‘Did you know that the Simases were bootleggers?” Lillian Nishijima Sakurai was quizzing her father, Hiyoshi “George” Nishijima.
He replied, “Of course, I sometimes helped him.”
From 1922 until 1942, Lillian’s father leased Cave Landing, what is now called Pirate’s Cove, for farming.
During the early 1800s, hides and tallow from Mission San Luis Obispo were loaded onto ships at Cave Landing. This remote spot became a favorite jetty for rumrunners during Prohibition.
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Illicit crates of Canadian whiskey could be concealed in the cave until a moonless night, when they could be carted to canvas-covered trucks and hauled away to the Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin.
Hiyoshi was like virtually every other farmer and rancher along the Central Coast. During lean times, he cooperated with his neighbors and “didn’t make waves.”
He was born in Japan in 1901. The so-called Meiji Restoration was industrializing Japan, but at great expense to rural farm families. When he was 6 months old, Hiyoshi’s parents sailed from Yokohama to Honolulu.
When they had fulfilled their two-year labor contract cutting sugar cane on the Big Island of Hawaii, they moved to Alviso, at the extreme southern tip of San Francisco Bay.
Alviso once hoped to be California’s main shipping port. Hiyoshi found a job cutting timbers for the piers. Then the Nishijimas moved to Guadalupe.
While his father worked in the sugar beet fields, his mother cooked for a camp of about 150 workers near the Union Sugar refinery in Betteravia, near Santa Maria.
By 1907, the family had saved enough money to lease farmland for watermelons and pig feed in Oso Flaco.
In 1911, the Santa Maria River flooded its banks. Hiyoshi’s sister, Haruko, died of pneumonia. The flooded river had prevented the family from getting medical assistance.
By 1916, Hiyoshi, with only a fourth-grade education, went to work at Union Sugar. Tamaji Eto, later the well-known Los Osos rancher, was his foreman and Isamu Minami, later of the Santa Maria farms, was the bookkeeper.
In 1924, Hiyoshi traveled to Japan to marry his second cousin, Haru. The couple returned to the Cave Landing ranch where Lillian was born in 1927. She had six brothers and five sisters.
Frances Judkins was the principal at Pismo Grammar School and Lillian’s eighth-grade teacher. Lillian still sees classmate Rosita Phillips, daughter of K. L. Phillips, who owned Pismo’s first general store and gas station.
But, she says laughingly, her “wrist still twitches from a sprain resulting from a fall off the handle bars of Rosita’s bicycle.”
Lillian attended Japanese language school five days a week after her regular classes.
She recalls Pismo Beach as a friendly place where, “I just smiled at everybody.” Pismo was an “open tourist town with many different minorities, all of whom seemed to be accepted. Our family moved into town on Main Street in 1937. Our landlord, Bert Carpenter, rented to anybody.
“Bert’s sister-in-law, Irene Carpenter, who had a summer home nearby Steamer’s restaurant, was a special friend to my mother and other Japanese-American wives. She would invite them for tea and to see her hothouse gardens every year.”
Since 1979, Lillian has come to be known as the “maven” (social organizer) of the Nisei community.
Her sense of hospitality is a reflection of the welcoming community that she recalls from growing up in Pismo Beach.
When war forced the relocation of her family eastward in 1942, she learned that there were less friendly communities in California.
Liz Krieger contributed to this week’s column. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.