Scottsbluff and the surrounding lands in the county have been home to Japanese American families for more than 100 years. Japanese men arrived initially to work on the railroads in western Nebraska, then worked in the fields as farmers of sugar beets, potatoes and other crops. Families followed.
Some Japanese Americans later operated their own small businesses. According to the U S National Park Service, in the early 1900s, “...immigrant labor became a mainstay of the Scotts Bluff area economy ... German-Russian and Japanese migrant laborers performed most of the beet cultivation.”
The federal agency indicated that Hispanic workers became an important part of the local economy by the mid-1920s.
The Dannebrog News of Howard County included a news article on its front page on July 19, 1917, from the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. This news article noted that “Scottsbluff is becoming more metropolitan every day...” The comments were made by a visitor from Illinois. She was quoted as stating that she understood that “...there are many Japanese throughout the North Platte Valley.” The news article indicated that “she was assured by her friends that there were many — beet raisers, bean growers, laborers of all sorts, merchants and what not.”
In a news article dated Feb. 6, 1920, the Nebraska State Journal reported on the efforts of the State of Nebraska to bar non-citizens from owning land in the State: “Rev. Mr. [Harry] Huntington, who lived at Scottsbluff where 250 Japanese live, told the [Nebraska legislative] committee they are desirable citizens and that the intensive farming necessary in a sugar beet region was glad to have them.” The Rev. Huntington was a Methodist minister who pastored a number of churches in Nebraska in the early 1900s. Among the communities he served was Scottsbluff during 1918-1919.
The Chappell Register reported in a news article dated Sept. 21, 1921, that there were “...232 Negro farmers, 97 Indian farmers and 68 Japanese farmers...” in rural Nebraska. Many of the Japanese farmers were in the western part of the state, including Scotts Bluff County.
On Aug. 29, 1923, a news article in The Times of Gothenburg, Nebraska, included a headline of “Many Japanese Births in State.” This news article detailed that the Nebraska Department of Vital Statistics reported 40 children were born of Japanese parents in Nebraska during 1922. “Nearly all were credited to Scottsbluff and Lincoln counties, where there are many Japanese farmers.”
Not everyone appreciated or liked the Japanese-American farmers. A number of Nebraska leaders attempted to bar non-citizens from owning land in the state. While the efforts in 1920 did not succeed, legislation banning ownership of land by non-citizens eventually became law in Nebraska. Because Japanese Americans could not become citizens of the United States at that time, the legislation impacted farming in the Valley. While individuals with Japanese heritage who were born in the United States were citizens, individuals who had been born in Japan were only allowed to become American citizens in 1952.
In the Spring of 1934, three local farms — including a farm operated by a Japanese American family — were devastated by mob violence. The attacks seemed to be based more on economics related to sugar beet contracts than race.
A news article in The Independent-Record of Helena, Montana, that was dated April 28, 1934, detailed how a large group of people — estimated to include 600 to 700 men — “...plowed up more than 300 acres of planted beet land...” The newspaper noted that 200 of the acres were farmed by the Tanaka family. The other acreage was farmed by two farmers who did not appear to have Japanese surnames.
The Beatrice Daily Sun reported the next day that the sugar beet crop was destroyed on these farms. That news article referenced that “many beet growers in Nebraska and Colorado have refused to grow beets...” because of a dispute with the Great Western Sugar Company. On May 1, 1934, an editorial in the Lincoln State Journal made note of the contract negotiations for sugar beets and that the ones targeted by the mob were ones that had decided to plant sugar beets anyway. The editorial indicated that “like most mob demonstrations, this one accomplished nothing.”
While other incidents of hatred did happen, actions like this incident of mob violence appeared to be more of an isolated incident rather than a common occurrence in western Nebraska.
The numbers of Japanese Americans in the Scottsbluff area were such that a representative of Japan visited the area in the fall of 1934. According to a news article dated Sept. 30, 1934, in the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star, the Japanese Consul for Chicago visited five Nebraska communities, including Scottsbluff. He was quoted as saying “I was impressed too by the good will and co-operation which seems to prevail between the Japanese farmers and American farmers throughout the state.”
Beyond farming, some Japanese Americans became business owners. One of the more prominent businesses owned by Japanese Americans in Scottsbluff was the Eagle Café. It was located in the Opera House Building,” Vickie Sakurada Schaepler said.
“The Eagle Café was started by Sam Matsuda in 1912,” Schaepler said. “Sam Hangui then took ownership of the restaurant. Fred Ikeya and Shizuo Sakurada (my father) worked for Mr. Hangui and became owners of The Eagle Cafe in 1958.”
People from throughout the region — both Japanese Americans and Americans of many other ethnicities — ate meals at The Eagle Café.
“The members of the Masonic order in the North Platte Valley were entertained at an unusually fine seven-course banquet in The Eagle Café at Scottsbluff,” according to a news article dated March 6, 1914, in The Bridgeport News-Blade. The Eagle Café ran an advertisement in The Bayard Transcript on Jan. 5, 1922, extending “...a cordial invitation to the people of Bayard and vicinity to take their meals at our café...” Meal prices ranged from 30 to 45 cents, according to the ad. In October of 1942, news reports indicated that local police guarded the restaurant because of two incidents where rocks were thrown at the café.
Two meeting halls were built explicitly for Japanese Americans in the Valley, one in Scottsbluff and one in Mitchell. Both Japanese Halls served as meeting places for Japanese Americans for decades. The one in Scottsbluff opened in 1928. Initially, this hall was located at 1705 C St. in Scottsbluff; in 2019, the building was moved and is now located on the grounds of the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering. In its earlier years, some news reports noted that the building was also known as the “Japanese Americanization Hall.”
A variety of social, business and religious activities took place at the Japanese Hall in Scottsbluff. According to a news article dated April 19, 1934, the Northwest Nebraska News of Crawford reported that Japan sent 10 Japanese cherry trees “...to residents of Scottsbluff and Gering. Six have been planted in the yard adjacent to the Japanese Americanization Hall in Scottsbluff.”