In Locke, The Past is Growing
A small, aging town nestles up against the levee on the Sacramento River. Inland from the river, grows a garden full of fu gwa, dow gok, hong zou and cee gwa. The bitter melon, long beans, jujubes and luffa are only a few of several edible plants grown there yearly, and every one is a link to the town’s rich history.
From each planted seed grows another opportunity to learn about the town’s former residents and their culture.
The town of Locke is located on River Road in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, a mile north of Walnut Grove. Next year, Locke will celebrate its 100th anniversary.
The town is a National Historic Landmark. A plaque that displays the town’s Statement of Significance explains, “Locke is the largest and most intact surviving example of an historic rural Chinese-American community in the United States.” It is the only U.S. town built by Chinese laborers for themselves. Today a group of Locke residents are preserving the culture through education, art and the vegetable garden.
The Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta includes the rich farmland and livable space that it does today thanks in large part to the hard labor of around 3,500 Chinese immigrants who moved here after the California state legislature passed the Swamp and Overflow Act of 1861. Some 88,000 acres of marshland were reclaimed between 1861 and 1880, when this area was transformed into land suitable for farming. Many laborers stayed in the Delta after the levees were completed, and became tenant farmers or worked as farm laborers, or for farm-related employers such as packinghouses.
Most of the people had come from China’s Guangdong province. Many had first settled in Walnut Grove’s Chinatown, but in October 1915 a fire destroyed their community. Some of the population rebuilt in Walnut Grove, while another group was able to lease nearby three stuctures and land from George Locke and build the town named after him. The town quickly grew to include 50 buildings.
In the late 1920s, more than 600 Chinese lived in Locke. Thriving businesses in the two-street town included a movie theater, an herbalist, several restaurants, grocery stores, a flour mill, a hotel and numerous boarding houses that helped to house more laborers during the harvest. These transients could temporarily swell the town’s population to 1,500. In these early days the town could be a raucous place with gambling, drinking, prostitution and opium smoking.
Things began to settle down after Prohibition ended in 1933. Families grew and kept the population steady. Farms still relied largely on laborers until after the end of World War II, so the permanent residents of Locke had steady work in nearby apple and pear orchards and other farms. They planted gardens to grow their own fruits and vegetables. This is the inspiration for the demonstration garden today.
Post-war, the town’s children matured. They were encouraged to pursue their futures away from the small town in the Delta. One by one, the original bachelors of the town died off, families moved away and the Chinese population dwindled. Today, fewer than 10 Chinese Americans still live in Locke out of 90 full-time residents.
From the 1950s through the ’80s, the gardens were the focus of the community. Residents grew most of their produce, and nearby was a slaughterhouse, a windmill and the water pump. Many towns people had their own garden plots in the back part of Locke.
Stuart Walthall, a Locke resident and music teacher, lovingly tends the Chinese demonstration garden. He is chairman of the membership committee for the Locke Foundation (LockeFoundation.org), a nonprofit whose mission is to educate the public about Locke’s history and legacy. He also writes for the Locke Foundation newsletter, which covers oral histories of Locke residents, current doings and a feature about the demonstration garden. He also created the self-guided walking tour for the town, which, of course, includes the garden.
The demonstration garden is distinct from the town’s community gardens where newer residents still grow food. It is a good size—65 by 50 feet—though Walthall notes “it’s not optimally used, because it’s set up with pathways.” Via these pathways, visitors to the town are invited to meander through, reading the many wooden signs that identify the plants.
“The vegetables raised in the Chinese demo garden are typical of those raised in Guangdong (Canton), China. Nearly all the laborers came from the Pearl River Delta located in Guangdong, Canton,” Walthall explains.
At the end of summer, 14 crops flourished there: melons, gourds, leaves and roots that the Chinese use for food and medicine. Long beans, cucumbers, luffa, hulu gourd, winter melon, jujubes and bitter melon were all part of the recent harvest. The residents who live on the backside of town share the produce. Eileen Leung, the editor of the newsletter, has taught Walthall how to cook with the Chinese produce, though sometimes he takes a portion of vegetables to Locke Garden Restaurant, where owners Ivan and Catherine Zhang prepare it for him.
In November or December the winter crop begins: Chinese broccoli or gai lan, and bok choy. Winter melon will still be ripening, and luffa, which is edible when very young, will be maturing on the vine and no longer suitable for eating—better used as a scrub brush. Thanks to a donation of more seeds, there will also be a few surprises.
Walthall says, “The Chinese demonstration garden is very important to the Locke Foundation. We want to maintain it even if it’s just a vestigial aspect of the gardens that were here before. We learn so much from even just one vegetable. It allows people to get into the culture one vegetable at a time.”
You can learn more about the people, gardens and town of Locke in the book Bitter Melon by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow.