Editors note: This is the first of a multiple-part series that traces Highway 160/River Road through the historic Delta communities of Isleton, Ryde, Walnut Grove, Locke, Courtland, Hood, Clarksburg and Freeport. The drive follows the Sacramento River and is an ideal day trip from Solano County, eastbound via Highway 12 and onto northbound Highway 160, with numerous scenic vistas, picturesque bridges, historic buildings steeped in history, a variety of eateries, and a relaxing drive. The articles are designed to introduce the day-tripping visitor to each of the communities so a familiarity is developed before the weekend jaunt. It is not meant to re-create an entire historic format, however, so some things are not included. For ease of reference, the word “Delta” is used to encompass only the area being written about even though it is acknowledged that the full scope of Delta is vast.
ISLETON — Isleton, once dubbed “the little Paris of the Delta” in the late 1800s, is an anomaly.
The town of about 800 on Andrus Island with its Main Street historically divided between Japantown and Chinatown, is the only incorporated city heading up river along Highway 160. Some think that is part of its financial undoing.
Isleton is tucked into a part of the Delta untouched by urban sprawl, despite it licking at the backdoor. It’s an area still pulled by the river and by agriculture, just like it was 150 years ago. In a bid to survive, there is a push to “rebrand” the Delta by the Delta Conservancy, making it noticeable and marketable, so it can survive.
“Most people don’t know anything about the Delta,” said Chuck Hasz, the Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society president. “(Highway) 160 is not heavily traveled by most people. We’ve got to bring the tourists down here. Go to Lodi, no one has a clue where Isleton is.”
Let’s also get this out of the way for the squeamish: Highway 160 is a narrow two-lane levee road – the river is, well, down, on one side, agriculture is, down, on the other, and Isleton’s Main Street sits, down, as well, running parallel but below river level. Trust me, it’s part of its charm.
The upper vantage point over the city from the levee road gives a bird’s-eye view of the historic wood, stucco and tin architecture from the backside. From this vantage, it appears not much has changed between the city and the river over the past 90 years – only 90 because, while the town was established in the 1870s, most of the downtown burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1926; this time builders used stucco or tin siding on many of the buildings in an attempt to prevent another catastrophic fire.
Cars of a bygone area once chugged along the levee road, riverboats ferried passengers and products between Sacramento and San Francisco – and even though long ago, the area still gives off an essence or feeling of a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn-type nostalgia. Not so odd, really, because the Sacramento River doubled as the Mississippi River in many well-known movies. Locals contend the communities are evenly spaced apart because that is the length a riverboat could travel before needing fuel.
Isleton has had it rough in recent history.
While its fixer-up downtown of mostly empty storefronts left behind by absentee owners is a source of vexation and sadness for its residents, because of this, unfettered history is at the proverbial fingertips: Modern tools have not taken away the essence of the downtown and its Asian influence.
This is clearly indicated in the fact that most of the downtown buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Chinese side of downtown is punctuated by two-story buildings with balconies, while the Japanese side has more one story structures and fewer balconies. A description of the buildings and what they used to be can found in a report to the National Register of Historic Places at http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/91000297.pdf.
But along with the forlorn buildings are some that have been fixed up. The vibrant orange and green exterior of newcomer Catherine Greenup’s eclectic art workshop, the pop of the perfectly red door or a red facade down the street are also eye-catching candy. There are several eating establishments, ranging from Chinese, diner-fare to steak. There is the 25 Main Street Deli, painstakingly refurbished by Jean Yokotobi. There are a couple of art stores, as well – Turtle Island Art Treasures and Summer Wind Stained Glass.
Another historic building, the Chinese Bing Kong Tong building at 29 Main St., is currently being refurbished thanks to a $600,000 grant. Some hope the refurbishment will bring more visitors to the area. Hasz bemoans the fact that tourists can find Locke and Walnut Grove, but they miss Isleton.
“Back in 2004-05, this place was booming and then the recession hit,” Hasz said. “It’s going to come back once the Bing Kong Tong is completed.”
He paused and added, “This little town is a gem.”
So, what is a Tong building? The word itself means “hall” and its association means many things to the Chinese: It has a social component, it’s an arbitrator, it’s a link to China and it offers protection. It comes with it some not-so-positive associative words as well.
“They were both good and bad,” said Roger Chinn, 81, who grew up in Isleton, the son of downtown business owners. “Bad because they were into gambling and prostitution, but they also were representative of the Chinese in helping them resolve problems within the Chinese (community).”
Chinn’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Toy Tue, established the Isleton Tong, as well as one in Walnut Grove and Stockton.
The Chinese businesses largely belonged to the Tongs because of the solidarity factor – the exception might be in Chinn’s own family, which saw both the upside and the downside of the Tongs as his grandfather on his father’s side fell prey to the gambling vice. Growing up, Chinn’s father watched the family’s fortune ebb and flow due to gambling losses. Chinn’s grandfather was stabbed on a ship returning home from work in Alaska and later died due to his wounds. As the oldest son, Chinn’s father became head of the household at age 8.
“He hated the Tongs because of the gambling,” Chinn said.
While the Chinese played a prolific part in settling the Delta – they are largely responsible for putting together the levee system – so did the Japanese, as well as the Filipinos, who mostly arrived in the early 20th century.
An invisible line at F Street marked the historical divide between Japantown and Chinatown. The original Chinatown was located in the Jackson Slough area, the site of the current City Hall. When that burned down in 1915, the Chinese relocated to Main Street.
These days it might just be a street crossing, but the invisible divide played an important cultural part in Isleton historically. Even though Sharon Fong, 70, was born in 1943 Isleton after the Japanese internment – most in the Delta were sent to Tule Lake – she said she knew that both sides didn’t really mix.
“The two didn’t get along because of what was going on in China,” Fong said, referencing the long. conflicting relationship of the two countries, including Japanese expansionism into China. “On the whole, the Chinese kept to themselves and the Japanese kept to themselves. This is something that I gathered as I was growing up.”
The ironic exception was at school. Up until the Japanese were interned in 1942 during World War II, the Asian children in Isleton, Walnut Grove and Courtland attended segregated “Oriental” schools. While the cultures didn’t mix on the whole, the kids did at school.
“We didn’t really know any better or worse,” Chinn said, of being segregated from the Caucasians.
Chinn started fourth grade in an integrated school after the Japanese were interned.
After the canneries closed, other businesses folded and residents began leaving. Chinn left. Fong left.
The recent Great Recession dealt another blow. Oddly enough, so did Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; new, stringent federal legislation governing new buildings on a floodplain affected the entire Delta and virtually eliminated the possibility of new housing tracts. Current Mayor Mark Betterncourt, 51, who is a fourth-generation Isleton resident, also blames some of the city’s problems on the demise of redevelopment dollars. He runs the city with an annual general fund budget of $450,000. The city lost its police department a couple of years ago. The fire department is all volunteer.
“Even if we filled every business, it would still not generate enough to run the city,” he said. He said the city would need $1 million to survive and $1.5 million “to become something.”
With a rueful smile, he does, however, freely cop to being a pessimist and seeing the glass as half empty. But he remembers the Isleton of his youth – recalling the three grocery stores, restaurants, improvement stores, barbers and pharmacy that used to populate downtown.
He’s checked into the idea of disincorporating, using his finger to point in the direction of Walnut Grove, and other Delta communities, that tap into county dollars to survive. The city is on the fringes of Sacramento County, close to the Solano County border.
“We get forgotten over here,” he said. “The quality of life would get better with disincorporation. We have to do something to save the city. What we’re doing now isn’t working.”
Still, people come, slowly, and fall in love. Yokotobi did years ago when she met and became good friends with the Chinn family. Greenup just three years ago.
Yokotobi owns the Chamber of Commerce building, which used to be Chinn’s family store, Quong Wo Sing. Not much has changed in that building, giving an “inside” look of yesteryear that even includes an old safe engraved with the store’s name.
While the chamber building is not restored, Yokotobi completely redid the 25 Main Street Deli building, which was also owned by Chinn’s family. It was in such bad shape that banks wouldn’t loan money to her and she was told to “burn it down.” That comment brings a somewhat rueful smile. She eventually got a grant to restore it, and a subsequent bank loan.
Greenup, along with her husband Carl Finley, bought their place on Main Street three years ago completely remodeled – it used to be a Chinese gambling hall, one of four open until the 1950s. The downstairs is an eclectically cluttered artist haven, the upstairs is artfully done and tastefully appointed with original balconies in the front and back.
The laid-back Greenup does a lot of artistic commission work, but said “walk-ins” are welcome, when she’s there. Eventually, she said, laughing, “I’ll clean it up and make it more storish.”
The push to bring in artists is something that has been in the forefront for years, locals said. Whether it will ever take a foothold is up to for debate.
Next up, Walnut Grove, with a drive through Ryde.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.