Times Past

Recalling ranch life in rural San Luis Obispo

Allen Say’s drawing of Alice Eto Sumida and her father’s tractor on the Los Osos farm set in the mid-1920s in the book ‘Music for Alice.’
Allen Say’s drawing of Alice Eto Sumida and her father’s tractor on the Los Osos farm set in the mid-1920s in the book ‘Music for Alice.’

“My name is Alice. I grew up on a farm in California. And ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved dancing more than anything else. Often I wished Daddy’s tractor would turn into a coach and take me dancing, but it only made noise and dust.”

Caldecott Medal award-winning author Allen Say’s “Music for Alice” is a true story that begins in Los Osos Valley.

Alice Eto Sumida has danced, both literally and figuratively, through all the hope and tragedy of our turbulent century that began in 1914.

Alice grew up 11 miles west of San Luis Obispo on the ranch of her mother and father, Take and Tameji Eto.

Life on the farm, still operated by Alan and Janice Eto, is recalled in a new memoir by Grace Eto Shibata, the youngest of Alice’s five sisters. Written with Grace’s daughter Naomi Shibata Denny, it’s titled “Bend with the Wind.”

With permission from the authors, here is an excerpt:

“The oldest sisters surveyed the kitchen, donned their aprons, and went to work. Mothers’ younger sister lived on a neighboring farm and had come by earlier in the day to help prepare for the family's arrival. The sink was filled with vegetables from Mother's garden, and two freshly dressed chickens from Mother’s coops were piled on a platter. A large pot of steamed rice and a kettle of hot water sat on the edge of the stove.

“Young voices filled the house while sisters Kofuji and Toshiko cooked and Mary and Susy set the table in the adjoining room. Alice filled her apron with whole sweet potatoes, kneeled before the dining room fireplace, and used an unseasoned willow branch to push the potatoes into the coals. The roasted potatoes would be an after-dinner treat to be enjoyed while Father told stories later in the evening.

“Father and (brother) Masaji announced their arrival with much stomping and scraping of feet on the coarse mat outside the dining room door. They kicked off their boots, entered the house, and shoved their stocking feet into their waiting slippers. Father carried a large sack of rice over his right shoulder, and Masaji carried a small sack of sugar over his. Their hands were cold after a vigorous scrubbing under an outdoor faucet and, after dropping their sacks in the pantry, they cradled cups of hot tea that Toshiko served from a tray.

“Father sat at the head of the table with Mother on his right. The siblings circled the table in descending age order starting on Father's left. Father beamed as Kofuji picked up the little pitcher Mother used to serve his homemade wine.

“It was family custom for the children to describe their activities at length over dinner. Mother listened as conversations were conducted in Japanese, English, and a dizzying combination of the two.

“Kofuji and Toshiko were now in high school. The girls were five and four years old when they were sent to Japan for their education. They lived with Father's family in Kumamoto on the southern island of Kyushu and spoke only Japanese when they returned to California seven years later.

“During the girls’ long absence Father worked diligently to help establish the Children’s Home which was housed in the Guadalupe Buddhist Temple complex. Six-year-old Alice was among the Japanese Children's Home’s first students.

“There would be six different accounts of the same events. The rural isolation ranch life was broken by the arrival of radio in the late 1920s.

“In the evenings Alice took her sister Mary by the hands and danced to a tune on the radio. Father knit his brow at the ruckus, but raised his newspaper in front of his face to hide his smile.”

Alice Eto Sumida’s 100th birthday was recently celebrated at the home of her youngest sister, Grace Shibata, in Atherton, California. Her sisters Grace, Susy Eto Bauman and Nancy Eto Mihara were part of the joyous event.

To be continued.

Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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