Category Archives: Historical Background

Why work on a sawmill town? (Part 2)

If you haven’t had the chance to do so, you may want to read our previous posts on “Push” versus “Pull” factors in immigration, the impetus for Japanese immigration, and the economic reasons for working on sawmill towns. This post draws upon material published in my 2017 article in Archaeology in Washington.

In a previous post, I wrote a bit about some of the economic factors that may have encouraged Issei to come to towns. Here, I would like to explore some of the non-economic reasons for working on a mill town. As before, this material is a synthesis of published literature and oral testimonies regarding Issei on sawmill towns.

The non-economic factors motivating Issei to work at sawmill towns appear to be the availability of “amenities”. Issei sawmill communities organized and ran an array of amenities and social networks to meet their psychological, social, subsistence, and cultural needs. As a number of testimonies suggest, these likely served as an additional draw for the Issei, particularly those with families. These amenities varied from town to town. Barneston possessed only a store, a school, and a bathhouse, while nearby Selleck had much more, including a movie theater (Bowden and Larson 1997; Brown and Schroeder 1996; Dubrow et al. 2002; Gilbert and Woodman 1995). While some amenities were likely provided by the companies which owned the towns, the workers were largely on their own. Logging and sawmill companies were aware of the paternalistic and corporate welfare policies in other industries. However, the economic geography of logging and wood production, in combination with company stinginess, meant that these philosophies by and large do not appear to have taken hold in the lumber industry (Beda 2014:84-110; Carlson 2003; Ficken 1987; see McClelland 1998 for an exception).

Figure 1. Advertisement for the M. Furuya Company from a 1919 edition of the Four L Lumber News. Companies like this served towns like Barneston.

As a result, workers were frequently responsible for their own amenities. For the Japanese, this meant establishing a number of social services within their communities, in addition to taking advantage of those already present. It also meant establishing wider, regional social and economic connections between Japanese communities in company towns and in urban areas, such as Seattle. In terms of daily subsistence, Issei (and, more broadly, Nikkei) sawmill communities relied heavily on urban-based companies to meet their cultural and culinary needs (Figure 1), though this may have been different for communities based in ports. Representatives of various Asian food and market companies made monthly visits to the town of Barneston to drop off supplies. Barneston’s Issei often purchased these supplies communally (Brown and Schroeder 1996; Gilbert and Woodman 1995). Similar practices occurred at sawmill towns like Manley-Moore, Selleck, and National (Bowden and Larson 1997; Dubrow et al. 2002; Hall 1980; Olson 1924a). Finally, like their European-American and European counterparts, Issei supplemented their diet whenever possible with gathered and home-grown vegetables and fruits. They also raised chickens and on occasion hunted deer (Beda 2014; Ito 1973:410–412, 415–416).

These hunting and gathering activities deserve special consideration, as they speak to the kinds of labor benefits that family members could bring to the towns. Gardens, for example, served as an important means of subsistence, as they allowed Issei (and their non-Japanese counterparts) access to a renewable source of fresh vegetables and fruits. Gardens could be quite complex; Takeo Matsuoka, a young adult who worked at Barneston in its latter years, recalls the presence of not only gardens but fruit trees, including apple trees (Brown and Schroeder 1996). The inhabitants of Selleck routinely gathered apples from the trees of a nearby abandoned orchard (Bowden and Larson 1997). Families may have been particularly well suited to take advantage of these opportunities; women (and children, when they were not in school) could have tended gardens and gather local resources, in addition to maintaining the household (Brown and Schroeder 1996; Ito 1973:190). Of course, not all women were limited to these activities; some maintained jobs that provided additional sources of income for the family.

Figure 2. Schoolhouse at Barneston. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.

Another important non-economic draw for families was education. Multiple informants report either attending school as children in these towns or sending their children to schools. Schoolhouses were also used by adult Issei to take night classes in the English language (Olson 1924a, 1924b, 1924c). Schooling was important enough to Nikkei families that if a school in a town closed, they would seek alternative means of education. In the case of Barneston (Figure 2), the closing of the town school in 1920 led to some children having to walk two hours a day to the school in Selleck. Other families, such as the Matsuoka family, simply left town; Takeo Matsuoka’s parents moved to Tacoma, where his father could continue to work in a local sawmill while his younger siblings attended public school (Brown and Schroeder 1996). Schools were generally not segregated, and so the local school often served as a point of contact between Issei and non-Japanese families. And while American schools typically did not teach much on Japanese culture or language, Issei communities managed to meet this need by offering their own night classes. Children in sawmill towns often spent the day in public school and the night being schooled in Japanese language and customs by local, knowledgeable laborers (Bowden and Larson 1997).

Additional References*
*See the Common References page for a full list.

McClelland, John M.
1998     R.A. Long’s Planned City: The Story of Longview. Westmedia Corporation, Longview, Washington.

Why work on a sawmill town? (Part 1)

If you haven’t yet had a chance, you may wish to read the previous posts in this series on “Push” and “Pull” factors in immigration and the impetus for Japanese citizens to emigrate from Japan in the first place. The next post is on the social factors driving people to sawmill towns. This post draws upon material published in my 2017 article in Archaeology in Washington.

The factors that attracted Japanese immigrants to the United States are well covered in other literature (e.g. Daniels 1998; Geiger 2011; Oharazeki 2016). Here, I am going to cover some of the factors that drew Issei to sawmill towns in particular. This material is a result of my attempt to synthesize published literature and oral testimonies regarding Issei and Nikkei on sawmill towns. These factors have as much to do with the unique nature of mill town experiences as they do with more traditional, wider factors, such as economic need.

That being said, the primary, but not sole, motivation for working in a sawmill town was economic gain, followed closely by the presence of a variety of non-economic amenities. Economically, sawmill towns consistently offered higher wages (for Issei, at least) than most other Pacific Northwestern (PNW) extractive industries, and the demand for lumber meant that owners were often in need of workers (Beda 2014)1. Despite the fact that Issei typically earned 50 to 75 percent of what European-American workers earned, the logging and sawmill industry pre-1910 offered the potential to earn more money than other PNW industries (Table 1)2. Only coal mining offered a higher range of wages than mill towns, and while some Issei took advantage of this, coal mining might have been a less desirable line of work; the activity may have have been considered “unclean” by some in Japanese culture (Dillingham 1910; Geiger 2011). As a result of this, by 1907 more than one in five Issei worked in the lumber industry, primarily in sawmill towns (Dubrow et al. 2002:11).

Table 1. Estimated Issei wages in dollars per hour, 1910
Industry Minimum Maximum
Railroads 1.20 2.50
Mills and Logging 1.25 2.75
Salmon Canneries 1.10 1.65
Coal Mines 1.50 4.00
Mining and Smelting Ores 1.60 1.60

Government-gathered data on Issei wages has been difficult to come by for any period after 1910, but a number of oral testimonies point to the continuing economic benefit of the towns. Banzo Okada–who worked at the mill in National, Washington, during World War I–noted that at the time, sawmills paid more than railroads, and so workers left the latter for the former (Ito 1973:412). Several other workers reported leaving railroad work for the mills, presumably for similar reasons. Granted, economics was not the only reason to move from railroads to mills (Ito 1973:412). Frank Chiyokichi noted that he preferred mills. This was partially due to the money, but also because he would not have to travel to remote locations, and would be able to live in one place (Ito 1973:412). Others worked at the mills because they liked the kind of work done there, or because they hated the work they were doing previously (Olson 1924a, 1924b). However, economics played a key role in most individuals’ decisions to go to a mill3. With the money they made, they could save to open their own business, send money back to Japan to their families, or spend it how they saw fit (which often entailed day trips to cities or spending their earnings on the gambling, liquor, and prostitutes that were brought to the towns by businessmen). During this second period of reported economic benefit, Issei appear to have achieved wage equality (Olson 1927), and so company towns offered a place where they achieve some economic equality with other Americans.


1. While information about actual wages is difficult to come by, we can paint a broad picture of the economic benefits of sawmill work by carefully combining oral testimonies and government reports. The lack of such information is due to issues of historical preservation, and the fact that many Issei were paid through a foreman or bookman, who distributed a lump sum of money given to them by management (Tanaka 1977).

2. These figures are based on a combination of Dillingham’s (1910) report and a report from the Japanese Association of the Pacific Northwest (JAPN). According to Dillingham, Issei wages ranged from $1.65 to $2.00 per day, whereas Euro-American wages ranged from $2.75 to $3.50. However, a 1907 report issued by the JAPN in Seattle (JAPN 1907), suggest that wages could reach as high as $2.75 per day. I have combined these data, though Dillingham is more commonly cited (e.g., Bowden and Larson 1997). Note that these numbers may mask variation in pay within towns. Tanaka (1977), drawing on payroll schedules from the Port Blakely Mill Company, argues that while Issei working inside the Port Blakely mills were paid less than their counterparts, common laborers working in the yards earned equal or slightly greater pay.

3. Of those in Ito’s work (1973) or in the Survey on Race Relations (Hoover Institution, n.d.) who actually reported on the reasons for going to or benefits from the mills (14), all but three reported money earned or saved as a factor.

Additional References

Dillingham, William
1910     Immigrants in Industries Part 25: Japanese and Other Immigrant Races in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain States, Diversified Industries. Reports of the Immigration Commission, United States Senate, 61st Congress, 2nd Session.

Tanaka, Stefan Akio
1977     The Nikkei on Bainbridge Island, 1883-1942: A Study of Migration and Community Development. Master’s Thesis, Department of History, University of Washington, Seattle.

The Meiji Period and the “Push” for Migration

The following is based on the works of Daniels (1988), Geiger (2011), and Ross (2009). See Common References bibliographic details.

The major event driving Japanese emigrants to leave for America was a set of social and economic reforms enacted during the Meiji period of Japan (1868-1912). In point of fact, this period  saw one of the most rapid and pervasive attempts at intentional modernization and industrialization in history. Spurred by a desire to avoid the kinds of exploitation suffered by other Asian countries at the hands of Western powers, the Japanese government instituted a wide variety of reforms designed to incorporate what they perceived to be the “civilized” and “modern” aspects of Europe and America.

Thus began a period of rapid industrialization, social change (including the formal abolition of the Tokugawa-era caste system), and adoption of a variety of Euro-American cultural practices that Japanese elites and authorities believed were associated with modernity. This process took on two forms: internal changes to Japanese society, and external actions, pressures, and “public relations” maneuvers to convince Western nations that Japan was their ally and equal. As one might imagine, not all such attempts were successful. For example, while beef consumption was adopted by some Meiji officials, it took time for the rest of Japanese society to overcome its negative perception of the practice. I should also note that these practices were often interpreted through the lens of the cultural and historical backgrounds of the various groups of Japanese that encountered them. In adopting these practices, Japanese citizens were doing some sort of whole-sale assimilation. Instead, they were combining old and new beliefs and practices in a variety of novel ways.

The changes brought about by Meiji officials helped create the economic impetus for migration. Perhaps the most powerful of these was the effect of industrialization on Japanese society. In promoting industrialization, the Meiji government provided their citizens with an increasing amount of cheap goods, negatively affecting artisans and farmers who relied on handicraft manufacture to supplement their income. Railroads designed to improve transportation and trade undermined the economic foundation of villages located along roads and rivers. They carried rural laborers away from the countryside and opened up said countryside to mass-produced goods. Furthermore, new tax laws designed to make taxation easier ended up pushing the burden of poor harvests onto workers. Instead of taxing a percentage of the annual rice harvest, the Meiji government chose to require fixed payments based on the value of the farmer’s land. This inevitably led to a shift in land ownership, as more land became owned by a smaller group of wealthier people. As a result of these changes, many farmers found themselves unable to afford to do farm work and in need of money.

Social factors are also relevant for understanding Meiji-era migration. Not all areas that had low wages or economic problems experienced high migration. Andrea Geiger has pointed out that areas that saw the greatest emigration where those in which economic changes were linked to social status. Those most likely to emigrate were those that whose family’s social position might suffer from the changing economic climate. Migration offered opportunities to enhance status in home villages, as migrants could and commonly did send money home to support their families. Migration also offered a chance to escape the restrictions of Tokugawa-period association between caste and status, which, despite the Meiji government’s efforts, remained a social reality in Japan. For these migrants, the United States looked like it offered abundant social and economic opportunities. Of course, once they arrived on American shores, Issei quickly realized the limitations they faced as a minority, subject to racial discrimination. However, even with this pervasive racism, many were still felt they were able to make a better living than in Japan.