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Nanyu Tomiyasu interview, March 11, 1978: transcript







On March 11, 1978, Sosuke Miyazawa interviewed Nanyu Tomiyasu (b. May 28, 1918 in Las Vegas, Nevada) about his family’s farm and their legacy as one of the pioneering families of the city. Tomiyasu begins by talking about what brought his family to Las Vegas, the city’s abundant water reservoir and his father’s farm. In particular, Tomiyasu discusses his father’s experiments with farming as one of the city’s early farmers, the transition into nursery farming and Japanese gardens. Moreover, he discusses his siblings, the local schools, their great quality, the successful students the city produced and the growth of school populations. Tomiyasu describes the large Japanese population and the Union Pacific Railroad that many of them worked on. He ends by discussing the change in architecture within the city, such as where old buildings stood and what they are used for now, the first Episcopal Church and the old Mormon Fort.

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Tomiyasu, Nanyu Interview, 1978 March 11. OH-01836. [Transcript]. Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 1 An Interview with Nanyu Tomiyasu An Oral History Conducted by Sosuke Miyazawa Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas Special Collections and Archives Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 2 © Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2020 UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 3 The Oral History Research Center (OHRC) was formally established by the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada System in September 2003 as an entity of the UNLV University Libraries’ Special Collections Division. The OHRC conducts oral interviews with individuals who are selected for their ability to provide first-hand observations on a variety of historical topics in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. The OHRC is also home to legacy oral history interviews conducted prior to its establishment including many conducted by UNLV History Professor Ralph Roske and his students. This legacy interview transcript received minimal editing, such as the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader's understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. The interviewee/narrator was not involved in the editing process. UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 4 Abstract On March 11, 1978, Sosuke Miyazawa interviewed Nanyu Tomiyasu (b. May 28, 1918 in Las Vegas, Nevada) about his family’s farm and their legacy as one of the pioneering families of the city. Tomiyasu begins by talking about what brought his family to Las Vegas, the city’s abundant water reservoir and his father’s farm. In particular, Tomiyasu discusses his father’s experiments with farming as one of the city’s early farmers, the transition into nursery farming and Japanese gardens. Moreover, he discusses his siblings, the local schools, their great quality, the successful students the city produced and the growth of school populations. Tomiyasu describes the large Japanese population and the Union Pacific Railroad that many of them worked on. He ends by discussing the change in architecture within the city, such as where old buildings stood and what they are used for now, the first Episcopal Church and the old Mormon Fort. UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 5 Narrator is Mister Nanyu Tomiyasu. The date is March 11th, 1978 at 5:30. The place, the Dickinson Library Las Vegas. The project is Local History Project Oral Interview Life of a Las Vegas Old-Timer. Mister Tomiyasu—. Yes? First, please would you tell me about the name and present address? All right. My name is Nanyu Tomiyasu and I reside at 4426 West Sunset Road in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was born and raised here in the Las Vegas valley. In fact, I was born on the 28th of May in 1918. I have lived almost continuously my whole life here in the Las Vegas valley. There were times that I left the area for reasons of military service or short periods of time because of business matters. But aside from those short periods of time, you might say that I have almost continually lived here in the Las Vegas valley. My family, my father came to Las Vegas in 1914 for the first time. After that, well at the time he first arrived here in Las Vegas he wanted to investigate the possibilities of farming in this particular area. He saw several early farms, they were fairly successful and he decided then to come to Las Vegas and make Las Vegas his permanent home in 1916. At the time he was working as a chef for the (unintelligible) Club in San Bernardino, California. So he terminated his employment there and came to Las Vegas sometime during the year of 1916. Mm-hmm. He bought the Old Passno Ranch. First he leased it and he started farming there, possibly in the early part of 1917. And later on that year, my mother joined him and the two then started farming in the Las Vegas valley. My father and mother both raised all types of farm crops. Everything from vegetables, grain, alfalfa, turkeys, chickens, cattle, hogs. Just about everything that could be raised here in this Las Vegas valley, they had the experience of raising. At one time, for instance, UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 6 we had poultry, raising for frying chickens. We had as many as twelve thousand chickens on the farm or we raised turkeys every year for the local market. We generally raised between five and six thousand turkey every year. Cattle we didn’t go into too much, but we did have a dairy at one time. Supplied milk to several of the stores here in town. And we also at one time—my father raised, had as many as, I think it was three and four hundred hogs and pigs. He basically farmed about one hundred and twenty acres in this area. But when he first started the farm, there was very little information about farming techniques or types of plants, or seed he plant or the seasons. Mm-hmm. So he had to experiment with that, and I still have some of his old diaries and notes of his experiments that he conducted way back there in the early 1920s about how different crops grew and how well they did. (Unintelligible) a number of failures, but he got to know the farming business and the production of vegetable crop very well. Was that knowledge from the Japan style or he learned here? Well, it was, of course, all knowledge is wherever you get it. Now, his family are farmers in Japan, in Kumamoto. So, undoubtedly his love for the land and farming comes from the fact that his family is a farming family. A lot of the techniques that he probably used and experimented with here are things that possibly they did in Japan. I know that his notes that I’ve seen are very—they deal in things in fairly minute scale. So it is a fairly typical research take information. They finally, in about 1940, I think it was about ’42, just about the time of World War II or just a little bit before that, he started converting from truck farming and poultry and that type of farming into nursery. Plants and trees. A good part of the town that existed at that time, from about 1940 to about 1960, he supplied practically all the trees and shrubs that were planted in UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 7 Las Vegas. Most of those plants, most of those trees are growing right here. Really? So, in fact, I think there’s some here at the university. They are in front of Frazier Hall that they might have supplied. But farming here in Las Vegas valley or in Southern Nevada has been, one, it was fairly hard to do. One is the harshness of the weather. The heat during the summer. The winters are not that cold, but they’re still cold enough to where crops sometimes will get frostbitten and you lose some of the crops. But, more than anything, we don’t have a work force reserve. There are very few people that want to work in the fields that reside here in Las Vegas. They’re more—well, since the town started to grow and the gambling industry flourished, we have fewer and fewer people who are farm oriented as far as work is concerned. So that’s why my father converted from a high land power requirement type farming to a lower land power requirement type of operation, which is the nursery business. And this is where, this is the type of work that I’m doing today, is practically all nursery work and landscaping, sprinklers, tree surgery and that type of thing. The occupational, I see it as a listing here, occupational history of Las Vegas. But no, it refers well to us, pretty well covered our occupational history. But Las Vegas, you know, originally started because it had water here. And one of the early people that crossed this desert area stopped here and called this area Las Vegas, which in Spanish means the meadows. And there was a—when I was a young boy, just toward about where the old Mormon Fort is now in the north end of town, there used to be farms there and meadows where wild horses came and ate, fed and water in the early day in Las Vegas. Though I’ve seen this area grow from almost—well a very small town, the town was only two blocks, it ran from Main Street to Second Street where it was paved and that was the business section of town, from Second on down to about Fifth Street or Las Vegas Boulevard. That used to be where all of the UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 8 people in town that had money lived. They lived right on Freemont Street. And I remember in the old days when everything was almost all horse and buggy, no automobiles or very few automobiles. But most everyone that came into town or slept in the outskirts of town, they came to town on either horseback, or buggy, or horse and buggy, or in wagons. Course, we always had the railroad. The railroad was the reason why Las Vegas even got started because as the railroad came through town they needed water for the steam engines and this was one place where they could get all the water they wanted. Because the old springs in Las Vegas produced something like five or six thousand gallons a minute of water so there was an abundance of water for any livestock that might want to feed here, or water for a small town to start, as well as the needs of the railroad. You mentioned about the Mormon ranch or—. The Mormon Fort? Yes. That was one of the old adobe buildings made out of dirt, or adobe block, where the Mormons fought the Indians. And that is, I think that’s the only building standing today in Las Vegas that dates way back probably close to a hundred years. All the other buildings are newer buildings. But the old Mormon Fort is where they had a lot, a good many battles there, the white man and the Indians. I met, when I was a young boy, when I was about seven or eight years old, I met this Misses Helen Stewart, she was a widow at that time because when she was a fairly young woman, her husband was killed by the Indians and she killed many, many Indians too herself. But she was quite a woman. You don’t find people like that anymore these days. They could fight alongside of their men with the rifles or the pistols or they ride horses just as well as the men did and fought the battles just like the men would. I can remember pretty well. UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 9 Do you have any, could you describe the old ranch or the old building when you were—? Oh, some of the old buildings? Mm-hmm. Well they—one of the most stable or the best built buildings at that time when I was a young boy was the Union Pacific Depot. That’s where the Union Plaza Hotel is now and that was a very well-built building. Of course, it housed all of the operational offices and the railroad station after the Union Pacific. But one of the first buildings that went up was, of course, the building for the county (unintelligible), the county offices, the Clark County courthouse. And that was a very well-built building. And the other buildings that were around in the area, a good many of them lasted probably fifty or sixty years, but they have been down now about like—for instance, the old Episcopal Church there on Second and Carson, it was built around 1910 as I understand it. It was torn down in the early 40s. It was a very substantial building, very well built and gothic design. The other buildings, the old First State building, the Mint Hotel and—they tore that down (unintelligible) about fifteen years ago. There’s very little today outside of probably one of the older buildings today is the old post office building at Third and Stewart. That was built in the early 30s. In fact, as I remember, about 1930 is when it was built so it would be like forty-seven, forty-eight years old now. But that building didn’t, of course being a welcome building, they keep it up very well. But as far as the old residences, homes and that, all of those homes that used to be the nicer homes along Fremont Street are all gone. They have all kinds of businesses in there now, but outside of that they have some older buildings (unintelligible) just off of Fremont that have been there for a good many years, probably better than fifty years. But they’re just little houses that people built. We still have a section of town that the Union Pacific railroad original built UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 10 some of the houses for their people, their workmen because at one time, Las Vegas was a division point and here’s where they repaired all the old steam engines. And when I was a youngster, well when I was—this was in the mid-20s, around ’25, 1925, ’28 up to about 1930, there was quite a Japanese population here, about I would say women and children, probably better than two hundred. They all worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, they were all people that repaired the steam engines and railroad equipment. They worked in the shop for the Union Pacific Railroad, but they didn’t live, they lived right close to where they worked. The Union Pacific Railroad had living quarters there, dormitory type buildings for them. Some of them did build a house and entered the town and occupied some of the houses that the Union Pacific had built. Or at that time, it wasn’t the Union Pacific Railroad. It used to be called the Los Angeles, Salt Lake and Sand Diego Railroad Company, and those houses—there’s probably thirty or forty of ’em still in town almost exactly like the way they were built back there probably in the late 1917, 1918. Probably, well maybe even earlier than that. But outside of those buildings, that would be just about it as far as buildings that are older than, say, fifty years. The oldest one, of course the Mormon Fort, that (unintelligible) probably at least a hundred years old. How about the ethnic attitude of the Japanese at that time? You told me the many Japanese people working, they have some struggle between the people? Well, you mean the whites within the town? Yes. No, because they were, they lived practically all together in this one compound at the railroad shops. In fact, there was children then five hundred feet of where they worked, that they lived. They lived there in the dormitory type buildings. You can call them condominiums now, I guess, or apartment buildings, but at that time it was long one-story buildings and they sectioned you UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 11 off for each of the families. But there was about, I would say, a good two hundred people. And those people, I remember my dad saying that they were from all over Japan. (Unintelligible) Kumamoto, just everywhere. And they would have, of course, there was things in their own language and I know that when some of us walked by we can hear people talk, well I couldn’t understand them (laughs). (Laughs). But, they grew, my brother was of course a university graduate in Japan, my dad wasn’t but my mother was because her family, her whole family were all professional people. And my mother’s father, well that would be my maternal grandfather, was one of the Christian leaders in Japan. He was a, I don’t know whether he was affiliated with or just put the denomination, but my mother and her entire family seven or eight children were all raised as Christians. So I’ve had more of a Christian upbringing or background than I have Buddhist or Shinto. Mm-hmm. My dad, after he came to the United States, became a Christian, but his family is Buddhist. So basically all my religious background is all Christian. Of course, I am today an Episcopalian. I belong to the Episcopal Church in Las Vegas. It’s one of the oldest churches in Las Vegas. It was started by mom and pop squires, some of the early people in Las Vegas way back there in about 1907, 1908. So (unintelligible) our particular church here carries a long history of you know being in existence in Las Vegas. Did you want to talk about some of this (unintelligible)? Yes, or your goals or, you know,—. Well, they actually, what I—let me put it this way. I went to the University of California in Berkeley and I studied at one time to become an electrical engineer, but electrical engineering wasn’t for me. For my brother was, because he is a PhD electrical engineering from Harvard. But UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 12 I tended more towards the outdoors, so I switched and took up architecture. But I got quite a bit of architectural work when I was in the service. And I don’t like indoor work and I don’t like tables and desks, so when I got out of the service, I came back to the lands and my dad was, by that time, was in nursery work and landscaping work so I got into that. So from that point on, well it’s been landscaping, nursery, tree, you know, the line of horticulture. And, of course, that’s why today I am a licensed contractor where we do all kinds of sprinkler work as well as all types of landscaping. One of the things that I’m called on quite frequently to do is Japanese landscape or gardens. And this is one thing, of course I’ve never been to Japan, that I’ve heard my dad talk about Japanese landscapes. My wife who’s from Kyoto talks about Japanese landscapes. Her mother, who was from Kyoto also, talks about you know what they have in Japan and types of landscapes. I’ve read a countless of books and, of course, I know what’s the basic reasons for the Japanese landscape, which is almost diametrically opposite to what the occidental idea of what a Japanese landscaper is. To an occidental, a Japanese landscape is just millions of plants. To a Japanese person, or one who has grown up in Japan, one or two plants means more than acres and acres of plants if you’re doing something with that one plant or two or five or six. So I get into quite a number—I’ve done quite a few Japanese gardens here in Las Vegas, but I always have to fight with the occidental customer because he doesn’t think I’m doing it right. (Laughs). (Laughs). I’d like to tell you a little bit about my family, of course, they were my brother who is younger than I, and then I have a sister. I had two sisters, but one sister passed away in 1942. But the youngest one of the family, who is in Los Angeles now, she is of course an M.D. and she’s working for the veteran’s administration as a research medical doctor. And my brother, of course, graduated from California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and then went on to UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 13 Columbia and got his master’s degree, and then went to Harvard University and got his Ph. Degree in Electrical engineering. Today he is one of the top men in the GE in the research field. So, but this town from the standpoint of students and scholars, I think, has contributed from way back (unintelligible) percentage of people because not only our family but there’s a good many other families here. Well in fact, there’s one boy who went to school with me, he graduated in 1935, who became a nuclear physicist, Doctor (unintelligible). And he, I think, he still is the top detonation expert not only in the United States but possibly the world. We’ve got a number of people that are very high up as far as the scientific world is concerned. We have good teachers, we have good schools and I think that the students from this area have done very well. Could you describe the older building—? Some of the old structures? I might describe the old church that was built, the Episcopal Church was built at the Second and Carson. I think it was built around 1910, 1912. Had a big gothic window, and had a bell free or tower where they had the bell. And the present-day church, the Episcopal Church which is on Maryland Parkway, still has that old bell that was cast for that particular, the original Episcopal Church at Second and Carson. They have a, they were made out of concrete block but not a concrete block as we know it today. It was a solid block construction and although I didn’t—at that time I was not a member of the Episcopal Church, I did go into that church several times. And it’s a conventional church. It was a fairly small building, it was able to accommodate probably as many as two hundred people within the church. A very substantial building. It stood there until, I think, in the early ’40s when they moved the church to its present location at 2000 Maryland Parkway. But it was fitting, the church was fitting, the design was fitting for that church. As you drove by, you could see that it was a church building. It was built in the traditional lines of the church and it was very well built. The other building UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 14 that I definitely remember in the old days, of course, is the old Union Pacific or the railroad depot, which stood at that site from the very inception of the railroad, which will probably something like 1908, 1910, up until the time the Union Plaza Hotel was built, which was only about five years ago. That building—no, I take that back. They tore that whole building down and put up a new building probably in the early 50s when trains were still running. They built a new station, but the old station was of Spanish architecture. It had the Spanish arches, it was as I remember, either an adobe building or it was block or concrete construction, but they had (unintelligible) on the outside. Big, thick walls but it was very definitely a Spanish feeling, the architecture. It was a single—no, it was a two-story building. It had upstairs offices and the depot itself was downstairs. It’s still probably as long as anything that we’ve had (unintelligible), the earliest building was the Mormon Fort. It still stands and there’s been quite a lot of conversation, at least lately they’ve been wanting to take, tear that down or move it, but I don’t think they can take it down and move it without destroying it. It has been upgraded some. I remember years ago the roof was starting to fall down and I think put in some new tenures(??) and repaired it. But basically, the rectangular form that it had in the early days when they fought Indians out of a—from the inside are still there. (Tape one ends) The other building that I can remember, it was built in the early 30s, late 20s, either ’29 or 1930, was the old Post Office building at Stewart and North Third Street. That of course still stands today, it’s used as the federal building and they have the federal courts in there and part of it is still the post office, but it’s a substation now rather than the main office. But that was built by the federal government in around 1930. But it was made out of brick, brick and concrete so a very substantial structure and probably it’ll still be here another fifty, seventy-five years, maybe even UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 15 more because it was very well built. The other buildings that we still, of course, have some of the original buildings that the residents used at the Union Pacific put up other (unintelligible). Which is in the area of Gas Street and Bridger, between Gas, Garces and Bridger, no they have to be between Garces and Bridger and then Main Street down to about Fourth, possibly even down to Fifth Street or Las Vegas Boulevard. That little area in there you’ll still see probably forty or fifty of those buildings and they are, some of those, virtually the same shape, they all look alike because they had one design and they made duplications of that particular design over and over again. Some of the houses have been improved on as far as appearance was concerned, but I think you still find a number of those buildings that are still almost the same as they were when they were originally built. As far as other buildings, some of the residences, there is one residence building and it’s used as an offices building now, it’s on East Charleston between Sixth and Seventh Street, if those streets would go through it. (Unintelligible) Mary Dutton Park on East Charleston. It’s an old building with a flat roof. It shows no roof (unintelligible) but it looks like just a cube and that was a building that was, that belonged to one of the earliest residents of Las Vegas. I think it was Doctor (Unintelligible) Milton built that house and lived in it. At that time he was living way, way out of the town because his office was right across from the county courthouse about where the Guild Theatre is today is where he had his offices. And he lived out there on East Charleston, which is probably a mile away, but everybody thought that he lived quite a ways out in the country at that time. As far as some of the old buildings like the old land and water building that was at Second and Louis, that has been torn down. A good many of the other buildings like the Union Hotel—it used to be at Second, I mean Main and Bridger—that has been torn down and the new building that’s there now is the Nevada Hotel. One of the older buildings, of course, is where the UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 16 Golden Gate Casino is today. The Sal Sagev Hotel. And across the street from that used to be the Overland Hotel, which I think is still, part of it is still standing there, but I think they’re getting ready to tear that down and build another story casino out of it. Sal Sagev Hotel still belongs to the family, the old Miller family that originally built that. Dave Miller is still living and currently he, I don’t know whether he’s still running the hotel or not, but anyhow he’s still the one who owns the property. But that’s pretty much concrete block construction. In the old days they went to, well they built with lumber a lot too, but they had a tendency to go with the fairly permanent (unintelligible). Take that more of office buildings than that type of thing. But there’s not too much left of the old buildings of Las Vegas. Where the Fremont Hotel is now, there used to be some buildings in there but they were garage buildings, temporary buildings. Across from that, where the Four Queens is at now, they had some old buildings in there and they’ve all been torn down. Some things just beyond the Four Queens, between the east and the Four Queens and Third Street, there might be some old buildings in there but they’ve been covered up by new fronts, facades, you know, that take care of a combination of more than businesses that they have today. The El Portal Theatre building is an old building that was built probably right just before 1930. It’s been standing and it’s been a theatre all these years. The Craigen family and Misses Craigen is still alive, the rest of the family are all gone now. But I remember when we had our high school graduation in the El Portal Theatre and this was in 1935. We had a big class, I remember the newspapers carrying one of the biggest graduating classes in the history of Las Vegas. We had ninety-four students. (Laughs). Today I think there’s something like six or seven thousand graduate every year, eight thousand, and I can’t believe it. My children now are attending schools and the population, the school UNLV University Libraries Nanyu Tomiyasu 17 population is close to ninety thousand. (Laughs). Where the federal building stands today used to be all of the school buildings. They had some kindergarten right on through to high school. They had it all in about two buildings but those buildings, they tore them all down for the new federal building there today. But someone probably has some pictures of some of those old buildings. I have some, but of course I lived out in the country so I didn’t get chance much to take pictures in town. But in those days, of course, we didn’t think that Las Vegas was ever going to get famous so we didn’t worry about taking pictures of old and outdated houses. (Laughs). Okay. Is there anything—? (Unintelligible) we cover. Thank you for (unintelligible) I really appreciate that you—. Well it’s been my pleasure to tell you what—some of the things about early Las Vegas and particularly our family. I know that it is one of the pioneer families in the area because when I was growing up here, there weren’t too many people here. I think there was something like a thousand, fifteen hundred people. In fact, I can remember this town when beyond Second Street it was nothing but dirt. And I can also remember seeing people that the night before had a gun duel and one of them didn’t come out so good and he was dead out there on the street. They had him covered with an old blanket or something, waiting for some people to go out there, (unintelligible) cemetery and dig a grave for him. I’ve seen this town from the days that it was a Wild Wild West town to today’s sophisticated metropolis.