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Nisei: Nikkei Connection to McLean Mill

McLean Mill Bunkhouse

Did you know that there was a very small settlement of Japanese Canadians at the McLean Mill in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island in the early thirties?

Reading the Parks Canada backgrounder article and excerpts from Jan Peterson’s book, Twin Cities: Port Alberni, sent in by Maureen Hamagishi, R.B. McLean Lumber Company was a small family-run business that operated from 1926 to 1965.

Robert Bartlett McLean operated a sawmill business in the Cloverdale and Fraser Valley area for ten years. With the dwindling timber supply, he decided to join in on the Alberni lumber boom. Mr. McLean acquired a 10-acre site in Beaver Creek adjacent to Beaufort Range.

The McLean Mill was powered by steam engine. The mill produced 25,000 board feet per day, cutting mostly Douglas fir and cedar. The company employed about 17 men during peak periods with another dozen working in the logging operation, plus several camp workers. With his three adult sons, Walter, Arnold, and Philip, the mill was in good hands. Therefore, Mr. J.B. McLean was able to return to Cloverdale a few years later and he retired from the company in 1950.

Since the mill was located about 12 km away from the town of Alberni, a small village was established. The main camp had bunkhouse, cookhouse, cabins, and even a one-room school that acted as a community center. McLean Mill/Bainbridge School was built in 1929. It needed a minimum of ten students, therefore, they recruited five Cowley children from the neighbouring area. Philip and Muriel McLean were the school trustees. Various teachers served the school over the years. They were: Miss Sterling, Mable Matheson, Kate Manning, Minnie Roff, and Miss J. Ayliffe. 50% of the students were Japanese Canadians. As a result, the school closed permanently in 1942 when the Nikkei children were taken away to Hastings Park’s Manning Pool in Vancouver.

There was also a two-room cabin area for the Japanese workers’ families behind the main camp and a bunkhouse for the bachelors. In the beginning, there was no electricity and running water.

The Shigematsu family lived and worked in Woodfibre, BC, before being recruited by Mr. Sumi for the McLean family. Their life there began around 1937. Zennojo and Kiyoko (Okino) Shigematsu lived in the two-room cabin home with their children Satoko, Marg (Hisako), Tosh, Tsuruyo, Shuji, and Yosh. The children attended school with the McLeans. Shiharu Endo was a bachelor so he would have stayed at the bunkhouse. Terry (Tsuruyo) Shigematsu played with Yutaka and Takashi Hatanaka. Other families were Yoshio and Asako Nagata, Shigeharu and Naru Endo, Takano and Adachi families. Nakajoji was the cook for the Japanese labourers. Most of the families were related to Zennojo (Ziggy or Tiny Boss) Shigematsu, therefore, they were probably recruited and hired as a group.

R.B. McLean Sawmill Japanese employee Mr. Zennojo (Zen) Shigematsu is shown with friend on the Buda engine (a gas locomotive) at the McLean mill yard. Photo courtesy of Terry and Maureen Hamagishi.

In the Alberni Valley Times newspaper article written by Kristi Dobson, Terry (Shigematsu) Hamagishi was interviewed about her days at McLean Mill. Her father worked as a boom man as well as loading the small gas-powered Buda locomotive to move lumber and logs around the mill. Terry attended school at the camp, and later she was bussed to Alberni Elementary.

At her cabin, Terry explained, a Japanese bath or ofuro was built for each family. Water was brought in from Kitsuksis Creek by a pulley system waterline. Children worked the waterline to bring water to fill the tub. They also cut wood for the stove to heat the water. The daily routine was after work, father took a bath after dinner.

Shigematsu family had a large vegetable garden. They grew lettuce, carrots, gobo (Japanese burdock), and strawberries. The vegetables went well with their main meal of chicken or eggs. Connelly Store in Alberni exchanged produced with the family. Kiyoko Shigematsu didn’t speak English so she pointed at the goods she wanted. Each month, Japanese food like sacks of rice had to be ordered from Vancouver. Soy sauce came in a 10 gallon barrel. Empty barrels were used to store water.

McLean Mill was paradise for children as they could roam around the forest, climbing trees and playing games like “Hide and Seek.” It was a carefree life, but children had to do adult chores as well—babysitting, changing diapers, and looking after each other. Nevertheless, it was indeed a wonderful life.

Their lives came to a halt in 1942 for obvious reason. The Nikkei families were shipped to Hastings Park compound with other Vancouver Island Japanese Canadians. When McLean Mill School closed down, other students were transported by a jitney, a small open-sided bus, to schools in Alberni.

Bing Crosby awarded Terry Shigematsu (her Catholic name was Clara) a pink rosary for winning the art contest.

The Shigematsu relatives were on the first train to Greenwood in April 1942. The Nagata and Endo families accompanied Zennojo and Kiyoko’s family. Men 16–45 years of age were sent to road camp in the Jasper area. Nagata and Endo family moved away after the war, but the Shigematsu family remained in Greenwood until the ’60s. Hiroshi and Glenn were born in Greenwood. The Shigematsu children attended Sacred Heart School until 1954, when it closed down. One accomplishment that Terry is so proud of is when she won an art contest in 1949. The prize was a pink, holy rosary sent with a congratulatory letter by Bing Crosby! She also played basketball in the Boundary League. Her team called the Cherokees won the district championship in 1949.

Some of Shigematsu’s sons worked at the local sawmill in Greenwood until the late ’60s. Terry married Eugene Hamagishi in 1952. Son Karl was born in Oliver, Maureen in Grand Forks, the younger siblings Leah, Denise, and Greg were born in Ashcroft. Eugene and Terry lived in Greenwood, 70 Mile House, finally returning to Port Alberni. Eugene worked at the pulp and paper mill and Terry was involved in CWL and other volunteer organizations. Terry still lives in Port Alberni, Eugene passed away. She has made a complete “Circle of Life” from McLean Mill to Greenwood and back to Port Alberni. McLean Mill is a national historic site now and a tourist attraction. The steam locomotive will take you directly to the mill from the Harbour Quay.


*This article was originally published by The Bulletin: a journal of Japanese Canadian community, history + culture in February, 2017.


© 2017 Chuck Tasaka

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