This is a story about a Japanese family about to be interned to Alberta. It was 1942 and the Shigemi family were living on the family farm in Whonnock. As the time of departure neared, two of the men of the family decided to hide some belongings so the government agents wouldn’t get them. They took a large ceramic pickling crock and filled it with all the dishes that would fit and then buried it out in the yard.
The Shigemi family was interned to the area around Taber, Alberta and by the end of the war, had established their families there, so they never came back to the Whonnock farm and those dishes – not until the summer of 2008.
This is also a story about the vital importance of historic records to our present and our future. If no one had preserved the documents and manuscripts referred to here, this story would never have come to pass.
In the spring of 2008, the current owner of the original Shigemi farm, Ken Schmok, was digging a ditch to improve the drainage for his sheep pasture. The backhoe bucket crunched onto something that sounded odd, so they stopped working. There was the slightly crushed pickling crock with its load of dishes. Ken knew something of the history of his farm and that the original house was Japanese-built, and he had heard of Japanese families burying valuables prior to internment. His first thought was that he would really like to give these dishes back to the descendents of whoever had buried them.
But first, he needed to know who had owned the farm, so he contacted the Maple Ridge Museum & Archives and brought in some of the dishes to show us and asked us to help him find the family.
We were most fortunate in having copies of a book translated by Bill Hashizume called “the History of Haney Nokai”, which was an agricultural association for Japanese farmers. It was written in 1963 by Yasutaro Yamaga, a leader of the local pre-war Japanese community, whose writings eventually found their way to the Special Collections archives at UBC. The most extensive writings were on the Haney Nokai but all written in Japanese which is not accessible to most Fraser Valley history researchers.
In his translation of this important story of early fruit and berry farming in the Fraser Valley, Hashizume included maps of all the different parts of Maple Ridge where there were Japanese farmers. The maps were drawn from the MA thesis of John Mark Read of Whonnock, “The Pre-War Japanese Canadians of Maple Ridge: Land Ownership and the Ken Tie”.
Through the combination of these historical documents, we were able to find Ken Schmok’s farm on the map and link it to Takaaki Shigemi. Then the hunt began for descendents.
An internet search revealed no one of that surname in BC. Since many Japanese were interned to Alberta, we looked there next and found five households with that name in the Taber and Lethbridge areas. With fingers crossed, we wrote to all five, telling them we were looking for descendents of Takaaki Shigemi and would they contact us with any information.
We hit the jack-pot first try as all were related and all were descendents of the two senior Shigemi brothers who had lived at the farm. The best part of all was that the registered landowner at the time – Takaaki himself – was still alive at 91 years of age. They said they would be most delighted to get the dishes back.
In July of 2008, the Maple Ridge Museum & Archives and Ken Schmok played host to Tak Shigemi, his wife, son, and nephew. He recognized most of the dishes and told us stories of meals and celebrations involving them. At the old farm, the original house is still standing near Ken’s new house, so Tak was able to visit his old home as well. Later, the family donated many of the found dishes to the museum to be used for display and help tell this story about a reunion over a pickle crock full of dishes.
Val Patenaude 2008.08.31