For more than a century, a Tatsuda's grocery store has anchored the Stedman Street area.
There were brief pauses caused by two fires and a longer break when the Tatsuda's were swept up in the Japanese-American internment during World War II. But when a rockslide destroyed the recently remodeled Tatsuda store in February, it called into question the future of Ketchikan's longest operating family business.
In October, contractors cleared the debris from the site and the Tatsuda family continues to weigh rebuilding the store.
In 1904, Kichirobei Tatsuda set out from his home in Yawatahama on Shikoku Island in Japan to seek his future in America. More than 400,000 Japanese came to America between 1886 and 1907 as the Industrial Revolution reached Japan and caused significant disruption in its generations' old agrarian society. Although it was primarily known for its satsuma mandarin production, Yawatahama was also a seaport with a thriving seafood industry.
Bill Tatsuda says his grandfather, who became known as Jimmie when he reached America, was considered somewhat of an "adventurer" by his family. When he arrived in Ketchikan in 1904, he found a place that was not unlike his home; houses clinging to hillsides, very little flat land, and the bounty of the sea there for the taking.
But whereas Yawatahama was centuries old with a stable population of 5,000, Ketchikan — in 1904 — had only incorporated four years before and was still a collection of wooden shacks and docks clustered around Ketchikan Creek with a year-round population of little more than a couple hundred people.
Jimmie Tatsuda immediately went to work doing odd jobs at the Fidalgo Island cannery. He also purchased a small hand troller and spent summers living on the beach at Bond Bay across Behm Canal from the Clover Pass area of Ketchikan and fishing for salmon.
By 1913, Jimmie Tatsuda was approaching 30 and had decided to "settle down." He let his family in Japan know he was interested in marriage and his relatives found a 19-year-old woman in the nearby village of Uwajima, Sen Seike.
In 1907, the United States had begun restricting immigration from Japan, but wives and families of Japanese men living in America could still come over. Sen Seike became one of 25,000 women who arrived as "picture brides" in the 1910s. The women married the men by proxy before leaving Japan and they arrived without ever meeting their husbands. Sen Tatsuda arrived in Seattle in 1914 carrying a picture of Jimmie Tatsuda. He had a picture of her and they matched pictures at the Seattle dock.
The Tatsuda's first home in Ketchikan was on Stedman Street. The area was called "Indian town" because — although Ketchikan was not officially segregated in those days — residents knew that the white population lived north of Ketchikan Creek while all others lived south. But even though a large number of people lived south of the Creek, there were few stores to take of their needs.
In fact, the only grocery stores in Ketchikan were located north of the creek and the residents of "Indian town" had a lengthy walk to reach them.
That gave Sen Tatsuda an idea.
"She started buying extra, hauling that home too and selling to her neighbors," Bill Tatsuda Jr. said in 2016. "That was the beginning of the Tatsuda family grocery business."
Soon, it became clear there was a need for a full grocery story on the south end of Ketchikan and in 1916, Sen and Jimmie opened up "Jimmie's Grocery" at 415 Stedman Street. The store immediately became the hub of the area. It was popular with the Fidalgo cannery workers, it was popular with the fishermen of Thomas Basin. It was extremely popular with the Native Americans of the area. Because of the seasonal nature of Ketchikan's economy most of the stores in Ketchikan offered credit to white customers, but they did not offer it to non-white ones. Jimmie Tatsuda offered it to all his customers and the Tatsuda's have been repaid by generations of loyalty ever since.
With the expansion of the canned salmon industry in the 1920s and 1930s, Ketchikan grew rapidly and so did the neighborhood south of the Creek. The Tatsudas bought other property in the area. They made a family trip back to Japan in the late 1920s that turned tragic when two of their children became sick on the trip and died.
In the 1930s, the Tatsuda grocery store also helped Stedman Street weather the Depression. Jimmie Tatsuda continued to extend credit to families that were having trouble and frequently loaned money to people that needed it.
But in 1941, World War II arrived and the Tatsuda family was interned along with 40 other Japanese Americans from Ketchikan. The family ended up at Minidoka, a camp near Twin Falls, Idaho. Jimmie ended up at a camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico.
“A few years ago, Ed Clark came into our store and made a point of telling me that he remembered when the Tatsuda’s were evacuated from town in 1942,” Bill Tatsuda said in 2016. “He told me that the Tatsudas gave the people living in Woodland and Deermont neighborhood the food from the store. He remembered getting a big 100-pound sack of rice and other food that his mother really appreciated at the time.”
Although some people in Ketchikan supported the evacuation of the Japanese residents, most didn’t.
Many years later Pete Johnson angrily remembered having to stand over the evacuees as a member of the Territorial Guard.
“These were people that we knew,” he said in an interview with the Ketchikan Daily News in 1981. “They hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Joe Diamond was also amongst the local soldiers who had to guard the local Japanese.
“I stood guard over the Tatsuda family and one of the girls, Cherry, I went through school with,” Diamond said in the 1995 Ketchikan oral history collection “I Never Did Mind The Rain.” “I cried when she came up the gangway. I had to stand there with a gun over her. That was rough.”
Bill Tatsuda Jr. was born shortly after the war. He said his family members never talked much about the internment camps, but that they had fond memories of the other internees they met in Idaho.
Other members of the family, including Bill Jr.'s father, Bill Sr., volunteered to fight in World War II.
Bill Sr. served in a US Army artillery unit in North Carolina. Bill Sr.'s brother Charlie was in a U.S. intelligence unit in the Pacific. His other brother, Jimmy, was a member of the 442 Regimental Combat Team in Europe. The 442 was made up of Japanese Americans and was one of the most decorated units in U.S. history with 21 Congressional Medals of Honor and more than 1,000 Purple Hearts. Two of which were awarded to Jimmy Tatsuda.
In 1946, several of the family members returned to Ketchikan and reopened Jimmie’s Grocery. Bill Tatsuda Jr. said internment experience clearly convinced family members that their children needed to be as American as possible in the future.
“After the war, my generation of Japanese-Americans were not taught the Japanese language, but instead were groomed to be as ‘American’ as possible, excel in school, speak perfect English and be model U.S. citizens,” Bill Tatsuda said. “The only thing Japanese about us was the food we liked to eat. We call ourselves ‘Sushi Japanese.’”
Less than a year after the store reopened, disaster hit. A fire of unknown origin destroyed the store at 415 Stedman. Several family members barely escaped the burning building.
The grocery store was rebuilt at 339 Stedman. Jimmie and Sen retired in the 1960s, and Jimmy and Bill Sr. managed the store. Jimmy left to work for the ferry system and Bill Sr. took over the store in the 1970s.
Then in 1972, another fire hit Tatsuda's Grocery. It was caused when an electrical "brownout" shut down the boiler but not the fuel pump. When the power came back on, the fuel ignited. This time most of the damage was smoke damage to the stock, but it led the family to give away what was left, once again.
“Most of the inventory was smoky and not saleable but was still okay to consume, so we told a few of our customers that they could come in and take what they wanted,” Bill Jr. said in 2016. “Word spread like wildfire and soon a crowd of people were clamoring to get in on the free grocery event.”
By this time, Tatsuda's was looking to build a bigger store. Ketchikan's main grocery stores, Wingren's and Log Cabin, had moved out to the rapidly growing West End and there was no longer a full-size store in the Downtown. The family envisioned a 10,000 square foot store, 10 times the size of the one at 339 Stedman.
But there was a complication. Ketchikan's banks had just financed the construction of the two larger grocery stores in the West End and were not interested in working with the Tatsuda's. The family had to convince a bank in Tacoma to loan them the money. The new store opened in 1974 at 633 Stedman, and Bill Jr. was the first manager.
In 2014, Bill's daughter Katharine became the store manager, and the family together a multi-million-dollar remodel of the store to celebrate the 100th Anniversary in 2016. Katharine was also training her children to continue the family tradition.
Then on Feb, 27, 2020, the hillside next to the building collapsed, destroying about a third of the building and making the rest uninhabitable. Fortunately, it happened in the middle of the night and no one was hurt. The family negotiated with its insurance company for several weeks before the company agreed to pay the claim.
Much of that claim will go to pay of the loans taken out for the remodel. Katharine Tatsuda recently said that the family is still deciding how to proceed.