Times Past

Epic tale begins in Los Osos

An illustration of Alice Eto Sumida dancing, from the book Music for Alice.
An illustration of Alice Eto Sumida dancing, from the book Music for Alice.

Alice Eto Sumida loves dancing. She also has a fearless sense of adventure.

Thirteen-year-old Alice Eto Sumida learned to drive in 1927 when her father purchased the family's first automobile, an open-air Model-T Ford. In 1933, Alice left her rural Los Osos Valley home to begin her freshman year at Mills College, joining her sister Toshiko, who was a senior.

Following graduation, Alice met and married Mark Sumida. The couple moved to Seattle where they established a business selling seeds to farmers. When the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor, their life was thrown into chaos. The FBI arrived to search their apartment.

Three months later, they were told to report to an “assembly center” located in the Portland, Ore., stockyards. Their sleeping quarters smelled of cattle.

After several days, a group of white farmers came seeking volunteers to work in the strategically important sugar beet fields of eastern Oregon. Those who volunteered would not be sent to the internment camps. Alice and Mark offered to join. Alice was the only woman in the group.

The arduous work was in the desert. Mark and Alice lived in dust-filled tents. When the sugar beets were finally thinned, the job was over. A War Relocation Authority agent told the couple that they could go about freely, so long as they remained in the county. A farmer offered to rent them a dilapidated two-story house.

The men in their sugar beet crew urged Mark and Alice to start a farm. The WRA agents said that because of the importance of food to the war effort, the federal government would lend money for the farm. They were able to lease 200 acres of rock-strewn desert land on the Snake River, 11 miles north of Ontario, Ore.

They joked that their first crop was “a harvest of stones.”

Alice and Mark knew of one more person who could help them get the job done, Alice’s brother Masaji, who was interned with most of the Eto family in the Manzanar Relocation Camp.

In February, 1943, Masaji, along with his wife, Margaret, baby, Lois, and sister, Grace, were able to travel the 640 miles from Manzanar in Owens Valley, California, to Oregon. Alice’s mother, Take, and sister, Nancy, waited until April 2 before leaving by bus. In late November 1943,

Alice’s father, Tameji, was released from the inexplicable “special detention” that he had endured since Dec. 7, 1941, when he was arrested as the leader of the San Luis Obispo Japanese American community.

Alice’s sister, Susy, and her two little boys came to live on the farm. Susy’s husband, Leo Kukuchi, had been killed fighting in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, “the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.”

Alice and Mark’s willingness to take a chance with the volunteer sugar beet group had resulted in creating a place where a war weary Eto family could reunite and begin to heal their wounds.

There was plenty of work for all. Nancy and Grace were, by their own accounts, “not seasoned farm workers.” After many frustrating hours thinning sugar beets, the two youngest sisters moved to Boise, Idaho, to find work.

After the war, Mark and Alice tried raising potatoes, onions and alfalfa. Finally, they focused on flower bulbs, becoming the largest gladiola bulb growers in the country.

Mark died 10 years after they moved to a farm in California. Alice didn’t feel like dancing any more. She moved to Portland, very near the stockyards where she and Mark were once incarcerated. She made a trip to the wonderful farm that she and Mark had created out of the Oregon desert. The flower-raising economy had changed. The farm was abandoned and the house was falling to pieces.

Alice accepted the changes and did ballroom dancing into her mid-90s. In 2000, she met Caldecott Medal award-winning author Allen Say through her hairdresser. Say was enchanted by Alice and wrote and illustrated “Music for Alice,” a true story that began in Los Osos Valley.