Links: University Libraries, Contact Special Collections

Asian-Pacific Heritage Month Photo Essay: The Tomiyasu Family by Nancy Hardy

By Su Kim Chung on April 29, 2016 10:10 AM | Permalink

As part of UNLV Libraries’ observance of Asian, Pacific Islander & Middle Eastern Heritage Month, we’re sharing—and celebrating—an incredible life story documented in our Tomiyasu Photograph Collection. Yonema “Bill” Tomiyasu is notable in early Las Vegas history for the 160-acre ranch he operated near what is now Pecos and Warm Springs Road. The Tomiyasu Farm provided a surprising array of luscious produce for Las Vegas and even the remotest areas in Southern Nevada, as well as for workers at the Boulder Dam construction site.  By Nancy Hardy, Outreach and Reference Assistant, UNLV Libraries Special Collections. 

A portrait of Yonema “Bill” Tomiyasu taken in California sometime between 1908 and 1910.  (Tomiyasu Photo Collection, PH: 0294-0004)

Yonema Tomiyasu was among the first Asian Americans to settle in Southern Nevada. The Japanese-born immigrant was the son of a sugar cane farmer near Nagasaki. At 16, Yonema left the hardships of a peasant-class life to seek his fortune in California. He began supporting himself by picking fruit and working at a plant nursery. Later, the Elks Club in San Bernadino hired “Bill” as groundskeeper, and eventually he requested a transfer to become head cook in the kitchen. By 1914, he made plans to own and operate his own ranch in Nevada—an opportunity not available at that time to Californians of Japanese origin.

On the left, ranch hand Shigeumura, Yonema, Toyono and one-year old Nanyu, c. 1920. The 1920 census reported 62 residents of Japanese heritage within the county. The entire Las Vegas population was then 2,304. (Tomiyasu Photo Collection, PH: 0294-0010)

Bill’s arrival in Las Vegas was documented in the Las Vegas Age newspaper: "B.Y. Tomiyasu, secretary of the Japanese Association of San Bernardino, Cal., has been in Vegas the past week making arrangements to begin work on the 40 acres on Winterwood Boulevard recently purchased by him." In 1917, Yonema took a bride, Toyono, through an arranged marriage made by personal recommendations and an exchange of letters and photographs between Las Vegas and Sendai, Japan. A year later, their first son, Nanyu, was born.

Bill, Kiyu, and Nanyu (standing in front) in a photograph c. 1925 looking northwest in a wheat field on the west side of Pecos Road. (Tomiyasu Photo Collection, PH: 0294-0012)

It took several years for Tomiyasu to refine the farming methods that would be successful in the Southern Nevada desert. In the beginning, he depended on alfalfa as a money crop while he experimented with developing planting timetables for a wide variety of produce.

Bill and his children Kiyo (left) and Nanyu (right) in a lettuce patch on the Tomiyasu Farm in 1923. (Tomiyasu Photo Collection, PH: 0294-0001)

Eventually, Tomiyasu’s crops included melons, asparagus, peppers and a veritable cornucopia of fruits and vegetables not expected to thrive in the region. A February 14, 1930, article in the Las Vegas Evening Review Journal reported, "Bill Tomiyasu, better known in the city of Las Vegas as Bill Jap, has a cutting of asparagus, home grown, that is at least two weeks ahead of the California market. And by the time California asparagus is on the market, Bill Jap will have his all sold."

Bill’s family grew to include four children. Pictured here, left to right, are Nanyu, Kiyo, Uwamie, and Mamie. A cousin, Yoshiko, is toward the rear next to the car. (Tomiyasu Photo Collection, PH: 0294-0002)

The Tomiyasu children spent a fair amount of time helping in the fields while also attending a one-room elementary school in the Paradise Valley School District. The school was integrated, with Japanese, white and black children all learning together. While Las Vegas was not socially integrated as a whole, Bill Tomiyasu and his family were well respected for their contributions to the community.

A portrait taken in the early 1920s of Bill with Nanyu (left) and Kiyo (Tomiyasu Photo Collection, PH: 0294-0003)

Many of the earliest Japanese immigrants in Clark County worked for the railroad and kept a low profile, living near one another in a compound. This may have helped diminish racial discrimination toward Japanese residents in Las Vegas. (This sentiment would continue to a degree even through World War II, as evidenced by the fact that no Japanese internment camps were located in Nevada. Still, Las Vegans of Japanese descent were kept under surveillance and were required to relinquish shortwave radio parts and cameras during the war.)

The Anderson Brothers Dining Hall where Boulder Dam construction workers shared meals, ca. 1931-1936. (Squires Photo Collection, PH: 0002-0065)

In the 1930s, Tomiyasu received a long-term contract to supply produce for the mess halls at the Boulder Dam construction site. He also delivered produce to restaurants as far away as Beatty, Goodsprings, Jean and Sloan. In the years after the completion of the dam, the Tomiyasu children attended college and pursued other careers apart from farming. During World War II, Bill did what he could to support the war effort against the land of his birth, providing produce and poultry to Las Vegas Gunnery School, which later became Nellis Air Force Base.

This photograph of Bill Tomiyasu was taken in about 1962 with a garden as a backdrop. (Elbert Edwards Photo Collection, PH: 0214-0955)

As Las Vegas grew, Tomiyasu began raising landscape plants rather than agricultural products. Sadly, he eventually lost his land after a misunderstanding related to a loan. In his later years, Bill Tomiyasu operated a plant nursery at another location.

Today, Tomiyasu Lane near Pecos and Sunset bears Bill’s name, as does the Bill Y. Tomiyasu Elementary School on Annie Oakley Drive. Bill Tomiyasu died in 1969 at the age of 87.

His son Nanyu Tomiyasu’s engaging oral history is now a part of our Special Collections archive of the stories of early Las Vegans. (OH-01835). For additional information on Bill Tomiyasu see his profile in The First One Hundred: Portraits of The Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas  (1999) and for more information on Japanese-Americans in Las Vegas see The Peoples of Las Vegas: One City, Many Faces (2005).