The following Back in the Day column originally appeared in the Fairfield Daily Republic on July 7, 2017
By Tony Wade
It seems incongruous that a lonely, ramshackle building sitting on 1.7 acres on Rockville Road near Willotta Oaks could elicit fond memories from locals – much less be a catalyst for works of art. Yet the long-closed and decaying Iwama Market, now mainly a home for countless bats that come out at dusk, manages to be an oxymoronic beloved eyesore.
Wealthy rancher Lewis Pierce, who came to Suisun Valley in the mid-1800s, used to own the property the market sits on. The building was erected in the 1870s as a horse barn. When Rockville Road became Highway 40 in the early 20th century, the spot became a gas station.
In 1927, it became Bandana Lou’s, a family-owned restaurant. They were famous for their southern fried chicken, potatoes and biscuits served with honey all wrapped up in red and white checkered cloths. Tables and chairs in the place surrounded a dance floor where locals would get their groove on to live bands.
The building served as a clubhouse for Army Air Force personnel during World War II and after the war, descendants of the original Pierces leased it to a former employee who had returned to the area. He didn’t return from European or Pacific battlefields, but from the Gila River Japanese-American relocation camp where he and his family had been forced to move to out of fear following the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack by the Empire of Japan.
In 1946, first generation (Issei) Japanese immigrant Frank Fumio Iwama (the i was pronounced “eee”) opened Iwama Market. A 1949 Classified Directory published by The Solano Republican newspaper listed their wares as “groceries, fresh meats & fish, Oriental foods and fresh bait. Phone number 23-F-21.”
After Iwama died in the early 1960s, the land was leased to the Asahara family. Then, in 1962, Albert and Annie Hom took it over and ran the market along with their children for over two decades.
The literal mom-and-pop shop was known for great prices and service, quality produce and a fine butcher shop specializing in marinated meats.
Now Vacaville resident Jeff Hom was five when his parents bought the store and at that time he spoke Chinese, English and Spanish fluently. The latter was because a huge number of customers – upwards of 80 percent by Hom’s estimation – were migrant farm workers from South America. And oh did they like to party after a hard day’s work.
“In the summer months, July through September, we sold more beer then any other store did for the entire year in Solano County,” Hom said.
In 1985, Ramzi and Janan Totah bought the business.
Other locals shared Iwama Market memories:
Doug Rodgers: As kids, we’d stop there on our bicycles and get small containers of chocolate milk to drink and bananas to eat. I always wondered, what was upstairs?
Ron Lancaster: My dad would take us for a drive and it seemed like we’d always end up there. He would buy us ice cream and we’d sit in the car and listen to country music. Last time I was home, I drove out there. It brought tears to my eyes.
Iwama Market inspired a 2011 poem by Suisun resident Steve Federle and paintings by two artists, Carmel Valley’s Daphne Wynne Nixon (https://daphnewynnenixonpaintings.com/) and Benicia’sDonna Covey. Covey grew up in Willotta Oaks and posted remembrances on her websitewww.djcovey.com: “I remember Iwama Market as the place where we bought rice paper candy and where Tonto the not-so-friendly Shetland pony was housed behind the store. I vividly recall in the 1960s the parking lot was full of life and fiesta when the hard-working migrant farm workers gathered at the end of the day to unwind, drink beer and play music. And of course the parking lot was always the meeting spot for my friends and I to begin our bike rides around the Suisun Valley ‘loop.’”
An interesting coda is that Frank Akira Iwama, the son of the original owners, become an attorney and had a distinguished 45-year career before his death in September of 2016. Iwama’s earliest memories were of growing up detained in the relocation camp. According to his obituary, he “later successfully represented the Japanese American Citizens League in the effort to obtain redress from the United States government for wrongful detention of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org