The Heritage League of Pierce County recently presented its Diversity and Access Award to the South Pierce County Historical Society for its work in restoring the Tofu House.
The ceremony was Feb. 4 at the Lewis Army Museum in DuPont.
As stated on the award certificate: “This is the only remaining structure from the days when young Eatonville was a booming mill town, with the help of Japanese Americans who worked the mill. This building will help the Eatonville of today, and its visitors, to remember and appreciate the time when our Japanese American citizens helped this town to become a prosperous little community.”
While there are other historic buildings in Eatonville's downtown that pre-date the establishment of the Eatonville Lumber Company’s massive sawmill and planning mill complex, this building, from the mill farm, is perhaps the only remaining building from that operation.
The farm’s milk house was moved across town in 1950, after the farm operation was curtailed. Learning about its location in 2005, the historical society began planning funding efforts for the eventual acquisition and move of the historic little building back across town, to the organization's leased property at Mill Pond Park, and placement on a new foundation next to the Thomas Cobb Van Eaton Cabin, Eatonville’s first home, which was also moved to this site, in 1995. It had served for many decades as the dining room for the Snow Hotel, which had been built around it.
During the Eatonville Centennial Celebration in 2009, parade watchers cheered, and some cried, as a former resident of the Eatonville Japanese American community, William Akiyoshi, was honored with a "Welcome Home" sign on his parade vehicle. "Willie" was in eighth grade in 1942 when members of the Japanese community were taken by bus to internment camps. He had later reconnected with some of his former classmates. Akiyoshi passed away in 2013.
Soon other former residents were located — Tosh Kirihara, of Spokane, who first learned to milk a cow working at the mill farm, and David Sakura of New Hampshire, who, many years ago, attended the Yo Yo Ma Silk Road Storytelling Workshop. There he developed a story from his memories as a 5-year-old in Eatonville that involved the Tofu House. He has been presenting this childhood tale about life right before mass incarceration to large audiences of all ages throughout the New England area.
Sakura was feted by the town and the Eatonville School District in 2015, when he presented the story of The Tofu Man to elementary students and gave a much broader-themed presentation to a packed high school auditorium, about the life-changing internment, and how his family dealt with life in subsequent years.
The Tofu House was moved to Mill Pond Park in 2016, after a successful drive for funding, which included grants from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, Ben B. Cheney Foundation, Korum For Kids Foundation and over $6,000 in individual contributions through a GoFundMe campaign. These efforts, along with volunteer labor, in turn provided the match needed to be awarded a Washington State Heritage Capital Projects Fund grant for improvements at restoration, including a new roof, storm retention system, power, new paint, access ramps and a deck.
SPCHS also depends on the project management skills of trustee Don Johnstone, who has shepherded the restoration process through the more stringent state funding and reporting requirements.
The Tofu House is still a work in progress, and there is much work to be done on the inside, such as painting, lighting, installation of period milk house fixtures, and interpretive exhibit design and development. It will be available for a closer look in the coming months.
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