A Brief History of Farming on Bainbridge Island
The history of Bainbridge Island farming is varied, including subsistence crops, greenhouses, dairies, and prized berry crops. Farming was a culturally diverse enterprise, with immigrant families from Europe, Japan, and later the Philippines working in greenhouses, managing dairy herds, and planting the succulent Marshall strawberries.
During the heyday of the mill town at Port Blakely in the late 1800’s, farms grew vegetables and other crops to sustain mill workers and their families. On flat, fertile ground at the head of Blakely Harbor and just below the Japanese town of Yama, the Tsunehara family grew vegetable and flower gardens, later taken over by the Nagatani family who farmed there until 1928.1
As the lumber industry declined after 1900, agricultural enterprises grew elsewhere on the Island. Japanese-American families were known especially for growing strawberries. In particular, the Marshall variety was known for its juiciness and large size. Former farmer Art Koura said “Marshalls had a very meaty heart, and tender skin.” Today’s strawberries are “so hard you could play marbles with them.”2
To facilitate processing the large berry crops, the Winslow Berry Growers’ Association, a local farmer’s cooperative, helped build in 1930 a cannery on Eagle Harbor at the south end of Weaver Road. The cannery bustled with activity during strawberry season, but at other times of the year this agricultural building served the community. For example, in 1935 Bainbridge Island hosted a regional judo tournament; dojos from the greater Seattle area traveled to the cannery building for the day.3
Bainbridge Island’s agricultural history is characterized by community celebrations. In 1921 the first Bainbridge Fair was held, featuring agricultural floats, educational events and contests. That year the fair was held September 20th and 21st at the Island Center Hall (still in use today off Fletcher Bay Road). Information inside the Fair program gives us a sense of the wide variety of agricultural products grown.
Competitions were held in a variety of categories. Division A, Class II “Other Vegetables” included: string beans, table beets, round green cabbage, flat green cabbage, red cabbage, short table carrots, long table carrots, red stock carrots, cauliflower, celery, green cucumbers, golden Bantam corn, white sweet corn, ripe cucumbers, dry red onions, dry yellow onions, parsnips, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, swiss chard, white dry beans, colored dry beans, turnips, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, and peppers. 4
Between 1942 and 1945 Japanese-American families on Bainbridge were forced from their homes by the U.S. Government to live in internment camps (Manzanar, CA and later Minidoka, ID). The number of Island berry farmers would never again reach their pre-war height. During WWII some Japanese-American farms were cared for by recent immigrants from the Philippines. During the post-war years a small handful of Japanese-American families continued to farm on a large scale, but many other former farming families did not continue raising crops after the war. 4
Just after WWII the Filipino Farmers’ Association evolved into the Bainbridge Island Filipino Community Association. Their community hall and berry packing shed, built in 1928 by the Bainbridge Fair Association, stood amidst strawberry fields near what is today “Strawberry Hill”, off High School Road. In the post-war years Filipino farms grew along with their Japanese-American farm neighbors.5
Today the Bainbridge Island Filipino American Community is caretaker of the historic hall (on the National Register of Historic Places) and spearheads the annual Strawberry Festival, a community celebration revitalized in 1948. Its roots, however, were related to “informal affairs where good roads enthusiasts from the Kitsap County mainland were invited to the Island to talk over problems and enjoy heaping dishes of Bainbridge strawberries.” 6
The Strawberry Festival in the late 1940’s featured (of course!) lots of berries to eat, a carnival, the “Big Night Show” at the High School’s Memorial Field, a horseshow featuring the Ellensburg Posse, crowning of the royal Strawberry court, dances, and a community parade in Winslow. 6
Farming on Bainbridge Island today is on a much smaller scale than in the early and mid 1900’s. There is growing interest in preserving local farmland and supporting agricultural enterprises on Bainbridge such as wineries, the Farmer’s Market, berry stands, and pumpkin patches to name a few.
1 Port Blakely: The Community Captain Renton Built, by Andrew Price, Jr., Bainbridge Island Historical Society, 2005.
2 “The Berry That Loved Bainbridge”, by Tina Lieu, Bainbridge Almanac 2005.
3 “Strawberry Cannery Park” by Gerald Elfendahl, 2008. BIHS Research Library.
4 Research Library folders “Farms”, “Japanese-Americans”, “Strawberry Festival”, ‘BI Fair”, BIHS
5 “A History and Description of the B.I. Filipino American Community Hall” by Gerald Elfendahl, 1997. BIHS Research Library.
6 “1951 Strawberry Festival Program”, BIHS
Bainbridge Fair at Island Center Hall, circa 1920’s
Interior of strawberry cannery, Eagle Harbor, circa 1930’s
(Credit: BIHS De Steiguer Collection)
Strawberry fields at SE corner of Finch & High School Road, circa 1930’s
(Credit: BIHS De Steiguer Collection)
Strawberry fields at Toby Membrere farm, 1960
(Credit: BIHS, Florenda Membrere Perkins)
For more in-depth and detailed information about farming on Bainbridge Island: contact the Bainbridge Island Historical Society at 206-842-2773; email to info at bainbridgehistory.org; website www.bainbridgehistory.org; or visit the museum’s exhibits and research library at 215 Ericksen Avenue NE in Winslow (Wednesday-Monday 1:00-4:00pm)