.”

Sakura returned only once to Eatonville, she said, when he came into the newsroom and they talked for a time. Sakura’s son David, who lived in Eatonville until he was 6, returned in 2015, giving presentations to Eatonville High School students and community members about his experiences.

Even though both of her grandfathers were Eatonville pioneers, Dixie Walter, 76, never met any of the Japanese families in Eatonville because she grew up after her mother’s marriage to an Army Air Corps pilot.

“We have worked so long and so hard to get this building moved,” she said. “I have reams of information and photographs that we can put in there, but it’s not a big building. We’ve been working on this for more than 10 years — but it’s important.”

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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