(Guest post by Greg Forster)
The Al is no stranger to grape-growers, having nominated innovative winemakers Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen in 2014. But Bob Fletcher grew grapes in a way more reminiscent of Wim Nottroth or Roddie Edmonds.
A lot of Japanese-Americans in California during World War II were farmers. Most of them lost their farms to foreclosure when they found themselves interned in camps in 1942 because Franklin Roosevelt was a bonkers-racist-pseudoscience-freakazoid-weirdo who thought Japanese people were inherently violent because of the shape of their skulls. (“The president wrote back asking whether the ‘Japanese problem’ could be solved through mass interbreeding.”)
Bill Taketa’s mother had paid off 85% of the mortgage on her 32-acre farm, and lost it all. “She didn’t have anywhere to come back to because they took it,” he recalls.
Bill Taketa even joined the U.S. Army and served in the Pacific theater, fighting Japanese forces on behalf of the stars and stripes. But that didn’t get him his family farm back.
Bill’s wife Doris Taketa, however, can tell a better story. She was 12 when she was shipped off to a camp in Arkansas with her parents and two sisters. But when she came back, the farm was still there for them. And two other families in her hometown of Florin, California had farms waiting for them, too.
Thanks to Bob Fletcher.
Fletcher, himself the only child of a walnut-farming family, watched the disastrous injustices being inflicted on California’s Japanese-American farm owners from his perch as a state agricultural inspector. He knew from the start that the whole thing was crazy, and that Japanese-Americans “were the same as everybody else – it was obvious they had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor.”
So he decided not to remain a California agricultural inspector. The time had come to try his hand at grape-growing.
Fletcher quit his job and took over operating three grape farms – a total of 90 acres of Tokay grapes – belonging to three interned families in danger of foreclosure: the Tsukamotos, Okamotos and Nittas. For three years, he was able to do just enough work to keep up the mortgage payments on all three farms. By agreement with the families, after paying the mortgage bills he kept half the remaining farm income to live off of, and stored the other half away to hand over to the families when they returned.
“I was born on that land. He took really good care of it,” Doris Taketa would later say.
Many Florin residents were less appreciative. He was jeered in Florin, and called a “Jap lover.” At one point some fine specimen of American bravery actually came out and shot a gun at Fletcher while he was working the Tsukamotos’ property.
There were about 2,000 Japanese-Americans living around Florin before the war. Doris Taketa estimates about 80% of them chose not to return. And who can blame them?
“Few people in history exemplify the best ideals the way that Bob did,” said Marielle Tsukamoto, who was five when she was interned. “He was honest and hard working and had integrity. Whenever you asked him about it, he just said, ‘It was the right thing to do.’ ”
After returning, Doris said to Fletcher: “We owe you everything.”
The rest of us owe him a debt as well. In partial repayment, I’m proud to nominate Bob Fletcher for 2019 Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year.