Located nine miles west of Santa Maria on historic Highway 1 in Santa Barbara County is the small town of Guadalupe with a dramatic Nikkei history. Gradually replacing the Chinese in the sugar beet fields, the Japanese labor force grew to nearly 600 with the expansion of the Union Sugar Mill Company of Betteravia in the early 1900s. By the 1910s, a cooperative, renamed the Guadalupe Japanese Association, supporting Japanese farm operations, included branches in Santa Maria, Oceano, Pismo and San Luis Obispo; and the Japantowns of Santa Maria and Guadalupe became commercial centers. While some Japanese ventured out as sharecroppers in the sugar beet fields in 1916, others began to farm other crops because of the decline in the industry. Upon visiting from Los Angeles and noticing the lush valley, Ryoichi Ninokawa began experimenting with lettuce and peas. He soon built a packing operation in Oceano and rented a warehouse in Guadalupe. Although Ninokawa was not experienced in operations, other Japanese farmers followed his lead and farmed vegetables with more success. Due to its mild temperature and westerly winds in the summer, the climate and rich soil proved ideal for produce production.
With the Southern Pacific Railroad linking the state, Guadalupe had become the principal agricultural center of North County by the 1930s, providing a majority of the lettuce grown in California. The vitality of Japantown communities in Guadalupe and Santa Maria was reflected in a 1935 report by Hisagoro Sako on the Santa Maria Valley, "There are more than 50 independent farmers tilling over eight thousand acres of land, four packing houses, twelve grocery stores, eleven restaurants, eight hotels and boarding houses . . . The total investment was said to be about two million dollars." After World War II, produce production in Santa Maria continued, while Guadalupe remained, nearly frozen in time, as it was over 60 years ago.
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