In 1944, a farm in a quiet corner of South Jersey was looking for more workers to help with its crops. Seabrook Farms, a 57-acre farm located in Cumberland County, was a major supplier of vegetables to the military, but it faced a labor shortage due to World War II. To fill that void, Charles Franklin Seabrook began hiring Japanese Americans who were being held in internment camps during the war. By 1947, nearly 2,700 Japanese Americans were living and working on the site—the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country at the time.
Masaru Nakawatase, 79, was born in an internment camp in Arizona and came to Seabrook at three years old. He and his family lived in dormitories on the farm property.
“The hours were crazy. In the growing season, when the crops were coming in, from June until the end of summer, you had to work 12-hour shifts,” he says. The workers picked fruits and vegetables, including beans, corn, peas, strawberries, onions and spinach, then helped to wash and process them. Afterwards, the produce was flash frozen and packaged. “My memory is the work was hard. It was tough because of the seasons. Mostly women packed the fruit and had to be on their feet most of the time,” he remembers. The employees were given one day off every other week and were paid 30 cents an hour.
Nakawatase attended classes in the Seabrook School, located on the farm property. He attended Bridgeton High School and later went to Rutgers University, but he never forgot his time at Seabrook.
Today, the Japanese American population in Cumberland County has dwindled. Reminders of their presence include streets named after prominent figures—like Ichisaka Way off Route 77 in Cumberland County, named after Vernon Ichisaka, the leader of a local citizens’ group. Visit the seabrookeducation.org to learn more.
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