Sparking some research

Sparking some research

In some weird masochistic way, I wanted this to be difficult. I didn’t want to use the bottle opener from the company that my friend works for and get all the information directly from the owner and designer, or the table made by a friend, I didn’t want to know how or if I would succeed before I started, and subconsciously perhaps I wanted something a bit more…mysterious and human.

I decided on an object, which I have owned for less than a month. It had no sentimental value to me at all. It is a piece of advertising merchandise, a lighter, for a Farm called Tanaka Brothers in the small town where I spent the first 4 years of my life. I bought it a month ago on ebay because I liked the vintage graphic – although it does have a Copperplate-esque typeface, which I usually hate.

It was made by Park Lighters that was once part of Illinois’s Park Sherman company which was moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee for reasons of labour costs in 1960. So the lighter was made after that. There is no patent number on it, possibly because it doesn’t have a patent

I wanted my focus to be on not the object, but the person or persons who bought it and who owned the farm. I was more interested in looking at the object as an artefact of its time and through an individual owner at the history of a time and place. In this case, the somewhat forgotten story of Japanese immigration in the early 20th century.

Most of my research was in vintage newspapers, obituaries, United States census records, union voting records, real estate records, historical societies, online university libraries, and similar. I did try some primary research, but a week is a bit too short to hope to hear back from current farms or from the living relatives that I stalked on Facebook. I heard back from the eBay-seller in Northern Oregon from whom I bought it, but all he knew was that he bought it along with 14 others and a collection of belt buckles at an estate sale in the 122St and Division neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon.

I was able to talk to a retired former produce broker, who thinks he remembers the Tanaka Brothers as celery farmers – I learnt that celery is quite a tough crop to make money off (as well as tasting diabolical) and I spoke to a Japanese-American whose family had a similar experience and who shared personal – at the time illegally taken – photographs from the Gila River Camp in Arizona. It also led me to Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams who photographed the camps in which Japanese Americans were interned – so there is a chance that these farmers are in Adams’s or Lange’s photographs…a slim chance.

I found a surprising amount of information, but things I really wanted to know remain elusive. I actually do not even know when the lighter was made or purchased. I don’t know to whom this belonged, I don’t know how it ended up in Oregon, I don’t know when the Farm ceased to exist (maybe around the late 70s.) I don’t know if this was one of hundreds or just a single piece, I don’t know if it was a treasured article or an unloved piece of ephemera. I can make some assumptions, It certainly appears like it was used a lot, carried in a pocket next to objects that scratched and scuffed it over its many years of loyal use, or perhaps it was just in a drawer forgotten and rattling around with other now forgotten objects.

I know where Henry was born, I know that as a child he lived a mile from my old apartment in Venice, and later a mile from my parents’ house in Oxnard.

533 Glenwood Drive,Oxnard, CA 93030

I know they were forcibly sent to Manzanar and then North Dakota.

April 25, 1942. Japanese Americans are assembled and sent to internment camps.

I know Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange photographed Manzanar

Workers labor in the fields in the shadow of Mt Williamson (Library of Congress)
Ansel Adams, 1943
Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center.
Dorothea Lange. Manzanar, California. July 2, 1942.

I know he was released on February 11, 1945

U.S., Final Accountability Rosters of Evacuees at Relocation Centers, 1942-1946.
(via national Archives)

I know he left Venice for Oxnard and started a farm with his brothers. probably around 1951/52.

Oxnard Ventura County Ad Visor, September 26, 1968
Henry Tanaka and his father on their farm. Year unknown.
Is there a lighter in his hand in his pocket?
(Oxnard City Library, Digital Collection)

Cesar Chavez shows up for the third time in my work as the leader of the UFW who organised farm labourers throughout the area which ultimately led to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 and collective bargaining. I found the voting results at the University of California San Diego’s archives

Union vote election results, September 1975. (UCSD archives)

I know that they were sued in 1975 by the UFW for ‘constructively discharging’ 80 employees for not working at piece-rate rather than for an hourly rate. They won the case.

Agricultural Labor Relations Board finding from November, 1978.

I know their last renewal for the Tanaka Bros. name was in 1977. These filings last 5 years, so by 1982 the business was no longer in existence or had changed its name.

Ventura County public clerk’s office.

“This tractor called ‘Allis’ is now an exhibit at the Pleasant Valley Historical Society & Museum. According to their site ‘The tractor was purchased new in 1952 from Power Tractor by the Tanaka Bros. Farms. She worked well and hard for over forty years.’ which, assuming it was not sold to another owner, would put the farm’s demise in the early 1980s

1952 Allis-Chalmers WD row crop tractor.

I also happen to know that the owner of the company that made the lighter, Robert Park Sherman, and Henry Tanaka both had wives with the nicknames of Mickie/Mickey.

What I have been thinking about a lot is how we define ourselves and our spaces through the objects that we own, the sentimentality and nostalgia that we attached to these objects and how then, when we die, many lose all their value and become flotsam and jetsam of lives that have ended, often times mercilessly thrown away and destroyed. Do we give the object meaning, are these objects still part of a personal ritual when there is no actual function?

I would like to think that this was Henry’s lighter that he always carried with him – even when he stopped smoking. After Henry’s retirement and after it needed a replacement flint the lighter spent its last few years in Oxnard in a drawer and after Henry’s death the lighter’s meaning went unnoticed by family and he [sic] made his way via estate sales and thrift stores to Oregon before washing up in Southern California again to once again fulfil his purpose in life – making fire, the beginning of human civilisation.

There is also a chance that it is an artefact of failure; a sample made by a Portland-based West Coast Sales rep who was not able to convince the Tanakas to place an order.

I have also been thinking a lot about how many tabs I have open in my browser.

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