Continued from The Legacy Part 2……..
July 28, 1920, Federal Courthouse, Tacoma……..
A Congressional hearing held in downtown Tacoma was big news in 1920. Not only because it was held in the the Federal Building immediately across the street from the newsrooms of the city’s two daily newspapers, but because it spotlighted a matter of divided opinion following America’s costly involvement in the First World War. The biggest political names in the national debate over immigration policy were on the dias in the crowded chambers on the third floor of the imposing stone building at 11th and A Street. After a full morning of witnesses and testimony, Yokichi Nakanishi was called before the committee for questioning.
The issei farmer, who had been praised for his industry and progressive agricultural methods by earlier witnesses, was asked to describe his vegetable growing enterprise,
his legal partnerships and property agreements and the financial details of his West Side Gardens business. In reticent terms Nakanishi described his work as cook, his adventures in Alaska and then his settling down to farming on land he leased from John McAleer and Henry Sicade. After years of failed crops due to flooding and frost damage he learned to understand the alluvial soil of the Fife Valley and now was cultivating 270 leased acres. He employed 35 to 40 Japanese workers and along with his nephew Kay Yamamoto was delivering produce to as far away as Chicago.
Impatient with the farmer’s story, the Congressmen peppered him with questions about the terms of his rent and relationship with McAleer, about the taxes he paid and whether or not his children went to public school. It was a shopping list of the issues being addressed in the legislation the men were preparing. After the questions were respectfully answered, Mr. Nakanishi invited the Committee to visit West Side Gardens. Chairmen Johnson replied that they would come to Fife the following Monday but the record is unclear as to whether they actually did.
If members of the Congressional committee did visit the gardens, Kay Yamamoto and John McAleer were probably there and it’s hard to image Henry Sicade was not present. It would have been a fascinating occasion and it would have brought all of the major characters in this story together at the same time and place. In the minds of the congressmen, the group of men invested in the West Side Gardens were seen as the embodiment of the Japanese problem.
A wave of new laws began after the Committee hearings that summer, first in the Washington State Legislature and then in the United States Congress. Early in the next State Legislative session the famous and feverish House Bill 79 was passed (January 27, 1921), adding to the State Constitution alien land restrictions on not only ownership but rent and leases. The language in Bill 79 criminalized selling or renting land to an alien or non-citizen but was openly directed at Japanese farmers and small business operators. It made it illegal to hold land in trust for an alien, something attorneys did for minor American born children. The legislation even made it a crime not to report known violations of the law to the State Attorney General or local prosecutor. The Bill passed in the House by a vote of 71 to 19 and the Senate by 36 to 2. It took effect on June 9th, after planting but before harvest.
It was this Washington State legislation that broke the West Side Gardens. In order for it to continue, McAleer would have to return to full time farming or, as uncle Nakanishi suggested, he and Kay would give up their ownership interest and continue as employees. It was an indignity none of the men wanted or deserved but as historian Ron Magden wrote “At the highway gate the Irishman and the Japanese replaced Nakanishi’s West Side Gardens nameplate with a new sign, McAleer Gardens.” In the years that followed, the prolific gardens continued to supply greens, vegetables and flowers to the public markets, grocery stores and restaurants. Kay Yamamoto became the emissary of John McAleer in the daily operations of the gardens and as the old man and his wife’s household needs increased, the Yamamoto’s cared for them.
In the last years of the decade, the McAleer’s began to put their affairs in order. John contacted his sister and nephews in Ireland about interest in the gardens and his American property but they were comfortable in their homeland and displayed no interest in immigrating. Margaret McAleer died in July 1928 and less than a year later, on May 3, 1928 John McAleer passed away. The Last Will and Testimony he left behind was reasonable and completely understandable to his friends and the people in the Fife farmlands but in the halls of Congress and the political offices in Olympia it was a bomb blast.
Wednesday April 24, 1929, Pierce County Superior Court, Tacoma…..
The questioning directed at Kay Yamamoto in the courtroom of Judge Fred G. Remann never veered too deeply into the specific details of the McAleer will. Nor did the newspaper accounts. Most of the reporting and public interest was on the size of the fortune and the unique friendship between McAleer and “Kay”, as the papers began referring to him. In the thick legal brief attached to the signed will however, the inventory of John McAleer’s property and holdings filled pages and the details of its disposition showed that he and his attorney’s were careful in dividing up the legacy and protecting McAleer’s intentions.
To each of his nephews in Ireland, McAleer bequeathed $10,000, and to his sister he left several pieces of land in Pierce and Yakima Counties along with personal property. To his “faithful friend and employee Kay Yamamoto” McAleer gave the cultivated land and all the trucks, livestock, tools and workings of the gardens. In the language of the will, the legacy, along with his home, would become the property of Kay’s oldest son in ten years when he would be over 21 and an American citizen. Within the framework of an estate managed by executors the legacy of John McAleer did not violate the law.
But in his last will and testament John McAleer was indirectly challenging the State’s Alien Land laws again, circumventing an injustice as he saw it. In the minds and judgement of Congressman Johnson, Governor Hart (former) and Hartley, vocal anti-Japanese organizations like the American Legion and secret organizations like the KKK, the dead Irishman and the Japanese farmer were still conspirators in the Japanese problem.
The Superior court files for the case show that attorney Maurice Langhorne was representing John McAleer’s family in Ireland but none of them attended the courtroom proceedings. Who paid for Langhorne’s legal services is unclear. On the last day of the trial, Friday April 26th, the attorney’s gave closing remarks with Wesley Lloyd tracing back over the clear intentions laid out in the will, the testimony of witnesses that McAleer was of sound mind in writing and signing it, and that the benefaction to Kay Yamamoto and his family was based on a long and well earned relationship and affection. Langhorne unleashed a booming condemnation of the entire case, claiming McAleer was a hopeless senseless alcoholic in capable of making reasoned decisions. He went on to accuse Kay of enabling his drinking during a time when Federal law prohibited liquor (Prohibition was not repealed until 1933) and of manipulating the old man into leaving his property to a “Japanese”. It was 6 in the evening when Judge Remann finally dismissed the jury to make a decision.
Judge Remann had made an unusual decision to seat a jury in the case even though they would be limited to an advisory status. The final verdict in the trial was entirely up to the Superior Court Judge but given the interest and issues in the case 6 men and 6 women were convened as a jury to hear all the evidence and testimony and provide Judge Remann with their decision. Judge Remann, having run for public office himself was
also aware of the shadowy political implications of the case and the powerful forces invested in its outcome. the wrong decision could embarrass Congressman Johnson, the Governor and Attorney General. Some wondered if it was just a coincidence that the National and State Commanders of the American Legion appeared in Tacoma just as the trial was reaching its conclusion. In his jury instructions Remann hand wrote two questions for them to answer; Was John McAleer of sound mind when he signed the will ? and, Was he acting under undue influence from Kay Yamamoto?
On Saturday morning at 9:30a the jury returned having unanimously answered “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second. Judge Remann accepted the findings, upheld the Last Will and Testament of John McAleer and decided in favor of the legacy. The headline on the front page of the Tacoma Tribune read “KAY WINS IN WILL SUIT”.
Somehow the outcome seemed perfectly fair and even popular in the Tacoma papers and Fife meeting places. There were grumbles from some editorial writers and backroom outrage among anti-Japanese zealots like publisher Miller Freeman in King County but locally Judge Remann’s verdict made sense. “The gardener earned the garden” was the sentiment at the public market and no one was surprised that Kay Yamamoto never changed the name back to West Side. He kept McAleer’s name on the property until he and his family were sent to the interment camps in Spring of 1942, just after planting.
Congressman Albert Johnson lost his House Seat and Chairmanship of the Committee of Immigration and Naturalization in a failed reelection campaign in November 1932.
Westley Lloyd was elected to Congress from Tacoma in the same election of 1932.
Ray Yamamoto, Kay & Masae’s oldest son graduated from Stanford University with an Economics degree in 1936
The Yamamoto family were removed from their Fife home following the enforcement of Executive Order 9066 in May 1942.
Kay Yamamoto passed away on January 25, 1945. Following the war, the Yamamoto family returned to the Fife area
Judge Fred Remann went on to serve a long and distinguished career in Pierce County Superior Court. He founded the Tacoma Boys Club in 1942 and the Pierce County Juvenile Court facility is named after him. Prior to election as a judge, Remann also served in the Washington State Legislature and cast one of the three Pierce County votes against House Bill 79 in February 1921. He died in office at 71 in 1949.
Thanks to my late friends Ron Magden and Joe Kosai for introducing me to this extraordinary story and providing insights into its place in history. Thanks also to Pete Yamamoto, Kay’s grandson, who still farms for a living.
Pierce County Superior Court files, 21892-McAleer.Estate 5-9-28
U.S. House of Representatives, Japanese Immigration, Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, part 4, hearings at Seattle and Tacoma, July-August, 1920, (Washington, 1921), 1413-1425,
Gordon, Linda, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation,  ©2017
Nelson, The Alien Land Law Movement of the Late Nineteenth Century, 54; Douglas Pullen, The Administration of Washington State Governor Louis F. Hart 1919-1925, PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, 1974, 226
Charles McClain, Japanese Immigrants and American Law: The Alien Land Laws and Other Issues (Garland Publishing Inc, New York, 1994), 30
Magden, Ronald E., Furusato, Tacoma-Pierce County Japanese. 1998. ISBN 0-9629616-4-7
DENSHO Digital Repository for images, documents and Ray Yamamoto’s remarkable manuscript written to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, July 23, 1981
Tacoma Public Library
Washington State Historical Society