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Reading 3: Life in Locke

Founded in 1915 after the disastrous fire in Walnut Grove, Locke was the last of several rural Chinatowns established in the Delta region. Although some Chinese elected to stay in Walnut Grove and rebuild, one group, originally from the Chung Shan district in Kwangtung province, China, decided to build their own separate town. The Chung Shan Chinese were a minority within the larger Chinese immigrant population in the United States. Their common Cantonese dialect gave them a sense of identity and group cohesion. Under the leadership of Lee Bing and six other merchants, the Chung Shan group secured a lease on a site carved out of a large pear orchard one mile north of Walnut Grove along the Sacramento River levee. Because the State of California's Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented aliens--including the Chinese--who were not American-born from owning land, a committee of Chinese merchants obtained a verbal lease from George Locke who owned the land in the Delta region.

Three Chung Shan merchants had already set up businesses at the Locke site in 1912. They served the transient labor force that worked in the nearby asparagus fields and in the canneries and packing sheds built by the Southern Pacific Railroad across River Road in 1909. For the first few years, the town continued to be "more a service center for farm laborers than a residential community."¹

The town was laid out north of Chan's store (one of the early structures), on River Road along the levee. Buildings on River Road and Main Street, which paralleled River Road on the flat below the levee, combined commercial and residential uses, and merchants often lived above or behind their businesses. A more purely residential area grew up farther east. Along these streets rose one- and two-story frame buildings in a vernacular style; that is, the style of most working people in the locality. The residents did not consider using expensive materials, both because they could not own the land, and because many still held the dream of returning to China. Built quickly, the town was essentially complete by 1930.

Because Locke was not incorporated and had no police, it became a popular location for Prohibition-era speakeasies. The large numbers of people attracted from surrounding cities made drugs, gambling, and prostitution big businesses. During the 1920s, the town's permanent population peaked at 600, but weekend visitors swelled that to 1,500. A theater, a hotel, a lodge, nine grocery stores, six restaurants, a flour mill, two slaughterhouses, brothels, bars, gambling halls, and boarding houses brought prosperity to the town. Those good times did not last long, however. The Depression began and Prohibition ended. In addition, the asparagus industry declined, and increased mechanization began to reduce the need for unskilled farm labor.

Locke survived after other rural Chinese communities perished, reflecting a community cohesiveness that was evident for many years. Although many second-generation Chinese-Americans moved to the cities for better economic opportunities, older people tended to remain in Locke, where they spoke only Chinese and ignored the intrusions of the modern world. Although the Alien Land Laws were eventually ruled unconstitutional, the residents of Locke never purchased the land upon which their houses were built.

Locke is now a National Historic Landmark representing the largest, most complete, example of a rural, agricultural Chinese-American community in the United States. Over the years, the Chinese population has dwindled to a handful. The remaining residents lease the land as they always have. Much of Locke has fallen into a state of disrepair and the wood construction is at high risk for fire damage. Locke is a redevelopment area under the jurisdiction of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, County of Sacramento. The County of Sacramento understands the dire need to protect this important cultural resource and is currently exploring options to provide long-term preservation of historic Locke.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why did some of the Chinese laborers start their own town north of Walnut Grove?

2. Why was Locke such a popular town during Prohibition?

3. What events led to the decline of Locke?

4. What is the present status of Locke? What do you think could be done to preserve a town like Locke (or Walnut Grove)? Consider such typical preservation activities as promoting tourism, developing rehabilitation projects, improving roads and other elements of the infrastructure, and encouraging awareness of the problem among Asian Americans in other regions. Do you think any of those activities might help Locke to survive? Explain your answer.

Reading 3 was compiled from Jack S. Duke, "The Town of Locke" (Sacramento County, California) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C: U.S Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1970; James H. Charleton, "Locke Historic District" (Sacramento County, California) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; and Bruce Jones, "Delta Advisory Planning Council Report," 1975.

¹ Christopher L. Yip. "A Time for Bitter Strength: The Chinese in Locke, California," Landscape XXII (Spring 1978): 13.

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