The Yamato Colony

The southern half of Florida’s Atlantic coast is one of the most densely populated portions of the state. It’s hard to imagine a time when this was not the case, but at the turn of the 20th century, the population in this area was comparatively tiny. In 1905, Fort Lauderdale had a population of only 219 persons. Miami had fewer than 5,000 residents, even counting the suburbs. West Palm Beach was home to about 1,300.

Investors were eager to get more settlers moving into the area to farm and generate economic activity. With help from Florida’s Bureau of Immigration, they cast a wide net, seeking new residents from around the country and abroad. Jo Sakai, a Japanese man who graduated from New York University in 1903, was one of those who answered the call. In 1904, Sakai and others would establish a colony near present-day Boca Raton called Yamato.

Excerpt from a 1915 map of Florida published by the Southern Railway Company, showing the location of Yamato (indicated by a red arrow). Map courtesy of the State Library's Florida Map Collection.

Excerpt from a 1915 map of Florida published by the Southern Railway Company, showing the location of Yamato (indicated by a red arrow). Map courtesy of the State Library’s Florida Map Collection.

Jo Sakai had come to the United States after graduating from Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. After studying finance at NYU, he was attracted to Florida by advertisements from Florida’s Bureau of Immigration and the Model Land Company promising plentiful land and profitable farming opportunities. The Model Land Company was a corporation set up by developer and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler to manage the massive grants of land given by the State of Florida as an incentive for building the Florida East Coast Railway.

Sakai inspected the land available for sale and purchased one thousand acres from the Model Land Company near modern-day Boca Raton. The idea was that he would establish a colony of workers, develop a successful farming operation, and pay for the land over time. As an incentive, the Model Land Company agreed to front the money for the colony’s equipment and housing.

Jo and Sada Sakai (circa 1910).

Jo and Sada Sakai (circa 1910).

Jo Sakai left for Japan in March 1904 to seek willing individuals for the new proposed farming colony. By autumn he had several takers, but they had to carefully disguise their intentions to avoid disruption by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. To reduce suspicion, Sakai’s colonists told the government they needed their exit permits and passports so they could study in the United States. Once in the U.S., the colonists traveled to Florida on Henry Flagler’s dime, another sign of how eager developers were to get South Florida’s economy going. By the end of 1904, a dozen colonists were ready to work.

The Japanese newcomers called their new home “Yamato,” an ancient name for Japan itself. Getting the farming underway was slow at first. The soil was fertile, but it had never been cleared before. Months of manual labor went into preparing only a few acres for cultivation. The inhospitable climate and mosquitoes didn’t help matters.

One of Yamato's earliest pineapple fields (1906).

One of Yamato’s earliest pineapple fields (1906).

Over time, however, the Yamato colony began to grow. In 1907, the Florida East Coast Railway established a train station at Yamato, near where Yamato Rd. (State Road 794) now crosses the railroad tracks in Boca Raton. The local post office, which had previously been called “Wyman,” was renamed “Yamato.” Settlers began sending word to Japan for their wives and families to join them in Florida. Jo Sakai’s wife Sada arrived in 1906, making her the colony’s first woman, and in 1909 their daughter became the first child born in the new settlement.

Settlers gathered at the Yamato train depot on the Florida East Coast Railway, established in 1907 (photo circa 1911).

Settlers gathered at the Yamato train depot on the Florida East Coast Railway, established in 1907 (photo circa 1911).

Pineapples were the first major crop grown in Yamato, but a blight in 1908 all but ended that strategy. The colonists began growing winter vegetables like beans, onions, and especially tomatoes. Although the colony remained active for several decades, it was never very large. A number of residents branched off into other fields of work over time, and by the 1930s there were only about 20-25 Japanese farmers living in Yamato.

The last group of children to attend school at the Yamato schoolhouse. After the school closed in 1922, children from Yamato attended classes in Boca Raton (photo circa 1922).

The last group of children to attend school at the Yamato schoolhouse. After the school closed in 1922, children from Yamato attended classes in Boca Raton (photo circa 1922).

Anti-immigrant sentiments did not directly disturb the colonists’ work, although a number of the settlers were unable to legally become U.S. citizens until the 1950s. World War II presented the colony’s toughest challenge, one it would not survive. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a federal judge ordered that Japanese-owned lands at Yamato be turned over to the United States government. Some of the land went toward building an airfield for Boca Raton, and a large portion ultimately became the site of Florida Atlantic University.

Boca Raton has all but absorbed what remained of Yamato after the war, but some former residents took steps to keep the colony’s memory alive. George Morikami, who by the 1960s had bought up a considerable amount of land, granted a parcel to Palm Beach County in 1973 for a park. On June 25, 1977, the Morikami Museum of Japanese Culture opened along with the park. The museum seeks to inculcate an appreciation for Japanese culture through exhibits, authentic Japanese ceremonies and demonstrations, and other educational experiences.

A Japanese tea ceremony at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach (circa 1980).

A Japanese tea ceremony at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach (circa 1980).

When the Dam Breaks…

The threat of hurricanes and tropical storms is an inescapable part of living in Florida. To experience their wrath is to confront head-on the brutal power of Nature. Ask around, and many Floridians will be able to name the larger ones they’ve witnessed or heard of. Betsy, Donna, Andrew, and Charley usually make the list.

Some of Florida’s most destructive hurricanes, however, hit the state long before the National Weather Service began assigning names to tropical cyclones. One of the deadliest of these remains known to history only as the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee region by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 (photo 1948).

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee region by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 (photo 1948).

Even with their inland location, the settlements surrounding Lake Okeechobee were vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. The lake itself was highly unstable, rising and falling by as much as a foot in a matter of hours depending on regional rainfall. Despite the danger, farmers coveted the land surrounding Okeechobee for the moist black soil it provided. To make the area viable for agriculture, canals and dirt levees were used to hold back the waters and reclaim the flood plain for planting. By the 1920s, avocados, citrus,  sugar cane, and other crops filled thousands of acres in the region.

Occasional levee breaches and flooding reminded residents that their protection from the Okeechobee waters was tenuous at best. In September 1928, the lake was already high owing to heavy recent rains. When reports began coming in over the radio that a serious storm was lashing Puerto Rico, however, many locals decided they didn’t have much to worry about. If the levees and canals had performed their duties thus far, they would be just fine. And who knew? The storm wasn’t even guaranteed to come their way.

Hillsboro Canal settlement near Chosen, Florida during a period of high rainfall (1922).

Hillsboro Canal settlement near Chosen, Florida during a period of high rainfall (1922).

But it did. About 7:00pm on the evening of September 16th, what would become known as the Okeechobee Hurricane roared ashore near West Palm Beach packing winds of up to 145 miles per hour. Moving northwest across the state, the storm pushed the swollen waters of Lake Okeechobee against its banks. The earthen dams design to hold back the lake failed, sending a wall of water through the communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and Chosen. High winds ripped roofs from buildings, while flood waters either lifted entire houses up and carried them away or caused them to disintegrate completely.

Wreckage of homes and cars after hurricane (photo likely 1928).

Wreckage of homes and cars after hurricane (photo likely 1928).

When morning came, the scene was one of unimaginable loss. Entire portions of towns were flattened or mangled. Property damage amounted to about 25 million dollars, but the cascading costs of the catastrophe would be felt for years to come. Worse still was the human cost. At least two thousand people perished in the flood, but the exact number was difficult to determine. Bodies were found in ditches, in trees, anyplace the swirling waters might have carried them. Farmers reported finding the skeletons of the hurricane’s victims in their fields even years later.

Accounting for everyone and burying the dead was one of the most pressing matters in the first few days after the storm passed, but it was difficult work.  The storm victims’ remains deteriorated quickly under the punishing Florida sun, making identification increasingly impossible. At first, carpenters quickly assembled simple wooden coffins to receive the dead, but the number of bodies was too great. Eventually, workers were forced to load bodies onto trucks, and they were taken to mass graves in West Palm Beach. One grave was dug for whites, another for African Americans. Eventually, even this method was insufficient, and the workers turned to cremation as the only means available to dispatch the deceased with dignity. Meanwhile, survivors came together to bid their friends, neighbors, and loved ones goodbye in a mass funeral at West Palm Beach.

Makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Funeral service for hurricane victims at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach (1928).

Funeral service for hurricane victims at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach (1928).

President-elect Herbert Hoover visited the Okeechobee region shortly after the hurricane to survey the damage, and upon taking office he tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with helping to prevent the disaster of 1928 from recurring. The State, for its part, created the Okeechobee Flood Control District to cooperate with federal agencies.  A new series of dikes, floodways, and gates emerged to handle future flooding, although for years this was a work in progress. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers spearheaded the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which now almost completely encloses Lake Okeechobee. Former President Hoover spoke at the dedication.

One of several floodgates installed to prevent catastrophic failures of the levees holding back Lake Okeechobee (1967).

One of several floodgates installed to prevent catastrophic failures of the levees holding back Lake Okeechobee (1967).

Former President Herbert Hoover addresses the crowd at a ceremony dedicating a new dike for Lake Okeechobee in his honor (1961).

Former President Herbert Hoover addresses the crowd at a ceremony dedicating a new dike for Lake Okeechobee named in his honor (1961).

Hurricane season begins June 1st and lasts until November 30th. For more information on how to prepare yourself, your family, and your home for a tropical storm, check out the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s website at floridadisaster.org.

For more on historic Florida hurricanes, visit our Hurricanes photo exhibit on Florida Memory.

Statue commemorating the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 in Belle Glade (1987).

Statue commemorating the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 in Belle Glade (1987).