For most of the first half of the 20th Century catching the early morning ferry from Vashon Island to Tacoma meant sharing the main deck with wagons full of fresh vegetables, cut flowers and most unforgettable, crates and barrels of fresh sweet strawberries. Like the produce grown in the Fife Valley, the fruit and flowers were headed to Tacoma’s busy public markets where the best restaurant chefs and pastry bakers were waiting each morning when the Japanese American grown delicacies arrived. It was the Vashon strawberries that went first, unmatched for their sweet flavor and firm, plump size. Most prized of all were the berries from Mukai Gardens.
This Vashon School photo is from 1927 and its a pretty safe bet that the Japanese American kids in the class are from farm families. Denichiro Mukai came to the island in 1910 and became renown for barreling fresh strawberries using a special method that concentrated flavor and moisture in the fruit and permitted long distance shipping. In time Mukai designed and built his own home and elaborate garden and then constructed a sturdy timber framed barreling plant. During the peak years, ice cream, jam and preserve makers across the West were customers of Mukai, relishing the oak barrels for their lingering flavor and mythologizing about the island of strawberry fields.
Mukai’s garden, home, barreling plant and rolling strawberry fields have survived, not easily, into the current century and recently have been undergoing a remarkable restoration effort. The hand made buildings and surrounding cultural landscape is one of those places that is settled in its big story. Quiet and almost unmarked, it is a sweet discovery for people who ride over to the island on the ferry. Sweet like the strawberries you could get before anyone waiting at the morning market almost a century ago.